Boyle’s Atomism and the Restoration Assault on Pagan Naturalism
Social Studies of Science
May 1978, 211-233.
HHC: Index and Intro titling added.
This paper places Boyle’s atomism in its social context, and describes the political motives which underlay it.
Boyle’s physico-theology was designed to answer the
ideological challenges thrown up by the turbulent events of
However, Boyle’s real enemy was not scholastic theory per se, but those who relied on it - papists and paganizing deists. In showing that both cherished outmoded assumptions about nature, Boyle attacked both kinds of idolatry simultaneously. The timing of the appearance of A Free Enquiry also added to its effectiveness as a shrewd piece of Anglican apologetics. It was published just when, because of James II’s religious policy, the threat of subversion by papists and ‘atheists’ bulked larger than ever before in the minds of Anglican churchmen.
Various students of Robert Boyle’s natural philosophy have called attention to the importance of his Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, published in 1686. It has been represented as one of the two or three key texts in Boyle’s corpus, an intellectual tour de force; and J.F. Fulton saw it as the culminating expression of Boyle’s philosophical ideas. [1} I would agree that the treatise is an important work and, appearing towards the end of Boyle’s career as it does, sums up his theory of nature. But I shall argue here that it also represents a tour de force of another sort. To do so I shall consider it not as a summation of Boyle’s natural philosophy per se, as previous commentators have done, but rather I shall read it for what it says about the religious
and political issues of the day and Boyle’s responses to them. When this is done, Boyle’s Free Enquiry finds its place in the literature of religious controversy in late Stuart England; it can then be interpreted as an exercise in Anglican polemics as well as a major statement of his idea of nature. Nor does it turn out to be a merely representative piece of religious apology. Instead it stands out as an extraordinary example of the contemporary apologetical literatures offering fresh insight into the issues of the 1680s, the latitudinarian or liberal Anglican response to them and the dialectics of the religious debate.
Throughout his career as a natural philosopher, latitudinarian religious thinker, founder member of the Royal Society and public figure active in church and state, Boyle was in dialogue with an important current of popular heresy that I shall call ‘naturalism’ and that he regarded as paganizing and subversive. I have explored elsewhere this dialogue between Boyle and the proponents of heretical naturalism in the period between 1650 and 1670 and have shown the effect upon Boyle’s natural religion.  Here I wish to carry the story down to the end of his career in the 1680s and the revolution of 1688-89. (Boyle died in 1691.) But in order to complete the story of his dialogue with the paganizing heretic it is necessary for two reasons to refer to Boyle’s earlier career. First, it was in the period between 1650 and 1670 that he formulated a theory of nature that was to serve as the basis of his natural philosophy for the rest of his life. Second, this theory was defined in opposition to the same paganizing, subversive ideas that still threatened, and that he continued to oppose, to the end of his life.
Boyle’s theory is what we know as the corpuscular philosophy. This has been well explicated for us by Philip Wiener, Marie Boas Hall, Thomas Kuhn, Maurice Mandelbaum, J.E. McGuire and others.  The created universe is made up of three kinds of things - particles of lifeless matter in motion, human souls and angels. What Boyle said about the first of these sets of phenomena has received the most scholarly attention. God imposed order on dead matter at the outset of creation by predisposing it to move in certain ways; the relations between material particles are mechanically derivative of this initial predisposition.  What students of Boyle’s
natural philosophy have neglected is his equal preoccupation with the other two sets of phenomena, angels and the souls of men, particularly the latter.
Boyle’s corpuscularianism allowed him to maintain an orthodox position on the question of the human soul. God has set in motion and hence organized the whole material universe. But the rational souls of men and angels are immaterial and spiritual in nature and are thus exempted from the divine dispensation regarding material objects.  This exclusion allows Boyle to avoid the heretical implications attaching historically to any atomistic theory of the universe. Others have shown that Boyle’s corpuscular philosophy Christianizes Epicurean atomism by drawing a sharp distinction between the material world and the spiritual realm of God and rational souls.  What I have shown elsewhere and will elaborate on here, however, is that Boyle’s Christianized atomism, though it does rest on the distinction between the material and spiritual orders, not only grew out of the desire to avoid the implications of Epicurean atomism but also developed in response to another form of heresy that I am calling pagan naturalism.
This does not derive from Epicurean atomism; it is not essentially mechanistic materialism, though in some of its forms it may have an affinity with and at times borrow from materialistic views of the universe, in particular in the late seventeenth century the views of Hobbes. Heretical naturalism may be and often is materialistic, but it is never mechanistic. It is animistic and asserts that the world is governed by non-mechanical vital forces or spiritual agencies of divinity.  To be more precise let us consider this heretical naturalism in the ways we see it represented in Boyle’s works.
