Reading God’s Two Books: Early American Perspectives on Religion and Science

on April 28, 2016

#Bacon for Breakfast: Religion and Science in Antebellum America

francis bacon anonymous portait

Anonymous portrait of Francis Bacon, copy (after 1731) of lost original (ca. 1618), The National Portrait Gallery, London. His vision of science in partnership with biblical religion crucially shaped the ways in which science was presented to American audiences before the Civil War.

Introduction to This Series: American Evangelicals and the Two Books

American thinking about religion and science before the Civil War was substantially informed by the powerful “concordist” metaphor of God as the “author” of two “books,” nature and Scripture, which ultimately must agree. In the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon and Galileo Galilei had used the same metaphor to elevate the status of science from being merely a “handmaiden to theology” to becoming an equal partner in the search for truth. For Galileo, the mathematically unambiguous book of nature could help us interpret the verbally ambiguous book of Scripture. For Bacon, although the book of nature was largely independent from the book of Scripture, it could nevertheless function as a religious text. By showing us evidence of the wisdom and power of God, it gave science a vital theological dimension.

This column starts a new series about the ways in which Americans read the two “books” down to the Civil War. That’s not an arbitrary ending point. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in November 1859, just seventeen months before Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter, starting the Civil War. For the most part, it wasn’t until after the war ended that Americans were able to start digesting Darwin’s ideas—bringing new challenges to concordism that we will take up later.

Francis Bacon, God’s Two Books, and Science Education in America

Nearly sixty miles east of Manhattan lies the prestigious town of Westport, Connecticut, home to successful professionals and famous artists, including the late actor Paul Newman. Two hundred years ago, it was a quiet, rural New England farming village. My great-great-grandfather, Ebenezer Banks Adams, built a lovely frame house there in 1838, on land that had been in the family since the late seventeenth century. My grandmother was born in that house just seven years after Custer’s last stand, but (sadly) the property is no longer in the family. My father’s cousin sold it to another Westport resident, the famous decorator Martha Stewart, who fancied it up, resold it for charitable purposes, and wrote a book about the whole project.

When I visited the house for the last time many years ago, I had a careful look at what was left of Mr. Adams’ library. I was hardly surprised by the contents, but the clear window they provided into the mind of an Antebellum schoolmaster is well worth sharing. What do we see, when we look through that window? A few hundred Greek and Roman classics, grammars for various languages, a bit of world history, some treatises on theology and moral philosophy, and maybe a dozen scientific texts. I already knew he’d owned John Torrey’s Compendium of the Flora of the Northern and Middle States (1826), because my grandmother had given me a copy bearing his signature, but he also owned David Brewster’s Treatise on Optics and John Lee Comstock’s Elements of Chemistry. The one that really caught my attention, however, was the second American edition of Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology (1833), containing Benjamin Silliman’s long appendix on the “Consistency of Geology with Sacred History,” a classic statement relating Genesis and geology that I told you about a few years ago.

ebenezer banks adams greek revival schoolhouse

In this little Greek revival building in Westport, Connecticut, Ebenezer Banks Adams ran a one-room Academy from 1837 to 1867, teaching 60 terms of 22 weeks to prepare hundreds of boys for college, especially at his alma mater, Yale College. Photo by Laurence S. Untermeyer.

Be sure to notice this: Silliman’s edition of Bakewell’s Geology, a standard textbook for Anglo-American students at the time—before public schools existed at all—included a large amount of explicitly theological material. His effort to bring the Bible and science together, as a crucial addition for American readers, illustrates the big picture I’ll be painting in this series. Antebellum Americans expected to read both divine “books” together, using each one to help interpret the other. Many of us still do that, don’t we?

This attitude ultimately derived from the English statesman and essayist Francis Bacon. Fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, a decade before Galileo penned his famous Letter to Christina about biblical interpretation and Copernican astronomy, Bacon published The Advancement of Learning (1605). Contemplating a future driven by scientific advances and guided by biblical morality, Bacon urged his contemporaries not to “think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy: but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity [love for one’s neighbor], and not to swelling [showing off]; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.”

As many readers probably know, Charles Darwin quoted this very passage opposite the title page of On the Origin of Species, which would make for a very interesting discussion, but I’ll pass over that here. Don’t miss the tone—Bacon wants knowledge to enable Christian love rather than haughty pride. At the same time, he warns against “unwisely” mixing science and the Bible too closely together, something sometimes forgotten by his American disciples.

title page of Bacon's advancement of learning

The title page of the 1640 edition of Bacon’s Advancement of Learning depicts knowledge (scientia) as a ship, passing through the Pillars of Hercules, leaving the familiar waters of ancient knowledge for the great new ocean of modern knowledge. The Latin words prominently placed under the ship, “many shall pass through and knowledge will be augmented,” quoting Daniel 12:4, tie the new science of Bacon’s time unmistakably to a biblical mandate.

Bacon went even further to provide theological grounding for natural science, arguing that the study of both books and not just one was divinely enjoined on us by none other than Christ himself. Taking Matthew 22:29 wildly out of context, he offered a novel interpretation of Jesus’ rebuke of the Sadducees: “as our Saviour saith, You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the Power of God; laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error; first, the Scriptures, revealing the Will of God; and then the creatures expressing His Power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures, by the general notions of reason and rules of speech; but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon His works.”

Contrary to what is sometimes said, Bacon clearly saw natural theology as an important appendage to the study of nature, just as Silliman added Genesis to Bakewell’s Geology. Bacon didn’t think reason and science could lead a person to Christ, but he did think they were sufficient to confute “atheism,” his version of Romans chapter one. (“Atheism” didn’t necessarily mean the same thing then, but I’ll pass over that also). Here is the bottom line: his approach to the two “books” deeply influenced English and American thought for at least 250 years, right down to the Civil War.

In short, a lot of Americans had Bacon for breakfast.

#The Puritan Vision for American Science

engraving of cotton mather

Engraving of Cotton Mather (1728) by Peter Pelham, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.

The Mathers on Comets as Instruments of Divine Judgement

Two brilliant comets appeared over Boston in November 1680 and August 1682. The first is now known as the Great Comet of 1680, while the second turned out to be Halley’s Comet–after Halley (in 1705) successfully predicted its return in 1758. Both were seen as divine omens by the Puritan leader Increase Mather, influential pastor of the North Church in Boston and later president of Harvard College. The astronomer and preacher Samuel Danforth had already interpreted two earlier comets (in 1652 and 1664) as warnings to repent. Mather did likewise in two sermons, Heaven’s Alarm to the World (Boston, 1681) and The Latter Sign Discoursed of (Boston, 1682), and a treatise, Kometographia, or, A Discourse Concerning Comets (Boston, 1683). Railing against women who “have the Attire of an Harlot,” who “lay out their Hair, and wear their false Locks, their Borders, and Towers like Comets, about their heads,” and the great “multitude of Licensed Drinking-Houses (and Town-dwellers frequenting them),” he warned that “the Voice of God in Signal Providences, especially when repeated and Iterated [a reference to the multiple comets], ought to be Hearkned unto” (quoted by Genuth, cited below).

There was nothing untypical about Mather’s approach to comets, vis-à-vis any other topic on which he wrote. A few years earlier, he had published An Earnest Exhortation to the Inhabitants of New-England  (1676), interpreting King Philip’s War as divine punishment meted out to unfaithful Christians. A few years later, he published An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684), a work that Robert Boyle read with appreciation, not only because his thoughts on writing natural histories were mentioned favorably in the preface, but also for its “divers[e] memorable Passages of divine Providence” The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, vol. 6, p. 132).

cometa de 1680 de Roterdã

Lieve Pietersz Verschuier, Cometa de 1680 de Roterdã (ca. 1680). One of the brightest comets ever seen, the Great Comet of 1680.

Increase’s son, the even more influential Cotton Mather, took a similar but not identical view. Although he briefly mentioned Halley’s Comet in The Boston Ephemeris (Boston, 1683), written before he turned twenty-one, he withheld offering an interpretation until many years later. In  December 1719, the northern lights shone brilliantly over Boston in a rare display of their splendor, and Mather responded immediately with a pamphlet, A Voice from Heaven. An Account of a Late Uncommon Appearance in the Heavens (Boston, 1719). There he presented comets as fiery abodes for sinners—literally, heavenly hells—and warned against immorality and the dangers of Arianism.

The Christian Philosopher: Cotton Mather Channels Robert Boyle

Significantly, comets were highly visible in one of Mather’s most important books, The Christian Philosopher [pdf] (London, 1721), the first major effort by an American to engage ideas and information from the Scientific Revolution of the previous two centuries. For example, he reported Halley’s “Calculations, upon which he ventures to foretell the Return of Comets,” while calling attention to Halley’s observation that “some of them have their Nodes pretty near the annual Orb of the Earth,” allowing for the possibility of close encounters with consequences. He also cited Isaac Newton’s view “That the Bodies of Comets are solid, compact, and durable, even like those of the other Planets,” but enormously hot from the Sun’s heat, producing vapors throughout the Solar System that might influence the Earth.

Concerning the meaning of comets, this time Mather hedged his bets a little. On the one hand, he suggested the possibility that “the Appearance of Comets is not so dreadful a thing, as the Cometomania, generally prevailing, has represented it.” On the other hand, he quoted the view of the Scottish physician George Cheyne, “that these frightful Bodies are the Ministers of Divine Justice, and in their Visits lend us benign or noxious Vapours, according to the Designs of Providence,” so that “the Divine Vengeance may find a Seat for the Punishment of his disobedient Creatures, without being put to the expence of a New Creation” (The Christian Philosopher, ed. Solberg, pp. 50-53; italics in all quotations in this column are Mather’s).

cotton mather's the christian philosopher

Cotton Mather’s The Christian Philosopher, the work that “introduced the Enlightenment to America,” as his modern editor (Winton U. Solberg) succinctly states.

I should say more about the title of this book. The word “scientist” did not exist then; “philosopher” or “virtuoso” were the closest equivalents. Indeed, Mather originally planned to name his book The Christian Virtuoso, mimicking a work of the same title by Robert Boyle. The subtitle of Boyle’s work spelled out precisely why Mather wanted to do this: “SHEWING, That by being addicted to Experimental Philosophy, a Man is rather Assisted, than Indisposed, to be a Good Christian.” For some reason Mather changed his mind about borrowing Boyle’s title, but his opening sentence is nothing more than a paraphrase of Boyle’s subtitle, coupled with a reference to Romans 12:1: “The Essays now before us will demonstrate, that [natural] Philosophy is no Enemy, but a mighty and wondrous Incentive to Religion, which will carry with it a most sensible Character, and victorious Evidence of a reasonable Service.” Like Boyle, Mather believed it was the duty of the Christian philosopher to “discharge also the Office of a Priest for the Creation, under the Influences of an admirable Saviour” (p. 7).

In short, the Christian philosopher was to read the “book of nature” as a preamble to the “book of Scripture.” Mather used almost this very language himself, attributing the source of the metaphor to the great John Chrysostom, who “mentions a Twofold Book of GOD; the Book of the Creatures, and the Book of the Scriptures: GOD having taught first of all us by his Works, did it afterwards by his Words. We will now for a while read the Former of these Books, ’twill help us in reading the Latter: They will admirably assist one another” (pp. 17-18, with Greek letters removed). As we shall see, Mather’s approach garnered a substantial American following over the next 150 years.

#Inoculation and the Evangelical Scientific Method of Cotton Mather

When I began writing on Cotton Mather, someone about whom I have not previously written anything, I didn’t realize that Rick Kennedy was about to publish a new biography, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (2015). Once I realized this, I invited him to write a sidebar to my current series on Antebellum religion and science, based on the book. The topic he chose, Mather’s involvement with the first smallpox inoculation in America, makes a perfect complement to the theme of my own column. The next words you read are his.

Cotton Mather and the New Science

Scholars no longer write starkly and narrowly about the Enlightenment. Rather, we talk of many different types of enlightenments that shade into each other. Many of these enlightenments are rooted in Christian traditions such as French Roman Catholic Jansenism, Scottish Presbyterian Commonsense, and Saxon Lutheran Pietism. At Harvard in the beginning of the eighteenth century the kind of enlightenment most prominent is best described as a provincial British version of a moderate Protestant enlightenment.  Cotton Mather, who was twice denied the presidency of Harvard but remained influential over its intellectual life, practiced a distinct form of that enlightenment that we can call an evangelical form.  Cotton Mather promoted a biblical enlightenment that emphasized a social-scientific method, an enlightenment premised on the opportunities for progress in both human and divine communication.

All types of enlightenments share a similarity that gives them their name: their participants believed that they were turning on the lights. Optimism prevailed about knowledge progressing. Cotton Mather encouraged the development of the science program at Harvard and preached that students of nature should steer their barks with hope at the bow.

Mather believed that new methods of scientific enquiry should be embraced, especially experimentation.  The old science did not emphasize experiments to the same extent. It did observation, analysis and synthesis, and a few experiments, too, but the new natural philosophers began to see the special value of doing experiments. An experiment, we sometimes forget, is a wildly risky tool. It proposes that an individual controlled experience, if repeatable, can be extrapolated back into the past, out into the universe, and on into the future.  It shoots high and far.

Another optimistic method, most famously practiced by Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley and promoted at Harvard by Cotton Mather and Thomas Brattle, involved an expanded use of mathematics, especially geometry and statistics, to create models that are abstracted out of reality but useful for both understanding and prediction. Call the Earth a sphere.. Circumscribe it with degrees and minutes, both sideways for latitude and longwise for longitude. Create a prime meridian at Greenwich. Do this in one’s mind and amazing feats of geodesic and celestial knowledge can be worked out and even discovered—even if the Earth is really not a sphere. Mather and Brattle were especially impressed with Halley’s way of model making:  Gather as much data as possible about such things as baptisms, marriages, deaths, tides, magnetism variations, and comet sightings, then smooth the data out, fudging some while dismissing others, and mold it into predictive models that describe social trends, geodesy, and even a comet’s return.

Mather and Brattle, along with Mather’s father, encouraged the experimental and mathematical aspects of the moderate Protestant enlightenment. The Mathers even pressed for Isaac Greenwood to become, in 1727, the first Hollis Professor of Mathematics—Harvard’s first scientific professorship. Greenwood had grown up the church youth groups led by Cotton Mather, and the Mathers had nurtured his scientific pursuits both as a young man and adult. 

