Slavery, Science, and Southern Christians in 19th Century America
Historian and pastor Monte Hampton addresses the topics of slavery, science, race, and evolution as they relate to nineteenth century American Christians.
INTRO BY TED DAVIS: In the spring of 2015, I participated in a terrific little academic conference devoted to “The Idea that Wouldn’t Die: The Warfare between Science and Religion.” The unifying theme was the history and ongoing influence of an old idea that professional historians today have completely rejected—that the whole history of science and religion fits neatly into the single conceptual box of ongoing, inevitable conflict. A few months ago I used some of the information in Larry Principe’s superb paper about “The Birth of the Warfare Thesis” (with his kind permission) to debunk Cornelius Hunter’s ungrounded charge that BioLogos promotes the mythical “warfare” view.
Most of the other conference papers were also first rate, including a study of science and religion in Southern states prior to and during the Civil War, written by Monte Harrell Hampton who earned a PhD in history under Donald G. Mathews at the University of North Carolina. An expert on American religion and science, history of the American South, and the interaction between culture and biblical hermeneutics, Hampton is a Teaching Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University and pastor of a church near Raleigh.
I didn’t know about Monte’s work prior to seeing the conference schedule. However, as soon as I saw the information about his paper, I made contact, since we share a keen interest in the topic of my current series on antebellum religion and science. He very kindly sent me a copy of his important new scholarly book, Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era South (University of Alabama Press, 2014), which I recommend to anyone with a serious interest in that subject. Pete Enns’ interview with the author is quite informative. After reading much of it with appreciation, I invited him to write some columns based on the book, as a supplement to my series. We’re delighted that he agreed to send us this essay.
The Messy Particularities of History
As Ted Davis’ previous writings have shown, antebellum Americans generally expected God’s twin revelations, nature and Scripture, to be in concord. Employing Francis Bacon’s metaphor, nineteenth century Christians of numerous persuasions affirmed the ultimate affinity of God’s “two books.” From the perspective of many in our time, what may stand out about nineteenth century discourse on science and religion is how widespread and uncontested such affirmations were. Through much of the century, most believed science and religion to be at peace, not war. This is not to say, however, that all conceived of the relationship between science and religion in the same way, or that particular conceptions of their relationship were not contested. While most affirmed the harmony of science and religion in the abstract, on the ground the work of actually fleshing out the dimensions of their relationship resulted in interesting, important divergences. Views of the precise nature of that alliance—and the proper role of each ally—varied according to theological heritage, cultural norms, social concerns, and political dynamics. In other words, in conceiving of the relationship of science and religion, the particularities of history matter.
This is especially evident in the case of the Southern Presbyterians in the nineteenth century. This religious community, populated with influential figures like James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin M. Palmer, Robert L. Dabney, and John Girardeau, provides an excellent case study in the ways that historical situations may shape thinking about science and Scripture. Few religious communities were more conversant in contemporary scientific developments and sought as diligently to relate them to Scripture as did Southern Presbyterians. Firmly committed to an infallible Bible, they sought to demonstrate the Bible’s cogency vis-à-vis leading contemporary ideas, such as those advanced in the writings of leading men of science like Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, or Charles Darwin. Yet, these southern Christians hardly engaged contemporary science in a social, cultural, or political vacuum. Serving churches full of elite white southerners, they were committed to the ethos of the antebellum South, and many of them produced defenses of slavery, which they believed to be a biblically ordained social system. In a fast-day sermon preached during the sectional crisis of late 1860, James Henley Thornwell of Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina proclaimed matter-of-factly “that the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, [is a proposition that] we have long since settled” (“Our National Sins,” cited below). In a parallel sermon from New Orleans, Benjamin M. Palmer pronounced the institution of slavery to be the South’s “divine trust” (cited below).