In the 1650s Boyle wrote ‘Part I’ of Some Considerations touching the Usefulness of experimental natural philosophy, which was first published in 1663. This work sets forth his corpuscular philosophy for the first time in published form. Here we find his classic refutation of the scholastic account of the rising of water in a tube inverted in a liquid, an account resting on the Aristotelian assumption that nature abhors a vacuum. In place of the scholastic explanation he offers one that depends on the difference in gas pressures inside and outside the tube, and maintains that his account is superior to the scholastic one because his is mechanical, while that of the scholastics is spiritual. That is to say for his explanation he has to seek no further than mechanical particles, whereas the scholastic theory assumes that the water in the tube is
endowed with the rational, purposive power of rising in order to avoid the vacuum at the top. [8
Boyle in the same essay uses this refutation as the springboard for the formulation of his general theory of matter, in which he asserts that the material universe is not imbued with innate rationality and purpose. Rather God imposes order from the outside at the beginning of creation and matter behaves mechanically to fulfil God’s initial design. The rationality and purpose of the creation belong to God and are manifested in the creatures mechanically but not communicated spiritually.  There are of course two categories of created things which are exceptions to this rule, namely the souls of men and angels, and for Boyle this is just the point. He goes on to justify his corpuscular hypothesis by arguing that the implication of the scholastic doctrine concerning the vacuum is heretical as regards the human soul. If water is endowed with the ability to avoid a vacuum, then in some sense it is possessed of a kind of rationality and thus exists on a par with man.  In turn if man is fundamentally no different from the rest of creation, why should he think of God as treating him differently: why should he be subject to God’s judgment, why should he be saved or damned in the afterlife, why indeed should his soul, alone among created things (apart from angels) be immortal?  And most serious of all, why then should he be concerned to live according to the rules of established religion here on earth? Scholastic doctrine raises doubts subversive of Christian revelation and hence of the moral and social order. Boyle has succeeded in tarnishing scholastic physical theory with the brush of heresy and succeeded too in justifying his corpuscular philosophy by suggesting that it avoids the heretical implications attaching to the scholastic alternative. 
Against whom was Boyle’s attack on scholastic
assumptions directed? The obvious
answer would be the Roman Catholics and indirect evidence would indicate this to
be the case. In 1661 Francis Hall,
a Jesuit who called himself Line or Linus, published in
Jesuit. This possibility is strengthened when it is recalled that at least two of Boyle’s friends and associates among the virtuosi of the new Royal Society, John Evelyn and Sir Robert Moray, were clandestinely engaged in publishing anti-Jesuit polemics at exactly this time.  Boyle’s defence of his vacuum experiments in 1662 and his attack on scholastic doctrine in The Usefulness in 1663 may have been a part of this larger polemical campaign. But this anti-Catholic, anti-Jesuit bias does not exhaust the explanation of Boyle’s effort in The Usefulness to defeat scholastic physical theory by drawing out its heretical implications.
In the 1650s, the period in which Boyle wrote most of
The Usefulness, and on into the Restoration, Boyle was preoccupied with
the danger that the views of the sectaries posed to true religion and a proper
religious settlement.  He may have been led to justify his
corpuscular philosophy, as he did in The Usefulness, by indicating the
irreligious conclusions to be drawn from its scholastic alternative, because
there were men in ]
With this background in mind it is time to turn to Boyle’s Free Enquiry and the significance of its publication in 1686. In the Enquiry he treats the same issues he rehearses in The Usefulness published twenty-three years earlier. As the title says, he has written A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature: he has chosen to consider once more the scholastic doctrine that nature works spiritually by means of a divine, pervading rationality rather than mechanically according to God’s predetermined plan.
Boyle tells us that much of his book was written in 1665
 or 1666  to satisfy a friend, probably Henry
Oldenburg. The manuscript, however,
went unprinted and was left in disarray. Years later at the request of ‘some
philosophical heads’ not otherwise identified, Boyle resurrected it, put it into
new order and prepared it for publication.  The preface is dated
Boyle tells us in his preface that he wrote his Free Enquiry in order ‘to keep the glory of the divine author of things from being usurped or intrenched upon by his creatures.  As it turns out, he is trying to protect religion from two threats at once, the atheists and the Roman Catholics, both of whom (strange bedfellows though they make) find support in ‘the vulgarly received notion of nature’. The Roman Catholic writers whom he has in mind (among whom he must have included Francis Hall) would explain the natural order in terms of the operation in nature of some unseen spiritual agency and so come dangerously close to confusing Creator and creature, to worshipping nature, the sin of idolatry.  Of the other enemy, the atheists, Boyle says:
there is lately sprung up a sect of men, as well
professing Christianity, as pretending to philosophy, who (if I be not
mis-informed of their doctrine) do very much symbolize with the antient
Heathens, and talk much indeed of God, but mean such a one, as is not really
distinct from the animated and intelligent universe; but is, on that account,
very differing from the true God, that we Christians believe and worship.
These men are not atheistic materialists. They believe in God and a divine order, but their God does not exist outside of and above nature, and this divine order is immanent in nature. They are atheists, in other words, not because they deny God’s existence but simply because they are not theists, though because they worship a God immanent in nature they might also be called deists of sorts. Their idolatry is obvious because they explicitly confound God and nature, whereas the idolatry of Catholic natural religion is merely implicit. Both Catholic and atheist are guilty of the same irreligion springing from the same source, the vulgarly received notion of nature. Boyle writes his Free Enquiry to expose this common error and to rectify it by offering a new philosophical foundation for Christianity, his corpuscular philosophy, in place of the old.  This new foundation would promote a proper understanding of the relationship between God, man and the cosmic order, where the scholastic continued to work in the opposite direction to subvert true religion. 
