A Brief Survey of Sir Isaac Newton's Views on Religion
Steven E. Jones
Steven E. Jones, “A Brief Survey of Sir Isaac Newton's Views on Religion,” in Converging Paths to Truth, ed. Michael D. Rhodes and J. Ward Moody (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 2011), 61–78.
Steven E. Jones is a professor emeritus of physics, Brigham Young University.
Newton was certainly one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. He laid out the three laws of motion in his extraordinary Principia Mathematica. He discovered the law of universal gravitation, the famous inverse-distance-squared law. He wrote much about light and optics after performing his own original experiments on light. He invented calculus. He rejected the authority of the Greek philosopher Aristotle and promoted experiment-based science.
But it is not commonly known that Newton was also a devout Christian who wrote extensively about Christianity. We learn from his writings that he deeply studied the Bible along with writings of early Christian leaders. Notably, Newton concluded that the dogma of a Triune god was false doctrine and therefore refused ordination in the Anglican Church, a most unpopular decision that almost cost him his position at Cambridge University. Newton also believed that a general apostasy from Christ’s doctrines occurred early on in the history of the Christian church, and he wrote that a restoration of the Lord’s church would come at some future time.
Although none of Newton’s religious writings were published during his lifetime, after his death in 1727, John Conduitt, executor of Newton’s will,  published some of his theological manuscripts. Eventually the remainder came forth when the manuscripts were auctioned off in 1936.  In this paper we will examine some of Newton’s copious writings on religion.
Introductory Thought Experiment
Let us consider a quick thought experiment to get us thinking along Newtonian lines. Imagine a puck held by a string on a central peg so that it travels in a circular path on a “frictionless” air table like those used in air hockey games.
Suddenly, at point P at the bottom the string breaks. Approximately which way will the puck go—path number 1, 2, 3, or 4? When I have put this question to groups of people, the answers have included 1, 2, 3, and 4, with many not being at all sure what will happen.
But we do not do science by voting. We perform an experiment. And when we actually perform the experiment, we find that the moving puck follows path 2. It does not travel outward or continue in a circle.
Newton generalized the results of many such experiments in his famous three Laws of Motion. Newton’s first law of motion can be expressed this way: An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Initially the hockey puck was constrained by the unbalanced force of the string to move in a circle. However, at the moment the string broke, it was moving in the direction of 2, and Newton’s first law says that it will continue moving in that direction; this result has been confirmed by numerous actual experiments.
Experiments, careful observations, and measurements form the basis of the scientific method, and anyone can use it, Mormon or Muslim, Baptist or Buddhist. The scientific method works in repeatable fashion, independent of one’s beliefs. Repeatability is the core strength of the scientific method.
During the Middle Ages, people would often answer questions by an appeal to authority. They would use the Latin term ipse dixit, “he himself said it,” meaning that some recognized authority—Aristotle, Ptolemy, or one of the church fathers such as Augustine or Thomas Aquinas—had said it. This appeal to authority was the end of the discussion for many. Newton, however, rejected this appeal to authority and instead advocated the use of experiments and careful observations to find out what is true, which is the basis of the modern scientific method.  Aristotle maintained that the motion of the sun, moon, stars, and planets was circular.  However, Johannes Kepler, using the careful observations by Tycho Brahe, showed that they were in fact elliptical and derived equations that described their motion. A hundred years later, Newton showed that these elliptical orbits were the result of the gravitational force of the sun that could accurately be calculated using his famous law of gravity: Every point mass attracts every other point mass by a force pointing along the line intersecting both points. The force is directly proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the point masses—in equation form, F = G((m1m2)/(r²)).
We have important issues today that are of general concern for society. For example, is global warming real? Is it man-caused or the result of natural fluctuations in temperature? We can get the answer by repeated, careful experiments, observations, and measurements rather than by dogmatic or political statements.
A true scientist requires analysis based on experiments and observational evidence—it is not a matter of popular opinion or what some authority figure states. Questions important to society can be addressed by the scientific method, using experiments, then published in refereed journals. This system of review by knowledgeable peers was worked out during Newton’s lifetime by the British Royal Academy of Sciences. It is generally considered a major step in a nascent field of science when results are finally published in established peer-reviewed venues and journals. The scientific method has served us well for about 350 years.