Defending Biblical Civilization from Infidels and Abolitionists
Though few southern Christians could agree with their northern counterparts, who increasingly questioned the biblical basis of their “peculiar institution,” these Southern Presbyterians agreed with them in affirming the harmony between science and religion. Thornwell, for instance, believed nature to be “an august temple of the Most High,” and expressed the oft-repeated confidence that “religion can be reconciled with science upon a safer and easier plan that the sacrifice of either” (“The Being of God,” cited below). This conviction, dating back to the venerated Francis Bacon and beyond, held that true science and sound theology could never be at odds, since the subject matter of both had originated in the same divine mind. Difficulties owed more to the human study of nature (science) and/or Scripture (theology) than with the subject per se. Moreover, they could point to a string of believing men of science—from William Paley back to Isaac Newton, not to mention Bacon himself—who had exhibited the same irenic relationship between science and faith. This continual insistence upon the concord of science and religion, however, also stemmed from a measure of disquiet over the seemingly unruly aspects of some of newer scientific developments. A vocal Deism had, at the turn of the nineteenth century, already sensitized American believers to “rationalistic” potentialities that some champions of Enlightenment science might emphasize (Ted has already mentioned Timothy Dwight’s opposition to Deism in his series). Now, the unfolding century would bring new challenges from fields such as anthropology and geology. For instance, in the 1830s the notorious infidel Thomas Cooper, a professor of chemistry, geology, and mineralogy at South Carolina College, blended his geology lectures with disparagement of the Pentateuch’s reliability. This so scandalized the Christian public that geology was actually removed from the college’s curriculum between 1835 and 1849. Concerned to shore up the alliance between God’s “two books,” numerous Christian communities on both sides of the Atlantic instituted special professorships in colleges and seminaries dedicated to demonstrating that science remained the faithful “handmaid” of theology. Among the first of these academic chairs was the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion, established by Southern Presbyterians at their seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, in the year 1859.
1859 was also the year that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. This is significant, because James Woodrow, the initial occupant of the Perkins chair, would later become embroiled in the nation’s first large-scale evolution controversy. (This will be discussed in a later article). Because they were preoccupied by intense sectional debate that would ultimately split the nation, most southerners (like most other Americans) would pay little notice to Darwin until after the Civil War. (This is one of the reasons why Ted’s series focuses on the antebellum period.) Southern Presbyterian ministers cared deeply about science and the Bible, and they were already convinced that new, unfounded scientific notions as well as newfangled social systems were threatening the authority of the Bible. Robert L. Dabney, professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Stonewall Jackson’s chaplain during the war, believed abolitionism was merely part of a larger, dangerous spirit of rationalism coursing through the age. It had spawned the radicalism of the French Revolution, provoked Civil War in America, and now tainted some of the latest science, which seemed to play fast and loose with Scripture (for more information, see chapter two of Hampton, Storm of Words, especially pp. 48-49). Dabney and his co-religionists believed the South—and especially their Southern Presbyterian Church—held out the last, best hope for a biblical civilization. And they expected their hand picked expert, James Woodrow, to demonstrate that all was well between science and Scripture. They had every reason to put their confidence in Woodrow because he sported all the necessary credentials—in terms of theology, science, and sectional loyalty. Ordained as an Old School Presbyterian minister, Woodrow’s scientific credentials included training under the renowned Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, as well as earning a PhD at Heidelberg University. Woodrow was also a patriotic southerner, demonstrating this by producing medicines and munitions as a Confederate chemist during the war.
In his capacity as Perkins Professor, James Woodrow was expected to preside over the Baconian paradigm, an approach to science and religion that was widespread not only in the South, but throughout antebellum America. As has been noted, at its most basic level this intellectual construct sought to demonstrate the harmony between God’s two “books”—nature (interpreted by scientists) and Scripture (interpreted by Christian exegetes). But nineteenth century science was in flux, so what kind of science qualified as a legitimate interpretation of nature? And, given the interpretive diversity of an increasingly democratic public, which reading of the Scriptures was authoritative, especially when it came to interpreting the Bible’s references to nature and natural history? As Professor James Woodrow assumed his role as Perkins Professor, these and other questions bristled below the surface-level affirmations of Baconian harmony. In the next section, we will look at the Baconian Paradigm in action, as Southern Presbyterians engaged anthropology and geology.
