ILLUSTRATION: World Without Water (Telluris Theoria Sacra) – Thomas Burnet

493px-Thomas_Burnet_by_Jacob_Ferdinand_VoetSacred Theory of the Earth

Thomas Burnet’s best known work is his Telluris Theoria Sacra, or Sacred Theory of the Earth. The first part was published in 1681 in Latin, and in 1684 in English translation; the second part appeared in 1689 (1690 in English). It was a speculative cosmogony, in which Burnet suggested a hollow earth with most of the water inside until Noah’s Flood, at which time mountains and oceans appeared. He calculated the amount of water on Earth’s surface, stating there was not enough to account for the Flood. Burnet was to some extent influenced by Descartes who had written on the creation of the earth in Principia philosophiae (1644), and was criticised on those grounds by Roger North. The heterodox views of Isaac La Peyrère included the idea that the Flood was not universal; Burnet’s theory was at least in part intended to answer him on that point. [SOURCE]

Burnet’s system had its novel features, as well as those such as the four classical elements that were very traditional: an initially ovoid Earth, a Paradise before the Flood that was always in the spring season, and rivers flowing from the poles to the Equator. Herbert Croft published criticism of the book in 1685, in particular accusing Burnet of following the Second Epistle of Peter rather than the Book of Genesis. During the 1690s John Beaumont and Johann Caspar Eisenschmidt picked up on Burnet’s ideas. They engendered a great deal of controversy at the time, and Burnet defended himself against selected critics, John Keill and Erasmus Warren.

Isaac Newton was an admirer of Burnet’s theological approach to geological processes. Newton even wrote to Burnet, suggesting the possibility that when God created the Earth, the days were longer. However, Burnet did not find this explanation scientific enough. Lengthening the days would require an intervention on God’s part. Burnet tightly held the belief that God created the world and all its processes perfectly from the start.


“Map of the world, shown as if the oceans were dried up. Thomas Burnet was the first Englishman to attempt a scientific account of the origin of the earth. His treatise, Telluris Theoria Sacra, is a curious blend of geography and archaeology, which aroused considerable interest at the time. California is shown as an Island, but no Northwest passage, an unusual concession for an Englishman of this era.”

– Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps

2 thoughts on “ILLUSTRATION: World Without Water (Telluris Theoria Sacra) – Thomas Burnet

  1. Dear to whom it may concern,

    My name is Kelsey Heck and I am a research assistant for Professor Eric Zuelow at the University of New England. He is currently completing a book about the history of modern tourism that will be published by Palgrave next year and we are tracking down images to illustrate various elements of the text.

    I am writing to enquire about the Telluris Theoria Sacra attached book image which I located on your website. Do you own the copyright or know who does? Any information will be helpful.

    Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.


    Kelsey Heck

    P.S. You can reach me at

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