The task must have seemed urgent to him in 1665 and 1666 when he wrote the book. The Catholic threat continued to preoccupy him and his friends in the Royal Society throughout the Restoration. The apologists for the early Royal Society formulated a natural religion that was consciously anti-Catholic. The philosophy of the Royal Society, according to their official mouthpiece Thomas Sprat, was experimental rather than dogmatic; their business sober observation rather than logical deduction from scholastic assumptions. The same philosophy applied to Protestantism would lead to the discovery of religious truth, and the English church would thus flourish. In contrast the Catholic church would stagnate because its corresponding philosophical foundation in scholastic dogma inhibited the search for further truth, religious or otherwise, in favour of submission to papal authority and ecclesiastical tradition.  Boyle’s Free Enquiry should be read as a contribution to this assault on Catholicism conducted by Fellows of the Royal Society. The very phrase, ‘a free enquiry’ in the title of Boyle’s book gives it away. It is to be a Protestant inquiry productive of more truth in
contrast to Catholic reliance on ancient and defective dogma. Boyle hints at this point in his preface as well as in the title itself. Where Sprat and others preached that the aims and methods of the Royal Society advanced the cause of Anglicanism, Boyle in A Free Enquiry was performing a related service by establishing the connection between the cosmic system, as he and other leading Fellows understood it, and true religion.
This was to take aim against Catholicism; but there was also another target, the atheists, or as Boyle describes them, the ‘sect of Men, as well professing Christianity, as pretending to philosophy, who make no distinction between God and ‘the animated and intelligent universe’. Boyle does not shed any more light on whom he had in mind. Indeed we cannot say for sure whether his references to this atheistical ‘sect’ were contained in the original manuscript of A Free Enquiry written in 1665 and 1666 or were added ‘many years later’ when he revised it for publication. It is highly plausible, however, that these references were included in the original because there was a group active in the mid-1660s who fit Boyle’s description of the ‘sect’ in question and because Boyle was in dialogue with the leader of this sect, Henry Stubbe, during the very period in which A Free Enquiry was written. [30
Daniel Coxe, a close friend of Boyle’s, wrote to him in
March 1666, accusing Stubbe and his followers of denying the existence of a
deity separate from and transcendent over nature. Coxe also claimed that Stubbe denied the
immortality of human souls.  Stubbe himself wrote a letter addressed
to Boyle, dated
Beauty, or Order. 
Here was a comprehensive attack on traditional Christianity and in particular on Boyle’s, and the Royal Society’s, natural religion, as he had formulated it in 1663 in The Usefulness against Catholics and antinomian mortalists alike. Now three years later Stubbe offers the same threat as the mortalists. He and the antinomian mortalists have in common, besides the mortalism itself, a view of nature from which the mortalistic doctrine springs. Nature is laced with spiritual forces, and at least for Stubbe these natural forces are divine. Nor does he stop at espousing the mortalistic heresy. His view of nature allows him also to attack other foundations of Christian doctrine - the biblical miracles, the supernatural divinity of Christ, the supernatural origin of the Bible and the argument from design. Boyle does not allow Stubbe’s views to go unanswered. Boyle wrote a private reply in early March to Stubbe’s printed letter to him of the month before. He takes Stubbe to task for attempting to give a natural explanation for the biblical miracles. The upshot of his remarks is that Stubbe’s explanations and others like them do not work because they presuppose the operation in nature of rational, spiritual principles, or as Boyle says, ‘the animated and intelligent universe.  True religion is spared the depradations of the atheistical Stubbe because Boyle’s mechanical explanations preserve the correct distinction between God and nature while Stubbe’s do not. This is also the burden of A Free Enquiry, written during the same period as Boyle’s exchange with Stubbe. Boyle has harnessed the corpuscular philosophy to religion in part to save if from the likes of Stubbe. I would thus argue, in the absence of any evidence I know about to the contrary, that Boyle’s assault in the Enquiry on atheism or what he regarded as pagan naturalism was included in the original manuscript version of the book, was probably written against Stubbe and his ilk and was not added years later when the manuscript was revised for publication. 
There are two more arguments, based on evidence, supporting this conclusion. First in the Enquiry Boyle says that the atheists point to what they suppose to be the imperfections and calamities rife in nature ‘such as monsters, earthquakes, floods, eruptions of volcanos, [and] famines’ as testimony to the fact that divinity is immanent in the universe rather than being above it and providential in dealing with it.  Such a view of nature challenged established religion by subverting the argument from design, and as we shall
see Boyle was at considerable pains in the Enquiry to lay to rest the atheistical refutation of the argument from design on which, after all, so much of his natural religion was founded. The important point here is that Glanvill accused Stubbe of subscribing to the refutation of universal design on the Spinozistic grounds that finite man cannot detect whether or not the infinite universe is orderly and beautiful; he can merely impute these qualities to it.  In answering the atheistical refutation of the notion of a designed universe Boyle may also have had Stubbe and his camp in mind.
