The idea of Space Travel and the Rector of Orsett in 1638

Posted in Local History at 9:42 pm by henrysgauntlet

The idea of life on other worlds to which we may travel is a familiar one. It has provided science fiction writers, films and television with stories for many decades. But it is not a twentieth or twenty-first century invention. Many people, including one of Orsett’s Church of England Rectors, had thought of it four centuries ago.

William Gilbert, a relation by marriage of his namesake who discovered magnetism, was one such man. He was born in 1597, educated at St John’s College, Cambridge and Rector of Orsett from 1626 to 1640.

Gilbert was interested in astronomy. He was perfectly willing to accept the idea of the earth orbiting the sun and the findings of observation through telescopes. Only bad weather prevented him seeing the lunar eclipse of December 1638. But he was also remarkably willing to consider that life might be possible on Jupiter or Saturn as he explained to the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, James Usher, later that month. He came alarmingly close to the view that human beings were not necessarily at the centre of God’s attention. But he had no aim, he assured Usher, of finding new worlds where God had created none.

Gilbert’s astronomical speculations were private. His only published work was a sermon, The Art of Building Comfort, on the godly virtues of his wife, Jane, who had died in September 1639. This was conventional enough but its appearance may very nearly have coincided with his own death in December 1640.

(Author  –  Christopher Thompson)





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