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The Religious Affiliation of Physicist
James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell: Devout Protestant Christian. "Maxwell's breadth of appreciation of Christianity grew still further during his time in London. To his background of Presbyterianism (in the Scottish kirk of his father's tradition) and the Anglicanism of his mother and Cambridge, he added an experience of the Baptists." [Source: Ian Hutchinson, "James Clerk Maxwell and the Christian Proposition", presented at MIT IAP Seminar: The Faith of Great Scientists, Jan 98; posted on Ian Hutchinson's personal website, on MIT website (; viewed 26 September 2005)]

From: Dan Graves, Scientists of Faith, Kregel Resources: Grand Rapids, MI (1996), pages 150-153:

Home educated in a remote region of Scotland, Maxwell showed early signs of brilliance... Edinburgh University accepted Maxwell when he was sixteen... Faculty members soon urged Maxwell to transfer to Cambridge where superior equipment was available. He first needed to obtain the consent of his father, John Maxwell, who had fostered his son's education at every turn... The elder Maxwell was reluctant to accede, having hoped to make a lawyer of his son. He also feared that in the less fervent English church, James would lapse from his Christian upbringing. But in the end, ye yielded to his son's pleas...

[page 152] [James Clerk Maxwell's] free lectures, given under the auspices of Frederick Denison Maurice's Christian outreach (the Christian socialist Maurice founded two colleges for poor working men), were well attended by the working poor... he visited Europe, where he found ready entrance into the scientific establishments of the day. Outside France he was quarantined on a ship with sick passengers, the authorities suspecting plague.He insisted on personally nursing the ill as his Christian duty...

Cancer... infected his abdomen. Despite intense pain he continued work up to his own death at forty-eight. Almost his last words were "God help my poor wife." Science magazine eulogized him, reminding the readers of Maxwell's well-known Christian convictions; in him there was a profound mystical strain, although he spoke little of it publicly. In his view, scientists should not trumpet the religious implications of their findings. He believed that Lord Kelvin, Buckland, Sedgwick, and others had embarrassed themselves by doing just that when many of their conclusions proved premature. Nonetheless, Maxwell was noted for his extemporaneous prayers, of which we have at least one recorded example: "Teach us to study the works of Thy hands that we may subdue the earth to our use and strengthen our reason for Thy service." In a letter to his wife he mused that the scientist in union with Christ has an obligation to do such work as will benefit the body of Christ.

From: Rich Deem, "Famous Scientists Who Believed in God", last modified 19 May 2005, on "Evidence for God from Science" website (; viewed 5 October 2005):

Interestingly, his [Lord Kelvin's] fellow physicists George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) were also men of deep Christian commitment, in an era when many were nominal, apathetic, or anti-Christian. The Encyclopedia Britannica says "Maxwell is regarded by most modern physicists as the scientist of the 19th century who had the greatest influence on 20th century physics; he is ranked with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein for the fundamental nature of his contributions."
From: Raymond J. Seeger, "Maxwell, Devout Inquirer" in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37 (June 1985): 93-96 (; viewed 26 September 2005): James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), born in Edinburgh, was the son of a Scottish Laird, an advocate, whose small farm-estate was called Glenlair... Having received a B.A. in 1854 he obtained a fellowship at Trinity the next year... He died at the early age of thirty-eight. This brilliant scientist was buried in the churchyard of the Parton Kirk, where he had been an elder...

There was a single-heartedness to Maxwell, a depth of unity in his life as a whole, a unity of his nature. He exhibited not only scientific industriousness, but also basic poetic feeling and imagination. He was profoundly sincere. At the same time he had an overflowing humor; there was elasticity in his step, a sparkle in his eye. He was an avid reader, particularly of English literature. It was said there was "not a single subject on which he cannot talk and talk well." He had a retentive memory and a facility for versification. His marriage to Katherine M. Dewar, daughter of the Principal of Marischal, was a happy one; together they read the English classics. He was devoted to her; his dying glance was fixed on her-a sort of mystical marriage. He rode with her; he walked with his dog. He had a tenderness for all living things.

Maxwell had an extensive and minute knowledge of the Scriptures from his childhood. It is said that he knew the chapter and verse of almost any quotation from the Psalms (by age eight he had memorized Ps. 119). As a schoolboy he had attended St. Andrews Sunday mornings and the Episcopal Chapel in the afternoons. Although his hereditary piety and historical interest was in Calvinism, he never identified himself with any particular religious opinion. He had an innate reverence for sacred things. To be sure, he had an interest in things more than in people, in theology more than in anthropology. In him there was a blending of Presbyterian and Episcopalian. He read and thought much on religious subjects. Although orthodox, he was tolerant of unbelievers such as WK. Clifford. A favorite book was Thomas Browne's "Religio Medici"; a favorite author, George Herbert.

"There was deep humility before his God, reverent submission to His will, and hearty belief in the love and atonement of that Divine Saviour." He was a regular communicant at the College Chapel, regular in his church attendance, charitable. At Glenlair he would visit the sick, read and pray with them. There were daily prayers in his household. For example, "Teach us to study the work of Thy hands that we may subdue the earth to our uses, and strengthen our reason for Thy service; and so rescue Thy blessed Word, that we may believe on Him whom Thou hast sent to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins." He read the Scriptures each night with his wife. In his letters to her he was wont to discuss Scriptural passages, e.g., 1.. 51, Mk. 12:38, 1 Cor. 13, 11 Cor. 12, Gal. 5. Eph. 3:19, Eph. 6, Phil. 3, 1 John 4. A favorite quotation was R. Baxter's hymn:

Lord, it belongs not to my care Whether I die or live;
To love and serve Thee is my share,
And that Thy guard must give.

In 1875 he remarked, "I think that men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think that Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that this view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of."

In his early twenties he had noted, "Happy is the man who can recognize in the work of Today a connected portion of the work of life, and an embodiment of the work of Eternity." Finally, at twenty-seven he had concluded, "The more we enter into Christ's work He will have more room to work His work in us. For He always desires us to be one with us. Our worship is social, and Christ will be where two or three are gathered together in His name."


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Webpage created 12 July 2005. Last modified 5 October 2005.
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