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Debating Darwin—How the Church Responded to the Evolution Bombshell

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November 22, 2013 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now
Debating Darwin—How the Church Responded to the Evolution Bombshell

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

I know—this isn’t exactly what you expected. You’re probably wondering where my next column on Robert Boyle is. It hasn’t disappeared into the cloud, but I just learned about something that I’m excited to tell you about right away, so I’ve shelved Mr. Boyle temporarily to give you something equally historical but quite different.

Christian History magazine, long known for bringing high quality articles by leading experts to church history buffs, has just released an issue devoted to Christianity and evolution in the period from Darwin (1859) to the Scopes trial (1925). Although they don’t cover scientific topics very often, they did a nice job several years ago with issues devoted to the Scopes trial and the Scientific Revolution. This one, edited by church historian Jennifer Woodruff Tait, is equally good. Up to date, authoritative, and aptly illustrated with photographs, paintings, cartoons, and other well-chosen images from the period, it should be read by anyone with more than a passing interest in Christianity and evolution.


Editorial cartoon by Ernest James Pace
William Jennings Bryan began to campaign for laws against teaching evolution in public schools early in 1922. This cartoon was drawn a few months later by Ernest James Pace for the leading fundamentalist magazine of the period, the Sunday School Times. It depicts Bryan as the hero of the battle of Verdun, upholding the French battle cry against the “enemies of the Bible” outside the ramparts. The implicit identification of the enemies as Germans was deliberate. Modern biblical scholarship originated in Germany, and the fundamentalists of the 1920s viewed evolution and higher criticism as the two greatest enemies of Christianity—a situation that has not changed one whit today. One of several cartoons by Pace that I wrote about a few years ago (see the essay cited below), it adorns the article on the Scopes trial in Christian History.

An impressive group of experts, both Christians and others, contributed articles. The roster is headed by the leading American historian of religion and science, Ronald L. Numbers, and his European counterpart, John Hedley Brooke. Other distinguished scholars include Frederick Gregory, David Livingstone, George Marsden, and Jon H. Roberts.

Anyone familiar with these names already knows the main message readers will find in this issue: “Nearly all [of the history covered] turned out to be more complicated than I had thought,” writes Tait. “History usually does.” Where many scholars in previous generations simply assumed that Christianity and science have always been in conflict—and not just over evolution—recent scholarship has decisively debunked that view. The main message from today’s historians is complexity, not conflict. In almost any historical situation, no simple conclusion, neither conflict nor harmony, is likely to find unqualified support.

This comes across with the clarity of a church bell. Complex historical matters are treated with a sophistication rarely found in magazine articles about evolution and Christianity. For example, John Brooke assesses Darwin’s theory precisely: “When he wrote Origin of Species, Darwin still believed in a creator who had designed the laws of nature. But he did not believe that such a creator had micromanaged every detail of the evolutionary process. He had rejected Christianity several years earlier and in later years would describe himself as an agnostic.” Ronald Numbers offers a superb analysis of the changing views of George Frederick Wright, a Congregationalist minister and amateur (but accomplished) geologist who helped Asa Gray advance a type of theistic evolution in the late nineteenth century, before reversing course in the early twentieth century, when he contributed an essay on “The Passing of Evolution” to The Fundamentals, the famous pamphlets that helped launch the fundamentalist movement. Perhaps the most insightful commentary, however, comes from George Marsden: “Biological evolution had become [after World War One] the symbolic fortress of naturalistic secularism, and it had come to symbolize so many other issues as well: the existence of God, the Bible’s authority, the nature of the universe, human nature, morality, and the future of civilization. Thus it became the major battleground. So many on both sides viewed the matter through the metaphor of warfare that the shouts of battle often drowned out the voices of those who argued for alternative approaches.” Readers of a site advocating alternative approaches may be forgiven for wondering whether Marsden is writing about the 1920s or the 2010s.

Given the almost uniformly high quality of the work on display here, any misgivings on my part might seem like irrelevant quibbles. I have just two small bones to pick. Almost the first paragraph the reader sees, under the boldfaced heading, FAVORED RACES, says this: “The full title of Darwin’s book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin did not argue there that humans descended from nonhuman ancestors. That book came a little over a decade later, in 1871: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.” This is accurate as far as it goes, but those words with that header could give readers the impression that Darwin was a leading proponent of scientific racism, a charge that is sometimes leveled against him by critics of evolution today. He wasn’t. In the title of his most famous book, “races” is roughly equivalent to “species” or “varieties” of living things, whether animal or vegetable. He used the word in that way more than fifty times in the book, but just three times in reference to “races of man.” I fear this paragraph will generate more heat than light.

