Science in the Bluegrass — Combining faith and science to create poetry

Chris Graney

Can you name a faith-filled scientist who combined faith and science to write poetry and hymns of praise?

There’s Johannes Kepler. He made breakthroughs in understanding planetary orbits. He wrote about the harmonious planetary movements being a model for Christian unity:

Holy Father, keep us safe in the concord of our love for one another, that we may be one, just as Thou art one with Thy Son, Our Lord, and with the Holy Ghost, and just as through the sweetest bonds of harmonies Thou hast made all Thy works one; and that from the bringing of Thy people into concord the body of Thy Church may be rebuilt up in the Earth, as Thou didst erect the heavens themselves out of harmonies.

There’s also James Clerk Maxwell. He developed the electromagnetic theories that make all our wireless technologies possible. He wrote of the universe testifying to the Glory of God, and to Truth:

Through the creatures Thou hast made
Show the brightness of Thy glory,
Be eternal Truth displayed
In their substance transitory,
Till green Earth and Ocean hoary,
Massy rock and tender blade
Tell the same unending story—
“We are Truth in Form arrayed.”

And there’s also a Kentucky scientist: William H. Perry of Louisville (Roosevelt-Perry Elementary School in Louisville bears his name). In 1887, when he was 27 and serving as a school principal in Louisville, Perry wrote a poem for the dedication of Kentucky State University (then called the Kentucky State Normal School for Colored Persons), which had been built to train teachers. In his poem, much like Kepler and Maxwell, he wrote about science revealing God’s laws written into creation — an important part of the search for truth. Here is a portion of the poem:

O then Eternal One whose boundless pow’r
Holds us in life, this priceless dower
To us by Thee in gracious love is sent;
And we to Thee our thankful hearts present….

And we would learn of Thee; Thou art the cause
Of all our joys, and these Thy wondrous laws,
Deep-written in Thy works, that here abound,
Proclaim Thy wisdom matchless and profound.

Where’er we look, where’er we turn we find
New evidence of Thy creative mind;
Throughout creation, wheresoe’er we scan,
Proofs of Thy goodness both to beast and man

All testify of Thee; our spirits yearn
To know Thee more; and in Thy works discern
Thy truths — from Thee this lesson gain,
How we may, beings noblest, heights attain.

Opportunities for most late 19th-century Kentuckians to have worked as astronomers in observatories, or as physicists studying electromagnetic waves, were few; fewer still for Black Kentuckians. Yet Perry’s scientific interest carried him far.

In 1908, he was the first African American to secure his license by passing the Kentucky State Board of Medical Examiners. Later he co-founded the Louisville Red Cross Hospital.

And William H. Perry was, in the words of the 1897 book “Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky,” “an upright Christian.” Look for Perrys, Keplers and Maxwells in science today. They are there.

Chris Graney is an astronomer on the staff of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory.

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