The Faith of James Clerk Maxwell

What we know of Maxwell's faith comes primarily from his notes and letters and from the recollections of his friends. We noted previously that James was raised as both a Presbyterian and an Anglican. His father took him to the Presbyterian church and his aunt took him to the Anglican church. Throughout his life he committed large portions of scripture to memory. At age eight he had memorized the 119th Psalm (176 verses). During Maxwell's time at the University of Cambridge he seems to have subjected his beliefs to serious examination. As a result, his faith grew considerably during this period. In an 1851 letter to his friend Lewis Campbell, he wrote

I believe with the Westminster Divines and their Predecessors ad infinitum that Man's Chief End is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.

Maxwell's desire was for all of his beliefs to be open to examination and revision. In another letter to Campbell, dated 7 March 1852, he wrote

Now, my great plan, which was conceived of old, and quickens and kicks periodically, and is continually making itself more obtrusive, is a plan of Search and Recovery, or Revision and Correction, or Inquisition and Execution, etc. The Rule of the Plan is to let nothing be willfully left unexamined. Nothing is to be holy ground consecrated to Stationary Title, whether positive or negative.

Now I am convinced that no one but a Christian can actually purge his land of these holy spots. Any one may profess that he has none, but something will sooner or later occur to every one to show him that part of his ground is not open to the public. Intrusions on this are resented, and so its existence is demonstrated.

Christianity – that is, the religion of the Bible – is the only scheme or form of belief which disavows any possessions on such a tenure. Here alone all is free. You may fly to the ends of the world and find no God but the Author of Salvation. You may search the Scriptures and not find a text to stop you in your explorations.

At Trinity college he became friends with Henry and Frank Mackenzie and G.W.H. Tayler who came from a strong evangelical background. In 1853 Maxwell was studying hard for the Mathematics tripos and Smith's Prize examinations. In June he was able to get away from Cambridge for a few days and was invited by G.W.H. Tayler to stay with him at his uncle's house. His uncle was an evangelical rector of Otley, Suffolk. While there Maxwell became seriously ill. The Taylers nursed him back to health over a period of several weeks. Maxwell was very moved by the care and kindness shown him by the Taylers. His biographer, Lewis Campbell, said that “He referred to it long afterwards as having given him a new perception of the Love of God. One of his strongest convictions thenceforward was that ‘Love abideth, though Knowledge vanish away.’ ” After his return to Cambridge, he wrote a letter of thanks to his host that contained the following confession:

All the evil influences that I can trace have been internal and not external, you know what I mean --- that I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and that if I escape, it is only by God’s grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society, — but not perfectly except by committing myself to God as the instrument of His will, not doubtfully, but in the certain hope that that Will will be plain enough at the proper time.

We see from this that Maxwell was keenly aware that he was a sinner in need of God's grace.

Maxwell was, by nature, a kind person. One time a fellow student at Cambridge, Charles Robertson, injured his eyes and found it difficult to read. Robertson later wrote

He (Maxwell) used to find me sitting in my room with closed eyes, unable to prepare the next day's lectures, and often gave up an hour of his recreation time to read out to me some of the book-work I wanted to get over.

He frequently cheered up fellow students when they were depressed and often nursed them when they were sick. He also helped freshmen students that were having troubles with their studies. One fellow student, who was not a particular friend, later told Campbell that

Of Maxwell's geniality and kindness of heart you will have many instances. Everyone who knew him at Trinity can recall some kindness or some act of his which left an ineffaceable impression of his goodness on the memory — for “good” Maxwell was in the best sense of the word

While at Cambridge Maxwell became a member of the Conversazione Society, a select group of top students known as the Apostles since they only had twelve members at any one time. This group discussed openly many of the topics of the day, including religion. They believed that “There were no propositions so well established that an Apostle had not the right to deny or question, if he did so sincerely and not from mere love of paradox … .” Over time this group became very close and many of the members were among Maxwell's closest friends. The discussions with the Apostles served to clarify Maxwell's faith and its relation to science.

Maxwell was also influenced by Frederick Denison Maurice, a former “Apostle” and the founder of the Christian Socialist movement. Although he didn't agree with much of Maurice's theology, he was impressed by Maurice's work with working class men who had no access to higher education. Maurice established a number of Working Men's Colleges where these men were offered college level classes. Maxwell saw this as a vital Christian service and taught weekly classes to working men from 1854 till 1866.

In addition to his studies in mathematics and science, Maxwell loved to read and write poetry. The following poem gives us a glimpse of his deep faith:

A Student's Evening Hymn

Now no more the slanting rays
With the mountain summits dally,
Now no more in crimson blaze
Evening's fleecy cloudless rally,
Soon shall Night front off the valley
Sweep that bright yet earthly haze,
And the stars most musically
Move in endless rounds of praise.

While the world is growing dim,
And the Sun is slow descending
Past the far horizon's rim,
Earth's low sky to heaven extending,
Let my feeble earth-notes, blending
With the songs of cherubim,
Through the same expanse ascending,
Thus renew my evening hymn.

Thou that fill’st our waiting eyes
With the food of contemplation,
Setting in thy darkened skies
Signs of infinite creation,
Grant to nightly meditation
What the toilsome day denies —
Teach me in this earthly station
Heavenly Truth to realise.