Reading the Bible through Baconian Lenses
Like many Americans in the early-nineteenth century, southern Christians had become swept up in the cult of empirical reason that had animated the Enlightenment and now suffused American culture, and they were eager to show that Scripture and supernaturalism were still viable in this rationalist milieu—especially since some rationalists dismissed the Bible as irrelevant to enlightened thought. As a result, they had come to view both science and religion, as well as the relationship between them, through lenses colored by such empirical assumptions. They believed that all genuine science renounced speculation and hypothesis, dealing only in objective “facts,” from which the laws of nature were to be ascertained inductively. Convinced that approach was the keystone of all sound thought, they proudly labeled it “Baconian,” since many believed (rather naively) that the empirical method famously endorsed by Lord Bacon had strictly sworn off all deductive reasoning.
In attempting to show that the Bible and Christian faith met the evidentiary criteria of Enlightenment rationalism, however, they increasingly approached biblical texts in the terms demanded by rationalists. That is, Scripture was thought to function just like nature, as a repository of empirically exact “facts.” The theologian, they believed, should therefore approach his subject matter the way a geologist approached his rocks. Never mind the fact that biblical “facts” were composed of a quite different substance, human language, or that the meaning of this language was embedded in specific literary contexts, or that it was originally addressed to recipients in quite different historical situations from present-day readers. None of this mattered very much, because such biblical facts, like the empirical facts of science, were thought to be inert, self-contained, propositional entities, relatively unbound by the tethers of context. Augmented by the prevailing Scottish Commonsense philosophy, which downplayed the perspective from which the knower approached the subject matter, and by a democratic confidence in the assured conclusions of everyman, this “Baconian” approach to the Bible and science captured the allegiance of many antebellum Americans.
Few embraced this conception more fervently, however, than did Southern Presbyterians. Their ranks included numerous prominent defenders of slavery, who repeatedly marshaled biblical proof-texts to show that God approved their bedrock institution. They found the Baconian approach to Scripture very congenial to the construction of their proslavery defense. Though northern antislavery Christians might appeal to the “spirit” of the Bible over its “letter,” or distinguish between the historical context of biblical slavery and that of slavery in the American South, Southern Presbyterians condemned antislavery as rank “rationalism,” reason severed from Scripture. Indeed, in the rapidly changing world of the mid-nineteenth century they saw rationalism all around them. Concerned to show that reason and revelation yet remained allies, Southern Presbyterians established the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion in 1859. They expected its occupant, James Woodrow, to demonstrate that science and Scripture enjoyed a peaceful relationship, and most conceived of this relationship in Baconian terms. This approach to science and religion sometimes seemed to confirm the alliance of God’s “two books.” But it could also at times prove problematic, even internally divisive, as the controversy over Woodrow’s acceptance of evolution would illustrate. Well before this controversy broke out in the 1880s, however, its mixed potential was already becoming evident in Southern Presbyterians’ engagement with the sciences of geology and anthropology. The latter seemed to confirm the merits of the Baconian approach to science and Scripture, while the former seemed to complicate matters.
Are Only Whites Descended from Adam & Eve?
In the period leading up to the Civil War, the question of the origin and nature of human “races” occupied many anthropologists and carried obvious relevance for Americans debating the propriety of slaveholding. Where had the races come from, and what was the meaning of race? The traditional “monogenetic” view maintained that all races shared a common humanity, and this “unity” owed to their common descent from the creation of Adam and Eve. Monogenists usually attributed the development of diverse racial traits to the gradual effects of environment. By the 1840s, however, prominent “polygenists” (or “pluralists”) were contending that the various human races had not sprung from the same creation, and that each race was actually a distinct species. From the mid-1840s, for instance, Mobile physician Josiah Nott placed the new anthropology in the laps of the southern public through a series of lectures and controversial publications. Armed with the cranial measurements of a fellow polygenist, the Philadelphia anatomist Samuel G. Morton, Nott spiced his polygenist campaign with piquant anti-clericalism, portraying his cause as a quest for scientific truth over against religious superstition. The stakes only heightened when Swiss émigré Louis Agassiz, a future Harvard professor and one of the most respected men of science in nineteenth-century America, flipped from his earlier monogenism, publicly endorsing polygenism before audiences in Boston and Charleston in 1846-47.