There is one last case to be made for linking Stubbe to the initial composition of the Enquiry. In the later 1660s and early 1670s Stubbe levelled his famous attacks on the Royal Society. These of course have been examined by previous scholars,  but what has so far been missed is their ideological edge. It is, for instance, well known that Stubbe accused the Royal Society of attempting to displace the scholastic curriculum in the universities in favour of experimental, corpuscular philosophy.  On the surface Stubbe would appear to be championing traditional learning, until we remember that the basic assumptions of scholastic philosophy, and hence of the traditional curriculum, were closer to Stubbe’s own paganizing naturalism in their assertion of an ‘animated and intelligent universe’ than was the philosophy of Boyle and the Royal Society. It is arguable, therefore, that the contradiction between Stubbe’s radical naturalism and his support of conventional learning against the challenge of the corpuscular philosophy is merely apparent. He may have seen the scholastic philosophy as less dangerous to his own views than a Christianized mechanistic world picture. Indeed he may have seen the survival of scholasticism as offering a way whereby he could introduce and propagate his own views (through the back door as it were). Certainly Boyle argued in the Enquiry that one danger posed by scholasticism was the philosophical bridge it provided for the intrusion of atheistical or deistical naturalism.  Whether Boyle had Stubbe specifically in mind when he wrote this I do not know, but plausibly he did.
In any case in writing the Enquiry Boyle employed his natural philosophy to defeat the threats posed to true religion by the virtual idolatry implicit in the scholastic natural religion of the Catholics and the flagrant idolatry of the atheists. Both would debase Christianity into one form or another of pagan naturalism, if not stopped by a correct understanding of the relationship between God and nature, creator and creation, which Boyle’s philosophy alone
could supply. We are now in a position to see why his Enquiry was finally published when it was in early 1686. The issues that had shaped its arguments two decades earlier were still alive and even burned with a new glow; the ideological heat of the moment at last coaxed the manuscript into print.
By 1686 Stubbe had been dead ten years, but his ideas did not die with him. On the contrary his works continued to be purchased and discussed in the l670s and 1680s.  To the same period we can trace the emergence of English deism as a sustained, if tortuous, current in English thought, and in the development of this new intellectual strain Stubbe’s ideas must have played some role. At least one antideist, Boyle’s close friend John Beale, referred to latter-day deists in the early l680s as ‘Stubbians’. The close similarity between what Stubbe preached in the 1660s and deism as it evolved in the next two decades is clear. Stubbe’s purpose, as we have seen, was to set revealed religion aside in favour of a purely natural religion, which thus opened him to the charge that Boyle levelled at such views, the charge of pagan naturalism. Much of the evidence for the deism of the 1670s and 1680s comes from the published tracts of Charles Blount.  His deism is more formulary than Stubbe’s, harking back as it does, to Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s natural religion.  Man is endowed with five innate ideas which are the sum of true religion.  But Blount’s objective and that of his fellow deists was the same as Stubbe’s, to replace revealed religion by natural religion, and early deism would thus be open to Boyle’s charge of pagan naturalism no less than Stubbe had been. In particular Stubbe, Blount and other early English deists shared the view that God’s power and the laws or processes of nature are co-extensive.  Nothing, therefore, can happen outside of the natural order.  Even transactions between God and man take place in the arena of nature. Hence miracles, for example, are acts of nature rather than supernatural interventions,  and revealed religion is effectively overthrown in favour of the religion of nature. So if Boyle had Stubbe in mind when he wrote his Enquiry, he was probably thinking of Stubbe’s deistical successors when he prepared the manuscript for publication in 1682 and finally sent it to press
four years later. If anything, deism was more entrenched and widespread when Boyle published his book than it had been when he wrote it. But this is not the only motive that induced him to see it into print. The growth of deism should be seen in combination with certain other factors.
Boyle’s Enquiry, we recall, was pitched against deist and Catholic alike, and its arguments against the latter had assumed at least as great an urgency by 1686 as its anti-deistical ones. From as early as 1683 it was obvious that recent attempts to exclude Charles’s Catholic brother from the throne had failed and that, given Charles’s failing health, James would soon be king. Already in 1684 the Catholics were beginning to breathe easier and to make serious attempts to spread their faith.  The pace of these efforts quickened after James’s accession in February 1685. [50
Both leading and lesser known Anglican polemicists lost no time in mobilizing their talents to combat this ever more menacing disease. From 1684 onward the staunchly anti-Catholic clergy produced a flood of tracts and sermons retailing the doctrinal errors of popery. Their main charge is the tendency in Roman doctrine toward idolatry. This was not a new claim; there is an Anglican literature dating back to the sixteenth century arguing the case.  But the earlier Restoration tracts do not compare in quantity with the numbers produced between 1684 and the Revolution of 1688-89. 
From the Anglican point of view Catholic doctrine as
Romanists, ‘They adore God in Pictures and Images, as he was adored by the Heathens in the Sun, Moon, and other less noble Creatures…”  The title of Samuel Johnson’s most famous contribution to the literature, Julian the Apostate, published in 1682, was intended to point to the danger presented to Protestant Christianity in James’s succession by comparing it to that of the paganizing late Roman emperor.
Boyle, who after all was a leading lay spokesman for the church, took a lively interest in this campaign. He was especially concerned about the new efforts to spread popery. His old friend Thomas Barlow, Bishop of Lincoln, informed him that in a church in his diocese.
some few of the parishioners (upon pretence of beautifying the church) washed out all the sentences of scripture formerly writ upon the walls; then they set up in their places the images of… apostles… and… patriarchs. The picture of St. Peter they placed above the ten commandments, and that of Paul above the king’s arms, and they picture Moses (after the ridiculous popish way) with horns. 
