Samuel Butler | A Significant Personality in Natural Theology

A useful background to Butler can be found at Te Ara The Encylcopedia of New Zealand

I want to share with you a little about natural theology through an encounter with the life and work of Samuel Butler (1835-1902).

There are two main ways of understanding what the term natural theology means. First it is about trying to read from the book of nature. Can we see from nature whether or not there is a God. We use our powers of reason to look for patterns, traces, and evidence. Second natural theology is the talk about God or the gods which arises naturally in conversation. We try to find out more and more about what other people think on religious matters.

When I was doing research I stumbled onto an example that happened in early colonial New Zealand from 1859-63. Samuel Butler came here to make his fortune. He left England after failing to please his father in a number of career options. His father was an Anglican clergyman who wanted Samuel in the Church. But as a young curate he came to have huge doubts over what he called the efficacy of infant baptism. One doubt led to another and soon he threw in the towel. Samuel Butler also hankered to be an artist, but his father wanted none of that. Eventually the rift between them grew very deep, and both seemed capable of holding a life-time grudge. New Zealand was the solution. Rev Butler arranged to give his son a large sum when he had established himself. £4,000 was to purchase a high country sheep station in South Canterbury at the headwaters of the great braided river called Rangitata. Butler named his station Mesopotamia, and high up in the foothills of the Southern Alps he spun many dreams.

In splendid isolation with help from a shepherd he built a hut, brought some books and lived the most splendid outdoor life. It was rugged - bitterly cold in winter, sweltering hot and dry in summer. It was subject to snow and ice and drought. But when he sold up he had doubled his father' s injection of capital.

After that he made no money. But back in Victorian England Samuel Butler expanded his thoughts he and he alone had had in the splendid isolation of the upper Rangitata of South Canterbury.

He wrote a novel called Erewhon, monographs on the Gospels and the resurrection - primarily to put his father right. He engaged in the most bitter polemic with Charles Darwin. For one of the books he had read was The Origin of Species. Darwin’s great book was published in October 1859 the month Butler sailed for New Zealand. On the Mesopotamia sheep station he had read and re-read, understood, misunderstood, and began to think new thoughts in new directions.

© Micro-moocs, all rights reserved