Morton, Charles, 1627-1698

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Charles Morton (1626/27)-1698) was a Puritan clergyman and teacher who came to Boston in 1686. He served as minister at Charlestown, Mas., and was elected vice-president of Harvard College in 1697. Morton probably completed his "Compendium Physicae" in 1680 and brought it with him to Boston. The original syllabus has been lost but there are fourteen copies of the manuscript book still in existence. "Compendium Physicae" was the science textbook used by Harvard College students from 1687 to 1728.

From the description of Textbooks, 1700?, 1715. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 207158218

Morton taught at Harvard College from 1686 until his death in 1698. His Compendium Physicae was used as a textbook in natural philosophy at Harvard and Yale.

From the description of Naturall phylosophy. A system of physicks : manuscript, 1706. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 612890678

From the description of A synopsis of naturall philosophy according to the method of the ancients, but improved & augmented with the notions of later philosophers : manuscript, 1677-1679. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 82302656

In 1686, the nonconformist minister and educator Charles Morton emigrated to Boston, having been forced to close his dissenting academy at Newington Green, where his pupils included Daniel Defoe and Samuel Wesley. As an aid to teaching, Morton drew up various compendia, the most successful of which was his Compendium physicae. Morton taught at Harvard College from 1686 until his death in 1698. His Compendium physicae was used as a textbook in natural philosophy at Harvard and Yale. The text was copied and used by a Harvard student, John Coit (1690/1-ca. 1743), class of 1712. There is an account of John Coit in Clifford Shipton's Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. V, 1701-1712 (Boston : Massachussetts Historical Society, 1937), p. 623-624. In the winter of 1712, "[Coit] suddenly plunged into crime, broke glass to the value of 2s, 8d, and left College." Coit returned to take his second degree with his class, and by 1714 was keeping school in Marblehead. He seems to have remained a schoolmaster for the rest of his life despite some unsuccessful business dealings and narrowly avoiding the debtor's prison only by selling property to the value of 1000 pounds.

From the description of Compendium physicae [manuscript], 1709-1753. (Indiana University). WorldCat record id: 422743542

Charles Morton was one of the 2000 ministers ejected from the Church of England under the Act of Uniformity imposed by Charles II in 1662. He took refuge in Massachusetts in 1686. He became a fellow of Harvard College in 1692, and during the last year of his life, he was vice-president of the college.

From the description of Pneumaticks defined ; Of ethicks and its ends ; Advise to young ministers ; manuscript, 168-. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 612821254

The son of a parson, Charles Morton (1627-1698) was raised under the sway of Puritan thought in the bucolic reaches of Cornwall as the English revolution was brewing. At twenty, he was enrolled at Puritan-controlled Cambridge, but after the expulsion of the Royalists from Oxford, was "intruded" in New Inn Hall and later at Wadham College, from which he received his bachelor's degree in 1649 and masters in 1652.

Although there is little to suggest that Morton had any inclination to science prior to his arrival at Oxford, he entered into a remarkable group of scholars at Wadham who epitomized the new empiricism and who would form the core of the Royal Society. Among his peers were Robert Boyle, William Petty, and Christopher Wren, each of whom were committed empiricists -- using experiment, apparatus, and mathematical logic rather than scholastic reasoning alone. Although Morton does not appear to have been their intimate, he embraced their scientific approach, interpreting it within the context of his increasingly devout Puritanism.

Following receipt of his masters degree, Morton probably served as a pastor in Cornwall until 1660, when the Restoration of the monarchy brought a renewal of restrictions on Puritanism generally, and his dismissal from his pulpit as a non-conformist. Never one to waiver in the face of adversity, he ventured to Newington Green, where he established a "dissenters' academy," a school for the education of those excluded from the universities by their refusal to swear conformity to the Church of England (and implicitly, fealty to the King). In the classroom, he emphasized the lessons he had learned at Wadham: Aristotelianism tinged with the currents of Descartes and Boyle, the application of scientific logic and rigor, and staunch piety. Morton taught in the vernacular, preparing brief, but systematic manuscript expositions of each subject, which his students copied for themselves in attempting to master the material. His reputation, at least in retrospect, was embellished by the talent of the students he attracted to Newington, including Samuel Wesley (father of John and Charles) and Daniel Defoe.

