The British Journal for the History of Science

Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite

a1 Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH.


There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Jesus by night…

John 3: 1–2

A lady asked the famous Lord Shaftesbury what religion he was of. He answered the religion of wise men. She asked, what was that? He answered, wise men never tell.

Diary of Viscount Percival (1730), i, 113


Isaac Newton was a heretic. But like Nicodemus, the secret disciple of Jesus, he never made a public declaration of his private faith – which the orthodox would have deemed extremely radical. He hid his faith so well that scholars are still unravelling his personal beliefs. His one-time follower William Whiston attributed his policy of silence to simple, human fear and there must be some truth in this. Every day as a public figure (Lucasian Professor, Warden – then Master – of the Mint, President of the Royal Society) and as the figurehead of British natural philosophy, Newton must have felt the tension of outwardly conforming to the Anglican Church, while inwardly denying much of its faith and practice. He was restricted by heresy laws, religious tests and the formidable opposition of public opinion. Heretics were seen as religiously subversive, socially dangerous and even morally debased. Moreover, the positions he enjoyed were dependent on public manifestations of religious and social orderliness. Sir Isaac had a lot to lose. Yet he knew the scriptural injunctions against hiding one's light under a bushel. Newton the believer was thus faced with the need to develop a modus vivendi whereby he could work within legal and social structures, while fulfilling the command to shine in a dark world. This paper recovers and assesses his strategies for reconciling these conflicting dynamics and, in so doing, will shed light on both the nature of Newton's faith and his agenda for natural philosophy.