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Experimental Religion and

Experimental Science in Early Modern
Peter Harrison

Harris Manchester College, Oxford

Version of record first published: 24 Nov 2011.

To cite this article: Peter Harrison (2011): Experimental Religion and Experimental Science in Early
Modern England, Intellectual History Review, 21:4, 413-433
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Peter Harrison

This is properly christian experience, wherein the saints have opportunity to see, by actual experience and
trial, whether they have a heart to do the will of God, and to forsake other things for Christ, or no. As that
is called experimental philosophy, which brings opinions and notions to the test of fact; so is that properly
called experimental religion, which brings religious affections and intentions to the like test.1

For the twenty-rst century reader, one of the striking features of the theological and devotional
literature of the early modern period is the frequency with which the term experimental is used
in relation to a variety of religious beliefs and practices. It is common to nd among English theological writers and especially those with Puritan sympathies reference to experimental knowledge of God, experimental prayer, experimental reading of scripture, experimental witnesses,
experimental divines, and so on. Indeed, during the late sixteenth century and for most of the
seventeenth century, the use of the term experiment and its cognates occurs far more frequently
in these theological contexts than it does in natural philosophical (scientic) writings.2 Moreover,
it is clear that this widespread religious vocabulary predates the better-known terminology of
experimental natural philosophy in its technical seventeenth-century sense.
Those familiar with medieval and early modern vocabulary might nd these usages less
remarkable. Historians of science have known for some time that experimentum often simply
denoted experience. Moreover, given that a much greater proportion of early modern writing
was devoted to theological themes, the preponderance of the vocabulary of experimental religion
might appear less surprising than at rst sight. It might simply be that what we encounter here, as
J. Edwards, A Treatise concerning Religion Affections [1746], in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, edited by
E. Hickman, 2 vols (London, 1834; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), vol. 1, 333.
As a rough measure, there are 159 occurrences of experimental and its spelling variants in works published in England
between 1553 and 1620, and available in full text on Early English Books Online (EEBO). Of these 159, 125 occur in
religious contexts, compared to 12 in scientic. The latter include medicine (3), natural history (2), and mathematics
(5). There are obvious limitations to this methodology, relating to the works available on EEBO, to the preponderance
of religious works in the publication output of the period, and to judgements about the contexts. Nonetheless, the
general picture is clear. For early uses of the terms in relation to natural philosophy see F. Bacon, The English Translation
of Novum Organum, in The Works of Francis Bacon, 14 vols, edited by J. Spedding, R. Ellis, D. Heath (London:
Longman and Co., 1860), vol. 4, 71, 81, 93, 95; T. Hobbes, Elements of Law, edited by F. Tnnies (London: Simpkin,
Marshall, and Co., 1889), 14. See also R. Lewis, A Kind of Sagacity: Francis Bacon, the Ars Memoriae and the
pursuit of natural knowledge, Intellectual History Review, 19:2 (2009), 155-75.

Intellectual History Review

ISSN 1749-6977 print/ISSN 1749-6985 online
2011 International Society for Intellectual History

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one commentator has expressed it, is a play on words used in two completely different contexts.3
In that case, these apparently odd uses of experimental would be little more than a curious footnote to the history of ideas, and of genuine interest only to editors of historical dictionaries. In this
paper I will present an alternative view, suggesting that if we pay close attention to the specic
contexts in which these expressions are used, we see in this religious literature an explicit technical vocabulary beginning to emerge, in which experimental becomes more than simply a
synonym for experiential and in which the virtues of experimental knowledge are contrasted
variously with mere speculative knowledge, with book learning, with second-hand reports of particular religious experiences, and with the doctrinal pronouncements of religious authorities. In
the early modern English vocabulary of experimental religion, then, there developed readymade sets of oppositions that could be taken up by promoters of experimental natural philosophy an expression that rst begins to come into use in the 1660s as a description of the
new experimentally-orientated science associated, although not exclusively, with the activities
of the Royal Society. This, in turn, is suggestive of important connections between early
modern discussions about the priority of rst-hand experience in the religious sphere and a corresponding emphasis on rst-hand observations, experiments, and histories in the sphere of
natural philosophy. More generally, these usages also broaden our understanding of the meanings
of experimental natural philosophy in this period, and offer insights into the convergence of cognitive values in the spheres of religion and natural philosophy.


At the beginning of the seventeenth century the terms experience and experiment were often
used interchangeably.4 The same had been true for their Latin equivalents in the Middle Ages,
although in particular contexts it is possible to discern an inchoate distinction between everyday
experience (experientia) on the one hand, and articially contrived or sought after experience
(experimentum) on the other. There were also technical or more restricted uses of the expressions
scientia experimentalis and experimentum. Best known, perhaps, is Roger Bacons use of the
expression scientia experimentalis. In his early commentaries on Aristotle, Bacon observed a distinction between experientia knowledge of singular things, which humans share with animals
and experimentum a science of principles derived from experience.5 This was a fairly standard
L. Solt, Puritanism, Capitalism, Democracy, and the New Science, American Historical Review, 73:1 (1967), 18-29
(25). See also R.L. Greaves, Puritanism and Science: The Anatomy of a Controversy, Journal of the History of
Ideas, 30:3 (1969), 345-68; J. Morgan, Puritanism and Science: A Reinterpretation, The Historical Journal, 22:3
(1979), 535-60; J. Morgan, Godly Learning: Puritan Attitudes towards Reason, Learning, and Education (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988), 59-61. For a recent assertion to the contrary, and one that supports a number of
the contentions of this paper, see J. Picciotto, Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England (Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press, 2010), especially 1-5, 49, 97, 125.
For a good general account of the categories and the changes which they undergo during the seventeenth century, see
P. Dear, The Meanings of Experience, in The Cambridge History of Science, Volume III: Early Modern Science,
edited by K. Park and L. Daston (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 106-131.
R. Bacon, Opera hactenus inedita, edited by R. Steele, 16 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909-1940), vol. 11.
J. Hackett, Experience and Demonstration in Roger Bacon: A Critical Review of some Modern Interpretations, in Erfahrung und Beweis: Die Wissenschaften von der Natur im 13. und 14. Jahrhundert / Experience and Demonstration: The
Sciences of Nature in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, edited by A. Fidora and M. Lutz-Bachmann (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2006), 41-58. Peter King discusses a similar distinction as it occurs in Ockham. See P. King, Two Conceptions of Experience, Medieval Philosophy and Theology, 11:2 (2003), 203-226.

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reading of Aristotle. Later, however, Bacon was to develop a more formal category of scientia
experimentalis, although he used the expression to refer to a range of quite different kinds of
experiences: contrived trials or tests, ordinary experience, reports of experiences from others,
and even divine illumination.6 Nevertheless, there is clearly some sense of a more restricted
and technical use for experimentum. Indirect support for a special sense of experiment in
Bacons work comes from the fact that, in Latin translations of the optical and astronomical
works of Alhazen (965-1040), which exercised an important inuence on Bacon, the term experimentum is used to describe certain procedures or contrived experiences, and in a way that suggests
a contrast with simple experience.7 Looking forward, it is also possible to discern connections
between Roger Bacons terminology and Descartess uses of experientia and experimentum.8
Roger Bacon does not provide the only instance of a more restricted technical understanding of
experimentum in the medieval period. We nd suggestive parallels in the medical literature.
During the Middle Ages, lists of cures that lacked justication in terms of received medical doctrines were known as experimenta. Insofar as there existed a warrant for using these cures, it lay in
the fact that they were known by experience to be efcacious.9 This was not necessarily sufcient
to recommend them, however, and experimenta were often associated with unreliable folk-cures
(empirica), for which, similarly, no rationale could be offered in terms of prevailing medical
theory. Experiments, in this sense, were typically contrasted with the more genuinely scientic
cures, based on reasoning from principles. As William Eamon writes, the way of reason
(via rationis) was thought to be manifestly superior to the way of experiment (via experimentalis).10 This prejudice was further reinforced by the link between experimenta and occult secrets,
which also lay outside the boundaries of the conventional sciences.11 We might conclude that, to
the extent that a distinction between experience and experiment was observed, experiment in this

