How Liberal Protestants Bought White’s Conflict Thesis and Lost Their Faith

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: “The Last Stand—Science Versus Superstition,” chromolithograph by Udo J. Keppler (later known as Joseph Keppler, Jr.), centerfold from his magazine, Puck, v. 45, no. 1167, 19 July 1899.  Public domain image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC. This wonderful image, published just three years after Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), shows how quickly White’s version of the Conflict Thesis became associated with liberal religious leaders at the time. The radical Jewish thinker Felix Adler fires a Gatling gun labeled “History, Archaeology, Evolution, Enlightenment, [and] Geology,” using boxes of ammunition labeled “Scientific Facts,” “Historical Facts,” and “Rational Religion.” His allies, gathered under the banner “Think or be Damned,” are identified on their lapels as four prominent liberal Protestant ministers (left to right): Richard Heber Newton, Charles Augustus Briggs, Lyman Abbott, and (leaning over the gun) Minot Judson Savage. Their opponents are a group of unidentified clergy emerging from the castle of “Medieval Dogmatism” (terminology taken directly from White) and united under a banner proclaiming, “Believe or be Damned.” In a subtle touch, the defenders of orthodoxy are (presumably) emerging from the darkness, since we see them only by a searchlight planted firmly on the side of reason.

Liberal Protestants and the Conflict Thesis

I’ve been thinking about writing a column like this for a long time.  I kept putting it off, because I’m finishing a research project related to it and I wanted to put my ideas first into a scholarly publication before putting them on BioLogos.

I changed my mind after reading insightful comments about the Conflict Thesis from James Ungureanu, a young historian who is doing research on John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White—the people who gave us the classic version of the Conflict Thesis.  Mr. Ungureanu’s main point is entirely right: rather than intentionally advancing unbelief (like the New Atheists of our day), Draper and White “were pitting two distinct theological traditions against one another: a progressive liberal Christianity against a more traditional conservative Christianity.”

I drew that conclusion myself many years ago, but my initial thoughts were only partially formed and I published them in a place where not many historians would find them: namely, a short reflection on the work of John Polkinghorne that I was asked to write for an issue of the journal Zygon that was dedicated to his work. As I stated in the abstract:

Perhaps the greatest irony about the contemporary religion-science dialogue is the fact that, despite their own strongly articulated denials, many thinkers implicitly accept the “warfare” thesis of A. D. White—that is, they agree with White that traditional theology has proved unable to engage science in fruitful conversation. More than most others, John Polkinghorne understands just how badly White misread the history of Christianity and science, and how much theology has been impoverished by its failure to challenge this core assumption of modernity.

This point is not identical to that of Mr. Ungureanu, but it’s pretty close.  His work focuses on Draper and White themselves, whereas I’m focusing on their legacy. Where he shows that Draper and White were trying to advance “a progressive liberal Christianity,” I will show (in a forthcoming book) that the “modernist” Protestants of the early twentieth century (who advocated a very progressive, very liberal type of Christianity) uncritically accepted the Conflict Thesis wholesale as a crucial component of their worldview.  

The cartoon above is just one piece of evidence for this, though a very powerful one.  I lack space here to make the case in full, but I’ll connect a few of the dots so readers can have a clear glimpse of the larger picture.

Prologue: Asa Gray Denies Conflict between Evolution and Christian Theology

In 1880, twenty-one years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the first American Darwinian, Harvard botanist Asa Gray, spoke to theology students at Yale. Thinking of the halcyon days when the revered Benjamin Silliman set the tone for natural history at Yale, Gray recalled an earlier time “when schemes for reconciling Genesis with Geology had an importance in the churches,” and many saw a great need “to bring the details of the two into agreement by extraneous suppositions and forced constructions of language.” Furthermore, our “veneration” for the Old Testament “is not impaired” by the fact that Genesis “is not an original but a compiled cosmogony,” for the older material in it was “purged of polytheism and Nature-worship, and impregnated with ideas which we suppose the world will never outgrow.”  The “fundamental note” of Genesis is “the declaration of one God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible,–a declaration which, if physical science is unable to establish, it is equally unable to overthrow.” Thus, he confessed, “I accept Christianity on its own evidence, and I am yet to learn how physical or any other science conflicts with it any more than it conflicts with simple theism.” (Natural Science and Religion, pp. 7-9 and 106)

Asa Gray in 1864 (image source).

