How an Obscure Religious Sect Mapped the Cosmos

A green Earth occupies the center of the solar system and the sun (top) revolves around it in this Muggletonian map from 1846. DAVID RUMSEY MAP COLLECTION

IN 1651 A London tailor named John Reeve claimed to have received a message from God. “I have chosen thee my last messenger for a great work unto this bloody unbelieving world,” God said, according to Reeve. “And I have given thee Lodowicke Muggleton to be thy mouth.” Muggleton was Reeve’s cousin, and together they started a small Protestant sect that became known as the Muggletonians.

The Muggletonians were staunchly anti-science. One of the main principles of their faith, a later observer wrote, was that “There is no Devil but the unclean Reason of men.” The Muggletonian view of the universe was based on their reading of Scripture, and they insisted against all evidence to the contrary that the sun orbited the Earth, not the other way around.

This worldview was dead wrong, but it inspired some beautiful celestial maps. They come from a book published in 1846 by Isaac Frost, a London brass founder and Muggletonian. (The sect had remarkable longevity—the last known member died in 1979 after donating the sect’s archive of books and papers, which had been stored in more than 80 apple crates, to the British Library).

A closer look at the Earth at the center of the Muggletonian solar system, orbited by both the sun (top) and moon (bottom). DAVID RUMSEY MAP COLLECTION

Frost’s book, Two Systems of Astronomy, pitted the scientific system of Isaac Newton—which held that the gravitational pull of the sun holds the Earth and other planets in orbit around it—against an Earth-centered universe based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Francis Reid, a historian of science and philosophy summarized this view in The British Journal for the History of Science:

According to Frost, Scripture clearly states that the Sun, the Moon and the Stars are embedded in a firmament made of congealed water and revolve around the Earth, that Heaven has a physical reality above and beyond the stars, and that the planets and the Moon do not reflect the Sun’s rays but are themselves independent sources of light.

This plate attempts to show the absurdity of the Newtonian system by depicting our solar system as one of many in an infinite and godless universe. DAVID RUMSEY MAP COLLECTION

In the years prior to publishing the book, Frost had taken to lecturing about astronomy at mechanics institutes, establishments set up for the education of artisans and other workmen. His lectures probably didn’t attract many people, and he was heckled by audience members who were unconvinced by his critique of the Newtonian system, Reid wrote. Frost may have seen the book, which it appears he paid to have published himself, as a way to introduce Muggletonianism to a wider audience. The colorful diagrams it contains were likely created initially for his lectures.

Frost was on the wrong side of history and science. Even so, his maps remain strangely alluring. They are completely unreasonable, but their soft glowing colors given them an ethereal beauty and—like Muggletonianism itself—surprisingly enduring appeal.

This article was originally published on our blog All Over the Map at National Geographic.

Author: Greg Miller

Greg is a science and technology journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Previously he was a senior writer at WIRED and a staff writer at Science. In addition to cartography, Greg has written extensively about neuroscience and other areas of biological, behavioral, and social science.

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