While many prominent southerners found the doctrine attractive, Southern Presbyterian divines, who served elite congregants and publicly defended slavery, nevertheless responded with unanimous refutation. They denounced the new anthropology as flawed science and flimsy theology. Thomas Smyth, for instance, who had been in the Charleston audience when Agassiz announced his support for polygenism, wrote a book-length defense of monogenism entitled The Unity of the Human Races Proved to Be the Doctrine of Scripture, Reason, and Science, with a Review of the Present Position and the Theory of Professor Agassiz (1850). Similarly, George Howe, influential professor of biblical literature at the Columbia Theological Seminary, attacked polygenism in a series of essays published in the Southern Presbyterian Review between 1849 and 1855. His seminary colleagues James Woodrow and James Henley Thornwell agreed. In “Our National Sins” (cited fully below), a sermon preached on South Carolina’s day of prayer and fasting in November 1860, the eminent proslavery polemicist Thornwell called upon southerners to repent of defending slavery “upon grounds which make the slave a different kind of being from his master.” Like other fallacious science, polygenism belonged in the biblical category of “science, falsely so called,” quoting 1 Timothy 6:20. For Southern Presbyterians, it was relatively easy to dismiss polygenism since its leading proponents either dismissed Scripture (Nott) or appeared to take it lightly (Agassiz). Indeed, for many Southern Presbyterians, the monolithic response of their community seemed to confirm the Baconian paradigm.
The Challenge of Geology
Southern Presbyterians did not speak with one voice when it came to geology, however, and this response revealed (and effected) differences in the ways they thought about biblical language, what constituted true science, and the relationship between the two. In contrast to anthropology, the Southern Presbyterian response to geology, taken collectively, was ambivalent, and this ambivalence problematized the Baconian construct. Of course, their discourse on the Bible and geology occurred in the larger context of nineteenth-century attempts to reconcile Genesis with geology. By the time Woodrow assumed the Perkins Professorship in the winter of 1860-61, numerous Southern Presbyterians had already accommodated the new geology, even with its uniformitarian methodology and conclusions about the antiquity of the earth. Indeed, one of the champions of the new professorship, Mississippi preacher James A. Lyon, believed geology’s revelation of the antiquity of the earth actually enabled Christians to feel more acutely the truth of God’s word. For instance, it was one thing to affirm the biblical doctrine of God’s eternal nature intellectually; it was another thing to have one’s imagination enlarged by geology’s expansive eons, “in comparison with which the whole of historic time is but a day—an hour!” (cited below) Southern Presbyterians who welcomed geology made room for its findings by stressing that scriptural language was not intended to teach modern science. They took the tack of Elisha Mitchell, University of North Carolina geologist and Presbyterian preacher. “There is nothing in the discoveries and speculations of sound and accurate geologists that will be found to militate against the Christian faith,” Mitchell declared (cited below), “when the objects of the revelations of God are well understood,” namely that “it appears never to have been the object of the Deity … to teach them astronomy, or chemistry, or geology.”
Other Southern Presbyterians, however, were uneasy with geology. They did not believe it qualified as genuine science, being far too speculative to meet the inductive Baconian criteria which they still expected of science. Moreover, they tended to read biblical references to nature or natural history as literal, scientific statements. According to Mississippi preacher Edwin Cater (cited below), any geology positing the “preadamic antiquity of the earth” was but a “fungus growth” on true science and a threat to revelation. Prominent New Orleans minister Benjamin M. Palmer shared these concerns about the presumptions of geologists. Before an audience at Davidson College he affirmed the “harmony of Scripture and science,” but cautioned against the “dapper infidelity of our day,” which “handles its fossils and ignores the Bible” (cited below).
Having been present for decades, these tensions boiled to the surface of Southern Presbyterian discourse between 1873 and 1874, when two of their leading lights, James Woodrow and Robert L. Dabney, publicly debated the relationship between geology and Scripture in the pages of the church’s most respected periodical, the Southern Presbyterian Review. Since his inaugural address as Perkins Professor in 1861, Woodrow had endorsed geology’s conclusions about the antiquity of the earth as well as its uniformitarian approach. He taught his students that a Christian could keep both the Bible and geology, because Scripture did not intend to set forth the age of the earth or describe the physical processes by which it had changed over time. Dabney, on the other hand, had been warning his students at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia of the tendency of Genesis-geology reconcilers to attribute ever more geological phenomena to presently observable natural causes rather than direct, supernatural action. Did this not amount to rationalism, he asked, to “hankering after Atheism” (cited below)? To be sure, this public exchange would pale in comparison to the spectacle surrounding the coming evolution controversy of the 1880s. Already, however, it brought to the surface latent differences in the way this community of southern believers conceptualized science, its relationship to Scripture, and the meaning of Christian faithfulness in a concrete historical context.
