Having Bacon with Their Bible: Southern Christians and the “Race” Question

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Born in Carlisle, England, James Woodrow came to America as a seven-year-old boy with his parents in 1836. He distinguished himself as an undergraduate at Jefferson College (now Washington & Jefferson) in western Pennsylvania, where he was particular impressed by his encounter with The Bridgewater Treatises, classic works on natural theology written in the 1830s by leading English scientists and clergy. After studying briefly with Louis Agassiz at Harvard, he headed off to Agassiz’s alma mater, Heidelberg University, where he studied physics, chemistry, and mineralogy, working under distinguished scientists such as Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchoff while earning the Ph.D. in 1856—a degree that American universities were not yet offering. On New Year’s Day 1861, he began his tenure as the first Perkins Professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. Less than four months later, the Civil War began. (image source).


INTRO BY TED: A few weeks ago I introduced readers to Monte Hampton, author of an important new book, Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era South (University of Alabama Press, 2014). He’s kindly agreed to give us a 3-part mini-series as a sidebar to my ongoing series on Antebellum religion and science. We proudly present the second part today, starting after the next heading.

Reading the Bible through Baconian Lenses

Like many Americans in the early-nineteenth century, southern Christians had become swept up in the cult of empirical reason that had animated the Enlightenment and now suffused American culture, and they were eager to show that Scripture and supernaturalism were still viable in this rationalist milieu—especially since some rationalists dismissed the Bible as irrelevant to enlightened thought. As a result, they had come to view both science and religion, as well as the relationship between them, through lenses colored by such empirical assumptions. They believed that all genuine science renounced speculation and hypothesis, dealing only in objective “facts,” from which the laws of nature were to be ascertained inductively. Convinced that approach was the keystone of all sound thought, they proudly labeled it “Baconian,” since many believed (rather naively) that the empirical method famously endorsed by Lord Bacon had strictly sworn off all deductive reasoning.

In attempting to show that the Bible and Christian faith met the evidentiary criteria of Enlightenment rationalism, however, they increasingly approached biblical texts in the terms demanded by rationalists. That is, Scripture was thought to function just like nature, as a repository of empirically exact “facts.” The theologian, they believed, should therefore approach his subject matter the way a geologist approached his rocks. Never mind the fact that biblical “facts” were composed of a quite different substance, human language, or that the meaning of this language was embedded in specific literary contexts, or that it was originally addressed to recipients in quite different historical situations from present-day readers. None of this mattered very much, because such biblical facts, like the empirical facts of science, were thought to be inert, self-contained, propositional entities, relatively unbound by the tethers of context. Augmented by the prevailing Scottish Commonsense philosophy, which downplayed the perspective from which the knower approached the subject matter, and by a democratic confidence in the assured conclusions of everyman, this “Baconian” approach to the Bible and science captured the allegiance of many antebellum Americans.

Few embraced this conception more fervently, however, than did Southern Presbyterians. Their ranks included numerous prominent defenders of slavery, who repeatedly marshaled biblical proof-texts to show that God approved their bedrock institution. They found the Baconian approach to Scripture very congenial to the construction of their proslavery defense. Though northern antislavery Christians might appeal to the “spirit” of the Bible over its “letter,” or distinguish between the historical context of biblical slavery and that of slavery in the American South, Southern Presbyterians condemned antislavery as rank “rationalism,” reason severed from Scripture. Indeed, in the rapidly changing world of the mid-nineteenth century they saw rationalism all around them. Concerned to show that reason and revelation yet remained allies, Southern Presbyterians established the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion in 1859. They expected its occupant, James Woodrow, to demonstrate that science and Scripture enjoyed a peaceful relationship, and most conceived of this relationship in Baconian terms. This approach to science and religion sometimes seemed to confirm the alliance of God’s “two books.” But it could also at times prove problematic, even internally divisive, as the controversy over Woodrow’s acceptance of evolution would illustrate. Well before this controversy broke out in the 1880s, however, its mixed potential was already becoming evident in Southern Presbyterians’ engagement with the sciences of geology and anthropology. The latter seemed to confirm the merits of the Baconian approach to science and Scripture, while the former seemed to complicate matters.

Are Only Whites Descended from Adam & Eve?

