The quintessential man of science was also convinced that there was a code in the Bible that predicted the exact date of the Second Coming.
If anyone is the patron saint of modern science -- of the whole scientific outlook as we know it -- Isaac Newton would surely be that man. As James Gleick writes in his biography of Newton, "He was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity. He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos. He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact. He established principles, and they are called his laws." This is the standard narrative about Newton, but it's not the whole story. As much as today's scientists celebrate Newton, their reverence is matched by that of a very different group: the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
In order to understand Newton's connection to the Adventists, the spiritual descendants of an American preacher named William Miller, we need to be more aware than people usually are about the astonishing range of Newton's interests. In 1936, a large cache of Newton's personal papers -- material that he had never published and in some cases had kept quite secret -- were offered for sale by Sotheby's, and many of them were bought by the great economist John Maynard Keynes. When he got the chance to read what he had purchased, Keynes was surprised and at times appalled. He had known about Newton's interest in alchemy, and may even have been aware that Newton believed Scripture to be full of mathematical codes -- for instance, in the proportions decreed for the construction of Solomon's Temple. But he was not quite prepared for the great man's obsession with biblical prophecy, especially the book of Daniel, a close reading of which had convinced Newton that the world would end in 2060.
Writing about his discovery some years later, Keynes commented,
In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason.
I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians. ... Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood.
More particularly, Newton believed that encoded in Scripture was a perfectly specific identification -- as specific and reliable as the Inverse Square Law -- of the time of the Second Coming, or Second Advent, of Jesus Christ. And he believed he had discovered this date just as surely as he had discovered what he called "fluxions," or what we now call calculus.
In this sense Newton was one of the first great Adventists, and almost exactly one hundred years after Newton's death, William Miller in Vermont would also interpret the book of Daniel as a blueprint of the Second Advent. Miller's memoirs record his great debt to Newton, and he named one of his ten children Isaac Newton Miller. Perhaps because he lacked Newton's mathematical genius, Miller calculated Daniel's encoded message rather differently and announced that Christ would come again in 1844. When that did not happen, it constituted for Miller's followers The Great Disappointment.
But however great the disappointment, the failed prediction certainly did not bring an end to the Millerite cause: churches following his teachings continued, the largest of them today being the Seventh Day Adventists, with more than 15 million members around the world. One book on the influence of Newton's theology features a drawing from an Adventist magazine. The drawing is called "The March of the Reformers," and it portrays a procession of sages from the prophet Daniel to modern times. At the very center of the procession, holding aloft a torch of blazing light, is -- no, not William Miller, but the far greater figure of Isaac Newton.
P.S. Note to future editors of this website: please update this post accordingly in 2060 -- if you and it are still around.