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Harry Rimmer’s Rough Start: The Story of a Feisty Antievolutionist

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August 14, 2014 Tags: Biblical Authority, Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Creation & Origins

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

Photograph of Harry Rimmer in outdoor setting
Harry Rimmer at Pinebrook Bible Conference in 1939. Rimmer spoke regularly at the best known Bible conferences of his day, including Pinebrook, Gull Lake, Winona Lake, and—in his final decade—Sandy Cove, founded by George Palmer’s Morning Cheer radio ministry. Palmer facilitated opportunities to preach to soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey, just one of many military bases Rimmer visited as an evangelist. He wrote about his experiences there in a book that Palmer published during the war, Miracles at Morning Cheer (1943). Rimmer’s extensive involvement with Bible conferences indicates his prominence as a go-to speaker for both scientific and biblical-theological topics among fundamentalists. Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

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.

Muscular Christianity

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.”

Baseball card for Billy Sunday
1887 Buchner Gold Coin (N284) #25 Billy Sunday. When Rimmer began preaching before World War One, Billy Sunday was the most famous Bible preacher in America. Sunday epitomized muscular Christianity. A former professional baseball player from the 1880s who had relied heavily on speed and cunning base-running, Sunday liked to enliven the audience by diving across the stage in the midst of his sermons, as if sliding into a base. My grandmother remembered him doing just that—she didn’t care for it at all. Her father, who started the ministry of the Salvation Army in New Zealand after being converted to Christianity like Rimmer at a street meeting, also had an athletic background (foot-racing), but he never carried on like Sunday.

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.

Pamphlet titled “It’s the crisis hour in schools and colleges”
A flyer from the 1930s, advertising a boxed set of 25 pamphlets by Rimmer. Two features stand out: the basic message directed at students and his exaggerated credentials. “DR. HARRY RIMMER” spent no more than five semesters spread among four different institutions of higher learning, but he had no earned degrees. His three honorary doctorates included a D.Sc. from Wheaton College, where he taught a short course on Christology at least once. He also agreed to certify that evolution was not taught there, to fulfill the terms of a gift to the college from one of his friends in 1936. Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

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.

Photograph of Walter Hearn and F. Alton Everest
At a meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation in 1997, biochemist Walter Hearn (left) presents a plaque to the first president of the ASA, the late F. Alton Everest, a pioneering acoustical engineer from Oregon State University. Hearn knows [direct audio link] that he swims against the stream, not only in the secular scientific community in which he worked but also in the Christian churches in which he’s worshipped—including the same Presbyterian church in Berkeley where ID founder Phillip Johnson is also an active member. An independent streak runs deep inside him, leading him to abandon a promising career in the laboratory at Iowa State for the vagaries of freelance writing in Berkeley. In 1961, while he was still at Iowa State, Hearn gave students at Wheaton College a favorable view of evolution in a visiting lecture. The resulting furor led the college to add a lengthy footnote to its statement of faith, in an effort to ensure that her faculty would not follow Hearn too uncritically. The PBS television series, “Evolution,” devoted part of an episode to this story.

Looking Ahead

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.


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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g kc - #86213

August 17th 2014

Ironically, although this site now features two articles about Harry Rimmer, I doubt a modern day Harry Rimmer would be allowed to post comments on BioLogos today. What is termed his pugilistic style would probably violate BL’s commentary guidelines.

 

I’d give this much to Harry: He went fairly far for a rough, blue-collar guy. Reminds me a bit of the Apostles.

 

I was a bit surprised at this sentence:

“Like most fundamentalists then and now, he saw high schools, colleges, and universities as hotbeds of religious doubt.”

While this may be true for most fundamentalists, it’s also true for most Americans today. If any polling is done on this issue, I would wager that most would answer “Yes” to a question such as “Does the educational establishment (including high school, college) generally push a liberal, non-traditional view in its curriculum, especially regarding religion, morality, politics?”

 

Speaking of rough, almost pugilistic evangelization, I read this remarkable passage today:

“And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.”

But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

And he answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”

[Matthew 15:22-28]


Ted Davis - #86215

August 18th 2014

g kc said this:

“I doubt a modern day Harry Rimmer would be allowed to post comments on BioLogos today.”

Most of what Rimmer wrote (not necessarily what he said in person, judging from the recordings I have heard) would pass here, g kc. Indeed, you’ve made many arguments or points quite similar to his. Ad homimems aren’t going to pass, regardless of the point of view advocated in the message in which they are embedded. Rimmer did enjoy baiting people and making fun of them: to that extent, his presence here would be monitored. We are interested in shedding light, not producing heat. The fact that we (at BioLogos) advocate for a particular viewpoint doesn’t mean that we have a monopoly on truth and cannot learn from anyone else.

What is truly ironic, g kc, is that Rimmer wouldn’t be allowed to advocate his favorite interpretation of Genesis at Answers in Genesis or a similar creationist site: they’d never invite him to write a column, b/c he accepted the earth’s great antiquity. Most of the time, he defended the gap view with a local flood, though sometimes he seemed to advocate contradictory ideas, such as the flood geology of G M Price or the day age view. Consistency wasn’t high on his list of priorities. His tone wouldn’t bother Ken Ham one little bit—if anything, Ham is even more over-the-top than Rimmer. But, the content would. Ham would figure out a way to call Rimmer an “accommodationist” or a “compromiser,” and get away with it, when in fact Rimmer was nothing of the sort. Despite his pugilistic style and uncompromising commitment to antievolutionism, Rimmer didn’t confine to perdition every Christian who didn’t share his particular interpretation of the Bible.


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