My other complaint pertains to the centerpiece of the issue, a two-page spread called “Debating Darwin What Did They Say?” Here, each major person mentioned in the articles is placed into one of six categories. Such efforts are rarely fully convincing, as I admitted in my series on Science and the Bible. Our conceptual boxes often fail to capture the nuances of someone’s carefully stated position. In this instance, one particular box (“Darwin poses challenges to Christianity, but we can revise our theology to deal with them—perhaps radically”) is just too broad and hazy to be helpful. Indeed, I find almost nothing in common theologically between Asa Gray, who held that his acceptance of evolution was wholly compatible with his affirmation of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and Joseph LeConte, who (according to Numbers) in the end rejected just about every single affirmation of those creeds, such that “only an imminent [sic], pantheistic God and personal immortality survived.”

All quibbles aside, the editor and the authors have produced a top-notch magazine issue about one of the most important topics in the history of Christianity and science. Even though you can download the PDF for free, the print version is so inexpensive ($5) and so much nicer on the eyes, that it’s hard to pass up.

Looking Ahead

The series on Robert Boyle resumes next week, with a column about the clockwork universe.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

For more information about Pace’s cartoons, see Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modernist Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era,” in Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, ed. Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), pp. 175-98. Several dozen cartoons by Pace and others —including many found in this magazine—are available in Mark Aldrich’s excellent collection, “Cartooning Evolution, 1861-1925,” which cites my essay as one of his sources.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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beaglelady - #83610

November 22nd 2013

Christian History is a really good magazine, neither fundie nor liberal. You can get a subscription to it at no cost, although they do like contributions.   They also have a Facebook page—“like” it and you’ll get their facebook postings. 

beaglelady - #83612

November 22nd 2013

It seems that Christian History’s Facebook page  has posted something about this post. 

Lou Jost - #83613

November 22nd 2013

Ted, thanks for bringing this to our attention. I’m first reading “The passing of evolution”, the article you linked to by Wright from the influential Fundamentals pamphlet. It is fun to see, with the benefit of hindsight, how wrong he was about nearly everything he wrote, and how unfair he was to Darwin. His section on the age of the earth (which at the time seemed too young to have given evolution enough time to work) ends with this ad hominem: “The only excuse which Darwin could make was that at the time no one knew any better. But that excuse shows the folly of building such an enormous theory upon an unknown foundation.” Technically, Wright was accurately reflecting what was known at the time. Physics hadn’t caught up to biology; we had yet to understand the effects of convection and radioactivity in the earth’s heat budget. But science has more than one criterion for judging the truth of a theory. One of the more subtle criteria is the power of a theory to reduce a large set of disparate, seemingly unrelated observations to a single simple, elegant explanation. This power carries a huge amount of evidential weight with good scientists. Darwin’s theory is surpassed only by  Eintein’s general theory of relativity in its ability to explain a broad range of phenomena from a ridicuously simple set of fundamental premises. This is extremely unlikely to happen by accident. Darwin correctly used this principle to stand up to the world’s greatest physicists, daring to suggest that something was missing in their calculations.

The surprising explanatory power of Darwin’s few simple premises was ignored by his fundamentalist critics then, and still ignored by them today. Now, of course, we have independently confirmed the  conclusions which were controversial then: a very old earth and  common descent. But even before we had confirmed these things, Darwin’s confidence was rational.

Ted Davis - #83620

November 22nd 2013

I’m glad you find this column interesting, Lou. On the age of the earth, as you point out, Darwin was in something of a fix—prior to (as you also point out) the discovery of radioactivity in the 1890s and the subsequent realization, which grew pretty slowly, that radioactivity inside the earth is a major ongoing source of heat that wipes out prior assumptions about dating the earth. Lord Kelvin put the age somewhere between 20 and 120 MY in Darwin’s day, and it was a decent number at the time. Darwin knew it was decent, though he sensed there had to be something wrong with it even though he himself lacked the competence to contest it. At the turn of the century, scientists generally held the earth’s age to be about 100 MY.