In the period leading up to the Civil War, the question of the origin and nature of human “races” occupied many anthropologists and carried obvious relevance for Americans debating the propriety of slaveholding. Where had the races come from, and what was the meaning of race? The traditional “monogenetic” view maintained that all races shared a common humanity, and this “unity” owed to their common descent from the creation of Adam and Eve. Monogenists usually attributed the development of diverse racial traits to the gradual effects of environment. By the 1840s, however, prominent “polygenists” (or “pluralists”) were contending that the various human races had not sprung from the same creation, and that each race was actually a distinct species. From the mid-1840s, for instance, Mobile physician Josiah Nott placed the new anthropology in the laps of the southern public through a series of lectures and controversial publications. Armed with the cranial measurements of a fellow polygenist, the Philadelphia anatomist Samuel G. Morton, Nott spiced his polygenist campaign with piquant anti-clericalism, portraying his cause as a quest for scientific truth over against religious superstition. The stakes only heightened when Swiss émigré Louis Agassiz, a future Harvard professor and one of the most respected men of science in nineteenth-century America, flipped from his earlier monogenism, publicly endorsing polygenism before audiences in Boston and Charleston in 1846-47. 

Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz, shown here in a photograph taken in 1877, adopted a polygenist view of race not long after arriving in the United States in 1846. According to Blair Nelson (cited below, p. 171), his change of heart resulted from seeing the skull collection of Samuel Morton and having “men of color” (as he described them) serve him at a Philadelphia hotel. Having not previously had close encounters with blacks, the experience mortified him, and he began to think of blacks and whites as different species from that point. Photograph from Louis Agassiz, His Life and Correspondence, edited by Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1888). (image source).


While many prominent southerners found the doctrine attractive, Southern Presbyterian divines, who served elite congregants and publicly defended slavery, nevertheless responded with unanimous refutation. They denounced the new anthropology as flawed science and flimsy theology. Thomas Smyth, for instance, who had been in the Charleston audience when Agassiz announced his support for polygenism, wrote a book-length defense of monogenism entitled The Unity of the Human Races Proved to Be the Doctrine of Scripture, Reason, and Science, with a Review of the Present Position and the Theory of Professor Agassiz (1850). Similarly, George Howe, influential professor of biblical literature at the Columbia Theological Seminary, attacked polygenism in a series of essays published in the Southern Presbyterian Review between 1849 and 1855. His seminary colleagues James Woodrow and James Henley Thornwell agreed. In “Our National Sins” (cited fully below), a sermon preached on South Carolina’s day of prayer and fasting in November 1860, the eminent proslavery polemicist Thornwell called upon southerners to repent of defending slavery “upon grounds which make the slave a different kind of being from his master.” Like other fallacious science, polygenism belonged in the biblical category of “science, falsely so called,” quoting 1 Timothy 6:20. For Southern Presbyterians, it was relatively easy to dismiss polygenism since its leading proponents either dismissed Scripture (Nott) or appeared to take it lightly (Agassiz). Indeed, for many Southern Presbyterians, the monolithic response of their community seemed to confirm the Baconian paradigm.

The Challenge of Geology

Southern Presbyterians did not speak with one voice when it came to geology, however, and this response revealed (and effected) differences in the ways they thought about biblical language, what constituted true science, and the relationship between the two. In contrast to anthropology, the Southern Presbyterian response to geology, taken collectively, was ambivalent, and this ambivalence problematized the Baconian construct. Of course, their discourse on the Bible and geology occurred in the larger context of nineteenth-century attempts to reconcile Genesis with geology. By the time Woodrow assumed the Perkins Professorship in the winter of 1860-61, numerous Southern Presbyterians had already accommodated the new geology, even with its uniformitarian methodology and conclusions about the antiquity of the earth. Indeed, one of the champions of the new professorship, Mississippi preacher James A. Lyon, believed geology’s revelation of the antiquity of the earth actually enabled Christians to feel more acutely the truth of God’s word. For instance, it was one thing to affirm the biblical doctrine of God’s eternal nature intellectually; it was another thing to have one’s imagination enlarged by geology’s expansive eons, “in comparison with which the whole of historic time is but a day—an hour!” (cited below)   Southern Presbyterians who welcomed geology made room for its findings by stressing that scriptural language was not intended to teach modern science. They took the tack of Elisha Mitchell, University of North Carolina geologist and Presbyterian preacher. “There is nothing in the discoveries and speculations of sound and accurate geologists that will be found to militate against the Christian faith,” Mitchell declared (cited below), “when the objects of the revelations of God are well understood,” namely that “it appears never to have been the object of the Deity … to teach them astronomy, or chemistry, or geology.”


Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, was the son of James Woodrow’s older sister Jessie, whose husband Joseph Ruggles Wilson taught at Columbia Seminary in the early 1870s, while James Woodrow was the Perkins Professor there. This public domain photograph (source), from a cabinet card by Pach Brothers in New York, was taken at around that time. Woodrow Wilson’s racial attitudes were not unlike those of many other southern Presbyterians from his era.