Mather, himself, however, although favorable to these new scientific methods, did not do experiments nor did he create abstract models after gathering data or counting things.  He is considered one of Colonial America’s most important scientists, but he did not use the newest, coolest, tools. Frankly, he also did very little of the old stalwart method of observation, analysis, and synthesis. He was not one of those pastors that you read about in British novels or watch on PBS who avidly practiced bird-watching or systematic-gardening. He was not even the kind of guy who would stay up all night to watch the stars. He bought books, not scientific equipment. He gathered stories more than countable data. What makes him such an important scientific figure that he gained, during his life, a transatlantic reputation in natural philosophy and medicine?  What kind of method was he so good at that historians still today teach Cotton Mather as a stepping stone leading toward modern science in America?

Mather as an “Evangelical” Scientist: The Social Dimension of Scientific Knowledge

Cotton Mather’s scientific method fits the pattern most recently studied by Steven Shapin, the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard. One of Shapin’s book titles, A Social History of Truth, describes best Mather’s preferred scientific method. Shapin has written a wide range of studies that focus on the way the scientific revolution in Mather’s era depended upon “social truth” made credible by testimony and the authority of the credible testifiers. The leaders of the new science who were performing experiments and making precise observations were, themselves, testifiers. The spread of their discoveries depended upon their authority of their personal reputations. The leaders of the scientific revolution, such as Robert Boyle and the fellows of the Royal Society of London, were trusted first as trustworthy testifiers then, secondarily, their experiments and calculations were trusted. The scientific revolution began as a network of social trust and still today continues as a network of trust. For Cotton Mather, as with most of us today, science is mostly known socially. Most of us today believe that gravity has an effect on light and that speed has an effect on time because we trust the people and the books that say so. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this type of epistemology would be replaced by a romantic notion of hero-individual scientists; however, the existence and wisdom of social-scientific methods is being revived today.

steven shapin social truth

Few scholars have emphasized the social dimension of scientific knowledge more than Steven Shapin.

Mather excelled as a listener, reader and writer—he long suffered a stutter that made him a slow, careful, talker. Like many scientists today, Mather was more a gatherer, disseminator, and promoter of information than a lab-coat practitioner. What made him evangelical was his deep commitment to believing credible people about such things as miracles and encounters with angels. Mather believed that the Bible was divine communication at its clearest. If God, as reported in the Bible, did miracles and communicated to Mary through an angel, there was no reason not to believe similar stories from credible eyewitnesses. This open-minded, social belief system, encouraged him to not only gather stories of wonders in the manner of his fellow members of the Royal Society of London who gathered curiosities for show and tell, it also encouraged him to expect new and true scientific knowledge to spread in the way the good news of salvation spreads.

Cotton Mather’s evangelical enlightenment showed itself at its best in science’s engagement with small pox epidemics. Thomas Brattle, when wrestling the problem of small pox epidemics, turned to mathematics and statistical modeling. In 1711, working with a young Harvard tutor named Thomas Robie, Brattle searched town records for a mathematical pattern to describe the coming and going of local smallpox epidemics. They wrestled with the data, but they could not construct a working model. There seemed to be no mathematical pattern. Thomas Brattle, New England’s most systematic, sophisticated, and successful promoter of science, a man cited by Newton in the Principia, hit a wall on the small pox problem.

Cotton Mather, on the other hand, had his greatest scientific triumph dealing with small pox. In 1721 during a horrifying epidemic in Boston, Cotton recommended inoculations and even inoculated his children and associates. He inoculated the young Isaac Greenwood. Cotton Mather had read about European experiments with inoculations and his black slave, named Onesimus, told him of inoculations in Africa. The medical experts in Boston insisted that inoculation was a type of suicide, and in the furor of trying to stop Mather from inoculating people a bomb was thrown into Cotton’s study. One of Cotton’s inoculated patients was lying on a cot in the study when the bomb came through the window. The patient watched the bomb roll across the floor and breathed a sigh of relief when the fuse fell out. Tempers were hot in the midst of the epidemic, but Cotton succeeded in saving the lives of people who trusted him because he trusted the hearsay evidence of an academic journal and an African slave.

In short, both Brattle and Mather were exemplary figures of an early American scientific enlightenment, but Mather’s enlightenment was of an evangelical sort rooted in his commitment to the Bible as divine encouragement of a testimony-trust social system of spreading true information. Brattle’s method of mathematical-modeling was in many ways more progressive and would flourish as the scientific establishment moved away from biblical authority. But we should not forget Cotton Mather’s evangelical method that conformed to the social-style of science that emphasized trusting experts and the character of credible witnesses. Both were methods that advanced colonial American science. 

Steven Shapin encourages the scientific establishment today to recognize and even revive its understanding of the Social History of Truth. The story of Cotton Mather’s success with his evangelical form of scientific method fits Shapin’s recommendation. It is good for us all to keep alive the role of both divine and human communication when engaged in science.

#Americans Discover Deep Time

paul revere colleges in cambridge new england

A Westerly View of The Colledges in Cambridge New England, The President and Fellows of Harvard College. When the famous patriot Paul Revere made this engraving in 1767, there were only seven colleges in North America and Massachusetts was still a British colony, but Harvard College (chartered in 1636) was already more than a century old.

Science in the Early American Colleges

Various scientific subjects had been taught at Harvard since at least 1640 and at several other American colleges for much of the eighteenth century, especially mathematics and “natural philosophy”–a very old term with a broad meaning that by 1700 was often used more narrowly to mean Newtonian physics. The whole curriculum was designed to promote reflection on morality and the human condition, with the sciences also serving this purpose. For example, the first president of King’s College (now known as Columbia University) announced that the ultimate goal of his college was “to lead [students] from the Study of Nature to the Knowledge of themselves, and of the God of Nature, and their Duty to him, themselves, and one another, and every Thing that can contribute to their true Happiness, both here and hereafter” (quote by Hornberger, cited below, p. 30). At Yale, students not only attended daily chapel services and Sunday public worship, they were “not considered as regular members of the College, till, after a residence of at least six months, they have been admitted to matriculation, on satisfactory evidence of an unblemished moral character” (Catalogue of the Officers and Students in Yale College, 1838-39, p. 26). The situation today, of course, is completely different.

yale college course catalogue 1838 1839

Seniors at Yale in the 1830s had tutorials spread over three terms, as shown in the Catalogue of the Officers and Students in Yale College, 1838-39. Note the presence of the Scottish mathematician and philosopher Dugald Stewart and three books by the great English natural theologian William Paley, including A View of the Evidences of Christianity, which Charles Darwin had studied at Cambridge just a few years earlier. Yale president Jeremiah Day, a Congregationalist minister and mathematician, taught moral philosophy himself—that’s how important it was. In addition to these tutorials, seniors heard lectures on various subjects, including chemistry, mineralogy, and geology from Benjamin Silliman and natural philosophy and astronomy from Denison Olmsted. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

The Discovery of Deep Time

Chemistry, natural history, botany, and even agriculture began to draw attention at several colleges toward the close of the eighteenth century. That’s precisely when geologists discovered “deep time,” the idea of “a prehuman earth history of inconceivable duration,” to borrow the words of historian Martin Rudwick (“The Shape and Meaning of Earth History,” cited below, p. 308). Increasingly, it became clear that the various strata, linked with specific types of fossils all over the world, could not have been produced in a single flood but must have formed over long periods of time by diverse geological agents.

This stood in stark contrast to the traditional biblical idea that the Earth is only five days older than Adam and Eve. Mainly for this reason, the early history of geology was traditionally interpreted as a purely secular story, in which deep time overturned the Bible. According to Rudwick, however, the biblical view of history with a beginning, followed by a contingent development, heading toward an end, influenced the strongly empirical picture of geohistory held by one of the founders of modern geology, Jean-André de Luc. Rudwick says, “It is no coincidence that de Luc’s system was the most strongly geohistorical, because of all these savants he was the one most explicitly committed to the historical perspective of biblical religion, a perspective he aspired to extend to the whole of geohistory. In effect, his belief in God’s sovereignty translated into a sense of the sheer contingency of geohistory—the sense that at any point events might have taken a different path—which doomed any attempt to deduce geohistory from first principles” (Bursting the Limits of Time, p. 643). In other words, de Luc’s geological philosophy arose from the same “voluntarist” theological attitude that lay behind Robert Boyle’s experimental philosophy.

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

cartoon by ernest james pace

Cartoon by Ernest James Pace, “Leaking Badly and Headed for the Earth,” Sunday School Times, June 3, 1922, p. 334.

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 Societyfounded 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.

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.

scriptural geology george bugg

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.

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.

#Science, Satan, and the Complications of Univocity: Cotton Mather’s Role in the History of Science

metteson examination of a witch

T.H. Matteson, Examination of a Witch (1853), Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

In a white paper for BioLogos called “Come and See: A Christological Invitation for Science,” Mark Noll wrote of two long traditions of scientific thought among Christians. One tradition found a watershed in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Even though he was optimistic about all matters of human inquiry, Thomas kept scriptural revelation distinct from human authorities and human thinking.  The Thomistic tradition, when push-comes-to-shove, emphasizes Isaiah’s “my thoughts are not your thoughts/”your ways are not my ways” sense of disjunction between us and God.

The other tradition emphasizes the image of God infused in humans, the connectedness between God and humanity, and the harmonizing that is possible between divine revelation and human knowledge. It emphasizes something called “univocity,” a deep sense of mutual understanding between humanity and God. This tradition found an early watershed in the writings of Duns Scotus and has encouraged science’s confidence that it is right. Noll asserts that the Scotist tradition leads into our dominant modern view of the power of human sciences.

In his essay, which is drawn from his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind [pdf], Noll notes how Cotton Mather played a role in helping extend the univocity tradition into the rise of early modern science. He says,

In the late seventeenth century, … natural theology became a major enterprise when the earlier assumptions — metaphysical univocity and harmonization of the “two books”—encountered rapidly expanding knowledge about the physical world…. In response to this challenge, savants like Cotton Mather in the American colonies (The Christian Philosopher [pdf], 1721) and William Derham in England (Physico-Theology, 1713) offered elaborate explanations for how the structures of the physical and animal worlds revealed God’s purposes in creating things as he had made them.

Noll is certainly correct about the influence of Cotton Mather’s book The Christian Philosopher. However, Mather’s role in this tradition is complicated by his lively belief that Satan is a deceiver who likes to sow confusion. Whatever univocity exists between God and humanity, Mather insisted that one should never allow one’s self to be seduced into thinking that demons are not out and about working their wiles. Lucky for us, Mather affirmed, God sends angels to guard us. Therefore, although Mather does generally encourage the univocity tradition of science into its next phase, he more specifically taught a lively sense of univocity mitigated by demons and angels. This is important because, though the history of scientific methods has often considered notions of a divine revealer communicating to humans, it has not often taken into account beliefs about an active deceiver.

I will pick three small instances to illuminate Mather’s mitigated sense of univocity: his thoughts on epilepsy, his experiments on a demon-possessed girl, and a comparison of Mather’s view with the more clear-cut univocity of his time exemplified by Thomas Brattle and the judges in the Salem witch trials.

Angels and Epilepsy

Epilepsy, Mather wrote in The Angel of Bethesda: An Essay Upon the Common Maladies of Mankind, is indicated when the body is thrown to the ground in convulsions, “eyes distorted, the mouth perhaps foaming, the face with an aspect full of agony.” Mather recommends several medicines that might work to calm the afflicted. Otho T. Beall rightfully titled his book, Cotton Mather: The First Significant Figure in American Medicine (1954), and Mather’s clear-eyed view of epilepsy as a natural condition contributes to Beall’s view. On the other hand, Mather went on to write that sometimes “rational spirits of the invisible world” can “strangely insinuate themselves into the malady.” Good angels and bad angels find epileptics to be ready receivers of their communications. Watch out! Be wary! Epilepsy can be something far from simply natural. It can be from God and be used by God to reveal truths, but Satan might also use an epileptic fit to proclaim falsehoods or twist a truth. The epileptic, himself or herself, should pray: “My God, save me from diabolical illusions.  Let no devil now play and prey upon me!”

hippocrates on the sacred disease

Statue of Hippocrates (ca. 150 BC), Archaeological Museum of Kos, Greece. The Hippocratic treatise titled On the Sacred Disease, is about epilepsy—which was widely seen as a divinely caused disease at the time. Although Mather believed that epilepsy had natural causes, at the same time he thought God or Satan could use epileptics to communicate truths or falsehoods.

When four years before the Salem witch trials, some children in Boston were afflicted with epileptic-type seizures and contortions, it was decided by a gathering of ministers, doctors, and community leaders that they were demon possessed. Community prayer eventually led to their healing, but not before Cotton Mather and his young wife, Abigail, took one of the girls into their home in order to regularize her diet, sleep, and social life. While she was in his home, Cotton Mather began to experiment on her to learn about demons. Cotton’s first “experiment” was to test whether Martha could read the Bible while being possessed. The answer was no. “If she went to read the Bible her eyes would be strangely twisted and blinded.”  What if someone tried to read the Bible in the same room, but out of her sight? No. She would “be cast into terrible agonies.” Visitors would arrive, and Cotton would perform his “experiments” for them. Could she read the Westminster Catechism? No! It sent her into “hideous convulsions.” Could she read a popish [Roman Catholic] book? Yes!

Cotton knew that his experiments were inconclusive. He noted that his reading experiments were not really good tests for what demons actually could and could not read. It was a “fanciful business” that yielded only indicators and possibilities. Cotton recognized that Satan was a deceiver and might, in fact, be playing with Cotton’s own brain. “What snares the devils might lay for us” in such experiments. Cotton Mather was seriously engaged with healing a girl and studying demons, but his seriousness was not without wariness. As much as he was he was studying demons, he knew that the demons might be twisting his thoughts in wrong directions.

Witchcraft and the New Science: How Does it Work?

