“Science Falsely So-Called”—The Infidelity of Natural History in the Early American Republic

| By on Reading the Book of Nature


Cartoon by Ernest James Pace, “Leaking Badly and Headed for the Earth,” Sunday School Times, June 3, 1922, p. 334. A former political cartoonist from Chicago, Pace was the leading religious cartoonist from the period between the two world wars. The words on the gondola of the balloon, “SCIENCE FALSELY SO-CALLED,” quote the King James translation of 1Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” In the early twentieth century when Pace was active, Protestant fundamentalists commonly applied that term pejoratively to biological evolution—but not to geology, since fundamentalist leaders from the 1920s all accepted an ancient Earth. A century earlier, however, before Darwin, the term was sometimes used in reference to geology.


 We continue our study of the “Baconian” approach to reading the two divine “books” in Antebellum America, by introducing readers to the cold reception some Americans gave geology in the early nineteenth century. This is crucial for understanding the proponents of concordism whom we will study in future columns, especially Benjamin Silliman and Edward Hitchcock.

Natural History as “Science Falsely So Called”

Natural history was a sensitive topic in the early nineteenth century. For many Americans, the nascent field of geology was an enfant terrible, an obstreperous child shrilly shouting insults in the faces of Christians. No defender of the faith was more vocal than Samuel Miller, a prominent Presbyterian minister from New York. A learned man, he was a member of the oldest scientific society in America, the American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin.

On the first day of the nineteenth century (1 January 1801), Miller preached a sermon reflecting upon the century just completed. Almost exactly three years later, he published a massive two-volume work of more than 1000 pages, oddly called A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, in which he described that era as “the age of infidel philosophy.” One finds “in every age ‘profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called’.” This phrase from 1Timothy 6:20 had been used since the Reformation in reference to diverse anti-Christian views, including Gnosticism—the Greek word “gnosis” means “knowledge,” the original meaning of the English word “science.” In Miller’s hands, however, the emerging science of geology was the primary recipient of the tirade.


Portrait of Samuel Miller, Princeton Theological Seminary. A descendant of Mayflower crewman John Alden on his mother’s side and Scots-Irish immigrants on his father’s side, Miller advocated education for women and the gradual elimination of slavery, an institution he regarded as “utterly abhorrent” with Christian principles. His wife, who was active in efforts to relieve poverty and educate indigent children, taught Sunday school to black and white children alike. In 1813, less than a decade after writing A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, Miller became the second professor at the newly-formed Princeton Theological Seminary, where he taught church history and government until 1849.


 In Miller’s opinion, never before had there been “so many deliberate and systematic attacks … on Revealed Religion, through the medium of pretended science,” which was “pushed to an atheistical length by some who assumed the name, and gloried in the character of philosophers [i.e., scientists].” (A Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, p. 431)  Natural history, in particular, “has been pursued with unwearied diligence, to find evidence which should militate against the information conveyed in the Scriptures.” By contrast, “every sober and well-directed inquiry into the natural history of man, and of the globe we inhabit, has been found to corroborate the Mosaic account of the Creation, the Fall, the Deluge, the Dispersion [tower of Babel], and other important events recorded in the sacred volume” (p. 434). In short, “false” science contradicted a literal interpretation of Genesis while “true” science did not.

Over the following four decades, Miller’s concerns were echoed by a group of individuals on both sides of the Atlantic who have become known collectively as “the scriptural geologists.” The name derives from another two-volume work, Scriptural Geology (1826-27), by an Anglican cleric named George Bugg, who has been lionized by the contemporary creationist historian Terry Mortenson.


The subtitle of Bugg’s book succinctly states the message: Geological Phenomena, Consistent Only with the Literal Interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures, Upon the Subjects of the Creation and Deluge. As he proclaimed in prominent capitals on the first page of the second volume, “REVELATION [is] THE PROPER AND ONLY SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE RESPECTING THE CREATION.” Bugg wrote “in answer” to the old-earth creationist views of the great French paleontologist George Cuvier, a strong opponent of evolution, and William Buckland, the first professor of geology at Oxford. Ironically, Buckland had just written two books of his own, Vindiciae Geologicae (1820) and Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823), arguing that geological evidence supported the historicity of Noah’s flood. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


Readers familiar with Henry Morris or Ken Ham will find many of their ideas, expressed in substantially the same ways and for the same reasons, in the pages of Bugg’s book. Stressing the differences between facts and theories, phenomena and speculations, Bugg utterly rejected the very idea of naturalistic cosmogony as false science. Creation was not really creation if it was produced by second causes. As for the conclusions of natural history, in fact there had been no carnivores in the original creation. Therefore, “animals have changed their nature” since the fall—including humans, who have been allowed to eat meat only since the Flood (vol. 1, p. 147). Furthermore, the Flood had been responsible for producing the sedimentary rocks containing fossils, so fossils were simply the remains of creatures that had been contemporaneous with humans and not creatures that (mostly) had lived and died before the creation of humans.

