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Working at home on a November day in 1934, Henry Norris Russell, chair of Princeton University's Department of Astronomy and director of its Halsted Observatory, wrote to an inquirer about heaven and the immortality of the soul. The lean, white-haired, fifty-seven-year-old theoretical astrophysicist admitted that "Heaven is not a place but a state." The ardent presbyter added, "What else it may be, I do not know, but this universe of ours looks to me like a good enough job to give me a thorough-going confidence that the Designer of it will look after our interests elsewhere quite adequately." A few years later, scrawling on his ever-present pad of legal-size paper, he answered yet another inquiry from his growing circle of lay readers seeking divine guidance from science: "[T]he hypothesis that the order of nature and the evolutionary process have arisen `unaided by any creative or universal intelligence' appears to me to be more improbable than the alternative."
Russell usually answered his voluminous mail at his maternal ancestral home, 79 Alexander Street, then at the southwestern edge of the undergraduate campus near the railway station. It was, moreover, in sight of the Princeton Theological Seminary, where his father had trained. Seclusion was necessary for the angular and restive professor. He did not avoid others; but in the company of others he could not sit still. In the manner of many professors of his day he preferred to write in his book-lined study at home, a home he had knownsince the age of twelve.
By this time in his life, Russell was well known beyond the small circle of astronomers and physicists in which he moved. Associate editor and regular columnist for Scientific American, essayist for a growing audience that read American religious periodicals, coauthor of a well-received and wide-ranging astronomical textbook, and frequent speaker on college campuses, in community auditoriums and church sanctuaries, Russell was a deeply religious person, eager to speak on religion from the perspective of a scientist. Son, grandson, and brother of Scottish Presbyterian ministers, Russell held "Sunday Seminars" at Princeton, lectured for Princeton's undergraduate Philadelphian Society, counseled Princeton undergraduates in Dodge Hall on praying to a personal god, spoke frequently before congregations in Princeton, Philadelphia, and New York, and wrote passionately on how scientific inquiry supported a moral and revealed universe. Russell was a religious modernist striving to keep religion alive on an increasingly secular campus.
By the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, the rise of the sciences fostered the reductionist belief that a unity of truth was at hand. Science, or the scientific method, became the model for the addressing of social issues and was celebrated as the most effective way to train the mind and build character in students, leading them on to productive and effective moral lives. The environment Russell was born and raised in, and would eventually take for his own, promoted a "passion to reveal the secrets of nature by probing deeper and deeper into the physical world." Such striving had deep religious and moral underpinnings, connected to a natural theology that looked for traces of the divine in nature. As "a man brought up in religion from infancy," Russell entered the world of science and prospered, "still a convinced adherent of the faith in which I was reared: I believe in a God who is the Ultimate Reality."
Russell's outlook was typical for his day: the physicist Robert Millikan, eldest of three sons of a Congregationalist minister, held deeply religious convictions and, like Russell, wrote on science and religion. Forest Ray Moulton, a celestial mechanician, was also well known for his ardent attempts at reconciliation. Among prominent American scientists contemporary to Russell who were raised in professional families, 21 percent had cleric fathers and 39 percent had cleric grandfathers, typically Congregationalist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. Presbyterians accounted for 20 percent of the prominent scientists listed in Who's Who for 1931.
Russell promoted a "Scientific Approach to Christianity" that reflected modernist views instilled in him both by his parents and by his Princeton intellectual heritage. The latter was defined most clearly by Joseph Henry, the highly influential Princeton natural philosopher who later became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and by Princeton's eleventh president, James McCosh. McCosh, one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland who was later much absorbed in reconciling Darwinism with design, infused Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey), with his view "that science was immensely useful to the defense of faith." His Scottish commonsense philosophy led him to argue, as had Joseph Henry before him, that disciplined intuition was necessary to those who would interpret the sensible world in order to comprehend God's design for the universe. Both Henry and McCosh argued that pure empiricism was an unlikely path to new knowledge; a more direct route began with framing a hypothesis. McCosh acted to strengthen mathematics instruction at Princeton as a counter to what he believed was a growing tendency to rely only upon experience. He was convinced that the "very nature of things" could be "perceived at once by intuitive reason."
Russell's career as the first astrophysical theorist in America was, in part, a reflection of McCosh's liberalization of Princeton and his elevation of science as a practice based upon a balance of intuition and observation. So we begin our reconnaissance of his life by looking at the intellectual and religious worlds in which he was born and raised.
James McCosh's Princeton
McCosh believed that the physical and natural sciences promoted a "religious understanding of the world." He built a "theory of the universe conditioned by Christian revelation," and carried it to New Jersey and the village of Princeton, where in 1868 he became the eleventh president of the college. McCosh took up his new post confident that he could rebuild the College of New Jersey around a synthesis of science and theology by establishing a course of secular training.
When McCosh arrived at the college, the highly respected intellectual Charles Hodge, Joseph Henry's contemporary and friend, led the Princeton Theological Seminary, the seat of "Old School" Presbyterianism in America. Yet the two had much in common, mainly an enthusiasm for natural theology. Along with many American intellectuals, including Henry's cousin and former seminary student Stephen Alexander, the college astronomer, Hodge had little difficulty with the Nebular Hypothesis as long as it was "used merely as a scientific explanation of the origin of the solar system illustrating God's design and providence." Clearly then, how a scientific theory fared depended upon the "spirit in which [it] was taught."