Reflecting his broad education, Morton's "systems" included expositions of politics, logic, natural philosophy, and mathematics, although not all of these have survived. To view them as a whole, however, as a coherent curriculum, provides a better perspective on their value in Morton's intense religious devotion and his holistic perspective on divinity and creation. Yet Morton's plans would not come to full fruition in England. When the Anglican and Royalist establishment began to step up their campaign against dissenters and their academies in the 1670s, Morton became a favored target. Badgered, arrested, and excommunicated, he held out until 1685, when he wisely opted to answer the call to emigrate to the more congenial confines of the New World.

In Boston, Increase Mather ruled over Harvard with an absolutism to make Charles II jealous. Mather would have known of the Puritan hero, Morton, just as Morton would have known of the Puritan experiment at Harvard, and Mather appears to have dangled the Harvard presidency as a lure. When Morton arrived in Boston in June 1686, however, he soon found that the problems of a dissenter's life could not so easily be shed. Just prior to his arrival, the Massachusetts had been revoked in an effort to extend royal dominion more completely over the colony, and the delicate political position of the college made installing a political undesirable like Morton unwise. Morton stepped graciously aside from the presidency, and in November, accepted the call as pastor of the distinguished First Church of Charlestown, Mass., from which pulpit he resumed his assault on the unholy, attacking the unpopular royal government of Edward Andros, earning arrest for sedition in the process (but also acquittal before a Puritan court).

Although deprived of the presidency, Morton nevertheless began to teach Harvard students almost immediately, and his System of Physics, also known by its Latin name, the Compendium Physicae, became a staple of the curriculum there -- and later Yale -- for almost 40 years. In many ways, the work lies on the fulcrum of physical knowledge, drawing upon medieval or ancient sources at the same time that it draws upon Boyle, Wallis, and Hooke. It is dominated by an Aristotelian ethos, and roughly follows in the long tradition of Scholastic use, but at the same time, it is reflective of the new trends in thought in the seventeenth century, paying a debt to Cartesianism -- even if at arm's length -- as well as to Boyle and Hooke.

Morton was named Vice President of Harvard in June 1697, but by that time his health was already in serious decline. He died in Charlestown on April 11, 1698, a death earning special notice in the diary of Samuel Sewall.

From the guide to the A System of Physicks (Compedium Physicae), Circa 1700, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. Records of ministerial associations, 1655-1704 Massachusetts Historical Society
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. A synopsis of naturall philosophy according to the method of the ancients, but improved & augmented with the notions of later philosophers : manuscript, 1677-1679. HCL Technical Services, Harvard College Library
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. Pneumaticks defined ; Of ethicks and its ends ; Advise to young ministers ; manuscript, 168-. Houghton Library
creatorOf Hancock, John, 1671-1752. Notes : on sermons : manuscript, 1690. Houghton Library
creatorOf Eells, Nathaniel, 1677-1750. A system of physicks (manuscript transcription), [photostat copy], 1697. Harvard University Archives.
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. Morton's physics : manuscript, 1729. Houghton Library
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. Compendium physicae [manuscript], 1709-1753. Indiana University
referencedIn Hale, Robert, 1703-1767. Papers, 1717-1741. American Antiquarian Society
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. Naturall phylosophy. A system of physicks : manuscript, 1706. Houghton Library
creatorOf Morton, Charles, 1627-1698. Textbooks, 1700?, 1715. American Antiquarian Society
creatorOf A System of Physicks (Compedium Physicae), Circa 1700 American Philosophical Society
creatorOf Williams, Ebenezer, 1690-1753. A system of ethicks. Of morall phylosophy in generall & in speciall P.D. Carolum Morton. M.A. Harvard University Archives.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Barnard, John, 1681-1770 person
associatedWith Cambridge Association of Ministers (Cambridge, Mass.). corporateBody
associatedWith Coit, John, 1690/1-ca. 1743. person
associatedWith Cornwall Association of Ministers (Cornwall, England). corporateBody
associatedWith Eells, Nathaniel, 1677-1750. person
associatedWith Frost, Charles, fl. 1729, person
associatedWith Hale, Robert, 1703-1767. person
associatedWith Hancock, John, 1671-1752. person
associatedWith Harvard College (1636-1780) corporateBody
associatedWith Harvard University. corporateBody
associatedWith Jonathan P., person
associatedWith Morison, Samuel Eliot, 1887-1976, person
associatedWith Orne, Azor, 1731-1796, person
associatedWith Phillips, Samuel, 1690-1771, person
associatedWith Rogers, Nathaniel, 1699-1745. person
associatedWith Williams, Ebenezer, 1690-1753. person
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Christian ethics
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Birth 1627-02-15

Death 1698-04-11



Ark ID: w6zp4b4v

SNAC ID: 39362646