Bernard Lightman, “On Tyndall’s Belfast Address, 1874″


John Tyndall’s Belfast Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874 touched off a heated controversy over his alleged materialism. His enemies expanded their criticism of his materialism to include Victorian scientific naturalists. An analysis of the Belfast Address and the controversy surrounding it provides insight into the status of Victorian scientific naturalism during the 1870s.

Portrait of Tyndall

Photograph of John Tyndall

*The British Association for the Advancement of Science met in 1874 in Belfast. It proved to be a momentous occasion.  John Tyndall, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, delivered the presidential address on the evening of August 19th.  Tyndall’s topic was the relationship of science, past and present, to philosophical materialism.  The address ignited a storm of controversy that surrounded Tyndall for the rest of his life, and it changed the way modern science came to be perceived by the British public.  Tyndall began his address with the birth of science in ancient Greece.  He discussed Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, brave men whose atomic theory was geared to eliminate the “mob of gods and demons” preventing the discovery of true knowledge (2.136-137).  He then discussed the Middle Ages, depicting it as a period ravaged by scientific drought due to the pernicious influence of Aristotle.  Copernicus, Bruno, and Galileo later revolutionized science, despite the retrograde impact of Christianity.  An account of Bacon, Descartes, and Gassendi stressed their contributions to atomic theory, for Tyndall an essential component of any valid scientific system.  Tyndall’s historical survey ended with a celebration of the achievements of Charles Darwin and the importance of the doctrine of the Conservation of Energy.

In the last two sections of the address, Tyndall outlined his views on the philosophical implications of modern science in light of its basis in materialistic atomic theory.  Tyndall painstakingly distanced himself from the simplistic materialism of Democritus, which not only disregarded the existence of human consciousness but also went beyond the limits of human knowledge in reducing everything to matter.  Moreover, vulgar materialism ignored “the manifestation of a Power absolutely inscrutable to the intellect of man” in the world of nature.  Materialism was fruitful as a scientific methodology, but it could not be a complete philosophy of life.  In order to distinguish himself from vulgar materialism, Tyndall referred to his own position as a “higher materialism” that found in matter “the promise and potency of all terrestrial life” (2.191-193).  In the final section of the address, Tyndall asserted where the boundaries between science and religion should be located.  Religion added “inward completeness and dignity to man,” but it was restricted to the “region of poetry and emotion.”  The region of objective knowledge belonged to science alone.  Any systems that infringed “upon the domain of science” must “submit to its control.”  Scientists, Tyndall aggressively declared, “claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory” (2.197).  Despite Tyndall’s rejection of conventional materialism, the pulpits of Belfast lashed out at him.  Belfast Protestants and Catholics joined together in branding him a dangerous materialist.

Scholars have treated the controversy surrounding the Belfast Address as an important event in the “war” between science and religion.  Blinderman argues that Tyndall upset the truce between science and religion that had been established after the Darwin controversy, while Turner states that “no single incident in the conflict of religion and science raised so much furore” (Blinderman 283-284; Turner 196).  But since serious questions have been raised about emphasizing the theme of conflict in any account of the history of the relationship between science and religion, we need to develop more sophisticated interpretations of the Belfast Address.  Here I want to suggest that the Belfast Address was an important cultural event because it led to the alteration of the public perception of Tyndall, which in turn transformed how modern science came to be seen.

John Tyndall (1820-1893) was born at Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, in southern Ireland.  The Tyndall family struggled to make ends meet.  His father, unsuccessful as a shoemaker and leather dealer, joined the Irish Constabulary.  He was an ardent Orangeman who insisted on a strong Protestant household and educated his son in the art of theological debate.  At the age of eighteen Tyndall joined the Irish Ordinance Survey as a civil assistant.  In 1842 he was transferred to the English Survey in Preston.  In his position as surveyor Tyndall experienced firsthand the hard times of the forties when riots broke out among the starving weavers in Preston.  Social problems, Chartist unrest, and Thomas Carlyle’s writings moved him toward a more radical political position.  Unhappy with the inefficiency of the survey’s administration and their unfairness to the Irish assistants, Tyndall formally protested and was dismissed in November 1843.  In July 1844 he found a position in a private surveyor’s office in Preston, and for the next three years Tyndall found himself in the middle of the railway mania.