Hodge differed from McCosh by trying to limit and control the scientific practices that McCosh wished to broaden. In the 1870s, as McCosh and Hodge debated the meaning of Darwinism, McCosh hired professors of science who would foster reconciliation. Revelation existed through the power of human intuition to perceive it, McCosh believed: evidence in the rocks, and in organic life, revealed "a proof of design and of a designing mind." But intuition was acquired only through discipline. Thus both McCosh and Henry played down the simple accumulation of facts and promoted hypotheses as "the great instruments of discovery." This was McCosh's plan for Princeton, heartily endorsed and pursued by those he brought to the campus, and later by those who trained there. He rejected the "classifying, theory-dodging tendency" that still characterized much of American science in the latter half of the nineteenth century. And much of his faculty, especially the astronomer Charles A. Young, whom he hired in 1877, felt the same.
When McCosh retired in 1888, he left Princeton with a growing campus, a noted scientific and engineering faculty, laboratories, a large observatory, and the second largest college library in the United States. Research flourished in pockets at the newly revitalized college, although its primary mission remained undergraduate training for the church and professions.
The Family and Ministry of
Alexander Gatherer Russell
Henry Norris Russell described himself as "a man half of Puritan and half of Lowland Scots stock." His father, Alexander Gatherer Russell, was born in Musquodoboit, Halifax County, Nova Scotia, on 6 October 1845, the son of a minister and a descendant of Elgin weavers. His mother, Eliza Hoxie Norris Russell, was born in 1848 and was well-educated, adept in mathematics, and interested in the world. Both father and mother instilled a strong sense of moral responsibility in their children.
Alexander Russell moved to Princeton to enter the seminary in the fall of 1872, after taking a degree from Dalhousie College, teaching for a year, and undergoing religious training at the Presbyterian Seminary in Truro. In Princeton, he boarded in the Norris family home at 79 Canal Street. The head of the household was Henry Lee Norris, descended from Salem sea captains dating back to Old Colony Puritans. Norris had been a rubber merchant in New York when, in 1847, he married Maria Schaeffer Hoxie, a schoolteacher who had distinguished herself in 1840 as the first recipient of a mathematics medal from the Rutgers Female Institute of New York. They soon moved to Para (now Belem) in the empire of Brazil, where he established a rubber manufacturing and trading business.
Norris eventually became American consul in Para, but after a decade he moved the family to Edinburgh, where he became manager of the North British Rubber Company. Maria Norris saw to it that all her children received a proper education; their two daughters, Eliza Hoxie and Ada Louise, were respectively awarded a first and second in mathematics for their performance in a "ladies class" given by Edinburgh professors in 1868, following in the footsteps of their mother. After retirement, Norris moved his family to Princeton in 1874, and by the time Russell took a room with them in their stately Gothic home at 79 Canal, the Norris family enjoyed a comfortable life from substantial investment income. Fiscally conservative and religiously progressive, the Norris family attended the Second Presbyterian Church in Princeton, which was less traditional, more evangelical, and more open to townspeople who found the First Presbyterian Church too formal and austere. There was then a growing schism over the doctrine of predestination, the denial of the role of human will in the salvation of souls. Both sides of Henry Norris Russell's family were reluctant heirs to the theology of John Calvin.
Alexander Russell's three seminary years were defined by Charles Hodge, but the landscape he entered was being reformed by McCosh. Liberal influences continued to play upon Russell after graduation in 1875 as he preached in Brooklyn and searched for a permanent post. He delivered his first sermon at the First Presbyterian Church and Congregation of Oyster Bay, Long Island, on Easter Sunday, 16 April 1876, and he continued for several weeks to minister to the congregation before he was finally installed as pastor in July 1876. Thus established, Alexander married Eliza Norris on 1 August 1876, removing her from the Norris home and hearth, seeing promptly to her admission into his church and attending to the birth of their first child, Henry Norris, just over a year later on 25 October 1877.
Oyster Bay, its harbor and environs, was a country hamlet founded by Dutch colonists in the mid-seventeenth century. It was known for its asparagus and cultivated oysters. A protected yacht harbor made Oyster Bay a desirable summer colony on the north shore of Long Island. Prior to the arrival of the Long Island Railroad branch from Glen Cove in 1889, access had been by ferry, stage, and train, or by side-wheel steamer, whose arrival in Oyster Bay harbor after three hours on the Sound from New York City was the event of the day. Alexander Russell's congregation, newly fitted out in its Romanesque church sanctuary on East Main Street, near the harbor, included laborer and fisherman families, but was heavily underwritten by wealthy, prominent, and powerful summer residents who sought out the same liberal ministrations they had come to favor at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. Russell's most prominent parishioners were Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., and his family, including the future president of the United States, who knew Oyster Bay from the time his grandfather built a summer home there in the early 1870s.
Alexander Russell was an active and tireless promoter, holding multiday marathon services and fund-raising campaigns to pay for the construction of the new sanctuary. He delivered two different sermons every Sunday and led a midweek prayer service. More in keeping with the style of an urban congregation, Russell adopted a liturgical rather than a revivalist form of worship. He made music both a frequent and a fervently joyous part of his ministry. Despite his efforts at raising membership and revenue, the church remained poor in the early 1880s during Henry's most formative years. The home where Henry was born and spent his first nine years of life was on flat land in the poorer district close to the harbor. But as the local economy picked up later in the decade, the church revived, owing largely to Alexander Russell's unflagging efforts. A new and gracious manse was built on church grounds on East Main above and behind the church, overlooking the town and harbor. It was both home and office for the father, and a new world of status and privilege for his three sons, Henry, Gordon MacGregor (b. 1880), and Alexander (b. 1883). Even so, reflecting his father's lifestyle, Henry would always maintain severe economies, most clearly manifest in his directorship of the Princeton University Observatory.
