The Boxer and the Biologist

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera House in its heyday, not long after it was built by Oscar Hammerstein, grandfather of the famous Broadway lyricist, on the southwest corner of Broad and Poplar in the first decade of the last century.

Today’s column begins a new series on fundamentalists, modernists, and evolution in the 1920s. Although I’m starting with a debate about evolution that took place in Philadelphia in 1930, the first full year of the Great Depression, the issues on display came out of the previous decade. Opposition to teaching evolution in public schools mainly began a few years after World War One, leading to the nationally publicized trial of a science teacher for breaking a brand new Tennessee law against teaching evolution in 1925—though it was really the law itself that was in the dock. Simultaneously, some of the larger Protestant denominations were rent by bitter internal conflicts over biblical authority and theological orthodoxy, with the right-wing “fundamentalists” and the left-wing “modernists” each trying to evict representatives of the other side from pulpits, seminaries, and missionary boards. As I pointed out in another series, that controversy from this period profoundly influenced the current debate about origins: we haven’t yet gotten past it. A better understanding of how we got here may help readers see more clearly just what BioLogos is trying to do.

The Boxer: Harry Rimmer

Portrait photo of Harry Rimmer
Harry Rimmer at about age 40, from a brochure advertising the summer lecture series at the Winona Lake Bible Conference in 1934—the largest such gathering in the world, long associated with Billy Sunday, who died the next year. Rimmer was billed as “President Research Science Bureau,” a one-man organization that he had incorporated in 1921 “to encourage and promote research in such sciences as have direct bearing on the question of the inspiration and infallible nature of the Holy Bible.” Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

It was unseasonably warm for a late November evening when the evangelist and former semi-professional boxerHarry Rimmer stepped off the sidewalk and onto the steps leading up to the Metropolitan Opera House in downtown Philadelphia. The balmy weather took him back to his home in southern California, back to his wife of fifteen years and their three children, back to the USC Trojans and the big home game just two weeks away against a great team from Notre Dame in what would prove to be Knute Rockne’s final season. He awaited that confrontation as eagerly as the one he was about to engage in himself—a debate about evolution with Samuel Christian Schmucker, a local biologist with a national reputation as an author and lecturer. Writing to his wife that afternoon, he had envisioned himself driving a team of oxen through the holes in his opponent’s arguments, just what he wished the Trojans would do to the Irish: they didn’t; Notre Dame won, 27-0, before 90,000 fans.

Flyer advertising appearance of Harry Rimmer at Lincoln Ave. Presbyterian Church
Advertisement for talks Rimmer had given at a California church several months earlier. Here Rimmer was promoted as a “geologist,” which he wasn’t. A flyer advertising his pamphlets in the 1930s described him as “a competent Bible scholar and a well-informed scientist,” though he was also neither of those things. The trumpeting of bogus credentials was, sadly, business as usual for Rimmer. As in this instance, he typically came for one or two weeks, preaching once or twice daily in local churches. He also spoke—seemingly full time for almost four decades—at colleges, universities, military bases, Bible conferences, and large public auditoriums. Millions of Americans must have heard him in person, or encountered him through his books and pamphlets, some of which remained in print for about forty years. Occasionally an event was broadcast on the radio, but he never had his own program. Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

Rimmer dearly hoped that things would get even warmer before the night was over. The heat of battle would ignite the fire inside him, and the flames would illuminate the truth of his position while consuming the false doctrines of his enemy. This was exactly what had happened so many times before, in so many different places, with so many different opponents, and he was well prepared for it to happen again. He had been up late for a night or two before the debate, going over his plans with members of the Prophetic Testimony of Philadelphia, the interdenominational group that sponsored the debate as well as the lengthy series of messages that led up to it. It was in fact Rimmer’s second visit to Philadelphia in six months under their auspices, and this time he would top it off in his favorite way: with a rousing debate against a recognized opponent of fundamentalism. He approached every debate as an intellectual boxing match, an opportunity to achieve a hard-fought conquest despite his almost complete lack of formal education. As he told his wife before another debate, “It is now 6:15 and at 8:30 I enter the ‘ring.’ I am just starting to make an outline. I’ve been sorting my pebbles and greasing my sling. I shall type my notes for easy reference and then rest until the gong sounds.”

