Sir John Franklin; Great explorer and evangelical



The discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships off northern Canada was a fantastic find, shedding light on that epic and fateful voyage which left Britain with so much hope in 1845. There were many famous nautical expeditions in the early 19th century and trying to find the elusive North West Passage were the most awful, in both senses of the word. For tragedy they eclipse all others and make those of the Beagle and those of Ross to Antarctica seem like sunday school outings.

My interest in Franklin grew as I researched for my book Evangelicals and Science some ten years ago. However it remained in the background with other pressing concerns, especially the Rev  Adam Sedgwick, probably the greatest Evangelical geologist and his pupil Charles Darwin! It comes as a surprise to many who come across evangelicals and science with the ghastly corruption of both science and Christianity called Creationism, which has been covered in several blogs.

At Cambridge University several evangelicals became science professors at the turn of the century. Isaac Milner (1750–1820), a close friend of William Wilberforce, became the first professor of Natural Philosophy at Cambridge in 1783 and subsequently professor of mathematics and President of Queen’s College, from whence he supported Charles Gorham against Sedgwick as geology professor in 1818. Francis Wollaston (1762–1823) was Jacksonian Professor of Chemistry from 1792 to 1813 and was succeeded by William   Farish (1759–1837), who held the chair until 1836. Farish survived into the era of Sedgwick, Henslow, and Whewell, but was not as famous. In the late 1820s he was ridiculed when he suggested that trains would soon travel at sixty miles an hour. (The first person to be killed by a train in 1830 was William Huskisson, an evangelical politician.) Another evangelical Thomas Martyn (1735–1825)was Cambridge Professor of Botany from 1762 until his death and was followed by the Rev John Henslow. He was the one Darwin walked with while at Cambridge and in 1822 wrote a superb geological memoir on Anglesey. Sedgwick’s contributions to Welsh geology are discussed in James Secord Controversy in Victorian Geology (1986) and Martin Rudwick The Great Devonian Controversy (1985). I discuss Sedgwick’s spats with creationists inGSA Special Publication 310 Geology and Religion GSL, 2009)

For the next generation, we are bedevilled by definitions of what an evangelical is. There is nothing unusual here as some evangelicals like to dismiss evangelicals who challenge their pet beliefs as unsound, heretical or unbiblical. It still happens! Of the Oxbridge scientists Sedgwick was unequivocally evangelical, but many, including the Oxford geologists William Buckland and William Conybeare (1787–1857), and the Cambridge philosopher of science William Whewell (1794–1866) were evangelical sympathizers. The result is that evangelical perspectives on science scarcely differed from other Protestants.

The situation in Scotland was similar as Presbyterians, both evangelical and Moderate, had a strong intellectual side to their faith and there was little to choose in attitudes to science between evangelicals like Thomas Chalmers, Sir David Brewster (1781–1868), John Fleming (1785–1857), and Hugh Miller (1802–1856) and their non-evangelical compatriots. Hugh Miller’s The Testimony of the Rocks (1857) is still worth reading today especially the chapter which puts down biblical literalists, with scathing wit. So much for humourless Scots Presbyterians.

My interest has been more on geologists than anything else and especially those who worked in North Wales and so I tended to ignore nautical exploration. The motives for exploration tended to be mixed whether developing the incipient British Empire, opening up trade or supporting scientific research. This goes back to the previous century with James Cook and Joseph Banks. The latter on his return from travelling became President of the Royal Society and did much to encourage scienitifc research, and also Franklin’s earlier explorations to the North West Passage but did little himself. Like George III he did for for science by encouragement and patronage than actual science.

Polar exploration was often the most harrowing and the story has been told many times, especially of the search for the elusive Northwest Passage and here Fleming and Spufford (Fleming, Barrow’s Boys 1998; Spufford,I may be some time 1997, passim) in their highly readable surveys offer a few hints at the relationship of polar exploration and Evangelicalism. More comes out in andrew Lambert’s bigraphy Franklin.Contemporary accounts of the Northwest Passage filled the early Victorians with awe at the heroism and tragedy.