During the trials, Cotton Mather and many other ministers believed that the judges should be very careful not to find themselves caught up in Satan’s traps. Eventually he and most of his colleagues concluded that Satan did actually win in Salem—confusion reigned. One instance of this confusion was a disagreement about courtroom use of Cartesian scientific theories of sight (see the illustration). We know about this confusion from a letter, written by Thomas Brattle to the judges. A schoolmate of Cotton Mather, Brattle was well-known in Boston society as a wealthy bachelor devoted to the study of astronomy and mathematics. After graduating from Harvard, Brattle lived for five years in England where he socialized with famous men of science, especially Robert Boyle. When Brattle returned to Boston in 1689, he resumed a Boyle-like existence as Boston’s pre-eminent scientific thinker. In 1692 he was well placed in society to comment on the science being used by the judges in the Salem Village courtroom.

rene descartes theory of vision

René Descartes’ theory of vision, from an eighteenth-century edition of his posthumously published Treatise of Man (L’homme de René Descartes, 1729). Descartes believed that light was a motion transmitted through a medium, not unlike a “wave” generated by the crowd at an athletic event. The medium consisted of tiny particles of what he called “the second element.”

Brattle did not like what he heard about the judge’s use of the “doctrine of effluvia.” Sharp tongued, Brattle criticized the court’s mis-application of what was a major scientific theory of the era as evidence for a witch’s use of an “evil eye.” In the courtroom, an afflicted girl was sometimes cast into a fit when she looked into the eye of an accused witch. When this happened, the judges then asked the accused to touch the writhing girl. Upon being touched, the girl became calm. Brattle sarcastically wrote that some of the judges were “so well instructed in the Cartesian philosophy” that they declare “how by this touch, the venomous and malignant particles, that were ejected from the eye, do, by this means, return to the body whence they came.”

Brattle declared, “I must confess to you, that I am no small admirer of the Cartesian philosophy; but yet I have not so learned it.” He accepted the Cartesian scientific theory, but believed that the judges were not applying it fully. Brattle insisted that the Cartesian “doctrine of effluvia” separated spirit and matter, such that no evil spirit could regulate the emission of particles—no witch could turn off and on, nor direct precisely, an evil eye. If a witch’s eye emitted particles that could throw people into fits, then every person who looked into the witch’s eye should have been thrown into fits—not just the afflicted girl.

Brattle went further by insisting on another matter involving the mechanical philosophy of late seventeenth-century Britain. The judges accepted as evidence statements from the girls about seeing specters when their eyes are shut. Brattle declared that “the thing, in nature, is an utter impossibility.” According to mechanical philosophy, sight is caused by particles either entering or putting pressure on the eye. It is impossible for girls to see specters with their eyelids shut. Particles are blocked by the eyelids, and so what the girls were not “seeing” anything.

If we accept Mark Noll’s generalization that the univocity tradition was encouraged by Cotton Mather and others in the late seventeenth century, then in these three examples we can see something distinctly different separating Mather from Brattle and the Salem judges. Mather was humbled by his belief in deceivers. Brattle and the judges, however, fought with each other with the rather pompous assurance that proper scientific knowledge would lead to truth. Brattle also believed he could declare something “impossible”—a sure sign of univocity. Mather, on the other hand, was anxious to push his mind as far as it would go, but like C.S. Lewis when writing The Screwtape Letters, he was convinced of the need for caution. The pursuit of science, for Mather, is not simply a matter for humans in a univocal relationship with God. Satan is an active and persistent deceiver.

#The Romance of Natural History

the gigantic trilobite

“The Gigantic Trilobite,” frontispiece from the first American edition of Robert Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology (1829). Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

We usually associate Romanticism with artists, musicians, and writers from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but some scientists of the same period also responded emotionally, aesthetically, and spiritually to nature, in ways that justify speaking of “Romanticism in science.” The English geologist of Robert Bakewell, whose work was very influential in America, falls into this category.

Mixed Reactions to Early Natural History

Natural history was all the rage in the early nineteenth century. As practitioners of the emerging science of geology dug up previously unknown creatures of enormous size, readers of their books and articles responded with a mix of fascination and anxiety. When confronted with the remains of so many extinct creatures entombed in the earth beneath us or inside the hills around us, some saw conflicts with the Bible, while others felt a sense of foreboding or even dread about the future of the human race itself.

edouad de montule mastodon in philadelphia


“Skeleton of the Young Mammoth in the Museum at Philadelphia,” from Édouard de Montulé, Voyage en Amérique, en Italie, en Sicile, et en Egypte (1821).

A standard example of the mixed reaction is the famous poem, “In Memoriam,” by Tennyson. First, the author wonders why God allows individual animals to perish, while preserving species:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

Then, he realizes his error, seeing that so many creatures have been lost to the mists of time:

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.’

Finally, he sees the implications for “man,” wondering whether we, too, shall someday pass from the scene:

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

Robert Bakewell’s Romantic Picture of Natural History

A further response may actually have been more important over the long haul. No less than Goethe’s poetry or Beethoven’s symphonies, the bones of long-dead monsters can generate excitement and even sublimity. Surprisingly, a geology textbook by the English surveyor Robert Bakewell did precisely this. First published in 1813, it proved popular enough to warrant five London editions. The last three were reprinted in New Haven, Connecticut, becoming the standard text in the United States.

There was nothing exceptional about using an English text in American science classes. Before the Civil War, the United States was not a world leader in science—that would come later, after the adoption of the German idea of the research university, starting with Johns Hopkins in 1876. Prior to that time, many of the textbooks and most of the ideas they contained were imported from Europe.

Who could ask for a better import than this? Bakewell’s engaging, sometimes even Romantic, first-person narrative helped make natural history an exciting topic in antebellum America. Hang on to your hat, as you read the following passage:

Geology discovers to us proofs of the awful revolutions which have in former ages changed the surface of the globe, and overwhelmed its inhabitants; it reveals to us the forms of strange and unknown animals, and unfolds the might and skill of creative energy, displayed in the ancient world: indeed, there is no science which presents objects that so powerfully excite our admiration and astonishment.  We are led almost irresistibly to speculate on the past and future condition of our planet, and on man its present inhabitant. What various reflections crowd upon the mind, if we carry back our thoughts to the time when the surface of our globe was agitated by conflicting elements, or to the succeeding intervals of repose, when enormous crocodilian animals scoured the surface of the deep, or darted through the air for their prey; –or again, to the state of the ancient continents, when the deep silence of nature was broken by the bellowings of the mammoth and the mastodon, who stalked the lords of the former world, and perished in the last grand revolution, that preceded the creation of man. (An Introduction to Geology, 1839 American edition, pp. 436-7).

life in ancient dorset duria antiquior

Duria Antiquior (1830), a watercolor by geologist Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset, offers a glimpse of Bakewell’s “enormous crocodilian animals,” just as the bones in Peale’s museum suggest “when the deep silence of nature was broken by the bellowings of the mammoth and the mastodon.”

As his references to “the might and skill of creative energy” and “the creation of man” indicate, Bakewell believed that geology revealed the works of God. A Unitarian, he did not try to relate geology explicitly to the Bible, but he didn’t hesitate to speak reverently of “the first manifestations on our own planet, of creative power displayed in the animal and vegetable kingdoms,” of the “wise provision of the Author of nature,” or “the skill of the Creator” (pp. 111, 388 and 436). At the same time, he stressed the great antiquity of the Earth and the series of revolutions that culminated in the “creation of man.” This picture of Earth history, with sequential upheavals setting the stage for the arrival of humans, was in broad outline taken from George Cuvier, the greatest paleontologist of his age. Cuvier’s work was especially admired in England and New England, where it was seen as supporting a providential, even biblical, view of natural history.

#The Dean of American Science

john warner barber

John Warner BarberEastern View of the Public Square or Green in New Haven Ct, engraved by A. Willard for Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collections (1836). Here under the elm trees Timothy Dwight offered a professorship to Benjamin Silliman. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

As we’ve seen, American science before the Civil War was strongly influenced by Francis Bacon’s emphasis on the equal importance of both divine “books”—the book of Scripture alongside the book of nature—and heavily dependent on ideas and information coming from Europe. Natural history is a case in point. The person who did more than anyone else to bring European geology to the United States and place it under the Baconian umbrella is Benjamin Silliman. His pious scholarly attitude toward science and the Bible, together with the specific scheme for reconciling Genesis and geology that he presented to American readers, became the dominant evangelical attitude and ideas well into the twentieth century, and still influence many in our own century.

It’s time we got to know him better.

Timothy Dwight Brings Natural History to Yale

One hot July morning in the first year of the nineteenth century, Yale College president Timothy Dwight, a missionary-minded evangelical, ran across one of his tutors, “under the shade of the grand trees in the street in front of the college buildings,” as the younger man recalled more than fifty years later. The tutor’s name was Benjamin Silliman. Dwight had been “a warm personal friend” of his late father, General Gold Silliman of the Continental Army, who had been confined in a British prison on Long Island when Benjamin was born, after being captured during a nighttime raid on his home. The General had died several years after the war, and Dwight had “taken a parental interest in the welfare” of Silliman and his brother at Yale. (Silliman’s “Reminiscences,” in Fisher (cited below), Vol. 1, pp. 91-92.)

john trumbull yale university graduate

John Trumbull, portrait of Timothy Dwight (1817), Yale University Art Gallery. 

In the ensuing conversation, Silliman sought Dwight’s advice. About to finish a law degree, Silliman was considering an offer to “take charge of the important and flourishing academy at Sunbury,” near Savannah, Georgia, an area settled by New England Puritans. It carried an attractive salary, enough to enable him to practice law within a few years. After hearing the details, however, Dwight advised strongly against accepting the offer. “I would not voluntarily, unless under the influence of some commanding moral duty, go to live in a country where slavery is established,” Silliman reported him saying (Fisher, Vol. 1, pp. 91-92).

We might easily misinterpret this passage, if I said no more. Slavery in New England in the decades after the Revolution was actually no less complicated, and no less morally reprehensible, than it was anywhere else. Dwight himself had once owned a black woman as (apparently) an indentured servant—an arrangement not quite equivalent to slavery—and the conclusion has been drawn by historian Larry Tise that “under his Yale presidency Yale produced more pro-slavery clergy than any other college in the nation.” Indeed, Silliman’s widowed mother had the dubious status of being “the largest recorded slaveowner in the town of Fairfield” (Brown, cited below, p. 33). Suffice to say that the progress of emancipation in Connecticut was painfully slow, reflecting the larger national story, and nothing in Silliman’s own involvement with slavery stands out as exceptional.

But Dwight also had another reason for keeping Silliman in New Haven. A few years before, he explained, the college had agreed to establish a “Professorship of Chymistry and Natural History” as soon as the necessary funds could be found. The time had now arrived, and Dwight thought the 22-year-old Silliman would be the ideal person to become Yale’s first natural historian.

silliman by miniaturist nathaniel rogers

This lovely little portrait of Silliman by the skilled miniaturist Nathaniel Rogers(c. 1815), shows the young professor at around 36 years of age. Image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

Silliman’s appointment was confirmed by the trustees in September 1802, after he had passed his legal examinations. It proved an astonishingly successful decision. As a teacher, he prepared many of the leading American scientists of the next two generations, among them naturalist Charles Baker Adams, geologist James Dwight Dana(who became his son-in-law), botanist Chester Dewey, botanist Amos Eaton, geologist Edward Hitchcock, physicist Denison Olmsted, mineralogist Charles Upham Shepard, and chemist Benjamin Silliman, Jr. As an author, he was known at home and abroad not only for detailed and entertaining narratives of his international travels, but also for his careful efforts to relate recent geological conclusions to the early chapters of Genesis. These are found in his lengthy appendices to the three American editions of Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology; we’ll delve into that material in a future column. As a servant of science, he was second to none, serving as founding editor of the American Journal of Science and the Arts (known in its early years as “Silliman’s Journal”) and president of the Association of American Geologists, which in 1848 became the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In short, Benjamin Silliman was the first dean of American science.

As a public lecturer in the latter part of his career, Silliman traveled the length and breadth of the republic, making him probably the best known scientist in the land. In this activity, especially, he stands out as a worthy successor of Cotton Mather, captivating audiences with his love of science coupled with his obvious love of God. “Admiring as we do the perfection of science exhibited continually by the lecturer,” commented a Boston reporter in 1843, “we have yet a higher love and reverence for that beautiful exhibition of divine truth to which Mr. Silliman constantly alludes; as seen in the wonderful works which he has successfully presented as designed by the Almighty power, and made known to man by human intelligence. This is the source of our respect for this accomplished Professor, in comparison with which our admiration for his scientific attainments sinks into insignificance” (from the Boston Transcript, 30 March 1843, quoted by Fisher, Vol. 1, p. 398).

Benjamin Silliman’s Scientific Education

So far, I have not mentioned an astonishing fact: at the time when Silliman was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural History, he entirely lacked advanced training in both fields. Dwight knew this, of course—better to get the right man for the job than the right job for the man. To remove the deficiency, Silliman spent two winters studying anatomy at the Medical School of the College of Philadelphia (now Penn), the first such institution in the United States in what was then its largest city. There he befriended Robert Hare, a brewer and budding chemist (later he became professor of chemistry at Penn) who did experiments with him in the basement of their boarding house. On Sundays he “attended, almost without exception, the church of the Rev. Dr. Ashbel Green” (Fisher, Vol. 1, p. 100), a Presbyterian who was chaplain to the United States Congress and later became president of The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).

Then he spent six months in Edinburgh, learning anatomy, medicine, mineralogy, and chemistry. Significantly, he also attended lectures by mathematician and philosopher Dugald Stewart, a powerful thinker whose ideas on philosophy of mind were a required subject for seniors at Yale at the height of Silliman’s career. At a social event one evening he met the physician Robert Darwin, father of Charles Darwin, “a man of large and massy frame” (reported to have weighed well over 300 pounds) who said nothing all night, giving Silliman “no opportunity to judge [his] talents and attainments” (Fisher, Vol. 1, p. 160). Ah, well—history is full of missed opportunities.

For several decades surrounding 1800, European geologists were engaged in lively debates about which methodological principles they ought to employ to interpret observations and to formulate larger theories of earth history. As someone who is not an expert on this topic, I have the impression that much of this story is still not well understood, since much historical work has focused on the British geologists, leaving their important continental contemporaries in relative neglect. If my limited knowledge is accurate, then from 1790 to the late 1820s–right up to the first publication of Silliman’s lectures–geology was dominated by ideas originating at the Mining Academy of Freiburg, where Abraham Gottlob Werner lectured.

Werner taught his pupils to think historically about the earth, by grouping the rocks on the earth’s surface into “formations” that had formed at particular times, and the primary task of the geologist was to figure out the chronological order in which this took place–a task that was unfortunately rarely simple, for several reasons that need not concern us here. The ages of rocks were thus central to this scheme, yet there was at that time no way to determine absolute ages, so relative ages had to be inferred from the order of disposition in various places. Werner further thought that rocks are mainly sedimentary in origin, having been deposited by a universal primeval ocean. This hypothesis was sometimes linked by his disciples with the idea that the biblical flood had been a major formative agent of the present surface of the globe.

When Silliman arrived in Edinburgh, a major figure there was geologist Robert Jameson, who had recently returned from a year’s study with Werner in Freiburg. Although Jameson had not yet begun to teach geology at that point, later Silliman would embrace Jameson’s views on the relationship of Genesis and geology. Nevertheless, chemistry was at that time rather closely linked with geology, and Silliman found that chemists John Murray (not affiliated with the university) and Thomas Hope were well informed about current issues in geology. Whereas Murray favored the Wernerian system, Hope inclined toward the alternative views of Edinburgh’s own James Hutton, who had postulated in the late eighteenth century that heat rather than water was the primal formative agent in earth history. “The followers of Hutton were now organized into a geological phalanx,” Silliman recalled in colorful terms, “and my residence in Edinburgh occurred at the fortunate crisis, when the combatants on both sides were in the field; and I, although a non-combatant, was within the wind of battle, and prepared, like victory, to join the strongest side.” Judging that “both views were ably and eloquently sustained,” the former law student found the exchange “a delightful recreation and a most instructive study.” He soon concluded that “both theories were founded in truth, and that the crust of the earth had been formed and greatly modified by the combined, or sometimes antagonistic and conflicting powers of fire and water” (Fisher, Vol. 1, pp. 169-70). This would remain his position henceforth.

Thus, before he had taught natural history to a single student, Silliman had been brought up to date on current geological debates about the formation of “formations.” He also understood that the many layers of rock confronting the geologist in the field had not been formed instantly by fiat creation, nor had at least most of them been formed quickly during Noah’s Flood—though he never doubted the reality of that event. In other words, he accepted the idea of deep time as an established fact, and he would combine it with a high view of the Bible in ways that continue to shape the American conversation about origins.

 

#Creating “Progressive Creationism” in America

benjamin sillimin

Benjamin Silliman in 1824, five years before his geology lectures were published for the first time. This painting, owned by Yale College, is in the public domain (image source).

The term “progressive creation” entered the American lexicon in 1829, when Benjamin Silliman’s geology lectures were published in New Haven. Silliman had just edited the first American edition of An Introduction to Geology, by Robert Bakewell, and his lectures constituted a 126-page appendix to Bakewell’s textbook. To the best of my knowledge, Silliman was the first American author to use the exact term “progressive creation,” although it had been used for nearly a century by a few English authors, including the painter Jonathan Richardson and his son (of the same name) and the Roman Catholic priest Alban Butler—though it did not always mean what Silliman meant.

What did it mean for Silliman? In speaking about the “universal primitive ocean” that once covered the whole Earth, he noted that “its retreat was gradual, and proceeded in such a manner as to be consistent with the due arrangement of the earth’s crust and surface, and with the progressive creation, life, death, and sepulture [fossilization], of animals and plants.” Spelling it out more fully elsewhere, he said, “The creation of the vegetable and animal races [species] appears to have gone on progressively with the deposition of the mineral strata and masses. It is impossible to form any other inference, if we examine the contents of the terrene [Earth’s] crust. The only point that admits of discussion is, as to the amount of time employed.” (Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College, pp. 121 and 50)

In other words, Silliman placed the creation of plants and animals episodically throughout the deep time of Earth history that a previous generation of geologists had established. He summed up his old-earth creationist position by calling it “progressive creation,” just as some influential OECs in modern times have done.

To see more fully where Silliman was coming from, let’s take a look at the introductory “Remarks” he wrote for the first American edition of The Wonders of Geology (1839), by the English geologist Gideon Algernon Mantell. (Remember that Antebellum Americans imported a lot of scientific knowledge from Europe.) There he spoke again of “the progressive creation of animals and plants, that have inhabited our world—have become extinct, and are, in countless myriads, entombed in the rocky strata, and in the solid mountains.” As he went on to say,

“it is a matter of physical demonstration, that the earth existed for many ages before man was called into being. The whole course of geological investigation proves this view to be the only one that is consistent with the facts. To be convinced of its truth, it is only necessary to become thoroughly acquainted with the records of a progressive creation and destruction which the earth contains, inscribed on medals [a reference to another book by Mantell], more replete with historical truth, and more worthy of confidence, than those that have been formed by man; as much more as nature exceeds in veracity the erring or mendacious records of the human race.” (The Wonders of Geology, 1839 American edition, vol. 1, p. 30)

Fully aware of the challenge posed by geology to the customary interpretation of Genesis, Silliman drew a deliberate comparison to the reception of Copernican astronomy. “Hardly two centuries have passed since the astronomy of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, was regarded as inconsistent with the Scriptures, and therefore heretical,” he noted.  “[T]he discrepancy of the literal meaning of the Bible with the real truths of astronomy, is still as great as ever,” he added, but “no one any longer hesitates to regard astronomy as giving a just view of the stupendous mechanism of the heavens.” Indeed, “all agree in understanding the language of the Scriptures as being adapted to the appearances of the heavens,” which is all that humans can know and “with which alone the Scriptures are concerned.” The Bible was “designed as a code of moral instruction” and to reveal a future life, but it contained “no systems of science,” only “incidental” references to physical matters. Although “God is declared to be the Creator of the heavens and the earth,” the Bible does not have “even the most general outline of any physical science; the creation of the heavens and the earth, of the sun and the moon, being disposed of with extreme brevity, while the allusions to the geological arrangements of this planet are only such as are connected with the first appearance of its organized beings, and the emergence of the land from the original ocean.” In brief, “Instruction in the sciences was not the object of the Scriptures,” although on the other hand “the physical creation was left [given to us] by the Divine Author” for several purposes, including “the additional illustration of the character of God and also for an exhaustless fountain, whose streams mingle harmoniously with those of divine revelation” (pp. 31-32). Silliman’s concordism comes through loud and clear.

Clearly, Silliman had read his Galileo, and he did not hesitate to invite the great Italian scientist into the Garden of Eden. In a much longer exposition of his views written around the same time, he expressed an uncompromising concordist vision of natural history:

“The order of the physical events, discovered by geology, is substantially the same as that recorded by the sacred historian; that is, as far as the latter has gone, for it was evidently no part of his object to enter any farther into details than to state that the world was the work of God, and thus he was led to mention the principal divisions of natural things, as they were successively created. It is sufficient therefore that there is a general correspondence, which is indeed, in the great features, exceedingly striking, and deficient only in less important particulars not to be expected in so general a narrative, written chiefly for moral purposes; but it is in no respect contradictory to facts.” (“Suggestions Relative to the Philosophy of Geology as Deduced from the Facts and to the Consistency of Both the Facts and Theory of This Science with Sacred History,” from the 1839 American edition of Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology, p. 538)

The Implications of “Progressive Creation”

Among the dozens of future scientists who passed through his classroom, Silliman counted many disciples of his progressive creationist approach—including Edward Hitchcock and James Dwight Dana, both of whom influenced evangelical thinking right down into our own time. Between them, they explored four big theological or biblical issues arising from their shared commitment to concordism: how to understand the age of the earth, relative to biblical chronology; the historicity of Noah’s flood and its significance for geology and fossil formation; the existence of animal suffering and death prior to the fall of Adam and Eve; and the special creation of human beings and many other organisms. In subsequent columns (and in a future series on American science and religion after the Civil War), I’ll introduce you to their views on such things—which bear a striking resemblance to the views of contemporary concordists.

iguanodon by john martin for gideon mantell


This violent scene, “The Country of the Iguanodon,” engraved by the English Romantic artist John Martin, served as the frontispiece for Gideon Mantell, The Wonders of Geology (1838). Mantell dedicated the first American edition to Silliman, who was identified as the editor only on a narrow slip of paper inserted before the title page, but some copies lack it. Silliman’s 40-page introduction was likewise identified as his in the same way. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

The Situation Today

The book by Jonathan SarfatiRefuting Compromise (2004), has a very revealing subtitle: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (Billions of Years), As Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross. Founder of the apologetics ministry Reasons to BelieveRoss promotes a form of old-earth creationism that Silliman would probably have embraced. His ministry rejects evolution, yet his ideas still represent a dangerous “compromise,” in the opinion of Sarfati and many other creationist leaders.

What is the nature of this “compromise”? The abandonment of a literal creation week of 24-hour days. Sarfati finds it “striking that the first hints of long-age views of Genesis came only when conservative exegetes became intimidated by long-age teachings of geology. This was the origin of the common compromise views such as the day-age, gap theory, and framework hypothesis. The absence of these views for most of church history is strong indication that they are not derived from the Hebrew text, but from outside sources.” (Refuting Compromise, p. 390)

Setting aside the salient fact that there are no hints of being “intimidated” by geology (or astronomy) in either Silliman or Ross, Sarfati’s analysis is partly right—the specific “compromise” views he lists appeared only in the past few centuries, at least in the specific forms in which we now find them. However, Sarfati is far too quick to dismiss the skepticism shown by some patristic authors toward literal “days,” for reasons having nothing to do with geology or other “outside sources.” And, he’s wrong to imply that analysis of the Hebrew text had nothing to do with (for example) the framework view, which relies heavily on the literary structure of the hexameron itself. To develop my objections properly would take many columns, but readers who want more can study the historical portions of my series on Science and the Bible.

refuting compromise book

The cover of Sarfati’s book depicts Hugh Ross as rewriting the text of Genesis chapter one to accommodate an ancient Earth and universe that were created “progressively,” just as Silliman had taught. (Image source)

Above all, Sarfati is wrong simply to dismiss the relevance—nay, the great importance—of using information from “outside sources” for interpreting the Bible. In fact, creationists use information from archaeology, natural science, and secular history all the time, but highly selectively, in order to authenticate their own “literal” interpretations of various texts, which are in many cases not the only interpretations that the Hebrew text allows. A recent exchange between two biblical scholars, YEC proponent William D. Barrick and OEC proponent C. John Collins, captures the gulf between Sarfati’s attitude and that of the concordists as well as anything I’ve seen. Barrick’s view is as follows:

“When the reader of the Bible accepts extrabiblical evidence (whether from ancient Near Eastern documentation or from modern scientists’ interpretation of circumstantial evidence) over the biblical record, that denigrates the biblical record and treats it with skepticism rather than as prima facie evidence. In other words, we err when we assume that any major interpretive problem is due to lack of accuracy within the text itself. We should assume that the Scriptures are accurate until proven otherwise by equally accurate, equally authentic, and equally ancient evidence.” (Four Views on the Historical Adam, p. 226)

I have to wonder whether the collection of evidence meeting the criteria spelled out in that last sentence is an empty set, but I’ll let Collins speak to this. Replying directly to the passage just quoted, Collins says,

“This is astonishing. When it comes to whether we should compare the material we find in the Bible to the materials we find from the surrounding cultures, it seems almost obvious that of course we should. The biblical writers spoke into a specific context and regularly had to warn their audiences against the blandishments of competing worldviews. Whether it be an Old Testament prophet inveighing against idolatry and syncretism, or a New Testament apostle reminding people about Greco-Roman depravity, these warnings are common stuff. Surely a sane interpreter will do what he or she can to discover what these dangers were. The right stance, as I have already argued, is that we must make every effort to make a good and wise use of this extra material.” (Ibid., p. 250)

That’s exactly what Benjamin Silliman was trying to do.

#Genesis and Geology at Yale: Human Antiquity and the Flood

thomas cole the subsiding waters of the deluge

Thomas Cole, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. One of the greatest landscape painters of all time, Thomas Cole was a friend of Benjamin Silliman and a serious student of geology. This particular canvas, smaller than many of his better-known works and lost for more than a century, was painted in the same year in which Silliman’s lectures supporting the historicity of the flood were published for the first time. (Image source)

Benjamin Silliman on Noah’s Flood

As we saw previously, Benjamin Silliman described the creation as “progressive” in the first edition of his Yale geology lectures. As he said, “The creation of the vegetable and animal races appears to have gone on progressively with the deposition of the mineral strata and masses.” The “deposition” mentioned here occurred in the primeval seas, according to Wernerian theory. Contrary to what one might otherwise think, Silliman wasn’t referring to the biblical flood and its aftermath. Indeed, he cautioned readers that “no one can reason, correctly and conclusively, upon geology, who does not separate the events connected with the great catastrophe which destroyed nearly the whole human family, and most of the animals, from those events which belong to the earlier periods of the planet and preceded the creation of man.” (“Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College,” p. 50)

This is not to say that Silliman doubted the historicity of the flood–not in the least. In the first edition of his lectures he wrote extensively on it, noting that “geological evidence that supports the history of the flood is most abundant and altogether satisfactory,” although that evidence was often “blended with the facts belonging to the primitive watery abyss [long before the flood].” Stating his view more confidently, he wrote, “Respecting the deluge, there can be but one opinion, and that opinion has been already stated; geology fully confirms the scripture history of that event.” Indeed, “[w]e need not the [biblical] history, in order to prove the occurrence of an universal deluge,” which “is sufficiently proved, by the vestiges left upon the globe, and geologists are generally agreed in admitting the fact,” but we still needed the Bible to tell us precisely when it took place (pp. 50, 7, and 74).

Silliman never changed his mind about the reality of the flood, but in later editions of his lectures and other writings he toned down his comments significantly, putting even more emphasis on the ambiguity of the evidence bearing on the role of water in earth history. For example, in his introduction to the American edition of Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology (1839), he said only that “The Scriptures describe a universal deluge, and geology proves that every part of the earth is marked by the effect of such visitations, occurring at one time, or at many times;–a repetition of local deluges, or a general one, would produce similar results; and although it may be impossible to distinguish between the accumulated effects of local overflows, and a general diluvial devastation, the surface of the earth abounds with diluvial ruins.” (“Remarks Introductory to the First American Edition,” p. 32. For more information about Silliman’s evolving views see the dissertation by Rodney L. Stiling, cited below.)

The increasing ambivalence in Silliman’s position on evidence for the flood reflects the influence of a major English geologist, William Buckland. A few years before Silliman’s lectures were first published, Buckland had written a vigorous geological defense of a worldwide flood in an English book with a Latin title, Reliquiæ Diluvianæ (1823), a work that Silliman cited favorably. Over the next several years, however, Buckland backed slowly away from that conclusion, as critics persuaded him that several local floods rather than a single global flood gave a better account of the evidence. Ultimately he found that the brand new theory of glaciation offered the best explanation for such things as erratic boulders.

Despite growing uncertainty about the details, Silliman’s resounding affirmation that geology confirms Genesis came through loud and clear to his readers. We find a most striking example in his friend, the great landscape painter Thomas Cole, who saw the New England countryside through Silliman’s eyes. Erratic boulders, now understood to have been left behind by receding glaciers, were seen by Silliman and other American naturalists of the 1820s as remnants of the flood. They appear in many of Cole’s paintings, but especially in The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829).

What about human antiquity, another scientific topic closely tied with the Bible? According to the Scottish geologist Robert Jameson, whose ideas Silliman borrowed freely, French paleontologist Georges Cuvier had shown that no human fossils were contemporaneous with those of the extinct mammals. Silliman took this as virtual proof that humans must be of recent origin. Here’s how he put it in his lectures: “Man no where Fossil—Man and his works [i.e., tools, dwellings, etc.] appear only in the last stages [of the fossil record], associated with just such beings as now exist, both in the animal and vegetable world” (1839 edition, p. 479).

In fact Cuvier’s position was a bit more subtle than this, and the final English edition of his Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1827), heavily edited by Jameson, mentions a very specific “instance of a fossil human petrifaction [i.e., fossilization] in an alluvial formation” (p. 407). Nevertheless, Silliman told readers of Mantell’s book that “geology proves that our world existed for many ages before man was created, and that his creation was only the last act in the series,” and that “it perfectly concurs in the conclusion that the human race cannot have been on the earth more than a few thousand years. Where then is the discrepancy between geology and the sacred history, and what is the cause that this science fills many minds with alarm, and not a few with hostility?” Like astronomy, geology “is the ally, and not the enemy of revealed truth.” He concluded with a vigorous attack on his literalist critics: “The time has already come, when those who claim to judge of the consistency of the Scriptures with geology, must study this science, not superficially, but profoundly; for in no other way can they become qualified to form a just opinion in the case. It is, indeed, lamentable to observe the crude and absurd speculations of some, who speak and write in a manner adapted only to expose their own ignorance of the subject; and there are not wanting those, both at home and abroad, whose arrogance and censoriousness are exhibited in a manner equally uncandid and undignified; while their incredulity, manifested by a blind rejection of evidence without examination, (a real infidelity,) would imply, that the Author of nature has given a revelation inconsistent with the work of his own hands” (“Remarks,” pp. 33-34, his italics).

In other words, true fidelity calls for a careful reading of both of God’s books, not just the Bible.

The Situation Today: Charles Hodge’s “Slippery Slide to Unbelief”

Silliman’s concordist attitude has been reprised by many American evangelicals since his time, but none of higher stature than Charles Hodge, one of the most important American theologians of the nineteenth century. In an article on “The Bible in Science,” from the New York Observer, 26 March 1863, Hodge said, “The proposition that the Bible must be interpreted by science is all but self-evident. Nature is as truly a revelation of God as the Bible, and we only interpret the Word of God by the Word of God when we interpret the Bible by science” (Noll & Livingstone, cited below, p. 54). A stalwart Calvinist and an outspoken opponent of what he famously called “Darwinism,” Hodge cannot reasonably be seen as theologically heterodox. Nevertheless, because he interpreted Genesis in light of geological ages, he is included in an exhibit at Ken Ham’s Creation Museum devoted to the “slippery slide” of apostasy! Unfortunately, this tells us far more about the Creation Museum than it does about Hodge.

#Genesis and Geology at Yale: The “Days” of Creation

benjamin silliman by daniel huntington

This portrait of an aging Silliman by Daniel Huntington was painted in 1857. Image courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

“With the Bible in my hands, and the world before me, I think I perceive a perfect harmony between science and revealed religion… It cannot be doubted that there is a perfect harmony between the works and the word of God.”

These words, from a letter that Benjamin Silliman wrote to Presbyterian minister Gardiner Spring in 1854 (Fisher, Life, cited below, Vol. 2, p. 148), convey Silliman’s concordist perspective with near perfection, but leave many good questions unanswered. How, exactly, did he find “perfect harmony” between Genesis and geology? My previous column examined his views on human antiquity and the flood. Today I’ll explain his interpretation of the “days” of creation.

Benjamin Silliman and Robert Jameson on the “Days” of Creation

In the first version of his published lectures (1829), Silliman just didn’t talk about the creation “days.” Ironically, the textbook to which Silliman’s lectures were appended, Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology, did offer a brief discussion. A Unitarian, Bakewell noted that “the six days in which Creative Energy renovated the globe and called into existence different classes of animals, will imply six successive epochs of indefinite duration” (p. 19). For his part, however, Silliman said only that “the creation of the vegetable and animal races [species] appears to have gone on progressively with the deposition of the mineral strata and masses.” Adding almost immediately, “The only point that admits of discussion is, as to the amount of time employed,” he skirted around the details, maintaining a studied vagueness throughout. Only at the very end did he come close to endorsing a particular scheme: “In the prefatory remarks I have expressed the opinion, that there is no real inconsistency between the Mosaic history, and the actual structure of the earth. As I understand the account there is not, but, on the present occasion, I shall not enter upon the discussion of that part of the subject; believing that the period is not distant, when Geology will be admitted into the train of her elder sister Astronomy, and that both, however regarded while they were imperfectly understood, will be eventually hailed, as friends and allies of revealed religion.” (Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College, pp. 50 and 126)

What brought him out of his dogmatic slumber, apparently, was a paper by the Scottish geologist Robert Jameson. Although Silliman had not actually studied geology with Jameson during his visit to Edinburgh many years earlier, he followed Jameson’s ideas with great interest from across the ocean and re-printed some of them in The American Journal of Science and Arts, which he founded and edited for many years. Jameson also edited a scientific journal, and in 1832 he published his own article, “Remarks on some of Baron Cuvier’s Lectures on the History of the Natural Sciences, in reference to … the source from whence Moses derived his Cosmogony, and the general agreement of that Cosmogony with Modern Geology.” Silliman was obviously impressed; not only did he publish long excerpts in his own journal, but he also wove them into the second and third editions of his appendix to Bakewell’s text—including the fascinating “Table of Coincidences between the Order of Events as described in Genesis, and that unfolded by Geological Investigation” that Jameson had prepared to summarize his interpretation of the hexameron.

Robert Bakewell Introduction to Geology


“Table of Coincidences between the Order of Events as described in Genesis, and that unfolded by Geological Investigation,” copied Jameson and reproduced in Silliman’s appendix to the final American edition of Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology (1839), p. 562. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

For our purposes, the crucial passage reads as follows: “The term, the meaning of which we shall first investigate, is ‘day’ (in the Hebrew, yom.) The interpretation of this in the sense ‘epoch’ or ‘period,’ has been a subject of animadversion, of unnecessary severity in some cases. A careful examination of the first chapter of Genesis itself, leads unavoidably to the conclusion, that our natural day of one revolution of the sun cannot be meant by it, for we find that no fewer than three of the six days had passed before the measure of our present day was established” (quoting Jameson, from p. 557 in the third edition of Silliman’s appendix). Jameson then examined the presence of the same Hebrew word in Genesis 2:4, Job 18:20, and Isaiah 30:8, to which Silliman added further examples (including the Greek equivalent) from Job 14:6, Proverbs 6:34, Ezekiel 21:25, Luke 17:24, John 8:56, and 2 Peter 3:8. You get the drift.

Silliman admitted “that Moses himself probably understood the word day according to the popular signification [i.e., as an ordinary day], and as regards the history in question, this sense is certainly the most obvious one to every mind not informed as to the [geological] structure of the globe; even those who are learned on other subjects, but ignorant of geology, always adopt, in this case, the literal and obvious meaning. This however proves nothing; for the truths of astronomy are in exactly the same situation. Until modern astronomy arose, no one, whether learned or unlearned, entertained a doubt that the earth is an extended plain; that it stands on a firm foundation, even on pillars, and that around it as a center, the sun and starry heavens and the azure canopy, as a solid palpable firmament, revolve, while the waters of the heavens descend through its windows” (pp. 568-69).

The implicit comparison to Galileo then became explicit. “No one in this age,” Silliman opined, “fears that he shall, like Galileo, be thrown into prison for declining (on this subject) to understand the Scriptures in their literal sense” (p. 569).

If Silliman accepted the reality of deep time before the creation of humans, this did not involve a lengthening of human antiquity—that inference was not widely drawn in his lifetime, coming mainly in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Indeed, in an address he delivered to a scientific audience in 1842, he said this: “It is already admitted by multitudes, that the chronology of the Scriptures is, in strictness, applied only to the history of our race, the sole moral beings whom God has placed in this world; while all that precedes man in the creation, is limited, in duration backwards, only by that beginning, whose is known to no being but the infinite Creator, and which certainly precedes, by many ages, the creation of man; how long, it is neither important nor possible to determine; long enough however to admit of the arrangement, consolidation and elevation by natural laws, of the crust of the earth and of all its wonderful, mineral, and organic contents.” (Address, cited below, p. 29)

Silliman reprinted Jameson's table of coicidences

For the most part, Silliman reprinted Jameson’s “Table of Coincidences” unchanged. In the final edition of his appendix (1839), however, Silliman inserted this lengthy footnote about death before the fall to the sixth day of creation, where Jameson mentioned the “Bones of mammiferous land quadrupeds…” Silliman identified himself as the author of this note by putting “ED[itor]” at the end.

The Situation Today

If I asked you to name the top American evangelical theologians of the past century, who would you think of first? Many might start with the famous Carl F. H. Henry. He was not only Billy Graham’s choice as first editor-in-chief for the leading evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, but he also helped start the National Association of Evangelicals and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Whether or not he would be your first choice, it’s hard not to put him somewhere high on that list.

Who else would be there? In the opinion of Westminster-trained theologian Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the Baptist Bernard Ramm “must be considered one of the foremost American evangelical theologians of the twentieth century. Only Carl F. H. Henry’s works are comparable in quantity and quality” (cited below, p. 292). That’s very high praise indeed. Although many people probably associate Ramm with other subjects—he wrote twenty books—I doubt any of them was more influential than The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). In subsequent years, Ramm had such a strong following among members of the American Scientific Affiliation—the oldest organization of Christians in the sciences in North America—that they devoted an entire issue of their journal to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his book. Luminaries such as chemist Walter Hearn, historian Edwin Yamauchi, theologian Clark Pinnock, and astronomer Owen Gingerich all sang his praises.

My own experience inside and outside ASA circles confirms what they said: whenever I bring up his name among evangelical scientists or scholars born before 1960, I almost invariably get a highly positive expression of appreciation for that book—which continues to garner praise from authors as diverse as John Ankerberg and John Jefferson (“Jack”) Davis. Davis’s book, The Frontiers of Science & Faith (2002), includes a thoughtful chapter based on a paper he published in the ASA journal, “Is Progressive Creation Still a Helpful Concept?” His conclusion is that “Bernard Ramm’s concept of ‘progressive creation’ is still a useful category for interpreting biblical and scientific data relating to origins.”

Why have Ramm’s ideas been so attractive in so many quarters? It boils down to just three things: attitude, attitude, attitude. He represents a middle course between two unacceptable alternatives: the fundamentalist rejection of so much legitimate science and the modernist rejection of biblical authority. Embracing biblical authority without rejecting modern science, Ramm saw himself as continuing “a noble tradition in Bible and science” coming out of the nineteenth century, “the tradition of the great and learned evangelical Christians who have been patient, genuine, and kind and who have taken great care to learn the facts of science and Scripture.” He lamented that “the noble tradition … has not been the major tradition in evangelicalism in the twentieth century. Both a narrow evangelical Biblicism, and its narrow theology, buried the noble tradition” (quoting the unpaginated preface).

What did Ramm mean by “a noble tradition”? Basically, he meant the concordists. Thus, we find his affirmation that “the fundamental pattern of creation is progressive creation” (fourth printing, 1962, p. 113, his italics). Interestingly, Ramm credited the term “progressive creation” to geologist Edwin K. Gedney of Gordon College, who included a table not entirely unlike Silliman’s in the essay Ramm cited (see below for bibliographic information). Although Silliman is not even mentioned anywhere in Ramm’s book, he presented (as one of several options he did not hold himself) the view held by Silliman, “that the days of Genesis were periods of time representing in brief the geological and biological history of the earth.” Ramm went on to label that view “concordism because it seeks a harmony of the geologic record and the days of Genesis interpreted as long periods of time briefly summarizing geological history.” He also emphasized that progressive creation “is not theistic evolution which calls for creation from within with no acts de novo,” while at the same time he mentioned without condemnation “a sure but slender thread of theistic evolutionists” among evangelicals. Ultimately, Ramm endorsed a theory he called “Pictorial Day and Moderate Concordism,” according to which “creation was revealed in six days, not performed in six days. We believe that the six days are pictorial-revelatory days, not literal days nor age-days. The days are [a] means of communicating to man the great fact that God is Creator, and that He is Creator of all.” (Ramm 1954, 211, 227-28, 284, and 221-22)

Despite its carefully measured analysis, Ramm’s book gave umbrage to a young theology student, John C. Whitcomb, Jr., who soon teamed up with engineer Henry M. Morris to write a famous reply to Ramm, The Genesis Flood (1961), effectively launching the modern creationist movement. Far more than most people realize, today’s creationists simply reject the concordist notion that the book of Scripture should be read in light of what we’ve learned from the book of nature.

#Tracking Dinosaurs and Finding God

first dinosaur tracks in north america

“The Moody Foot Mark Quarry, South Hadley [Massachusetts].” This image of the first dinosaur tracks found in North America comes from Edward Hitchcock, Ichnology of New England: A Report on the Sandstone of the Connecticut Valley, Especially its Fossil Footmarks (1858). Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Giant Birds and Dinosaur Footprints

In 1802, a twelve-year-old farm boy named Pliny Moody found an unusual object while plowing a field in South Hadley, Massachusetts—a big, flat stone bearing what appeared to be footprints of large birds, which some are said to have attributed to “Noah’s raven.” For decades they drew no scientific attention, but in 1835 a local stonemason, Dexter Marsh, noticed similar marks on a flag stone he had set aside for use in a sidewalk he was building near his house in nearby Greenfield. Others also saw them, including a physician, James Deane, who wrote to geologist Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College, describing what he called “the tracks of a turkey in relief” (Hitchcock, Reminiscences of Amherst College, cited below, p. 82).

This information had a profound effect on Hitchcock. As he recalled many years later, “No facts in my life are more vividly impressed upon my memory than those relating to the footmarks,” such that “as soon as I saw the specimens, I perceived the phenomena to be worthy of careful research” (Ichnology of New England, cited below, p. 196). Immediately he began studying the rapidly increasing number of samples, leading him to write one of the first scientific papers about what we now realize were dinosaur tracks—although that conclusion was not finally drawn until many years later, and Hitchcock never entirely abandoned his initial opinion that birds had been responsible for making them. Collectively the evidence was astonishing, indicating in some cases the presence of unknown creatures of a very large size. One particular specimen was

“composed of a find blue mud, such as is now common in ponds and estuaries; and where the bird trod upon it, in some cases, it seems that the mud was crowded upwards, forming a ridge around the track in front, several inches in height. Indeed, I hesitate not to say, that the impression made on the mud appears to have been almost as deep, indicating a pressure almost as great, as if an Elephant had passed over it. I could not persuade myself, until the evidence became perfectly irresistible, that I was examining merely the track of a bird” (“Ornithichnology,” cited below, p. 319).

Basically, Hitchcock founded what he often called “ichnology,” or (in his own words) “the science of tracks,” though the term itself was “proposed by Dr. [William] Buckland” (Edward Hitchcock and Charles H. Hitchcock, Elementary Geology, 1863 edition, pp. 243-44). His personal “cabinet” of specimens, many of which he dug out of quarries himself, very favorably impressed Charles Lyell when he visited Hitchcock in 1842. It remains the heart of the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world, at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College.

giant bird tracks or ornithicnites giganteus


This fold-out plate of what Hitchcock called “Ornithicnites giganteus,” or giant stony bird tracks, accompanies Hitchcock’s article from 1836, cited below. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Hitchcock’s Early Life and Education

Hitchcock’s path into science was not straightforward. Like his friend Benjamin Silliman, Hitchcock was the scion of a soldier from the American Revolution, but in his case a poor farmer and hatter rather than a general in the Continental Army. In his twenty-first year, a serious attack of mumps damaged his eyesight permanently, ruining his plan to study astronomy at Harvard and leaving him with a heightened sense of his own mortality that stuck with him for the duration—so much so, that it was said at his death that “throughout his entire public life he preached and taught as a dying man” (from a funeral oration by William S. Tyler, quoted by Robinson, cited below, p. 77). It also brought him into a closer relationship with the Calvinist branch of Congregationalism embraced by his father, instead of the Unitarian branch that the son had explored hitherto. Many years later, he put it in these terms:

“Providence first struck down my ability to study … and thus by cutting off my worldly prospects led me to inquire on what foundation I was building for eternity, and a prayerful study of the inspired volume forced me to give up inch by inch the ground on which I tried to stand and brought me into the belief which became cordial as soon as I understood it, of the plain old-fashioned doctrines of the Puritans” (Reminiscences of Amherst College, p. 283).

Soon he became preceptor of Deerfield Academy, where he had attended himself, despite his lack of college training. Two years later, at age 25, he left that post to study theology at Yale, where he also attended Silliman’s lectures on chemistry and geology, off and on, for several years. His relationship with Silliman actually began while he was still at Deerfield. Sending Silliman a box of minerals he had collected, he solicited help with identifying them. “I promptly complied with the request,” Silliman wrote more than forty years later, “and as the accompanying letter of Mr. Hitchcock was written with modest good sense, and indicated a love of knowledge, I invited him to send me another box…” Hitchcock accepted Silliman’s invitation to visit New Haven, “and for a series of years he was often here, and attended all of the courses of lectures with more or less of regularity” (Life of Benjamin Silliman, cited below, vol. 1, p. 302).

edward hitchcock congregationalist pastor

President Edward Hitchcock Returning from a Journey (ca. 1838)Oil on canvas attributed to Robert Peckham. Collection of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. Gift of Lucy and Caroline Hitchcock. P.1940.1. Reproduced with permission of Amherst College; image source.

Although he was ordained a Congregationalist pastor in 1821, ill health forced his church in Conway, Massachusetts, to dismiss him four years later. After further study with Silliman, he was appointed Professor of Chemistry and Natural History—a standard combination then—at Amherst College. Twenty years later in 1845, he was named President and Professor of Natural Theology and Geology. The change in titles indicates the importance of Christianity both to the man and to the institution that placed him at the reigns.

Among his many other accomplishments, Hitchcock served as official geologist for the states of Massachusetts (writing the first such report to be published anywhere in the nation) and Vermont, was the first president of the Association of American Geologists (which gave birth to the AAAS), and was voted a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences two years before his death. He also wrote Elementary Geology (1840), an enormously successful textbook that replaced Silliman’s editions of Bakewell’s British book and was still in print as late as 1879. It contained a full chapter about the connections between geology and Christian beliefs that will be discussed in subsequent columns. An outspoken advocate of higher education for women, he admired Mary Somerville and wrote a laudatory book about Mary Lyon, the founder of nearby Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), where he often lectured to the students.

At the height of his career in 1851, Hitchcock published The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences, his most complete statement of natural theology–the subject closest to his heart. The following passage gives a vivid sense of his paean to God the Creator:

“No one can examine existing nature without being convinced that all its parts and operations belong to one great system. Geology makes other economies of wide extent to pass before us, opening a vista indefinitely backward into the hoary past; and it is gratifying to witness that same unity of design pervading all preceding periods of the world’s history, linking the whole into one mighty scheme, worthy its infinite Contriver.

“How much, also, does this science enlarge our conceptions of the plans and operations of Jehovah! We had been accustomed to limit our views of the creative agency of God to the few thousand years of man’s existence, and to anticipate the destruction of the material universe in a few thousand years more. But geology makes the period of man’s existence on the globe only one short link of a chain of revolutions which preceded his existence, and which reaches forward immeasurably far into the future. We see the same matter in the hands of infinite wisdom, and by means of the great conservative principle of chemical change, passing through a multitude of stupendous revolutions, sustaining countless and varied forms of organic life, and presenting an almost illimitable panorama of the plans of an infinite God” (pp. 482-83).

the religion of geology

The Religion of Geology (1851) was published simultaneously in Boston (title page shown here), London, and Glasgow, and reprinted many times—solid evidence of his trans-Atlantic reputation. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

The Situation Today

As the passage just quoted indicates, Hitchcock combined a full acceptance of an ancient Earth with a rich view of divine creative activity. Indeed, his extensive comments about miracles, natural law, and divine action—influenced by relatively recent ideas from across the pond by Hugh MillerWilliam Whewell, and Charles Babbage, are learned, cautious, and still worthy of study today. Hitchcock understood all too well how important his larger subject was—and remains now. In the preface to the same book, he spelled out a remarkable, prophetic vision for the future of Christian education: given the use of science by skeptics as “batteries erected with which to assail spiritual religion,” will the Christian minister, only “slightly familiar with the ground chosen by the enemy be able not only to silence his guns, but, as every able defender of the truth ought to do, to turn them against its foes?” Surely, he added, the church “needs a professor of natural theology in our theological seminaries, (and if such chairs existed in our colleges they would be serviceable,) to teach those who expect to be officers in the sacramental host how to carry on the holy war.”

According to an anonymous reviewer in The Bibliotheca Sacra, then as now a bastion of conservative evangelicalism, it was just this passage that “led the Rev. Dr. Lyon, of Columbus, Mississippi, to make efforts to have one [professorship] endowed at Columbia, South Carolina.” This was none other than the Perkins Professorship that Monte Hampton told us about not long ago—a professorship that no longer exists. “We hope the example may be followed by other liberal minded men of means,” the reviewer added, “until all our theological seminaries are supplied with such professorships.” (“The Religion of Geology,” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 17, Oct 1860, p. 676) If only things had turned out that way! More than a century and a half later, endowed chairs devoted to science and religion (let alone natural theology), either at seminaries or Christian colleges, are still thin on the ground.

Perhaps predictably, The Religion of Geology drew some polarized responses, reminding us yet again that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Hitchcock spoke bluntly about this in a separate preface he wrote for a new edition issued by his London publisher (and simultaneously in America) in 1859. Noting that reviews of his book “have been, for the most part, commendatory,” and that “its steady sale from year to year, shows that the subjects have a deep hold upon the community,” Hitchcock mentioned that some writers had given it “harsher and severer treatment.” On the one hand—contrary to what he had apparently been led to expect—“the Infidel and the Atheist” had rejected his views “with loathing and abhorrence.” At the same time, he had also “been attacked from an opposite quarter; by men, so far as I know, of sincere piety, who are warmly attached to the Bible, and are fully convinced that geology is one of its most deadly enemies, whose claims should be resisted and put down…” On the whole, he concluded,

“The Infidel rages furiously because I have endeavoured to make geology sustain and illustrate revelation; but my Christian friend declares my book to be thoroughly Infidel. One of the parties must surely be mistaken in its bearings. Till they can settle that question, I think I may rest quietly. Like an acid and an alkali in chemistry, the two attacks neutralise each other, and leave me unharmed.”

Sitting in my comfortable office, overlooking a quiet campus about to be inundated with eager seekers for truth (and others), I can almost hear the same voices amidst the silence in which I have been resting so quietly.

That’s exactly why BioLogos exists, but you probably knew that already.

#The Religion of Geology: Edward Hitchcock on Natural Theology

section of the earth's crust lithograph

This hand-colored lithograph, showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust,” was the frontispiece in Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). 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] ChalmersDr. [John] Pye SmithDr. [William] BucklandDr. [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

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).

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.”

elementary geology edward hitchcock

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

Orra White HitchcockConfluence of Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers (1833). Copyright: public domain. Courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts (image source). 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?

#Creation and Evolution Before the Civil War

paleontological chart

This hand-colored, foldout paleontological chart was bound opposite the title page in every edition of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology published before 1860. Courtesy of the Historic Maps Collection, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey (image source).

The Bible Confronts Deep Time

Like his mentor Benjamin Silliman, Edward Hitchcock fully accepted “deep time,” the notion that animal and vegetable life existed on the earth for an enormously long period of time before humans arrived. Also like Silliman, he believed that the Bible and geology both taught the separate creation of humans just a few thousand years ago. However, where Silliman endorsed Robert Jameson’s version of what we now call the “day-age” view, Hitchcock preferred what we now call the “gap theory.”

Hitchcock defended his position for about three decades in diverse places, but for a succinct presentation of his views we’ll consult Elementary Geology, the textbook that replaced the book by Robert Bakewell that Silliman had edited for American audiences. The widely circulated eighth edition (1847) has a clear summary of views he’d been advocating since the 1830s (quoting pp. 292-297). Among other ideas, we find these:

  • “Some theological (but no geological) writers maintain, that the fossiliferous rocks were … created at once, with all their organic contents, as we now find them.” While an omnipotent God could do this, it flies in the face of “our only ground for judging as to the cause of any natural changes,” namely analogy with the world as we find it.
  • Others hold “that the fossiliferous rocks were deposited by the deluge of Noah.” After listing several refutations, he just threw up his hands: “An apology is due to the geological reader, for introducing a formal refutation of an hypothesis, which, to him, appears so entirely absurd. The apology consists in the fact, that many intelligent men are still found maintaining this hypothesis.”
  • Some interpret the “days” of Genesis as “periods of indefinite or unequal length,” an idea he connected specifically with Robert Jameson, the Scottish geologist who had so strongly influenced Hitchcock’s mentor, Benjamin Silliman. Hitchcock gave several arguments in support of this view, followed by several opposed to it, most of which would be familiar to someone well versed in the conversation today. In the end, because “animals are found as deep in the rocks as vegetables: nay, in the lowest group, nothing but animals has yet been found,” he concluded that “there is no necessity for an extension of the demiurgic [creation] days into long periods, in order to reconcile [Genesis] with geology.”
  • “The theory of interpretation which is now the most extensively adopted among geologists, supposes that Moses merely states that God created the world in the beginning, without fixing the date of that beginning, … passing in silence [over] an unknown period of its history, during which the extinct animals and plants” existed. Then, Moses described “only the present creation, which took place in six literal days, less than 6000 years ago.” Hitchcock defended this view at length, finding it “sufficient entirely to reconcile the scriptural and geological accounts: because, during that period, all the fossiliferous rocks except the alluvial [the top layer], might have been formed.”

Hitchcock’s claim that this last view (now often called the gap theory) was general favored by geologists is very interesting. Unfortunately he didn’t name any geologists in this section, though he mentioned numerous theological proponents. Elsewhere he often cited William Buckland on various points, and Buckland was the leading English geological advocate of the gap view.

president edward hitchcock by William Rohner

This handsome portrait of President Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), by William Rohner (1816-1876), a German artist who was active in United States, was painted around 1840. Oil on canvas. Collection of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. POR.XX.11. Reproduced with permission of Amherst College (image source).

“The Great Fact of Man’s Creation”

The first edition of Elementary Geology (1840), and every subsequent edition down to 1859, opens with a large folding plate tucked inside the front cover, preceding the title page and the promotional blurbs (such as those found on the back cover of a paperback book today). This is Hitchcock’s famous paleontological chart (pictured above). It was the first of its kind, linking specific fossils with geological periods in branching trees. The 1,000 species of palms wear a tiara atop the plant kingdom, while “Man” sits atop the mammals, fully crowned king of the whole of nature.

At first glance, a reader today might jump to the conclusion that the trees were intended to imply common ancestry; after all, Charles Darwin had already drawn just such a diagram in one of his notebooks less than three years earlier, and a branching pattern has since quite properly been associated with Darwin’s conception of biological genealogy. In fact, Hitchcock denied common ancestry throughout his life. Consistent with this, as evolutionary biologist J. David Archibald has noted (cited below), the chart vanished from his textbook right after Darwin’s theory was published, perhaps to avoid creating the false impression that he accepted evolution.

Why did Hitchcock reject evolution? He did not find the scientific evidence compelling, while he did find a naturalistic explanation for the origin of species theologically dangerous. In other words, he responded to evolution no differently than many Christians today.

To understand his position more fully, I’ll turn to the address he delivered at his inauguration as president of Amherst College in 1845—the same year in which the first American edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation came off the press in New York. Anonymously published the previous year in London and Edinburgh by the amateur Scottish naturalist Robert Chambers (whose identity was not officially revealed until after his death), Vestiges offered an early, very crude form of theistic evolution, in which the law of “development” rules biology, analogous to the way in which gravitation governs the physical world. Ultimately, Chambers thought, behind both laws lay just “one still more comprehensive law, the expression of that unity which man’s wit can scarcely separate from Deity itself” (Vestiges, 1844, p. 360).

Chambers’ book was controversial from the start. Though quite popular with the Victorian public, especially with women (an audience for whom Chambers’ publishing house produced large quantities of literature), Darwin and many other scientists disdained its wildly speculative conclusions, while Christian reviewers often saw it as thinly veiled irreligion. In the United States, perhaps the most strident condemnation came from a leading biblical scholar, Tayler Lewis of the University of New-York (now NYU). Writing anonymously in The American Whig Review in May 1845, he put it as bluntly as he could: “The doctrine of the book is atheism,–blank atheism, cold, cheerless, heartless, atheism.” Although the author hadn’t expressly denied God’s existence—rather, he “seems to acknowledge such a power in every chapter”—his God “is the hearer of no prayer; he is the administrator of no particular providence,” and he is the basis for no morality. “This deity never wrought a miracle, never created a world in time by any special act aside from necessarily eternal influences, never was the author of any new state of things, …[and] never originated a new and distinct species of animals…” (p. 527)

Hitchcock was slightly less antagonistic, but only slightly. Vestiges showed “that a long drawn contest is yet before naturalists on these subjects, ere these fancies shall be forced into that extramundane receptacle of things abortive and unaccomplished, described by [John] Milton as ‘a limbo large and wide,’ on the back side of the moon.” Nevertheless, even if “these hypotheses should be established, an intelligent, spiritual, infinite Deity,” is still “necessary to account for existing nature,” for “infinite wisdom, power, and benevolence” are demanded by the author of Vestiges “even more imperatively” than they are demanded by “the common theories of creation.” Therefore, Hitchcock rejected the hypotheses of development “more because they have no solid evidence in their favor, than because I fear they will ultimately be of much injury to religion…” (The Highest Use of Learning, cited below, p. 31)

As we saw earlier, Hitchcock was fully convinced that all life forms “must have resulted from the creative agency of the Supreme Being,” because “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.” (Elementary Geology, p. 284) That would be his position always. The special creation of humans was even more special, and absolutely crucial for his natural theology. Nine years later, he had this to say about it:

“Admit, if you choose, that all other events on the globe, even the creation of all other organic beings, might have been by ordinary laws; yet, so long as the great fact of man’s creation stands out so conspicuously on our world’s history, we need nothing more to establish, beyond cavil, the reality of Divine interposition in nature. God has impressed his own signet so deeply upon this last act of creation, that scepticism dare not directly attempt to deface it. And this grandest miracle of nature is also the greatest of revelation. It stands up a lofty and immovable rock amid the ocean of existence, to arrest and beat back the waves of unbelief and to reflect the glories of Divine power and wisdom” (“Special Divine Interpositions in Nature,” cited below, pp. 793-94).

As this passage shows, pre-Darwinian Christians invested such tremendous theological significance in the special creation of humans that they just couldn’t come to terms with Darwin after 1859, without jettisoning almost everything they believed about God. Exactly the same thing can be said about many Christians today: this is why BioLogos exists.

I don’t mean to imply that religious opposition was the sole reason, or even necessarily the main reason, why someone like Hitchcock opposed “development.” It was certainly a very big reason in Hitchcock’s case, but we need to keep in mind a few things. First, as stated above, the ideas presented in Vestiges “have no solid evidence in their favor,” an assessment that Darwin and his circle shared. In hindsight—an advantage we have over Hitchcock, who died just five years after Darwin’s book came out—a lot of highly accomplished scientists found evolution very hard to accept, even after Darwin had mustered considerable observational evidence supporting it, let alone several years earlier. Darwin and his professional colleagues found Vestiges unfortunate (because it misled the lay public) and wholly unconvincing. As Michael Ruse has quite accurately said, “It is difficult to choose from among the many offerings the most memorable phrases hurled against Chambers” by scientists (The Darwinian Revolution, p. 106). He goes on to mention highly critical reviews by Darwin’s close friend Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s undergraduate mentor Adam Sedgwick, the distinguished physicist David Brewster, and the Scottish evangelical geologist Hugh Miller, whose work Hitchcock appreciated. Of that eminent group, only Huxley later accepted Darwin’s theory.

thomas kuhn the structure of scientific revolutions

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was originally published as part of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, an unfinished collection of writings related to logical positivism. Photograph courtesy of Darin Hayton (image source).

In general, many of the best scientists of Hitchcock’s generation rejected any theory of evolution, whether the author’s name was Lamarck, or Chambers, or Darwin. It’s not a simple matter to change one’s fundamental viewpoint, let alone to do so overnight. Thomas Kuhn, perhaps the most original thinker my academic discipline has ever produced, underscored this very point in his brilliant book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Describing scientists working within competing “paradigms” (his term for fundamentally different ways of looking at reality), Kuhn puts it like this: “Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction.” Kuhn went on to quote a passage from the end of On the Origin of Specieswhere Darwin said,

“Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume …, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. … [B]ut I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.” (pp. 150-51 in the third edition of Kuhn, quoting p. 481 in Darwin)

Darwin’s description of the “experienced naturalist” in the first sentence fit Hitchcock to a “tee,” right down to the last word. We mustn’t be too hard on him.

The Situation Today: Near Extinction

Edward Hitchcock died in 1864, but his favored interpretation of Genesis (the gap theory) together with his forthright defense of “the great fact of man’s creation” inspired conservative Protestants right down to the 1960s. At that point, proponents of the YEC interpretation made a concerted, largely successful effort to drive the gap theory out of existence—a goal they shared, rather ironically, with their arch-nemesis Bernard Ramm, who regarded it almost as a false god, blindly worshipped by the “hyper-orthodox,” who were sore afraid that any other way of reading Genesis would lead straight to infidelity.

genesis and scofield gap theory

The opening page of Genesis, from a mid-century reprint of the “new and improved” 1917 edition of the Scofield Bible. Scofield explicitly dated the original creation to “the dateless past,” just as Hitchcock had done, an exegetical move which “gives scope for all the geologic ages” to precede the creative activities of the six “days.” Nevertheless, Scofield allowed the possibility that the creation “days” were indefinite periods of time. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Hitchcock’s presentation of the gap theory is pretty much limited to Genesis One. Later proponents often appealed to certain prophetic texts to fill deep time with the fall of Satan and the angels, creating a whole new story of creation and fall long before the Fall of Adam and Eve. This glorified version, often called the “ruin-restitution” view, later became the standard interpretation of early Genesis among the fundamentalists—by which time not one scientist of Hitchcock’s stature still defended even Hitchcock’s less speculative version. It was unreservedly taught by the Scofield Reference Bible, which was very widely used by Anglo-American Protestants (including charismatics) for much of the last century, especially at Bible institutes but also at many seminaries and Christian colleges.

At Wheaton, the flagship evangelical college, chemist L. Allen Higley made the gap theory effectively the only curricular option, so much so that he had to resign his position after being exposed as the author of anonymous letters to the trustees, in which he charged the college’s president with heresy for advocating the day-age view. In a book published the following year, Science and Truth (1940), a work of learned ignorance that is still somehow in print, Higley announced that he had written it “to disprove evolution and many other false speculations,” notably including “the speculation that the days of Genesis are æons of geological time.” Like Hitchcock, he promoted the gap view instead of “six literal days,” because of abundant “evidence showing that the history of the earth has extended over a very long time” (pp. 6, 181, and 173). Unlike Hitchcock, he hoisted his flag on ideas that were almost a century out of date. All too often, that’s just what American Protestants have done: keep saying the same things that their parents and grandparents said, regardless of the progress of science.

#The Sting of Death in Edward Hitchcock’s Life

the return edward hitchcock

“The Return,” lithographed frontispiece to A Wreath for the Tomb (1839), with Orra Hitchcock and all six of their surviving children lined up to receive him. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

As I noted before, ever since recovering from a dangerous encounter with the mumps in his twenty-first year, Hitchcock lived in constant awareness of his own mortality, and that of everyone else.  For many of us in the Western world today, with mostly stable governments and the widespread availability of modern medicine, death is not our first thought upon rising each morning.  A very different world it was then.  Death and disease were ubiquitous, even in devotional literature, which scientists often read and sometimes wrote themselves.  Hitchcock was no exception.

In March 1824, after just three years of marriage, Hitchcock and his dear wife Orra lost their first child, just shy of his second birthday.  Here is how he broke the terrible news to his mentor, Benjamin Silliman:

“It becomes painfully necessary for me to begin this letter by informing you that it has pleased the Most High after a very distressing sickness of fourteen days to remove from us our dear & only son.  We yesterday committed his remains to their cold bed where they must sleep till the resurrection and although we hope that we bow submissively to the kind hand that has connected us yet as you well know from repeated experience the heart must bleed for a season…  We ask sincerely and earnestly also that we may have an interest in your prayers that the good intended by God to be effected [sic] by this affliction may not be lost.”

As implied by Hitchcock’s allusion to “repeated experience,” Silliman had also lost children—his firstborn son (like Hitchcock) and three others.  Ever mindful of the justice and inscrutability of the sovereign God, Silliman did his best to comfort his fellow sufferer and believer in a heartfelt reply:

“I most cordially and feelingly condole with you on the late afflicted bereavement in your family.  I know indeed, from early experience every pang you have suffered…   The death of infants & of other very young children is always attended (in my view) with so much consolation, that I can look upon the calm, sweet expression of their little bodies sleeping in death (now excepting even my own children) with a degree of pleasure which has little alloy.  For I consider the declarations of our Saviour, as deciding the point that his sacrifice will cancel their original taint, and neither scripture nor reason will justify us in believing that there will hereafter be a penal retribution awarded to any thing but actual transgression.

“The death of half mankind within the age to which I allude, I consider as evincive of the mercy of God to our fallen world, in removing so large a part of its population, before they have become, in any responsible sense, moral agents.”

Grim reflections on hard facts: there are no easy answers here.  

Sickness, Divine Action, and the God of the Gaps

Fifteen years later, in the winter of 1838-39, “after a season of unusual sickness” at Amherst College, Hitchcock delivered a 35-page “Sermon on the Lessons Taught by Sickness” to the students, reflecting on a text from Psalm 119 (“It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes”).  Listen carefully to the pious scientist, himself a survivor of serious illness, deep in thought.

“Now I would not be thought to deny that sickness is always an act of God’s Providence and in strict accordance with his sovereign will.  But I maintain that in general, He exercises that Providence and that sovereignty, as he does in respect to almost everything else, according to fixed laws: so that when disease assails us, we may be sure that there is a natural cause for it.  God has ordained certain statutes which must be observed or health cannot be maintained.”

Wholly unable to bar his analytical mind from coming through the door into his soul, he urged the student body to care more carefully for their bodies, for “a large proportion of our sicknesses are the result of criminal negligence or temerity.  But so long as we can make ourselves believe that they are brought upon us by fate, or chance, or the Providence of God acting without law, we shall be insensible to the personal guilt that attaches to us.”  With great prescience, Hitchcock went on to decry what would later be called the “god of the gaps,” the belief that divine agency can be assigned only to things that cannot be explained in some other way.

“It was reserved for the speculative spirit of modern times, to draw a broad line of distinction between miraculous and common agency, and then to make the inference, as unphilosophical [i.e., unscientific] as it is hostile to vital piety—that God does not really bring about any events that are not miraculous; but that all others are to be regarded only as the result of the laws of nature.  Much of the unholy leaven of this false principle deeply affects the experience of most Christians.  A good cure for it is to be thrown helpless upon the bed of sickness.  If a man is not then brought to feel himself absolutely at God’s disposal, he never will feel it.”  (A Wreath for the Tomb, pp. 78-79 and 82)

No easy answers here, either, but Hitchcock didn’t flinch from facing the implications of his Calvinist theology, leavened with a full measure of Christian devotion.  

I close with an aphorism from one of Hitchcock’s favorite authors, the seventeenth-century English cleric Jeremy Taylor: “He that would die well must always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave; and then the gates of the grave shall never prevail upon him to do mischief” (The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, chapter 2, section 1).

#Death Before the Fall: Was God Surprised by Adam’s Sin?

tiger buffalo battle

Henri RousseauIn a Tropical Forest: Combat of a Tiger and a Buffalo (1908-1909), Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Image source).

Previous sections have dealt with Edward Hitchcock’s work with fossil footprints and how geology influenced his approaches to natural theology and the interpretation of Genesis. We saw how he understood suffering and death in the human world, in light of his high view of divine sovereignty. Now, in the final section devoted to Hitchcock, we see how he dealt with animal death, specifically how he handled the implications of an ancient earth for theodicy: what if animals died before the first sin?

The title is taken directly from the first edition of Edward Hitchcock’s textbook, Elementary Geology (1840), where it was printed across the top of the page in the section devoted to theodicy, the problem of how a good and powerful God could have created a world replete with suffering and death. When the early natural historians accepted the earth’s great antiquity, they necessarily admitted “that violent and painful death was in the world [among animals] before the fall of man,” as Hitchcock bluntly put it (p. 274). The identical phrase (“death before the fall”) was used at least once in the eighteenth century, but it came into general use only about the time his textbook appeared. The English divine John Pye-Smith used it as a header in a book published the same year, On the Relation between the Holy Scriptures and Some of Geological Science (1840), and the previous year it had appeared in a discussion of theodicy in a magazine, The Christian Observer. Used continuously since then, the terminology is now commonplace in Christian books about origins—indicating that no one solution has been found fully satisfactory.

Hitchock Elementary Geology

Photograph of a page from Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology (1840), by Edward B. Davis.

Animal Suffering before the Fall

Hitchcock brought the full weight of his Calvinist theology to bear on the problem of animal suffering. At that time, animal suffering and death was generally thought to result from the disobedience of Adam and Eve—the very view upheld by creationists today. However, according to a detailed study by physician and theology student Jon Garvey, that view had actually been rejected by most theologians prior to the Reformation, including the monumentally important Augustine (especially in The City of God, book 12, chap 4) and Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, Part 1, question 96, article 1, Reply to Objection 2). On the other hand, for reasons that are not entirely clear, it became the standard Protestant view during and after the Reformation, such that Martin Luther and John Calvin found it in Genesis 3:17-18, and John Wesley endorsed it in a sermon, “The General Deliverance.”

Thus, Hitchcock faced a dilemma, since geological evidence appeared to contradict “the general interpretation of the Bible.” Surprisingly, the “plausible reconciliation” he proposed did not challenge the traditional link between human sin and animal suffering. Instead, he found what he needed in a core component of Calvinism: divine foreknowledge. Hitchcock held that God foresaw the Fall and planned accordingly before creating the world. He developed this view for the first time in the eighth (1847) edition of Elementary Geology (quoting here and below from pp. 299-301), at that point the most widely used geology textbook in the United States.

Let’s see how he came to this conclusion. First, he stressed the plain biological facts:

“Not only geology, but [also] zoology and comparative anatomy, teach us that death among the inferior animals did not result from the fall of man, but from the original constitution given them by their Creator. One large class of animals, the carnivores, have organs expressly intended for destroying other classes for food.”

Furthermore, leaving aside carnivorous activity, all livings things, both vegetable and animal, were subject to “decay and dissolution” in the end; nothing lives forever. Even if that were not so, some animals would still be killed from falling bodies and other accidents. “In short, death could not be excluded from the world, without an entire change in the constitution and course of nature; and such a change we have no reason to suppose, from the Mosaic account [Genesis], took place when man fell.”

Next, he offered an incisive argument from Scripture. When God threatened Adam and Eve with death for disobedience, the Bible “seems to imply a knowledge on his part, of what death was, that is, that he had seen it among the inferior animals: for it would be a strange legislation, that imposed a penalty of which those under the law could form no idea.” He also dealt with the two biblical texts that he saw as most pertinent to the received view, Rom. 5:12 and 1 Cor. 15:21. The first text could not be used to support that view; it showed “not that death passed upon all animals, but upon all men; and because all had sinned, an act of which the inferior animals, destitute of moral natures, are not capable.” As for the second text, it “is limited to the human race” by its reference to the resurrection of the dead. In addition, it “draw[s] a contrast between Adam and Christ, as to their influence upon the human family. If the inferior animals are included, then they must not only share in the resurrection, but be interested in the redemption by Christ.” He didn’t take that thought any further, presumably because he considered it absurd.

Ronald E Osborn death before the fall

Hitchcock would instantly recognize the title of this important new book by the Seventh-day Adventist scholar Ronald E. Osborn. Jim Stump also interviewed Dr. Osborn for BioLogos.

Finally, Hitchcock stated the position “that seems most satisfactorily to explain this subject,” namely, “that God, in view of the certainty of man’s transgressions, adapted the world beforehand to a fallen creature, who must die. … Death, then, was introduced into the world as a prospective result of man’s apostasy,” a view that still “falls in with the common opinion … that all the misery, disorder, and suffering, of the present world, are the fruit of human transgressions.” In other words, God had foreseen the fall and planned accordingly, creating a world in which animal death preceded the fall chronologically, but not theologically—if God in his foreknowledge had known that Adam and Eve would not sin, the creation would have been different.

To the best of my knowledge, Hitchcock formulated this novel solution himself. He liberally cites others throughout the book, but not a single citation accompanies the relevant paragraph. (It has also been credited to John Jay Dana, minister of the Congregationalist Church at Canaan Four Corners, who wrote a highly favorable review of The Religion of Geology in 1853. In fact Hitchcock influenced Dana, not vice versa.) Regardless of where the idea came from, he had done his best to find a new solution to the problem of animal suffering, in light of the way the world is. Ultimately, he realized that are no easy answers to questions in theodicy. A few pages before the discussion of death before the fall, the presence of volcanic activity on the earth is offered as one of “many peculiar proofs of the benevolence of the Deity,” because it allows the internal heat of the earth to vent less violently while forming the continents and valleys where many creatures thrive. He then stated an obvious objection: couldn’t a good and powerful God “secure to his creatures the benefits which result from volcanic agency, without the attendant evils, such as the destruction of property and life?” The answer is crucial for understanding not only Hitchcock, but also the whole enterprise of doing natural theology—even when God is spoken of only as an “intelligent designer.” This is what he said:

“This is a question that meets the student of natural theology at almost every step of his progress: for we find almost universally, that evils are incident to operations whose natural tendency and general effect are beneficial. Probably it is so, because a greater amount of good can thereby be secured in the end. But the existence of evil is one of those difficult subjects whose complete elucidation ought not be expected in this world.” (Elementary Geology, 1847 edition, pp. 285 and 287)

answers in genesis perfect world

Dembski’s book, The End of Christianityis seen by Ken Ham as an example of “the outrageous lengths some Christian academics will go to try to compromise billions of years with the Scriptures, and yet try to keep their belief in a literal Adam and Eve and the original sin!” According to this cartoon from Answers In Genesis (image source), accepting “millions of years” in earth history before the garden of Eden means that God did not create a “very good” world—although Eve’s statement (in the cartoon) that it was a “perfect world” certainly goes beyond the biblical text.

The Situation Today: Hitchcock Redux

As far as I can tell, Hitchcock’s specific solution was not widely adopted, but from his day forward many conservative Protestant writers accepted an ancient earth and the consequent idea of animal death before the fall. Just a few years ago, however, William Dembski enlisted both Hitchcock and Dana as precursors of his own very similar view, which he presented in a highly original book, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (2009). Stepping away from his usual ID garb to don the mantle of the old-earth creationist, Dembski writes about the Bible, theology, and the problem of evil. Although his own detailed summary of the book mentions only Dana, his deep sympathy for someone like Hitchcock is still evident. Like Hitchcock, Dembski is keenly aware of the magnitude of the problem, for someone who is (like Hitchcock) “a biblical inerrantist, accepting the full verbal inspiration of the Bible and the conventional authorship of the books of the Bible.” He sees things exactly as Hitchcock saw them: “I would be a young-earth creationist in a heartbeat purely on exegetical and historical grounds. And yet the evidence of modern science seems greatly at odds with young-earth creationism.” Ultimately, then, he lands precisely where Hitchcock landed, proclaiming that “the Bible must be read in the context of a total worldview, which invariably incorporates our current understanding of science” (quoting Dembski’s summary).

Welcome to the twenty-first century, Mr. Hitchcock. So glad to see that you’re still with us.

#Choking on Bacon: Challenges to Concordism from Clerics and Skeptics

edward hitchcock by lemuel s punderson

This engraving of Edward Hitchcock by Lemuel S. Punderson, based on a daguerreotype photograph, was the frontispiece for the Annual of Scientific Discovery. ed. David A. Wells. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

We have reached the final section in our series about American religion and science from Cotton Mather to the Civil War. As we have seen, American thinking in that period was substantially informed by the notion that God has written two “books,” nature and Scripture, which ought to be read together and ultimately must agree. That idea is often called “concordism,” because it seeks a harmony or concord between science and the Bible. Historically the idea has many roots, none more important than the great English philosopher Francis Bacon. In his enormously influential book, The Advancement of Learning (1605), Bacon urged readers to strive for “an endless progress or proficience” in reading both “the book of God’s word, [and] the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy.”

That’s exactly what many Americans did, in the two and one-half centuries between Bacon and the Civil War: they read both books together, harmoniously, having Bacon for breakfast. But, not all Americans ate that meal so readily; some just choked on Bacon. Today the series ends with short studies of three critics of Bacon’s American followers. I conclude with a glimpse of what happened to that approach in subsequent centuries.

Skeptic vs. Believer: Thomas Cooper vs Benjamin Silliman

thomas cooper by asher brown durand

Thomas Cooper M.D, engraved by Asher Brown Durand (1829) from a painting by Charles C. Ingham. A friend of Joseph Priestley and Thomas Jefferson, Cooper severely criticized Christianity and the Bible. (image source)

Perhaps the most strident critic of Benjamin Silliman’s idea that the book of nature harmonizes with the book of Scripture was Thomas Cooper, an English immigrant and curmudgeon whom historian Monte Hampton has called a “notorious infidel.” A man of wide learning with radical political views, Cooper left England under a cloud in 1794 and took up residence near Joseph Priestley—another political refugee—in Northumberland, Pennsylvania—only to be convicted of violating the Sedition Act for writing a libelous pamphlet about President John Adams.

Later, he taught chemistry at Dickinson College (which still owns some of his equipment), the University of Pennsylvania, and finally at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he soon became president. As an outspoken religious sceptic, however, he courted controversy by forbidding the teaching of theology and by attacking the veracity of Genesis in his geology lectures. Ultimately he made himself persona non grata, forcing the university to release him.

When Silliman published his geology lectures for the first time in 1829, he argued that “geology fully confirms the scripture history” of Noah’s flood (“Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College,” appended to Robert Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology, p. 7). Cooper replied in an open letter addressed to Silliman, stating baldly that Silliman’s syllabus contained “positions which no well informed Geologist of Europe or this country, would now sanction, and which no well informed Theologian, of the present day, would venture to support.” Furthermore, there was “hardly a single Divine of reputation in Europe, who now believes that the book of Genesis, as we possess it, was written by Moses, or by any one else, under divine inspiration” (On the Connection Between Geology and the Pentateuch, 1837, p. 5). As far as Cooper was concerned, there was no geological evidence for the biblical flood, and we had no reason to believe that Moses had written the Pentateuch, so we should not believe the flood story on his authority. So much for Silliman’s efforts to relate two divinely authored books.

Biblical Scholars vs. Scientists: Moses Stuart vs. Silliman and Hitchcock

Some biblical scholars were no less critical of Silliman, but for very different reasons. Moses Stuart is a prime example. The son of Connecticut farmers, Stuart was converted to evangelical Christianity while serving as a tutor at Yale, during a revival under president Timothy Dwight. Like his friend Silliman, Stuart then abandoned his plans to practice law. Instead, he prepared for the ministry, partly by working directly with Dwight and partly through ongoing self-study of biblical languages, at a time when almost no American-born scholars could read Hebrew fluently. His reputation as an evangelical preacher in New Haven and his involvement in the Second Great Awakening led Andover Seminary (now Andover Newton Theological School), newly established to combat the growing influence of Unitarianism, to appoint him professor of sacred literature in 1810. In 1821 he self-published the first American Hebrew grammar, having bought the fonts and equipment since no one else had the competence to set the pages in type.

moses stuart by thomas buchanan read

Reverend Moses Stuart (1780-1852), B.A. 1799, M.A. 1802, painted by poet and artist Thomas Buchanan Read (ca. 1841-1846), Yale University Art Gallery, Bequest of Sarah S. Robbins (Mrs. R. D. C. Robbins) to the Divinity School, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

Having taught himself scholarly German by reading the works of theologian Johann Eichhorn, an author whom Cooper would later cite against Silliman, Stuart became an early American proponent of German biblical criticism—which he used to defend, rather than to attack, orthodox theology. Theologically, he accepted Nathan Taylor’s view that Adam’s sin was not imputed to his descendants; all have sinned, but by their own free choices, not by the inheritance of original sin. The famous evangelist Charles Grandison Finney and the abolitionist author of very popular biblical commentaries, Albert Barnes, were similarly influenced by Taylor.

Stuart had already objected privately to Silliman’s concordism, but he first publicly voiced his arguments in his Hebrew Chrestomathy (1829). He found Silliman’s day-age view unacceptable in principle, since “to violate the laws of exegesis in order to accommodate a geological theory … is not acting in accordance with the precepts of Scriptural Hermeneutics.” He also objected to Silliman’s progressive creationist interpretation of Genesis, according to which God had created slowly, through geologic ages. Why couldn’t God have created things “in an incipient state merely? Were only acorns made at first instead of oaks? And was man an infant, when first formed from the hands of his creator?” Deeply skeptical of the scientists, Stuart said, “they will deserve more serious consideration, when any two responsible authors among them ever come to agree with each other, and when the earth shall have been penetrated and examined, a little more than an eighth thousandth part of its diameter.” (p. 118)

Stuart went after Edward Hitchcock’s gap theory a few years later, in an article called “Critical Examination of Some Passages in Gen. 1” (cited below). After rejecting Hitchcock’s interpretation, Stuart couldn’t resist taking another shot at the geologists: “The digging of rocks and the digging of Hebrew roots are not as yet precisely the same operation, and are not likely soon to be so” (p. 103).

Biblical Scholars vs Scientists: Tayler Lewis Vs Concordism

Two decades later, Union College classicist Tayler Lewis echoed Stuart’s concerns in The Six Days of Creation (1855). Even though Lewis accepted a carefully articulated version of the day-age view, he still poured contempt on the concordist premise that that Bible should be interpreted in light of science. Scientific theories are not fixed truths, and the Bible should be interpreted on its own terms as a literary text. In a passage obviously reflecting Augustine, he argued that the creation days are “God’s days,” with “morning and evening intervals of His creative periods, as much beyond our diurnal cycles as His ways are above our ways and His thoughts about our thoughts,” and therefore “as measureless in their duration as in their space and power.” As befitted an expert on biblical languages, his goal was only “to set forth the Biblical Idea of Creation, philologically ascertained, or ‘Creation as Revealed,’ in distinction from any scientific or inductive theory of the Earth.” In the end, neither the Bible nor geology could fix the lengths of the creation days. “The geologist thinks he has discovered evidence that they were of vast duration. He talks very flippantly, and very ignorantly, of millions and billions of years” (pp. 100, 1, and 163, his italics).

Ironically, by rejecting the basis of concordism, Lewis and Stuart sound surprisingly modern. Most contemporary biblical scholars would probably agree that the meaning of a biblical text has nothing to do with science, yet they would be much less skeptical of science than Stuart and Lewis.


Notes & References



Table of Contents

So What Is BioLogos?

Well it all began with a scientist and a book. Francis Collins, the physician and geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, wrote the book, The Language of God. In it he describes his own journey from atheism to Christian faith, and the harmony between Christianity and science.

Today, BioLogos continues to carry out the vision of Collins, showing that you don’t have to choose between modern science and biblical faith.

I want to learn more

About the Authors

  • Rick Kennedy

    Rick Kennedy

    Rick Kennedy received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. His books include A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (University of Rochester Press, 2004), Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and University Press of Virginia, 1995), and Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (InterVarsity, 1995).
  • Ted Davis

    Ted Davis

    Ted Davis is 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.