Matthew Fontaine Maury
||Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.
Many people have the impression that the nineteenth century was a bad time for Christianity. It witnessed the spread of uniformitarian geology, higher criticism, and evolution. However, it was by no means a victory for skepticism. What we often forget is that most people outside academia rejected these new ideas. In England, for example, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859, and Essays and Reviews, which appeared in 1860, catapulted German higher criticism into Anglican theology. Yet according to Gregory, “the years following 1860 were a time of great religious revival in England” (1986, p. 373).
Also, many prominent teachers and researchers remained committed to their belief in God and His inspired Word. One outstanding example is Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873). He was born in Virginia, and joined the U.S. Navy at age nineteen. Although an accomplished sailor, Maury always leaned toward the academic side of his profession. Following a serious coach accident, which confined him to duty on land, Maury’s scholarly reputation earned him a position in 1842 as Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments.
Almost immediately, Maury began the greatest task of his career. He was determined that captains should have charts that would enable them to sail as quickly and as safely as possible around the world. He used old log books and thousands of new observations to produce his famous wind and current charts of the world’s major oceans. These achievements earned him the epithet, “pathfinder of the seas.” Maury also wrote directions to accompany his charts, and he combined these with other observations about the ocean to produce The Physical Geography of the Sea, which first appeared in 1855. This was an immensely popular book, and marked the beginning of the science of oceanography.
Throughout all this success, Maury never forgot his belief in Scripture. Physical Geography is filled with references to the Bible. He could not help but be fascinated by passages that mention the sea, such as Psalm 8:8, Psalm 107:23-24, and Ecclesiastes 1:7. Whoever studies the sea, Maury contended, “must look upon it as a part of that exquisite machinery by which the harmonies of nature are preserved, and then will begin to perceive the developments of order and the evidences of design” (1859, p. 57).
Maury knew full well that these views clashed with those of his colleagues. Before five thousand people at the founding of the University of the South in 1860, he proclaimed the following:
I have been blamed by men of science, both in this country and in England, for quoting the Bible in confirmation of the doctrines of physical geography. The Bible, they say, was not written for scientific purposes, and is therefore no authority in matters of science. I beg pardon! The Bible is authority for everything it touches. What would you think of an historian who should refuse to consult historical records of the Bible, because the Bible was not written for the purposes of history? The Bible is true and science is true (as quoted in Lewis, 1927, p. 99, emp. in orig.).
Such convictions have earned Maury a well-deserved place in Bible-science literature. He is honored as a man who took God at His Word. However, readers may want to treat one claim with a little suspicion (see Major, 1995). Several accounts suggest that Maury was so confident about God’s Word that his mapping of ocean currents resulted directly from reading or hearing about the “paths of the seas” in Psalm 8:8. Some go on to suggest that ocean currents would have remained hidden unless Maury had read this passage in the Bible. Some set this crucial event in Maury’s childhood, and others set it during the recovery from his accident. One popular account by Virginia Lee Cox has a son reading to Maury during an illness (Lewis, 1927, p. 252), but Maury began his mapping project when the oldest son was only two years old. Another problem is that some currents, such as the Gulf Stream, were well-studied by the 1840s. Maury’s feat was to bring his scientific knowledge to bear on a vast array of nautical information, but he was not the first to discover ocean currents.
There is little doubt that Maury held a special fascination for Psalm 8:8 and other passages that mention the sea and the sky. They confirmed to him that revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture were in harmony because they have One Author. These convictions, and Maury’s character, make him worthy of emulation by Bible-believing scientists today.
Gregory, Frederick (1986), “The Impact of Darwinian Evolution on Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century,” God & Nature, ed. D.C. Lindberg and R.L. Numbers (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 369-390.
Lewis, Charles Lee (1927), Matthew Fontaine Maury: The Pathfinder of the Seas (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1969 reprint by AMS Press, New York).
Major, Trevor (1995), “Honor to Whom Honor...Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873),” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 32:82-87, September.
Maury, Matthew F. (1859), The Physical Geography of the Sea (New York: Harper & Brothers, sixth edition).