The pastor set a challenging example for his three sons, most of all for Henry, who as the eldest adopted his father's trait of self-absorbed devotion to duty. Local stories recount how Alexander worked himself to exhaustion and neglected his own health in his concern for others. Life was a constant campaign for good causes, including public libraries and schools. Life also had to be met head-on, vigorously, courageously, with a morally uplifting spirit. William L. Swan, church organist and ardent yachtsman, knew the elder Russell from his first years in Oyster Bay. "He was very diffident, and never `played to the gallery,'" Swan recalled, and was "most methodical and orderly." Other local clergy remembered Russell as "open, fair, true, genuine, aboveboard; nothing kept back ... In him there was no guile."
Alexander Russell, in the spirit of James McCosh, was also a reformer. In 1882, Russell was elected Stated Clerk of the Nassau Presbytery. He soon won the respect of the wider community and used it as a platform for doctrinal change. In 1888 and again in 1889 he was a major campaigner in the Nassau Presbytery's bid to the General Assembly to revise the severe Westminster Confession of Faith. Russell preached that "the Confession was the result of a time when men's minds were turned from the beneficent side of God to the austere side, and when life itself was full of lashes, gibbets, scaffolds, and dungeons." Sensitive to preserving its mandate as a missionary movement, and mindful of the increasing influence of Darwinism in America and of its many influential Presbyterian defenders and interpreters, not the least being James McCosh, liberal pastors like Russell called for change: "[S]aid revision to set forth on the one hand the sovereignty of God, and on the other most fully the love of God to man as it shines so brightly in the Gospel."
Russell's passion helped to secure the endorsement of fifteen presbyteries, but the Nassau petition was not carried at the General Assembly in 1889, nor in 1900 when Russell and his presbytery tried again, allied with the Union Theological Seminary. They partially succeeded only in 1903, faced by continued opposition from the Princeton Theological Seminary. By then, Russell's congregation had profoundly changed as the demographics of Oyster Bay shifted and as some of the church's most prominent members, like Theodore Roosevelt, migrated across the street to Christ Episcopal Church. Roosevelt's second wife, Edith Carow, was a devout Episcopalian, and their move stimulated some "church shuffling" among the elite. This shift, along with the transformation of Oyster Bay from a village polarized by vast disparities of wealth to one where a rising local professional and merchant class was emerging by the turn of the century, meant that more working-class members of the community took leadership roles in the church. Still, Reverend Russell enjoyed the continued support of the elite; at his twenty-fifth anniversary of service in 1901, Roosevelt attended his reception as a friend of the family and ardent supporter of the faith.
Life in the manse orbited Alexander Russell's twin foci of worship and pastoral care. The home of the minister was "dominated by a strong-willed father who valued education along with Christian faith." And as the eldest, Henry likely aspired to the power and authority Alexander Russell projected. But Henry was also a product of his mother Eliza, who, as a minister's wife, had responsibilities well beyond the family but tried to preserve an island of personal privacy and respite for her sons. Thus while she assisted her husband's calling by serving as secretary of the regional Missionary Society, corresponding secretary of the Christian Endeavor, and treasurer of the Ladies Aid Society, and served as well as a teacher in the church Sunday School and as an active member of the Woman's Club, among a whirlwind of other expected duties, she spared her sons the onerous duty of memorizing the Shorter Catechism: "[M]y mother had a remarkable gift for connecting her rules for everyday behavior with the Ten Commandments ... The emphasis was even more on moral principle than on religious obligation." Even so, as a proper family of a Presbyterian minister, the Russells often went door-to-door, holding prayer meetings in the street, "saving souls."
What little can be reconstructed of Russell's daily life in the 1880s and early 1890s is based on impressions left by family members. They paint a picture not unlike that of the young Theodore Roosevelt during his Oyster Bay summers over a decade earlier: "of a slight, tousled boy browned by the sun, clothes in disarray, who could barely keep still." All three sons were attended to by a succession of live-in nannies when they were young, then were trained at a local Dames' school. Henry early on was tagged as a sensitive, precocious boy. He was two and a half years old when he first saw his brother Gordon, and remarked that his brother "moves his head like a pendulum." By the age of three, as family lore attests, he had learned to read through self-study with a picture dictionary. Playing at Bay Head on the New Jersey shore in his fifth summer, when the family was visiting his maternal grandparents, Henry and Gordon were each given a penny. But when one penny slipped through the slats of the boardwalk, Henry claimed it was Gordon's, because "[t]he dates were different." There was sibling friction between Gordon and Henry, since Gordon was a prankster and tease, and Henry "was a serious child and he didn't know how to handle it." In September 1890 Henry would be sent to Princeton Preparatory School, whereas Gordon and Alex studied at a Friends' Academy in nearby Locust Valley, subsidized by funds from wealthy parishioners.
In Oyster Bay homes of that era, most sounds were those that people made: food being prepared, children running about, and the occasional noises of an active fishing harbor. Any music heard was livealthough Edison's phonograph was shown on the streets of Oyster Bay in 1889 as a curiosity, drawing a large crowdand Alexander Russell loved to sing. There was the ticking of a grandfather clock, the creaking and slamming of doors, and the calming sounds of a small brook close by. The Russell boys had their games and their friends. One game Henry later recalled was a team-based variant of hide-and-seek. Responding to a childhood friend who harbored the memory decades later, Russell thought back:
I remember very well the paper chase, which you spoke of and how I enjoyed hiding in the bushes and hearing you all go rushing past down the hill on the false trail, which we had carefully prepared. I appreciate very much also the things which you say about my father. One may well be proud to be his son.
