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"Notices on the Life of Professor Baden Powell"

 Published at the time of his death in 1860 or soon thereafter.

The Rev. Baden Powell, F.R.S., 
Savilian Professor of Geometry,
Oxford University

Notices on the Life of The Rev. Baden Powell, F.R.S., and Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford (b 1796; d 1860)

Evincing a high aptitude for mathematical studies at an early age, he demonstrated his abilities at the University of Oxford, where he studied at Oriel College; and ere yet he could be said to have entered on a public career, found himself associated with Herschel, Brewster, Airy, Buckland, Faraday, and other contemporary Scientific celebrities. He took his degree of M.A. in 1817. Modest and retiring, it is said that he reluctantly committed himself to authorship; and we are not aware of any earlier work than the volume on "Optics," which first made his name known beyond academic circles. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1820; and became Savilian Professor in the University of Oxford in 1827. Papers from his pen, on a great variety of subjects, were published in the annual volumes issued by the learned societies from time to time. Those in the "Philosophical Transactions," the " Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science" (of which he was an active supporter from its commencement), and the " Proceedings of the Ashmolean Society of Oxford," being amongst the most remarkable. His pen, however, was not confined to the scientific details of the many subjects of which he had a profound knowledge, but treated with peculiar ability of those links of connection which complete the chain of order which is found everywhere in the universe. A great literary philanthropist, describing the benefits which Professor Powell has conferred upon society, has said of him --"he progress of mathematical and physical science in many departments, especially optics and thermotics, and in that universal philosophy which enters into every department, has been deeply indebted for more than a third part of a century to the extensive knowledge, the logical mind, the disciplined skill and unwearied industry of Professor Baden Powell. He was one of the small band of reformers who have striven and after a long struggle, with some success, to improve the system of education pursued at Oxford by the addition to the former studies of the University, of a due and recognized attention to natural knowledge."

The undulatory theory of light and its practical bearing upon optics was the field of his early successes as a philosopher. Later in life, he brought out a variety of essays on the most miscellaneous topics, -- each rich with the results of research into nature and into books, and each exhibiting in an unequalled degree "the means and power of concentrating the rays of modern discovery in many departments, upon the " particular subject of discussion.''

In 1833 Professor Powell gave promise of that courageous zeal for truth which marked his later writings, by the publication of his discourse upon "Revelation and Science," in which may be found the nucleus of the arguments afterwards wrought out in so masterly a manner in his "Connection of Natural and Divine Truth," published in 1838, and in his latest and most popular volumes, "The Unity of World and of Nature" (1856), "Christianity without Judaism" (1858), and "The Order of Nature" (1859). The large sale of these latter volumes attests the public interest excited by them, and perhaps it would not be too much to say that they have exercised a wide-spread and lasting influence upon the educated mind of the time. Dealing with abstruse questions in the most popular and interesting manner, they are bold, firm, and convincing. They will bear comparison with Locke or Bacon in profundity and precision; with George Combe in fertility of illustration; or with Brewster, or with the author of the "Vestiges," for beauty of style and polished eloquence of language. We never read any works in which the respective topics were handled in a manner so entirely adequate to the actual state of knowledge, and in which the subjects were invested with such literary charms, though arranged in the severest logical method. No theologian can consider himself educated until he has studied the writings of the Rev. Baden Powell.

Among other volumes of which Professor Powell was the author were the following: -- "An Historical view of the Progress of the Physical and Mathematical Sciences, from the earliest Ages to the present Times" -- a volume in Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopedia, London, 1834; "Tradition Unveiled, a Candid Inquiry into the views advocated in the Oxford Tracts;" "A General and Elementary View of the Undulatory Theory of Light" - London, 1841; and a revised second edition of the late Doctor Pereira's "Lectures on Polarized Light."

The sermons preached in Kensington Palace Chapel upon several occasions have been printed for private circulation; two of these having an especial reference to the "Sabbath question" have had a very wide circulation. Their contents were subsequently amplified and completed in "Christianity without Judaism." During the latter portion of his life he rarely appeared in public, but continued the activity of his pen till within a very short time before his decease. A letter, written with all the vigour and warmth of a man of middle age -- dated but a few weeks back -- is in our desk; it refers to the immediate prospective requirement of another edition of his last great work, the first edition of which is only dated May, 1859 -- scarcely a year ago....

