April 23

Max Planck (1858)

It was on this date, April 23, 1858, in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, that German physicist Max Planck was born. Although the son of a law professor, Planck turned to physics and thermodynamics, invented quantum theory, and developed a formula to predict how the radiation an object emits is related to its temperature, known today as Planck's Constant and symbolized by the letter h. Planck received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918.

Though publicly he wrote, "Religion belongs to that realm that is inviolable before the law of causation and therefore is closed to science" [1932], one biographer observed that Planck was "far removed from all dogmatic, mystery-mongering beings." Planck's God, it seemed, was nothing more than an "ideal Sprit." He did not believe in a future life.

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Stephen A. Douglas (1813)

Also born on this date, April 23, 1813, was the American statesman and jurist Stephen A. Douglas. Hailing from Illinois, he engaged in a series of famous debates with Abraham Lincoln during the US Senate election campaign in 1858. Douglas served in both the House and the Senate, where he distinguished himself with both his rhetorical eloquence and his defense of religious liberty. Although Douglas believed in God, his obituary noted that he "never identified himself with any Church." He died two months after the start of the Civil War.

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Joseph Turner (1775)

Also born on this date, April 23, 1775, was the English landscape painter Joseph Turner. Though poor, he contrived to get himself educated, took up painting, and was rewarded with having one of his works exhibited at the Royal Academy when he was just 15 years old. By age 27 he was a full member. At the end of his life he left a large fortune to support impoverished artists. His friend and supporter, art critic John Ruskin, called him "an infidel" in religion. One biographer said Turner "did not profess to be a member of any visible Church," and another regretted that he "had no religious hope to cheer him" when he died on 19 December 1851.

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William Shakespeare (1564)

Also (probably) born on this date, April 23, 1564, was the greatest poet and playwright in the English language, William Shakespeare. Though claimed by every religious persuasion, we cannot definitively say that he was a skeptic or a believer. The careful reader will admire Shakespeare's ability to make pagans behave and speak as one would expect, and Christians, too. He certainly had ample opportunity to take religious turns in his dramas and comedies, and especially in his history plays, but he does not. What truly religious sentiments Shakespeare does exhibit, have no depth, as if he were either indifferent to, or ignorant of, the theology of the Elizabethan Age.

Contrast this opening line from Shakespeare's will: "I commend my soul unto the hands of God my Creator, hoping, and assuredly believing through the merits of Jesus Christ, my Savior, to be made partaker of life everlasting," which bears not a hint of the wit in lines from his plays, such as, "His worst fault is, he's given to prayer; he is something peevish that way" (Mistress Quickly, Merry Wives of Windsor, 1:4), or "Modest doubt is called the beacon of the wise" (Hector, Troilus and Cressida, 2:2), or "It is an heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it" (Paulina, The Winter's Tale, 2:3). All we can say is that, in a time when it was punishable to be an unfaithful Christian and to skip church services, William Shakespeare said some things no Christian should have said.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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