Henry did recall his father years later as a "successful country pastor," a robust, healthy man. He would note his fondness for music and that he participated in choirs around New York for years, serving as one of the directors of the New York Oratorio Society. Alexander's musical enthusiasms were not passed on to his eldest son, however, so Henry often liked to recall that his father was drawn to mathematics and languages, much as Woodrow Wilson recalled his own pastor-father. Both his father and mother read voraciously. He described her as "bookish," but for Henry, her most prominent legacy was a "strong trait for mathematics."
Henry also claimed to have acquired his interest in astronomy in Oyster Bay: "I recall my parents showing me the transit of Venus in 1882, when I was five years old." The apparition was, indeed, quite visible to properly shaded eyes, and its transit across the Sun's disk in 1882 was a widely publicized affair in the New York area. Young Henry learned of the coming event from his father, who sermonized on the meaning of its prediction on 3 December, three days before the transit.
Alexander Russell discoursed more than once from the pulpit on the wonders of heaven and nature, and of the human desire to know. From the titles recorded by William Swan among the 2,500 sermons his minister preached, one can find astronomical themes. Favorites were seasonal changes and upcoming eclipses. At times, Swan found Russell's sermons uninteresting, "more like an essay than a sermon." But Russell's sermons could be moving, particularly when delivered without text or devoted to the questions of temperance and church reform. In these times, Alexander Russell's sermons were a "triumph." He was a "Priest to be proud of."
"Reformation principles were postulated rather than argued" at home, Henry recalled late in life, owing to "the diplomacy necessary for a small town minister." But his father was certainly not reticent to discuss the "Revision" with casual acquaintances in his son's presence when they were aboard a steamer bound for Europe in 1892, and of course he was often quoted in the newspapers. His father's failure to prevail stayed with Henry throughout his life. He revealed his youthful confusion in 1925 as he recalled how his father spoke fondly of the Unitarian William Ellery Channing, who led "thousands of good men [to] cast those unwelcome tenants, Predestination and Original Sin, out of the back doors of their minds, bade them with execrations never to show their detested faces within their souls again, and settled down in a house swept and garnished."
"I `joined' my father's church at fifteen," Henry recalled years later, "after some tribulation, (vide Pilgrim's Progress), which might have been spared except for Victorian reticence on my part." By then Henry had been living with his maiden aunt in Princeton for over three years. He was growing into a broodingly serious fellow, confused about his identity and his readiness to profess his faith. After all, Bunyan's Christian chose to forsake his family for his faith and, like Henry, had left his family early in life. Bunyan's allegorical tale, required reading in a Presbyterian family, is filled with "rejection of family and of past limitations" and the rejection of "old loyalties" to gain the "ideal reward." Upon entering the college, Henry identified himself as Presbyterian and, like his father, intended to teach, but little else survives from that time to inform us of his motives, fears, and desires.
A Summer Abroad
Starting in the fall of 1890, Henry spent his school years in Princeton and returned each summer to Oyster Bay. After his second year, Henry accompanied his father and mother on a "dream of a life time" trip to England and Europe, a gift from the congregation. His two younger brothers stayed home with Aunt Ada Louise Norris in Princeton, which gave this summer special meaning for Henry. The pastor had never been to Europe, so this was a voyage of discovery for father and son. Accordingly, Alexander Russell prepared a three-hundred-page diary of their journey. Meant to be read by his parishioners, it still provides glimpses into the pastor's character, his perception of the world, and his relationship with his son.
They left in late June 1892, toured Edinburgh, London, and much of northern Europe, and returned in early September. Every minute of their seventy-someday odyssey was filled with some form of purposeful activity. During the ocean voyage as passengers on the first-class deck of the SS Aurania, Alexander and Henry investigated the workings of the ship, from its control room and machine room right down to the "stoke hole" where the stokers fed the steam boilers. The pastor became a navigator, noting the influence of eastward motion on the length of the day, the variation of the compass as they changed in longitude, and the drop in temperature of the seawater indicating that they had left the Gulf Stream. He was a manager, approving of the "discipline and routine" of the ship's complement, clearly relishing an orderly world where good people had good jobs to do and did them right.
The pastor soon became a naturalist, watching dolphins and whales and recording the rare bird skimming the waves. He was always watching, observing, adventuring, and recording. His detailed observations continued as they passed the lighthouse at Fastnet Rock in the Irish Sea on the last leg to Liverpool, cleared customs, and searched out the nearest cathedral for Sunday worship. The same pattern continued as they traveled north to Edinburgh, Eliza's home, where they toured the sacred and historical sites of that fabled city, including the ancestral rubber manufacturing mill where Norris had labored. Alexander Russell wrote his most emotional passage after visiting a cathedral in Liverpool where, overcome by the clothing of the children and the familiar songs and prayers, he looked out the window and "saw the ivythe English ivy all around it, my eyes filled with tears as I said to myself, `At last, at last I am in dear old England.'" The pastor was certainly not a Jacobite.
Their journey had been carefully planned around two goals: to experience both the natural and civilized wonders of their cultural and religious homeland, and to give Mrs. Russell a chance to see her family. Even more than Edinburgh, sites of religious significance in London were high on the pastor's list. But he also filled the pages of his diary with descriptions of the contents of the British Museum, the architecture of the city, and the technology of transportation. As he had aboard the Aurania, he described in knowledgeable detail the workings of the railroads and clearly loved to experience them with his son; he swooned when a prize-winning locomotive steamed into St. Pancras, and was delighted with the working models of the steam-driven world displayed at South Kensington.
