Ian Ramsey Centre


Michelle Pfeffer, Graduate Student (Oxford, Queensland)

Graduate Associate


Recognised Student, The Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford; ARC Laureate Fellowship Postgraduate, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), The University of Queensland.


  • Intellectual history
  • history of science and medicine
  • science and religion

Publications/presentations to date

  • The Theological Foundations of Materialism in England at the turn of Seventeenth-Century’, Joint Meeting ESHHS & CHEIRON, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (30 June 2016)
  • Whose Perspective on Identity Matters? Humans, Chimps and the Early Modern Soul’, Perspectives on Identity, The University of Queensland (27 November 2015)
  • Heathenism, Immortality and the Secularisation of the Human Soul’, Centre for the Study of Science, Religion and Society Public Lecture, Emmanuel College, The University of Queensland (10 June 2016)

PhD research objectives

In the 2016/17 academic year I will be undertaking research towards my Australian PhD in History at the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford. My doctoral research examines the work of some two dozen English writers who denied the existence of the immaterial, immortal soul between 1640 and 1790. The most prolific of these mortalist-materialists included Richard Overton, Thomas Hobbes, George Hammon, Henry Layton, William Coward, Peter Peckard and Joseph Priestley. 

While these writers supported their arguments with a range of ‘proofs’ derived from medicine and natural philosophy, they also put forward several theological arguments that emerged in the context of a mounting ‘historical’ turn in the study of the Bible in the seventeenth-century. Moreover, they bolstered their mortalist-materialist views by drawing on widespread contemporary fears of ‘popery’: they depicted themselves as being embroiled in the continuation and, indeed, culmination, of the Protestant Reformation.

In recent years the familiarity of historians with the theological foundations of early modern materialism has grown a great deal, marking a considerable advance over older (if regrettably still common at times) views of materialism as always scientifically catalysed and irreligious. However what is still missing from the literature is a sustained analysis of the theological arguments employed by these materialists and my dissertation, tentatively entitled ‘Christian Materialism and the Reform of the Soul: Biblical Exegesis and Polemical Historiography in Early Modern England’ will go some way to amending this issue.

The theological arguments put forward by these writers over the space of 150 years are remarkably stable, so much so that they function as a ‘stockpile’ from which specific arguments can be drawn and strategically deployed as further support for and legitimation of a mortalist-materialist position. These writers lay the foundations for a tradition of ‘Christian materialism’ which has persisted up to the present day. My project not only offers further insight into the multiple and conflicting ‘sciences’ and theologies that existed in the early modern period, but hopes to provide insight into religiously-motivated responses to ‘materialist’ science today, where the majority of these arguments remain in play.

Personal experience of the Ian Ramsey Centre

I have a Recognised Studentship at the Ian Ramsey Centre of the Theology and Religion Faculty, an opportunity for which I count myself very fortunate. One of the main objectives of my studentship is to access the expertise of internationally recognised academics at Oxford in order to bring fresh perspectives to my research, and on this front my experience at Oxford has been extremely fruitful thus far. As an intellectual historian, I hope to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of past ideas, people and events, but also to current public debate. The Ian Ramsey Centre – a supportive yet rigorous community that effectively fosters interdisciplinary discussion – is a fertile atmosphere in which to cultivate these ambitions. The University of Oxford and the Ian Ramsey Centre encourage intellectual activity in the humanities with great energy, and it is my pleasure to be a part of it.

Contact email: michelle.pfeffer@theology.ox.ac.uk