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Physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is considered by many to have been as important to physics as Newton and Einstein, especially for his work on electricity and magnetism and for being the first director of the Cavendish Laboratory. His technical achievements are significant, but he also offers us a model of the qualities of physics education in a Christian liberal arts environment. This work explores his writings and discusses some of his various experiences, such as his broad education at the University of Edinburgh and participation in elite intellectual discussion societies, which developed and demonstrated his ability to think broadly. In some instances, he shared about his faith in God and how it informed his perspectives. Furthermore, in the inaugural lectures he gave for the three professorships he held over his lifetime, he shared his views on the role that the study of physics can play in personal formation. This paper suggests that his personal and professional examples may be critical qualities to be emulated in today’s Christian liberal arts physics programs, as higher education undergoes significant transition. Heather M. Whitney is Assistant Professor of Physics at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.


The nineteenth century was a pivotal period for physics. Changes to the field and the academy were leading to the professionalization of practitioners and the professorship, significant discoveries were being made in the fields of electricity and magnetism and thermodynamics, and specialized courses and laboratories that housed dedicated experiment facilities were being developed to support the efforts. One man in particular, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), was at the center of it all. Maxwell contributed to some of the most significant developments of physical science in the nineteenth century, including the fields of electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics. Maxwell embodied the spirit of the Christian liberal arts in the educational enterprise and profession of physics, demonstrating that work in physics can engage other fields of thought, provide opportunity for foundational thought and practice, and can thrive in community.

For many people, the scientist who most quickly comes to mind when they think of physics is Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. Indeed, Newtonian motion and Einstein’s relativity are landmark leaps of understanding in physics. But Maxwell stands between them as an equally important figure in the storyline of how physics contributes to humanity today. He is perhaps best known for the work he did on developing mathematical models of electricity and magnetism based upon the experiments by Michael Faraday, work that resulted in what is now known as Maxwell’s equations, but he generated other significant findings in mechanics, thermodynamics, and other subfields of physics. Maxwell’s scientific work and its importance to physics is considered to be on par with Newton’s and Einstein’s; Einstein himself called Maxwell’s work “the most profound and useful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”1 Maxwell’s presence in this time of transition is an important one, as he embodied a life of science that was both broad in perspective and deep in understanding.

Maxwell excelled at his scientific enterprise, and this project does not need to attempt to qualify further his place in the advancement of science. However, it is interesting to investigate the personal formation of Maxwell, evidenced in his background and experiences, and to look into his articulation on physics in personal formation, as given in his inaugural lectures for his professorships. Doing so provides insight into his development as a broad-thinking scientist. Thomas Torrance notes that Maxwell

had little use for mere empiricism or narrow scientific professionalism obsessed with measurements carried out in a physics laboratory. An approach of that kind which left no room for a theologically and philosophically empowered grasp of things in their natural wholeness and continuity was finally unable properly to assess analytical particulars or to come up with genuinely new ideas.2

As higher education, including liberal arts and Christian institutions, and physics itself undergoes rapid changes in the early twenty-first century, we can look to Maxwell to see what he can offer us as a model of engagement with physics. Maxwell also had a unique perspective on science with respect to religion that positioned him to be a model for Christian liberal arts instruction in physics.

This paper gives a very brief overview of who Maxwell was, discusses some of his writings from these experiences that demonstrate his integration of faith and learning, and then focuses on perspectives seen in his inaugural lectures for his professorships that help us to articulate a framework for the study of physics in the modern Christian liberal arts context. It is hoped that understanding this model of liberal learning, as Maxwell both experienced himself and engaged with in teaching others, can be a source of strength for Christian liberal arts programs in physics.


To articulate the motivation for this project, it is worth describing the current state of physics programs in undergraduate education. Most higher education institutions, whether they are liberal arts in focus or not, are under economic pressures. Sebastian Thrun, founder of online education company Udacity, has proposed that in the near future there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education.3 His statement could be considered hyperbolic, but it speaks to the high stakes of change in higher education. Education technology writer Audrey Watters took a guess at which ten, and only one faith-based institution, Brigham Young University, made her list.4 Even if higher education institutions were to continue as in their current form, there are pressures on several disciplines, especially the humanities. But what may surprise some is that, along similar lines, some physics departments, especially those that do not pull in significant overhead from research grants, are experiencing economic pressure. As for the metric of employment after graduation, similar to the question that is classically asked of English majors (“what can you do with that after graduation?”), it should be noted that one rarely becomes a “physicist” immediately after earning a bachelor’s degree in physics. To attain that title, usually graduate school is involved, and very frequently after that, a postdoctoral position. There are even some indications that employment in the STEM fields is headed toward saturation, if not in that state already. We tell our students that studying physics should prepare them for doing “anything,” but it can take some extraordinary effort to craft one’s resume and cover letters to catch the attention of potential employers. Physics is very much a liberal arts degree, if one way of defining the liberal arts is that it is not intended to prepare or certify students for specific employment after graduation. In my perspective, physics education is not a specifically vocational education, but there are in some venues significant expectation for it to act as one. Additionally, many programs are expected to generate a certain number of graduates, and when they do not, a program’s existence is threatened.

We are already seeing some of these challenges to physics programs at some institutions across the US. Two well-known examples in the physics world are the programs at Northern Iowa University and at seven universities in Texas; in each situation the programs did not graduate an institutionally-specified number of students. In the case of Northern Iowa, a strong lobbying effort by the American Association of Physics Teachers, American Physical Society, and physics alumni saved the program;5 in Texas, the institutions formed a consortium with upper level courses taught via interactive television.6 But these events are not limited to public institutions. We have seen the quieter diminishment of programs, either through elimination of majors or reduction of faculty, within the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. However, physics has qualities very particular and valuable to a Christian liberal arts education. As physics programs experience a crisis of existence, in some cases becoming only a supporting program for other majors, we need to explore and articulate their role in Christian liberal arts education.