In the crypt at St. Paul's, they found the great names of British military history but admired the artists and ecclesiastics. In Westminster Abbey the pastor became a pilgrim. It "came to me like a revelation as of something often before imagined but never before realized." Reeling off the names of the interred, he was most passionate about the Poet's Corner and the great masters of music. But his goal was to reach the inner sanctum of the abbey, which, after knocking on the right doors he managed to enter with Henry: the very chamber where the seventeenth-century divines crafted the Confession and where the Old Testament was revised in the nineteenth century. England was Alexander Russell's spiritual homeland; on their last day in London, bound for the Antwerp ferry, he strained his neck trying to catch a glimpse of Bunhill Field Cemetery, where John Bunyan was buried. He had looked for Bunyan's church in Sheffield from their London-bound train.
Henry accompanied his father through most of his travels, but only once in his father's diary did Henry gain a voice. During a visit to the Museum of Antiquities in Antwerp, which sat atop dungeons dating from the Inquisition, the pastor led Henry and a few other boys down into the dark and dank chambers. At the deepest point, the boys blew out their candles to shiver in the closeness of the place. Russell's father left them in total darkness for a few moments but then returned to the sound of Henry's voice: "Here comes the officer to lead us out to execution." Hardly an executioner, Alexander Russell, in his zest for life, posed a challenge for a fourteen-year-old whose physical energies were limited; later in their travels Henry would retreat more and more with his mother to their hotel room while his father continued to explore.
Eliza Russell had spent some months in Heidelberg in her youth and found some of her old friends and acquaintances still healthy and hardy, though her husband did not find militarized Germany a comfortable place. Students paraded their dueling scars from their adventures, which disgusted him: "There is evident room for reform in the peculiar customs of German universities." He found the military fortifications in Strassburg ominous and oppressive.
In Switzerland, they turned to vigorous hiking. The mechanics of the cog tramway up the Rigi were as fascinating as the rocks and strata. On the descent, with Lake Lucerne spread out before them, the pastor became annoyed by cigar smokers in the car, "smoking as though the whole world was theirs to pollute ..." Here again he taxed the energies of Henry and his mother, though Henry did his best to keep up. Arriving at the Matterhorn, while the bulk of their tour group looked to the comforts of the hotel, Alexander marched off to survey the territory, recording it in stream-of-consciousness detail. It is just this type of focused energy and exhaustive attention to detail that his eldest son would adopt in his research. The pastor loved to be up to meet the sun, and to witness its setting, just as Henry would do decades later when he visited places of natural beauty, like the Lowell and Lick Observatories.
There were also fortuitous contacts made on the journey. When Pastor Russell led a Scottish service in Lucerne in late July, they found Francis Landy Patton in the congregation. Patton, who was then president of Princeton, lingered with the Russells and others, discussing matters of the day. From their exchange the Russells seem to have been on familiar terms with Patton.
Letters from home started arriving in early August, mainly from Aunt Ada, reporting that all was well with Gordon and Alex. Reassured, the family moved on to Paris, another whirlwind of detail. Once back in London, Alexander led his family over familiar ground, adding a trip to Windsor, where he was so taken by the countryside that he put Eliza and Henry on the return train and set out on foot for their hotel. They had missed the drill inspection at the Tower of London on their first visit and now were in luck: "Henry who had never seen anything of the kind before, was so much interested that he insisted upon staying till the inspection was completed." Obviously captivated by the pomp and circumstance, Henry watched as each man was inspected, and was amazed at the tiny infractions that could render a man unfit to guard "Her Majesty's Tower."
Oxford overwhelmed Mr. Russell. Just as his son would later write and publish reams of detailed argument supporting his theories and conclusions, exhausting his detractors with specifics, the father never seemed to tire of describing meticulously his impressions of the world around him. His industry peaked as he encountered the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, the Martyr's Memorial, and the old entrance to the City.
Eliza and Henry were by now totally exhausted. Henry developed a sore throat in Oxford, and his health withered in Chester, where his father had planned to walk some six miles to Sunday services to hear William Ewart Gladstone, the obsessively tenacious Scotsman who had been Queen Victoria's prime minister four times and was freshly triumphant as the newly designated first lord of the treasury. "But I must wait till the morning & see how Henry may be." Alexander missed Gladstone, summoning a doctor and searching for the prescribed medicinal. After the crisis had passed, the doctor predicted that the ocean voyage would act like a tonic, doing Henry a world of good.
They had to rush to board the Cunard Steamship Gallia in Liverpool, which seemed not as nice as the Aurania; it was smaller and "there is a large list of steerage passengers, some of whom at least have come from a land where soap is not plentiful! I understand that many are Russian Jews." Their passage home on the salon deck was a rough one but delighted the pastor no end. He stayed on deck to watch as "the great vessel rolled & plunged among the yeasty ... monstrous ... waves." One wave reached over the bow and sent spray to the top of the smokestack. He recounted every step the crew took to batten down the ship, taking considerable pride in his own knowledge of proper procedure.
The pastor's stream-of-consciousness narrative, created from memory, reveals his mental capacity for detail, a quality Henry would later exhibit. His narrative continued to 1 September and their arrival in New York, recounting concerts, athletic events, and conversations with the captain and crew about the state of sea travel. Nearing the docking area, aboard a tender taking the salon passengers to shore, leaving those in steerage because of a cholera scare, the Russells reunited with the spires of the "twin cities" of Manhattan and Brooklyn and bade farewell to their trusted crew. Thus ended "our most delightful and never-to-be-forgotten Summer Trip."
