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Bridgewater Treatises

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These publications derive their origin and their title from the Rev. Francis Henry Egerton, eighth and last Earl of Bridgewater who, dying in the year 1829, directed certain trustees named in his will to invest in the public funds the sum of £8,000, which sum with the accruing dividends was to be held at the disposal of the president for the time being, of the Royal Society of London to be paid to the person or persons nominated by him. It was further directed that those so selected should be appointed to write, print, and publish one thousand copies of a work: "On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation illustrating such work by all reasonable arguments as, for instance, the variety and formation of God's creatures, in the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms; the effect of digestion and thereby of conversion; the construction of the hand of man and an infinite variety of other arguments; as also by discoveries ancient and modern in arts, sciences, and the whole extent of modern literature".

The President of the Royal Society was then Davies Gilbert, who with the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and a nobleman who had been intimate with the testator determined that the money should be assigned to eight several persons for as many distinct treatises. The works produced in consequence were the following: (1) "The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man", by Thomas Chalmers (1833); (2) "Chemistry, Meteorology, and Digestion", by William Prout, M.D. (1834); (3) "History, Habits, and Instincts of Animals", by William Kirby (1835); (4) "The Hand, as Evincing Design", by Sir Charles Bell (1837); (5) "Geology and Mineralogy", by Dean Buckland (1837); (6) "The Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man", by J. Kidd, M.D. (1837); (7) "Astronomy and General Physics", by Dr. William Whewell (1839), (8) "Animal and Vegetable Physiology", by P. M. Roget, M. D. (1840). The nature of the Treatises is clearly indicated by Lord Bridgewater's instructions, and by their several titles.

The selection of writers was somewhat severely criticized at the time, and the treatises are undoubtedly of unequal merit, but several of them took a high rank in apologetic literature, the best known being probably those by Buckland, Bell, and Whewell. At the present day, however, they are wellnigh forgotten and their value for the purpose they were designed to serve is very small. This is partly because the marvelous advances of recent years have made much of their science antiquated and out of date, but still more because of the almost total abandonment of the point of view on which their authors founded arguments to demonstrate the existence of design in nature. It is now generally felt to be an unsatisfactory, or, at least, less satisfactory method, to argue from particular examples in which analogy can be traced between the mechanism found in nature and that contrived by man, as, for instance to take one specially mentioned by Darwin, in the hinge of a bivalve shell, as though it were in such cases alone that the operation of Mind manifested itself. The best modern apologists insist rather on the note of law and order stamped everywhere upon the universe, inorganic no less than organic, upon the reality and ubiquity of which the validity of all scientific methods wholly depends, while the progress of scientific discovery does but immensely enhance the weight of the argument based upon it. At the same time, it cannot be admitted that the old-fashioned natural theology of the Treatises is so devoid of value as many modern critics pretend. The marvelous contrivances which we meet everywhere in organic nature remain wholly inexplicable by natural selection or other non-intelligent agents in which purpose is not included, and to the ordinary unsophisticated mind they bring home, as what may be deemed more philosophical arguments can not, the truth that here we have direct evidence of a Supreme Artificer.

About this page

APA citation. Gerard, J. (1907). Bridgewater Treatises. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Gerard, John. "Bridgewater Treatises." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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