Maxwell provides plenty of material for this project. He is, I believe, a model of what we hope students to be – both majors and non-majors – as a result of engaging in a Christian liberal arts physics curriculum: that they glorify God through their study and work and enjoy their God-given ability to observe and understand the natural world. Maxwell’s scientific work was prolific, but several ancillary experiences and activities allow us to construct a model for his perspective of physics in the life of the mind: his educational experiences both as a student and instructor, his conversion, his participation in intellectual discussion groups, and his contributions to the liberal learning of workers.

Maxwell’s Background and Experiences

Maxwell’s Educational Experiences and Engagements

Maxwell was first formally educated at the University of Edinburgh (1847-1850), starting at age 16. At the time, Scottish universities strove to open education to lower classes7 and thus the curriculum involved broad courses in Latin, Greek, civil and natural history, math, natural philosophy, and philosophy (which covered moral philosophy, logic, and metaphysics). The philosophy curriculum was the foundational educational experience at the school.8 He then matriculated to the University of Cambridge (1850-1856), where he obtained a degree and research fellowship in mathematics. Next he took up a professorship at Marischal College in Aberdeen (1856-1860). When this position was eliminated due to a merger with King’s College to form the University of Aberdeen, he moved on to a professorship at King’s College London (1860-1865). After this position he worked at home for a time, and then in 1871 took up the first Cavendish Professor of Physics position at the University of Cambridge (1871-1879), where his primary duty was to start up the Cavendish Laboratory, a place lauded for hosting important discoveries in science and the work of 29 Nobel Prize laureates. For each of these positions, he gave an inaugural lecture, which will be discussed below.

During his life, Maxwell demonstrated an extraordinary ability to think both broadly and deeply about scientific matters and communicate them well, writing on topics as varied as double refraction in viscous liquids to the principles of color combination (he is considered to have taken the first color photograph) to the principles of electricity and magnetism for which he is best known today. He utilized this breadth to unify multiple relationships and observations into what, refined a bit later by Oliver Heaviside, we now know as “Maxwell’s equations” and to identify that light is made up of oscillating electric and magnetic fields. While at Marischal he identified the makeup of Saturn’s rings as made up of particles, a problem which had eluded scientists for over 200 years, and which was observationally verified by the Voyager flybys in the 1980s. He also devised the method of dimensional analysis. Throughout his life, his pluriform work revealed him to be a talented, flexible, engaged scientist whose work was remarkable not just for its pure scientific prowess, but also for its breadth of vision and effort.

Maxwell’s Spiritual Life

As a child and teenager, Maxwell attended Episcopal (St. John’s Chapel) and Church of Scotland (St. Andrew’s Church) services with family members and he was known to have an extensive knowledge of the Bible from an early age.9 Even before his matriculation to Cambridge, he engaged in correspondence on faith-based topics such as the historicity of the Biblical gospel account.10 After his matriculation to Cambridge in 1850, Maxwell experienced a spiritual awakening. One significant source on this point in Maxwell’s life is the biography by Lewis Campbell and William Garnett.11 This source is difficult to interpret given that Campbell was a favorite student of Benjamin Jowett, who moved away from a high view of scripture and may have had influence on Campbell in this area. Campbell also wrote a very favorable biography of Jowett, which makes it difficult to trust his commentary of Maxwell’s religious perspectives (Marston, personal communication). Campbell and Garnett also very heavily edited the letters to, from, and about Maxwell included in the work. Nonetheless, Campbell and Garnett write of the event of Maxwell’s stay with an acquaintance, Rev. C. B. Tayler, after extensive effort made to take the Mathematical Tripos as a student at Cambridge.12 During his visit he became very ill for more than a month, experiencing what was called a brain fever. Campbell and Garnett write,

The Taylers nursed him as they would have nursed a son of their own, and Maxwell, in whom the smallest kindnesses awakened lasting gratitude, was profoundly moved by this. He referred to it long afterwards as having given him a new perception of the Love of God. One of his strongest convictions thenceforward was that ‘Love abideth, though Knowledge vanish away.’13

Through the language of nineteenth-century biography, it is difficult to call the experience a conversion definitively. A more recent source has noted “[a]t the very least, it was a time where Maxwell gained a heightened awareness of God’s grace pertaining to his own wrongdoing.”14

Nonetheless, Maxwell often mentioned topics of faith in his correspondence, particularly between him and his wife, Katherine Dewar. They wrote to each other frequently, both during their courtship and their marriage, regarding their Bible reading. On one occasion, Maxwell wrote to Katherine,

You will easily see that my “confession of faith” must be liable to the objection that Satan made against Job’s piety [does Job fear God for nothing?] One thing I would have you know, that I feel as free from compulsion to any form of compromised faith as I did before I had any one to take care of, for I think we both believe too much to be easily brought into bondage to any set of opinions.15

Finally, as will be noted later, Maxwell was a strong supporter of F. D. Maurice, who developed the Working Man’s College, in his mission to spread the love of Christ through the gospel. Jordi Cat has noted that this connection to Maurice was likely the result of Maxwell’s interest in social justice rather than ardent theology.16

If one applies the metric of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism, as devised by David Bebbington,17 we can tentatively identify Maxwell as an evangelical, although a better term might be simply an orthodox Christian. He was at the very least a dedicated Christian who was very careful and purposeful in the integration of his faith and scientific work, seeing scientific work as reflective of the nature that God had imbued upon certain individuals. He said, “I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of.”18

Maxwell did not write or speak extensively in formal scientific venues on his integration of faith and science. However, having ascribed to him an orthodox faith, it is worth taking a moment to identify the view of the evangelicals of his day, particularly in Scotland, toward science. The differentiation between theology of nature and natural theology is important in this discussion. Stanley differentiates these as “natural theology (in the sense of grounding religious truths in the natural world) and a theology of nature (recognition of the role of God in nature).”19 In early nineteenth-century Scotland, the relationship between science and faith was a very active discussion. The Church of Scotland was at that time undergoing a division between the Moderates, who argued that natural theology was essential for the foundation of theology at large, and the Evangelicals, who argued that natural theology was not the only foundation of Christian faith.”20 David Hume’s doctrine of causation was central to this disagreement. Hume argued that human nature is faulty in its ability to ascribe causation, and to some, the natural extension was that this undermined natural theology. Moderates identified the problem as being with Hume’s philosophy and believed that those who espoused his ideas undermined Christianity as a whole. Scottish evangelicals, however, believed that natural theology was not the only foundation to faith and welcomed Hume’s critique, especially in its implications for the limits of human nature and understanding. (The disagreement between the Moderates and Evangelicals had an interesting clash in the case of the Leslie Affair of 1805 when John Leslie, a candidate for the chair of mathematics at Edinburgh University, was scrutinized for his endorsement of Hume’s doctrine of causation. The Moderates maintained that this made his support of the Westminster Confession of Faith, to which all Scottish university professors had to subscribe, to be suspicious, while the Evangelicals had no problem with it.)21 Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) provides an interesting example of the handling of the issue by an evangelical, as Chalmers strongly believed in the use of the historicity of the Bible in defense of Christianity as a sort of science of theology, demonstrating that he did not eschew science, but he did not hold to a belief that required natural theology as its foundation. It can be assumed that Maxwell was aware of these theological discussions in his faith community.

Maxwell’s Participation in Intellectual Discussion Groups

Maxwell’s engagement in two prominent intellectual discussion groups helps us better to understand his pursuit of “natural wholeness and continuity” of physics and faith. The formation of these groups was fairly prevalent in nineteenth-century Britain in intellectual communities both in and out of formal educational institutions, and their goal was to be a place where members could informally discuss and develop ideas of their field with practitioners and experts in other fields – a natively interdisciplinary endeavor.22 Because Maxwell’s discussion of faith is less obvious in his scientific work, or perhaps it is better to say, more subtle, these ancillary activities allow us a perspective into his thoughts on the matter. It has been supposed that Maxwell was reluctant to engage in controversy (personal communication, Marston) but there are a few scientific topics in which Maxwell wrote or spoke solely and purposefully about their relation to faith. Records of talks given as a part of his participation in two intellectual discussion groups, The Apostles (also known as the Cambridge Conversazione Society, to which he was elected while at Cambridge) and the Eranus Club (joined in 1872) offer some insight into his perspectives on faith and science. We have but a fragment of an essay Maxwell gave to the Apostles group on “What is the Nature of Evidence of Design?”23 Maxwell is writing this after William Paley (1743-1805), a utilitarian philosopher, wrote Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) and the work had been firmly required reading for students at Cambridge. The primary idea of Paley’s project was that God’s design of the whole creation could be seen in the general happiness, or well-being, that was evidence in the physical and social order of things. Paley extended this principle to theology and formalized the Watchmaker argument, that there are two features that indicate an item is the result of intelligent design: (1) it performs some function that an intelligent agent would regard as valuable, such as keeping time, and (2) it could not perform the function if made differently. These two together suggest functional complexity. Theerman calls the members of the Apostles anti-utilitarian24 and thus places them in oppositional thought to Paley, but it is worth looking into Maxwell’s own writings to deduce what Maxwell thought of the design question.

Unfortunately, the original source for the document, Campbell and Garnett, appears to have been heavily edited. Nonetheless, here we see Maxwell write very directly on the topic of design. He demonstrates his clear familiarity with Paley’s design argument and then offers his own thoughts on the argument’s relevance to science. As he closes, Maxwell takes Paley’s argument to task for its potential role in halting the scientific enterprise instead of inspiring its advance, using examples from Bernoulli and Bacon25 to show how putting “a final cause in place of a physical connection” – focusing on a description of a final result instead of the physical mechanism that produced it – can cause great loss to the scientific process. Stanley distinguishes between Paley’s and Maxwell’s perspectives on the design argument by noting, “Paley emphasized complexity as the indicator of God’s hand, Maxwell emphasized unity.”26 Here, by “unity” Stanley speaks of scientific understanding that was presumed to result from a universal physical theory, also presumed by some to be mandated by God. This perspective is mirrored in his approach to science, in which he sought unification of physical principles through directing the scientific approach with an eye toward broad swaths of topics having the potential to be unified in basis. In fact, it was this breadth of thought that allowed him to make such a significant contribution to the unification of electricity, magnetism, and light, which has remained a lasting contribution to the road map of scientific investigation that many physicists continue to take today. Later, in a letter to Ellicott, Maxwell is a bit more direct with his thought on the design question:27

But I should be very sorry if an interpretation founded on a most conjectural scientific hypothesis were to get fastened to the text in Genesis, even if by so doing it got rid of the old statement of the commentators which has long ceased to be intelligible. The rate of change of scientific hypothesis is naturally much more rapid than that of Biblical interpretations, so that if an interpretation is founded on such an hypothesis, it may help to keep the hypothesis above ground long after it ought to be buried and forgotten.