The months they spent together were a very special time for Henry; he would repeat the experience with his own family thirty-seven years later. His parents' decision to leave his younger brothers at home indicated his place; Gordon and Alexander may have been too young for such a vigorous trip, or limited funds might have excluded them. But at the very least, for a sensitive adolescent who had spent much of the previous two years apart from his parents, the trip must have reassured him that he was still part of the family.
This brief window on family life provides a chance to speculate about the father and his relation to Henry. The pastor was wholly engrossed with the event the day, be it ocean travel, inspecting the many historic churches and cathedrals of his ancestral homeland, or, we might surmise, attending to the daily needs of his congregation in Oyster Bay. Both his love of music (chiefly liturgical singing) and his devotion to his calling find expression in his record of their trip. As with Woodrow Wilson's father, who led his eldest son on tours of local mills and factories to expose him to the workings of the world, and would test him to determine how well his son had absorbed the experience, Alexander Russell constantly guided Henry through his world, from the mechanics of the drive system of the steamer, the art of navigation, and ocean sounding, to the details of rail transport and the geology of the Alps. In all of this the pastor's enthusiasms were endless; education and exposure to life were the means to develop mind and character, clear thinking and accurate expression.
But the diary also reveals a father centered on his own passions. Save for the visit to Eliza's father's workplace and her family and friends in Edinburgh and Heidelberg, it was the pastor's show. Since this was a public document, little about the state of his family emerges, beyond Henry's or Eliza's health. Even though Henry's name appears explicitly many times as his father's companion in discovery, nothing is revealed of his inner thoughts about his son, nor of his son's temper or disposition. The one exception was Henry's utterance from the dungeons, enacting the role of resolute character in the face of certain death. Delighted by such manliness, the pastor recorded his son's words for the world to read, as if in them he found affirmation that his eldest son had come of age. This exception, combined with what is known about Henry's student life at Princeton, suggests a reason for the trip beyond the father's personal desires for adventure.
Pastor Russell was, by all indications, a typical Victorian, eager to experience real life and to establish moral regeneration through vigorous and disciplined physical and mental exercise. The Edinburgh natural philosopher James David Forbes "prescribed travel to shape the raw material of a young man's moral nature." Vigorous exertion strengthened both manly character and scientific perception. Proper Victorian males knew both "nervous exhaustion" and "vigorous, resolute immersion in direct experience of nature." The pastor was no exception, and the father wanted the same for his son. "The roast beef of hard industry gives blood for climbing the hills of life," Joseph Ruggles Wilson wrote his son Woodrow in 1878; the pastor could have said much the same to Henry.
Of the Russells' three sons, however, Henry was the least involved in active sport and seemed to avoid physical exertion as much as possible. He was evidently a nervous and rather anxious child, and so if his father shared Forbes's vision that adventurous, vigorous travel would bring his eldest son around, the European tour was his instrument to help his son mature. The diary clearly reveals how Henry was challenged by his father's capacity for exertion. Strongly implied too is that Henry lived in a world defined by his father: that when one was in the pastor's presence, one was focused by his personality and the force of his enthusiasms. Just as Woodrow Wilson's father's "principal avocation, as well as vocation, was talking," Pastor Russell was rarely at a loss for words. Henry would inherit this trait once he found his own position in life. But Henry probably felt closer to his mathematically inclined mother than to his clerical father. It was primarily the mother's role to manage the home and create its overall atmosphere, though she did so in deference to the wishes of the vigorous and ever-busy father.
Indeed, Henry too would lead a vigorous life, but one of the mind, not the body. All the energy, intensity, and self-absorption manifest in his father's diary reemerged in his son. Some of the outdoorsmanship survived too, though in the form of less strenuous pleasures like nature study. Henry did eventually assume the discipline and character that Forbes's vision of a Victorian male demanded, but he would do it in his own way.
If the European trip had some influence in drawing Henry closer to the family, he still took over a year to decide to join his father's Oyster Bay congregation as a full member of the church; he did so only on 1 October 1893, ten days after he had entered Princeton, and three weeks before his sixteenth birthday.
The Family Legacy
Typically cryptic about the influences upon him, Russell still took pride that his father had fought to remove "so much polemic sixteenth century phraseology" from the Presbyterian Confession of Faith, just as his family took pride in his mother's moral responsibility and mathematical prowess. As the eldest son, Russell assumed his father's theological liberalism, and the intervening years to adulthood did little to change his outlook. His 1925 "Fate and Freedom" Terry Lectures on Religion, delivered at Yale, rejected Old School Calvinism's use of the deterministic aspects of the exact sciences to resurrect predestination, "under which the whole course of Nature and of human events has been decisively settled in detail before the beginning of the world." Russell warned that
[b]elief in the determination of events by influences antecedent to the human will has indeed come back, fortified by a mass of evidence derived from the field of science and possessing its redoubtable authority. We can no longer escape determinism by changing from one school of religious belief to another, nor even by rejecting religion altogether. The fight must be fought out squarely on scientific ground.
The 1920s was a particularly turbulent time when Presbyterian theological orthodoxy was counterattacking the newly established liberalism, in no small part exacerbated by the weakening of organized religion on the American college campus. In 1925, typically for the time, Russell claimed "full acceptance of the mechanistic theory of nature ... not as a demonstrated natural law, but as a working hypothesis." His challenge was to show that mechanistic determinism in the inorganic world could do no harm to religion, morality, government, or art, and in fact did not promote any sense of "inexorable predestination." Science, Russell argued, was bound to explain the properties of systems and was not free to attribute properties ad hoc; nor could it assume that the ultimate explanation of these properties could be known from their superficial characteristics. "The old hope of finding final and perfect statements of the truth about a simple universe has fled ..." In its place was a striving for closer and closer approximations to the truth, "a steadily increasing accuracy of approximation in the description and interpretation of an incredibly and magnificently complex universe." In its constant striving, science had freed itself from absolutes, whereas theology had not. Thus Russell felt that there was much theology could learn from science in an age of relativism.