By 1847 the railway boom was coming to an end, and Tyndall accepted an appointment as teacher of mathematics at Queenwood College in Hampshire.  He became fascinated by natural philosophy and went to Germany in 1848 to attend Marburg University, where he earned his doctoral degree.  Returning to England in 1851, where scientific posts were scarce, he was forced to take up his old position at Queenwood.  Over the next few years Tyndall applied unsuccessfully for several university positions.  Despite having worked with some of the most eminent German scientists of the time, he was passed over for seemingly less qualified men.  His Irish, lower class background made it difficult for him to win the trust of the London scientific elite.  Finally, in 1853, he was elected Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, a plum position.   He remained at the Royal Institution for the rest of his career, establishing himself as a leading natural philosopher, a well-respected public lecturer, and Michael Faraday’s successor as the director of the Institution.  But his struggles to overcome the obstacles presented by his humble origins left indelible marks on his spirit.

Tyndall was part of an influential group of Victorian intellectuals, many of them scientists, which aggressively pushed for a secular redefinition of science in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The ranks of scientific naturalists included Charles Darwin; the philosopher of evolution Herbert Spencer; the mathematician William Kingdon Clifford; the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton; the statistician Karl Pearson; the anthropologists John Lubbock and Edward Tylor; the biologist E. Ray Lankester; the doctor Henry Maudsley; and a group of journalists, editors and writers such as Leslie Stephen, G. H. Lewes, John Morley, Grant Allen and Edward Clodd.  The scientific naturalists were not just aiming to reform scientific theories and institutions.  They also wanted to transform British culture.  They put forward new interpretations of humanity, nature, and society derived from the theories, methods and categories of empirical science, especially evolutionary theory, the atomic theory of matter, and theories in physics dealing with the conservation of energy.  Tyndall discussed all three in his Belfast Address.  He and his allies challenged the cultural authority of the Anglican, aristocratic establishment by claiming that they provided the best intellectual leadership for a modernized and industrialized Britain (Turner).

The scientific naturalists relied on three closely related strategies to work towards transforming British science and culture.  First, they argued that only science (as they defined it) offered a path to genuine knowledge of nature.  Neither the church nor the Bible could be considered as authoritative sources of scientific truth.  During the controversy over Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) they maintained that his theory should be judged solely on its scientific merits, not its implications for theological doctrine.  They aimed to allow scientists to pursue their investigations of nature guided by principles established independently of religious authorities.  Second, scientific naturalists claimed that only they had the expertise to speak on behalf of science.  Expertise was gained through training and could only be obtained in specific sites, especially the laboratory, and it was only achievable through a discipline of self-renunciation—a surrender to nature.  Finally, the scientific naturalists maintained that scientific knowledge provided a good deal of insight into the human condition, not just the state of nature.  Spencer, for example, applied evolutionary theory to understand both nature and the entire spectrum of human thought.  Scientific naturalists often argued that only they could comprehend the full social, ethical, and political ramifications of new scientific theories like evolution.  In sum, scientific naturalists insisted that science was the sole path to knowledge of the natural and social worlds, and that they alone had the skill to tread that path.

The attempts of scientific naturalists to redefine the intellectual and institutional basis of British science, and to use science as a lever to transform British culture and society, were resisted by other members of the intellectual elite.  They rejected the notion that a scientific worldview as pictured by Tyndall and his colleagues could provide meaning if divorced from a religious foundation.  Materialistic scientific theories missed the spiritual truth that lay behind all natural phenomena.  Representatives of the old aristocratic-Anglican establishment included officials of the Anglican Church such as Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.  Leading Catholics, including John Henry Newman, and prominent Nonconformists, including Congregationalist minister Robert William Dale and Unitarian minister James Martineau, joined them.  Eminent Anglican scientists such as the anatomist Richard Owen and powerful laymen such as the distinguished Tory politician A. J. Balfour were vocal in their attacks on scientific naturalism.  Other members of the scientific elite challenged the dominance of the scientific naturalists, including physicists based in Scotland, among them William Thomason and James Clerk Maxwell, who wanted to retain a religious framework for science.  Many of the self-educated popularizers of science, including John George Wood, were keen to perpetuate the natural theology tradition (Lightman, Victorian Popularizers).  Idealists, among them Thomas Henry Green, and spiritualists, including Oliver Lodge, and literary figures, for example John Ruskin, were also among those who challenged the scientific worldview championed by the scientific naturalists.  Frances Power Cobbe, like other feminists and anti-vivisectionists, clashed with scientific naturalists over their views on women and animal experimentation.  Socialist intellectuals, including Henry Mayers Hyndman, dismissed Darwin and Huxley as pro-capitalist due to their emphasis on competition in the evolutionary process.

