The Muggletonians, an Obscure Religious Sect, Made Beautiful Maps That Put the Earth at the Center of the Solar System (1846)

In 1975, the philoso­pher of sci­ence Paul Fey­er­abend pub­lished his high­ly con­trar­i­an Against Method, a book in which he argued that “sci­ence is essen­tial­ly an anar­chic enter­prise,” and as such, ought to be accord­ed no more priv­i­lege than any oth­er way of know­ing in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety. Moti­vat­ed by con­cerns about sci­ence as a dom­i­neer­ing ide­ol­o­gy, he argued the his­tor­i­cal messi­ness of sci­en­tif­ic prac­tice, in which the­o­ries come about not through ele­gant log­i­cal think­ing but often by com­plete acci­dent, through copi­ous tri­al and error, intu­ition, imag­i­na­tion, etc. Only in hind­sight do we impose restric­tions and tidy rules and nar­ra­tives on rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­cov­er­ies.

Sev­er­al years lat­er, in the third, 1993 edi­tion of the book, Fey­erebend observed with alarm the same wide­spread anti-sci­ence bias that Carl Sagan wrote of two years lat­er in Demon-Haunt­ed World. “Times have changed,” he wrote, “Con­sid­er­ing some ten­den­cies in U.S. edu­ca­tion… and in the world at large I think that rea­son should now be giv­en greater weight.”

Fey­er­abend died the fol­low­ing year, but I won­der how he might revise or qual­i­fy a 2018 edi­tion of the book, or whether he would repub­lish it at all. Polit­i­cal­ly-moti­vat­ed sci­ence denial­ism reigns. Indeed, a blithe denial of any observ­able real­i­ty, aid­ed by dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, has become a dystopi­an new norm. But as the philoso­pher also com­ment­ed, such cir­cum­stances may “occur fre­quent­ly today… but may dis­ap­pear tomor­row.”

In the record­ed his­to­ry of human inquiry across cul­tures and civ­i­liza­tions, we see ideas we call sci­en­tif­ic co-exist­ing with what we rec­og­nize as pseu­do- and anti-sci­en­tif­ic notions. The dif­fer­ences aren’t always very clear at the time. And then, some­times, they are. Dur­ing the so-called Age of Rea­son, when the devel­op­ment of the mod­ern sci­ences in Europe slow­ly eclipsed oth­er modes of expla­na­tion, one obscure group of con­trar­i­ans per­sist­ed in almost com­i­cal­ly stub­born unrea­son. Call­ing them­selves the Mug­gle­to­ni­ans, the Protes­tant sect—like those today who deny cli­mate change and evolution—resisted an over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus of empir­i­cal sci­ence, the Coper­ni­can view of the solar sys­tem, despite all avail­able evi­dence the con­trary. In so doing, they left behind a series of “beau­ti­ful celes­tial maps,” notes Greg Miller at Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, some of which resem­ble William Blake’s visu­al poet­ry.

The sect began in 1651, when a Lon­don tai­lor named John Reeve “claimed to have received a mes­sage from God” nam­ing his cousin Lodow­icke Mug­gle­ton as the “’last mes­sen­ger for a great work unto this bloody unbe­liev­ing world.’… One of the main prin­ci­ples of their faith, a lat­er observ­er wrote, was that ‘There is no Dev­il but the unclean Rea­son of men.’” Their view of the uni­verse, based, of course, on scrip­ture, resem­bles the Medieval Catholic view that Galileo attempt­ed to cor­rect, but their prin­ci­ple antag­o­nist was not the Ital­ian poly­math or the ear­li­er Renais­sance astronomer Coper­ni­cus, but the great sci­en­tif­ic mind of the time, Isaac New­ton, whom Mug­gle­to­ni­ans railed against into the 19th and even 20th cen­tu­ry. Mug­gle­to­ni­ans, Miller writes,” had remark­able longevity—the last known mem­ber died in 1979 after donat­ing the sect’s archive of books and papers… to the British Library.”

