Today on Project Gutenberg #2

And we’re back! Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Curiosities of Heat by Lyman Beecher Tefft

This is a strange book. You might assume from the title that it’s a purely scientific text, as I did. And eventually it does get there, giving us at the various properties and behaviors of heat. You’ve got heat as the motion of atoms, the processes by which it’s transferred, sources of heat in nature, etc. It’s pretty dry stuff, and I’m not sure how accurate it actually is, having been published in 1871. But that’s not what makes this book interesting. What makes this book interesting is how it’s a scientific text with a framing device.

This is the story of Mr. Wilton, a kindly old reverend and our author stand-in, and Mr. Hume, who is referred to as an “infidel.” He is proof that the archetype of the strawman atheist is hardly a recent literary invention.

He [Mr. Hume] kept aloof because he hated the Bible. He had been instructed in the Scriptures when a boy, and many Bible truths still clung to his memory which he would have been glad to banish. He could not forget those stirring words which have come down to us from the Lord Jesus, and from prophets and apostles, and they sorely troubled his conscience. He counted the Bible an enemy, and determined that he would not believe it.

Page 8

So these two have something of a friendly rivalry going on. When three of the young boys in Mr. Wilton’s congregation take an interest in Mr. Hume’s belief that “Nature reveals no God but her own laws” (page 16), Mr. Wilton decides to re-purpose his Sunday school class for a bit and address this issue directly. His goal isn’t necessarily to prove the existence of God: instead he wants to prove that a belief in God is compatible with the study of science. He approaches the topic of heat with the idea that we can see God’s plan and wisdom in the intricate workings of the natural world.

“Let me remind you that these agencies of heat are of God’s devising. If the operations of heat are beneficent to man, it is because God wished to bless his creatures. I am not much given to moralizing, but when I see how completely these simple effects of heat meet man’s wants, I cannot help remembering and admiring the wisdom of the great Designer. It is God and not blind, unconscious Nature that is working.”

“This reminds me,” said Samuel, “of the tradition in Greek mythology that Prometheus stole fire from Jupiter and brought it down to man in a reed as a precious treasure. It seems to me like a gift from heaven.”

“This mythological tradition has, however, one falsehood: there was no need that men should steal fire from the gods; God freely gave it. Heat is indeed a gift from heaven.”

Page 99

Mr. Hume himself decides to get in on the fun after a while, and a lively debate ensues that pulls the three young observers back and forth between science and the church. It all ends as you would expect, with repentance from the unbelievers and baptisms for everyone. But the way the story gets there is surprisingly unconventional. Wrapped up in the science class are some nice, positive messages: that faith in religion and interest in science can coexist, that it’s okay to ask questions and have doubts as you form your own religious views, and that studying the natural world can help bring you a bit closer to God.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg. See you later!

— Dana

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