Concerning the great explanatory power of the consilience of inductions that Darwin put forth, I agree with you. It’s very powerful. Einstein is a nice comparison, but I wouldn’t forget about Newton’s physics either. As the old line goes, there is only one universe, and Newton discovered it. Of course, since Newtonian and Einsteinian physics can be tested more directly than evolution (in that they aren’t historical sciences, though GRT certainly has historical implications in cosmology), many people who criticize evolution don’t criticize those theories—even though all 3 are thoroughly naturalistic.

Lou Jost - #83624

November 23rd 2013

Yes, Newton certainly deserves credit for coming up with a very powerful theory. Einstein’s theory, though, is even more compact (fewer and more elegant  postulates) and has much greater explanatory power.

It is interesting that many religious people dislike the idea that evolution “leaves God unemployed” while, as you point out, physics also leaves him out of the picure. The most common way to keep him employed is to give him authority over quantum-mechanical randomness. So now, instead of a god setting up  a clockwork universe carefully designed to lead to humans and then sitting back to watch (this picture was falsified by the advent of QM), he has to have real-time involvement (if this is the only universe).

Ted Davis - #83626

November 23rd 2013

Whether God is left “unemployed” by naturalistic science, Lou, depends on what God is thought be doing, doesn’t it? That’s of course an enormous question—the question of divine action as well as the question of existence itself (Leibniz’ great question, why is there something rather than nothing?, which is absolutely not a scientific question). I’ll leave all that aside here, since silence is less likely to be misconstrued than a few sentences trying to deal with such a big subject.

Given the high visibility of the opposite extremes (creationism and the “new atheism”), relative to other voices (who are often better informed and more thoughtful than the louder folks, IMO), it’s hard for many to think differently than to see science as putting God on the unemployment line. Do those same folks think that science leaves our human values equally out of work? Many secular scientists I know believe strongly in a certain set of political values (e.g.), which they might even hold as non-negotiables, yet science is incapable of confirming any of them. The Jeffersonian claim that “all men are created equal” and thus entitled to rights, e.g., is flatly contradicted by genetics and evolutionary biology, isn’t it? None of us is created equal to anyone else, and if survival of the fittest is the evolutionary game than the “winners” of that game aren’t likely to be democrats—spelled deliberately with a small “d” b/c that’s the right form of the word in this context.

Lou Jost - #83629

November 23rd 2013

Ted, you know the answer to this. Explanation is not normative. Just because matter obeys the law of gravity doesn’t mean we should all crawl on our bellies.

Lou Jost - #83630

November 24th 2013

For your other implicit question (What should our ethical values be?), saying that they come from a god is not helpful. Should we turn the other cheek when a theif steals, or should we cut off his hand? Different holy books, or different interpretations of the same holy book, give different answers. Ethical rules for a society need to be debated rationally, not taken unquestioned from an ancient manuscript. As I have often said here, interesting rational cases can often be made for many of the precepts that Christians believe in, but not for all.

beaglelady - #83625

November 23rd 2013

Astronomy is another historical science.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83617

November 22nd 2013


I do not want to quibble, but I would suggest that while Darwin’s thought was rational as is most thought, its power came from his power of observation.

Science is not based on rationality, it is based on his ability to observe and interpret change.  He was a great observer of nature.

My problem with Darwin is not with him as an observer, but that he accepted the theories of Malthus which were not based on observation, but flawed logic.  Rationality, theory, and logic are good, but they are not a substitute for good science based on experimentation, observation, and field studies. 

Yes, Darwin was right about many things, but that does not make him right about everything.  His concept of Natural Selection needs to be scientifically verified by experiment and/or field studies rather than accepted on faith.  

Lou Jost - #83619

November 22nd 2013

Roger, as you know (because countless people, skeptics and believers alike, have told you and given you citations to back them up), natural selection is well understood theoretically and well documented experimentally. I won’t respond to you again on this thread.

Jon Garvey - #83623

November 23rd 2013


Your mention of WW1 is relevant historically. It seems the 1920s Fundamentalist distaste of evolution came to a head from the experience of the war, fought at least partly for social-Darwinist motives on the Kaiser’s part, and of course that naturally (if wrongly) generalised to all things German, higher criticism being a major one and evolution another.

It is also metaphorically important: there are still arguments about who and what started the First War - and the same is true of the evolution-religion question. There is no doubt, though, that elements of the pro-evolution lobby were using it as a stick to beat Christianity from the start, and I suspect that’s partly what drove people like Wright to antievolutionism.

Warfare takes a long time to forgive. It’s foolish to judge Germany by the First World War, but my grandfather, who spent from November 1914 until September 1918 on the Western front, had nightmares and hatred towards the Germans until he died in 1983, and it’s hard to blame him.

