(b. Croft, Yorkshire, England, ca. 1635; d. London, England, 27 September 1715)
Little is known of Burnet’s family or early childhood other than that his father was John Burnet and that he attended the Freeschool of Northallerton, where he attracted the attention of his teacher, Thomas Smelt. In 1651 he was admitted as pensioner at Clare Hall, Cambridge. Although he was officially a student of William Owtram’s and closely associated with John Tillotson, he was most influenced by Ralph Cudworth. Sometime after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1655, Burnet followed Cudworth to Christ’s College, became a fellow of the college in 1657, and received his M.A. in 1658. He became proctor of the college in 1667 and remained listed as a fellow until 1678, even though he was not in residence all of that time. While at Cambridge, Burnet worked closely with the Cambridge Platonists, especially Cudworth and Henry More. In 1671 he went abroad as governor to the young earl of Wiltshire and later made a second tour of Europe with the grandson of the duke of Ormonde, the earl of Orrery. During his travels he started writing his theory of the earth, the first two parts of which he completed soon after his return to England.
Burnet published these two parts, the books concerning the Deluge and Paradise, under the title Telluris theoria sacra in Latin in 1681 and produced an English version in 1684. The immediate reaction to the book was favorable. Many praised the style and thought; a few questioned the theory. In 1685 Burnet, who had been ordained in the Anglican Church, was made Master of the Charterhouse at the recommendation of the duke of Ormonde. In 1686, when the king tried to have Andrew Popham, a Roman Catholic, admitted as a pensioner at the Charterhouse, Burnet effectively opposed the appointment. Shortly after William III ascended the throne, Burnet became chaplain in ordinary to the king and clerk of the closet.
During this time The Sacred Theory of the Earth had become a subject of controversy. Christianus Wagner, Herbert Crofts, bishop of Hereford, and Erasmus Warren attacked it. For a time Burnet ignored the criticisms, then answered by expanding his theory. In 1689 he published a new Latin edition containing two additional books, and in 1691 he completed a similar English edition that included his “Review of the Theory of the Earth” and a reply to Warren’s objections.
The Sacred Theory of the Earth was Burnet’s attempt to combine the idealism of the Cambridge Platonists, Scripture, and an explanation of the features of the earth’s surface in order to account for the past and present states of the earth and to offer a prophecy about its future. He believed that there werte four major events in the earth’s history; its origin from chaos, the universal deluge, the universal conflagration, and the consummation of all things. The first two of these had already happened; the last two were yet to come. These four events divided the history of the earth into three periods. The first, from, the Creation to the Deluge, Burnet described as the state of paradise and the antedeluvian world. This earth differed in form and constitution from the present earth. Its surface, which covered the waters and a great abyss, was smooth, regular, and uniform, without mountains or seas. The material of this surface was moist, oily earth suitable to sustain living things. When the surface caved into the abyss, an event due to the continued drying action of the sun, and was no longer smooth, the fluctuations of the waters over this irregular earth caused the universal deluge. This marked the end of the first period.
The second, or present, era was for Burnet the age between the Deluge and the Conflagration. During this time the surface and interior of the earth undergo slow but continual change and thus, when the time comes in the plan of Divine Providence, the earth will be ready and able to burn. The final period, that of the millennium, is the era following the universal conflagration, when there will be a new heaven and a new earth in which the blessed will enjoy a life of peace and tranquillity. At the end millennium the earth will be changed into a bright star, and the consummation of all things predicted in Scripture will be fulfilled.
The expanded theory occasioned more controversy and more replies from Burnet. In 1692 he attempted to reconcile the account of creation in Genesis with his theory in Archaelogiae philosophicae. This book aroused such opposition for its allegorical treatment of Scripture that Burnet, although he had dedicated the book to William III, was forced to resign his position at court. He retired to the Charterhouse and remained there until his death. He was buried in the vault of the Charterhouse chapel a week after he died.
Burnet spent the last years of his life writing in defense of his theory. Most of the attacks upon it were upon religious grounds. Warren, Crofts, John Beaumont, and others accused him of a too liberal or allegorical interpretation of Scripture or or eliminating the necessity of God’s working in the universe. John Keill however, attacked the Cartesian mechanical basis of the theory and refuted it in terms of Newtonian mechanics. In his replies to these, Burnet either reiterated his own interpretation of Scripture or, when unable to refute a logical or mathematical argument against him, pointed out a minor inconsistency in his opponent’s work. In his later, minor writings, he applied his method of scriptural interpretation to theological questions.
Burnet’s importance in the history of scientific thought is due less to his theory itself than to certain aspects of it that became standards in the then growing science of geology. For more then a hundred years after Burnet, writers discussing the origin of and changes in the surface of the earth felt impelled to reconcile their theories with the account of creation in Genesis. His emphases on the importance of the Deluge and on the explanation of the formation of mountains continued in geologic writings. Finally Burnet’s style was such that The Sacred Theory of the Earth was considered readable long after his death and the ideas expressed in it were widely disseminated. Whether accepted or ridiculed, the theory helped popularize the idea that the features of the earth’s surface were constantly changing.
