John Ray and the Treasures of Nature
by John Hudson Tiner, House Springs, Missouri
The study of plants became John Ray's passion. On the long summer days, he explored the countryside around Cambridge. His garden became a living museum of interesting plant specimens. The number of plants became so great he could not easily comprehend all he learned about them. He needed some method to classify them. What was true of one plant in a class was true of all plants in the class. Ray searched for a natural system of classification that would reflect the order given by God when he created plants and animals. He noticed that some plants produced flowers. Others did not. Flowering plants were one division. Some flowering plants had single seed leaves. Others had double seed leaves. This separated the flowering division into two distinct classes. His thoughts on classification were interrupted by political turmoil at Cambridge. The new King Charles II insisted that all college professors sign a document that renounced the religious ideas of Oliver Cromwell, the previous ruler. "Sign or be dismissed from your post at Cambridge," officials told him.
John Ray did not take lightly his Christian beliefs. He refused to sign. In 1662, he was dismissed from his post, lost his home and salary. He could not use the college library. His garden had 700 plants that he worked on for 10 years. It grew on school property. He lost it, too.
Without the duties of teaching, he would have time to see more of nature. He told his friends, "I have always wanted to explore England. I shall make an effort to extend my plant studies to include all of England." He had time but no money. He trusted that God would provide. Sir Francis Willughby, a former student, suggested that John Ray lead a tour of England. Sir Francis and a friend would go with John Ray and pay all of his expenses.
Exploring England at that time was not as simple as one might suppose. No maps had been made showing the trails and roads in the country. Although heroic navigators had sailed across the ocean to the New World, most would have quickly become lost in the bewildering back roads of England. John Ray was the first person to thoroughly explore England, Scotland, and Wales.
In 1667, he published Catalogue of British Plants. Often professors made their books difficult to understand to prove how smart they were. Not John Ray. He wrote to reveal nature and show the sense of wonder in God's creation. His book was noted for its accurate descriptions. Ray urged people to send corrections and samples of plants he had not described. He said, "The bounds of science are not fixed. The treasures of nature are inexhaustible."
By 1685, a persistent infection in his legs prevented him from long travels. He turned to a study of insects in his own backyard. One day he watched as a wasp dragged a green caterpillar three times larger than itself. It pulled the caterpillar to the mouth of a burrow that it had previously dug. It removed a ball of earth that sealed the entrance and went down into the hole. After a brief stay, the wasp came up again. Seizing the caterpillar, the wasp carried it down into the burrow. Carefully the wasp filled in the hole. Ray asked, "Who would not wonder in amazement at this?"
He wrote a book titled Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation. The book gave evidences from the nature of God's wisdom and power. Unfortunately, it was not published for many years because John Ray's religious writings were banned. Printers faced heavy fines if they printed his religious books. This changed after William and Mary became joint rulers of England in 1689. For the first time in 30 years, John Ray could find a printer for his religious books.
By 1705, he had written 22 books about nature and religious subjects. He saw his life ending. He provided for his family and gave his nature collections to one of his students. He sent money to Cambridge to buy books for the library--the same library that had been closed to him for 30 years.
Today, John Ray is called one of the founders of modern botany. What did he think of his work? John Ray said, "I predict that our descendants will reach such heights in the sciences that our noblest discoveries will seem slight, obvious and almost worthless." Of course, his work has proven to be far from worthless. His books are still read today. Scientists marvel at the precision with which he wrote and his evident enthusiasm for his subject.
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