The Biologist: Samuel Christian Schmucker

Apparently, Rimmer had originally sought to debate the renowned paleontologist William King Gregoryfrom the American Museum of Natural History, but that didn’t work out. As it happens, his opponent was Gregory’s longtime friend Samuel Christian Schmucker, a very frequent speaker at the Museum and undoubtedly one of the two or three best known speakers and writers on scientific subjects in the United States. A regular at several prestigious venues in the Northeast, he was best known for his annual week-long series at the Chautauqua Institution, the mother of all American bully pulpits. Two of his books were used as national course texts by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, and his lectures, illustrated with numerous glass lantern slides, got top billing in advertisements for a quarter century.

Portrait of S. C. Schmucker
Portrait of S. C. Schmucker in the latter part of his life, by an unknown artist, Schmucker Science Center, West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Schmucker studied chemistry at Muhlenberg College before completing a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to study with his former undergraduate mentor, the famous Edgar Fahs Smith, himself a former student of the great organic chemist Friedrich Wöhler. In 1895, he accepted a position in biology, not chemistry, at the West Chester State Normal School, where he spent his whole academic career. At the turn of the century, following postdoctoral work in biology at Penn with one of the leading American scientists of his generation, Edwin Grant Conklin, he devoted the rest of his life to education and science writing.

Interestingly, Wikipedia pages exist for his father and grandfather, two of the most important Lutheran clergy in American history, while electronic information about the grandson is minimal, despite his notoriety ninety years ago. How quickly we forget! The grandfather, Samuel Simon Schmucker, founded the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg; his son, Allentown pastor Beale Melanchthon Schmucker, helped found a competing institution, The Lutheran Philadelphia Seminary. But, they didn’t get along, and perhaps partly for that reason the grandson was an Episcopalian.

Although he never published any important research, Schmucker was admired by colleagues for his ability to communicate science accurately and effectively to lay audiences, without dumbing down—so much so, that toward the end of World War One he was elected president of the American Nature Study Society, the oldest environmental organization in the nation. As we will see in a future column, his involvement with theNature Study movement dovetailed with his liberal Christian spirituality and theology.

Spines of three books by Schmucker
Schmucker wrote five books about evolution, eugenics, and the environment for major publishing houses. Lippincott published The Study of Nature(1908), illustrated by his wife, five times in twenty years. His most popular book, The Meaning of Evolution (1913), was printed eight times in a dozen years by Macmillan. The first edition was published simultaneously by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle as a national course text in 1913-14. A later book, Man’s Life on Earth (1925), was also a Chautauqua text in 1925-26. Macmillan did three printings in five years, and a Japanese translation was published twice in Tokyo, both before and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

For the moment, however, I will call attention to a position that gave him high visibility in Philadelphia, a long trip by local rail from his home in West Chester. For more than thirty years, Schmucker lectured at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, located just a mile away from the Metropolitan Opera House in north Philadelphia. The Institute’s mission was to educate the general public about science, at no cost, and Schmucker was as good as anyone, at any price, for that task.

When the boxer and the biologist collided that November evening, they both had a substantial following, and they presented a sharp contrast to the audience: a pugilistic, self-educated fundamentalist evangelist against a suave, sophisticated science writer. When it comes right down to it, not all that different from Ken Ham versus Bill Nye, except that Ham has a couple of earned degrees where Rimmer had none. Come back to see what happens. Our foray into this long-forgotten episode will provide an illuminating window into the roots of the modern origins debate. The great gulf separating Rimmer from Schmucker, fundamentalist from modernist, still substantially shapes the attitudes of American Protestants toward evolution. History, as an historian once said, is just too important to be left to historians.

Looking Ahead

The next installment takes a closer look at the life and ideas of Rimmer, whose career as a proponent of science and a literal Bible influenced Henry M. Morris, the leading modern creationist—despite the fact that Rimmer was an OEC who advocated the “gap” theory, which Morris repudiated.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from two articles by Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalism and Folk Science Between the Wars,” Religion and American Culture 5 (1995): 217-48, and “Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Christian Vocation,” Seminary Ridge Review 10 (Spring 2008): 59-75. Additional information comes from my introduction to The Antievolution Pamphlets of Harry Rimmer (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995). Often away from home for extended periods, Rimmer wrote many letters to his wife Mignon Brandon Rimmer. She quoted some of them in her book, Fire Inside: The Harry Rimmer Story (Berne, Indiana: Publishers Printing House, 1968); his comments about football are on pp. 92-3. Unfortunately she destroyed their correspondence after the book was finished, so there is no archive of his papers available for historians to examine.


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.