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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The ‘most Christianising’ physical science

Maury's address at the laying of the corner-stone of the University of the South, on the Sewanee Mountains in East Tennessee, was delivered at the request of Bishop Otey on Nov. 30th, 1860.

Physical geography,” he said, “makes the whole world kin. Of all the departments in the domains of physical science, it is the most Christianising. Astronomy is grand and sublime; but astronomy overpowers with its infinities, overwhelms with its immensities. Physical geography charms with its wonders, and delights with the benignity of its economy. Astronomy ignores the existence of man; physical geography confesses that existence, and is based on the Biblical doctrine 'that the earth was made for man.' Upon no other theory can it be studied—upon no other theory can its phenomena be reconciled. . . .

“The astronomer regards the light and heat of the sun as emanations; as forces to guide the planets in their orbits and light comets in their flight—nothing more. But the physical geographer, when he warms himself by the coal fire in winter, or studies by the light of the gas-burner at night, recognises in the light and heat which he then enjoys the identical light and heat which came from the sun ages ago, and which, with provident care, have been bottled away in the shape of a mineral, and stored away in the bowels of the earth for man's use, thence to be taken at his convenience and liberated at will for his manifold purposes.

“Here, in the schools which are soon to be opened, within the walls of this institution which we are preparing to establish in this wood, and the corner-stone of which has just been laid, the masters of this newly-ordained science will teach our sons to regard some of the commonest things as the most important agents in the physical economy of our planet. They are also mighty ministers of the Creator.

“Take this water” (holding up a glassful) “and ask the student of physical geography to explain a portion only of its multitudinous offices in helping to make the earth fit for man's habitation. There may be in it a drop of the very same (for in the economy of nature nothing is ever lost or wasted) which watered the Garden of Eden when Adam was there; escaping thence, through the veins of the earth into the rivers, it reached the sea. Passing along its channels of circulation, it was conveyed far away by its currents to those uprings in the ocean which feed the winds with vapour for rains among these mountains; taking up the heat in these southern climes, where otherwise it would become excessive, it bottles it away in its own little vesicles. These are invisible; but, rendering the heat latent and innocuous, they pass like sightless couriers of the air through their appointed channels, and arrive in the upper sky. This mountain draws the heat from them; they are formed into clouds and condensed into rain, which, falling to the earth, make it soft with showers, causing the trees of the fields to clap their hands, the valleys to shout, and the mountains to sing. Thus the earth is made to yield her increase, and the heart of man is glad.

“Nor does the office of this cup of water in the physical economy end here. It has brought heat from the sea in the southern hemisphere to be set free here for the regulation of our climates; it has ministered to the green plants, and given meat and drink to man and beast. It has now to cater among the rocks for the fish and insects of the sea. Eating away your mountains, it fills up the valleys, and then, loaded with lime and salts of various minerals, it goes singing and dancing and leaping back to the sea, owning man, by the way, as a taskmaster—turning mills, driving machinery, transporting merchandise for him—and finally reaching the ocean. It there joins the currents to be conveyed to its appointed place, which it never fails to reach in due time, with food in due quantities for the inhabitants of the deep, and with materials of the right kind to be elaborated, in the workshops of the sea, into pearls, corals, and islands—all for man's use.

“Thus the right-minded student of this science is brought to recognise in the dewdrop the materials of which 'He who walketh upon the wings of the wind maketh His chariot.' He also discovers in the raindrop a clue by which the Christian philosopher may be conducted into the very chambers from which the hills are watered.

“I have been blamed by men of science, both in this country and in England, for quoting the Bible in confirmation of the doctrines of physical geography. The Bible, they say, was not written for scientific purposes, and is therefore of no authority in matters of science. I beg pardon! The Bible is authority for everything it touches. What would you think of the historian who should refuse to consult the historical records of the Bible, because the Bible was not written for the purposes of history? The Bible is true and science is true, and therefore each, if truly read, but proves the truth of the other. The agents in the physical economy of our planet are ministers of Him who made both it and the Bible. The records which He has chosen to make through the agency of these ministers of His upon the crust of the earth are as true as the records which, by the hands of His prophets and servants, He has been pleased to make in the Book of Life.

“They are both true; and when your men of science, with vain and hasty conceit, announce the discovery of disagreement between them, rely upon it, the fault is not with the witness of His records, but with the worm who essays to interpret evidence which he does not understand.

“When I, a pioneer in one department of this beautiful science, discover the truths of Revelation and the truths of science reflecting light the one upon the other, how can I, as a truth-loving, knowledge-seeking man, fail to point out the beauty and rejoice in its discovery? Reticence on such an occasion would be sin, and were I to suppress the emotion with which such discoveries ought to stir the soul, the 'waves of the sea would lift up their voice,' and the very stones of the earth cry out against me.

“As a student of physical geography, I regard earth, sea, air, and water as parts of a machine, pieces of mechanism, not made with hands, but to which, nevertheless, certain offices have been assigned in the terrestrial economy; and when, after patient research, I am led to the discovery of one of these offices, I feel, with the astronomer of old, 'as though I had thought one of God's thoughts,' and tremble. Thus, as we progress with our science, we are permitted now and then to point out here and there in the physical machinery of the earth a design of the Great Architect when He planned it all.

“Take the little Nautili. Where do the fragile creatures go? What directing hand guides them from sea to sea? What breeze fills the violet sails of their tiny craft? And by whose skill is it enabled to brave the sea, and defy the fury of the gale? What mysterious compass directs the flotilla of the graceful Argonauts? Coming down from the Indian Ocean, and arriving off the stormy Cape, they separate, the one part steering for the Pacific, the other standing for the Atlantic Ocean. Soon the ephemeral life that animates these little navigators will be extinct; but the same power that cared for them in life, now guides them after death; for though dead, their task in the physical economy of our planet is not yet finished, nor have they ceased to afford instruction in philosophy.

“The frail shell is now to be drawn to distant seas by the lower currents. Like the leaf carried through the air by the wind, the lifeless remains descend from depth to depth by an insensible fall, even to the appointed burial-place on the bottom of the deep, there to be collected into heaps and gathered into beds, which at some day are to appear above the surface, a storehouse rich with fertilizing ingredients for man's use. Some day science will sound the depths to which this dead shell has fallen, and the little creature will perhaps afford solution for a problem as yet unsolved; for it may be the means of revealing the existence of the submarine currents that have carried it off, and of enabling the physical geographer to trace out the secret paths of the sea.

“Had I time I might show how mountains, deserts, winds, and water, when treated by the light of this beautiful science, all join in one universal harmony, for each one has its part to perform in the great concert of nature. . . .

“The Church, ere yet physical geography had attained to the dignity of a science in our schools, and even before man had endowed it with a name, saw and appreciated its dignity, the virtue of its chief agents. What have we heard here in this grove by a thousand voices this morning? A song of praise, such as these hills have not heard since the morning stars sang together the 'Benedicite' of our mother Church, invoking the very agents whose workings and offices it is the business of the physical geographer to study and point out. In her services she teaches her children in their songs of praise to call upon certain physical agents, principals in this newly-established department of human knowledge; upon the waters above the firmament, upon the showers, dew, wind, fire and heat, winter and summer, frost and cold, ice and snow, night and day, light and darkness, lightning and clouds, mountains and hills, green things, tree and plants, whales, and all things that move in the waters, fowls of the air, with beasts and cattle, to bless, praise, and magnify the Lord!”
Source: A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury

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