Title: Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton
Author: Rob Iliffe
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 522
Reviewed by Sarah Moore for the Association for Mormon Letters
*Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton* reflects the incredible breadth of knowledge and care that Rob Iliffe brings to an oft-dismissed subject. Instead of isolating Newton’s religious works as troubling or idiosyncratic, Iliffe demonstrates how Newton’s theological musings were interwoven with, and often influential on, his more famous mathematical and philosophical works. Neither does Iliffe attempt to interpret or evaluate Newton’s theological writings, but offers a well-researched and biographical look into Newton’s life. This is not a light read, and contains an incredible amount of information on every page, making it a significant contribution to the scholarly community.
At the outset Iliffe offers a short but detailed biographical sketch, illustrating not only Newton’s early personal life but also setting a framework for the religious, cultural, and political environment that shaped the boy’s religious thinkings. Iliffe then follows Newton through his studies as a student, noting where he engages, and often disagrees, with influential philosophers of the day, including perhaps most notably René Descartes and later Joseph Mede. The book continues in a loose chronological fashion, anchoring itself on the various theological questions Newton grappled with, such as the morality of isolated monks, the unraveling of the mysteries contained in Revelation, and the undesired influence of Catholicism in the university system.
This book’s major strength lies perhaps in Iliffe’s ability to thread the political and cultural environment in which Newton operated, drawing in no doubt from his previously published *Newton: A Very Short Introduction*, into his theological writings, giving readers a foundation on which to situate their understanding of Newton’s religious struggles. Throughout all of this, Iliffe returns to the continuous significance that Newton put on his life as a scholar. Iliffe argues that, for Newton, being created in the image of God placed upon him a mandate to bring his mental faculties to bear on understanding the natural world; for Newton, in other words, his life as a scholar and his dedication to his studies was a sort of religious devotion.
As I read I found myself increasingly fascinated, no doubt in large part to Iliffe’s ability to weave details from his expansive knowledge of Newton’s life and works into a cohesive narrative centered on religion. With a lovely insert that includes details of Newton’s sketches and handwritten notes, this hardbound edition would complement almost any library, but would make an especially welcome addition to anyone interested in rounding out their understanding of Newton’s life and religious wrestlings.
While the book does not offer a specifically compelling draw for LDS readers in particular, its illumination of Newton’s writings would be useful to those interested in broadening their theological thought. In particular, the esoteric combination of philosophy, mathematics, and religion, together with the political consequences of the seventeenth-century enmeshment of church and government, invites the thoughtful reader to consider the theological, and sometimes political, framework and history of the LDS church and doctrine.
Much like many LDS church leaders and members of the past and present, Newton asks the hard questions and seeks for truth. In *Priest of Nature*, Iliffe shows how Newton finds a sort of beautiful devotion not only in formal church practice but in his everyday studies as well, a good lesson for any religious person, whether Mormon or not.