With so many enemies, the scientific naturalists had to be careful what they said in public, whether it be in the periodical press or before audiences for their lectures.  Their opponents could seize upon anything they said to link scientific naturalism with materialism, which had a long association with moral corruption and debauchery.  As Dawson has pointed out, starting in the late 1860s the chief strategy for damaging the respectability of scientific naturalism was to link it with the supposed immorality of avant-garde art and literature, in particular Aestheticism.  In their arguments that Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) had transgressed Victorian standards of respectability, his critics connected him to Algernon Swinburne, for them a notorious poet of the Aesthetic Movement.  Darwin’s book became increasingly implicated with Swinburne’s political radicalism, aesthetic sensualism, and flagrant sexual depravity.  Some detractors complained that Darwin’s seeming obsession with sex in the Descent made it suitable reading material for only the worldliest gentlemen.  These attempts to connect Darwin with immorality became significant obstacles to establishing the naturalistic worldview as a morally acceptable alternative to the Christian one.  Darwin altered his Descent to avoid any hint of indecency, and Tyndall and Clifford were also forced to change portions of their writings for similar reasons.  If they wanted to be considered as members of the intellectual elite, the scientific naturalists had no choice but to construct their model of professional scientific authority in line with their opponents’ standards of respectability (Dawson).  Tyndall was not careful enough in his Belfast Address to protect himself from the charge of materialism.  By being so aggressive in his claims for the autonomy of a science based on a methodological materialism, he invited attacks on his reputation.

Before the Belfast Address, Tyndall was usually cast in a positive light in the periodical press, albeit with some reservations (Lightman, “Scientists as Materialists” 203-207).  He was not labeled as a materialist.  But after the Belfast Address he was portrayed as an aggressive, dishonest, devious, and distinctly un-British materialist.  Even in the 1870s, the charge of materialism was a serious one.  It grouped Tyndall together with lower-class atheists, casting aspersions on his status as a member of the intellectual elite.  Conservative Christians, outraged by Tyndall’s Belfast Address, tried to take advantage of all of the unsavory connotations associated with the label of materialist.  Even though Tyndall had stated that he did not accept materialism as a complete philosophy of life, the line from the Belfast Address where he asserted that “the promise and potency of all terrestrial Life” could be found in matter was quoted or referred to by many of Tyndall’s critics.  This line was among the most controversial in the Address, especially when taken out of context, and many periodicals cited it as evidence that Tyndall was a materialist despite his rejection of vulgar materialism.  Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine referred to Tyndall’s “gospel of Materialism”; the Christian Observer and Advocate stated that “Professor Tyndall is an accepted exponent of Materialism”; and the Irish Monthly declared, “all he says tends to prepare the mind for that profession of materialistic faith in which his discourse culminates” (Tulloch 533; Savile 842; T.F. 564).  Tyndall’s enemies believed that they now had the “smoking gun” that proved he was a materialist.

Once identified as a materialist, Tyndall could be criticized for a host of mortal sins.  His materialism was presented as originating in heterodox, foreign intellectual traditions.  The Irish Monthly traced it to Germany, the “land of foolish philosophers,” while the Dublin Review linked it to Buddhism (T.F. 573; Barry, “Recent German Thought”).  Whether Tyndall’s materialism was presented as German or Asiatic, critics were agreed that it was neither orthodox nor British.  Since Tyndall’s materialism did not derive from a good, wholesome British intellectual lineage, he was morally corrupt.  Tyndall’s opponents claimed that his lack of moral authority could be seen in his shoddy scholarship, his dishonest use of language, and his abuse of his role as president of the British Association.  Tyndall’s critics also charged that his historical overview of atomic theory depended on superficial scholarship.  As a result his account repeated the historical inaccuracies of his sources and lacked originality (Lightman, “Scientists as Materialists” 212).  Tyndall was also criticized for trying to conceal the dangerous materialistic and heterodox consequences of his thought (Lightman, “Scientists as Materialists” 212-214).  The Contemporary Review objected to Tyndall’s use of the term “soul,” which, for the reading public, carried with it old and cherished religious associations.  Since Tyndall did not believe in a soul, he used the term “in a dishonest, shuffling way” (Peard 1002).  Finally, Tyndall was accused of breaking with tradition by using the British Association’s prestigious presidential address to promulgate materialism rather than reviewing the scientific developments of the past year.  Abusing the role of the president of the most publicly visible scientific society of the land was an unforgivable sin (Lightman, “Scientists as Materialists” 216-217).  In Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Tyndall was castigated for using a “place of privilege” to voice his private religious opinions, which had nothing to do with the business of the Association.  There was a “degree of impertinence in the obtrusion on such an occasion” (Tulloch 520-521).

