Choking on Bacon: Challenges to Concordism from Clerics and Skeptics

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

This engraving of Edward Hitchcock by Lemuel S. Punderson, based on a daguerreotype photograph, was the frontispiece for the Annual of Scientific Discovery, or Year-Book of Facts in Science and Art, for 1854, ed. David A. Wells. Although most of the work chronicled in the book was done by scientists a generation younger, the fact that his sixty-one-year-old visage opens a volume of this type indicates his notoriety in the decade before the Civil War. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Almost exactly one year ago, I began a lengthy series of columns about American religion and science from Cotton Mather to the Civil War. As we have seen, American thinking in that period was substantially informed by the notion that God has written two “books,” nature and Scripture, which ought to be read together and ultimately must agree. That idea is often called “concordism,” because it seeks a harmony or concord between science and the Bible. Historically the idea has many roots, none more important than the great English philosopher Francis Bacon. In his enormously influential book, The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon urged readers to strive for “an endless progress or proficience” in reading both “the book of God’s word, [and] the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy.”

That’s exactly what many Americans did, in the two and one-half centuries between Bacon and the Civil War: they read both books together, harmoniously, having Bacon for breakfast. But, not all Americans ate that meal so readily; some just choked on Bacon. Today the series ends with short studies of three critics of Bacon’s American followers. I conclude with a glimpse of what happened to that approach in subsequent centuries.

Skeptic vs. Believer: Thomas Cooper vs Benjamin Silliman

Thomas Cooper M.D, engraved by Asher Brown Durand (1829) from a painting by Charles C. Ingham. A friend of Joseph Priestley and Thomas Jefferson, Cooper severely criticized Christianity and the Bible. (image source)

 Perhaps the most strident critic of Benjamin Silliman’s idea that the book of nature harmonizes with the book of Scripture was Thomas Cooper, an English immigrant and curmudgeon whom historian Monte Hampton has called a “notorious infidel.” A man of wide learning with radical political views, Cooper left England under a cloud in 1794 and took up residence near Joseph Priestley—another political refugee—in Northumberland, Pennsylvania—only to be convicted of violating the Sedition Act for writing a libelous pamphlet about President John Adams.

Later, he taught chemistry at Dickinson College (which still owns some of his equipment), the University of Pennsylvania, and finally at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he soon became president. As an outspoken religious sceptic, however, he courted controversy by forbidding the teaching of theology and by attacking the veracity of Genesis in his geology lectures. Ultimately he made himself persona non grata, forcing the university to release him.

When Silliman published his geology lectures for the first time in 1829, he argued that “geology fully confirms the scripture history” of Noah’s flood (“Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College,” appended to Robert Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology, p. 7). Cooper replied in an open letter addressed to Silliman, stating baldly that Silliman’s syllabus contained “positions which no well informed Geologist of Europe or this country, would now sanction, and which no well informed Theologian, of the present day, would venture to support.” Furthermore, there was “hardly a single Divine of reputation in Europe, who now believes that the book of Genesis, as we possess it, was written by Moses, or by any one else, under divine inspiration” (On the Connection Between Geology and the Pentateuch, 1837, p. 5). As far as Cooper was concerned, there was no geological evidence for the biblical flood, and we had no reason to believe that Moses had written the Pentateuch, so we should not believe the flood story on his authority. So much for Silliman’s efforts to relate two divinely authored books.

Biblical Scholars vs. Scientists: Moses Stuart vs. Silliman and Hitchcock

Some biblical scholars were no less critical of Silliman, but for very different reasons. Moses Stuart is a prime example. The son of Connecticut farmers, Stuart was converted to evangelical Christianity while serving as a tutor at Yale, during a revival under president Timothy Dwight. Like his friend Silliman, Stuart then abandoned his plans to practice law. Instead, he prepared for the ministry, partly by working directly with Dwight and partly through ongoing self-study of biblical languages, at a time when almost no American-born scholars could read Hebrew fluently. His reputation as an evangelical preacher in New Haven and his involvement in the Second Great Awakening led Andover Seminary (now Andover Newton Theological School), newly established to combat the growing influence of Unitarianism, to appoint him professor of sacred literature in 1810. In 1821 he self-published the first American Hebrew grammar, having bought the fonts and equipment since no one else had the competence to set the pages in type.

Reverend Moses Stuart (1780-1852), B.A. 1799, M.A. 1802, painted by poet and artist Thomas Buchanan Read (ca. 1841-1846), Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Sarah S. Robbins (Mrs. R. D. C. Robbins) to the Divinity School, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

 Having taught himself scholarly German by reading the works of theologian Johann Eichhorn, an author whom Cooper would later cite against Silliman, Stuart became an early American proponent of German biblical criticism—which he used to defend, rather than to attack, orthodox theology. Theologically, he accepted Nathan Taylor’s view that Adam’s sin was not imputed to his descendants; all have sinned, but by their own free choices, not by the inheritance of original sin. The famous evangelist Charles Grandison Finney and the abolitionist author of very popular biblical commentaries, Albert Barnes, were similarly influenced by Taylor.