Devoted to his study, and incredibly industrious, the Rev. Baden Powell yet found time for many labours of unpretending piety and true philanthropy, for the culture of friendship, and for the extension of help to those who were labouring in the same field of knowledge as himself. Of his generous kindness to students in permitting the use of his most valuable library, the writer has a personal knowledge, and he can also pay a melancholy tribute of admiration, respect, and affection to the memory of a man who never, amidst the profoundest speculations of science, or the abstractions of philosophical pursuits, forgot the claims of friendship or the wants of those less fortunate in intellectual wealth than himself. Professor Powell was, we believe, born in 1796, and had recently attained the sixty-third year of his age. His health had been declining for some time past, but his decease has, nevertheless, come upon us as a sad surprise.

"The Aberdeen Herald," July 21,1860.


On Saturday, June 16th, at a private funeral, were consigned to earth the mortal remains of the late Rev. Baden Powell. His death had occurred on the previous Monday, and was eminently marked by his characteristic placidity of mind and kindliness of feeling for all around him. Through the whole of the last severe winter he had been labouring under a gradually increasing amount of lung and heart disease, owing to which, notwithstanding the unceasing efforts of the numerous members of his family and his able physician friends, he was at length prostrated, and after a few days of extreme weakness, his existence terminated.

The career in life of the deceased was so decidedly eminent, as much to call for a good biography; but his abilities were at the same time of so many varied kinds, and his sentiments on many disputed topics so much in the van of the general thoughts and opinions of the age in which he lived, that it will be long before his character is done full justice to, or a biographer of equally rare powers with himself be found to undertake the task.

Confining ourselves at present merely to the mention of a few facts and dates, we may state that Baden Powell was born in 1796; he graduated at Oxford in 1817, taking first-class honours in Mathematics; in 1800 he was ordained to the curacy of Midhurst; and in 1821 was nominated to the Vicarage of Plumstead, in Kent.

How laboriously he must have employed those years of retirement was in a little time unexpectedly demonstrated by the brilliant series of important works which he produced in quick succession immediately after his elections, first to the Savilian Professorship of Geometry at Oxford, in 1827, and then to the post of Public Examiner there in 1827, '28, and '31. Indeed, from that time and ever afterwards, he stood out prominently in the estimation of all scientific men as the acknowledged representative of mathematical and physical science in the elder English University.

While thus contributing to literature a treatise on the Differential and Integral Calculus in 1829, on the Geometry of Curves in 1830, on the History of Natural Philosophy in 1834, and on the Undulatory Theory Light in 1841, he became an active and successful cultivator of some of the more advanced branches of both practical and theoretical optics and thermotics. To such good purpose, too, that in an epoch which produced a splendid array of mathematical philosophers to carry on those particular inquiries from the unfinished state in which they had been left by Newton, he held a recognized and distinguished place; giving his researches in frequent memoirs to the Royal Ashmolean Society, British Association, and Royal Astronomical Society. In these papers, as well as in his lectures before the public at the London Royal Institution and elsewhere, his mental grasp of the. theory, as well as his happy adaptation of the simple means to practical illustration, were always successful while his apparatus for explaining and exhibiting the undulatory theory of light, and the phenomena of aberration and rotation, have been extensively adopted in other Universities besides his own.

Combined, however, with his labour for the promotion of science, the interests of humanity at large went on with him hand in hand; and he was ever in the foremost ranks of educational reformers. In urging their cause and their claims to public attention, his pen was frequently employed in some of the principal reviews of the day, invariably producing for them articles of sterling weight and worth, similarly with his well-known tract in 1840, on " State Education," considered with "reference to prevalent misconceptions on religious grounds."

These points, and indeed liberal sentiments on almost all the topics of human thought, he had deeply at heart; but more than everything else, throughout the whole of his career, did he devote himself to the cause of true religion. From his early labours as a curate at Midhurst, to the employment of his last summer doing duty for a friend in Leicestershire, nay, even later, in working for another friend in Buckinghamshire during the Christmas of 1859, when he often walked several miles amidst cold and snow to officiate in cottages to the aged and infirm -- he was justly as much appreciated for his ever ready sympathy in visiting the sick, and engaging in prayer suitable to their circumstances by their bedsides, and administering consolation to the dying, as he was listened to with rapt attention in his sermons in the village church on " the truth as it is in Jesus," or when he preached occasionally before the heads of houses in Oxford on the more learned and polemic affairs of ecclesiastical institutions.

