The Unusual Suspects: Wedgwood Pottery, The Canals of England, And The Death of God

God is dead…..And we have killed him.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s madman infamously proclaimed the demise of God in his 1882 work The Gay Science. Nietzsche was presumably dramatizing the idea that belief in God and the pervasive influence of Christianity in Europeans’ daily lives had ebbed throughout the 19th century.

Grant me permission to sidestep the heated debates among deists, theists, scientists, atheists, and all the other “-ists”  about the existence of God and let me indulge in a bit of fanciful post-mortem speculation about the real culprits responsible for the Supreme Deity’s untimely death – the canals of England and Wedgwood pottery.

I want to be clear up front – part of my theory is unabashedly lifted directly from Simon Winchester’s excellent book The Map That Changed The World. The  speculation about the role of Wedgwood pottery is my unique contribution.

Throughout the Middle Ages and up until the 18th century, much of the Christian world believed in the literal interpretation of The Bible. In this view, the Earth was created at 9 AM on a fine Sunday morning on October 23rd, 4004 BC, as calculated in 1650 by James Ussher, the Anglican bishop of Armagh in Northern Ireland.  By the start of the 18th century, the annotated pages of the King James Bible included Ussher’s dating for every biblical event. For example, a good Christian could open the Bible to the story of Noah and in the margins read that the Great Flood began on the 17th day of the second month in the 600th year after the creation of the Earth.

But the supremacy of the Bible soon came under scientific scrutiny. The late 18th century saw the rise of England’s Industrial Revolution, the shift from cottage based industries and farming to large factories that manufactured textiles and other goods on a previously unimagined scale. England suddenly needed huge quantities of coal to be transported quickly and cheaply, which led to the construction of a complex network of canals for carrying coal on horse-drawn barges from the mines to the factories.

Canal construction required the land to be surveyed to determine the best route for the waterways. William Smith, a key figure in the history of geology, surveyed the canals in the Somerset coalfields. As Smith studied the layers of earth in the coal pits, he realized that these strata could be identified in the same order in widely separated parts of England and that each stratum contained a unique set of fossils arranged in a predictable and orderly fashion from oldest to youngest. Smith eventually produced the first stratigraphic map of England, which provided  graphic evidence that the Earth must be considerably older than Ussher’s 6,000 year estimate. The first cracks started to appear in the rock solid Biblical view of the world.

The crippling blow to the literal interpretation of the Bible had its seed planted in 1769 when Josiah Wedgwood opened Etruria, his great pottery factory near Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire. Wedgwood realized that canals were a more cost-effective means of transporting clay to his factory and a far safer means of transporting his fragile products to their sales outlets. Wedgwood convinced Erasmus Darwin, his good friend and the eventual grandfather of Charles Darwin, to join him in investing in the construction of a  system of canals running from the countryside to major cities.

These shrewd investments led to the Wedgwood and Darwin families becoming among the wealthiest in England. Charles Darwin’s father, Robert, united the families’ fortunes when he married Susannah Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood. Charles himself further entwined the wealth of the two families by marrying his cousin Emma Wedgwood.

This vast wealth directly paid for Darwin’s Beagle explorations, and also allowed him to avoid the shackles of employment and to lead the leisurely life of a wealthy country gentleman as he spent decades meticulously developing his theory of evolution. As Darwin acutely understood, the 1859 publication of  The Origin of Species shocked the world, and still generates intense debate today. Whatever side one takes on these arguments, Darwin’s work shook many peoples’ beliefs in the literal interpretation of the Bible and the role of the Christian church in their perception of the world around them.

As Gil Grissom and the CSI crew know, solving a crime can be complicated and require making some not-so-obvious connections.

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