Christian Mathematicians – Stokes

By Steve Bishop

(Disclaimer: The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Guest articles are sought after for the purpose of bringing more diverse viewpoints to the topics of mathematics and theology. The point is to foster discussion. To this end respectful and constructive comments are highly encouraged.)

George Stokes (1819-1903)

George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903) was born in a rectory in Skreen, Ireland. He was the son of an evangelical rector, Revd Gabriel Stokes, and the youngest of six children. All three of his elder brothers became vicars.

Stokes attended schools in Skreen, Dublin and Bristol.  He graduated in mathematics from Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1841 and remained at Cambridge until his death in 1903.

He was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1849. A position previously held by Isaac Barrow, Isaac Newton and Charles Babbage among others. He did much to restore the tradition of mathematical physics in Cambridge. He helped develop the now highly prestigious Cavendish Laboratory. He held the Lucasian chair for 54 years.

He was secretary (1854-1885) and then president (1885-1890) of the Royal Society.

He was an applied mathematician who worked in the area of fluid dynamics (hydrostatics), but also did work on light.

He gave his name to the following:

  • Stokes’ law
  • Stokes’ theorem
  • Stokes line
  • Stokes number
  • Stokes relations
  • Stokes shift and
  • Navier–Stokes equations

Craters on the moon and on Mars have also been named after him.

Stokes was a life long friend and correspondent with physicist and fellow Christian Lord Kelvin (William Thompson).

According to Josipa Petrunic:

“Stokes argued mathematics was, and always would be, secondary to physical experimentation in terms of developing scientific knowledge. While math could help describe and formalize our observations, he claimed, it alone could not prove anything about the various phenomena we observe.” Petrunic (nd)

In 1886 Stokes became the president of the evangelical organization the Victoria Institute (VI) and was vice president of the Evangelical British and Foreign Bible Society and active in the Church Missionary Society. One aim of the VI was:

To investigate fully and impartially the most important questions of Philosophy and Science, but more especially those that bear upon the great truths revealed in Holy Scripture, with the view of defending these truths against the oppositions of Science, falsely so called.

The VI was founded in 1865 and published The Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute from 1867. It is still published under the new title of Faith and Thought. Stokes contributed several articles (see below) to the journal.

He delivered the 1891-93 Gifford lectures on the topic of natural theology. In it he contrasted the idea of divine design with materialism. He maintained that materialism is unable to explain certain phenomena such as the law of gravitation.


Petrunic, Josipa (no date) “George Stokes”

Articles by Stokes in JTVI

“On the bearings of the Study of Natural Science, etc., on our Religious Ideas,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 14 (1880): 227-248

“On the bearings of the Study of Natural Science, etc., on our Religious Ideas,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 14 (1880): 227-248.

“Annual Address,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 20 (1888):10-15.

“The One Origin of the Books of Revelation and of Nature,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 22 (1890): 11-23.

“The Luminiferous Ether. Annual Meeting,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 28 (1896): 89-103.

“Perception of Light. Annual Address,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 29 (1897): 11-24.

“Rontgen Rays. Annual Address, 1896,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 30 (1898): 13-28.

“Perception of Colour. Annual Address, 1897,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute 31 (1899): 254-259.

Further resources

George Gabriel Stokes (1893). Natural theology: The Gifford lectures, delivered before the University of Edinburgh in 1893. Adamant Media Corporation. Available online here:

David Wilson, David (1984) A physicist’s alternative to materialism: the religious thought of George Gabriel Stokes. Victorian Studies, 28:69-96, Autumn 1984.

David Wilson, David (1987) Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics. Adam Hilger, 1987.


Steve Bishop is the compiler of A Bibliography for a Christian Approach to Mathematics and the author of several articles on the relationship between faith and math. Look for future posts from him in this series on Christian Mathematicians.

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