Thomas Burnet

Thomas Burnet was an English divine theologian and a notable writer on speculative cosmogony or the scientific theory of how the universe was created. Burnet was also the royal chaplain to the king of England that time, William III and a cabinet officer as well. His famous work was the Telluris Theoria Sacra and was translated to Sacred Theory of the Earth. Many would say that his work was considered to be the most popular of all geologic works in the seventeenth century. His books were widely criticized by many but he defended himself with his own views. With his works, he was able to attract solid supporters and as well as strong opponents. In his other book, the Archaeologiae Philosophicae sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus or The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things, his views were strongly opposed that he had to resign his post in the court. Despite the drawbacks in his writings, Thomas Burnet was one of the first few people to view the material world basing on historical development.


Personal Life and Education

Born English, Thomas Burnet was born in 1635 at Croft in Yorkshire, England. He went to Northallerton to study grammar under whom he has amazed and attracted with his views, Thomas Smelt. After getting educated, he transferred to Clare Hall, Cambridge about the year 1651. He became the student of John Tilotson. But in 1654, Burnet decided to follow the Clare Master, Ralph Cudworth moving to Christ’s College in Cambridge. After three years, he became fellow of Christ’s, was M.A. the following year and then in the year 1667, he became a senior university proctor.

Burnet remained fellow of Christ’s until the year 1678, though he was not all the time in his residence. During his stay in Cambridge, he worked intimately with the Cambridge Platonists, making a special mention on Henry More and Cudworth. In the year 1671, Burnet went out of the country as governor and then made a second tour later on in Europe.

Early Career

Thomas Burnet grabbed employment by travelling with Charles Paulet’s son, Lord Wiltshire and through James Butler, who was the 1st Duke of Ormonde. Burnet was then able to secure a position through the Duke of Ormonde’s influence, where one of the governors appointed him the master of the Charterhouse School in 1685 where he then obtained the D.D. degree.

Being the master, Burnet made a strong and righteous stand opposing the illegal attempts to let Andrew Popham become admitted as a pensioner of the Charterhouse. In the same way, he strongly opposed the order of James II on the 26th of December, 1686 to the governors providing with the decrees for that said occasion.

It was during his travels that he was able to formulate his views and theories about the Earth. It was the books he published that made him become notable and at the same time, controversial. He was able to publish the famous works on the Sacred Theory of the Earth or his Telluris Theoria Sacra, Archaeologiae Philosophicae or the Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things, and De Statu Mortuorum et Resurgentium or On the State of the Dead and the Resurrection, which was only published after his death.

Contributions to Science

In 1681 within the boundaries of London, Burnished published his popular work Telluris Theoria Sacra or Sacred Theory of the Earth. The book, which contained a whimsical theory of the structure of the Earth, had attracted so much attention to the readers which in turn had encouraged an issue of the book’s translation in English that was then printed in the form of folio between the years 1684 to 1689.

The book was an exploratory cosmogony, in which he proposed a hollow earth filled with mostly water until the Flood on the time of Noah, at that time oceans and mountains appeared. Burnet calculated the volume of water on the surface of the Earth, which then he stated that the amount of water was not sufficient to conclude that the Flood. To some extent, Burnet was somehow influenced by Rene Descartes who wrote the Principia philosophiae tackling the earth’s creation in the year 1644. Roger North, a lawyer, criticized the grounds of Burnet’s work. The sacrilegious views of Isaac La Peyrere contained the idea of the Flood being not universal; on the other hand, the theory of Burnet was partly intended to respond on that idea regarding that point.

Burnet’s system showed the features of his novels, including the four classical elements, which were very conventional – an originally ovoid Earth, the Paradise that was always present in the spring season before the Flood, and the rivers that flow from the Equator poles. In 1685, a criticism on his work was published by Herbert Croft, which accused Burnet of not following the Book of Genesis; instead, he followed the Second Epistle of Peter. Still, he defended his views against the critics.

Despite the criticisms, Isaac Newton remained attracted on Burnet’s approach on theological views to his connection on geological processes. For this, Newton sent Burnet a letter proposing the possibility on the creation of the Earth. He suggested that when God made the Earth, the days seemed longer. However, the proposal of Newton was not considered by Burnet scientific enough to add up on his views on the creation of the Earth. He considered lengthening the span of days as already part of God’s intervention. Despite the clamor of science and theology, Burnet held tightly on his belief that God made the world along with its processes wholly and suitably from the very beginning.

The works of Thomas Burnet were controversial, yet remarkable to many. His works influenced a lot of people. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet and philosopher, was one of them. Burnet was cited at the start of the 1817 edition of his longest and major poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Burnet’s influence even reached the moon. For that, the moon’s Dorsa Burnet ridge was named after him and his great works and contributions in Science.