Debating Darwin—How the Church Responded to the Evolution Bombshell

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Debating Darwin—How the Church Responded to the Evolution Bombshell


I know—this isn’t exactly what you expected. You’re probably wondering where my next column on Robert Boyle is. It hasn’t disappeared into the cloud, but I just learned about something that I’m excited to tell you about right away, so I’ve shelved Mr. Boyle temporarily to give you something equally historical but quite different.

Christian History magazine, long known for bringing high quality articles by leading experts to church history buffs, has just released an issue devoted to Christianity and evolution in the period from Darwin (1859) to the Scopes trial (1925). Although they don’t cover scientific topics very often, they did a nice job several years ago with issues devoted to the Scopes trial and the Scientific Revolution. This one, edited by church historian Jennifer Woodruff Tait, is equally good. Up to date, authoritative, and aptly illustrated with photographs, paintings, cartoons, and other well-chosen images from the period, it should be read by anyone with more than a passing interest in Christianity and evolution.


Editorial cartoon by Ernest James Pace
William Jennings Bryan began to campaign for laws against teaching evolution in public schools early in 1922. This cartoon was drawn a few months later by Ernest James Pace for the leading fundamentalist magazine of the period, the Sunday School Times. It depicts Bryan as the hero of thebattle of Verdun, upholding the French battle cry against the “enemies of the Bible” outside the ramparts. The implicit identification of the enemies as Germans was deliberate. Modern biblical scholarship originated in Germany, and the fundamentalists of the 1920s viewed evolution and higher criticism as the two greatest enemies of Christianity—a situation that has not changed one whit today. One of several cartoons by Pace that I wrote about a few years ago (see the essay cited below), it adorns the article on the Scopes trial in Christian History.

An impressive group of experts, both Christians and others, contributed articles. The roster is headed by the leading American historian of religion and science, Ronald L. Numbers, and his European counterpart, John Hedley Brooke. Other distinguished scholars include Frederick GregoryDavid LivingstoneGeorge Marsden, and Jon H. Roberts.

Anyone familiar with these names already knows the main message readers will find in this issue: “Nearly all [of the history covered] turned out to be more complicated than I had thought,” writes Tait. “History usually does.” Where many scholars in previous generations simply assumed that Christianity and science have always been in conflict—and not just over evolution—recent scholarship has decisively debunked that view. The main message from today’s historians is complexity, not conflict. In almost any historical situation, no simple conclusion, neither conflict nor harmony, is likely to find unqualified support.

This comes across with the clarity of a church bell. Complex historical matters are treated with a sophistication rarely found in magazine articles about evolution and Christianity. For example, John Brooke assesses Darwin’s theory precisely: “When he wrote Origin of Species, Darwin still believed in a creator who had designed the laws of nature. But he did not believe that such a creator had micromanaged every detail of the evolutionary process. He had rejected Christianity several years earlier and in later years would describe himself as an agnostic.” Ronald Numbers offers a superb analysis of the changing views of George Frederick Wright, a Congregationalist minister and amateur (but accomplished) geologist who helped Asa Gray advance a type of theistic evolution in the late nineteenth century, before reversing course in the early twentieth century, when he contributed an essay on “The Passing of Evolution” to The Fundamentals, the famous pamphlets that helped launch the fundamentalist movement. Perhaps the most insightful commentary, however, comes from George Marsden: “Biological evolution had become [after World War One] the symbolic fortress of naturalistic secularism, and it had come to symbolize so many other issues as well: the existence of God, the Bible’s authority, the nature of the universe, human nature, morality, and the future of civilization. Thus it became the major battleground. So many on both sides viewed the matter through the metaphor of warfare that the shouts of battle often drowned out the voices of those who argued for alternative approaches.” Readers of a site advocating alternative approaches may be forgiven for wondering whether Marsden is writing about the 1920s or the 2010s.

Given the almost uniformly high quality of the work on display here, any misgivings on my part might seem like irrelevant quibbles. I have just two small bones to pick. Almost the first paragraph the reader sees, under the boldfaced heading, FAVORED RACES, says this: “The full title of Darwin’s book is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin did not argue there that humans descended from nonhuman ancestors. That book came a little over a decade later, in 1871:The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.” This is accurate as far as it goes, but those words with that header could give readers the impression that Darwin was a leading proponent of scientific racism, a charge that is sometimes leveled against him by critics of evolution today. He wasn’t. In the title of his most famous book, “races” is roughly equivalent to “species” or “varieties” of living things, whether animal or vegetable. He used the word in that way more than fifty times in the book, but just three times in reference to “races of man.” I fear this paragraph will generate more heat than light.

My other complaint pertains to the centerpiece of the issue, a two-page spread called “Debating Darwin What Did They Say?” Here, each major person mentioned in the articles is placed into one of six categories. Such efforts are rarely fully convincing, as I admitted in my series on Science and the Bible. Our conceptual boxes often fail to capture the nuances of someone’s carefully stated position. In this instance, one particular box (“Darwin poses challenges to Christianity, but we can revise our theology to deal with them—perhaps radically”) is just too broad and hazy to be helpful. Indeed, I find almost nothing in common theologically between Asa Gray, who held that his acceptance of evolution was wholly compatible with his affirmation of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and Joseph LeConte, who (according to Numbers) in the end rejected just about every single affirmation of those creeds, such that “only an imminent [sic], pantheistic God and personal immortality survived.”

All quibbles aside, the editor and the authors have produced a top-notch magazine issue about one of the most important topics in the history of Christianity and science. Even though you can download the PDF for free, the print version is so inexpensive ($5) and so much nicer on the eyes, that it’s hard to pass up.

Looking Ahead

The series on Robert Boyle resumes next week, with a column about the clockwork universe.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

For more information about Pace’s cartoons, see Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalist Cartoons, Modernist Pamphlets, and the Religious Image of Science in the Scopes Era,” in Religion and the Culture of Print in Modern America, ed. Charles L. Cohen and Paul S. Boyer (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), pp. 175-98. Several dozen cartoons by Pace and others —including many found in this magazine—are available in Mark Aldrich’s excellent collection, “Cartooning Evolution, 1861-1925,” which cites my essay as one of his sources.


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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