God’s “Two Books,” Southern Presbyterians, and Evolution
As has been seen in the previous sections, Southern Presbyterians established their Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion in 1859 in order to maintain the harmonious relationship between science and the theology. Since these two disciplines studied nature and scripture, the “two books” originating in the divine mind, they could not possibly contradict each other, so long as they were executed properly. When Southern Presbyterians anointed James Woodrow to fill the Perkins chair, they believed they were choosing a man capable of honoring both of God’s books and demonstrating that their alliance remained robust in a time fraught with political, social, and intellectual change.
Yet, it was the teachings of this carefully chosen specialist on the relationship between science and scripture—the one entrusted safely to guide seminarians, a church, and a section on matters of modern science—whose espousal of evolution in 1884 hurled this religious community into a cataclysmic evolution controversy. Lasting the better part of six years, the controversy compelled coverage by the New York Times, E. L. Godkin’s The Nation, and numerous denominational presses. While evolution ruffled feathers elsewhere, nowhere in the trans-Atlantic world had evolution fomented a controversy so intense, so extensive as among Southern Presbyterians.
Not even at Princeton, where a similar Old School conservative theology prevailed, did Darwin’s thesis ignite a thoroughgoing controversy. Indeed, Benjamin B. Warfield, who would later gain renown among Fundamentalists for his defense of biblical inerrancy against the higher criticism of the Bible, allowed for a form of theistic evolution. Warfield did reserve the right to tweak Darwin’s thesis in order to allow for occasional supernatural interventions in the natural developmental process, and he was not convinced that evolution had yet garnered sufficient empirical support to command its assent. Should such concerns be met, however, Warfield saw “no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution,” asserting, “we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense” (cited below). Sufficient numbers of James Woodrow’s Southern Presbyterian peers, however, did see enough “necessary antagonism” to warrant an extended heresy trial of their handpicked expert.
Evolution as False Science—Nothing but a “Storm of Words”
For two decades since his accession to the Perkins chair, Woodrow had taught his students that the empirical evidence for evolution was lacking. Asked by the seminary’s board of directors in 1883 to prepare a statement of his views on the theory that was so rapidly gaining adherents in the academic world, Woodrow researched evolution afresh in the year preceding his anticipated address on the topic. By the time he stood before the Board and Alumni of Columbia Theological Seminary in May 1884, he had changed his mind. The mounting evidence, he now informed them, had convinced him that the theory was probably true. Over the years of the ensuing controversy, not many even of Woodrow’s supporters agreed with him about the cogency of evolution per se, but they did agree with Woodrow’s contention that the Scriptures, while affirming the fact of God’s creation, were silent as to the means of God’s creation. “In the Bible I find nothing that contradicts the belief that God immediately brought into existence each form independently,” Woodrow said, “or that contradicts the contrary belief that, having originated one or a few forms, he caused all the others to spring from these in accordance with laws which he ordained …”Woodrow insisted that Christians should not expect to find answers to modern scientific questions in the Bible, since Scripture’s self-disclosed purpose was not to teach natural science, but to announce God’s plan of redemption for sinners. Given the diverse objectives of science and Scripture, Woodrow contended that one should not expect harmony between the Bible and science so much as non-contradiction. “We hear much of the harmony of science and Scripture, of their reconciliation, and the like. Now, is it antecedently probable that there is room for either agreement or disagreement?,” Woodrow asked. Just as no one sought harmony between the disparate subjects of “zoology and astronomy,” Woodrow continued, should not the student of science and scripture, given that their “contents are so entirely different,” rest content to discover “that there is no contradiction?” (cited below)