Russell did, however, rely on his theology for his basic conception of nature, which persisted even as modern physics revolutionized the physical universe. In light of the new mechanics of Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and Dirac, Eddington and others proclaimed in the 1930s that determinism in the physical universe had "really been eliminated." Not for Russell. Strict mechanistic determinism still described the macro universe, though he was willing to reinterpret it as a world governed by statistical mechanical laws, and one that appeared wholly mechanistic in the aggregate but retained free will for the individual, whether that individual was a particle or a person. To Russell, statistical determinism was "more impressive than any dogmatic assertion of certainty ..." But just as clearly, he remained deeply wedded to the old beliefs. Trying to clarify his conception of the statistical properties of nature for a colleague in 1941, during a set of conferences convened in New York under the rubric "Science, Philosophy and Religion," Russell explained privately that his fondness for determinism was not derived from his professional life: "Personally an ultimately deterministic hypothesis satisfies my feelings, but my reasons are based on theology and not at all on physics."
Publicly, Russell delighted in the recitation of Scripture, finding it both uplifting and useful for illuminating points made in argument. Publicly he also eschewed its formalisms just as he rejected the rhetoric and rigid teleological demands of the organized church. Although he would become an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, his rejection of compulsory daily chapel on campus in the 1920s made him too liberal for even his closest friends at the seminary, one of whom approved of his status as church elder but felt that he could never be a seminary faculty member. Inwardly, however, Russell could be a Calvinist. Pondering the causes of war in 1943, Russell could find no rational analysis. War, he felt, was attributable not to "human unreason, but to human depravity; but if I said this in public, so many people would regard me as a variously-qualified Calvinist that I forbear!"
Russell outwardly reflected his parent's liberalism in both his religion and his science. Just as he loved Scripture and literature, or neat mathematical tricks, he rejected religious formalism as well as the formalisms of mathematical rigor; for him the process of science was an intuitive one. But theory had to be tempered by observation. For Russell, the universe was so complex that one could not hope to determine "detailed behavior by exact mathematical analysis." He believed that the scientific spirit was the best guide to understanding. It fostered right ways of thinking: respect for observations and the ability to evaluate their efficacy, or the ability to scrupulously distinguish between nature itself and the theoretical models created to describe nature. "Perfect certainty may not be attainable, but a degree of assurance can be reached which justifies our venturing our fortunes, or lives, or even our souls in deliberate and reasoned commitment to a trustworthy faith." In Russell, faith and science came together, very much his parents' legacy but also seamlessly strengthened by his institutional roots.
Religion and Science at Princeton
in the 1890s
When Russell entered the College of New Jersey, term opened "in the Chapel with the reading of the Scriptures, and address and Prayer by the President." Daily chapel was compulsory, and Francis Landy Patton was now in the pulpit, succeeding McCosh in an 1888 backlash to McCosh's secularizing reforms. Deeply committed to restoring the traditional virtues of an ecclesiastical campus, the zealous heretic-seeking cleric and polemicist offended some alumni and rekindled divisiveness between science and religion on campus. Although he fought secularization, he assured critics that Princeton would continue as a center for research, because "the professor who has ceased to learn is unfit to teach." Fine words, but Patton was in deep opposition to McCosh's vision, disputing evolution in any form, certain that it was "a device for banishing God." Patton, preoccupied with moral and right thinking, let academic standards slip, which, purposely or not, made Princeton more popular than ever in the 1890s.
Patton did not prevent the teaching of evolution. Although some, like geologist Arnold Guyot and the mathematician John T. Duffield, were skeptical about strict Darwinian evolution, otherslike George Macloskie, who studied under McCosh in Belfast and came to Princeton in 1875 to take up the professorship of natural science"vigorously promoted science among orthodox Presbyterians and consistently urged the value of a chastened Darwinian perspective ..." Macloskie and McCosh were strong defenders of evolution, as were their followers, chiefly Charles A. Young, the astronomer, and the physicist Cyrus Fogg Brackett. Young lived in the director's residence next to the students' observatory on Prospect Street, and Brackett was his nearest neighbor and "most intimate friend here." Together they occupied what Princetonians chidingly called "atheist's corner."
Young keenly knew that powerful campus forces were not comfortable with science. He may have lived at "atheist's corner," but he had studied theology and preached that astronomy revealed the handiwork of God. At a time when the majority of Princeton faculty were clerics and when "[a] deeply religious feeling permeated" official campus life, Young was recalled by students older than Russell as "[d]eeply religious himself, of pure and simple faith." When many were fearful that science would overrun religion, Young was well-known as a defender of the view that "there was nothing inconsistent in the revelations of scientific research and true religion." In lay sermons he celebrated the belief that as astronomers have come to know "more and more of the material universe," they have also revealed the "Glory and Majesty of the Creator." Astronomy, Young hastened to point out, could say nothing about God's "moral attributes," nor could it demonstrate "his Providence and Holiness, his Justice or his Mercy." For evidence of these, Young added, one must look to moral law "written upon the human heart" and to the course of history.
Young believed, as Russell would all his life, that there were limits to knowledge. Faithful to a scientific tradition imbued with moral and religious virtue, Young presented a "self-effacing style of `humility.'" For Young, science was both incomplete and mutable, but it was preferable to a literal Genesis because it "seems to me far less honorable to the Divine intelligence and power than that which supposes him to have contrived the matter out of which the worlds are made, that from a chaotic nebula should have resulted the present stately cosmos by the simple operation of the laws He first imposed."