William Scoresby (1789–1857) prepared the way by serving in the Greenland fishery and occupied himself with scientific questions, including the design of a marine compass. In 1823 at the age of thirty-five he entered the evangelical Queen’s College, to prepare for ordination and became an evangelical clergyman. after that Scoresby became a country vicar and in the 1840s wrote for the Religious Tract Society on polar exploration. Despite, or in spite of, its evangelical roots the RTS published many booklets on general issues, with an evangelical tone.

(c) Hull Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In the early decades after the Battle of Waterloo, the British were desperate to find the North-West Passage and several futile attempts were made culminating with the evangelical Sir John Franklin’s (1786–1847) fateful expedition of 1845. John Ross led the first expedition in 1818 and the following year William Parry (1790–1856) and Franklin led expeditions. During many expeditions they had to overwinter in appalling conditions. Franklin was lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) from 1837 to 1843 and set sail again in H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror for the Northwest Passage in 1845, never to return.  Exactly what happens no one knows but most sailors seemed to survive until 1848. Franklin, himself, died on 11 June 1847, bringing the total of deaths up to that point of 24 men. The fate of the rest is largely unknown, but it is likely cannibalism occurred. The discovery of the ship should shed more light on the tragedy.


The horrors of the voyages were comparable to those of missionaries who went out to West Africa to succumb to tropical diseases. Heat and cold were equally lethal, but both brought forth stories of heroism and moral struggle, which, of course, can be subsumed into “Christian” or Spiritual warfare. Parry and Franklin were evangelicals and letters to their wives reflected this, as Spufford wrote of the Parrys, “Praying together and churchgoing together were important parts of the intimacy of marriage” (Spufford, 1997, p. 97) Their piety was matched by his concern for moral rectitude on board their ships, with Parry seeking to eradicate rum, bum and concertina or, less colloquially, drunkenness, buggery and the lash. Both Parry and Franklin were knighted and Parry promoted to Rear-Admiral.

Perhaps the naval explorer who most impinges on Victorian science and today’s science and religion controversies is Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865) who captained The Beagle during its surveys  of South America from 1832 to 1836 and hosted the young Darwin on the world voyage of 1831 to 1836. As Fitzroy is often presented as Darwin’s nemesis, both on the voyage and later, it is difficult to consider Fitzroy in his own right. He was an able surveyor often surveying in terrible conditions and is a worthy successor to Captain Cook. But history has been very unkind to him and his achievements are often not recognised. After the voyage both Fitzroy (Fitzroy, 1839, 2007) and Darwin (Darwin, 1839) wrote accounts of the voyage, but Fitzroy’s has often been eclipsed and is rarely read. Despite popular interpretations Fitzroy and Darwin got on remarkably well during the voyage as they had few quarrels despite being cooped up in such a confined space -probably less than most married couples. Few look beyond Darwin’s account in his Autobiography and overlook the many complementary comments in his correspondence, where it is clear that they got on fairly well, with Fitzroy calling Darwin Philos (philosopher) (Burkhardt and Smith, 1985, pp. 506, 509). Religious differences did not appear until Fitzroy’s Narrative was published in 1839. This was not over the substance of the account but a chapter on geology entitled A very few remarks with reference to the Deluge (Fitzroy, 1839,vol. 2, chap. 28; & included as appendix to Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, Penguin edition,ed Browne & Neve, 1989, pp. 400–424), in which he notes that though he used to disbelieve “the inspired history written byMoses” but after the voyage he did not and adopted the literalist views of the anti-geologists and shoe-horned all of geological time into the few months of Noah’s Flood. ( see my book Evangelicals and Science p 100-108) This was much to Darwin’s consternation; as he wrote to his sister Caroline: “You will be amused with Fitzroy’s Deluge chapter—Lyell, who was here today,has just read it, & he says it beats all the other nonsense he has ever read on the subject.” (Darwin’s Correspondence vol2 Burkhardt and Smith, 1986, p. 236). It is not clear how long he held such views, and my suspicion is that by 1850 he moved quietly to a typical progressive creationist position, as did many others like William Brande, and the ultra-evangelical Francis Close. After a difficult time as governor of New Zealand, he was made Chief of the meteorological department of the Board of Trade in 1854. Here he designed the Fitzroy barometer and began weather forecasts on about 1860, which were not always reliable, though things have hardly changed! (Anderson, 2005). He was present at the BAAS in Oxford in 1860 and is alleged by some to have brandished a Bible overhead as a reproof to Huxley. That story is probably mythical. But Fitzroy had no truck with evolution. A few years later Fitzroy committed suicide while shaving.Most of Fitzroy’s scientific workwas in surveying and meteorology,which did not impinge on geology or evolution.


