From Ordinary to Extraordinary – The Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Pathfinder of the Seas (Part IV)

In the introductory part of this essay I explained, in brief, how it was I first came to the knowledge of the existence of Matthew Fontaine Maury and his life’s work. As I intimated in that article, it was upon this very first introduction that I was immediately convinced there was something very special about this man, and that I needed to learn more about him. At the time, and as a young man whose ‘spirit was willing but the flesh was weak,’ I really had no idea where to begin with my task, but resolved nevertheless to begin somewhere, anywhere – with what little information I had immediately available to me.

The article I had read contained a fairly lengthy excerpt from a speech Maury had given at the laying of the cornerstone of The University of the South in East Tennessee. The speech was given on Nov. 30, 1860, just a few short weeks following election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, and of course only months prior to the beginning of hostilities in the WBTS.

One of the chief rectors of the college was none other than the Bishop of Tennessee, Rev. James Otey. You will recall that Rev. Otey had been Headmaster of Harpeth Academy during the six years Maury attended there as a young scholar. As before mentioned, it was during this time at Harpeth Academy that messrs. Otey and Maury formed a lifelong friendship of mutual respect and admiration. This is discoverable from several sources, the primary of which is the collection of written correspondences between the two men. These correspondences began shortly following Maury’s first admittance as a young midshipman in the U.S. Navy, and continued until Mr. Otey’s death many years later.

As part and parcel of those correspondences one will discover discussions between the two men of plans for the erection of the college aforementioned, as well as requests from Mr. Otey that his accomplished student give the keynote address at the laying of the University’s cornerstone. Throughout the broader context of these same correspondences one is struck by the profound influence the elder Mr. Otey had on his younger protégé, and of the deep and abiding loyalty this engendered in Mr. Maury toward his mentor. This being the case, one is strongly persuaded by these letters that Mr. Maury would have ‘moved mountains’ if necessary to fulfill Rev. Otey’s request. And in a sense our hero did just that, arranging all other plans and prior commitments in such a way as to ensure his attendance at the important event.

On Nov. 30, 1860, Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury addressed a gathering of Southern dignitaries at the laying of the cornerstone of the University of the South in the Sewanee Mountains in East Tennessee with the following words and admonitions:

Physical geography makes the whole world kin. Of all the departments in the domains of physical science, it is the most Christianising. Astronomy is grand and sublime; but astronomy overpowers with its infinities, overwhelms with its immensities. Physical geography charms with its wonders, and delights with the benignity of its economy. Astronomy ignores the existence of man; physical Geography confesses that existence, and is based on the Biblical doctrine that ‘the earth was made for man.’ Upon no other theory can it be studied-—upon no other theory can its phenomena be reconciled. …

The astronomer regards the light and heat of the sun as emanations; as forces to guide the planets in their orbits and light comets in their flight — nothing more. But the physical geographer, when he warms himself by the coal fire in winter, or studies by the light of the gas-burner at night, recognizes in the light and heat which he then enjoys the identical light and heat which came from the sun ages ago, and which, with provident care, have been bottled away in the shape of a mineral, and stored away in the bowels of the earth for man’s use, thence to be taken at his convenience and liberated at will for his manifold purposes.

Here, in the schools which are soon to be opened, within the walls of this institution which we are preparing to establish in this wood, and the corner-stone of which has just been laid, the masters of this newly-ordained science will teach our sons to regard some of the ‘commonest things as the most important agents in the physical economy of our planet. They are also mighty ministers of the Creator.

Take this water [holding up a glassful] and ask the student of physical geography to explain a portion only of its multitudinous offices in helping to make the earth fit for man’s habitation. There may be in it a drop of the very same (for in the economy of nature nothing is ever lost or wasted) which watered the Garden of Eden when Adam  was there; escaping thence, through the veins of the earth into the rivers, it reached the sea. Passing along its channels of circulation, it was conveyed far away by its currents to those springs in the ocean which feed the winds with vapour for rains among these mountains; taking up the heat in these southern climes, where otherwise it would become excessive, it bottles it away in its own little vesicles. These are invisible; but, rendering the heat latent and innocuous, they pass like sightless couriers of the air through their appointed channels, and arrive in the upper sky. This mountain draws the heat from them; they are formed into clouds and condensed into rain, which, falling to the earth, make it soft with showers, causing the trees of the fields to clap their hands, the valleys to shout, and the mountains to sing. Thus the earth is made to yield her increase, and the heart of man is glad.

Nor does the office of this cup of water in the physical economy end here. It has brought heat from the sea in the southern hemisphere to be set free here for the regulation of our climates; it has ministered to the green plants, and given meat and drink to man and beast. It has now to cater among the rocks for the fish and insects of the sea. Eating away your mountains, it fills up the valleys, and then, loaded with lime and salts of various minerals, it goes singing and dancing and leaping back to the sea, owning man, by the way, as a taskmaster — turning mills, driving machinery, transporting merchandise for him — and finally reaching the ocean. It there joins the currents to be conveyed to its appointed place, which it never fails to reach in due time, with food in due quantities for the inhabitants of the deep, and with materials of the right kind to be elaborated, in the workshops of the sea, into pearls, corals, and islands — all for man’s use. Thus the right-minded student of this science is brought to recognize in the dewdrop the materials of which ‘He who walketh upon the wings of the wind maketh His chariot.’ He also discovers in the raindrop a clue by which the Christian philosopher may be conducted into the very chambers from which the hills are watered.

