I recently read the modern biography of James Clerk Maxwell, by Basil Mahon. He entitled it "The man who changed everything" and showed that this great man who only lived until he was 48 (1831-1879) should be ranked among the truly great men of science in history.
Unfortunately, the author did not bring out the true spring of his greatness: the fact that he was a sincere follower of Jesus Christ. I guess not being a believer, Mahon could not understand this, the largest, part of Maxwell's life.
So I turned to a biography far closer to Maxwell's own era and filled with his letters - and it is these letters that reveal his sincere and earnest trust in God.
We do not know if his parents were believers, since so many folk in that era were church goers by habit rather than conviction.
However, his mother guided his curiosity when he was a lad with these words, "look up through nature to nature's God." In other words, look beyond nature to the God who created all this wonder and beauty. (The cardinal error of modern day scientists is that they stop at nature rather than going beyond it and behind it to the one who designed it all.)
This exhortation from his mother certainly marked his approach to the wonderful world God has created. He also read and studied the Bible, and one person said of him, "His knowledge of Scripture, from his earliest boyhood was extraordinarily extensive and minute; and he could give chapter and verse for almost any quotation from the psalms."
Maxwell joined together magnetism and electricity with his famous Maxwell equations. This is what he is mainly known for in the science world, but in heaven it will be his walk with the Lord that mattered most.
Although his family were Anglican, he came into contact with evangelical Christians and churches, which no doubt shaped his beliefs. And he read John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, two evangelical pastors, and he spent Sunday afternoons reading Christian books.
You get the impression that his walk with God grew over the years.
His relationship with his wife
One of the signs of a godly man is his spiritual care for his wife. James cared for Katharine, whom he married in 1858, and to whom he wrote the most wonderful letters. Here are some excerpts, which reveal his spiritual conversation with her and his deep care for her spiritual wellbeing.
“Now let us read 2 Cor 12 about the organisation of the church….”
“May the Lord preserve you from all evil, and cause all the evil that assaults you to work out his own purposes, that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in you and may you see the eternal weight of glory behind the momentary lightness of affliction, and so get your eyes off things seen and temporal and be refreshed with the things eternal!”
“Think what God has determined to do to all those who submit to his righteousness and are willing to receive his gift. They are to be conformed to the image of his Son and when that is fulfilled, and God sees that they are conformed to the image of Christ there can be no more condemnation…”
After hearing a sermon one day he wrote to her about it: “The sermon was the text writ large, nothing ingenious or amusing, and hardly any attempt at instruction, but plain and very serious exhortation from a man who evidently believes neither more nor less than what he says.”
“I can always have you with me in my mind – why should we not have our Lord always before us in our minds, for we have his life and character and mind far more clearly described than we can know any one here? If we had seen him in the flesh we should not have known him any better, perhaps not so well. Pray to Him for a constant sight of him, for he is Man that we may be able to look to him, and God, so that he can create us anew in his own image.”
“There is a Mr Offord in this street, a Baptist, who knows his Bible and preaches as near it as he can and does what he can to let the statements in the Bible be understood by his hearers. We generally go to him when in London, though we believe ourselves baptised already.”
“I am always with you in spirit, but there is One who is nearer to you and to me than we can ever be to each other and it is only through him and in him that we can really get to know each other. Let us try to realise the great mystery in Ephesians 5 and we shall be in our right position with respect to the world outside, the men and women whom Christ came to save from their sins.”
He was given the task and honour of designing the new Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge university and had Psalm 111:2 inscribed on its wooden doors: "Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them."
|Doors of Cavendish Physics Laboratory, Cambridge University|
His view of Science
Maxwell wanted to glorify God through his scientific labours and he wrote this:
“I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of. But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society. For it is the nature of science, especially of those branches of science which are spreading into the unknown regions to be continually changing."
His death and legacy
What truly marks out a Christian is how he dies. All the reports tell of a man who knew where he was going and who died in peace, trusting in Christ Jesus:
“His illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man; his firm and undoubting faith in the incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficing of the Atonement; in the work of the Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying – ‘unworkable’ was his own word about them and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour”
Everyone said of him that his faith was simple and uncomplicated. Although God had given him a great mind, his faith was not complicated but simple and earnest.
These are the sorts of men who were behind modern science, something forgotten by many today.