To come back to Franklin I have not checked out his views on Genesis and geology, but as the Creationists of his day were such a small group and those of us who have studied them, including Terry Mortenson of Answers in Genesis, have not even been able to discover fifty, compared to vast numbers of Christians from 1800 to 1860, who accepted geological time, I think it almost beyond doubt that Sir John had no diffiuclty combioning his evangelical faith and vast geological time. His association with the geologist, Sir Roderick Murchison, supports this. However it would provide a little research project for someone.

As we hear of the discovery of one of Franklin’s ships, we also need to remember that the period 1800 to 1850 was a heroic one for British science, not only with electricity with Michael Faraday, a member of a rather extreme Christian group, but especially geology and all forms of exploration. Many of these scientists and explorers were devout Christians, and with the exception of Fitzroy for a few years after returning from the Beagle none adopted views which were anything like those of modern day Creationists, about whom I have written several blogs. The less said about them the better. Perhaps Franklin would have liked the monument to the Rev Adam Sedgwick at Dent Church to be his epitaph too.


Jan 209 I recommend Michael Palin’s excellent book  Erebus dealing with so much in detail

5 thoughts on “Sir John Franklin; Great explorer and evangelical

  1. Guy Willson

    An evangelist is someone who wins souls to Jesus well aware of their lost state. Evolution as a belief will place a Christian in the place of questioning His word. Jesus referred to Noah’s flood and Creation as well. So consider this. If Jesus told one lie then the whole of Christianity is null and void. Lyell is said to have quoted that the notion of a 6 day creation was an insult to his intelligence and today many universities, especially in the USA are actively persecuting Christians who believe that God created in 6 days. To me it is no big deal at all; if God had wanted to create the universe is 6 milliseconds he could have done it. The reason He created it it 6 days is prophetic for the length of man’s lease on the Earth. Finally there is NO PROOF that Darwin’s theory is science, it is merely a scientific hypothesis. Immature Christians are like a raft drifting down a river; they will come to the rapids and need to make a decision which fork to take. It is quite impossible to conclude that Jesus is the Way the TRUTH and the Life while accepting Darwin’s theory.


    1. michaelroberts4004 Post author

      I presume you are from the USA. I can only say that I disagree with every word you wrote! You can read some of my other blogs. Meanwhile enjoy celebrating the resurrection of our Lord tomotrow


    2. Paul Braterman

      ” many universities, especially in the USA are actively persecuting Christians who believe that God created in 6 days” The boot is on the other foot. Look what happened to Dembski. And in order to get accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools,the college must accept “Biblical Creation. Special creation of the existing space-time universe and all its basic systems and kinds of organisms in the six literal days of the creation week.”

      And if you think there is no proof that evolution is science, either you have set your standards of proof so high that nothing (except perhaps seeing it written in the Bible) would count as proof, or you can’t have been paying much attention for the past 150 years. But do you even realise that present-day biology is as far advanced from its foundations in Darwin’s theory, as present-day chemistry is from its foundations in Dalton’s atomic theory?


  2. Jon Clarke

    It is probably worth noting that the interest in the NW passage was as much driven by geophysical research into terrestrial magnetism and the location of the north magnetic polas it as by any sea route.



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