His maturer views on theological subjects were partly given to the world in 1838, in his "Connection of Natural and Revealed Truth;" in 1839, in his "Tradition Unveiled;" in 1855, in his "Christianity without Judaism;" in 1859, in his "Order of Nature;" and in innumerable contributions to Biblical and other religious publications. In these several works, his fearless assertion of the results he was led to is as worthy of all praise as the strictness of his chains of reasoning, or those searching analyses of enormous stores of information by which he was led to them. Accordingly, with a limited but steadily increasing class of reading and thinking minds, his books are acquiring almost the character of a rule of faith; though a larger class, merely looking to some few of his conclusions by themselves, are unfortunately shocked to find some of their oldest and dearest prejudices treated with an unsparing hand.

Yet even these souls affrighted might have been won back to him had his life instead of being cut short in the full prime of his reason and judgment, and the active performance of his duties, been extended sufficiently to have enabled him to give to the world the full circle of those deep and lofty thoughts which filled his capacious mind, and formed there a chaste, orderly cosmos; for well knew all his intimate friends that the grand end he was ever striving for was "Spiritual Christianity," and well they knew too that with all his learning his was the most meek and humbly inquiring of spirits. Approachable to all, hearing all, and instinctively affectionate towards children, he readily gained the love, respect, and confidence of all with whom he came in contact.

Now that he is gone, it is only left for us to note how extensive was the range of his capacities, and how usefully they were employed up to the very last. At home, his spare moments for rest and relaxation, when not occupied with painting as a fine art, or in reproducing from memory, wherein he had a remarkable gift, the choral harmonies of church music, were closely spent in reading; while in society, he was always listening, and garnering up information; but, whether conversing, or reading, or writing, ever specially and most perseveringly seeking, without departing from his peculiarly placid and benevolent manner, to bring out in its full force, every argument of every side of a question. And thus, perhaps, it came to pass that in almost every mental walk in life in which he essayed anything, he was eventually looked up to as a judge and a discriminator amongst men. In this manner it was that the British Association requested him to undertake more than one report on the state of certain branches of science, the Government appointed him one of the Commissioners of Inquiry for Oxford, and the Aberdeen people chose him to be one of the three Judges to award the Burnett Theological Prize.

The Rev. Baden Powell leaves a widow and eleven children to mourn his death, which melancholy event took place only three weeks after the birth of his youngest child.

Geological Society of London.

Anniversary Address of the President, LEONARD HORNER, Esq., F.R.S.L. & E., on the 15th of February, 1861.

The Rev. Professor Baden Powell died last June. He was elected Fellow of this Society in 1837, and was a frequent attendant at our evening meetings; and, although chiefly known for his labours in physics, and especially in Light and Heat, he contributed much, by a variety of writings, to the general acceptance by the public of the results of geological investigations He had worked but little at field geology; but his unusual grasp of mind and habits of industry enabled him, whilst closely engaged in other branches of science, to keep pace with the recent observations and current literature of geology, especially on the great general questions in our science, the most attractive to a philosophical mind.

The fruits of these studies were embodied in numerous articles, in reviews, and in a series of works devoted, in great part, to inquiries into the relations between physical science and religion. Such were,-- "The Connection of Natural and Divine Truth," 1838; "Essays on the Spirit of the Inductive Philosophy, &c.," 1855; "The Unity of Worlds and of Nature," 1856; "The Order of Nature," 1858. In the latter work there is a most interesting sketch of the progress of geology, from which I am tempted to quote the following admirable passage:-- "The evidence of the true influence and progress of philosophical principals in this grand department of science -- grand in itself, but more transcendently so in relation to the ' cosmos,' as carrying back the dominion of physical law through the abysses of past time -- in its earlier stages was found where perhaps we might least have looked for it -- among the Italian writers. The mantle of Galileo descended, in some measure, on Vallisneri and Moro, and more amply on Generelli, though a Carmelite monk We here perceive perhaps the first great advance in true philosophical ideas of geology, and the anticipation and prototype of the real inductive independent views of Hutton and Lyell, under the vivifying influence of whose principles the English school of geologists is but now beginning to cast off the lingering remnants of its hereditary bondage to mystical paroxysms, occasional recurrences of chaos and creation, subversions and renewals of the order of nature, and miraculous originations of new species out of nothing -- in a word, the spirit of invoking the supernatural to cover our ignorance of natural causes."