Maxwell clearly thought that scientific interpretation should not be tied to any one specific religious truth; he favored a theology of nature. In fact, his methodology of science has been termed “theistic science” by Stanley.28

One exception to the available evidence that Maxwell did not write in formal scientific venues regarding his perspectives on faith and physics is his treatise on thermodynamics, Theory of Heat (1871), which provides interesting material at its end. After the introduction of the thought experiment now known as “Maxwell’s demon,” in which Maxwell proposes a mechanism in which the second law of thermodynamics could be violated through intervention by an entity, he ends with a section entitled “Nature and the Origin of Molecules.”29 Maxwell writes on the nature of molecules, that those of a given chemical makeup are indistinguishable from each other and that they also “agree in the nature of the light which they emit that is, in their natural periods of vibration. They are therefore like tuning-forks all tuned to concert pitch, or like watches regulated to solar time.” The mention of tuning-forks and watches is interesting given the similarity of language to Paley’s design argument, but Maxwell’s perspective on design emphasizes the scientific enterprise’s emphasis on formulating explanations for phenomena, driven by the assumption of unity in nature, which was for Maxwell set in place by the Creator, as being of most value in science. For Maxwell, because we are not motivated to leave a scientific observation as a black box, and because of a sense of underlying order, whether ascribed to a Creator or not, science advances. Maxwell sums up this belief by writing in the Apostles essay, “It is the business of science to investigate these causal chains. If they are found to be not independent but to meet in some ascertained point, we must transfer the evidence of design from the ultimate fact to the existence of the chain.”30 In his view, scientific effort is obliged to continue investigation into cause and effect.

Maxwell’s Participation in Liberal Learning

The latter part of this paper will focus on Maxwell’s inaugural lectures, but another of his activities provides more material for the model he provides for Christian liberal arts instruction in physics, most directly of anything described up until this point: his experience in teaching at the Working Man’s College. Established by British theologian F. D. Maurice in 1854 and still in existence today, the institution sought to provide liberal education to working-class people and raise their sense of humanity. It very intentionally offered courses that were not meant to have utilitarian purposes, as technical courses would, but rather were intended to expand the mind of the students. Until the 1980s, instructors taught on a volunteer basis. Prominent British intellectuals taught there, including artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and T. H. Huxley (who was a strong opposing voice in the design argument). About Maurice’s intentions for science instruction at the school, Stanley has written,

[T]he study of nature would bring students closer to the actions of God. This natural theological approach to teaching science was extremely widespread in Victorian Britain. Maurice asserted that it was frankly impossible not to include investigations into the natural world in a Christian education. This was even more important for the intended audience of artisans and craftsmen because they would learn that their own creative actions were reflections of one original Creator. Students would learn not to fear the innovations of science, but rather to “value every discovery, and hope for more.”31

Here, Stanley is quoting Maurice’s “Introductory Lecture on the Studies of the (London) Working Men’s College.”

As the next section focuses on Maxwell’s inaugural lectures, which provide his own voice for perspectives in physics education, this portion on his role at the Working Men’s College will not be elaborated further except to point out that by volunteering his time to participate in expressly liberal education at an institution founded upon the value of such learning in advancing the Christian kingdom, Maxwell’s actions spoke very loudly.

Maxwell’s Model for the Role of Physics in Christian Liberal Arts Instruction

We now look to Maxwell’s inaugural lectures for his own voice for ideals of physics education. These provide not only an important primary insight into his perspective on science – the practical implementation of it, what should be covered in a scientific education, and so on – but also about the perspective one personally should take on while engaged in it. He speaks about how the study of energy and matter provides a distinctive course of study that contributes to the larger identity of a person. The remainder of this paper consists of three observations from these lectures and offers suggestions for how they might translate into distinctive features of physics programs in Christian liberal arts institutions. First, Maxwell presents a vision of scientific instruction of the physical world that is best done in conversation and engagement with other fields. Second, Maxwell gives evidence that physics instruction should remain foundational. Thirdly, the paper deviates a bit from the inaugural lectures, to discuss how personal formation, spiritual and otherwise, is key in preparing men and women to carry on the spirit of the Christian liberal arts through their lives after graduation, and should play a central role in the devising of physics curriculum and programs.

These arguments are not ground-breaking. But it is useful to consider the thoughts of a scientist who was so extremely pivotal in changing the entire course of physics, especially as we are on the cusp of likely more pivotal change in physics, as we continue to grapple with the goal of a unified theory. Through Maxwell, we can engage in an articulation of our work in Christian liberal arts education, specifically in physics, that will result in an offering that serves our students well and positions physics to contribute to Christian liberal arts education in a meaningful way.

In each of the following sections, quotations from Maxwell’s inaugural lectures are used. For the sake of brevity, the references are given briefly here. Quoted are his inaugural talks at Marischal College Aberdeen,32 King’s College,33 and Cambridge (also noted in this text as the Cavendish lecture).34

The Study of the Natural World – of Energy and Matter – Should be in Discourse with Other Fields of Thought

In his Cavendish inaugural lecture, Maxwell said,

We admit that the proper study of mankind is man. But is the student of science to be withdrawn from the study of man, or cut off from every noble feeling, so long as he lives in intellectual fellowship with men who have devoted their lives to the discovery of truth, and the results of whose enquiries have impressed themselves on the ordinary speech and way of thinking of men who have never heard their names? Or is the student of history and of man to omit from his consideration the history of the origin and diffusion of those ideas which have produced so great a difference between one age of the world and another?

