Ecclesiastical Publishing Involving Microscopy

Religious Tract Society

The public had an insatiable curiosity about the natural world during Victorian times. Scientific advances were changing society, and change was coming quickly. The public craved scientific explanations to understand what was happening and help them to predict what was coming. The public’s need for knowledge drove newspapers toward a new form of journalism that would make complicated information understandable by using more straightforward vocabulary and enlisting familiar analogies. Journalists were influential in creating a new genre that is now called popular science writing. Book-length works in this style soon followed, greatly expanding the literary niche. The new science writing rarely mentioned any role a divine creator might have played. Even though Darwin’s Origin of the Species had yet to be published, the Religious Tract Society’s membership saw a growing threat to religious creationism from popularized science books.

The Religious Tract Society (RTS) was a publishing agency formed by several prominent Christian groups during the early 1800s. Even though the society appeared to be an ecumenical endeavor, it was under the control of the Anglican church’s evangelical arm. Evangelicals understood how valuable the printing press could be for inexpensively spreading religious ideology to large numbers of people. They also understood the reverse could be true. Arguments challenging religious dogma could be mass disseminated with equal ease.

A tract is an inexpensive publication that can range in size from a single sheet to a small booklet. During Victorian times, a tract was defined mainly by the publication’s price, not by any particular subject or content. They could be religious, political, or literary. Contemporary usage of the word “tract” is more limited, most often referring to inexpensively printed religious material from one to a few pages – the Watchtower being a familiar example. The protestant work ethic was a pervasive philosophical force during the Victorian period in Europe. The Religious Tract Society published scientific works that attributed the wonders and mysteries of nature to an Almighty creator—so doing helped alleviate the guilt that might be associated with time studying natural history.  The association also excused time spent on the Sabbath watching birds, collecting shells, and working with a microscope. The Religious Tract Society’s publications quickly.

A Popular Handbook for the Microscope, Lewis Wright, Religious Tract Association, London, 1885

During the 19th century, scientific writings often included periodic statements asserting the author’s belief in a creator’s role. Along with a decline in the church’s power during the 19th century, so did its ability to censor publications. As a result, frequent nods to divinity vanished from most science publications. The formation of the RTS was to provide enticements to return to gospel references to texts. They would do this by creating their own publishing house and solicit willing authors. The Religious Tract Society’s strategy was not to change or distort the scientific information they published. Instead, the author could present their homage to a deity in a preface, introduction, or closing paragraphs. The strategy left the book’s central text and concepts intact while satisfying Christian religious ethics.


A Popular Handbook for the Microscope

Lewis Wright (1838 – 1905 ) published an introductory handbook for microscopists with the Religious Tract Society in 1895. The first half of the two-hundred and fifty-page book covers various types of microscopes and accessory equipment.  The second half guides readers through collecting and observing commonly found plants and animals of the English countryside. Lewis Wright was a qualified microscopist. A citation in the 1884 minutes of the Royal Microscopical Society recognizes his experiments to adapt limelight illumination to a projection microscope. Lewis worked with Herbert Charles Newton, and they commercially produced such an instrument. (See: Wright & Newtons projection microscope of 1884-1900 used by Royal Society of New South Wales – MAAS Collection)  According to the Museum of Arts and Sciences, NWS, Australia, the device was the earliest available limelight microprojector. In keeping with the RTA’s publication policy, the book’s introduction highlights microscopic study’s religious values. Then Lewis went further. He enters the evolution debate with an attack on Thomas Huxley.

Thomas Huxley (1825 – 1895) found an unusual jelly-like material while sorting through dredging collected by H. M. S. Challenger’s oceanographic ship. After microscopically examining the substance, he announced it to be an undifferentiated protoplasmic form of unicellular life. Huxley exuberantly stated it to be related to what must lie at the very root of the evolutionary tree – a precursor to all other life forms on earth. The jelly-like slime brought to his laboratory was a mass devoid of cells, yet it seemed living. He publicly announced that the slimy-blob was how life on earth began. In 1868 he dubbed the jelly with the scientific name Bathybius haeckelii. Bathy for the ocean depths where the slime was found and haeckelii to honor Germany’s champion of Darwin’s theories, Ernst Haeckel. Huxley’s discovery was controversial, but he defended his claim for seven years. Ironically, the H. M. S. Challenger’s chemical laboratory determined the viscous substance to be an inorganic colloid of calcium sulfate.

Huxley was wrong. To his credit, he immediately retracted his claims regarding Bathybius. Unfortunately, since Huxley enthusiastically interwove his misconceived role for Bathybius into his defense of Darwin’s theory of evolution, public opinion about Darwin’s theory was tarnished by the error was made clear. (It should be noted that Darwin’s theories never extends to the origin of life. Darwinian evolution proposes the pathways life followed to changed into the myriad of species found both past and present. Not life’s inception.)

Lewis defends the working of microscopists by stating, “It was the microscope that proved such teaching due to sheer ignorance and not to superior knowledge, and if it could not reveal the Divine mystery of living existence, at least manifested it to us as a greater mystery than ever. The microscope, then, has deserved well of the Christian believer.” But he appears to have been unaware that after seven years of microscopic examination, it was a chemist that disproved Huxley’s Bathybius—not a microscopist.

