Monday, 23 January 2017

Isaac Newton and the French Prophets

Was the great Newton himself attracted to the French Prophets?

The natural contact between Newton and the Prophets would have been Fatio de Duillier. There is not much evidence by which to gauge the tenor of the relationship between the two men after the split of 1693. They seem to have met occasionally and remained on  good terms, though they seldom spoke together in public; their mutual friend David Gregory, professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, records a conversation about Royal Society business which took place in 1702.  A few letters from Fatio to Newton from 1704 also survive but these largely concern Fatio's watches. On the other hand, a list of books acquired by Newton in 1702,  preserved among his papers in the Bodleian,  contains a large number of titles in French and perhaps hints that the two may have resumed their alchemical speculations. ["Ekin list" Bodleian Library Oxford: MS New College 361/11 f78r-78v.]

The only direct mention of Newton in relation to the French Prophets comes from a memorandum by David Gregory among his manuscripts in the University Library, Edinburgh.

Fatio had introduced Gregory to the Prophets at the end of October 1706; Gregory reported that their message centred on the approaching military defeat of France and the triumph of Protestantism.
I was in the company into which Mr Fatio introduced three [prophets].  Those are they who pretend to inspiration and prophecy....They read a paper.  Mr Fatio has written most of what they have prophesized, and even their prayers, and seems much take up with them....The constant tenor of their prophecys is of the Peace of the Church to follow upon the ruin of Rome.  They talk of the Restauration of the Church of France as at hand.  They tell of illiterate people with them having the Gift of Tongues, of being in Fire and not being hurt".
On 29th January 1706/7 Gregory recorded predictions of a "greater and more fatal" military blow delivered to Louis XIV and the defection of French courtiers for Protestantism.
Then on 30 January, the anniversary of Charles I's execution, he reports the following conversation with Newton:

Sir Isaac Newton tells me that M. Fatio told him that those Camisars Prophets say that King Louis shall be made Prisoner in the present War, & shall be kept betwixt an Iron Grate on the one side & Fire on the other.   What an Iron Grate & a Fire mean we shall clearly understand at the accomplishment of the Prophecy.

The imagery of iron and fire derives from the Book of Revelation and does indeed feature in Elie Marion's Warnings, though the threats against Louis XIV were not made so explicitly in any of the published prophecies. The exchange between Newton and Fatio would have taken place  after the ministers of the Savoy churches had condemned the prophets on 5th January 1717, but before May when Fatio, Marion and Jean Daudé were indicted at the Queen's Bench for "publishing false and scandalous pamphlets".

Newton's posthumously published  Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel
In a book of literary anecdotes, published posthumously in 1820, Joseph Spence records two comments by contemporaries concerning Newton and the French Prophets. The first is a letter from the Dean of Peterborough, Francis Lockier,  who opines that it was "not at all improbable" that Newton, who was obsessed with astrology and alchemy,  "might have had a hankering after the French Prophets". The  second, more significant reference  comes from the Chevalier Ramsay: 
"Sir Isaac himself had a strong inclination to go and hear these prophets, and was restrained from it, with difficulty, by some of his friends who feared he might be infected with them as Fatio had been". (Spence,  Anecdotes, Observations and Characters of Books and Men. 1820, p.43).

Newtonian scholars are skeptical that the ever-cautious Newton would have really risked his credibility by going to a meeting of the Prophets; on the other hand, his study of Biblical prophecy,  his belief in the forthcoming millenium and his former close association with Fatio all suggest his curiosity might indeed have been roused.


Margaret Jacob, "Newton and the French Prophets"History of Science, Vol. 16, p. 134-142
Michael White, Newton: the last sorcerer.  London: Fourth Estate, 1997, p.297-301. [Extracts on Google Books]

Correspondence between Newton and Fatio:

In 2005 a hitherto unknown autograph letter from Newton to Fatio, dated 14th September 1724, was auctioned by Christie's -and fetched £48,000!  The letter is addressed to Fatio "at the signe of the Cabinet in the foregate street in Worcester" and concerns mainly prospective investments in the York Buildings Company.

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