R. Bacon, Opus Maius VI.1, The Opus Majus of Roger Bacon, edited by J.H. Bridges, revised edition, 3 vols (London:
Williams and Norgate, 1900), 583. D.C. Lindberg, Roger Bacon and the Origins of Perspectiva in the Middle Ages
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), lv; D.C. Lindberg, Light, Vision, and the Universal Emanation of Force, in Roger
Bacon and the Sciences: Commemorative Essays, edited by J. Hackett (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 243-76, especially 267.
See also Jeremiah Hacketts essay in the same volume, Roger Bacon on Scientia Experimentalis, 277-316. The idea
of Roger Bacon as a precocious forerunner of modern experimental science was rst suggested by William Whewell.
See W. Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences from the Earliest Times to the Present Times, 2 vols (New York,
NY, 1859), vol. 1, 245.
A.I. Sabra, The Astronomical Origin of Ibn al-Haythams concept of Experiment, in Actes du XIIe congrs international dhistoire des sciences (Paris: Albert Blanchard, 1971) 3, 133136, reprinted in A.I. Sabra, Optics, Astronomy
and Logic: Studies in Arabic Science and Philosophy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1994). See also P. Dear, Discipline and Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientic Revolution (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 51-2;
E. Kheirandish, Footprints of Experiment in Early Arabic Optics, Early Science and Medicine, 14:1-3 (2009), 79-104.
D.M. Clarke, Descartes Philosophy of Science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), 19; J. Hackett,
Experientia, Experimentum, and perception of Objects in Space: Roger Bacon, in Raum und Raumvorstellungen im Mittelalter, edited by J.A. Aertsen and A. Speer (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998), 101-120. For other early modern uses of this distinction see John Dees Preface to H. Billingsley, The elements of geometrie of the most auncient philosopher Euclide
(London, 1570), sig. Aiij verso; F. Bacon, The English Translation of Novum Organum, I.82 in Works, vol. 4, 81. See
also C.B. Schmitt, Experience and Experiment: A Comparison of Zabarellas View With Galileos in De Motu,
Studies in the Renaissance, 16 (1969), 80-138.
G. Pomata, The Uses of Historia in Early Modern Medicine, in Historia: Empiricism and Erudition in Early Modern
Europe, edited by A. Fidora and M. Lutz-Bachmann (Harvard, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 105-146 (126).
W. Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1994), 56.
See Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, 58 and N.H. Clulee, John Dees Natural Philosophy: Between Science
and Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 170-74.

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more specic sense was often viewed in a negative light when compared to genuine scientic
The merits of the lowly medical experimenta were subject to reappraisal during the Renaissance.
Physician and mathematician Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) was to recommend his own lists of
experimenta although, admittedly, he had not necessarily tried them all himself. Cardanos praise
of medieval Arabic physicians rested on his belief in the superiority of their experimenta, in which
respect they were contrasted favourably with those contemporary physicians who remained doggedly committed to the principles of Galenic physick.12 While experiments, in this sense, were not
necessarily opposed to written authorities as such, indirectly this advocacy of experiment elevated
direct experience over the merely theoretical and speculative. Radical medical reformer Paracelsus
was, similarly, to stress the primacy of experimental cures, going further than Cardano in insisting
that physicians should dispense preparations the efcacy of which must be known not only by
hearsay but by ones own knowledge and experiment.13
While these trajectories of experimentum and its cognates have been traced by a number of historians, there are equally important developments in the medieval theological vocabulary relating
to experiment which are less well known. There are three related renements of the meaning of
experimental in the theological literature which take the term beyond just a synonym for experience. For our present purposes, what is important about these developments is that they will be
repeated in seventeenth-century religious and philosophical discussions. First, and most important, is the distinction between speculative and experimental knowledge. Second is the notion
of experiment as a trial or test. Third is the opposition between experimental and book knowledge
or knowledge based on authority. Positive appraisals of experimental knowledge in these contexts, I suggest, will be carried over into early modern debates about the appropriate epistemological foundations of natural philosophy.
In contrast to the mixed fortunes of experimental knowledge in the medical sphere, in the religious literature experimental knowledge was almost always viewed in a positive light. This was
partly because religious knowledge, or perhaps more correctly, religious experience, was often
understood in terms of sensory metaphors. Chief amongst these were visual metaphors often relating to divine illumination and seeing the truth. But also important were gustatory metaphors
which stressed the importance of an intimate knowledge of God that was likened to taste.
(Both aspects are found in the biblical injunction to Taste and see that the Lord is good, Ps.
34:8.) Aquinas, for example, wrote that perception implies a certain experimental knowledge
and this is properly called wisdom, as it were a sweet knowledge.14 Aquinas also distinguishes
between experimental and speculative knowledge of God:
There is a twofold knowledge of Gods goodness or will. One is speculative and as to this it is not
lawful to doubt or to prove whether Gods will be good, or whether God is sweet. The other knowledge


N. Siraisi, The Clock and the Mirror: Girolamo Cardano and Renaissance Medicine (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 59-60.
Paracelsus, Von der Krankheiten, so die Vernunfft berauben [1567], in Four Treatises of Paracelsus von Hohenheim,
called Paracelsus, edited by H. Sigerist, translated by C.L. Temkin, et al. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University
Press, 1941), 211.
T. Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a. 43, 5: perceptio enim experimentalem quandam notitiam signicat. Et haec proprie
dicitur sapientia, quasi sapida scientia, secundum illud Eccli. VI, sapientia doctrinae secundum nomen eius est. St
Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologiae, translated by English Dominican Fathers, 59 vols (London: Eyre and Spottiswood,
1964-81). Cf. 2a.2ae. 45, 2; 2a2ae. 97, 2. See also Alexander of Hales, Summa fratris Alexandri, p. I., q. 1, m. 1; St Bonaventure, Commentaria in Quatuor Libros Sententiarum, III. d. 35, q. 1.


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of Gods will or goodness is effective or experimental and thereby a man experiences in himself
the taste of Gods sweetness, and complacency in Gods will, as Dionysius says of Hierotheos
(Div. Nom. ii) that he learnt divine things through experience of them. It is in this way that we
are told to prove Gods will, and to taste His sweetness.15

The distinction between speculative knowledge and experimental knowledge, albeit in a more
general sense, played an important role in debates about the relative merits of different kinds
of knowledge in the seventeenth century. In the later period, however, as two approaches to
natural philosophy, these were increasingly regarded as alternatives, rather than complementary
ways of knowing.
Aquinas also introduces here the notion of experimental knowledge as involving tests or trials to
prove this kind of knowledge of Gods will. This usage carried over into some of the earliest
English occurrences of the word experiment and experimental. The 1382 John Wycliffe translation of the Old Testament thus speaks of Joseph taking experiment of the brothers who had
once sold him into slavery, testing them to see if they had acquired the fraternal loyalty once so
conspicuously lacking.16 The distinction also applied to the knowledge of Adam in the Garden
of Eden. Adam gained experimental knowledge of the animals when he gave them their proper
names. Less happily, Adam and Eve, in spite of a theoretical understanding of moral transgression,
gained experimental knowledge of good and evil when they ate the forbidden fruit.17
Another division that was strongly represented in seventeenth-century discussions of natural
knowledge was that between experimental knowledge and book knowledge. Again, we encounter
something like this in the medieval theological literature. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) thus
contrasted knowledge gained from books with the genuine wisdom derived from direct experience (experimentum): you consult books without purpose; you need experience instead (sine
causa paginum consulis; experimentum magis require).18 Such knowledge, he contended,
results in true wisdom. Bernards reference to experimental knowledge was accompanied by
an unambiguous normative claim: namely that, in theological matters, experimental knowledge
was preferable to speculative knowledge. This elevation of experimental knowledge was consistent with the priorities of mystically inclined medieval thinkers and those for whom theology was
more a practical than a theoretical science. Jean Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris in
the 1390s, expressed a desire to reform the university curriculum by shifting the emphasis from
speculative to experimental theology (cognitio experimentalis Dei).19
The terminology of experimental knowledge of God, or experimental wisdom, was taken up
by the two major Protestant reformers. Luther spoke of the experience of justication as a

Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae. 97, 2: Ad secundum dicendum quod duplex est cognitio divinae bonitatis vel voluntatis. Una quidem speculativa. Et quantum ad hanc, non licet dubitare nec probare utrum Dei voluntas sit bona, vel utrum
Deus sit suavis. Alia autem est cognitio divinae bonitatis seu voluntatis affectiva seu experimentalis, dum quis experitur in
seipso gustum divinae dulcedinis et complacentiam divinae voluntatis, sicut de Hierotheo dicit Dionysius, II cap. de Div.
Nom., quod didicit divina ex compassione ad ipsa. Et hoc modo monemur ut probemus Dei voluntatem et gustemus eius
Genesis 42:15. Oxford English Dictionary, sv experience:, downloaded 12 November 2009.
Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a. 96, 1; 1a2ae 89, 3; Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 70, Exposition 2.
Bernard of Clairvaux, Ad clericos de conversione, VIII.25, in Sancti Bernardi Opera Omnia, edited by J. Leclercq, C.
H. Talbot and H.M. Rochais, 8 vols (Rome: Editiones Cistercienses, 1957-80), vol. 4, 99.
J. Gerson, Sermon on Saint Bernard, in Early Works, translated by B. McGuire (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), 132.
Cf. J. Gerson, The Mountain of Contemplation in Early Works, 78f. See also S. Ozment, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980), 33.