Other Southern Presbyterians, however, were uneasy with geology. They did not believe it qualified as genuine science, being far too speculative to meet the inductive Baconian criteria which they still expected of science. Moreover, they tended to read biblical references to nature or natural history as literal, scientific statements. According to Mississippi preacher Edwin Cater (cited below), any geology positing the “preadamic antiquity of the earth” was but a “fungus growth” on true science and a threat to revelation. Prominent New Orleans minister Benjamin M. Palmer shared these concerns about the presumptions of geologists. Before an audience at Davidson College he affirmed the “harmony of Scripture and science,” but cautioned against the “dapper infidelity of our day,” which “handles its fossils and ignores the Bible” (cited below).

Having been present for decades, these tensions boiled to the surface of Southern Presbyterian discourse between 1873 and 1874, when two of their leading lights, James Woodrow and Robert L. Dabney, publicly debated the relationship between geology and Scripture in the pages of the church’s most respected periodical, the Southern Presbyterian Review. Since his inaugural address as Perkins Professor in 1861, Woodrow had endorsed geology’s conclusions about the antiquity of the earth as well as its uniformitarian approach. He taught his students that a Christian could keep both the Bible and geology, because Scripture did not intend to set forth the age of the earth or describe the physical processes by which it had changed over time. Dabney, on the other hand, had been warning his students at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia of the tendency of Genesis-geology reconcilers to attribute ever more geological phenomena to presently observable natural causes rather than direct, supernatural action. Did this not amount to rationalism, he asked, to “hankering after Atheism” (cited below)? To be sure, this public exchange would pale in comparison to the spectacle surrounding the coming evolution controversy of the 1880s. Already, however, it brought to the surface latent differences in the way this community of southern believers conceptualized science, its relationship to Scripture, and the meaning of Christian faithfulness in a concrete historical context.

Looking Ahead

The final part of Dr. Hampton’s series is next, after which I’ll resume my own series with a column about Edward Hitchcock, a leading Antebellum geologist who became president of Amherst College.




Hampton, Monte. "Having Bacon with Their Bible: Southern Christians and the “Race” Question"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 28 June 2017.


Hampton, M. (2015, December 3). Having Bacon with Their Bible: Southern Christians and the “Race” Question
Retrieved June 28, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/having-bacon-with-their-bible-southern-christians-and-the-race-question

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

The fullest treatment of the Baconian frame of mind in antebellum America is Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (1977), by Theodore Dwight Bozeman. Unless otherwise indicated, Hampton cites the following sources, in order: James Henley Thornwell, “Our National Sins,” in Fast Day Sermons (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861), p. 36-37; James A. Lyon, “The New Theological Professorship,” Southern Presbyterian Review, April 1859, 192-93; Elisha Mitchell, Elements of Geology, with an Outline of the Geology of North Carolina: For the Use of the Students of the University. (N. p., 1842), p. 107; Edwin Cater, “Geological Speculation,” Southern Presbyterian Review (January 1858), pp. 551-52; Benjamin Morgan Palmer, “Baconianism and the Bible,” Southern Presbyterian Review (October 1852), 250-52; and Robert Lewis Dabney, Syllabus and Notes of the Course of Systematic and Polemic Theology Taught in Union Theological Seminary, Virginia. 2nd edition (St. Louis: Presbyterian Publishing Company, 1878; reprint with new title, Systematic Theology, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), pp. 260-61.

For those who want to dig deeper, first read Monte Hampton’s book. Another excellent source is an essay by historian of science G. Blair Nelson, “’Men Before Adam!’: American Debates over the Unity and Antiquity of the Human Race,” in When Science and Christianity Meet (2003), pp. 161-182. An ordained minister, Nelson recently gave a nicely illustrated presentation on “Infidel Science: Polygenism in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Religious Press,” to the Wheaton/Naperville chapter of the American Scientific Affiliation; the audio is linked here. Finally, I recommend the biography by the late Robert K. Gustafson, James Woodrow (1828-1907): Scientist, Theologian, Intellectual Leader (1995).

About the Author

Monte Hampton

Monte Harrell Hampton studied under Donald G. Mathews at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a PhD in history. His academic interests include the relationship of science and religion in American history, history of the American South, and the interaction between culture and biblical hermeneutics. All of these interests are reflected in his recent book Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era (University of Alabama Press). He is a Teaching Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University and is a pastor in the Raleigh, North Carolina area.

More posts by Monte Hampton