The task of you historians, I guess, is to expose both the cultural biases that remain to cloud the issues (on all sides), and to show how they arose in the first place, so that there is a motivation to leave them behind.

Merv - #83627

November 23rd 2013

While we’re talking about WWI, it’s worth noting that William Jennings Bryan is forgotten for some significant roles he played (or almost played) at that time.  He tried to establish an international coalition of nations to exercise third-party arbitration because Bryan recognized the true cost of war in a way that few politicians then (or since) ever have.  Had his plan succeeded (had the major nations taken him seriously), WWI might have been averted.  He resigned when asked by Wilson to draft a letter (ultimatum) to Germany that Bryan felt was treating Germany unfairly at that time.  I wish I knew even more about history to know the details of the powder keg that Europe must have been at that time just waiting for any little spark.  It is intriguing to think of how it might have turned out differently—and of course WWI laid the stage for WWII ... and so forth.  Bryan turned out to have been prescient.  Not that he was radical for thinking so ... War begets war.  He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.  It’s an old lesson humanity will never learn.

C.S. Lewis also spent time in the trenches.  He didn’t like to speak or write of it as I recall.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83632

November 24th 2013

It seems to me that World War 1 was a turning point.  It’s violence turned many against the modern Western faith in scientific progress and rational thought.  Certainly the Fundamentalist movement was part of this.  So was the end of the Progressive movement and the return of Isolationism in the US. 

Fundamentalism is the effort to make the Bible the Absolute source of truth as the alternative to Science.  This sets up a dualistic view of reality shared by Scientism.

On the other hand was a reaction to Ideology or attempts to rationally understand Reality.  This is what I call Postmodernism.  It is based on Relativism, I’m OK, You’re OK, and let’s all work together.   

There is a scientific basis for this view found in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and a religious basis in relational ethics.

This is the source of the division Western world today, between those who see reality based on absolute values and those who do not.  Those who see abortion for instance as MURDER, and those who do not.

This is not a problem of science vs religion.  This is a question of worldviews which is causing a great divide within the Christian faith, and Western Culture.

A House divided against itself cannot stand.          

GJDS - #83679

November 26th 2013

“Biological evolution had become [after World War One] the symbolic fortress of naturalistic secularism, and it had come to symbolize so many other issues as well: the existence of God, the Bible’s authority, the nature of the universe, human nature, morality, and the future of civilization.”

This is the core of this endless debate - indeed a discussion should focus on Faith and Reason, with the Sciences playing an important, but not an exclusive role. Indeed many prominant thinkers, within the Physical Sciences, and also within Philosophy of Science, and the areas of Sociology, have provided many many insights that should cause people to step back from the banal God vs Darwin mentality.

The insistence by atheists that it is all about Darwinian thinking and theology, has been a ploy to avert attention away from the general dsicussion, which has been that Philosophy and the Sciences enable human beings to exercise our indivdual and collective intelligence, as an additional endeavour to seek the truth about ourselves and our planet (Universe). When we speculate and imagine various things, we need to acknowledge that this is the case. But on matters of faith (half of the equation of faith-reason), it is unreasonable for those who do not have faith (or are against it) to claim some role in this discussion.

It continues to puzzle me why they are so invested in their opposition to faith - unless they are insecure and thus decide that aggression may help them. On those who take the view that Faith (and theology) must be constantly modified to suit a current fad, they do not have any role in these discussions - but since the beginning of the Christian faith, such people have always tried to give themselves these unwanted roles. 

Nick Gotts - #83958

December 16th 2013

It continues to puzzle me why they are so invested in their opposition to faith

Your puzzlement is puzzling, since the reasons must have been explained to you many times. But I guess from encountering you on other threads that you are incapable of listening to those explanations.

1) Many (not all) of those who “have faith” want to impose aspects of their beliefs on others. Consider the repeated attempts by many religious organizations to pass or uphold laws denying women the legal right to an abortion, outlawing contraception, denying equal rights to LGBT people. When they had the power to do so, most Christian churches were eager to impose their more strictly religious beliefs on others as well.

2) Irrationality - of which faith is one variety - is harmful in itself. Religion of all kinds encourages the belief that it is acceptable, even meritorious, to hold firmly to beliefs in matters of fact that are rationally insupportable. It is notable that, for example, many of those who deny the reality of anthropogenic climate change are religiously motivated.

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