In Bugg’s opinion, anyone who questioned the literal interpretation of Genesis—to be more precise, anyone who questioned the truth of his particular interpretation—undermined the authority of the whole Bible. If Moses was wrong, then Christ himself was wrong; if there had been no Sabbath for God at the end of a literal creation week, then the Ten Commandments had no authority over us. Although it had not been the purpose of the Bible to teach natural science—that far at least, Bugg agreed with Galileo—biblical authority did extend to historical matters, and here it contrasted sharply with the speculations of the geologists. Geology was “nothing better than a fallacy imposed upon the world from assumed data, from arbitrary principles, and false reasoning” (vol. 2, p 342). Indeed, any effort to draw conclusions about natural history apart from the Bible was fundamentally mistaken. For example, the claim that the Sun and stars “existed thousands of ages before the Mosaic creation” was nothing other than “philosophy [i.e., science] ‘falsely so called’,” whereas genuine philosophers “know nothing about creation but what the Scriptures tell them” (vol. 1, p, 136, italics in the original). Far from vindicating revelation, Bugg argued that the false science of geology flatly contradicted revelation. In short, he entirely rejected the “two books” approach that Benjamin Silliman was teaching Yale students at the same point in time.  


My copy of Bugg’s book has both volumes bound together in half leather with decorated raised bands and a paper label on the spine, a common way of doing things at the time. Although cloth binding had just been introduced as a way of making books less costly, it was not yet widely used. Copies of Scriptural Geology are now quite rare—fewer than twenty are owned by research libraries worldwide, including one each in the British Library and the Library of Congress. When the first volume was published in 1826, however, almost 300 people paid for it in advance, and booksellers would have sold some additional copies. At least five subscribers were titled nobility, and about half were clergy. Though no Americans subscribed, several Americans wrote similar works, especially Eleazar Lord and his brother David Lord. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


The Situation Today

The label “science falsely so-called” remains a popular, and all too convenient, way for contemporary Christians to dismiss evolution by taking one verse from a Pauline epistle out of context. Many examples can be found at the premier creationist web site, answersingenesis. John MacArthur’s blog, “Grace to You,” takes it even further, attacking the integrity of Christian proponents of “so-called ‘scientific’ knowledge that opposes the truth of Scripture.” Dismissing the possibility that evolution might actually be true, he says, “So-called theistic evolutionists who try to marry humanistic theories of modern science with biblical theism may claim they are doing so because they love God, but the truth is that they love God a little and their academic reputations a lot.” Sadly, I have yet to see an instance in which ad hominem arguments convey much grace to anyone.

Looking Ahead

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the geology textbook by Robert Bakewell—the standard American text in the 1830s, even though it was written by an Englishman. Its engaging Romantic prose brought life to the exciting new science of geology. Benjamin Silliman appended his lectures on science and the Bible to its three American editions, enhancing its appeal to readers on this side of the pond.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "“Science Falsely So-Called”—The Infidelity of Natural History in the Early American Republic"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 11 Jun. 2015. Web. 20 October 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2015, June 11). “Science Falsely So-Called”—The Infidelity of Natural History in the Early American Republic
Retrieved October 20, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/science-falsely-so-calledthe-infidelity-of-natural-history-in-the-early-american-republic

References & Credits

Information about Ernest James Pace and his cartoons comes from 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, edited by Charles L. Cohen and the late Paul S. Boyer (2008), pp. 175-98. Additional information is from Edward B. Davis, “Science Falsely So Called: Fundamentalism and Science,” in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, edited by J. B. Stump and Alan G. Padgett (2012), pp. 48-60. Those wanting to explore American examples of “scriptural geology” are invited to read Rodney L. Stiling, “Scriptural Geology in America,” in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, edited by David N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart, and Mark Noll (1999), pp. 177-192. James Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (2012), has abundant information about Samuel Miller.

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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