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sapientia experimentalis and explicitly opposed experience (erfarung) to speculation.20 He also

followed Bernard of Clairvaux in describing mystical theology in these terms: theologia mystica
est sapientia experimentalis et non doctrinalis (mystical theology is experimental and not doctrinal knowledge).21 John Calvin observed a distinction between knowledge of faith (scientia
dei) received from the Word alone, and experimental knowledge (scientia experimentalis).
In places, he refers back to Patristic and Scholastic notions of tasting God, and suggests accordingly that it is experience (experimentum) that provides the seal and proof of our knowledge
of God.22
In many respects, then, the Protestant reformers allusions to experimental knowledge were
consistent with aspects of the medieval Catholic tradition. However, in post-reformation theological debates, the idea of experimental religion was pressed into the service of religious controversy. For its critics, Catholicism was associated with an Aristotelian scholasticism that
emphasized speculative knowledge as opposed to a rst person experience that had practical outcomes. Experimental knowledge was also contrasted with implicit faith knowledge based on
authority alone which again was associated by Protestants with an overly authoritarian
Roman religion. Finally, in the wake of the emphasis of Luther and Calvin on predestination,
experimental knowledge was associated with the elect, and speculative knowledge with the reprobate. These tendencies were important in elevating the status of experimental knowledge more
generally, and they become incorporated, to some extent, into defenses of experimental natural


When we survey the ways in which experiment and experimental are used in seventeenthcentury English literature it becomes immediately apparent that by far the most common contexts
in which these terms appear are religious ones.23 As noted earlier, in a variety of forms of religious
literature we encounter numerous references to experimental knowledge of God, experimental
prayer, experimental reading of scripture, experimental witnesses, experimental divines. Commonly, moreover, experimental knowledge or practice is recommended and contrasted favourably
with the alternatives. In particular, contrasts between experimental and speculative knowledge are
sharpened, partly as a consequence of contemporary religious controversies.
On the distinction between experimental and speculative knowledge in the theological sphere,
Anthony Burgess, clergyman and sometime tutor of mathematician John Wallis, is typical: There
is Theologia rationalia and experimentalis, as Gerson, or Theologia docens and utens. It is this

M. Luther, The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther, translated by B. Hoffman (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980),
14, cf. xvi. For possible inuences of Gerson on Luther, see S. Ozment, Homo Spiritualis: A Comparative Study of the
Anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson, and Martin Luther (1509-16) in the Context of their Theological
Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1969). On experience vs. speculation see B. Gerrish, Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology
of Luther (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 31.
M. Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke, 80 vols (Weimar, 1883), vol. 9, 98. See also O. Beyer, Martin Luther, in The
Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period, edited by C. Lindberg (Oxford:
Blackwell, 2001), 51-66 (53).
J. Calvin, Commentary on Zechariah 2:9 in Calvini Opera, in Corpus Reformatorum, edited by E. Baum (Braunschweig-Berlin, 1863-1900), vol. 44, 162; Commentary on Joel 3:17, Calvini Opera, vol. 42, 596. See also C. Partee, Calvin
and Classical Philosophy (Leiden: Brill, 1977), 29-41.
See note 3 above.

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later, viz. an exercised experimental Divinity, that maketh a Divine properly [].24 The proper
form of knowledge for the Divine, according to Burgess, was experimental knowledge. Most
authors relied upon a straightforward distinction between experimental and speculative knowledge and were often explicit about the deciencies of speculative knowledge. Speculative knowledge was barely conceived in the brain, wrote Puritan Divine William Perkins. It was a Head
knowledge, or an aery, empty, notionall, speculative knowledge, agreed Thomas Hall, who, like
Burgess (d. 1664), was an ejected clergyman. Confused and general was the verdict of John
Others stressed the connection between speculative philosophy and the derided implicit faith
promoted by the papists. Speculative philosophy was based on Authority from men for the
most part both against nature and experiment. Human reasoning, thus understood, was
nothing but agreement.26 A common analogy was that speculative knowledge was like the
knowledge of the mathematical cosmographer, while experimental knowledge was the knowledge of the traveler, who possessed a rst-hand familiarity with foreign lands.27 Bringing together
a number of these themes, the Church of England clergyman Francis Roberts thus contended that
experimental knowledge was the mode of knowledge of the regenerate, and that its superiority in
a number of different spheres was evident. Experimental knowledge, he wrote, entailed:
a spiritual and experimental sensiblenesse, feeling, and taste of the things of God in our own spirits.
This sense differs from Knowledge, thinks Zanchy [Jerome Zanchius], as the Knowledge of the
sense differs from that of the understanding. This is of generals and universals learned out of Scripture:
that of particulars learned by experience. Or as a Physicians Theoretick skill out of his Books, from his
experimental skill upon his patients. Or as a Schollers knowledge of far countreys, obtained by Maps
and Books, differs from a Travellers knowledge of them, who hath seen them with his own eyes.

Roberts thus points out how experimental knowledge, as a category, spans a number of different
elds religion, physick, and geography. He has much more to say about the virtues of experimental knowledge, but concludes with a dismissal of its alternative, speculative knowledge,
characterised as remote, general, confused, consisting in certain empty, comfortlesse, swimming
notions, arising from natural or articial abilities, not from spiritual experience.28


A. Burgess, A Treatise of Original Sin (London, 1658), 208; cf. 481. The distinction between logica docens and logica
utens is common amongst scholastic writers. See E. Stump, Topics: their development and absorption into consequences
in The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, edited by N. Kretzmann, A. Kenny and J. Pinburg (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1982), 273-99, 281, note 41. For Galileos use of the distinction, see W.A. Wallace, The
Inuence of Aristotles Logic on Galileo and its Use in his Science, in The Impact of Aristotelianism on Modern Philosophy, edited by R. Pozzo (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 64-83.
W. Perkins, A Declaration of Knowing the True Manner of Christ Crucied (London, 1615), 628; T. Hall, A practical
and polemical commentary, or, exposition upon the third and fourth chapters of the latter epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy
(London, 1658), 244; J. Downame, The Christian Warfare (London, 1636), 1116.
Anon, The worlds idol, Plutus a comedy (London, 1659), 43.
A. Dent, A Pastime for Parents contayning the most principall grounds of Christian Religion (London, 1606), sig.
[Cvii] recto; Cf. R. Baxter, A Treatise Of Knowledge And Love Compared [1689] (London, 1707), 558: The Pleasure of
the Speculative Divine in knowing, is but like the Pleasure of a Mathematician or other Speculator of Nature; yea below
that of the Moral Philosopher: It is but like my Pleasure in reading a Book of Travels or Geography; in comparison of the
True Practical Christians, and F. Rous, The Heavenly Academie (London, 1638), 68: the highest Schoole, and no other,
teacheth the Art of Experimentall Divinitie []. There is great oddes betweene an experienced, and a meerely-contemplative Captaine.
F. Roberts, A Communicant Instructed (London, 1659), 100.

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Similar arguments were advanced about the relative merits of studying the book of nature
versus the books of men. Speculative knowledge, according to Anthony Burgess, was from
Books only.29 Some knowledge, however such as awareness of our sinful condition could
be proven only historically or experimentally. It is the want of experimental discoveries that
makes thee question original sinne, Burgess informed those of his readers who may have cherished doubts about that particular doctrine, otherwise thy own heart would be in stead of all
books to thee in this particular.30 Do we learn of the misery of our condition from books, inquired
Petrus de Witte No. For that begetteth but a speculative and theoretical knowledge in the
understanding; but there must be an experimental knowledge by searching.31 Experimental
knowledge was thus not everyday experience, but was explicitly sought. This practical,
sought-after, religious knowledge, as Joanna Picciotto has recently argued, was a form of intellectual labour that paralleled, to some extent, the Baconian incursion of practical artisanal
labour into the theoretical realm of natural philosophy.32
Post-reformation debates about the predestination and the status of the knowledge of the elect
also made a signicant difference to the way in which the merits of experimental knowledge were
understood. The prolic writer of religious tracts, Richard Younge (. 1636-1673), observed that
natural and speculative knowledge, which the wicked share with the godly, is to be distinguished from experimental, and saving knowledge, which is supernatural, and descendeth
from above.33 Arthur Dent, author of the popular Plaine-mans pathway to heaven (1601)
the model for Douglas Adamss more recent Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy summarised
the merits of experimental knowledge, here associated with the knowledge of the elect, in
this way:
The knowledge of the reprobate doth puffe vp. The knowledge of the elect doth humble. The knowledge of the reprobate is generall and confused. The knowledge of the elect is particular and certaine.
The knowledge of the reprobates is onely literall: and historicall. The knowledge of the elect is spirituall, and experimentall. The knowledge of the reprobate is speculatiue []. The knowledge of the
reprobate is like ye knowledge which a mathematicall geographer hath of the earth and all places in
it, which is but a generall notion, and speculatiue comprehension of them. But the knowledge of the
elect is like the knowledge of a traueller which can speake of experience, and feling, and hath
bene there and sene and knowen the particulars.34

Direct witnessing and knowledge of particulars were thus among the hallmarks of experimental
Historical examples were also known as experiments, from which could be drawn important
religious and moral conclusions. The Calvinist and passionately anti-Catholic Archbishop of

Burgess, Original Sin, To the Christian Reader, sig. [A5] verso.