I have been blamed by men of science, both in this country and in England, for quoting the Bible in confirmation of the doctrines of physical geography. The Bible, they say, was not written for scientific purposes, and is therefore of no authority in matters of science. I beg pardon! The Bible is authority for everything it touches. What would you think of the historian who should refuse to consult the historical records of the Bible, because the Bible was not written for the purposes of history? The Bible is true and science is true, and therefore each, if truly read, but proves the truth of the other. The agents in the physical economy of our planet are ministers of Him who made both it and the Bible. The records which He has chosen to make through the agency of these ministers of His upon the crust of the earth are as true as the records which, by the hands of His prophets and servants, He has been pleased to make in the Book of Life.

They are both true; and when your men of science, with vain and hasty conceit, announce the discovery of disagreement between them, rely upon it, the fault is not with the witness of His records, but with the worm who essays to interpret evidence which he does not understand.

When I, a pioneer in one department of this beautiful science, discover the truths of Revelation and the truths of science reflecting light the one upon the other, how can I, as a truth-loving, knowledge-seeking man, fail to point out the
beauty and rejoice in its discovery? Reticence on such an occasion would be sin, and were I to suppress the emotion with which such discoveries ought to stir the soul, the ‘waves of the sea would lift up their voice,’ and the very stones of the earth cry out against me.

As a student of physical geography, I regard earth, sea, air, and water as parts of a machine, pieces of mechanism, not made with hands, but to which, nevertheless, certain offices have been assigned in the terrestrial economy; and when, after patient research, I am led to the discovery of one of these offices, I feel, with the astronomer of old, ‘as though I had thought one of God’s thoughts,’ and tremble. Thus, as we progress with our science, we are permitted now and then to point out here and there in the physical machinery of the earth a design of the Great Architect when He planned it all. [TM: Emphasis mine; excerpted portion of the speech I first read.]

Take the little Nautili. Where do the fragile creatures go? What directing hand guides them from sea to sea? What breeze fills the violet sails of their tiny craft? And by whose skill is it enabled to brave the sea, and defy the fury of the gale? What mysterious compass directs the flotilla of the graceful Argonauts? Coming down from the Indian Ocean, and arriving off the stormy Cape, they separate, the one part steering for the Pacific, the other standing for the Atlantic Ocean. Soon the ephemeral life that animates these little navigators will be extinct; but the same power that cared for them in life, now guides them after death; for though dead, their task in the physical economy of our planet is not yet finished, nor have they ceased to afford instruction in philosophy.

The fragile shell is now to be drawn to distant seas by the lower currents. Like the leaf carried through the air by the wind, the lifeless remains descend from depth to depth by an insensible fall, even to the appointed burial-place on the bottom of the deep, there to be collected into heaps and gathered into beds, which at some day are to appear above the surface, a storehouse rich with fertilizing ingredients for man’s use. Some day science will sound the depths to which this dead shell has fallen, and the little creature will perhaps afford solution for a problem as yet unsolved; for it may be the means of revealing the existence of the submarine currents that have carried it off, and of enabling the physical geographer to trace out the secret paths of the sea.

Had I time I might show how mountains, deserts, winds, and water, when treated by the light of this beautiful science, all join in one universal harmony, for each one has its part to perform in the great concert of nature. …

The Church, ere yet physical geography had attained to the dignity of a science in our schools, and even before man had endowed it with a name, saw and appreciated its dignity, the virtue of its chief agents. What have we heard here in this grove by a thousand voices this morning ? A song of praise, such as these hills have not heard since the morning stars sang together the ‘Benedicite’ of our mother Church, invoking the very agents whose workings and ofiices it is the business of the physical geographer to study and point out. In her services she teaches her children in their songs of praise to call upon certain physical agents, principals in this newly-established department of human knowledge; upon the waters above the firmament, upon the showers, dew, wind, fire and heat, winter and summer, frost and cold, ice and snow, night and day, light and darkness, lightning and clouds, mountains and hills, green things, tree and plants, whales, and all things that move in the waters, fowls of the air, with beasts and cattle, to bless, praise, and magnify the Lord!

(To be continued in Part V…)

-By Terry Morris


  1. As a fellow believer, I cannot read such a speech without being taken a back by this man’s grasp on how physical geography and God character co-inside. So much can be learned about our Creator just by studying the Earth in all its grandeur.

    1. Dear Becca:

      Indeed. As you well know, Physical Geography is and always has been my favorite of the core subjects. I have been told by numerous people that their children “love geography.” I take them at their word, but almost invariably as well, what they’re talking about and what I’m talking about are two different things. By “Physical Geography” I mean, with Mr. Maury (as well as Arnold Guyot, a contempory of Mr. Maury), the study of geographical principles, or the science of Geography. What they usually mean, by contrast, is the study of maps of the earth and the identification of places thereon; natural and artificial borders, and that sort of thing. This important distinction always comes out in the “wash” that is further discussion on the subject. I theorize that the reason the ‘powers that be’ do not want us to know basic geographical principles is because if we did know or understand them, it would be extremely difficult to pull the proverbial wool over our eyes with the nonsensical notion that man is destroying the earth by way of extracting and burning fossil fuels thus creating “global warming” conditions. Christians no longer believe their own scriptures for goodness sakes. Genesis ch. 8 is pretty clear and straightforward about the fact that man will never destroy the earth, for “while the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” Period. End of story. And you can take that straight to the bank because it comes straight out of God’s Word. And as Mr. Maury iterated in the speech above-quoted, the Holy Bible is authority for everything it touches. Everything.

      Let God be true, and every man a liar!

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