These plates come from an 1846 book called Two Sys­tems of Astron­o­my. Writ­ten by Mug­gle­ton­ian Isaac Frost, it “pit­ted the sci­en­tif­ic sys­tem of Isaac Newton—which held that the grav­i­ta­tion­al pull of the sun holds the Earth and oth­er plan­ets in orbit around it—against an Earth-cen­tered uni­verse based on a lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible.” The plate above, for exam­ple, “attempts to show the absur­di­ty of the New­ton­ian sys­tem by depict­ing our solar sys­tem as one of many in an infi­nite and god­less uni­verse.” Iron­i­cal­ly, in attempt­ing to ridicule New­ton (who was him­self a pseu­do-sci­en­tist and Bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ist in oth­er ways), the Mug­gle­to­ni­ans stum­bled upon the view of mod­ern astronomers, who extrap­o­late a mind-bog­gling num­ber of pos­si­ble solar sys­tems in an observ­able uni­verse of over 100 bil­lion galax­ies (though these sys­tems are not enclosed cells crammed togeth­er side-by-side). Anoth­er plate, below, shows Frost’s depic­tion of the hat­ed New­ton­ian sys­tem, with the Earth, Mars, and Jupiter orbit­ing the Sun.

The oth­er maps, fur­ther up, all rep­re­sent the Mug­gle­ton­ian view. His­to­ri­an of sci­ence Fran­cis Reid describes it thus:

Accord­ing to Frost, Scrip­ture clear­ly states that the Sun, the Moon and the Stars are embed­ded in a fir­ma­ment made of con­gealed water and revolve around the Earth, that Heav­en has a phys­i­cal real­i­ty above and beyond the stars, and that the plan­ets and the Moon do not reflect the Sun’s rays but are them­selves inde­pen­dent sources of light.

Frost gave lec­tures at “estab­lish­ments set up for the edu­ca­tion of arti­sans and oth­er work­men.” It seems he didn’t attract much atten­tion and was fre­quent­ly heck­led by audi­ence mem­bers. Like flat earth­ers, Mug­gle­to­ni­ans were treat­ed as cranks, and unlike today’s reli­gious anti-sci­ence cru­saders, they nev­er had the pow­er to influ­ence pub­lic pol­i­cy or edu­ca­tion. For this rea­son, per­haps, it is easy to see them as quaint­ly humor­ous. Frost’s maps, as Miller writes, “remain strange­ly allur­ing” for both their artis­tic qual­i­ty and their aston­ish­ing­ly deter­mined creduli­ty. The plates are now part of the mas­sive David Rum­sey col­lec­tion, which hous­es thou­sands of rare his­tor­i­cal maps. For anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing look at reli­gious car­tog­ra­phy, see Miller’s Nation­al Geo­graph­ic post “map­ping the Apoc­a­lypse.”

via Nation­al Geo­graph­ic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edi­tion of Galileo’s Sci­en­tif­ic Work, and Almost Pulled it Off

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Carl Sagan Pre­dicts the Decline of Amer­i­ca: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “With­out Notic­ing, Back into Super­sti­tion & Dark­ness” (1995)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • NIGEL J WATSON says:

    Nev­er heard of this group, Josh, but could­n’t agree more with 90% of their hold­ings after my own, not shab­by, inves­ti­ga­tion of Mason­ic lies down through he ages.
    Sci­ence, like reli­gion, law, his­to­ry, gov­ern­ments and such are all lies and mis­di­rec­tion cre­at­ed to con­fuse and con­trol the mass­es.
    My take is that New­ton, Coper­ni­cus, Galileo, Jen­ner, Dar­win, Ein­stein, and on and on, were reward­ed hand­some­ly for their efforts to cre­ate false memes and a con­trolled real­i­ty.
    Fur­ther, as the same alleged humans run it, it’s no small won­der that the lat­ter names all won Nobel (anoth­er 33rd degree dude) prizes to ‘rec­og­nize’ their ground­break­ing achieve­ments.
    See how that works?
    We live in Roman times, mi ami­go
    PS like your stuff — car­ry on ;)