Stuart had already objected privately to Silliman’s concordism, but he first publicly voiced his arguments in his Hebrew Chrestomathy (1829). He found Silliman’s day-age view unacceptable in principle, since “to violate the laws of exegesis in order to accommodate a geological theory ... is not acting in accordance with the precepts of Scriptural Hermeneutics.” He also objected to Silliman’s progressive creationist interpretation of Genesis, according to which God had created slowly, through geologic ages. Why couldn’t God have created things “in an incipient state merely? Were only acorns made at first instead of oaks? And was man an infant, when first formed from the hands of his creator?” Deeply skeptical of the scientists, Stuart said, “they will deserve more serious consideration, when any two responsible authors among them ever come to agree with each other, and when the earth shall have been penetrated and examined, a little more than an eighth thousandth part of its diameter.” (p. 118)

Stuart went after Edward Hitchcock’s gap theory a few years later, in an article called “Critical Examination of Some Passages in Gen. 1” (cited below). After rejecting Hitchcock’s interpretation, Stuart couldn’t resist taking another shot at the geologists: “The digging of rocks and the digging of Hebrew roots are not as yet precisely the same operation, and are not likely soon to be so” (p. 103).

Biblical Scholars vs Scientists: Tayler Lewis Vs Concordism

Two decades later, Union College classicist Tayler Lewis echoed Stuart’s concerns in The Six Days of Creation (1855). Even though Lewis accepted a carefully articulated version of the day-age view, he still poured contempt on the concordist premise that that Bible should be interpreted in light of science. Scientific theories are not fixed truths, and the Bible should be interpreted on its own terms as a literary text. In a passage obviously reflecting Augustine, he argued that the creation days are “God’s days,” with “morning and evening intervals of His creative periods, as much beyond our diurnal cycles as His ways are above our ways and His thoughts about our thoughts,” and therefore “as measureless in their duration as in their space and power.” As befitted an expert on biblical languages, his goal was only “to set forth the Biblical Idea of Creation, philologically ascertained, or ‘Creation as Revealed,’ in distinction from any scientific or inductive theory of the Earth.” In the end, neither the Bible nor geology could fix the lengths of the creation days. “The geologist thinks he has discovered evidence that they were of vast duration. He talks very flippantly, and very ignorantly, of millions and billions of years” (pp. 100, 1, and 163, his italics).

Ironically, by rejecting the basis of concordism, Lewis and Stuart sound surprisingly modern. Most contemporary biblical scholars would probably agree that the meaning of a biblical text has nothing to do with science, yet they would be much less skeptical of science than Stuart and Lewis.

Tayler Lewis, The Six Days of Creation, published at Schenectady and London in 1855. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

 Looking Ahead: What Happened After Darwin?

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, two years before the Civil War began. Silliman and Hitchcock both died in 1864, the year before the war ended. For the most part, scientists of the next generation came to accept evolution before the end of the 1870s, but this does not mean that the concordist attitude they promoted simply disappeared from sight. Quite the contrary. Old-earth creationism was commonplace among the fundamentalists of the 1920s, and concordist readings of God’s two “books” have remained influential down to our own day. Since the 1960s, however, many conservative Protestants have rejected concordism in favor of young-earth creationism, because they believe that the book of nature is much harder to read reliably than the book of Scripture. Non-concordist approaches have also been favored by those Christians who accept evolution—whether or not they maintain orthodox beliefs about God the creator and Christ the redeemer. We’ll learn more about all of this soon. 

Next, I’ll jump ahead a little chronologically in order to serialize Terry Gray’s short history of the American Scientific Affiliation, the oldest organization of Christians in the sciences in North America. This is the 75th anniversary year of the ASA, so it’s appropriate to present Dr. Gray’s material at this point, in advance of their annual meeting at Azusa Pacific University in July. If you live in that part of the world, you might want to attend at least part of that meeting—day guests are welcome—where you can meet many Christian scientists and scholars who have devoted much careful thought to many aspects of science and Christian faith.

If you happen to run into me, please introduce yourself! 




Davis, Ted. "Choking on Bacon: Challenges to Concordism from Clerics and Skeptics" N.p., 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 18 November 2017.


Davis, T. (2016, April 28). Choking on Bacon: Challenges to Concordism from Clerics and Skeptics
Retrieved November 18, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/choking-on-bacon-challenges-to-concordism-from-clerics-and-skeptics

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Some material is adapted from my chapter in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (2003). Also see Conrad Wright, “The Religion of Geology,” The New England Quarterly 14 (1941): 335-358; Morgan B. Sherwood, “Genesis, Evolution, and Geology in America Before Darwin: The Dana-Lewis Controversy, 1856-1857,” in Toward a History of Geology, ed. Cecil J. Schneer (1969), pp. 305-316; and Ariel Jacob Segal, “Scientific Truth, Rightly Understood, Is Religious Truth’: The Life and Works of Reverend Edward Hitchcock, 1793-1864,” M.A. thesis at the University of Maryland, 2005. Information on Moses Stuart comes from the entry by W. Andrew Hoffecker in American National Biography and the biography by John H. Giltner, Moses Stuart: The Father of Biblical Science in America (1988), from which I have taken the quotations from Stuart’s Hebrew Chrestomathy. I also quote “A Critical Examination of Some Passages in Gen. I; with Remarks on Difficulties That Attend Some of the Present Modes of Geological Reasoning,” American Biblical Repository 7 (1836): 46-105.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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