Boyle and Barlow agreed that these Romanizing corruptions, undertaken in his diocese and elsewhere, must be stopped. Of this particular instance Boyle wrote to Barlow, ‘it seems a thing well becoming your station and your wonted zeal for the purity of religion, to endeavour the early closing of a gap, that, left open, will probably be more and more widened, and prove an inlet to innovations dangerous to the church of England, and consequently to the protestant cause’  Boyle also approved Barlow’s contributions to the literature that made Roman doctrine out to be a form of pagan idolatry.  In 1687 Boyle published his own contribution entitled Reasons Why a Protestant Should Not Turn Papist and there praises the work of his good friend John Tillotson, Dean of Canterbury, which also argues the Catholic tendency towards paganism. 
The point is that there is a connection between this literature of controversy and Boyle’s Enquiry. Just as Boyle’s Anglican associates were exposing the idolatrous consequences of Catholic theology he was pointing out the paganizing tendency in Catholic, scholastic philosophy. The philosophy, Boyle suggests, supports the objectionable theological doctrines. There is in the Enquiry an oblique attack on the scholastic explanation of the miracle of transubstantiation. This is slipped in while Boyle is discussing whether
the schoolmen mean to represent nature as a spiritual or physical phenomenon.  The Enquiry is published in 1686 in the thick of the Anglican response to the re-Catholicizing efforts of the new king and his co-religionists. The book is Boyle’s major contribution, though not his only one, to this response.
Plans for translating it into Latin had been made at least as early as the beginning of 1686, and the translation was advertized to appear that year.  In fact the Latin edition was not published until 1687. The translator was the ex-Jesuit David Abercromby, who had become Boyle’s protégé sometime during the 1680s and in the course of the decade wrote several polemical tracts of his own, including one attacking Catholic doctrine for its implicit paganism.  Before the Enquiry appeared, he and Boyle had discussed the subject of the book, and Abercromby had been converted by Boyle to his view of ‘vulgar Opinions’ about nature.  So the translation was the work of a disciple who was also a fellow apostle in the anti-Catholic Anglican cause. This evidence further suggests that Boyle’s intention in publishing the Enquiry was to make his own timely contribution to the assault on popish paganism.
The explanation of Boyle’s intention, however, is not quite so simple. His book attacks deists as well as Catholics, and it may have been published in early 1686 because at exactly that time the Catholic threat seemed to be threaded in with the deistical one so as to present a particularly alarming dual challenge to Boyle’s powerful Anglican friends and associates.
From early 1685 the new king worked without success to get from parliament a religious settlement that would remove legal restrictions on Catholics and Catholic worship. By November he had given up. Parliament was prorogued until February and in early 1686 prorogued again. In the winter of 1685-86 many believed that James would grant a general toleration to Catholics and Dissenters alike, that in other words, having failed to gain the support of parliament, he would act on his own authority to establish Catholic toleration and at the same time extend the privilege to Dissenters not because he loved them - the reverse in fact was nearer the truth - but to build political support. 
James’s actions were not by themselves responsible for the rumour of a general toleration authorized by the crown. In 1685 the Duke of Buckingham, the powerful courtier, and William Penn, the Quaker leader and the king’s confidant, had written tracts arguing the cause of general toleration. In their arguments and what was made of them at the time we can see the possible connection between the leading religious issues of 1685-86 and the publication of Boyle’s Enquiry that winter.
Buckingham argued for toleration because persecution, he said, was itself irreligious and unchristian.  But his view of religion, from which this conclusion sprang, was not orthodox, to say the least. He concluded, to be sure, that of all religions Christianity ‘is probably the best.’  But this was only a probability. More dangerous still were his thoughts on the subject of what probably constituted the best religion among Christians. It would rest entirely upon ‘reason’ by which he meant ‘that part of us which is nearest a-kin to the nature of God,’  and he therefore said, ‘I am forced to lay aside all arguments which have any dependence upon the authority of scripture’.  His religion rejected scriptural authority and magnified human reason to fill its place. He also wrote, ‘That being… I call God, and those who out of a foolish aversion they have for the name of God will call it nature, do not in any kind differ’.  Buckingham may not have understood the implications of this remark, though I find it difficult to think that he did not, but his opponents in the exchange that ensued were quick to point them out.
They accused him of deistical tendencies, and it is true that apart from the evidence I have already adduced to support this accusation, there is a close parallel between Buckingham’s brief for a reasonable religion and Blount’s and Cherbury’s five common notions or principles of natural religion.  Buckingham was also accused of espousing a doctrine of reasonableness as the test of religious truth that would permit the practice of any form of pagan idolatry and even the commission of crime on the grounds of conscience.  Finally, some feared his views gave encouragement to seditious conspiracy by either republicans or Catholics or both. 
These suspicions were heightened when, shortly after Buckingham’s book appeared, Penn produced a series of defences of it. He argued for a general toleration on the grounds among others that ‘the Protestants and Papists, all… agree as to the substance of Christianity’  at a time when, as we have seen, Anglicans went
to enormous lengths to point to the differences between themselves and their enemies, particularly the Catholics. For such reasons Penn was long suspected by some of being a crypto-Catholic and by others of inclining towards deistical views.  In fact at least one person thought Buckingham’s ideas came from Penn. 
The fear of a general toleration rekindled a suspicion that was at least as old as the mid-century revolution, namely, that a subversive alliance had been forged between Catholics and sectaries.  This suspicion was entertained in 1685-86 by none other than Boyle’s close Anglican associates Evelyn and Tillotson, the latter even venturing to suggest that Penn was in league with the Jesuits, if not one himself. 