Burgess, Original Sin, 90, cf. 82f. See also A. Burgess, Spiritual Rening: or, A Treatise of Grace and Assurance
(London, 1652), 211; J. Everard, The Gospel Treasury Opened (London, 1657), To the Reader. See also Picciotto,
Labors of Innocence, 97.
P. de Witte, Catechizing Upon The Heidelberg Catechism (Amsterdam, 1664), 27.
Picciotto, Labors of Innocence, 4, 125,
R. Younge, No Wicked Man a Wise Man, True Wisdom described. The Excellency of Spiritual, Experimental and Saving
Knowledge, above all Humane Wisdom and Learning (London, 1666), 6; cf. R. Younge, An Experimental Index of the
Heart (London, 1658), passim. By natural knowledge, Younge means knowledge derived from reason or the light of
nature, which was held to have been dimmed by the Fall.
Dent, A Pastime for Parents, sig. [Cvi]verso-[Cvii] recto.


Canterbury, George Abbot (1562-1633), suggested that from a kind of experimental moral history
we could draw edifying conclusions about the undesirability of Catholicism:

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Then, in some parts of Christendome, how many men were there in all ages, who loathed both the See
of Rome, and the whole courses of it, as the Israelites did loath the Aegyptians bondage? Mathew Paris
alone giueth as many notable experiments that way, as relating the Acts of the Emperour Frederick,
who put out diuers declarations in detestation of the Pope; and adding elsewhere, further of his owne.35

In the same vein, the Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin (1600-1679), an associate of Samuel
Hartlib and John Dury, spoke of the necessity of a real and experimental knowledge of our
moral obligations. This was gained, Goodwin suggested, from examples of godly men whom
they have lived amongst, or the observations of Gods dealings with themselves or others, and
not only from the word notionally. The lives of the godly thus provided experimental histories
from which inductions could be drawn in order to arrive at broad moral principles. These
examples of well-lived lives, moreover, would both have more motivating force than speculative
ethical notions, and would lead to more certain moral principles. Knowledge got by experiments
of mercies or judgments, Goodwin concluded, is of more force and evidence.36 Goodwins
contentions are thus to be seen against the background of ongoing discussions about the relative
merits of history, poetry, and moral philosophy for inculcating moral values.37
Finally, there was a sense in which an experiment was a devised test or a trial. This use of
experiment was not restricted to the religious sphere, although it found prominent expression
there.38 The Puritan Divine William Ames thus described the experience of temptation as a
triall or experiment. When the devil tempts us, he makes an experiment what we are,
whether weake or strong, whether we be such as will yeild [sic] to him, or whether such as
will resist him valiantly.39 Such trials provide us with an experimental knowledge of our own
character. The Israelites were thus experimentally tested by God in the wilderness, wrote
Simon Birkbek, in order to:
prove them, and to know what was in their heart; that is, to try them, or make them knowne, not to
himselfe, who knew them well enough before (without any experimental trial of them) but to make
it known to themselves, and others, whether afictions or favors would worke them to obedience.40

Moreover, such experiments were not restricted to God and Satan. John Preston thus wrote of the
need for the religious community to test the authenticity of purported prophets by experiment and


G. Abbot, A Treatise of the Perpetuall Visibilitie, and Succession of the True Church in all Ages (London, 1624), 97f.
Matthew Paris (c.1200-1259) was an English chronicler and Benedictine monk whose anti-Papal rhetoric provided ammunition for English reformers.
T. Goodwin, Aggravation of Sin [1637], in The Works of Thomas Goodwin, D.D., 12 vols (Edinburgh, 1861-1866),
vol. 4, 183.
See, for example, P. Sidney, Defence of Poesy (London, 1595), sig. D3 recto, et passim.
John Brathwait, to take a single example of a general application, recommends that prior to nuptials, prospective brides
make true triall and experiment of the delity of their intended spouse. J. Brathwait, The English Gentlewoman (London,
1631), 136.
W. Ames, Conscience with the power and cases thereof (London, 1639), 49.
S. Birkbek, A Cordiall for a Heart-Qualme (London, 1647), 19f.
J. Preston, An elegant and lively description of spirituall life and death. (London, 1632), 103.



From this survey of some of the meanings of experiment and experimental in religious contexts, we can conclude that a number of the putative virtues of what will become known as experimental natural philosophy are pregured in the theological writings of the period. In the religious
literature, experimental knowledge relies upon trials and observations, it places a priority on rsthand witnessing, it is useful, it provides motivations for practical activities, it is explicitly sought
after rather than passively received, and, nally, it stands in contrast to knowledge that is merely
notional and speculative, or based on books and authorities. In the section that follows I will
allude to the way in which some of these features played out when applied in the sphere of
natural philosophy.

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Peter Anstey has recently argued, convincingly in my view, that the distinction between experimental natural philosophy and speculative natural philosophy is the fundamental dichotomy in
discussions of the methods of natural philosophy in England from the late 1650s into the early
decades of the eighteenth century.42 The custom of neatly distinguishing British Empiricists
from Continental Rationalists is a time-honoured one, and still informs history of philosophy
courses. However, its limitations are now too apparent to ignore. This traditional dichotomy
ignores the relevant actors categories, unduly privileges epistemology, and leads to distorted
stereotypes of key gures such as Descartes. While it is not possible to rehearse all of the arguments in favour of Ansteys alternative dichotomy, it is certainly one that is represented in the
contemporary literature and which does less violence to what seventeenth-century gures imagined themselves to be doing. Moreover, it is continuous with my own argument that a similar
and important distinction exists in the theological literature. Furthermore, since this dichotomy
was well established in religious writings, it is one likely source for the later distinction in
English discussions of competing conceptions of natural philosophy. Before making this case,
it is worth briey spelling out how this distinction was made in the sphere of natural philosophy.
In John Duntons Young Students Library, which appeared in 1692, the divisions of philosophy are explained in this way: PHILOSOPHY may be considerd under these two Heads,
Natural and Moral: The rst of which, by Reason of the strange Alterations that have been
made in it, may be again Subdivided into Speculative and Experimental. The former, he goes
on to say, was practiced by the ancients and was based on contemplation, whereas the latter,
which entails an indefatigable and laborious Search into Natural Experiments, is the Certain,
Sure Method to gather a true Body of Philosophy and conduces to benet the practical
life.43 John Sergeant, in his Method to Science (1696) similarly describes two standard
approaches to his topic: that of Speculative, and that of Experimental Philosophers; the
P. Anstey, Experimental versus Speculative Natural Philosophy, in The Science of Nature in the Seventeenth Century,
edited by P. Anstey and J. Schuster (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005), 215-42. See also S. Corneanu, Regimens of the Mind:
Boyle, Locke and the Cultura Animi Tradition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011), ch. 2.
J. Dunton, The Young-Students-Library. Containing Extracts and Abridgments of the Most Valuable Books printed in
England (London, 1692), vi. Dunton relied on the members of the Athenian Society to produce this work. The group
included Dunton, mathematics teacher John Sault, philosopher John Norris, and divine Samuel Wesley. This passage is
possibly the work of Norris, who applies a similar distinction in the moral sphere. J. Norris, A Collection of Miscellanies:
Consisting of Poems, Essays, Discourses and Letters, Occasionally Written (Oxford, 1687), 215, 224; J. Norris, Practical
discourses to which are added, Reections upon a late Essay concerning human understanding; with a reply to the
remarks made upon them by the Athenian Society (London, 1699), 25f. Pagination refers to the Reections.

