Oftentimes, missionaries in America were people of exceptional learning. Almon Bacone, for example, the founder of Bacone College, as a faculty member in the 1880s and 1890s taught an incredible number of subjects: Greek, Latin, rhetoric, English literature, logic, natural science, ancient and modern history, physiology, algebra, geometry, trigonometry.
Bacone used science, broadly interpreted, as a tool in his pious work responding to the Great Commission, as recorded in the Gospels, wherein Christ told His disciples to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” Bacone and others like him, such as his student Alexander Posey, were fascinated by God’s Creation, human and natural history. This religious awe of Creation led to thinking in all forms of intellectual endeavor, based on the assumption that in coming to know the perfection of God’s Creation a person at the same time learns about the human creation and the best way for humans to live according to the mandates of their Creator.
The Protestant Christian community of intellectuals, of which Almon Bacone was a part, were trained as scientists and theologians and many practiced this dual character of the pious scientist. The pious scientist engaged in a search to know the secrets of the universe and to reach the limits of human understanding within the context of nature, an overwhelming entity of mystery that dwarfs any one of us, which generates a pious response, demanding reverence, stewardship, humility, dedication, and faith, and which generates a sense of the rational continuity of time and place and awareness of purposeful change, that answers exist to questions, that order not chaos exists, that reason and knowledge are possible. Piety is the response to the realization that we live in a universe of positive, rational, predictable, orderly phenomena. The scientist showed piety through natural theology, the belief in the continuity of and the order in the universe, the acceptance of natural laws, and the confidence that human reason can (and will) discover natural laws. At the same time the pious scientist recognized that nature represents a vast unknown of which humans would always be ignorant of the deepest secrets. As Cotton Mather once proclaimed, “there is not a fly, but that would confute an atheist,” which was as much an admission of his own ignorance before God’s creation as it was a condemnation of agnosticism and atheism. The scientist derived piety from an awareness of ignorance. The humility, lack of hubris, ability to know that one does not know (or quite know), marks the pious thinker, who is expectant, open-minded, in a way awaiting discovery, knowledge, but knows that knowledge is never absolute, always subject to constraints, changes, interpretations. It is this ability to have faith that knowledge exists, which faith drives the seeker to know, that defines the pious scientist. Such knowledge is acquired in time, therefore cannot be absolute, rather is relative, in a process of accumulation. The pious scientist knows that one day he and she will know. In the meantime the pious scientist is on a quest, everyday, to gain knowledge that will only terminate with death.
Jeremy Belknap the 18th century minister, was a pious scientist: