The Religion of Geology: Edward Hitchcock on Natural Theology

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ted is currently in the midst of a series on early American perspectives on science and faith. This is his second post highlighting the life and work of Edward Hitchcock, a 19th century Christian geologist. Readers who are new to the series are strongly encouraged to read the previous post as introductory material. 


Image above: This hand-colored lithograph, showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust,” was the frontispiece in Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). The strata on the left side “correspond to the six great groups of animals and plants that have appeared on the globe” (p. xiv). All present forms of life were found fossilized only in the top (yellow) layer of alluvial deposits, which he called the hectozoic, extending to a depth of about 200 feet. The far earlier protozoic group (green), on the other hand, containing brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and trilobites, was between six and eight miles thick. Taking this all in, he told readers that you “find yourselves confounded by the incalculable time requisite to pile up such an immense thickness of materials, and then to harden most of them into stone,” making “the whole work immeasurably long” (pp. 458-59). Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


Glorifying the Ancient of Days

All of Edward Hitchcock’s musings on natural theology assumed the reality of an ancient earth, so old that he thought its precise age “is probably a problem which science can never solve,” such that we could only say, “that its duration must have been immense” (The Religion of Geology, p. 55). He knew this was still a very sensitive point for many Christians. As he had already pointed out in the first edition of his textbook, Elementary Geology (1840), “the conclusion that the earth, in some form, must have existed more than 6000 years” had led “some Christian writers” to go on the defensive, leading to “the prevailing opinion, that geologists in general, have been hostile to the bible—an opinion which may be refuted by an appeal to their writings” (p. 266).

If prevailing opinion changed over the next couple decades—and it did—we can hold Hitchcock himself responsible to a large degree. A highly accomplished field geologist and a voracious reader of theology, Hitchcock vigorously promoted geology as a pious ally of the Christian, turning the problem on its head:

“A few years since, geology, instead of being appealed to for the illustration of religious truth, was regarded with great jealousy, as a repository of views favorable to infidelity, and even to atheism. But if the summary which I have exhibited of its religious relations be correct, from what other science can we obtain so many illustrations of natural and revealed religion? Distinguished Christian writers are beginning to gather fruit in this new field, and the clusters already presented us by such men as Dr. [Thomas] Chalmers, Dr. [John] Pye Smith, Dr. [William] Buckland, Dr. [John] Harris, and Dr. [David] King, are an earnest of an abundant harvest. I hazard the prediction that the time is not far distant when it will be said of this, as of another noble science, ‘The undevout geologist is mad’.” (The Religion of Geology, pp. 27-28)


President Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), unknown date. Oil on canvas by unknown artist. Collection of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. AC POR.XX.13. Courtesy of Amherst College (image source). When Hitchcock became President of Amherst in 1845, he was also named Professor of Natural Theology and Geology. It was perhaps no accident that those two fields were listed in that order, for his greatest desire was to sermonize on the wonders of nature, with geology his principal text.


 

Many readers are probably familiar with William Lane Craig, a Christian philosopher who is prominent in the public square as a gifted apologist. Like Hitchcock, Craig is an old-earth creationist (albeit one who rejects concordism) who doesn’t hesitate to use good science in support of Christian theism, even when many Christians reject the very science on which he bases some of his strongest arguments. For example, Craig believes that aspects of big bang cosmology provide powerful evidence for the existence of God, despite the fact that young-earth creationists regard the big bang as unbiblical.

Hitchcock was in the same boat. He knew that geology had a solid evidential basis—it was good science. He was also thoroughly convinced that “the points of connection between geology and religion are numerous and important” (The Religion of Geology, p. 27). To see just what he meant, let’s consult the chapter about natural theology in his textbook, Elementary Geology. I have a copy of the eighth edition (1847) at hand, and since that was probably the most widely read edition it’s very appropriate to use it here. I’ll present a few of the key notions as bullet points (quoting pp. 284-289):

  • “The existing races [species] of animals and plants must have resulted from the creative agency of the Supreme Being,” because they are almost completely different from earlier forms of life, and “the creation of an almost entirely new system of organic beings, could have resulted only from an exertion of an infinitely wise and powerful Being.”
  • The earth has been populated at various times by “several different systems of organic life,” each suited for different conditions and circumstances. God prepared places for them, exercising “over the globe a superintending Providence,” coupled with “a perfect unity of design extending through every period of the world’s history.”
  • Geology proves God “to have been unchangeably the same, through the vast periods of past duration, which that science shows to have elapsed since the original formation of the matter of our earth.”
  • “Geology furnishes many peculiar proofs of the benevolence of the Deity,” including specific features of the earth’s surface, such as valleys, soils, and abundant water supplies. Above all, the Creator used “disturbances” in the earth’s crust to make valuable rocks and minerals accessible to us, and the gradual formation of coal and other minerals was intended “for the service of beings to be created centuries afterwards. Can there be a doubt but this is a beautiful example of the prospective benevolence of the Deity?”
  • Even though God ultimately intended the world “to become the residence of intellectual and moral beings,” prior to our appearance he “people[d] the world … with animals perfectly adapted to its condition,” rather than leaving it “desolate during these mighty periods of preparation,” thus showing “infinite benevolence.”

Overall, he proclaimed, “Geology enlarges our conceptions of the plans of the Deity.”


Every edition of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology that I have seen contained a chapter called “Connection between Geology and Natural and Revealed Religion.” Note that Hitchcock sought to bring geology into conversation not only with the Bible, but also with the extra-biblical enterprise of “natural religion,” that is, natural theology. In each case, this section of the book opens with the main point shown here: “Geology shows us that the existing system of things upon the globe had a beginning.” Photograph of the eighth edition (1847) by Edward B. Davis.


 

For the Beauty of the Earth

A further dimension of Hitchcock’s natural theology has thus far escaped our attention: the beauty of God’s creation, as a result of the progressive creation of the planet. As his wife’s artwork (below) so aptly shows, their corner of the world, the Connecticut River Valley, abounds in natural beauty. He not only reveled in it, he historicized it geologically, while finding much grist for the mill of the natural theologian. In June 1830, the Massachusetts Legislature commissioned Hitchcock to conduct a geological survey of the state that was published in several pieces over the next eleven years, the first such work in the United States. (This work bore theological fruit in the emphasis he placed on mineral deposits, as we have just seen.) Listen to this passage from his Report on the Geology, Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology of Massachusetts (1833), where he joined beauty, geology, and theology in rapturous praise to the Creator:

“It is certainly an interesting thought, that this delightful valley, which now forms so charming a residence for man, once constituted, and for an immense period, the bottom of a tropical ocean, where gigantic Gorgoniae, certainly 20, and perhaps 40 feet high, formed coral groves, and Fucoideae more numerous, flourished. The astonishing change brought about in the course of ages, exalts our conceptions of the wisdom and extent of the plans of the Deity; and leads us to anticipate future changes, whenever those plans require” (p. 245).


Orra White Hitchcock. Confluence of Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers (1833), lithograph printed in black with hand coloring on paper, sheet: 9 ¼ in x 11 in; 23.495 x 27.94 cm; image: 5 ½ x 8 ¼ in; 13.97 x 20.955 cm. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Gift of Mrs. Edward G. Armstrong (Barbara M. Eaton, class of 1922) in memory of Harry Tupper Eaton. Copyright: public domain. Courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts (image source). This lovely illustration comes from a separately bound atlas of plates that accompanied Hitchcock’s Report on the Geology, Mineralogy, Botany, and Zoology of Massachusetts (1833). A prolific artist, Orra Hitchcock drew hundreds of images for her husband’s lectures, books, and articles—a wonderful example of a scientific partnership in which Hitchcock created space for his wife to make contributions of her own.


 

The new red sandstone in the valley contains fossils of numerous creatures; the deeper we dig, Hitchcock pointed out, “the more unlike living animals and plants are those found in a fossil state,” leading to the conclusion “that there have been several successive creations and extinctions of animals and plants in our globe, before the production of its present organized beings” (p. 245). Anticipating what many readers were probably wondering, he asked, “of what possible use, in a moral point of view, and in a revelation for the great mass of mankind, would it have been, to have given an account of the creation and extinction of certain huge ferns, sea weeds, zoophytes, and sea monsters, whose relics would be brought to light, not till several thousand years afterwards, by the researches of geologists?” (p. 246)

He answered without missing a beat, “I find in them a striking evidence of the benevolence of the Deity.” For a long time, he explained,

“the globe was evidently preparing for the residence of man, and the other animals that now inhabit it. Before their creation, its temperature was too high, and its surface too liable to be broken up by volcanoes and drenched by deluges, to be a secure and happy abode for the more perfect races of animals that now inhabit it. But it was adapted to the nature and habits of such animals and vegetables as we now find entombed in the rocks. The overflowing benevolence of the Deity, therefore, led him to place such beings upon it; and thus to communicate a vast amount of happiness, which seems to be a grand object in all his plans and operations. The vegetables that existed in those early periods, have been converted, in the course of time, into the various species of coal now dug from the bowels of the earth; while the remains of the animals of those times have become changed into limestone. And even those violent volcanic agencies, by which the successive races of plants and animals have been suddenly destroyed, have probably introduced into the upper part of the earth’s crust, various metallic veins, very important to human happiness. And in all this, we see indications of that same benevolent foresight and care, for supplying the wants of his creatures, to which our daily individual experience of God’s goodness testifies.” (p. 247)

This remarkable passage, all the more remarkable for its ostentatious presence in a scientific report to a state government, abundantly reveals Hitchcock’s belief that the earth is a very special place, exquisitely prepared for us, but not only for us, through vast geological ages by the creative power of God.

Are We Alone in the Universe?

Hitchcock’s belief that God intended for creatures to experience “a vast amount of happiness,” consistent with God’s “overflowing benevolence,” might suggest in some minds an interesting question: What did he think of the possibility of life on other worlds? That was a hot topic even in the nineteenth century, and opinions varied widely among Christian authors. In 1854, a Boston publisher brought William Whewell’s learned treatise on The Plurality of Worlds to American readers. A highly successful venture, there were six editions in eight years, and Hitchcock was asked to write an introduction—hardly surprising, since he had already broached the subject three years before in The Religion of Geology.

In his book, Whewell argued against the existence of other intelligent, moral beings, emphasizing the uniqueness of the earth as the locus of divine redemption—an argument placing him squarely at the heart of Christian tradition, stretching back at least as far as the aftermath of Copernicus’ work in the mid-sixteenth century. However, Hitchcock begged to differ. Although he resonated with “views that give dignity and exaltation to man, and not at all with that debasing philosophy, so common at this day, that looks upon him as little more than a somewhat improved orang (a reference to Lamark),” he did not think “that man is the only exalted created being to be found among the vast array of worlds around us.” Geology taught us that a wise and good God can make a world “the residence of inferior creatures,” specifically to avoid leaving it “without inhabitants through untold ages,” while being prepared for human habitation. Therefore, he asked,

“is it not incredible, that amid the countless bodies of the universe, a single globe only, and that a small one, should have reached the condition adapted to the residence of beings made in the image of God? Of what possible use to man are those numberless worlds visible only through the most powerful telescopes? Surely such a view gives us a very narrow idea of the plans and purposes of Jehovah, and one not sustained in our opinion by the analogies of science.” (1856 edition, p. xiv)

Indeed, were not angels “other rational creatures, more exalted than man, who, like him, have fallen from their first estate”? Might there not be “similar examples in other worlds?” Overall, Hitchcock felt that Whewell’s “favorite notions narrow our conceptions of the Divine plans and purposes” (p. xvi).

Edward Hitchcock’s Privileged Planet: The Situation Today

One early summer evening a few months before the Kitzmiller v Dover trial, I followed the crowd into the grand auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, for the premiere showing of a new film, The Privileged Planet, based on the book of similar name by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards. I was well versed on the book, having read some of it prior to publication as a favor to the authors and the rest after it came out. In places it sounds remarkably like Hitchcock. We live on a privileged planet that has been prepared for us through long ages of cosmological and geological development, with “plate tectonics and the hydrological cycle” being “indispensable for concentrating mineral ores” that are “concentrated near the surface,” making it possible for us to reach a high level of technological development relatively quickly (pp 62-63). (In truth, the more I read contemporary work in science and religion, the more I find clever authors, indefatigably at work reinventing wheels.) And, as in Hitchcock’s work, the authors leave no doubt about their acceptance of the great age of the earth (not to mention, the whole universe), making frequent favorable reference to physical processes lasting many orders of magnitude longer than a few thousand years.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw the film—which entirely lacks even vague hints of the vast ages preceding our arrival onto the privileged planet. Afterwards, while waiting in line to greet the authors and others who were involved in the project, I was standing directly behind a group of young-earth creationists. They were excited, and spoke so appreciatively of such a well-made film that they could use to further their cause. They simply had no clue that most of the arguments don’t really make sense unless the universe and the earth are very old. I kept my thoughts to myself, but the irony is still ringing loudly in my brain: If film had existed in Edward Hitchcock’s day, would his work also have been bowdlerized like this?

Looking Ahead

Next, we consider how Hitchcock responded to those who found geological ages unbiblical. After that, we’ll examine his acceptance of animal death before the fall of Adam and Eve. Both issues still evoke highly negative responses to modern geology from many Christians.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "The Religion of Geology: Edward Hitchcock on Natural Theology"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 28 June 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2016, February 4). The Religion of Geology: Edward Hitchcock on Natural Theology
Retrieved June 28, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-religion-of-geology-edward-hitchcock-on-natural-theology

References & Credits

Privileged Planet Image source.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Larry Bunce called my attention to the passage about infidelity quoted above, from pp. 27-28 in The Religion of Geology (1851). Readers interested in seeing more of Hitchcock’s views can download the 1847 edition of the “Connection between Geology and Natural and Revealed Religion,” which I consulted extensively.

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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