Bacon for Breakfast: Religion and Science in Antebellum America

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

 


Anonymous portrait of Francis Bacon, copy (after 1731) of lost original (ca. 1618), The National Portrait Gallery, London. Although Bacon was a statesman and philosopher of science rather than a working scientist, his prophetic vision of science as the engine of progress in the modern state, helping to restore knowledge lost after the Fall of Adam and Eve, continues in secular forms to influence Western nations. 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 in a future series.

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 (and will reprise a bit in this series).


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.


The ostentatious 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—the Mediterranean Sea—for the great new ocean of modern knowledge lying beyond it, yet to be fully explored. 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.

Looking Ahead

In two weeks, we’ll go back to colonial New England to see how Increase Mather and his son, Cotton Mather, shaped the American encounter with science long before the Civil War.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Bacon for Breakfast: Religion and Science in Antebellum America"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 11 December 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2015, April 29). Bacon for Breakfast: Religion and Science in Antebellum America
Retrieved December 11, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/bacon-for-breakfast-religion-and-science-in-antebellum-america

References & Credits

Some material in this series is adapted from my chapter in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003). Quotations from Bacon’s Advancement of Learning are from I.i.3 and I.vi.16.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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