Wright, Lewis (1838 – 1905 ). A Popular Handbook to the Microscope. The Religious Tract Society. London

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History available at Lewis Wright – Graces Guide

The Trip to Welden Woods Fronticepiece – Mr. Vaughn holds a microscope slide before a group of teachers while asking “Can any of you name the item on this slide?”

The book tells the story of an impoverished family struggling through the early years of industrialization. It was published separately in the United States and England. The author, Emily Steel Elliot (1836 – 1897), was a native of England, so it is most likely the location she envisioned to guide her descriptive depictions. Emily Elliot had written several other inspirational books but was better known as a composer of religious hymns. The story she tells is as seen through the eyes of two children, Stevie and Rachel. It is mainly about how emotionally burdensome their youth was during Victorian times and how faith in Christianity provided comfort and direction during the many hardships. The miseries include the early death of the children’s mother, their father’s wretched descent into alcoholism, and their forced work as child laborers in a textile mill. At the mill, Stevie suffered an injury crippling him for the remainder of a now much-shortened life.  

The book’s title comes from an experience the two children had told in the first chapter. It described the happiest time in the children’s lives while attending a religious school and were yet part of an intact poor, yet happy family. The following chapters dealt with their mother’s death, their father’s descendance into alcoholism, and forcing both children to work in the textile mills to support his addiction. Along with six-hundred schoolmates, the two children took a railroad train from their soot-choked city neighborhood to a country-estate to explore and enjoy nature. The students were divided into manageable groups to partake in the planned activities. One group of older students and a few teachers followed the school principal, Mr. Vaughn, into the woods. He carried a wooden box with him that raised everyone’s curiosity.

When reaching a clearing where they could comfortably circle the principal, Mr. Vaughn revealed that the box contained a microscope. All present would be able to look through the instrument and see how its powers could reveal nature’s secrets.  Mr. Vaughn set up the microscope on a tree stump, and they saw, one at a time, the magnified wing from a fly, a spider’s foot, and the brilliant colors of a beetle’s back. Then came the big surprise. Mr. Vaughn held up a microscope slide for all to see, and then he passed it around. As each student closely examined it, he asked what they were able to make out. All agreed that there was nothing visible other than a tiny dot, like a grain of pepper or sand. Mr. Vaughn placed the slide under the microscope, focused the instrument carefully, and let all take a look. Everyone was amazed to see that Lord’s Prayer, in its entirety, was written within what appeared to be a minuscule speck to the unaided eye. Mr. Vaughn then asked Who can tell me by what pen this came to be written in characters so small as to be completely undistinguishable (sic) to the naked eye? No one answered. He then continued

The pen which wrote these invisible words came from heaven. The photograph is the writing of the sunbeam. No human hand could trace words and letters needing the microscope to display them; but modern discovery has shown that, by means of these rays of pencil light, the minutest and most truthful representations are executed; and remember, that the same light which was made to write these words is that light by acting on different lenses, enables our eyes to discern them in all their distinctness and beauty.

A Trip to Weldon Woods exemplifies how ecclesiastical writing about a natural history topic differs from the Religious Tract Society’s scientific publications.  Both books are from the same period by English writers.  in England during the same period. (see Wright 1895) Ecclesiastically sponsored English publications interwove supernatural creation and intervention throughout the document. Religious Tract Society presented topics with unfettered objectivity. Statements regarding the unquestioning role a deity had in directing causations were confined to a preface or introductory paragraph. Otherwise, the material was presented factually. Emily Elliot gives a good example of this in  A Trip to Weldon Woods. The students’ lesson about the natural world concluded by standing in the woods and reading a microdot of the Lord’s Prayer through a microscope.

Carlton and Porter was a New York City printing and distribution company that served the Methodist Episcopal Church’s publishing needs. It issued the Methodist Quarterly Review and many single-topic books about the denomination’s theology, biographies of its prominent leaders, and, most notably, championing the case for emancipation. Between 1840 and 1870, the company shifted between several publisher names, such as T. Mason, G. Lane, and P. P. Sanford, but all books emanated from the same address, 200 Mulberry Street, NYC. According to an editorial in an 1867 issue of the Christian Reporter, Carlton and Porter were “no doubt the largest one (publishing house) belonging to any denomination in the world. The building is currently an occupied condominium.

The most notable difference between English and American publications is in the quality of the illustrations. The wood-engraving used for the American edition has less detail and lacks the two main characters of the tale. The English print is a hand-colored lithograph, includes the two children, and is hand-colored.


The Trip to Weldon Woods – Title page for the U. S. edition published by Carleton & Porter. The author’s name and the publication date are omitted.
Under a Microscope (English edition) Frontispiece – The lithograph is done with finer detail than the U. S. publication. It also includes the two children central to the story, Stevie and Rachel.

Editorial (02/02/1867). Something New In Methodism, The Christian Recorder, Philadelphia, PA

Elliott, Emily Elizabeth Steel (c. 1860) A Trip to Weldon Woods; or, Under the Microscope. N. Y. Sunday-school Union, Carlton & Porter,  200 Mulberry Street.

Also published in 1870 as: Under the Microscope or Thou shalt call me My Father, T. Nelson and Sons, London