The Boxer and the Biologist
Today’s column begins a new series on fundamentalists, modernists, and evolution in the 1920s. Although I’m starting with a debate about evolution that took place in Philadelphia in 1930, the first full year of the Great Depression, the issues on display came out of the previous decade. Opposition to teaching evolution in public schools mainly began a few years after World War One, leading to the nationally publicized trial of a science teacher for breaking a brand new Tennessee law against teaching evolution in 1925—though it was really the law itself that was in the dock. Simultaneously, some of the larger Protestant denominations were rent by bitter internal conflicts over biblical authority and theological orthodoxy, with the right-wing “fundamentalists” and the left-wing “modernists” each trying to evict representatives of the other side from pulpits, seminaries, and missionary boards. As I pointed out in another series, that controversy from this period profoundly influenced the current debate about origins: we haven’t yet gotten past it. A better understanding of how we got here may help readers see more clearly just what BioLogos is trying to do.
The Boxer: Harry Rimmer
It was unseasonably warm for a late November evening when the evangelist and former semi-professional boxer Harry Rimmer stepped off the sidewalk and onto the steps leading up to the Metropolitan Opera House in downtown Philadelphia. The balmy weather took him back to his home in southern California, back to his wife of fifteen years and their three children, back to the USC Trojans and the big home game just two weeks away against a great team from Notre Dame in what would prove to be Knute Rockne’s final season. He awaited that confrontation as eagerly as the one he was about to engage in himself—a debate about evolution with Samuel Christian Schmucker, a local biologist with a national reputation as an author and lecturer. Writing to his wife that afternoon, he had envisioned himself driving a team of oxen through the holes in his opponent’s arguments, just what he wished the Trojans would do to the Irish: they didn’t; Notre Dame won, 27-0, before 90,000 fans.
Rimmer dearly hoped that things would get even warmer before the night was over. The heat of battle would ignite the fire inside him, and the flames would illuminate the truth of his position while consuming the false doctrines of his enemy. This was exactly what had happened so many times before, in so many different places, with so many different opponents, and he was well prepared for it to happen again. He had been up late for a night or two before the debate, going over his plans with members of the Prophetic Testimony of Philadelphia, the interdenominational group that sponsored the debate as well as the lengthy series of messages that led up to it. It was in fact Rimmer’s second visit to Philadelphia in six months under their auspices, and this time he would top it off in his favorite way: with a rousing debate against a recognized opponent of fundamentalism. He approached every debate as an intellectual boxing match, an opportunity to achieve a hard-fought conquest despite his almost complete lack of formal education. As he told his wife before another debate, “It is now 6:15 and at 8:30 I enter the ‘ring.’ I am just starting to make an outline. I’ve been sorting my pebbles and greasing my sling. I shall type my notes for easy reference and then rest until the gong sounds.”
The Biologist: Samuel Christian Schmucker
Apparently, Rimmer had originally sought to debate the renowned paleontologist William King Gregory from the American Museum of Natural History, but that didn’t work out. As it happens, his opponent was Gregory’s longtime friend Samuel Christian Schmucker, a very frequent speaker at the Museum and undoubtedly one of the two or three best known speakers and writers on scientific subjects in the United States. A regular at several prestigious venues in the Northeast, he was best known for his annual week-long series at the Chautauqua Institution, the mother of all American bully pulpits. Two of his books were used as national course texts by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, and his lectures, illustrated with numerous glass lantern slides, got top billing in advertisements for a quarter century.
Interestingly, Wikipedia pages exist for his father and grandfather, two of the most important Lutheran clergy in American history, while electronic information about the grandson is minimal, despite his notoriety ninety years ago. How quickly we forget! The grandfather, Samuel Simon Schmucker, founded the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg; his son, Allentown pastor Beale Melanchthon Schmucker, helped found a competing institution, The Lutheran Philadelphia Seminary. But, they didn’t get along, and perhaps partly for that reason the grandson was an Episcopalian.
Although he never published any important research, Schmucker was admired by colleagues for his ability to communicate science accurately and effectively to lay audiences, without dumbing down—so much so, that toward the end of World War One he was elected president of the American Nature Study Society, the oldest environmental organization in the nation. As we will see in a future column, his involvement with the Nature Study movement dovetailed with his liberal Christian spirituality and theology.
For the moment, however, I will call attention to a position that gave him high visibility in Philadelphia, a long trip by local rail from his home in West Chester. For more than thirty years, Schmucker lectured at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, located just a mile away from the Metropolitan Opera House in north Philadelphia. The Institute’s mission was to educate the general public about science, at no cost, and Schmucker was as good as anyone, at any price, for that task.
When the boxer and the biologist collided that November evening, they both had a substantial following, and they presented a sharp contrast to the audience: a pugilistic, self-educated fundamentalist evangelist against a suave, sophisticated science writer. When it comes right down to it, not all that different from Ken Ham versus Bill Nye, except that Ham has a couple of earned degrees where Rimmer had none. Come back to see what happens. Our foray into this long-forgotten episode will provide an illuminating window into the roots of the modern origins debate. The great gulf separating Rimmer from Schmucker, fundamentalist from modernist, still substantially shapes the attitudes of American Protestants toward evolution. History, as an historian once said, is just too important to be left to historians.
The next installment takes a closer look at the life and ideas of Rimmer, whose career as a proponent of science and a literal Bible influenced Henry M. Morris, the leading modern creationist—despite the fact that Rimmer was an OEC who advocated the “gap” theory, which Morris repudiated.
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). Often away from home for extended periods, Rimmer wrote many letters to his wife Mignon Brandon Rimmer. She quoted some of them in her book, Fire Inside: The Harry Rimmer Story (Berne, Indiana: Publishers Printing House, 1968); his comments about football are on pp. 92-3. Unfortunately she destroyed their correspondence after the book was finished, so there is no archive of his papers available for historians to examine.