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The reception of William Paley's Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge

  • AILEEN FYFE (a1)

In order to pass the BA examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley's Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and, as I may add, of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.

Charles Darwin


One of the books Charles Darwin read at Cambridge University was William Paley's Natural Theology (1802). Many scholars have assumed that this was a set text at the university in the early nineteenth century. However, a study of the examination papers of the university, and contemporary memoirs, autobiographies and correspondence, reveals no evidence that this was so, though it did appear in some of the college examinations. This contrasts with other books by Paley which did appear for many years in both university and college examinations. This paper uses the misapprehension about Paley's text as a starting point to investigate the role of natural theology in a Cambridge education in the first three decades of the nineteenth century.

Corresponding author
Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH.
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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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