His broad and liberal views, and his fearless assertion of the truths to which he was conducted by reasoning on facts, exposed him to the shafts of prejudice and bigotry, the more envenomed from the fact of his being himself in holy orders. But, although conscious that he was thereby putting a bar on his prospects of worldly advancement, he continued to the end to work steadily in the course which his conscience dictated, satisfied that at a later day justice would be rendered to his arguments. He was at the same time ever ready to give to his opponents the same credit for that sincerity of belief and honesty of purpose by which he, doubtless, felt he was himself actuated, and to which we all know he might justly have laid claim.

His lucid style, philosophical tone, and extensive learning secured for him, as a writer, the sympathy and support of the friends of intellectual progress, whilst his private friends had to admire his constant readiness to assist and instruct, his lively interest in and great acquaintance with most branches of knowledge, his skill as a musician and draughtsman, and his unassuming kindness of disposition. For many years he formed one of a small band at Oxford who kept alive the study of the physical sciences during a season when they were not regarded with so much favour as at the present day; and when, in 1850, he was appointed to be one of the Oxford University Commissioners, he had the satisfaction of aiding to introduce some of those modifications which have now given the physical sciences a recognized position in the system of studies adopted the University.

From "The Gentleman's Magazine," 1860.


The deceased was the eldest son of the late Baden Powell, Esq., of Langton, Kent, and Stamford Hill. He was born at the latter place in the year 1796.

.... Although in holy orders, Professor Baden Powell held no living, but was always ready to oblige his friends by temporarily undertaking parochial duties, or by occasional sermons. In this way the congregations of several of the churches in London had frequent opportunities of hearing his discourses, which were remarkable for the masterly manner in which important Christian truths were enunciated with the clearness and precision of a mathematical demonstration. He also occasionally appeared as a lecturer at the Royal and other scientific institutions. But it is by his writings that Professor Powell was chiefly known to the world. These may be divided into two distinct classes:-- 1. Those of a purely scientific character; 2. Those which treat of the relations of science to theology.

The principal aims of the last-named works, to which Professor Baden Powell devoted so large a portion of his great intellectual powers, were to define the limits between the objects of faith and of knowledge, and to show that the progress of modern scientific discovery, although necessitating modifications in many of the still prevailing ideas with which the Christian religion became encrusted in the times of ignorance and superstition, is in no way incompatible with a sincere and practical acceptance of its great and fundamental truths. The ability and boldness with which these views were advocated was only excelled by another quality, unfortunately rare in theological discussions, the calm and temperate spirit, and just allowance for the feelings and opinions of others, which pervades them.

Although his published works afford abundant evidence of unusual powers of reasoning and originality of thought, as well as a most extensive and profound acquaintance with the writings of his predecessors, only those who had the privilege of Professor Powell's private friendship could appreciate his extraordinary talents and accomplishments in nearly every branch of science and art, which, combined with his extreme good nature and gentleness of disposition, made him beloved by all those who had the best opportunities of estimating his character.

He leaves behind him a widow (daughter of Vice Admiral W. H. Smyth, K.S.F., D.C.L., F.R.S.) and a numerous family.

"Journal of the Society of Arts," November 23,1860.

The Rev. Baden Powell, F.R.S., and Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford, although not a member of the Society, had acted as a member of the Board of Examiners. His general knowledge was extensive; his understanding was vigorous; his mind had been disciplined by laborious study; his habits were characterized by unwearied industry; and his eminence in physical and mathematical science is indicated by the distinguished position which he attained early, and enjoyed long, in the University at Oxford. His contributions to science were numerous and important, and he contributed largely to the reforms which have taken place at both our Universities.


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