Letters of John Ray

Extracts from some of Ray’s private letters, edited by Robert W T Gunther, Vice-President of the Linnean Society, and published in 1928.


Ray was caught up in the political and religious crisis of 1662, and in particular its effects at Cambridge University where he worked.

“ I did accompany Mr W [Willughby] in his travels this Summer... duirng my absence Dr Fern, who is made Master of this college by CR [Charles II] having obtained a letter from CR to restore the old Fellows and fill up the remainder of the fellowships with such of the new Fellows as should be found worthy, came down hither, about the beginning of August, with 14 or 15 of the old gang; who, having constituted among themselves a seniority... readmitted all the new Fellows except [lists 12 names] I being then out of towne, and they having information that I should refuse the [Laudian] Common Prayer, surplice etc, they had well near passed me by; but by the mediation of some they were content to reserve my place, in case I should promise conformity.

I wish they had spared themselves the trouble. About a month after that I came hither, but am not as yet admitted; Dr Fern hath been ever since out of towne. He returneth hither on Thursday next, they say, when I must expect my doome. I have long since come to two resolutions, namely no promise of conformity, and no orders, "rebus sic stantibus", whence you may easily judge where I am likely to be. They have brought all things here as they were in 1641; viz services morning and evening, surplice Sundays, and holydays, and their eves, organs, bowing, going bare, fasting nights... if you come you will see a new face of things.”
Further Correspondence p.18, Letter to Courthope, 26 Sept 1660

“ I am at present resolved to discontinue from the college so soon as I shall have made even my accounts therewith... If I doe concoct this subscription, it will be certainly contrary to my inclinations, and purely out of fear.”
Further Correspondence p.23, Letter to Courthope, 3 Oct 1660

“ I am now in Essex, where I intend to continue till Bartholomew Day be past. I am as good as resolved not to subscribe the declaration in the Act of Uniformity, and soe I can expect no other than the deprivation of my fellowship... Many of our ministers in this county will be deprived upon this Act, and those too the most able and considerable...

I shall now cast myself upon Providence and good friends. Liberty is a sweet thing... I shall expose myself to much trouble and inconvenience by this refusall... I doubt not but I shall be, some way or other suatained, and it may be more to my satisfaction than if I should swallow the declaration and continue still in Trinity College.”
Further Correspondence p.25, Letter to Courthope, 14 Oct 1660.

And so it proved, for Ray’s forcible removal from his Cambridge lecturing work (in Greek, Divinity and Mathematics) permitted him to spend more time on the biological studies which were his greatest achievement. He would not have done so otherwise, being ordained Ray regarded ‘divinity’ as his primary vocation.

“ I recvd fromerly a letter from you conc[erning] a proposition conc the Secretaryship of the Royall Society.. the reasons why I could not accept of such a place, which were partly the consciousness of my inability to manage it, but chiefly its inconsistency with my profession.”
Further Correspondence p.159

“ Divinity is my profession, yet not lately by me undertaken, but before I left the University, wch is now more than 16 years agoe. The study of plants I never looked upon as my businesse more than I doe now, but my diversion only; wch yet since I am not qualified to serve God & my generation in my proper function, I have been more bold to bestow a good proportion of my time on: nor have I yet given it quite over: so that I have no thoughts of parting with any of my books upon that subject.”
Further Correspondence p.163, 8 May 1678

When the 1689 Act of Toleration made it legal for Ray to practise ‘divinity’ he was elderly, but began writing theological works such as The Wisdom of God (1691), Physico-Theological Discourses (1693) and Persuasive to a Holy Life (1700).

In 1685 Ray’s book on Fish was published with help from the Royal Society.

“... to send notice to Oxford, and to desire that the Bishop should print the book for them, the [Royal] Society being at the expense of the impression, and sending the paper if necessary...”
Further Correspondence p.91, 25 March 1685

But the print run was too large, and Royal Society records show that in later years Hooke and Halley were offered bulk copies of Ray’s Historia Piscium as payment in lieu of their expenses!


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