A Parson-naturalist was a parson (properly, a country priest who held the living of a parish, but the term may be extended to other priests), who saw the study of natural science as an extension of his religious work. The philosophy entailed the belief that God, as the Creator of all things, wanted man to understand his Creations and thus to study them by collecting and classifying organisms and other natural phenomena.
The natural theologians John Ray (1627–1705) and William Paley (1743–1805) argued that the elaborate complexity of the world of nature was evidence for the existence of a creator. Accordingly, a parson-naturalist frequently made use of his insights into philosophy and theology when interpreting what he observed in natural history.
The tradition of clerical naturalists may be traced back to some monastic writings of the Middle Ages, although some argue that their writings about animals and plants cannot be correctly classified as natural history. Notable early parson-naturalists were William Turner (1508–1568), John Ray (1627–1705), William Derham (1657–1735), and Gilbert White (1720-1793).
The 19th century witnessed the wide proliferation of the tradition, which continued into the 20th century. There was an extensive network of such persons: many were related to one another by marriage or by blood, and had been to one of two universities (four after the foundation of Durham and King's College, London). They met at clergy meetings, and corresponded regularly. The movement was assisted by the fact that a parson might remain in his parish for many years, as a family might own the 'advowson', the right to appoint a clergyman to a living, and because of the doctrine of 'parson's freehold', a clergyman might be very difficult to displace. This meant that a man might get to know the plants, animals and people of the limited area of a single parish extremely well.
- Armstrong, Patrick (2000). The English Parson-naturalist: A Companionship Between Science and Religion. Gracewing. ISBN 978-0-85244-516-7.
- Clark, J.P.M. (2009). "The Politics of Insects". Bugs and the Victorians. Yale University Press. pp. 26–28.
- Worster, Donald (1994). "The education of a scientist". Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas (2 ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-46834-5.