Many believe that before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, Christians as a whole maintained an entirely literal, six-day interpretation of Genesis in which the earth was only a few thousand years old. In fact, however, the idea of an old earth had already become increasingly popular among Christians throughout the half century leading up to The Origin of Species. 1
Another misconception is that the arrival of Darwin’s theory led the scientific and theological communities to immediately take up positions opposing each other. But history reveals that one of the earliest supporters of evolutionary theory in the American scientific community was a devout Christian botanist named Asa Gray. And among theologians, BB Warfield—an architect of the contemporary evangelical understanding of biblical inerrancy—believed that certain forms of evolution were also compatible with a high view of Scripture.
The First Christian Response to Origin of Species in America
Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution. By the time The Origin of Species was published, the idea of evolution in many natural processes was already popular, and the term development was used in its place for discussions of society’s change or the history of the solar system.2 What’s more, it was widely accepted that the earth was much older than previously thought. Most of the groundwork for this understanding resulted from geological work done earlier that century. Through meticulous study of the fossil record, naturalists helped spread the view that the earth was old rather than young.
Though many people like to focus on Christian hostility to evolutionary theory, a careful look at history reveals some surprising facts. For instance, the first American scientist to carefully review and publically support Darwin’s Origin of Species was a devout Christian named Asa Gray, now regarded as one of the most prominent American biologists of the 19th century. A shy person who avoided politics, Gray worked quietly and does not have the same name recognition as scientists like Louis Agassiz and T.H. Huxley—both flamboyant self-promoters who provoked public debate. But, his brilliant research during his 30-year career at Harvard University helped usher in the era of modern biology in the United States.
Asa Gray made his commitment to Christ in 1835, a few years after completing medical school (much like Francis Collins of our own era). 3 As a professing Christian, Gray was a committed churchgoer and member of a local congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a professional scientist, he insisted that science was neutral in matters of religion and metaphysics. Gray found evolutionary theory incredibly stimulating to his scientific research, but never found it threatening to his faith. Both before and after reading Origin of Species, Gray remained firmly grounded in the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith that Christians have shared since the early Church. 4
What happened when Origin of Species burst onto the scene? Gray’s extensive research on American and Japanese plants—which he published after corresponding with Charles Darwin—had already convinced him that species and genera found in both countries resulted from common ancestry, not separate creations. He responded to Darwin’s book by writing the first major review5 of Origin on his side of the Atlantic, and he defended Darwin’s scientific theory in a series of meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1859 and 1860. Gray was determined that Origin would get a fair reading from the scientific community, and he even took a leading role in negotiations to reprint Origin in the United States in 1860, ensuring that Americans could have the most accurate edition in their hands.
Regarding the theological implications of evolution, Gray believed that Darwin’s theory was not atheistic, although he recognized that some would use it as an “excuse” for unbelief. Henceforth, he concluded, we need “to reshape” the argument from design “in such wise as to harmonize our ineradicable belief in design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature, now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms, to living beings as well as inanimate things.” The question of whether or not life evolves should not be confused with the issue of God’s existence. Instead, Gray thought that each issue should be investigated using methods appropriate to the subject of inquiry. His refusal to argue for either extreme in this contentious debate upset both anti-evolutionists and radical popularizers of science, both of whom were eager to believe that evolution implied atheism.6
For more, be sure to read the full FAQ "How have Christians responded to Darwin’s Origin of Species?" in our Questions section!
- Two of the most insightful books dealing with the discovery of Earth’s antiquity are Paolo Rossi’s The Dark Abyss of Time: The History of the Earth and the History of Nations from Hooke to Vico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); and Rhoda Rappaport’s When Geologists Were Historians, 1665-1750. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).
- David N. Livingstone, Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1987), xi. (book info)
- Francis Collins’ conversion to Christianity is described in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for his Belief (New York: Free Press, 2007) (book info)
- Dupree, A. H. Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)
- Asa Gray, “Darwin on the Origin of Species”, in The Atlantic, July 1860 (html).
- Asa Gray, Natural Science and Religion: Two Lectures Delivered to the Theological School of Yale College (C. Scribner's Sons, 1880) (html). Asa Gray, Darwiniana; Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism (D. Appleton 1884) (html)