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Former of which pretend to proceed by Reason and Principles; the Later by Induction; and both of
them aim at advancing Science.44
From the 1660s, experimental natural philosophy, thus understood, was increasingly associated
with the philosophy of the Royal Society, and contrasted with more speculative approaches,
Cartesianism in particular (despite Descartess own stated aim of providing a practical alternative
to the speculative philosophy of the schools).45 As Anstey has shown, the expression experimental philosophy appears as early as 1635 in Samuel Hartlibs Ephemerides, but it was not until the
middle of the century that the distinction between the two opposed approaches to philosophy
become common currency. From the 1660s, many major gures associated with the Royal
Society Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Henry Power, Thomas Sprat, Joseph Glanvill, and
Henry Oldenburg employ it and, more than that, use it with a view to vindicating the experimental approach.46
With respect to the relative merits of experimental philosophy, some still found a signicant
place for speculation. The utopian writer Samuel Gott, for example, proposed that speculative
philosophy and the mechanical arts needed each other.47 In the 1650s, when he was beginning
to work out the distinction between speculative and experimental natural philosophy, Robert
Boyle argued that experimental learning could enhance speculative philosophy.48 Margaret
Cavendish famously expressed a clear preference for the speculative philosophy: And if
reason be above sense, then Speculative Philosophy ought to be preferred before the Experimental, because there can no reason be given for any thing without it.49 Later in the century, John
Sergeant elaborated upon the purported deciencies of an experimental knowledge, which he
characterised as utterly Incompetent or Unable to beget Science, because it is meerly Historical,
and Narrative of Particular Observations; from which to deduce Universal Conclusions is against
plain Logick, and Common Sense.50 Both Cavendish and Sergeant had in mind a traditional conception of philosophy and science in which proper explanation was regarded as propter quid
rather than quia. While the idea of an experimental history made sense, the notion of an experimental philosophy seemed to traditionalists a contradiction in terms.
We are now conscious of the way in which the notion of a mathematical natural philosophy
was somewhat novel in the seventeenth century, because it involved a transgression of Aristotelian conception of the proper relations among the three speculative sciences.51 This was equally
true of the idea of an experimental philosophy. Critics were not slow to point this out. Sergeant


J. Sergeant, The Method to Science (London, 1696), sig. b3 recto.

R. Descartes, Discourse concerning the Method, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, edited by J. Cottingham,
R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), vol. 1, 142.
See Anstey, Experimental versus Speculative Natural Philosophy, 218f.
S. Gott, The Divine History of the Genesis of the World. Explicated & Illustrated (London, 1670), 11f.
Anstey, Experimental versus Speculative Natural Philosophy, 218.
M. Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy. To which is added The Description of a New Blazing
World (London, 1666), 79f.
Sergeant, Method to Science, sig. d1 recto.
Aristotle had argued that the three speculative sciences theology, mathematics, and natural philosophy dealt with
distinct subject matters, and that the methods of one science could not be applied to another. Posterior Analytics 75ab; Metaphysics 989b-990a, 1025b-1026a; On the Heavens 299a-299b. For the signicance of this division see
A. Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientic Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 35-7;
303-7; A. Cunningham, How the Principia got its Name: Or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously, History of
Science, 28 (1991), 377-92; Dear, Discipline and Experience, ch. 6.



thus regarded experimental philosophy as akin to philosophical enthusiasm.52 For their part,
advocates of experimental philosophy could concede that experimental natural philosophy was
not, strictly speaking, scientic. As John Locke expressed it,

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This way of getting and improving our knowledge in substances only by experience and history, which
is all that the weakness of our faculties in this state of mediocrity, which we are in this world, can attain
to; makes me suspect, that natural philosophy is not capable of being made a science.53

As should by now be apparent, part of my argument is that the widespread approbation of experimental religion helped make the subsequent case for the respectability of an experimental natural
Beyond this, there were several explicit parallels between experimental knowledge in the two
spheres. Experimental knowledge in both contexts was understood as useful knowledge, or
knowledge that yielded benecial outcomes. All knowledge must be measured by the use or
end, wrote Thomas Jackson in 1615, in his defense of experimental religious knowledge. He
[] our knowledge cannot be perfect, unless terminated to a right structure of affections in the heart,
answerable to the Idea, or model of truth in our brains; unless it bring forth readiness or promptitude in
every faculty to put such Precepts as require their service, in execution. Of these two parts of Christian
knowledge, the one in the head, the other in the heart: much better the former were defective, than the
latter. He that knows rightly to husband the ground he enjoys, what part is good for meadow, what for
pasture, what for corn, what for this kind of grain, what for that, how every parcel may be employed to
the best commodity of the owner, may be ignorant in surveying, or drawing a right platform of it, with
less loss, than he that could survey it most exactly, but hath no experimental skill at all in tillage, or
husbandry. Now [] our Savior tells us his Father is an husbandman, and is best gloried by such
fruits as we shall bring forth unto salvation, (the true end of Christian knowledge:)54

Francis Bacon had already drawn a similar connection between faith and works, or knowledge
and its fruits, in Redargutio philosophiarum (1608), arguing that the same principle of fruitfulness
applied to both religious and philosophical knowledge.55 While Bacon does not distinguish
experimental from speculative philosophy in those terms, he does contrast the way of experiment
with sophistical doctrines and conjecture.56 In his discussion of moral philosophy in The

M. Heyd, The New Experimental Philosophy: A Manifestation of Enthusiasm or an Antidote to it?, Minerva, 25:4
(1987), 423-40; A. Johns, The Physiology of Reading, in Books and the Sciences in History, edited by M. FrascaSpada and N. Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 291-314 (301). On Casaubons attitude to experimental philosophy see Richard Serjeantsons introduction to Meric Casaubon, Generall Learning: A Seventeenth-Century
Treatise on the Formation of the General Scholar, edited by R. Serjeantson (Cambridge: Renaissance Texts from Manuscripts Publications, 1999).
J. Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, IV.xii.10, edited by A.C. Fraser, 2 vols (New York: Dover Books,
1959), vol. 1, 349. Cf. Essay, IV.iii.29 (vol. 1, 222): But as to a perfect science of natural bodies (not to mention spiritual
beings) we are, I think, so far from being capable of any such thing, that I conclude it lost labour to seek after it. See also
Essay, (vol. 1, 64). In this context Locke means science in the Aristotelian sense of knowledge that is certain and
demonstrable. For Lockes views on the nature of natural philosophy see P. Anstey, Locke on method in natural philosophy, in The Philosophy of John Locke: New Perspectives, edited by P. Anstey (London: Routldge, 2003), 26-42.
T. Jackson, Justifying Faith [1615] (London, 1673), 658
F. Bacon, Redargutio philosophiarum, in Works, vol. 3, 576f.
Bacon, The English translation of Novum Organum, in Works, vol. 4, 65, 214.

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Advancement of Learning (1605), moreover, he had contended that the chief deciency of pagan
moral philosophy was its concentration upon theoretical discussions of virtue and duty, rather
than on the means of attaining them. This latter task he refers to as the Regimen or Culture of
the Mind, for which the experimental approach and cases of conscience of contemporary
divines offered, in his view, a much better model than the abstract theorising of the ancients.57
The cultivation of the mind, undertaken on this experimental/experiential basis, was more
likely to yield fruitful outcomes.
Later in the century, Presbyterian minister John Flavell was also to emphasise the importance
of linking religious faith with practical activity and the restoration of human dominion over
nature. He observed that while the chief and highest end of man was to glorify God and
enjoy him forever, his secondary end was prudently, soberly, and mercifully, to govern, use,
and dispose of other Creatures in the Earth, Sea, and Air, over which God gave Man Dominion.58
The purpose of natural philosophy, for the polemicist and schoolmaster John Webster, was not
only to know natures causes and powers, but to make use of them for the general good and
benet of mankind, especially for the conservation and restauration of the health of man, and
of those creatures that are usefull for him.59 A number of Puritan writers, particularly during
the Interregnum, drew parallels between the qualities of spiritual experience and scientic experiment linking, for example the medical traditional of experimenta with the religious. As Charles
Webster has argued, Puritan authors followed Paracelsus in regarding the sound empirical practices of the manual arts as an actual equivalent to spiritual experience or experiment. Accordingly they saw a denite relationship between experimental science and religious experience.60
The way of experiment thus offered a unitary approach to both a charitable earthly vocation and
a disciplined inner spiritual life.