Newton in Historical Context
The following time line places Newton in historical context with other notables.
Aristotle and Plato lived about four hundred years before Christ, and their impact on Western culture has been considerable. Newton was certainly heavily influenced by Jesus Christ and the early Christian writers, for he quoted them abundantly in his writings. He took exception with some of the later Christian writers, after about AD 200. Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo appeared on the scene just before Newton and paved the way for his research. Newton was born on the same day in 1642 that Galileo passed away, and he used many of Galileo’s findings in developing his famous laws of motion. Isaac Newton died in 1727.
A Meshing of Science and Faith in God
Newton was both a scientist and a believer in God. He wrote Optics, a study of light. In this scientific treatise, he paused to ask: “Whence is it that Nature doth nothing in vain? And whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world? . . . Was the eye contrived without skill in optics? And the ear without knowledge of sounds?”  Then, in case the reader is not getting his point, he states plainly: “Does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space . . . sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly.” 
In his famous Principia, Newton wrote: “This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all. . . . The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect . . . and from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being. . . . He is not eternity and infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present.” 
Newton also wrote, “When I wrote my treatise about our system I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.”  In other words, Newton hoped his scientific writings would lead people to think about and believe in God.
“In human affairs the father of a family or house is frequently taken for the common father of a kindred: here the whole creation is considered as one kindred or family so named from God, the common father of all.”  Thus, for Newton, there was a natural meshing of science and belief in God.
In the Book of Mormon, Alma speaks of performing an individual “experiment” (he uses the same term later used by Newton) in order to learn about religious principles:
Awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith. . . .
Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. . . .
And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. (Alma 32: 28, 33)
Now compare this advice of Alma regarding an experiment on the word of God with this advice from Newton regarding the scriptures:
Let me therefore beg of thee not to trust to the opinion of any man concerning these things, for so it is great odds but thou shalt be deceived. Much less oughtest thou to rely upon the judgment of the multitude, for so thou shalt certainly be deceived. But search the scriptures thyself and that by frequent reading and constant meditation upon what thou readest, and earnest prayer to God to enlighten thine understanding if thou desirest to find the truth. Which if thou shalt at length attain thou wilt value above all other treasures in the world by reason of the assurance and vigour it will add to thy faith, and steady satisfaction to thy mind which he only can know how to estimate who shall experience it. 
It seems evident that Newton is sharing his own experience of studying the scriptures and the assurance and satisfaction the word of God brought to him, just as Alma shared his experience based on planting the word of God in his heart.
Newton’s Key to Correctly Understanding Scripture
With the foundation that Newton had obtained by reading the Bible and earnest meditation and prayer, how did he proceed to resolve other questions about religion? There were so many differing interpretations of scripture—how could one make progress in finding out the meaning intended in the Bible? Newton answers: “The first Principles of the Christian religion are founded, not on disputable conclusions, opinions, or conjectures, or on human sanctions, but on the express words of Christ and his Apostles; and we are to hold fast the form of sound words. 2 Tim. 1:13. And further, it is not enough that a proposition be true or in the express words of scripture: it must also appear to have been taught in the days of the Apostles.”  And again: “The first Principles of the Christian religion depend not on disputable conclusions. . . . Every truth, every sentence in scripture is not a fundamental article. It must be delivered in the express words of the first teachers, and appear to have been an article taught from the beginning.”  So here is Newton’s approach for understanding the Bible—read the “express words of scripture” and what was “taught in the days of the Apostles.”
At Cambridge University, where Newton studied, he had the writings of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp, and others of the earliest Christian writings, and he read their words in the original Latin and Greek. He quoted frequently from them and made a distinction between doctrines taught by those who lived during or soon after the Apostles and doctrines that appeared later in history. 
In 1661, Newton was admitted to Trinity College in Cambridge, England.  At that time, the college’s teachings were based largely on the teachings of Aristotle and other philosophers, but Newton preferred to study the experimentalists Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler, and he came to challenge Aristotle’s teachings.  Shortly after he obtained his degree in April 1665, Newton left the university and for the next two years, during the pandemic known as the Great Plague, applied himself to the study of optics, gravitation, and mathematics at his mother’s home in Woolsthorpe, England. 