Give me wisdom so to use
These brief hours of thoughtful leisure,
That I may no instant lose
In mere meditative pleasure,
But with strictest justice measure
All the ends my life pursues,
Lies to crush and truths to treasure,
Wrong to shun and Right to choose.

Then, when unexpected Sleep,
O’er my long-closed eyelids stealing,
Opens up that lower deep
Where Existence has no feeling,
May sweet Calm, my languor healing,
Lend note strength at dawn to reap
All that Shadows, world-concealing,
For the bold enquirer keep.

Through the creatures Thou hast made
Show the brightness of Thy glory,
Be eternal Truth displayed
In their substance transitory,
Till green Earth and Ocean hoary,
Massy rock and tender blade
Tell the same unending story —
“We are Truth in Form arrayed.”

When to study I retire,
And from books of ancient sages
Glean fresh sparks of buried fire
Lurking in their ample pages —
While the task my mind engages
Let old words new truths inspire —
Truths that to all after-ages
Prompt the Thoughts that never tire.

Yet if, led by shadows fair
I have uttered words of folly,
Let the kind absorbing air
Stifle every sound unholy.
So when Saints with Angels lowly
Join in heaven's unceasing prayer,
Mine as certainly, though slowly,
May ascend and mingle there.

Teach me so Thy works to read
That my faith, — new strength accruing, —
May from world to world proceed,
Wisdom's fruitful search pursuing;
Till, thy truth my mind imbuing,
I proclaim the Eternal Creed,
Oft the glorious theme renewing
God our Lord is God indeed.

Give me love aright to trace
Thine to everything created,
Preaching to a ransomed race
By Thy mercy renovated,
Till with all thy fulness sated
I behold thee face to face
And with Ardour unabated
Sing the glories of thy grace.

Maxwell and his wife Katherine shared a common Christian faith. We have a number of letters that Maxwell wrote to his wife Katherine both before and after their marriage. In these letters they often discussed the meaning of various passages of scripture. Here is one example

Now let us read (2 Cor.) chapter xii., about the organisation of the Church, and the different gifts of different Christians, and the reason of these differences that Christ's body may be more complete in all its parts. If we felt more distinctly our union to Christ, we would know our position as members of His body, and work more willingly and intelligently along with all the rest in promoting the health and growth of the body, by the use of every power which the spirit has distributed to us.

Throughout their marriage they read the scriptures together nightly. When Maxwell returned to London to teach at King's College, they often worshiped with a Baptist congregation. In a letter to Rev. Tayler he wrote

At Cambridge I heard several sermons from excellent texts, but all either on other subjects or else right against the text. There is a Mr. Offord in this street, a Baptist who knows his Bible, and preaches as near it as he can, and does what he can to let the statements in the Bible be understood by his hearers. We generally go to him when in London, though we believe ourselves baptized already.

In 1864, while at King's College, Maxwell wrote

Think what God has determined to do to all those who submit themselves to his righteousness and are willing to receive his gift [the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ]. They are to be conformed to the image of His Son, and when that is fulfilled, and God sees they are conformed to the image of Christ, there can be no more condemnation.

During Maxwell's lifetime many evangelicals were becoming concerned with the increasing influence of Darwinism and scientific naturalism outside the church and with biblical criticism within the church. To combat these trends the Victoria Institute was formed in 1865. It consisted of evangelical clergy, lay people, and a few university professors. Maxwell was frequently asked to join this society. Although he rejected Darwinism, he politely refused their invitation. One reason was that he didn't like the militant tone of the society and the way it attacked some of his friends and fellow scientists such as Adam Sedgwick and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). He was also very hesitant to tie current formulations of science with biblical interpretation. Below are a couple of his statements on this subject

The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally so much more rapid than that of biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.

But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonize his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself and to him only for a time and should not receive the stamp of a society.

When Maxwell took over the running of the Glenlair estate after his father's death, he led a daily prayer service for his servants and staff. We don't have any record of the actual prayers used, but the following two prayers were found in his notes:

Almighty God, who hast created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee and have dominion over Thy creatures, 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; and so to receive 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. All which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth, who hast set Thy glory above the heavens, and out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast perfected praise. When we consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, teach us to know that Thou art mindful of us, and visitest us, making us rulers over the works of Thy hands, showing us the wisdom of Thy laws, and crowning us with honour and glory in our earthly life; and looking higher than the heavens, may we see Jesus, made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour, that He, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man. O Lord, fulfil Thy promise, and put all things in subjection under His feet. Let sin be rooted out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless Thou the Lord, O my soul, praise the Lord.

At 48, in 1879, when his abdominal cancer was getting extremely painful, the minister who visited him was amazed by Maxwell's clarity and memory. He said that Maxwell never complained and his kindness did not subside. Moreover,

… his illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man: his firm and undoubting faith in the Incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficiency of the Atonement; in the work of the Holy Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy, and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying — “unworkable” was his own word about them — and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Savior.

During this time he confessed to the Reverend Professor Holt that “what is done by what I call myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.” Near the end, Maxwell told a colleague, “The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.” His burial place in Galloway Scotland is shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8: Maxwell's burial site in Southern Scotland