Maury entered the US Navy in 1825, but an accident in 1839 partially disabled him, so he left active sea duty. Three years later, still with the Navy, he was appointed superintendent of the US Naval Observatory in Washington, and also of the US Depot of Charts and Instruments.
Over the next 19 years Maury devoted himself to studying the winds, clouds, weather, and ocean features ... as well as the Bible. In his Bible studies, the words of Psalm 8 stuck in his mind: ‘ ... whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas’. Maury determined that if God’s Word said there were ‘paths’ in the seas, then there must be paths. So he set out to find them.
He studied old ships’ logs. From these he compiled charts of ocean-wind and sea currents. To study the speed and direction of the ocean currents Maury set adrift weighted bottles known as ‘drift bottles’. These floated slightly below the surface of the water, and thus were not affected by wind. Instructions were sealed in each bottle directing anyone who found one washed ashore to return it. From the location and date on which the bottles were found, Maury was able to develop his charts of the ocean currents—the ‘paths’ of the seas—which greatly aided the science of marine navigation.
In 1855, Maury wrote the first textbook on modern oceanography, The Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology. In this work, Maury presented oceanography from a delightfully Christian view. He included Biblical passages of meteorological and other scientific importance, such as the Scripture quote from the book of Job (28:25) which refers to God’s making ‘the weight for the winds’. He explained the Biblical statement this way:
‘. . though the fact that the air has weight is here so distantly announced [in Job], philosophers never recognized the fact until within comparatively a recent period, and then it was proclaimed by them as a great discovery. Nevertheless, the fact was set forth as distinctly in the book of nature as it is in the book of revelation; for the infant, in availing itself of atmospherical pressure to draw milk from its mother’s breast, unconsciously proclaimed it.’
Maury subsequently prepared charts of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and Europe, which showed the practicability of laying undersea cables. Maury died in 1873. He was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. A monument erected in his honour on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, reads: ‘Matthew Fontaine Maury, Pathfinder of the Seas, the genius who first snatched from the oceans and atmosphere the secret of their laws. His inspiration, Holy Writ, Psalm 8:8; Ecclesiastes 1:6.’
It is often claimed that the Bible is not a scientific textbook. Yet the Bible’s accuracy when touching on scientific subjects has led many great scientists, including Matthew Maury, to some outstanding scientific discoveries.