Thomas Burnet was an English theologian and a notable writer on cosmogony, the scientific theory of how the universe was created.
Burnet was also cabinet officer and the royal chaplain to William III, King of England.
His most famous work was Telluris Theoria Sacra translated to Sacred Theory of the Earth. His works attracted solid supporters and as well as strong opponents.
He was one of the first people to view the material world based on historical development. Another work, the Archaeologiae Philosophicae sive Doctrina Antiqua de Rerum Originibus or The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things, was highly controversial at the time and he resigned his post in court.
Personal Life and Education
Thomas Burnet was born in 1635 at Croft in Yorkshire, England. He went to Northallerton to study grammar under Thomas Smelt, who was impressed by Thomas Burnet’s scholarly endeavors. After this school education, he attended Clare Hall, Cambridge in 1651 moving in 1654 to Christ’s College in Cambridge through the influence of Ralph Cudworth. Burnet became fellow of Christ’s in 1657 and obtained his degree a year later.
After his degree Burnet remained at the college and in 1667 he became a senior university proctor.
Burnet was a fellow of Christ’s until 1678, though he was not all the time in his residence. During his stay in Cambridge, he worked intimately with the Cambridge Platonists, particularly Henry More and Ralph Cudworth. In 1671, Burnet travelled to Europe as a tutor and made a second European tour in 1675.
After his time in Cambridge, Burnet moved to London.
He found employment in 1681 as a tutor the grandson of the 1st Duke of Ormonde. Through the Duke of Ormonde’s influence, Burnet was appointed master of the Charterhouse School, Smithfield, London in 1685.
In his duties Burnet defended the authority of the Church of England and this placed him in good favor when Catholic King James II was overthrown in 1688 and replaced by Protestant King William III, Prince of Orange and his wife (James’s daughter) Queen Mary II.
Burnet became chaplain-in-ordinary and clerk of the closet to William III in 1691. He retired from court in 1695 and spent the rest of his life at Charterhouse, London.
List of Works
It was during his travels that he formulated his views and theories about the Earth. His works made him a notable and at the same time, controversial figure.
He published the famous works on the Telluris Theoria Sacra (Sacred Theory of the Earth) in 1681, Archaeologiae Philosophicae (The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things) in 1692, and De Statu Mortuorum et Resurgentium (On the State of the Dead and the Resurrection), published after his death in 1727.
Contributions to Science
In 1681 Burnet published the first two parts of his popular work Telluris Theoria Sacra (Sacred Theory of the Earth). The book, which contained a theory of the structure of the Earth, attracted much attention and the book was soon translated in English. The third and fourth parts were published in 1689 and a Review of the Theory of the Earth, published in 1690, completed the large work.
The first two parts of the book focused on an explanation of how the earth was formed. Burnet proposed that before the Genesis flood the earth was an oval shape, moist, oily and fertile which was smooth and uniform, resembling a paradise. The axis of the earth was aligned differently to today, so causing a perpetual spring. Water vapor condensed from the warmer regions and fell as rain in the Poles, being carried back to the warmer regions by rivers and so starting the process again. With the advent of the Flood at the time of Noah, oceans and mountains were formed, as the surface of the earth had been fractured, releasing the waters underneath. Over time the modern “corrupted” world was then created.
Burnet calculated that eight times the volume of water on the surface of the Earth would be required to cause a biblical style flood, and so proposed that the water must be “hidden” in subterranean caverns.
To some extent, Burnet was influenced by Rene Descartes who wrote in 1644 the Principia philosophiae also tackling the earth’s creation.
The last two parts of his book included a proposal that on the day of judgement the earth’s final form would be that of a star, like the sun.
His second major work Archaeologiae Philosophicae (The Ancient Doctrine Concerning the Origin of Things) published in 1692 was an attempt to demonstrate that his theory of the earth was also compatible with the ancient accounts of creation. He also reconstructed a history of biblical divine moral teaching including Noah and Moses.
In 1685, a criticism on his work was published by Herbert Croft, which accused Burnet of not following the Book of Genesis Still, Burnet 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 many 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 to science.
Thomas Burnet died on 27 September 1715, aged approx 80, and was buried in the Charterhouse chapel.