March 31, 2023 at 12:22 AM


     There once was a man from Newfoundland, an entomologist, an evangelical…

     This might sound like the start of a bad joke (or the start of a good one if you happen to be dad), but it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, an amalgam of all three of these things existed about a hundred years ago in the person of P.H. Gosse. I had never even heard of the man until my wife’s uncanny literary instincts caused her to snag his sole literary work, The Canadian Naturalist, for the bargain price of $3.99.

     Born on April 6, 1810 in Dorset England, Gosse was eventually classically trained and developed a keen passion for natural history that never left him. He also loved to read widely and his tastes ranged from the theological works of John and Charles Wesley, to George Adams’ Essays on the Microscope. After graduating, a series of unexpected events eventually lead him to settle in Newfoundland (then still under British dominion) where he would spend the next several years tallying up heaps of bludgeoned seals (during the mid-1800’s the seal trade was in full swing.)

     In November of 1832, however, Gosse’s latent love for biology began to peek out of its burrow; he began to collect various insects and enter his scientific observations in journals. The following summer he would compile his discoveries, with illustrations, in a volume which, “despite an unusually high level of scientific accuracy[1]”, was never published. Part of this might have been due to the fact that he was what some people called an eccentric. Or what other, less-generous people might call, “that crazy englishman who goes about collecting bugs[2].”

     His legacy? Well, let’s just say you won’t find his hand-print on any square in Grauman’s Chinese Theater. As an itinerant preacher the diagnosis was bleak — “Gosse made no impact on the religious life of . . . Newfoundland[3].” Failing in this area, he moved to Canada in order to try his hand at farming, which also ended in failure.

     His success in the realm of science, however, was brighter, especially his original works on invertebrates, marine zoology, rotifera, and lepidoptera. During the 1860s he published a widely acclaimed book entitled Actinologia Britannica — a study of sea anemones. One popular paper stated of Gosse that he now stood “alone and unrivaled in the extremely difficult art of drawing objects of zoology so as to satisfy the requirements of science, as well as providing vivid aesthetic impressions[4].”

     While some reading this might find the subject of evangelical naturalists boring, I am always on the lookout for such anomalies. And let me tell you, they’re rare. In fact, I’ve never before read a work in which the author takes such sheer delight in the natural world all while unapologetically giving glory to God for every last molecule of it. Here’s a sample:

To . . . a mind whose peace is made with God, this life is not without many unalloyed pleasures . . . Among these, not the least is the power of seeing God in His works. . .even in the minutest and humblest objects of creation. This taste I have long cultivated in myself, and I would wish to awaken it in you, that you may still have sources of pleasure, wide and deep, after the rapture of youth is felt only in memory.[5]

     And here are his concluding remarks concerning dragonfly larva:

[Such a creature] surely gives us exalted ideas about. . .the love of God, to observe such astonishing skill of contrivance displayed for the comfort of. . .a creature unknown to ninety-nine out of a hundred of mankind, yet not beneath his care. . .[6]

     This is not a book you read for hard facts and data — nor did Gosse mean for it to be. In his defense, he states in his preface that “He had been compelled to draw water from nature’s own well, and his knowledge of her is almost entirely confined to her appearance in the forest in the field[7].” This is a book you read, however, to help you towards enjoying nature. Here again is Gosse with a brilliant little meditation on a song-sparrow:

No one can look upon a bird pouring out its soul in harmony without feeling that it is an outburst of gladness and joy. Some indeed would make the bird a mere machine, and its song the effect of an instinctive impulse, uttered with no more emotion than the ticking of a clock — but if this be philosophy, indeed,  . . . tis folly to be wise.[8]

     On this subject, L. C. Croft writes of Gosse:

Much of [his] success was due to the fact that he was essentially a field naturalist who was able to impart to his readers something of the thrill of studying living animals at first hand rather than the dead disjointed ones of the museum shelf. In addition to this he was a skilled scientific draftsman who was able to illustrate his books himself.[9]

     Gosse understood that the true wonder of a rotifer wasn’t due to some inherent genius residing in the creature itself. As a pure machine — as a self-created, self-sustaining object — it could only ever be an object for empirical study. True wonder occurs as we consider that a Being of omnipotent eternality also decided to craft an ecosystem which would rest so heavily on such a seemingly insignificant lil’ whirlygig.

     Another reason I love this book is because of how Gosse, without trying, establishes the inherent dignity of vocation. His observations on zooplankton on Tuesday were not categorically separate from his worship on Sunday. His delight in the natural world was apparent whether he was writing a letter to Darwin on orchids, or writing a book on aquariums. In this, he was truly a “classical” Christian. There were no compartments in his life which were exempt from biblical faith — indeed, the consistent critique against him was his inability to keep God out of anything.

     In this, I believe Gosse embodied the encouragement we find in 1 Peter 3:15, “To be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in us.” The assumption behind such a command is that Christians will live in such a way that causes people to ask us why we are so hopeful. Here we find such a man. As I read The Canadian Naturalist, I could almost see Gosse, bent over some stream or puddle, collecting yet another sample to take home and study. I could almost picture him — arms waving, eyes aflame — struggling to convey to friends and family the wonder of what he’d discovered.

     Maybe he was an eccentric. And maybe our world needs a whole lot more of them.

[4] Quoted in Thwaite (2002), pp. 240–241. Thwaite, Ann (2002). Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, 1810-1888. Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-571-19328-8

[5]P.20. Gosse, Philip Henry. The Canadian Naturalist: A Series of Conversations on the Natural History of Lower Canada. London: J. van Voorst, 1840.

[6] Ibid. 80

[7] Ibid. ix

[8] Ibid. 84.

[9] Croft, L.R. "Gosse, Philip Henry (1810–1888)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/11114