Newton returned to Cambridge in 1667 to continue his studies and obtain a Master of Arts degree, which he obtained the following year.  In 1669, he was named to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, an elevated position at Trinity College in the Cambridge University system.  Already, at age twenty-six, his talents and contributions were recognized. In Newton’s day, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford had to be an ordained priest in the Anglican Church.  When he accepted the position, Newton promised to take holy orders in the near future but kept postponing it for several years because his personal beliefs were in disagreement with Anglican doctrine.  However, the pressure to take holy orders increased, and Newton considered giving up his position rather than be ordained.  In March 1675 he applied to King Charles for a special dispensation, and to everyone’s surprise, within a month the king granted that the Lucasian Professor and all subsequent holders of the chair be exempt from holy orders.  Newton had expected a fight and had spent the preceding four years in preparation for it by immersing himself in the scriptures and other ancient texts including the earliest Christian writers.  He filled his notebooks with scriptural quotes, from both the Old and New Testament as well as from the earliest Christian writers. 
Newton on the Nature of the Godhead
Just how did Newton apply his scientific approach in his religious studies? A prime example comes from his studies of the nature of God, which he based on the scriptures combined with the teachings of the early writers of the Christian church. Newton saw two major flaws in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: it was unsupported from the scriptures and it was illogical.  Newton used scriptural passages to demonstrate that the Trinitarian doctrine was incorrect, and that the scriptures instead taught that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are separate and distinct beings, three members of the Godhead. For example, the Son confessed that the Father was greater than him  and called him his God.  The Son also acknowledged the original prescience of all future things to be in the Father only.  Newton especially took exception to the Athanasian Creed, which was the first creed in which the equality of the three persons of the Trinity was explicitly stated. It is now generally accepted by scholars that Athanasius was not its author and that it most likely dates from the late fifth or even early sixth century AD—at least one hundred years after Athanasius.  The text of the Athanasian Creed follows:
Whosover will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. . . . The Father Uncreate, the Son Uncreate, and the Holy Ghost Uncreate. The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible. The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal. As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Uncomprehensible. . . . So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity. 
For Newton this was simply not logical. He wrote, “Let them make good sense of it who are able; for my part, I can make none.” 
Newton Rejects 1 John 5:7
Newton wrote a long article about the passage found in 1 John 5:7 in the King James Version, which indeed sounds a bit like the Athanasian Creed: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one” (1 John 5:7). Not satisfied with this passage, Newton went back and read the text of the Vulgate as well as the original Greek. He showed that the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one” did not appear in the original Greek manuscripts. He wrote that the phrase “was neither in the ancient Versions nor in the Greek but was wholly unknown to the first churches, is most certain by an argument hinted above; namely that in all that vehement, universal, and lasting controversy about the Trinity in Jerome’s time, and both before and long enough after it, this text of the Three in Heaven was never thought of. It is now in everybody’s mouth and accounted the main text for the business [of supporting the Trinitarian dogma].”  Newton concluded, based on early texts of the Bible, that 1 John 5:7 was a later addition. He also wrote, “That apostasy was to begin by corrupting the truth about the relation of the Son to the Father in putting them equal.” 
Scholars today agree that 1 John 5:7 is indeed spurious based on the same arguments that Newton used. The passage is not found in any early Greek manuscript, and it is not quoted by Greek Fathers, who, if they had known it, would certainly have used it in the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century AD. 
Newton’s Views of a General Apostasy
Newton concluded a lengthy treatise on the Book of Revelation by saying: “If you now compare all with the Apocalyptic Visions, and particularly with the flight of the woman into the wilderness and the reign of the whore of Babylon, they will very much illustrate one another: for these visions are as plain as if it had been expressly said, that the true Church shall disappear, and in her stead an idolatrous church reign in the world.”  It is interesting to compare this with Doctrine and Covenants 86, where the Lord explains the meaning of the parable of the wheat and the tares:
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servants, concerning the parable of the wheat and the tares:
Behold, verily I say, the field was the world, and the apostles were the sowers of the seed; And after they have fallen asleep the great persecutor of the church, the apostate, the whore, even Babylon, that maketh all nations to drink of her cup, in whose hearts the enemy, even Satan, sitteth to reign—behold he soweth the tares; wherefore, the tares choke the wheat and drive the church into the wilderness. (D&C 86:1–3)
Newton insisted that this was a “general Apostacy,”  and used such scriptures as 1 Timothy 1 and 2  and in particular 2 Thessalonians 2:3, which Newton translates as: “The day of the Lord shal not come except the Apostacy come first & that man of sin be revealed the Son of perdition.”  These, of course, are scriptures the Latter-day Saints also use to support the idea of a general apostasy.