Maxwell answers this question in this and the other inaugural lectures with an emphatic no. It is clear that Maxwell believed that a broad perspective is important in physics. I see several supporting points that emphasize the need for physics instruction that is broad in its perspective, both in how we encourage our majors to think and how we offer instruction to students of other programs.

A mind that can see physical significance in the world is stronger because it allows for a more holistic knowledge and a more holistic life. In his King’s College lecture, Maxwell said,

But if we can train our minds to see the physical significance of everything that happens, we shall be in the first place able to make use of our opportunities in the various professions to which we may be called, secondly, we shall never cease to seek, obtain, and enjoy additional knowledge of the world in which we are placed, and thirdly, all the skill and knowledge we lay up will round itself to a perfect whole of Wisdom when all the elements of Science, from the matter which exhibits its modes of action, to the mind which perceives them, are felt to be mutually related parts of one great whole.

To Maxwell, the study of science, its essence of energy and matter, was to be undertaken in tandem with other ways of knowing, which together made for a holistic perspective on the world and of ourselves. This can be effectively implemented in the classroom through frequent reference to other fields.

Next, the study of physical phenomena can teach our students, both major and non-major, how to think more deeply about the unity of God’s creation. In his Marischal lecture, Maxwell said,

The student of Law will find a respite from his professional studies in contemplating a state of things where every law carries itself into execution, and where the success of every enterprise is determined by the precision with which the Laws of Nature are complied with. Those who intend to pursue the study of Theology will also find the benefit of a careful and revert study of the order of Creation. They will learn that though the world we live in, being made by God, displays this power and goodness even to the careless observer, yet that it conceals far more than it displays, and yields its deepest meaning only to patient thought. They will learn that the human mind cannot rest satisfied with the mere phenomena which it contemplates, but is constrained to seek for the principles embodied in the phenomena, and that these elementary principles compel us to admit that the laws of matter and the laws of mind are derived from the same source, the source of all wisdom and truth.

True to the spirit of the liberal arts, the facts of knowledge should not be the end game of physics instruction, but rather, physics instructional efforts should motivate our students to see the world from a bigger perspective. It is not enough simply to memorize Newton’s laws, or even be able to use them to determine states of motion. In the analytical mechanics course I teach, I like to ask students about the bigger questions of how Newton’s characterization of motion contrasts with that of Lagrange, what this means for how the two men determined cause and effect for these changes, how non-Western perspectives on the topic may contrast, what this means for the human experience of observing and measuring changes in motion, and what this means for how God has created us. Likewise, when our conservatory students study the physics of music, they are contemplating the physical basis of the music they love, which naturally brings up questions about human cognition, the dichotomy of emotional and objective responses to music, and what it means for humans to have such a diverse response to music, and what this means for how God has created us. Such questions that arise from an intellectually diverse course of study bring the discussion of matter and energy, and how humans go about characterizing them, into ontological terms – a powerful experience for both majors and non-majors.

Further, this vision of providing our students in physics with instruction that is holistic, firmly grounded on characterizing the physical world, and pointing toward God as the source of all knowledge, depends upon interdisciplinary engagement. Even 150 years ago, Maxwell was encouraging scientists and students not to live in silos. He emphasizes that, while the propensity to live in one’s individual ivory tower is very strong, the University is the very place in which one should take advantage of the close proximity to those who study other fields. In his Cavendish lecture, Maxwell said,

But admitting that a practical acquaintance with the methods of Physical Science is an essential part of a mathematical and scientific education, we may be asked whether we are not attributing too much importance to science altogether as part of a liberal education…. Hence though some of us may, I hope, see reason to make the pursuit of science the main business of our lives, it must be one of our most constant aims to maintain a living connexion between our work and the other liberal studies of Cambridge, whether literary, philological, historical, or philosophical. There is a narrow professional spirit which may grow up among men of science, just as it does among men who practice any other special business. But surely a University is the very place where we should be able to overcome this tendency of men to become, as it were, granulated into small worlds, which are all the more worldly for their very smallness. We lose the advantage of having men of varied pursuits collected into one body, if we do not endeavour to imbibe some of the spirit even of those whose special branch of learning is different from our own.

Maxwell’s image of the university as a body, particularly using the phrase “imbibe some of the spirit“ of other fields, is a lovely idea. The word “imbibe” connotes the image of drinking up for nourishment and pleasure in the company of treasured friends, an image of interactions that can include literally sharing food and drink with colleagues or attending each other’s lectures, visiting one another’s classes, inviting guest lecturers, and generally demonstrating a collegiality of mind and heart. When we seek out each other’s company, purposefully, then we can maintain the “living connexion between our work and the other liberal studies” of our institution. For me, as a physics instructor, it means that when I am actively engaged with the fullness of the intellectual arm of the body of Christ, I am best able to offer to my students instruction that is interdisciplinary engaged, grounded in physical reality, and pointing toward Christ. A twenty-first-century Christian liberal arts education in physics must be actively engaged with other disciplines.

The Study of Energy and Matter Provides Critical Opportunity for Foundational Thought and Practice

There is a significant amount of knowledge to be gained from studies in physics. Typically, physics majors go through the canon of analytical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, and thermodynamics.. As technological innovations have increased the capacity to manipulate energy and matter and make use of their interactions, additional courses can pile up in electronics, semiconductors, atomic physics, and more, and students can feel pressure to come out of their bachelor’s degree program with specific knowledge of the current state of the art. Similarly, physics instruction in other courses offered for non-majors, such as for premedical students, can often endure pressure to give students content coverage that breezes past the foundations of the ways of knowing in physics and simply focuses on the specific application to the field. However, Maxwell reminds us that a foundational study of physics has tremendous benefit.

