Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish natural philosopher and theologian, was born Mar. 17, 1780. In 1833, Chalmers published the first of the eight Bridgewater Treatises. The Bridgewater Treatises were the byproduct of an endowment bequeathed by the 8th Earl of Bridgewater, who left £8000 in 1829 to underwrite a series of scientific treatises that would demonstrate “the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation”. Chalmers, who was quite a distinguished preacher in Glasgow and Edinburgh, got the assignment to explain how man’s moral character is evidence of the existence and wisdom of the Creator, and his book was called: On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833).
Most natural theologians, such as John Ray or William Paley, thought that the intricate design apparent in Nature is evidence for not only the existence of a Designer, but for his benevolent nature. Chalmers had a different view: Nature did indeed exhibit Design, but he observed that everything seemed to be on the verge of breaking down. Chaos was just under the surface, and decay was a constant threat. It was this peril of dissolution that was the real evidence of God for Chalmers, for without God’s presence in the world, everything would surely fly apart. Chalmers’ view was a minority one among natural theologians, who tended to ignore the darker side of Nature, and who thus little prepared us for the appearance in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
We have all eight of the Bridgewater Treatises, in first editions, in the History of Science Collection, and for this occasion, we posed them all on the counter just outside the glass wall of our Rare Book Vault. Chalmers two volumes stand at the far left. The photograph of Chalmers, taken in the 1840s, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City