Newton also remarked:
Now though the unity of the Church depended upon the unity of the faith and therefore the rule of faith was unalterable, yet before the end of the second century some of the Latin churches in opposition to heretics began to add new articles to it. And after they had, by adding some articles in the language of the scriptures, made precedents for creating to themselves a creed-making authority: they began to add articles in other language than that of the scripture till they lost the primitive Apostolic rule of faith, and by the loss of it brought all into confusion. 
On his deathbed, Newton openly disclosed his rejection of apostate Christianity by refusing to accept the last rites of the Anglican Church. 
Newton Predicts a Restoration of the True Gospel
Newton’s study of the scriptures brought him to the conclusion that just as there had been a falling away, there would also be a restoration of the true church of Jesus Christ. He quoted Malachi 3 and other scriptures in his commentary that are standard scriptural passages used by Latter-day Saints in discussing the restoration:
Behold I will send my messenger & he shall prepare the way before me & the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple—But who may abide the day of his coming? & who shall stand when he appeareth. Malachi 3.1, 2. 
And there appeared unto them Moses & Elias & they were talking with Jesus—And (the disciples) asked him saying why say the Scribes that Elias must first come And he answered & told them Elias verily cometh first & restoreth all things. . . . Mark 9.4, 11[–]13. . . . Jesus said unto them (his disciples) Elias shall first come & restore all things. . . . Matth 17.11. 
Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began. Acts 3.21. 
I will lay the Land most desolate & the pomp of her strength shall cease, & the Mountains (i.e. Cities) of Israel shall be desolate. Ezek 33.28. 
Jerusalem shall become heaps, & the Mountain of the house as the high-places of the Forest: But in the last days it shall come to pass that the Mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the Mountains & it shall be exalted above the hills &c i.e. above all other temples. Mica 3.12. 
So in Dan 2 The new Jerusalem extending its dominion over the earth is represented by a great mountain which filled the whole Earth. 
Newton found multiple examples throughout history of reformations by God:
The worship which is due to this God we are to give to no other nor to ascribe anything absurd or contradictious to his nature or actions lest we be found to blaspheme him or to deny him or to make a step towards atheism or irreligion. . . . For as often as mankind has swerved from them, God has made a reformation. When the sons of Adam erred and the thoughts of their heart became evil continually, God selected Noah to people a new world. And when the posterity of Noah transgressed and began to invoke dead men, God selected Abraham and his posterity. And when they transgressed in Egypt God reformed them by Moses. And when they relapsed to idolatry and immorality, God sent Prophets to reform them and punished them by the Babylonian captivity. And when they that returned from captivity, mixed human inventions with the law of Moses under the name of traditions, and laid the stress of religion not upon the acts of the mind, but upon outward acts and ceremonies, God sent Christ to reform them. And when the nation received him not, God called the Gentiles. And now the Gentiles have corrupted themselves, we may expect that God in due time will make a new reformation. And in all the reformations of religion hitherto made, the religion in respect of God and our neighbor is one and the same religion . . . so that this is the oldest religion in the world.
Newton argued that it was the same religion that was restored from time to time by God because men deviated from this true religion. He concluded: “So then the mystery of this restitution of all things is to be found in all the Prophets: which makes me wonder with great admiration that so few Christians of our age can find it there.” 
Newton died on March 20, 1727, and was buried in Westminster Abby on April 4. His coffin was carried by “the Lord High Chancellor, the Dukes of Montrose and Roxborough, and the Earls of Pembroke, Sussex and Macclesfield.”  Other great scientists buried near him include James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday.