Studying the interactions of energy and matter from a foundational perspective hones the mind. Maxwell advocates for a sizable amount of personal responsibility on the part of students, noting that professors provide opportunity for learning but students must also follow through. He argues that the study of natural laws contributes to this honing of the mind, saying in the lecture at King’s College:

I shall endeavour to show you here, what you will find to be the case afterwards, that principles are fertile in results, but the mere results are barren, and that the man who has got up a formula is at the mercy of his memory, while the man who has thought out a principle may keep his mind clear of formulae, knowing that he could make any number of them when required. I need hardly add, that though thought be a process from which the mind naturally recoils, yet, that process once completed, the mind feels a power and an enjoyment which make it think little in future of the pains and throes which accompany the passage of the mind from one stage of development to another.

Sometimes physicists like to joke that we are physicists because we do not like to memorize anything; there is a bit of truth to that. And learning to think like a physicist can be intellectually difficult – but intensely fruitful in terms of mental development. Engaging in the practice of characterizing our world in terms of the interaction of energy and matter provides a mental exercise in building one’s ability to think foundationally, ready for any particularity that comes about through experience or exposure to new ideas.

Studies in physics must involve investigating and understanding physical laws apart from their mathematical constructions. It is very easy for students to get caught up in mathematical manipulation of variables and think they are doing physics. While mathematical study is important, we need to make sure our students are not using mathematics as a crutch as they learn about the foundations of the physical world. This is true for both majors and non-majors. In his King’s College inaugural lecture, Maxwell said,

In this class, I hope you will learn not merely results, or formulae applicable to cases that may possibly occur in our practice afterwards, but the principles on which those formulae depend, and without which the formulae are mere mental rubbish. I know the tendency of the human mind to do anything rather than think. None of us expect to succeed without labour, and we all know that to learn any science requires mental labour, and I am sure we would all give a great deal of mental labour to get up our subjects. But mental labour is not thought, and those who have with great labour acquired the habit of application, often find it much easier to get up a formula than to master a principle.

Maxwell’s language is forthright here: to master a principle, rather than to use mathematics as a crutch, takes significant effort, but that effort is worth it to have the mind clear of mental rubbish. In another work, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, Maxwell commented upon Michael Faraday’s skill in mastering principles:35

Faraday shows us his unsuccessful as well as his successful experiments, and his crude ideas as well as his developed ones, and the reader, however inferior to him in inductive power, feels sympathy even more than admiration, and is tempted to believe that, if he had the opportunity, he too would be a discoverer.

To support this, experimental experience, and specifically, the opportunity to try out scientific hypotheses and frankly, fail, is key. Maxwell, in his Cavendish lecture, speaks of “experiments of illustration” (that is, demonstrations of well-understood phenomena) versus “experiments of research” (those that develop new knowledge). Each has its own place, but experiments of research can often be all too easily omitted from physics instruction in the name of content coverage. Just as we should avoid letting the “mental rubbish” of formulae build up in the minds of our students, we need to give them – both majors and non-majors – the opportunity for experiments of research. Doing so is, I think, in keeping with the spirit of general education reform, especially as has happened at Wheaton College, where I teach. It is only through experiencing what it means to investigate a physical phenomenon through the manipulation of variables, to predict a future state and see what happens during the experiment, that one can truly understand what science is and have it be an integral part of who one is. Giving students opportunity for “experiments of research” also introduces an element of diversity of thought into our scientific education enterprise. Diversity gets significant attention, and rightly so, in discussions of curriculum reform at many institutions. One of the many facets of this discussion that I admire is the expansion of the definition of “diversity” to include not just race or ethnicity, but also class and gender. This fullness of definition is relevant to current discussions in physics that hope that all interested and capable students have opportunity to study the field but are aware that factors such as gender can be obstacles.36 Perhaps we should consider as well the diversity of thought that can be offered to our students when they engage in “experiments of research,” compare their work with their peers, and engage in discussions of how different people have approached the same problems.

A less obvious extension of this need not to rely on just the mathematics that support physics is how it relates to online education. Just as one can proceed through physics by the “mere mental rubbish” of formulae, one can check off a physics course by simply reading material and answering questions on a test. Central to a strong physics pedagogy is offering students the opportunity to come to terms with what they do not understand, experience a bit of cognitive dissonance, particularly through interacting with the instructor and peers, and then to articulate what directed their change in thinking. Just as changes in the states of energy and matter are central to physics itself, reflection on the change of thinking experienced, through presence in a classroom with peers and instructor, correlates very strongly with Maxwell’s encouragement not to walk through physics without mental engagement, for it is mental engagement with the foundational perspectives of physics that lends its value to Christian liberal arts education, as we will discuss next.

A foundational focus on the physical world gives one the opportunity to consider God in his role as Creator. This keeps us mindful that the end goal of the physics educational enterprise is not necessarily to produce only so-called bench scientists, but more generally students who will serve God. In the Marischal lecture, Maxwell said,

[W]hen we remember that our object in this University is not merely to produce philosophers but also men qualified in other ways to serve God both in Church and State it becomes a matter of the greatest importance to decide upon the principle which is to guide us in our study of Nature in this place. Are we to study many things rapidly or a few things calmly? Shall we acquire what information we can; and leave deep thinking to professional men? or shall we employ our limited time on one or two subjects, and be content to be behind the age in general information?

