Concerning Bacon’s New Atlantis, there have been many interpretations detailing Bacon’s use of Christianity as a façade to cover up his ideals of science and materialism. One critic, Jerry Weinberger, proposed that “Bacon’s utopia provide[d] a primary source for understanding the transitional phase from early modern political ideas to those of the modern age, and he maintains that Bacon manipulate[d] religious language and concepts to conceal his secular agenda.” Another critic, Marina Leslie, claimed “Bacon transform[ed] spiritual salvation into material well-being accomplished by humans and not by God” (Francis Bacon’s God, McKnight). Needless to say, the predominant theory as to the purpose of New Atlantis is that it was a treatise advocating for the abandonment of religion and philosophical thought in favor of science and materialism to be heralded above all else. Proponents of this view claim that Bacon makes this clear in the statement of the end of the House of Salomon: “’The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (Bacon, 177). Bacon was definitely a proprietor of the sciences, but he was also a professed Christian. The notable options, then, as to the logical purposes of his utopian literature are that he either superficially was a “Christian” and revealed his true thoughts of rejecting it in favor of science and materialism in New Atlantis or he sincerely was a Christian, and his purpose in New Atlantis was to reconcile the notion that science and Christianity were at odds as the preceding years had seemed to indicate. The following argument is in support of the latter conjecture.
Decades prior to Bacon’s struggle with Aristotelian physics, an astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus “proposed that the sun was stationary in the center of the universe and the earth revolved around it” (Nicolaus Copernicus, Rabin). This idea became known as heliocentrism and was in stark contrast with Ptolemy’s claim that the earth was the center of all things. Having introduced his idea of heliocentrism in his Commentariolus “somewhere between 1510 and 1514,” Copernicus elaborated his full thought later in his work, On the Revolutions, which was published in 1543. To his dismay, however, his ideas disagreed with the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. In response to a book published in 1615 by Paolo Antonio Foscarini where he was “arguing that [heliocentrism] did not conflict with scripture” (Galileo Galilei, Helden), “[heliocentrism] was deemed heretical [by the Church] in 1616” (Galileo Galilei, Machamer). Despite being a scientist during the sensitive times of the 16th and 17th centuries, Bacon remained a Christian—as can be seen throughout his other works—even to his death. Having this background information, one is able to correctly interpret the purpose indicated by New Atlantis.
There are a couple of key points, in New Atlantis, I will be discussing that clarify the overarching meaning of the book. The first key point is the conversion of the Bensalemites into Christians. The second point is the king’s description of the House of Salomon. Starting with the first point, in the text it is revealed that a miracle occurred in Bensalem just twenty years after the resurrection of Christ. Off the coast, a giant pillar of light appeared, so citizens of Bensalem took their boats to investigate the light. When they were about 60 yards away, some force restrained them from getting any closer to the light. At this point, a wise man from the House of Salomon prayed to God declaring that this pillar of light was a miracle. After this recognition, his boat was able to approach the light while all of the others were still bound by a force. The pillar of light disappeared and an ark (though floating in the sea, it was completely dry) containing the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments and some that were not written yet (the book notes that all this means is that at this time—around AD 50—not all of the books of the New Testament had been written); it also contained a letter from the apostle Bartholomew blessing the people who were to read his letter for those people were brought salvation by God. One more important note here is that another miracle accompanied the arrival of this ark: the gift of tongues. The text notes that “. . . being at that time in this land Hebrews, Persians, and Indians, besides the natives, every one read upon the Book and Letter, as if they had been written in his own language” (Bacon, 161). From this conversion story, traditional interpreters of New Atlantis claimed that this “miracle” of the light was brought forth through science in order to control the people by way of Christianity. This view is haphazardly asserted as it does not take all of the points of the conversion story into account. For this fake miracle view to make sense, one would have to explain why everyone’s boats were stopped equidistant from the pillar of light, why—after praying—one man was able to approach the light while the others could not move, why the ark was dry while floating on the sea, and most importantly why—though the book and letter were written in only one language—all of the people of Bensalem who spoke differing languages were able to read this book and letter. No science allows instant translation of texts within the mind. The interpretation that this conversion miracle was forged holds no water. Furthermore, in this conversion story, Bacon is trying to convey that this land of Bensalem is not the same Christianity as was around in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since Bacon was a protestant, he clearly did not agree with the Catholic Church. Thus, by presenting the information that Bensalem miraculously received its Christianity from God about twenty years after the resurrection of Christ and that Bensalem has barely had any visitors since then, Bacon is conveying to the reader that this Christianity is a pure form of Christianity, untouched by corruption and even more advanced in the understanding of scripture (this will be important for the conclusion).
Next, the House of Salomon and its purpose is to be examined. Firstly, it is good to note the text’s reverence of King Solamona:
“There reigned in this island, about nineteen hundred years ago, a King, whose memory of all others we most adore; not superstitiously, but as a divine instrument, though a mortal man; his name was Solamona: and we esteem him as the law-giver of our nation. This king had a ‘large heart’, inscrutable for good; and was wholly bent to make his kingdom and people happy. (Bacon, 165)
Here, Bacon brings up King Solamona’s nature. He conveys to the reader that Solamona was a good person. Not only was he a good person, but he even identifies him with King Solomon during the first years of his reign, when Solomon sought after God and was righteous and good and sought for wisdom (1 Kings 4:29). King Solamona also founded the institution in the text known as Salomon’s House. This institution was “dedicated to the study of the Works and Creatures of God” (Bacon, 167). Since we know that King Solamona was of good nature (meaning he was a Christian), Bacon is conveying that this institution that he created was designed for good and not for bad. However, traditional interpretation of the previously mentioned statement of the end of the House of Salomon is that the institution is dedicated only to science, to the advancement of human learning of the nature of physical things with any means necessary. This interpretation is only partly true. Sure, the purpose of the institution is to further understand science, but why is this the purpose of Salomon’s House? The answer is given earlier in the text when discussing the introduction of Salomon’s House:
. . . I find in ancient records this Order or Society is sometimes called Salomon’s House, and sometimes the College of the Six Days Works; whereby I am satisfied that our excellent king had learned from the Hebrews that God had created the world and all that therein is within six days; and therefore he instituting that House for the finding out of the true nature of all things (whereby God might have the more glory in the workmanship of them, and men the more fruit in the use of them) did give it also that second name. (Bacon, 167, emphasis added)
It is shown, here, that Bacon did not intend for the reader to view Salomon’s House as an institution for the unchecked, boundless exploration of the nature of things with no regard to a higher power. In fact, he intended that the reader see the House as an institution working for the glory of God.
It can bee seen, now, that, given the historical context of Francis Bacon—with the disciplining of scientists by the Catholic Church—that the issue of science and Christianity needed to be resolved. Paolo Antonio Foscarini tried to reconcile the two directly with scripture, but his work was banned by the Church (Galileo Galilei, Helden). Thus, Bacon had to be more clever. Just as More set forth reforms for England in his Utopia, Bacon set forth reconciliation in his utopian society. This utopian society of his was not only purely Christian and had more advanced understanding of scripture, but they were also scientifically advanced. Furthermore, the institution for the understanding of the sciences, Salomon’s House, also housed the religious officials. By combining the house of science and the house of God, Bacon is saying that the two are not at odds: they are harmonious. As Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate” (Francis Bacon, Christianity Today).
(Francis Bacon’s God, McKnight):
(Francis Bacon, Christianity Today): http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/francis-bacon.html
(Galileo Galilei, Helden):
(Galileo Galilei, Machamer):
(Nicolaus Copernicus, Rabin):