It might be objected that, while the respective vocabularies of experimental religion and experimental natural philosophy, outlined in detail above, show interesting and suggestive parallels,
there is little evidence of the direct and explicit appropriation of the religious terminology by advocates of the new experimental philosophy. Indeed, as I noted at the outset, some commentators, in
earlier discussions of the merits of the Puritanism and science thesis, dismissed attempts to draw
connections between these two spheres that were based on putative parallels between two senses of
experimental. Leo F. Solt, for example, suggested that comparisons between puritan experience
and natural philosophical experiment were mere wordplay, premised upon a confusion between
two entirely different kinds of activity.61 Richard Greaves argued similarly that religious
Bacon, Advancement of Learning, in Works, vol. 4, 319; De Augmentis, in Works, vol. 5, 6.
The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 1; J. Flavel, An Exposition of the Assemblys Shorter Catechism (London,
J. Webster, Academiarum Examen, or the Examination of Academies (London, 1654), 19.
C. Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform 1626-1660 (London: Duckworth, 1975), 284. For
examples, see Webster, Academiarum Examen, 92; S. Hartlib, An Essay for Advancement of Husbandry-Learning
(London, 1651), To the Reader. Karen Edwards has similarly pointed to the complementary nature of John Miltons experimental reading of scripture and his experimental reading of the book of nature. K. Edwards, Milton and the Natural World:
Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 47f., 64-82. See also C. Hill, The
Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1961), 108; Picciotto, Labors of Innocence, 431f.
Solt, Puritanism, Capitalism, Democracy, 25.

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phenomena are not signicantly analogous to scientic knowledge, insofar as religious experiences cannot ordinarily be examined under rigidly controlled conditions subsequently reproducible almost at will. Greaves also pointed out that a conscious awareness on the part of Puritans and/
or scientists that such a parallel in methodology existed has never been established.62
By way of an initial response, it should be pointed out that these earlier objections did not take
cognisance of the extent of the use of experimental in religious contexts, nor were they informed
by any signicant analysis of the more obvious parallels between the two kinds of discourse, religious and natural philosophical, of the kind set out above. Moreover, the rather narrow conception
of experiment appealed to here is, in some respects, rather anachronistic. While the repeatable
controlled experiment is now associated in the popular mind with modern experimental science,
in the seventeenth century, as we have seen, experiment had much broader connotations, even
when deployed within the sphere of the natural sciences. It is also worth bearing in mind that
while the expression experimental science was not unknown in the seventeenth century, by
far the more common expressions were natural and experimental histories and experimental
natural philosophy. The former natural and experimental histories were records of individual
experiences and observations of various kinds, originally recommended by Francis Bacon as the
rst stage of the study of nature, and subsequently adopted by the Royal Society as one of its
investigative methods. These experimental histories have much more in common with reports
of religious experiences than do the practices of twenty-rst-century laboratory science. They
could, for example, call for the use of imagination and analogy to gain knowledge of invisible
realities as Bacon himself put it when things not directly perceptible are brought within
the reach of sense, not by perceptible operations of the imperceptible body itself, but by observations of some cognate body which is perceptible.63 The relevance of the latter expression
experimental natural philosophy is simply this: that as a philosophical enterprise, experimental
natural philosophy still aimed, to some extent, at the kind of moral formation that was integral to
the classical philosophical vision. Again, a philosophical enterprise thus understood is signicantly more akin to religious activity than science, as we presently conceive it.
Before spelling out in more detail the signicance of these categories, and considering the question of whether the objects of experiment are in any sense analogous, it is worth making one brief
additional point about the wordplay objection. This relates to the fact that there are other terms, in
addition to experimental, which were taken across from the religious sphere into the natural philosophical. Perhaps the best example in this context is the term real, which frequently appears in
the combination real and experimental. We have already seen how Goodwin spoke of a real and
experimental knowledge of our moral obligations. The real in this case is contrasted with the
merely verbal and notional.64 Goodwins use of the conjunction is not an isolated case, and this
particular combination is relatively common in the religious literature.65 Signicantly, when

Greaves, Puritanism and Science, 354f. See also Morgan, Godly Learning, 58-61.
Bacon, English Translation of the Novum Organum, in Works, vol. 4, 203.
John Wilkins, for example, distinguishes a notional and geometrical contrivance in astronomy, from that which is real
and experimental. J. Wilkins, Mathematicall Magick (London, 1648), 142. For an account of some of the meanings of
test, proof, experience, experiment and real in the theological context, see W. Gouge, A Learned and very
useful Commentary on the Whole Epistle to the Hebrewes (London, 1655), 333-5. The real sciences of the medieval
quadrivium (music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic) had traditionally been contrasted with the verbal sciences of the
trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric).
For examples see W. Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbole or Creed (London, 1595), 300; E. Reynolds, Three Treatises of the Vanity of the Creature (London, 1631), 52; J. Preston, An Elegant and Lively Description of Spirituall Life and

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experimental is combined with natural philosophy, as it was increasingly from the 1640s
onwards, the descriptor real is often carried over with it. Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Joseph
Glanvill, John Ray, and others commonly use real and experimental as an expression for describing what is distinctive about the natural philosophy practiced by the Royal Society.66 What the
deployment of the phrase real and experimental in both contexts suggests is that we are not
dealing here with mere wordplay that relies on quite different understandings of experiment,
but rather with common conception of a particular kind of knowledge.
Turning to the question of whether the objects of knowledge in the two cases are radically
different, it might be said that, counterintuitive though it might seem, the existence of God and
of other spiritual realities were then regarded by some as precisely the kinds of things that
could be supported by an appeal to experiment. One way of seeing the force of this is to consider
Joseph Glanvills attempt to marshal empirical evidence in favour of the existence of witches and
evil spirits, which he insisted was a matter of Fact, [and] only capable of the evidence of authority and sense. Notoriously, for Glanvill, the existence of witches and diabolical contracts was
not a matter of mere private experience, but of public record, abundantly conrmed by histories
and the testimony of all ages.67 Glanvill rmly believed that this issue concerned the truth and
certainty of Matters which you know by Experiments that could not deceive.68 These experiences
then concerned matters of fact that could be recorded and accumulated. (The Quaker writer,
Robert Barclay, was to go as far as to argue that God reveals matters of fact to men.69) This
procedure was consistent with Francis Bacons recommendation that the preternatural be included
in the observational histories. In the case of Glanvills proofs of the existence of a spiritual
world, a cumulative account of non-repeatable, rst-hand experiences amounts to a natural and
experimental history. It is in keeping with this idea of an experimental history that John
Wesley, in the eighteenth century, sought to catalogue the religious experiences of various
individuals from different times and places, with a view to establishing the principles of an experimental religion that transcended the personal experiences of the single individual.70
A related perspective is offered by Robert Boyle, who argued that the experimental frame of
mind predisposed the individual to credit well-attested miracles which, again, concerned putative
matters of fact (albeit ones that were non-repeatable): Experimental Philosophy does also
Dispose the Minds of its Cultivaters to receive due Impressions from such Proofs, as Miracles

Death (London, 1632), 114; Burgess, Spiritual Rening, 8f.; R. Barclay, An Apology For the True Christian Divinity
(London, 1678), 120, 147.
See, for example, R. Hooke, Micrographia; or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying
Glasses (London, 1665), Preface; R. Hooke, An attempt to prove the Motion of the Earth from Observations made by
Robert Hooke, Fellow of the Royal Society (London, 1674), dedicatory epistle to Sir John Cutler, sig. A2 recto;
R. Boyle, Certain Physiological Essays, in The Works of Robert Boyle, edited by M. Hunter and E.B. Davis, 12 vols
(London: Chatto and Pickering, 1999-2000), vol. 2, 15; J. Glanvill, Essays on Several Important Subjects in Philosophy
and Religion (London, 1676), Essay 3, 53; J. Glanvill, Philosophia pia; or, A Discourse of the Religious Temper, and
Tendencies of the Experimental Philosophy (London, 1671), 71; R. Bohun, A Discourse concerning the Origine and Properties of Wind (Oxford, 1671), 222; J. Ray, The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation (London, 1691), 125.
For an early use of the combination as applied to learning, see W. Petty, The advice of W.P. to Mr. Samuel Hartlib for The
Advancement of some particular Parts of Learning, (London, 1647), 3.
J. Glanvill, Some Philosophical Considerations Touching the Being of Witches and Witchcraft (London, 1667), 4.
Glanvill, Philosophical Considerations, 1f.
R. Barclay, The Possibility and Necessity of the Inward Immediate Revelation of the Spirit of God (London, 1686), 2-6.
J. Wesley, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, edited by J. Telford, 8 vols (London: Epworth, 1931),vol. 8, 295: The
Letters and the Lives [to be published in The Arminian] contain the marrow of practical and experimental religion.