Later statements by him give his response to these questions: that we do not have to choose between deep thinking and being on the forefront of scientific thinking. In fact, it has an important benefit: keeping the focus foundational emphasizes that creation is knowable. This allows humanity to make use of creation with confidence. At the same time, it shows us that creation possesses a God-ordained order that, in the words of Paul, we see through a glass darkly. In the Marischal lecture, he said

Man has indeed but little knowledge of the simplest of God’s creatures, the nature of a drop of water has in it mysteries within mysteries utterly unknown to us at present, but what we do know we know distinctly; and we see before us distinct physical truths to be discovered, and we are confident that these mysteries are an inheritance of knowledge, not revealed at once, lest we should become proud in knowledge, and despite patient inquiry, but so arranged that, as each new truth is unraveled it becomes a clear, well-established addition to science, quite free from the mystery which must still remain, to show that every atom of creation is unfathomable in its perfection. While we look down with awe into these unsearchable depths and treasure up with care what with our little line and plummet we can reach, we ought to admire the wisdom of Him who has so arranged these mysteries that we find first that which we can understand at first and the rest in order so that it is possible for us to have an increasing stock of known truth concerning things whose nature is absolutely incomprehensible.

As we instruct our students in foundational learning that points to God, we should be careful that our physics instruction is not too quick to ascribe a false systemization in favor of honoring complexity or simplicity. A true inspiration of awe and wonder of God shows us the limits of our knowledge and reasoning power – which reminds us that, as Jerold McNatt has said was true for Maxwell, “any reconciliation of science in the particular sense is subjective and transitory.”37 This quote is from an article on “James Clerk Maxwell’s Refusal to Join the Victoria Institute.” The Victoria Institute was founded in the 1860s to defend “the great truths found in Holy Scripture against science and biblical criticism.” McNatt notes that Maxwell was not comfortable with efforts to use science to prove passages of the Bible and vice versa. Maxwell drafted his response on the last page of their invitation, writing,

I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of society. For it is in the nature of science, especially those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions, to be continually [changing].

Maxwell’s concern was that specific results from science could be used in attempts for Christian apologetics, but he advised against this since science itself is transitory; he believed that engagement in scientific enterprise was the primary value, not specific results. This seconds the point made above, that foundational learning, like that offered by physics, points one to God. In his Marischal lecture, Maxwell said,

When we have once made our minds familiar with one or two great physical laws we begin to look upon the Universe as a realization of the highest principles of Order and Beauty and we are prepared to see in Nature not a mere assemblage of wonders to excite our curiosity but a systematic museum designed to introduce us step by step into the fundamental principles which are displayed in the works of Creation.

Maxwell also cautioned in his Marischal lecture that “[o]ur constant attention to the foundation of our beliefs will also be of service in showing us the limits of our knowledge and of our reasoning powers.”

With these limits of knowledge and reasoning powers comes, for Maxwell, humility and caution in ascribing specific findings of science to matters of faith. Instead, Maxwell advocated for foundational learning that brings praise to God as the author of our universe and ourselves, and looks eagerly for the next advances of science.

Maxwell Provides a Model of the Joy of Christian Liberal Arts Learning that can be Gained When one not only does Excellent Work but also Lives in Community with Others

Maxwell found pleasure in engaging in scientific thought, but also valued community. In a letter to a friend he noted how he needed friends to balance the life of observation:

It is in personal union with my friends that I hope to escape the despair which belongs to the contemplation of the outward aspect of things with human eyes. Either be a machine and see nothing but “phenomena” or else try to be a man, feeling your life interwoven, as it is, with many others, and strengthened by them whether in life or death.38

Not only did Maxwell find strength for his life through his friends, but his friends reported that their lives were made better simply because they knew him, which is a remarkable statement. It would take a full career to read all of Maxwell’s correspondence and be completely familiar with it, but it is clear that personal relationships were very important. At Wheaton, we have published a document that explains our shared rationale for the study of science in the Christian liberal arts, and it refers to community several times, within the context of respectful dialog, inquirers that possess trust, compassion, and charity, and efforts to accomplish social transformation through collaboration.39 Community should be a distinguishing feature of Christian liberal arts education in physics, perhaps in regular gatherings of students, faculty, and combinations of the two, for both formal and informal purposes. Indeed, for Maxwell, his scientific enterprise was entirely in the service of God and humanity, making for a humane existence in his life and work. He told a friend, “The only desire which I can have is like David to serve my own generation by the will of God, and then fall asleep.”40


Maxwell fell asleep, as he referred to death, a victim to stomach cancer, in 1879 at just 48 years of age. This man accomplished much in technical contributions to science, but as many have come to appreciate, was also significant in embodying a spirit of physics instruction that is interdisciplinary, foundational, and humane. Christian liberal arts programs in physics would do well to study the example of such a transformational figure in our field. In our undergraduate education efforts, when we see so much around us that counters this perspective – programs that are isolated, highly specialized, and impersonal, and, unless truly exceptional in their advancement of science, perhaps headed toward collapse – we can form a program that points to God as the Author of all knowledge. In his lecture at King’s College, Maxwell exhorted his students to

[c]herish any sensation of pleasure which you now feel in the opening up of the mind to the perception of truth….The highest intellectual distinction at which man can aim, is to have preserved and nourished to maturity true liberality of thought, in a mind having all its actual knowledge in full and undoubted possession, but always capable of advancing to higher and more comprehensive views of truth.