Here, Woodrow believed that he was merely following the precedent set by orthodox believers centuries ago. When Christians had converted from earlier acceptance of the geocentric solar system to the heliocentric system of Copernicus and Galileo, that conversion had similarly elicited charges that the new astronomy violated the teachings of Scripture, since the Bible repeatedly spoke of a stationary earth and a moving Sun. Everyone now knew, Woodrow reminded them, that these ancient biblical texts had not intended to teach science. Still, Woodrow’s opponents accused him of treating the Bible in the fashion of the liberal biblical critics more common in Germany and the North than in the Reformed South. But one peculiar aspect of Woodrow’s unique brand of evolutionism demonstrates that, while he stressed respect for the Bible’s silence on modern scientific questions and sensitivity to the authorial intent of biblical texts, he hardly intended to abandon the notion of an infallibly true Bible—once one had determined what it was actually trying to say. Woodrow took the biblical account of Adam’s being made “from dust” as a metaphor for earthy, organic material. And, since Scripture did not specify the method God used in creating Adam or other creatures, Woodrow believed he was free to consult scientific research on the matter. Thus proceeding, he had concluded that God had created them not immediately, but by means of evolution. On the other hand, the book of Genesis was not silent regarding the creation of Eve, and Woodrow found the narrative of her creation from Adam’s rib too specific to be taken only as a literary figure.
Throughout the controversy, Woodrow repeatedly affirmed the authority of an inerrant Bible. Such protestations notwithstanding, he was ultimately deposed from the Perkins chair. One of the divergences between the pro- and anti-Woodrow contingents focused on the criteria of true science. His opponents continued to see science in Baconian terms, allowing little room for “speculation” or scientific conjecture, while his supporters welcomed the increasing role of deduction and hypothesis in the practice of nineteenth-century science. The main point of contention, however, centered on the hermeneutical ramifications of accepting evolution. George Armstrong, minister and professor of science at Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College), believed Woodrow’s views set a perilous precedent: “any doctrine at variance [with immediate creation] is a dangerous error,” he asserted, “inasmuch as, in the methods of interpreting Scripture it must demand … it will lead to the denial of doctrines fundamental to the faith” (quoted by John Adger, cited below). Robert L. Dabney, who dismissed evolution as a mere “storm of words,” had in his earlier exchange with Woodrow over geology voiced a similar concern: “a Bible which shall wait for changing human sciences to tell us what it shall be permitted to signify is no sufficient rule of faith for an immortal soul” (cited below).
Epilogue: Why Was Evolution so Controversial in the South?
So, why did the first extended evolution controversy in American history occur among Southern Presbyterians? After all, like so many in other faith traditions, Southern Presbyterians had affirmed a robust concord between the scriptures and science. In Storm of Words, I attempt to explain this in terms of both the theological presuppositions that Southern Presbyterians had inherited and also the social and cultural trauma they experienced from the 1840s onward. Theologically, this community of Reformed believers embraced a view of the Bible that was highly confessional and propositional, and they often conceived of Christian faithfulness in highly intellectualized, polemical terms. Of course, other Christian communities held similar conceptions, not least other conservative Reformed fellowships. None of these, however, experienced the intense traumas of sectional debate, Civil War defeat, and Reconstruction.
Beginning with northern antislavery, which attacked the very way of life over which they presided, Southern Presbyterians had responded to each of these stressful changes by appealing to scripture, from which they expected immediate relevance and an empirical precision worthy of Lord Bacon. In other words, the majority of Southern Presbyterians interpreted and applied the Bible in a literal and unmediated manner, as God’s answers to the difficult questions faced within the southern socio-cultural order. By the time they engaged Woodrow’s evolutionism in the 1880s, this hermeneutic disposition had become part of the identity of most Southern Presbyterians. So, Southern Presbyterians’ engagement with science and religion, which culminated in the first major evolution controversy in American history, demonstrates that the relationship between science and religion is never conceptualized in a social, cultural, or political vacuum. Put simply, the historical context in which their relationship is engaged matters greatly. In other words, the conviction that nature and scripture are exquisite revelations from the divine mind does not free those who study them from the responsibility of thinking critically about the vantage point from which they engage God’s two books.
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