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do, as well as other Topicks, afford the Christian Religion.71 There is, therefore, a direct analogy
between these experimental ways of knowing: Some Theological things are capable of proofs,
analogous to experiments in Philosophy.72 (Miracles are usually taken, by denition, to be
non-repeatable.) Indeed, at times, this analogy becomes a virtual identity. When Boyle claims
that experimental knowledge of Gods wisdom and other attributes discoverable in his visible
works, is a great help to rational piety and devotion,73 it is not altogether clear whether he
simply means the generic experiential knowledge of Gods wisdom, consistent with the standard vocabulary of experimental religion, or something more specic, along the lines of knowledge of Gods wisdom gained through experimental natural philosophy. Perhaps Boyles
position is that experimental natural philosophy might be thought of as a specic instance of a
more generic experimental religion hence his suggestion that discovering the perfections of
God in the anatomy of creatures constitutes reasonable worship of God.74
Following the Restoration, we encounter even more explicit connections between religious and
natural philosophical senses of experiment, along with an insistence that the latter, no less than
the former, promoted moral edication. To a degree, this emphasis parallels the continuity
between the Puritan emphasis on useful knowledge and the priority that Restoration Anglicanism
was subsequently to give to practical divinity.75 In his History of the Royal Society (1667),
Thomas Sprat linked the moral self-scrutiny associated with experimental religion to the experimental philosophy:
The spiritual Repentance is a careful survay of our former Errors, and a resolution of amendment. The
spiritual Humility is an observation of our Defects, and a lowly sense of our own weakness. And the
Experimenter for his part must have some Qualities that answer to these: He must judge aright of
himself; he must misdoubt the best of his own thoughts; he must be sensible of his own ignorance,
if ever he will attempt to purge and renew his Reason.

Again, this spiritual humility is consistent with experimental, but not speculative, natural philosophy: the doubtful, the scrupulous, the diligent Observer of Nature, is neerer to make a modest, a
severe, a meek, an humble Christian, than the man of Speculative Science, who has better
thoughts of himself and his own Knowledge.76
Sprat goes so far as to contend that God himself, incarnate in Christ, performed miracles to
provide experimental evidence of the truth of the Christian faith. Christs miracles are thus
described, in a passage that is rather puzzling on a rst reading, as Divine Experiments.
What Sprat seems to have in mind here is the idea that the miracles of the New Testament are
akin to the experimentum crucis or instantia crucis; experiments specically designed to adjudicate between competing hypotheses.77 In full, the relevant passage reads:

R. Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, part 1, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, 322.
Boyle Papers, vol. 1, 65, cit. Boyle on Atheism, edited by J.J. Macintosh (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005),
R. Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, part II, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 12, 432.
R. Boyle, The Usefulness of Natural Philosophy, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 3, 279; cf. Of the High Veneration Mans Intellect owes to God, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 10, 195.
For the differences and similarities between Puritans and Anglicans on this issue see Corneanu, Regimens of the Mind,
ch. 2; Morgan, Godly Learning, 71.
T. Sprat, History of the Royal Society (London, 1667), 367; cf. 103.
For these different conceptions of experiment see Dear, Discipline and Experience, 21-5.


Had not the appearance of Christ bin strengthend by undeniable signs of almighty Power, no age nor
place had bin obligd to believe his Message. And these Miracles with which he asserted the Truths that
he taught (if I might be allowd this boldness in a matter so sacred) I would even venture to call Divine
Experiments of his Godhead.78

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As the context of this passage makes clear, in this instance what has to be decided is whether the
message of Jesus was of divine origin or not. The miracles are experimental trials, the outcome of
which establishes the divine mission of Christ. Moreover, these were observed and recorded not
by men of Craft or Speculation; but rather by men of Honesty, Trades, and Business.79 The
gospel records were thus histories, based upon reliable testimonies, and from which appropriate
conclusions could be drawn. It is clear in all of this that Sprat explicitly relies on the religious
vocabulary of the time to argue the respectability of the Royal Societys experimental approach.
As John Morgan has pointed out:
In order to help incorporate the societys practices (as represented) into a pre-existing cultural consciousness, Sprat in effect recalibrated the terms experimental and witnessing from an individualistic Christian experience to a formal methodological tool for assessing and assimilating single
experiences, involving rules and order.80

What made such a recalibration possible was the existing afnity between the respective understandings of experiment.
Other fellows of the early Royal Society had come to similar conclusions. Joseph Glanvill
observed that real and experimental philosophy promotes virtue and happiness in a way that
speculative philosophy does not. Both the reformation of religion and the reformation of
natural philosophy, he insisted, had been accomplished when notional and speculative knowledge
was replaced by experimental knowledge: Thus the Experimental Learning recties the grand
abuse which the Notional Knowledge so long fosterd and promoted, to the hinderance of
Science, the disturbance of the World, and the prejudice of the Christian Faith.81 Also relevant
here is Robert Boyles conviction, set out most explicitly in The Christian Virtuoso, that a commitment to experimental knowledge (in the broadest sense) makes the mind more receptive to
both scientic and religious truths:
He that is addicted to Knowledge Experimental, is accustomd both to Persue, Esteem, and Relish
many Truths, that do not delight his Senses, or gratie his Passions, or his Interests, but only entertain
his Understanding with that Manly and Spiritual Satisfaction, that is naturally afforded it by the attainment of Clear and Noble Truths.82

It follows for Boyle that experimental Philosophy may greatly Assist a well-disposd Mind, to
yield an Hearty and Operative Assent to the Principles of Religion. A man possessed of such
a well-disposd mind, he points out, is inclind to make pious applications of the Truths he


Sprat, History of the Royal Society, 352.

Sprat, History of the Royal Society, 352.
J. Morgan, Sprat, Thomas (bap. 1635, d. 1713), in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press,
Sept 2004; online edition, Jan 2008 [, accessed 15 Dec 2009]
J. Glanvill, Plus Ultra: or, The Progress and Advancement of Knowledge Since the Days of Aristotle (London, 1668),
148f. See also Glanvill, Essays on Several Important Subjects, 25 and Glanvill, Philosophia pia, 71. Dunton also spoke
about the usefulness of experimental knowledge both in the private Government of mens Minds and of its Advantages in
respect of their publick Practices. See Dunton, Young-Students-Library, vii.
Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, part 1, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, 304.



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discovers.83 The point is not simply that the way of experiment will yield data that provide
factual premises for a natural theology although Boyle does believe this to be the case but
also that experimental practices have formative effects that promote both true religion and
sound science, each of which has practical outcomes. Natural and experimental histories,
broadly construed, were thus given a central place in the regimen or cultivation of the mind,
thought necessary for both true Christian religion and fruitful natural philosophy.84
Finally, it is signicant that a number of advocates of the experimental approach point out that
experimental knowledge best suits our present condition or our present state. The conviction of
the fallen condition of the human race, and its consequent cognitive limitations, provided a
common anthropological foundation for experimental knowledge generally.85 The Quaker
writer Isaac Penington expresses the issue this way:
Again, there is a speculative knowledg, and an Experimental knowledg: a knowledg by understanding,
and a knowledg by experience: a knowledg by viewing the thing, and a knowledg by trying the thing.
This experimental knowledg is the better kind of knowledg in this uncertain state wherein we are, but
the other is the better in its own nature.86

Thus, while speculative knowledge (which is to say, certain and demonstrative knowledge) is
more perfect knowledge in itself, it is not a knowledge of which human beings are capable in
their present fallen condition. Locke made the same point when he suggested that experimental
knowledge better suits the weakness of our faculties in this state of mediocrity.87 There is a
nice irony in the fact that Hume will repeat this justication for knowledge based on experience,
noting that it better suits limited human beings: speculative or scientic knowledge, he wrote,
suits less the imperfection of human nature and is a common source of illusion.88

What I hope to have shown in this paper is that there are signicant parallels between ideas of
experimental religion and experimental natural philosophy in seventeenth-century England.
This is not to deny that there were other important factors that inuenced the adoption of a vocabulary of experimental natural philosophy, such as the medical traditions alluded to earlier in the
paper.89 Neither is it the case that experimental means precisely the same thing in religious and
Boyle, The Christian Virtuoso, part 1, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 11, 327, 291.
For experimental natural philosophy as a medicine of the mind see D. Jalobeanu, Experimental philosophers and
doctors of the mind: the appropriation of a philosophical tradition in Nature et surnaturel: Philosphies de la nature et
Mtaphysique aux XVIe-XVIIIe sicles, edited by V. Alexandrescu and R. Theis (Hildesheim: Olms, 2010).
On this theme see P. Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2007).
I. Penington, Divine Essays or Considerations about Several Things in Religion (London, 1654), 2. Penington goes on
to say that speculative knowledg alone without practise, without trial, without experience, is not altogether so safe in this
state of man. (Divine Essays, 3)
Locke, Essay, IV.xii.10, vol. 1, 349. See also, Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, 251f, et
D. Hume, An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals, edited by L.A. Selby-Bigge, third edition, revised by P. H. Nidditch
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 174.
It might be argued that the legal background is signicant, too. See R. Sargent, Scientic Experiment and Legal Expertise: The Way of Experience in Seventeenth-Century England, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 20:1 (1989),

