Harry Rimmer’s Rough Start: The Story of a Feisty Antievolutionist
Harry Rimmer got off to a very rough start. Born in San Francisco in 1890, his father died when he was just five years old. His mother then made an enormous mistake, marrying a man who beat her children regularly before abandoning them a few years later. His home life was so difficult that he was expelled from school in third grade as an incorrigible child and had no further formal education until after being discharged from the Army. So great was his anger, that he carried a gun with him as an adolescent, hoping to find and kill his former stepfather.
As a teenager, Rimmer worked in rough places—lumber camps, mining camps, railroad camps, and the waterfront—gaining a reputation for toughness. A couple of years after his native city was leveled by an earthquake, he joined the Army Coast Artillery and took up prize fighting with considerable success. Although he quit boxing after his dramatic conversion to Christianity at a street meeting in San Francisco, probably on New Year’s Day, 1913, the pugilistic instincts still came out from time to time, especially in the many debates he conducted throughout his career as an itinerant evangelist. Sometimes advertised as an athlete for speaking engagements, he exemplified what is often called “muscular Christianity.”
Starting in the 1920s, the era of the Scopes trial, Rimmer established a national reputation as a feisty debater who used carefully selected scientific facts to defend his fundamentalist view of the Bible. Incorporating himself as the “Research Science Bureau,” an apparently august organization that was actually just a one-man operation based out of his home in Los Angeles, Rimmer disseminated his antievolutionary message through dozens of books and pamphlets and thousands of personal appearances. In the opinion of historian Ronald Numbers, “No antievolutionist reached a wider audience among American evangelicals during the second quarter of the [twentieth] century” (The Creationists, p. 60).
Like today’s creationists, Rimmer had a special burden for students. Like most fundamentalists then and now, he saw high schools, colleges, and universities as hotbeds of religious doubt. Innocent youth faced challenges from faculty intent on ripping out their faith by the roots. The very truth of the Bible was under assault, in what he saw as an inexcusable misuse of state power. “Although it is against the law to teach or defend the Bible in many states of this Union,” he complained, “it is not illegal to deride the Book or condemn it in those same states and in their class rooms” (Lot’s Wife and the Science of Physics, quoting the un-paginated preface). Rimmer’s mission was to give students the knowledge they needed to defend and to keep their faith. As a key part of his strategy, he openly challenged professors to debate him—to defend their own faith in science against his scathing assaults on their credibility.
By the mid-1930s, Rimmer had spoken to students at more than 4,000 schools. In retrospect, one of his most important engagements happened at Rice Institute (now Rice University in 1943. The invitation came from a young instructor of engineering, Henry Morris, who went on to become the most influential young-earth creationist of his generation. Morris hoped Rimmer would address the whole student body, but in the end he only spoke to about sixty Christian students. Years later, Morris expressed disappointment that he didn’t get a chance to talk to Rimmer afterward, owing to another commitment: he “had been eagerly looking forward to getting to know [Rimmer] personally, hoping to secure his guidance for what I hoped might become a future testimony in the university world somewhat like his own” (A History of Modern Creationism, p. 91). Indeed, Rimmer would have been very pleased to see Morris and others establish the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. Even though Rimmer wasn’t a YEC—he advocated the “gap” theory, the same view that Morris himself endorsed at that point—his Research Science Bureau was a direct ancestor of Morris’ organizations: in each case, the goal is (or was) to promote research that supports the scientific reliability of the Bible.
Epilogue: A Third Way?
One of the students who heard Rimmer at Rice, Walter R. Hearn, became a biochemist specializing in experiments exploring the possible chemical origin of life (see here and here). If his Christian commitment wavered at all, it’s not evident in his helpful little book, On Being a Christian in Science. For many years Hearn has been a very active member of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of evangelical scientists founded in 1941. Shortly after World War Two, as the ASA grew in size, its increasingly well-trained members began to distance themselves from Rimmer’s strident antievolutionism, just as Morris was abandoning Rimmer’s “gap” view in favor of George McCready Price’s version of flood geology: two ships heading in opposite directions. When Morris and others broke with the ASA in 1963 to form the Creation Research Society, it was precisely because he didn’t like where the ASA was headed, and the new climate chilled his efforts to follow in Rimmer’s footsteps. I’d like to think that Hearn and others, including those of us here at BioLogos, have found a viable third way.
The next installment examines Rimmer’s ideas on evolution and the nature of scientific knowledge. In his view, the “facts” of science stood in opposition to the “theories” of evolution. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
This material is adapted from two articles by Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalism and Folk Science Between the Wars,” Religion and American Culture 5 (1995): 217-48, and “Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Christian Vocation,” Seminary Ridge Review 10 (Spring 2008): 59-75. Additional information comes from my introduction to The Antievolution Pamphlets of Harry Rimmer (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995). Roger Schultz, “All Things Made New: The Evolving Fundamentalism of Harry Rimmer, 1890-1952,” a doctoral dissertation written for the University of Arkansas (1989), is the only full-length scholarly biography and the best source for many details of his life.