As we seek to educate our students in the Christian liberal arts tradition, physics instruction modeled after Maxwell’s example – integrated throughout the curriculum as a whole, foundational, and engaged in community – can provide an important contribution to a theology of nature that stands the test of time while revitalizing physics programs now.41

Cite this article
Heather Whitney, “James Clerk Maxwell: A Model for Twenty-first Century Physics in the Christian Liberal Arts”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:4 , 345-364


  1. Albert Einstein, “Maxwell’s Influence on the Development of the Conception of Reality,” in James Clerk Maxwell: A Commemoration Volume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931).
  2. Thomas F. Torrance, “Christian Faith and Physical Science in the Thought of James Clerk Maxwell,” in Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 215.
  3. Steven Leckart, “The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever,” March 2012,
  4. Audrey Watters, “A Future with Only 10 Universities,” October 2013,
  5. Michael Lucibella, “APS Action Helps Save Physics Program at Northern Iowa,” APS News 21.5 (May 2012),
  6. Michael Lucibella, “Electronic Coalition May Save Some Texas Programs” APS News 20.11 (December 2011),
  7. It should be noted that Maxwell himself was not considered poor, but it is inferred that he benefitted from the broad scope of the Scottish educational system.
  8. Basil Mahon, The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 23.
  9. John S. Reid, “Maxwell at Aberdeen,” in James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on His Life and Work, eds. Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  10. Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science (London: MacMillan and Co., 1882), 215.
  11. Paul Theerman, “James Clerk Maxwell and Religion,” American Journal of Physics 54.4 (1986): 312–317.
  12. Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science, 169–171.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Philip L. Marston, “Maxwell, Faith and Physics,” in James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on His Life and Work, eds. Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 263.
  15. Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science, 304.
  16. Jordi Cat, Maxwell, Sutton, and the Birth of Color Photography: A Binocular Study (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  17. David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York: Routledge, 1989).
  18. Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science, 404–405.
  19. Matthew Stanley, “By Design: James Clerk Maxwell and the Evangelical Unification of Science,” The British Journal for the History of Science 45.01 (February 2012): 57–73.
  20. Jonathan R. Topham, “Science, Natural Theology, and Evangelicalism in Early Nineteenth-Century Scotland: Thomas Chalmers and the Evidence Controversy,” in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, eds. David N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart, and Mark A. Noll (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  21. Ibid.
  22. William C. Lebenow, Only Connect: Intellectual Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015).
  23. James Clerk Maxwell, “Fragments of an Apostles Essay ‘What Is the Nature of Evidence of Design?,’” in The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell Vol. 1, ed. P. M. Harman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 227–228.
  24. Theerman, “James Clerk Maxwell and Religion.”
  25. Maxwell references Bernoulli’s work in deriving the brachistochrone, a mathematical curve, as the path between two points that takes the least time for a beam of light to traverse. A critique of his method is that it used just one variable, instead of the three physically relevant ones. He mentions Francis Bacon’s conjecture that hairiness on the body is always associated with moistness, which is inaccurate. Finally, he critiques lines of thinking that come to false conclusions based upon erroneous assumptions, such as when one concludes that fishes have no ears because water is thought to be incompressible.
  26. Stanley, “By Design: James Clerk Maxwell and the Evangelical Unification of Science.”
  27. James Clerk Maxwell, “Letter to Charles John Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol,” in The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell Vol. 1, ed. P. M. Harman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 418.
  28. Matthew Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).
  29. James Clerk Maxwell, Theory of Heat, 11th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902), 340–342.
  30. Maxwell, “Fragments of an Apostles Essay ‘What Is the Nature of Evidence of Design?’”
  31. Stanley, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science.
  32. R. V. Jones, “James Clerk Maxwell at Aberdeen, 1856-1860,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 28.1 (1973): 57–81.
  33. James Clerk Maxwell, “James Clerk Maxwell’s Inaugural Lecture at King’s College London,” American Journal of Physics 47.11 (1979): 928–933.
  34. James Clerk Maxwell, “Introductory Lecture on Experimental Physics,” in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell Vol. 2, ed. W. D. Niven (New York: Dover, 1965), 241–255.
  35. James Clerk Maxwell, A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873).
  36. Lauren E. Kost, Steven J. Pollock, and Noah D. Finkelstein, “Characterizing the Gender Gap in Introductory Physics,” Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 5.1 (2009); Lauren E. Kost-Smith, Steven J. Pollock, and Noah D. Finkelstein, “Gender Disparities in Second-Semester College Physics: The Incremental Effects of a “Smog of Bias’’,” Phys. Rev. ST Phys. Educ. Res. 6.2 (2010).
  37. Jerrold L. McNatt, “James Clerk Maxwell’s Refusal to Join the Victoria Institute,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 56.3 (August 2004): 204–215.
  38. Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science, 281.
  39. “The Natural Sciences at Wheaton College: Understanding Their Significance in Light of Our Christian Educational Mission,” n.d.,
  40. Campbell and Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. With a Selection from His Correspondence and Occasional Writings and a Sketch of His Contributions to Science, 421.
  41. I appreciate the constructive feedback of my colleagues Becky Eggimann, Larycia Hawkins, Timothy Larsen, George Kalantzis, and Peter Walhout on the development of this manuscript, as well as the helpful critiques of two anonymous referees. The Faculty Faith and Learning program at Wheaton was instrumental in fostering discussion that birthed these ideas, and the Humanities and Sciences Colloquia gave me the opportunity to discuss them with colleagues both outside and inside the sciences. Matthew Stanley provided an advanced copy of his book, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science, for which I am grateful. I also benefitted from the support of the Junior Faculty Achievement Award at Wheaton College in the finalization of this work.

Heather Whitney

Wheaton College
Heather M. Whitney is Associate Professor of Physics at Wheaton College.