It is in this context that Boyle’s Enquiry was
published and it is this context that throws light on why it was published and
what it was intended to mean and to do. We know already that Boyle was aiming his
work against popery. We now see
that he may also have been addressing himself to the threat of the deists. In the winter of 1685-86 both threats
were alive and particularly urgent given the imminent possibility of a grant of
general toleration by the king. There is no direct evidence that Boyle,
like others at the time, feared a joint conspiracy of Catholics and sectaries.
But in the Enquiry he did
assimilate the paganizing naturalism of the one enemy to that of the others;
Catholics and deists posed a single threat based on their common allegiance to
the vulgarly received notion of nature. It is thus arguable that he may have
shared the fears of his friends Tillotson and Evelyn that (to quote the latter)
the Pope might send ‘an hundred priests into…
capacity might now be demonstrated to work closer to
Nor was this the only danger Boyle saw. Catholics might use a common notion of nature to convert sectaries. But sectaries of the freethinking variety might turn around and use this common notion to subvert revealed religion. Here we are on firmer ground in the evidence furnished by the Enquiry.
The Catholic natural religion of the schoolmen supposed
that nature, active and intelligent, always does that which is best. Certain heretical thinkers, whom Boyle
does not identity but whose views correspond to those of the deists, used this
doctrine to attack the ideal of divine providence by claiming that if nature,
guided by providence, always acts for the best, how is it possible to explain
‘plagues, earthquakes, inundations, and the like destructive calamities…?’
 On this question
deistical assumptions about nature depart from Catholic ones. Both postulate a vital, rational
principle operating in nature. But
the deistical critics of revealed religion turned this shared postulate against
the pious view it was meant to support, namely that a supernatural God operates
in and through nature providentially and by design.  In attacking Christian
providentialism these critics were challenging the argument from design in
favour of their own religion of nature. Not only were scholastic notions
paganizing in and of themselves; when used to support Christian natural religion
they opened the door to the deistical attack on the doctrine of providence,
whether Catholic or Protestant, and the further subversion of Christianity.
The vulgarly received notion of
nature applied to explaining providence might backfire and drive Christians into
the arms of deists. [83 ]
There was another associated peril implicit in the attack on the notion of a designed universe. For Boyle and the Royal Society it was this notion that authorized the pursuit of experimental natural philosophy: God had designed a universe that men could and were expected to learn to read, and the more industriously they went about the performance of this obligation to study nature, the more they would fulfil God’s two purposes in creating the universe, namely his own glorification and the satisfaction of human needs and desires, the profit and benefit of man.  This was ‘the usefulness of experimental natural philosophy,’ the title of one of Boyle’s major works on the subject and the underlying theme of all of his essays on natural religion, and this ‘usefulness’ was now being threatened by paganizing critics of a Christian providentialism
based on traditional scholastic design arguments.
To blunt the force of their attack, Boyle substituted in place of the scholastic dictum that nature always acts for the best his own providentialist argument based on the corpuscular philosophy. This substitution allowed him thus to say of God’s providence:
He is not over-ruled, as men are fain to say of erring nature, by the head-strong motions of… matter, but sometimes purposely over-rules the regular ones [motions of matter], to execute his justice; and therefore plagues, earthquakes, inundations, and the like destructive calamities, though they are sometimes irregularities in nature, yet for that very reason they are designed by providence, which intends, by them, to deprive wicked men of that life, or of those blessings of life, whereof their sins have rendered them unworthy. 
According to Boyle (pace the scholastics), it is not nature but God who acts for the best. Boyle thus explains the ‘irregularities in nature’ and explains away the threat to Christian providentialism implicit in the scholastic idea of nature, seized upon and exploited by the deists.
Boyle’s Enquiry, when finally published, performed a number of timely ideological chores for the Anglican establishment whose views it represented. It sought to undermine fundamental Catholic doctrines like transubstantiation and the mediation of the saints by showing that these rested on specious arguments drawn from scholastic natural philosophy and led to idolatrous consequences. Bishop Gilbert Burnet included Boyle’s arguments in his authoritative Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and this gave them a permanent place in official Anglican theology.  By mechanizing or despiritualizing nature Boyle also took the bite out of the argument that it was impious to study nature in order to benefit man or to establish, as Boyle says, ‘the empire of man over the inferior creatures of God’  As for the deists, he answered their equally specious paganizing natural religion, based like that of the Catholics on the outmoded vulgarly received notion of nature. And from both deists and papists he saved the doctrine of God’s providence properly conceived. This was a particularly important victory over the deists because their view, based on scholastic assumptions, undermined the argument from
design common to both Catholic and Protestant orthodoxies. In place of the old design argument, now rendered suspect by the deists’ use (or abuse) of it to subvert true religion, Boyle substituted his view. He asserted the necessary existence of a supernatural Creator and guaranteed both his perfection and his providential care, thereby legitimating ‘the usefulness of experimental natural philosophy’ and the anti-Catholic, anti-freethinking order built partly upon it.