I. Original Works, Burnet’s writings are Telluris theoria sacra (London, 1681, 1689, 1702; Amsterdam, 1694, 1699), trans. into English as The Sacred Theory of the Earth (London, 1684, 1690–1691, 1697); and Archaelogiae Philosophicae (london, 1692, 1728), trans. into English as The Ancient Dectrine Concerning the Originatls of Things (London, 1692 [this contains only chs. 7–10 of Bk. 2], 1729, 1736).
Burnet’s replies to works about The Sacred Theory of the Earth are An Answer to the Execptions Made by Mr. Erasmus Warren, Against the Sacred Theory of the Earth (London, 1690); A Review of the Theory of the Earth and of its Proofs; Especially in Reference to Scripture (London, 1690); A Short Consideration of Mr. Erasmus Warren’s Defense of His Exceptions Against the Theory of the Earth, In a Letter to a Friend (London, 16910); Some Reflections Upon the Short Considerations of the Defense of the Exceptions Against the Theory of the Earth (London, 1692); and Reflections Upon the Theory of the Earth, Occasioned by a Late Examination of It. In a Letter to a Friend (London, 1699).
Other works by Burnet are De statu mortuorum et resurgentium liber. Accessit epistola (ad virum clarssimum A.B.) circa libellum de archaelogiis philosophicis (London, 1720), trans, into English as Of the State of the Dead and of Those That Are to Rise (partial ed., London, 1727; complete ed., 1728); De fide et officiis Christianorum (London, 1722), trans. into English as The Faith and Duties of Christians (London, 1728); De future judaecorum restauratione (London, 1727), an appendix to the 1727 ed., of De Statu Mortuourn; and A Re-survey of the Masaic System of the Creation With Rules for the Right Judging and Interpreting of Scripture. In Two Letters to a Friend (London, 1728).
Works published anonymously but credited to Burnet are Remarks Upon an Essay Concerning Humane Understanding [by J. Locke] in a Letter Addressed to the Author (London, 1697); Second Remarks Upon an Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In a Letter Address’d to the Author; Being a Vindicatiuon of the First Remarks Against the Answer of Mr. Locke at the End of His Reply to the Bishop of Worcester (London, 1697); Third Remarks Upon an Essay Concering Human Understanding. In a Letter Addressed to the Author (London, 1699); and An Appeal to Common Sense; or, a Sober Vindication of Dr. Woodward’s State of Physick. By a Divine of the Church of England (London, 1719).
II. Secondary Literature, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory; The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Ithaca., N.Y., 1959), pp. 184–270, concerns Burnet and his work.
There is no bibliography on Burner, but the following works on The Theory of the Earth may be helpful; John Beaumont, “Considerations on a Book Entitled The Theory of the Earth Published Some Years Since by the Learned Dr. Burnet”, in Philosophical Transactions, 17 (sept. 1693), 888–892, and A postscript to a Book Entituled Considerations on Dr. Burnet’s Theory of the Earth (London, 1694); Herbert Crofts, Some Animadversions Upon a Book Intituled lthe Theory of the Earth (London, 1685); Robert Hooke, “Animadversions on Burnet’s Theory, 1689,” MS at the Royal Society, London; John Keill, An Examination of Dr. Burnet’s Theory of the Earth, Together With Some Remarks an Mr. Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth (Oxford, 1698), and An Examination of the Reflections on the Theory of the Earth Together With a Defense of the Remarks on Mr. Whiston’s New Theory (Oxford, 1699); Melchoir Leydekker, M. Leydeckeri de republica Hebraeorum… subjicitur archaelogia sacra, qua historia creationis et diluvii Mosica contra Burneti profanam telluris theoriam asseritur (Amsterdam, 1704); Archibald Lovell, A Summary of Material Heads Which May Be Enlarged and Improved into a Compleat Answer to Dr. Burner’s Theory of the Earth (London, 1696); Matthew Mackaile, Terrae prodromus theoricus. Containing a Short Account of the New System of Order and Gradation, in the World’s Creation. By Way of Animadversions Upon Mr. T Burnet’s Theory of His Imaginary Earth, etc, (Aberdeen, 1691); Robert St. Clair, The Abyssinian Philsopher Confuted; or, Telluris Theoria Neither Sacred nor Ageeable to Reason (London, 1697); Christianus Wagner, Animadversions in… T. Burnetii Telluris theoriam sacrem, etc. (Leipzig, n.d.); and Erasmus Warren Geologia; or, a Discourse Concernig the Earth Before the Deluge, Wherein the Form and Properties Ascribed to It, in a Book Intituled the Theory of the Earth, Are Excepted Against and It Is Made to Apper That the Dissolution of That Earth Was Not the Cause of the Universal Flood (London, 1690); A Defense of the Discourse Concerning the Earth Before the Flood; Being a Full Reply to a Late Answer to Exceptions Made Against the Theory of the Earth, etc. (London, 1691); and Some Reflections Upon the Short Consideration of the Defense of the Exceptions Against the Theory of the Earth (London, 1692).