The British Journal for the History of Science

Research Article

By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science


a1 Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University, 1 Washington Place, New York, NY10003, USA. Email:


James Clerk Maxwell's electromagnetic theory famously unified many of the Victorian laws of physics. This essay argues that Maxwell saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws. He postulated a variation on the design argument that focused on the unity of phenomena rather than Paley's emphasis on complexity. This argument of Maxwell's is shown to be connected to his particular evangelical religious views. His evangelical perspective provided encouragement for him to pursue a unified physics that supplemented his other philosophical, technical and social influences. Maxwell's version of the argument from design is also contrasted with modern ‘intelligent-design’ theory.

(Online publication February 02 2011)


This paper was written with the support of the Mellon Foundation while in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA. Special thanks to Heinrich von Staden, Michael Gordin, Myles Jackson, Simon Schaffer, Geoffrey Cantor and the anonymous referees.