Isaac Newton was one of the world’s greatest scientists. He utilized his great genius and powers of reasoning to produce his famous scientific discoveries including his laws of motion, the law of universal gravitation, studies in optics, and the invention of calculus. But he was also a devout Christian, and he brought this same intellectual genius to bear in his analysis of Christianity, and he based his beliefs on his own studies of the Bible along with the earliest Christian writers. Based on his studies he rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and proved that it was unbiblical. He also concluded from that there had been an apostasy from the true Church of Christ, and that at some future time there would be a restoration.
The author acknowledges Professor Michael D. Rhodes for a careful reading of this paper and numerous useful suggestions.
 Michael White, Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997), 360.
 White, Isaac Newton, 346.
 Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, trans. Andrew Motte (Berkley University of California Press, 1946), Rule 4 in Book III, 400.
 Aristotle, On the Heavens, 1.9.
 Isaac Newton, Opticks, 4th ed. (London: William Innys, 1730), 344; spelling and punctuation modernized.
 Isaac Newton, Opticks, 345; spelling and punctuation modernized.
 Isaac Newton, Principia, ed. Stephen Hawking (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002), 426–27.
 Isaac Newton, Original letter from Isaac Newton to Richard Bentley, 189.R.4.47, ff. 4A-5, Trinity College Library, Cambridge, UK; found on the Newton Project website: http://
 Isaac Newton, Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture (part 4: ff. 70–83), ms. 361(4), f. 94, New College Library, Oxford, http://
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.1), Yahuda Ms. 1.1, 1r–2r. Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, http://
 Isaac Newton, Irenicum, Keynes Ms. 3, King’s College, Cambridge, 13, http://
 Newton, Irenicum, 25; spelling and punctuation modernized, emphasis added.
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 White, Isaac Newton, 46, 55.
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 White, Isaac Newton, 58.
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 White, Isaac Newton, 103.
 White, Isaac Newton, 150.
 White, Isaac Newton, 150.
 White, Isaac Newton, 150.
 White, Isaac Newton, 151.
 White, Isaac Newton, 151–52.
 See footnotes 8–10.
 White, Isaac Newton, 152.
 Drafts on the history of the Church (Section 3), Yahuda Ms. 15.3, 47v., National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, http://
 Isaac Newton, Drafts on the history of the Church (Section 7), Yahuda Ms. 15.7, 154r, National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, http://
 Isaac Newton, Drafts on the history of the Church (Section 3), Yahuda Ms. 15.3, 66r.
 Frederick W. Norris, “Athanasian Creed,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd ed., ed. Everett Fergusen (New York: Garland, 1997); Michael O’Carroll, “Athanasian Creed,” in Trinitas (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987); Concordia Triglotta (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 13.
 Charles G. Herbermann and others, eds., The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907), s.v. Athanasian Creed.
 Isaac Newton, Two Notable Corruptions of the Scriptures (part 1: ff. 1–41), ms. 361(4).
 Isaac Newton, Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture (part 1: ff. 1–41), ms 361(4), f. 7.
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.4), Yahuda Ms. 1.4, 158r, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, http://
 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 647–49.
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.2), Yahuda Ms. 1.2, 27v, National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, http://
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.2), Yahuda Ms. 1.2, 24r.
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.2), Yahuda Ms. 1.2, 24r.
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.2), Yahuda Ms. 1.2, 24v.
 Isaac Newton, Drafts on the history of the Church (Section 5), Yahuda Ms. 15.5, 92v, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, http://
 White, Isaac Newton, 360.
 Isaac Newton, Prophesies concerning Christs 2d coming, ASC Ms. N47 HER, James White Library, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA, 8, http://
 Isaac Newton, Prophesies concerning Christs 2d coming, ASC Ms. N47 HER; spelling modernized.
 Isaac Newton, Prophesies concerning Christs 2d coming, ASC Ms. N47 HER; spelling modernized.
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.1a), Yahuda Ms. 1.1a, 3v, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, http://
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.1a), Yahuda Ms. 1.1a, 4r; spelling modernized.
 Isaac Newton, Untitled Treatise on Revelation (section 1.1a), Yahuda Ms. 1.1a, 3r; spelling modernized.
 Isaac Newton, Irenicum, 35; spelling and punctuation modernized.
 Yahuda MS 6, folio 12, cited in Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 126.
 White, Isaac Newton, 360.