Boyle died in 1691. But his will provided for the famous lectureship which carried forward the apologetical task he had begun. In the meantime the Revolution of 1688-89 had overcome the Catholic threat. But paganizing freethinkers were if anything more active than before, and against this threat the Boyle Lectures took up where the Enquiry had left off.  Not only does the book represent the culminating statement of Boyle’s corpuscular philosophy, as previous scholars have shown; it is also a pivotal work in the emergence of an Anglican polemical tradition grounded in the mechanized world picture. In the l660s when it was written, Boyle had intended it as a contribution to the assault on paganizing naturalism; a later and crucial stage in that debate drew it into print.
I would like to thank the President and Fellows of the Royal Society of London and the Trustees of the Will of J.H.C. Evelyn for permission to use in this essay materials in their keeping, the National Endowment for the Humanities for a Summer Stipend which supported my research for the paper, and the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, Harvard University, for the opportunity to read an earlier draft to them and to benefit from their comments.
1. R.S. Westfall, Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958), 228; J.E. McGuire, ‘Boyle’s Conception of Nature’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 33 (October/December 1972), 523-42; and J.F. Fulton, A Bibliography of the Honourable Robert Boyle, F.R.S. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Second Edition, 1961), 112.
2. J.R. Jacob, ‘The Ideological Origins of Robert Boyle’s Natural Philosophy’, Journal of European Studies, Vol. 2 (1972), 17-18; and J.R. Jacob, ‘Robert Boyle and Subversive Religion in the Early Restoration’, Albion, Vol. 6
(1974), 275-93. See also my Robert Boyle and the English Revolution (New York: Burt Franklin, 1977), Chapters 3 and 4. My book traces the development of Boyle’s natural theology to about 1670.
3. Jacob, Boyle and the Revolution, op. cit. note 2, 3 and 185, footnote 1.
4. Jacob, ‘Ideological Origins’, op cit. note 2, 18.
5.Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature, in Thomas Birch (ed.), The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 6 Vols. (
6. Westfall, op. cit. note 1, 112; and Robert Kargon, Atomism in England from Harriot to Newton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 76, 96-97, 104-05.
7. This point should perhaps be stressed. The current scholarly preoccupation with Hobbes, manifested in much fine work, has obscured the fact that there was another important heretical strain at work in Restoration England, that to which I refer here as paganizing naturalism or subversive deism, which is quite distinct from Hobbesism and Epicureanism. I am now engaged in writing a book on the subject, and this essay represents the first fruits of my effort.
8. WRB, Vol. 2, 37-38.
9. Ibid., 39.
10. Ibid., 38, 40.
11. Ibid., 40.
12. Jacob, ‘Ideological Origins’, op. cit. note 2, 17-18.
13. Boyle’s book is entitled New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, touching the Spring of theAir… (
14. Line, De Corporum Inseparabilitate, op. cit. note 13, passim.
15.Boyle, A Defence of the Doctrine Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air... Against the Objections of F. L. (
16. Geoffrey Keynes, John Evelyn: A Study in Bibliophily with a Bibliography of His Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, Second Edition, 1968), 125, 175; WRB, Vol. 6, 295, Evelyn to Boyle, 23 November 1664; and W. Bray (ed.), The Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, 4 Vols. (London, 1859-62), Vol. 3, 192.
17. Jacob, ‘Ideological Origins’, op. cit. note 2, 9-21; Jacob, ‘Boyle and Subversive Religion’, op. cit. note 2, 275-93; and J. R. Jacob, ‘Restoration, Reformation and the Origins of the Royal Society’, History of Science, Vol. 13 (September 1975), 155-76.
18. See notes 8 through 12 above.
19. For recent treatments of mortalism in seventeenth-century
20. Jacob, Boyle and the Revolution, op. cit. note 2, 85-88, 109-12.
21. Thomas Birch, The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle, in WEB, Vol. 1, lxxxii (hereafter Birch, Life in WRB).
22. WRB, Vol. 5, 159.
23. Ibid., 160.
26. Ibid., 183.
27. Ibid., 222-26.
28. Ibid., 250-53.
29. Thomas Sprat, A History of the Royal Society of
30. It is difficult to know who Stubbe’s followers were. For indications see Evelyn MSS, Letters 110-22, B, fo 96, Christ Church Library, Oxford, John Beale to Evelyn, 11 June 1670, where Beale says that Stubbe’s raillery ‘is sure to be entertain’d by ye Dregs of ye Multitude; and by ye Oxonians, with high Applauses…’
31. Boyle Lettters, Vol. 2, fo 65v, The Royal Society of
32. Henry Stubbe, The Miraculous Conformist (
33. Joseph Glanvill, A Further Discovery of M. Stubbe, in a Brief Reply to His Last Pamphlet Against Joseph Glanvell (
34. Birch, Life in WRB, lxxix.
35. Jacob, ‘Boyle and Subversive Religion’, op. cit., note 2, 285-86.
36. WRB, Vol. 5, 251.
37. See note 33 above.
38. R.H. Syfret, ‘Some Early Critics of the Royal Society’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, Vol. 8 (October 1950), 20-64; and Jackson Cope, Joseph Glanvill: Anglican Apologist,
39. Henry Stubbe, Campanella Revived (
40. WRB, Vol. 5, 198.
41. H.W. Robinson and Walter Adams (eds), The Diary of Robert Hooke (London: Taylor and Francis, 1935), 13, 82, 107, 184, 344, 356, 409, 447.
42. Evelyn MSS, Letters 110-22, B, fo 146, Christ Church Library, Oxford, Beale to Evelyn, 29 April 1681; and WRB, Vol. 6, 445, Beale to Boyle, 26 June 1682.