McCosh hired Young from Dartmouth in 1877 to complete the long-delayed Halsted Observatory, which would soon boast a 23-inch refractor, three inches shy of the largest in the world. Young also complemented McCosh, sharing his sympathy for responsible speculation and theorizing. Truth was attainable only through the systematic combination of observation and intuition. Pure empiricism was not viable, and a priori reasoning was barren of reality. McCosh's Scottish commonsense philosophy demanded the flexible combination of intuition, to arrive at working hypotheses, with deduction from observation, to test those hypotheses. Just as McCosh influenced those he trained at Princeton, such as Woodrow Wilson in the 1870s, those he drew to the college as faculty, like Young, were of kindred spirit and would, in turn, influence others, like Russell.
Astronomical instruction, Young proclaimed in his 1890 Elements of Astronomy, a book Russell would soon read, not only trained the mind but helped one to appreciate "the dignity of the human intellect as the offspring, and measurably the counterpart, of the Divine; able in a sense to `comprehend' the universe, and know its plan and meaning." Russell likely heard Young say more than once in class, when the spirit moved him, "God hides that we may find, and we exult in finding like little children with whom their father plays hide and seek." Such evangelical campaigning was typical among senior American scientists of Young's day, clearly capitalizing on a growing enthusiasm for science and the potential of its products to benefit society.
Russell as Product
Like Woodrow Wilson, Russell was a product of the intellectual and religious environment fostered by McCosh. He also reflected his father's enthusiasms for the world and his theological liberalism, his mother's sense of moral responsibility, and Young's belief in the compatibility of science with religion. Russell ardently believed in the need for balance between observation and intuition in scientific practice, as McCosh and Young taught. He also sympathized with the need for secularization and pluralism on a campus that remained one of the most traditional in America.
Russell, fostered by the Princeton that McCosh had built, was a secular scientist living in a revealed universe. In his earlier writings, Russell was comfortable expressing a deep-rooted belief in the presence of design in nature, not continually acting, but evident from first principles, an attitude reminiscent of McCosh's age and a vestige of the enthusiasms of natural theology. He could also indulge in cosmogonical speculation, up to the limit established by God's design. To retain that freedom, he knew, as did his mentor Young, that it was his responsibility, as well as his legacy, to campaign for science in the service of a revealed moral universe, and that the revelations of science would, in the long run, serve the religious life. Russell also knew, and advocated more than once publicly, that theorizing in science was never enough, nor was it an end unto itself. Nor was open-ended observation, uninformed by theory, an effective means to conduct research. The balance he sought in science stood as a guide for a better world, a world in which religion remained a force.
In times of crisis, Russell invoked the lessons of scientific practice to shore up his moral and religious universe. In 1916, with the world plunging into war, he called for a "Scientific Approach to Christianity." In the mid-1920s, in the face of fundamentalist attacks, he showed how the scientific imaginationdisciplined, expanded, and liberated in the pursuit of naturecould come to the aid of our limited human conceptions of the world in the understanding of God. In the 1930s as he worked to shelter European refugee astronomers on American soil, and near the end of his life, recovering from heart attacks and the horrors of a second great war, Russell remained convinced that science could make "valuable contributions toward the resolution of some old theological difficulties."
Throughout his life Russell would campaign for many causes, ranging from the abolition of compulsory prayer on campus to the defense of modern physics even when it espoused indeterminacy. He also argued fervently for "practical human self-determination" and remained uncomfortable with metaphysical explanations. Believing that "[t]he only credible God is one who is responsibleto use our absurdly inadequate human wordfor the entire universe," Russell claimed that science was the salvation of religion not only for what it revealed about God's handiwork, as Young claimed at the turn of the century, but for the tools it provided to aid human beings in the struggle to perceive that handiwork. Scientific training was essential if one were to gain a rational perspective on the doctrinal tensions that were part of everyday religious life. As he preached in 1925, a religious person trained in science, "especially in physical science," would not be alarmed at differences in theological attitude. The scientist, Russell argued, could cope with diversity and in fact welcomed it. A time of controversy was, to the scientist, not a time of doubt but "an exhilarating one of rapid advance." Only scientific training could provide the tools necessary to enable one to be "very suspicious of the proposition that certain statements of theological theoryor even of religious truthpossess absolute, plenary, inspired accuracy."
Russell expressed the tentativeness typical of liberal Protestantism: that ultimate truth was not attainable. In the 1920s, when the Victorian ideal of a unity of truth had finally been laid to rest, Russell campaigned for greater tolerance toward religion as a set of ethical principles. Late in life, though inwardly a determinist, he identified his public position as "relativist rather than absolutist," feeling that "a physicist can take no other." No theory was permanent, and views constantly changed, improved, iterated closer to the truth, but never reached the truth. Just as he believed that "man was created `to glorify Cod and to enjoy Him forever,'" he did not believe that humans would ever be "capable of attaining an absolute knowledge of Godor of anything else." It was not only human to strive for perfection, it was mankind's duty, even though no measurement could ever be perfect, "owing to human imperfection."
As we examine Russell's life as an astronomer, looking for clues for what astronomy meant to him as a calling and how he planned to answer that call, we must appreciate that from the first he saw the universe as deeply moral and religious, subject to the natural laws created by God. Though both he and the world around him changed in many ways, he never abandoned that vision. Nor did he abandon his religious background and upbringing, which though supportive rather than determinative of his life course, still shaped the choices he made about his career and his scientific practice.