  • Gerald says:

    Before the author equates those who chal­lenge today’s cli­mate change advo­cates with “Mug­gle­to­ni­ans”, he should read Steven Koon­in’s Sept. 19, 2014 op-ed in the WSJ enti­tled “Cli­mate Sci­ence is Not Set­tled.” And lest Mr. Jones assume that Dr. Koonin is of Mug­gle­ton­ian descent, he need not fear; he is a for­mer Pro­fes­sor of The­o­ret­i­cal Physics at Cal­tech and for­mer under­sec­re­tary for sci­ence in the Ener­gy Dep’t dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion. It is cer­tain­ly eas­i­er to den­i­grate those with whom we dis­agree, but I would sug­gest that address­ing argu­ments head-on is a more fruit­ful (and civ­il) endeav­or.

  • Josh Jones says:

    On the one hand, Ger­ald, I’ll grant that the exam­ple of cli­mate denial­ism may be inapt­ly cho­sen here. Because cli­mate denial­ism is not so much about reli­gion as about prof­it: huge short-term gains for a very few peo­ple at the expense of bil­lions of oth­er peo­ple’s well-being for who knows how far into the future. (Look up “what Exxon knew about cli­mate change,” for exam­ple.)

    On the oth­er hand, per­haps we might con­sid­er the belief that prof­it mat­ters more than peo­ple a kind of qua­si-reli­gious delu­sion: greed on a scale of wor­ship. I do not “den­i­grate” cli­mate denial­ists by point­ing out that they “resist an over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus of empir­i­cal sci­ence.” That is a fac­tu­al account what they are doing. You’ll need to do bet­ter than cite a sin­gle four-year-old WSJ op-ed (pub­lished, that is, before last year’s hur­ri­cane sea­son), writ­ten by a one­time employ­ee of BP. I can­not per­son­al­ly tes­ti­fy as a sci­en­tist, so Koonin and his like are not peo­ple “with whom I dis­agree,” per­son­al­ly. But I defer to oth­er sci­en­tists, such as the gen­tle­man at the link below, who points out that much of Koon­in’s crit­i­cism of cli­mate sci­ence par­rots denial­ist talk­ing points rather than mak­ing sub­stan­tive claims.

    Cli­mate sci­ence seems set­tled *enough* that to take *no* action but rather con­tin­ue in the same destruc­tive direc­tion seems irra­tional and gross­ly irre­spon­si­ble, as we can see already in the thou­sands of peo­ple los­ing their homes and the ecosys­tems and species rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing. Set­tled *enough* is typ­i­cal­ly good enough in many sci­ences to move for­ward, since we don’t prove most things beyond any and all doubt, but rather arrive at the high­est degree of prob­a­bil­i­ty based on the best avail­able evi­dence, then revise as more and bet­ter evi­dence comes. Well over 90% of the sci­en­tists who study these mat­ters seem to agree on a high degree of prob­a­bil­i­ty for human-caused cli­mate change. Those who dis­agree gen­er­al­ly seem moti­vat­ed by rea­sons hav­ing noth­ing at all to do with sci­ence.

  • Arn says:

    If they stub­bled upon solar sys­tem sym­me­try by acci­dent and in parade.…what would hap­pen if they’re mock­ings cor­rect and oth­er sys­tems lay just next door.

    As a Chris­t­ian God asks us to put up with a lot from oth­er Chris­tians, accept­ing Can­non and putting up with child­ish­ness. Paul had no prob­lem with the philoso­phers of Athens as long as each one accept the foun­da­tions, the basics of Chris­tian­i­ty.
    Saddly, the Mug­gle­to­ni­ans deny the basics say­ing there is no Dev­il. True, there is the stu­pid­i­ty of our­selves, but when every­thing is going right and every­one gets along, where does that word, dis­ten­tion lack­ing sense, that throws all into tur­moil and that hatred of Iago’s that just hates, where does it come from?

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