After the Belfast Address, Tyndall was often depicted as a morally corrupt materialist.  His opponents had used the occasion to raise doubts about his moral status and about the way he treated important professional responsibilities, such as the presidency of the British Association.  In sum, it was questionable whether or not Tyndall was fit to be a member of the intellectual elite, let alone the scientific elite.  He lacked respectability.  By relying on heated rhetoric in the Belfast Address to defend the methods and goals of scientific naturalism, Tyndall had provided his enemies with a golden opportunity to undermine his cultural authority.  But his critics did not stop there.  They expanded their attack on Tyndall to encompass scientific naturalism as a whole.

Tyndall was considered to be typical among modern scientists.  According to the Christian Observer and Advocate, “Professor Tyndall may be regarded as the representative of modern science in an eminent degree.”  The Dublin Review agreed.  Tyndall “stands for a class” and was “putting forth a creed in their name.”  His Belfast Address was “a token and sign of the times” (Savile, 841-842; [Barry], “Mr. Tyndall” 447, 431). The critics of scientific naturalism therefore launched a concerted effort to shake the faith of the British public in the authority of the leading scientists who sided with Tyndall.  As the Contemporary Review observed, “in the opinion of the world at large, it is the authority of men of science by which Unbelief has been established.  They are the men that in the present day are listened to; who are supposed to speak with authority” (Mallock 171).

One strategic move involved a disclosure of how scientists created an illusion of authority.  In the Saturday Review, one writer objected to the “fulsome adulation” accorded to Darwin by Tyndall.  Such extravagant praise, the journalist believed, should be reserved only for the dead (“Professor Tyndall’s Address” 237).  Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine was even harsher in its condemnation of the “manner in which living names are used” by the materialist school.  “Anything more offensive than the vulgar admirations so largely interchanged amongst its members it is hard to imagine,” and “Dr. Tyndall’s address is a conspicuous instance of this offensiveness.  His friends and admirers are everywhere bespattered with the most ridiculous praise.”  The journalist believed that the scientific naturalists bolstered their position of authority by forming a society “for mutual admiration” (Tulloch 528-530).

Another strategy for shaking the scientific authority of Tyndall and his allies was to pit them against other scientists.  Taking advantage of a lecture in 1877 by Rudolf Virchow, Professor of Pathology at Berlin, in which he claimed that evolution had not yet been experimentally proved, the Quarterly Review challenged Tyndall’s position that scientists accepted human evolution as fact.  “It reflects,” the writer declared, “as we have said, grave discredit upon Professor Tyndall’s judgment as a man of Science that he should thus treat as an established truth a speculation which is at present absolutely discountenanced by our latest knowledge” (Wace 53).  The Contemporary Review appealed for help from a group of scientists closer to home.  To sever Tyndall’s link between atomic theory and materialism, the Contemporary Review maintained that modern physicists no longer believed that “by pulverizing the world into its least particles, and contemplating its components where they are next to nothing, we shall hit upon something ultimate beyond which there is no problem.”  In support of the contention that physicists read no materialistic implications into modern atomic theory, a quote was presented from James Clerk Maxwell and Balfour Stewart, two respected Scottish physicists who opposed scientific naturalism (Martineau 340).  Playing off Tyndall and his friends against esteemed scientists both in Britain and Europe effectively questioned their scientific authority—their claim to speak on behalf of science.