43. J.A. Redwood, ‘Blount, Deism and English Free Thought’, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 35(1974), 490-98.
44. D.P. Walker, ‘Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Christian Apologetics’, in The Ancient Theology (London: Duckworth, 1972), Chapter 5.
45. Charles Blount, Religio Laici (
46. Ibid., 56-70.
47. Charles Blount, Miracles No Violations of the Laws of Nature (
48. Ibid., 12.
49. WRB, Vol. 6, 311-14.
50.John Miller, Popery and Politics in
51. Robin Clifton, ‘The Popular Fear of Catholics During the English Revolution’, Past & Present, No. 52 (August 1971), 36.
52.Thomas Birch, The Life of the Most Reverend Doctor John Tillotson (London, 1752), 127; Thomas Jones (ed.), A Catalogue of the Collection of Tracts for and Against Popery (Published in or about the Reign of James II) in the Manchester Library Founded by Humphrey Chetham, Chetham Society, Vols. 48, 64(1859-65); and Edward Cardwell (ed.), Enchiridion Theologicum Anti-Romanum: Tracts on
the Points at Issue Between the Churches of
53. See, for example, [John Tillotson], A Discourse Against Transubstantiation (London, 1684), 36-37; and [William Payne], A Discourse Concerning the Adoration of the Host, As It Is Taught and Practised in the Church of Rome (London, 1685), 22-23.
54. Samuel Johnson, Julian the Apostate (
55.David Abercromby, Protestancy to be Embrac’d: or a New and Infallible Method to Reduce Romanists from Popery to Protestancy (
56. WRB, Vol.6,311.
58. Ibid., 306.
59.Robert Boyle, Reasons Why a Protestant Should Not Turn Papist (
60. WRB, Vol. 5, 190.
61. Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature (
62. See note 55 above; and David Abercromby, A Moral Discourse on the Power of Interest (
63. David Abercromby, A Discourse of Wit (
64. Miller, Popery and Politics, 206-10; and J. R. Western, Monarchy and Revolution (London; Blanford, 1972), 196-98.
65. George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, A Short Discourse upon the Reasonableness of Men’s Having a Religion, or Worship of God, in The Works of George Villiers… Duke of Buckingham, 2 Vols. (
66. Ibid., 201.
67. Ibid., 200.
68. Ibid., 194.
69. Ibid., 197.
70. Cf., for example, ibid., 194-200 with Blount, Religio Laici, op. cit. note 45, 48-70.
71. [Henry Mauricel, The Antithelemite… (
72. [William Penn], A Defence of the Duke of Buckingham, Against the Answer to His Book, and the Reply to His Letter (
73. [William Penn], Considerations Moving to a Toleration… Occasioned by an Excellent Discourse upon That Subject, Published by His Grace the Duke of Buckingham (
74. William Penn, Fiction Found Out (Worminghurst-place, 1685); this is a broadside.
75. De Beer (ed.), Evelyn’s Diary, op. cit. note 50, Vol. 3, 521.
76. [William Penn], A Defence of the Duke of Buckingham’s Book of Religion and Worship from the Exceptions of a Nameless Author (
77. [William Walwyn], A Manifestation from Lieutenant Col. John Lilburn, Mr. William Walwyn, Mr. Thomas Prince, and Mr. Richard Overton… (London, 1649), in G.E. Aylmer (ed.), The Levellers and the English Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), 155; C. E, Whiting, Studies in English Puritanism from the Restoration to the Revolution, 1660-1688 (London: SPCK, 1931), 515, 529-30; and Clifton, ‘Popular Fear of Catholics’, op. cit. note 51, 33-34.
78. De Beer (ed), Evelyn’s Diary, op. cit. note 50, Vol. 4, 507-08; and Samuel M. Jariney, Life of William Penn (Philadelphia, 1851), 262-65.
79. De Beer (ed.), Evelyn’s Diary, op. cit. note 50, Vol. 4, 507-08.
80. Boyle Letters, Vol. 4, fo 39, The Royal Society of
81. WRB, Vol. 5, 198.
82. Ibid., 200.
83. Deists might also employ scholastic natural philosophy to undermine orthodox teaching on the subject of miracles. As Boyle notes, their argument runs like this: If there is a power in nature apart from God, then the biblical miracles can be explained not as acts of God, divine interventions, but as the results of natural processes, the works of spiritual agencies operating in nature (A Free Enquiry, in WRB, Vol. 5, 164). This is exactly the sort of explanation of miracles that Stubbe had offered Boyle twenty years earlier (Stubbe, Miraculous Conformist, op. cit. note 32, 14, 25, 27). At stake both then and now were the authenticity of the biblical miracles, regarded as supernatural interventions, and hence the authority of the Bible, regarded by Anglicans as the unique source of divine revelation. If the biblical miracles could be shown to be works of nature rather than of a supernatural God, their uniqueness would vanish and with it one of the major tenets of orthodox Protestant doctrine and the magisterial Reformation.
84. Jacob, Boyle and the Revolution, op. cit. note 2, 104-07, 141-42.
85. WRB, Vol.5, 198.
86. Gilbert Burnet (ed. James R. Page), An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (
87. WRB, Vol. 5, 165.
88. M.C. Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution 1689-1 720(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976), Chapter 6.
J.R. Jacobis Associate Professor of History at