John Ray on Woodward in 1695: Words that still apply today

Illustration of the building of Noah's Ark from The Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

The following quote is by John Ray from a correspondence with Mr. Edward Lhwyd on April 8 1695.   The quote is from a publication of Ray’s letters called the Further Correspondence of John Ray Edited by Robert W. T. Gunther and printed for the Ray Society in 1928.

I need to set the scene for this quote for its impact to be understood.   Ray is a typically mild-mannered and gracious in his letters even to many of those for which he strongly disagrees.   That makes this quote really stand out among many others.   The subject of Ray’s ire is Dr. John Woodward who had been promoting a new book An Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695).  This book promoted the idea that fossils represented past living things and to explain the presence of fossils in so many rock strata and fossil shells at the tops of mountains Woodward proposed that the Noahic Flood had resulted in all these fossils.  In many ways Woodward is one of the most important fathers of creation science.  Dr. Woodward, an English naturalist was well known for his unflinching defense of the global flood and his scientific theories as proof of the Scripture.   So much of Woodward’s writing reminds me of the type of language use by Ken Ham and others in the creation science movement today.   As I read this letter it was as if Ray were talking about Ham and Safarti.   Woodward was so sure and so quick to claim his views were the Biblical views and yet today even creation scientists would cringe to read his theories of the global Flood.  Ray, himself a believer in a global flood, obviously cringed to see so little care taken with the actual evidence from nature.   Many other natural theologians thought Woodward’s ideas far-fetched but that did not stop his ideas from becoming fairly popular and inspiring numerous more complex adaptions of his theories to be propounded including those of the current resurgence of flood geology rekindled by the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961.

Dr . John Woodward (1665-1728)

From the letter to Lhwyd  of April 8 1695:

“As for Dr. Woodward’s Hypothesis, if he had modestly propounded it as a plausible conjecture, it might have passed for such; but to goe about so magisterially to impose it upon our belief, is too arrogant & usurping.  I cannot but wonder to find such a strain of confidence & presumption running through his whole book that he should be so highly conceited of an Hypothesis for wch he hath no other proof but a negative one, I mean, that those bodies must by this means be thus lodged & disposed, because they could not possibly be so otherwise.   But first we are to examine ye Phaenomena upon wch he ground this Hypothesis.  I suspect they will all answer.  You have proposed one strong objection about ye Echini, wch I doe not see how he can remove, & for my part, I have gathered cockle shells wch are of the heaviest, upon ye surface of the Earth both in England & beyond ye Seas in great plenty.  I shall not further censure it, only give you my very good friend Dr. Robinson’s opinion of the Author & his Work.  He writes (saith he) with a high hand, unbecoming his station & character, & sows too much ostentation.  He has taken part out of Steno’s Prodromus, & your Works, in ye rest he is singular vain and impetuous.  He pretends to have compared ye Old &New World in every particular, but in discoursing with him I discover his ignorance in ye History of both, especially Asia & America, where he affirms ye Animals are ye same, & ye migration out of the first into ye latter demonstrable, though he knows not when nor wch way.  His motion of Gravity is ridiculous (though he tells me he hath written 40 sheets upon it) as also that of Spring &c from  ye Abysse, the heat or fire being between.  I wonder how his shells should sink lower than metals in ye great Fluid, or how  the whole Fossil part of ye Globe should be dissolved in ye Deluge when as the Animal & Vegatable remained entire & untouched.  But the revealing of these secrets he reserves for his greater Work, to set us alonging for the publication of it.

                In another letter he tells me that his [several worlds are scores through and overwritten] an Argument of their skill in Natural Philosophy.  Indolent men that have not been conversant in these studies & enquiries, nor taken any paines to search out & examine these bodies, & observe their places & beds, cannot be [compe]tent Judges of these things.  The Dr. proceeds. “I take Mr. Lhwyd of Oxford [to be a] man of another temper, & greater both skill & discretion, & wonder his friends to not presse him to publish his Lithology , wherein I expect to find matter of sense and soundness of Judgement without any Chimerical whimsies or Castles in ye Air.” 

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