An analysis of the Belfast Address and the ensuing debate provides an excellent vantage point from which to understand the cultural status of Victorian scientific naturalism at a particular point in time.  It demonstrates that unless figures such as Tyndall or Huxley were very careful in how they defended methodological materialism, an integral component of their creed, they paid a huge price: their scientific, and cultural, authority came under attack.  Their membership in the intellectual elite was challenged and their respectability was impugned.  Whatever intellectual freedom they had managed to win for those who wished to establish the autonomy of science, an expression of support for materialism of any sort was still not tolerated in Britain in the 1870’s.  Whatever power they had won through their strategies for reforming British science and society, that power remained precarious.

Yet they left their mark on British culture.  The scientific naturalists, especially Huxley and Tyndall, were able to dominate the politics of science when they were at the height of their power in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  They were able to challenge the scientific, and even the cultural, authority of the Anglican clergy.  Through their lectures and writings they encouraged the Victorian public to question widely held beliefs about the nature of society, the place of humanity in nature, and the role of religion in a modern, industrialized world.  As a result, the Belfast Address was seen as a momentous cultural event well beyond the 1870’s.  Almost thirty years later it seemed to symbolize how scientific naturalism had turned the Victorian world upside down.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up its enduring significance in his Man and Superman (1903).  “It’s a very queer world,” remarks Mrs. Whitefield, who is bewildered by the complicated behavior of the younger generation.  “It used to be so straightforward and simple; and now nobody seems to think and feel as they ought.  Nothing has been right since that speech that Professor Tyndall made at Belfast” (4.237).


Bernard Lightman is Professor of Humanities at York University, Toronto, Canada.  Currently the editor of the journal Isis, he has published extensively on the cultural history of Victorian science, including his books The Origins of Agnosticism (1987) and Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007).  He is now at work on a biography of John Tyndall and is one of the editors of an international collaborative correspondence project devoted to obtaining, digitalizing, transcribing, and publishing Tyndall’s letters.




Lightman, Bernard. “On Tyndall’s Belfast Address, 1874.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


[Barry, William Francis.] “Mr. Tyndall and Contemporary Thought.” Dublin Review 2nd. Ser. 27 (1876): 431-468. Print.

[Barry, William Francis.] “Recent German Thought—Its Influence on Mr. Tyndall.” Dublin Review 2nd. Ser. 29 (1877): 469-487. Print.

Blinderman, Charles. “John Tyndall and the Victorian New Philosophy.” Bucknell Review 9 (1961): 281-290. Print.

Dawson, Gowan.  Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Lightman, Bernard.  “Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address.” Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals. Ed. Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth.  Cambridge: MIT P, 2004. 199-237. Print.

—.  Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Mallock, W. H. “Modern Atheism: The Attitude Towards Morality.” Contemporary Review 29 (Jan. 1877): 169-186. Print.

Martineau, James.  “Modern Materialism: Its Attitude Towards Theology.” Contemporary Review 27 (1876): 323-346; 522-548. Print.

Peard, George. “Professor Tyndall’s Birmingham Address.” Contemporary Review 30 (1877): 1001-1012. Print.

“Professor Tyndall’s Address.” Saturday Review 38 (1874), 236-238. Print.

Savile, B. W. “Professor Tyndall.” Christian Observer and Advocate 75 (1875): 841-859. Print.

Shaw, George Bernard.  Man and Superman.  Cambridge: The University Press, 1903.  Print.

T.F.  “Mr. Tyndall at Belfast.” Irish Monthly 2 (1874): 563-578. Print.

[Tulloch, John.]  “Modern Scientific Materialism.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 116 (1874): 519-539. Print.

Turner, Frank.  Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. Print.

Tyndall, John.  Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews. 2 vols. 8th. ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1892. Print.

[Wace, Henry.]  “Scientific Lectures—Their Use and Abuse.” Quarterly Review 145 (1878), 35-36. Print.



* Short sections of “Science and Culture,” which came from a previously published piece, are reprinted here with permission from the Cambridge University Press: Bernard Lightman, “Science and Culture,” in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture, Ed. Francis O’Gorman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010),12-42.  © Cambridge University Press 2010.  Some material from my chapter on, “Scientists as Materialists in the Periodical Press: Tyndall’s Belfast Address” in Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, ed. Geoffrey Cantor and Sally Shuttleworth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 199-238, has also been included with the Press’s permission.