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natural philosophical contexts. But, insofar as there is a common vocabulary relating to experimental religion that was both more extensive than, and preceded, discourse about experimental
natural philosophy, it seems reasonable to conclude that this religious discourse had some inuence on the latter.
This analysis also offers another perspective on the question of what the expression experimental natural philosophy meant in the seventeenth century. While it is natural enough to think
primarily, in this connection, of experimental practices in the sense of the conducting of what
we would regard as particular experiments the various usages set out in this paper suggest
that experimental natural philosophy involves a more general commitment to certain kinds of
personal knowledge, and an advocacy of useful or practical outcomes. Historians of science are
now accustomed to the nuances of the term natural philosophy.90 It is also important to attend
to some of the connotations of that crucial qualication, experimental.
It would be remiss not to offer a very brief comment on how the considerations set out in this
paper bear on the puritanism and science thesis proposed by R.K. Merton, Charles Webster, and
others. The claim that a puritan emphasis on personal experience might have had a positive impact
on the development of experimental science in seventeenth-century science has been much discussed.91 It has also been argued in this context that the methods of puritan experimental religion
differ so signicantly from those of experimental natural philosophy that any direct and positive
inuence of the former on the latter is highly unlikely. My argument in this paper is that experimental religion is not restricted to Puritan authors, but was shared more broadly by those who
rejected the speculative approach. Moreover, experimental religion was not grounded in experiences that were merely subjective and incapable, in principle, of corroboration. Rather, such
experiences were shaped by devotional traditions, most obviously, but not solely, exemplied
in formal spiritual exercises.92 These regimens were designed to bring discipline to devotional
practice and guarantee that religious experiences converged upon a common object.
Following on from the previous point, this paper has pointed to a degree of afnity between the
cognitive standards of theology and natural philosophy during this period. Not only did the vocabulary of experimental religion have an inuence on developing ideas of experimental natural
philosophy, but from the seventeenth century onwards, experimental religion itself began to
undergo a subtle transformation. For medieval thinkers, experimental knowledge had been an
almost mystical experience of God, and for the most part restricted to those exceptional individuals capable of devoting themselves fully to the contemplative life. In this earlier context, the
usefulness of experimental knowledge was understood primarily in terms of personal edication. While this emphasis persists in the early modern literature to some extent in authors
who make explicit reference to such medieval writers as Jean Gerson, for example the seventeenth century witnesses an important shift in understanding of the usefulness of experimental

19-45; B. Shapiro, Testimony in Seventeenth-Century English Natural Philosophy: legal origins and early development,
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 33:2 (2002), 243-63.
See, for example, A. Cunningham, Getting the Game Right: Some Plain Words on the Identity and Invention of
Science, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part A, 19:3 (1988), 365-89. But cf. P. Dear, Religion,
Science, and Natural Philosophy: Thoughts on Cunninghams Thesis, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science,
Part A, 32:2 (2001), 377-86; J. Heilbron, Natural Philosophy, in Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science,
edited by P. Harrison, R. Numbers and M. Shank (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Greaves, Puritanism and Science, 354; John Morgan, Godly Learning, 60f.
On the connection between scientic methods and spiritual exercises see M.L. Jones, The Good Life in the Scientic
Revolution (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), especially ch. 1.

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knowledge in the spheres of both religion and philosophy. In the Protestant context, these are
linked to Calvinist notions of the inherent worth of the earthly vocation and the idea of signs
of election: experimental knowledge, as we have seen, was regarded as knowledge characteristic
of the elect. For their part, Jesuit spiritual directors sought, similarly, to ensure that interior contemplation had a counterpart in external works that promoted the more worldly projects of the
mission of the Society of Jesus.
Related to these developments was the fact that both Catholic and Protestant reformers sought
to extend the requirement of personal piety and direct religious experience from the clergy to the
whole of the laity.93 This Christianization of Europe, as Jean Delumeau calls it, peaked in 1700,
and it brought in its wake a pressing need to channel and control the religious experience now so
successfully enjoined upon all. A specic instance can be seen in the Jesuit attempts to discipline
potentially excessive experimental religion through an emphasis on the exercise of rational
control in the practice of spiritual exercises.94 The popular spiritual exercises of Ignatius of
Loyola represent, to some extent, a religious counterpart of contrived or sought-after experience
of experimental natural philosophy, while the purgative elements of the exercises call to mind the
regimen of self-examination that Sprat demanded of the natural philosopher. By the same token,
the cautious attitude of Jesuit authorities suggests an acute awareness of the potential dangers of
religious experience untrammeled by some form of corporate control. Even carefully regulated
experience could thus attract the derogatory label enthusiasm an expression initially deployed
in the religious context for potentially destabilizing and antinomian experience, but quickly
extended to the sphere of natural philosophy. In sum, experimental knowledge in the realms of
religion and natural philosophy was widely recognized as requiring institutional and methodological control in order for it to yield benecial knowledge.
The changing meanings of experimental religion might also be attributed to the growing prestige of experimental natural philosophy, and to the beginnings of a reversal of the direction of
inuence. Already Robert Boyle implies in places that it is the experimental philosophy that provides the model for a genuinely experimental religion, rather than the converse.95 So, too, while
eighteenth-century theological writers such as John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards note the convergence of approaches, to some extent they seem also to imply that the experimental approach in
religion now draws its legitimacy from the sphere of natural philosophy. Edwardss references to
experimental natural philosophy I noted at the outset. Wesley, as we have also seen, sought to
construct a kind of inductively grounded experimental religion by gathering histories of personal
religious experiences. This would serve as a check against enthusiasm.96 Not surprisingly,
Wesley also praised Bacon for his championing of the inductive method, and to some extent


See, for example, J. Delumeau, Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter-Reformation,
translated by J. Moiser (London: Burns and Oats, 1979); J. Delumeau, Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western
Guilt Culture, Thirteenth-Eighteenth Centuries, translated by E. Nicholson (New York: St Martins Press, 1990). On
the common element of discipline in these approaches see Picciotto, Labors of Innocence, 22.
M. de Certeau, Crise sociale et rformisme spirituel au dbut du XVIIe sicle: Une Novelle Spiritualit chez Jsuites
franaise, Revue dasctique et de mystique, 41 (1965), 388-86.
This is the beginning of a process described by Stephen Gaukroger, in which, from the seventeenth century onwards,
science gradually becomes the model for all cognitive activity in the West. See S. Gaukroger, The Emergence of a Scientic Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1210-1685 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1, et passim.
See Wesleys remarks quoted in A History of The Methodist Church in Great Britain, edited by R. Davies, A. R. George
and G. Rupp, 4 vols (London: Epworth Press, 1965-1988), vol. 4, 194.



saw himself as its beneciary. This appropriation of the authority of natural philosophy is even
more conspicuous in later nineteenth-century comparisons of the methods of theology and natural
philosophy, although the terminology has shifted away from experiment towards induction.
Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, to take a single example, declared in his Systematic Theology (1871-3) that the inductive method in theology agrees in everything essential with the inductive method as applied to the natural sciences. The theologian, he insisted, must be guided by the
same rules in the collection of facts, as govern the man of science. Hodge even draws the comparison between the speculative method and the inductive, and contended that former is suitable
for neither science nor theology.98 In the next phase of their relations, from the end of the nineteenth century, the cognitive standards of science came to be regarded either as too stringent for
religious knowledge claims to bear, or as entirely inappropriate for application in the religious
sphere. As we have seen, the situation was rather different in early modern England, which witnessed a remarkable and positive convergence of the values and epistemic standards of religion
and natural philosophy.
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Harris Manchester College, Oxford

Wesley, On the Gradual Improvement of Natural Philosophy, (1784) 6, in The Works of John Wesley, edited by
T. Jackson, third edition, 14 vols (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; reprinted Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 1958-9), vol. 13, 483. Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, 4 vols (London, 1827) vol. 2, 288, 443. For
Wesleys own understanding of his inductive method see D. Thorsen, Theological Method in John Wesley, Drew University Ph.D. thesis, 1988, 158ff.
C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1940), vol. 1, 9, 11, 14f.