If you are inclined for a moment to read Gray’s optimistic, even winsome, embrace of modernity as the confession of a thoroughgoing theological modernist, take a deep breath, for he was about to reveal himself as a traditional Christian, despite his wholehearted acceptance of evolution. The frankly Incarnational understanding he went on to express leaves no other possibility to the interpreter: “I take it that religion is based on the idea of a Divine Mind revealing himself to intelligent creatures for moral ends.” Indeed, “revelation culminated … in the advent of a Divine Person, who, being made man, manifested the Divine Nature in union with the human,” and “this manifestation constitutes Christianity.” The Incarnation was for Gray simply “the crowning miracle,” attended by other miracles that he also accepted. In this way, he could consistently proclaim his acceptance of Darwin alongside his faith in Christ, a faith whose “essential contents” were “briefly summed up” in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds (pp. 106-109).

Main Event: Protestant Modernists Find Conflict Everywhere

Fast forward to 1936, three years after Shailer Mathews retired as Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, the geographic and theological center of Protestant modernism in North America. In the autobiography he published that year, aptly titled New Faith for Old, in a fascinating chapter called “Religion and Science,” he had this to say: “It is yet to be seen how far intelligence is consonant with religion.” What follows is pure unadulterated Andrew Dickson White. “As natural forces replace Divinity and bacteria replace devils, the area of fear within which religions have had control contracts.” To become credible for modern times, he argued, religion had to recognize what science had done–and what it had done to religion.

“Laboratory science did something more than lead to research. It undermined habits of thought and substituted the tentativeness of experiment for authoritative [theological] formulas. True, there were some scientists like Asa Gray who championed Darwinian evolution while holding to the Nicene Creed; John Fiske used evolution in setting forth a cosmic philosophy which included theism and belief in immortality; [Joseph] LeConte did much the same. But these men were not representative churchmen. When [Henry Ward] Beecher and other liberal preachers accepted evolution their evangelical brothers looked upon them with suspicion. Scientific method had not [yet] reached religious thought. It was only when educational processes had ceased to be controlled by the study of classical literature and grew more contemporary [owing to science], that orthodox theology was felt to be incompatible with intellectual integrity.” (New Faith for Old, pp. 219-21, my bold type)

Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Likewise, the radical modernist theologian Gerald Birney Smith, who taught a correspondence course on modern theology at Mathews’ seminary, recommended White’s book as “a most readable and striking account of the gradual substitution of the empirical method for the method of conformity to authorized doctrine in various realms of thought. It reflects the scientific man’s impatience with the traditional theological ideal” (cited below, p. 10).

To be sure, Mathews and his fellow modernists had much in common with Gray. They believed that evolution and religious faith were not contradictory; they believed that the world still bore evidence of purposeful intelligence–indeed physicist Arthur Holly Compton, who belonged to the same church as Mathews, spoke bluntly of needing “intelligent design” to understand the history of the universe. What they did not believe was the Nicene Creed. The irony here is profound: the God worshiped by the leading American evolutionist of Darwin’s day was still in a meaningful sense the “maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen,” yet the leading American theological educator two generations later could not accept this–allegedly because of science! For Mathews, the fundamental problem with what Gray himself had called “theistic evolution” was not that it accepted evolution, but that it tried to be genuinely theistic in doing so.

Mathews did sometimes give the appearance of not believing in God at all. One of his friends at Chicago, physicist Robert Millikan, recalled an occasion when Mathews was asked whether he believed in God, only to reply, “That, my friend, is a question which requires an education rather than an answer” (The Autobiography of Robert A. Millikan, pp. 286-7). Like Mathews, Millikan also wanted a new Christian faith to replace the old, the practical religion of Jesus without the Jesus of traditional religion. A Congregationalist with Unitarian convictions who strove to bring Caltech back to its Universalist religious roots, Millikan wanted a God who was wholly immanent within the world and not at all transcendent over it–a God incapable of performing miracles or becoming literally incarnate in Christ.

Nothing was more important to many modernists than the God they found within the evolutionary process itself, rather than in putative explanatory gaps in that process. What might be missed, however, is the degree to which some pitted divine immanence against divine transcendence—not as two crucial poles in an ongoing dialectic, but as a stark choice to be made with finality, in which the transcendent God was effectively discarded entirely.

A pertinent example comes from Samuel Christian Schmucker, frequently a featured speaker at Mathews’ beloved Chautauqua Institution and one of the most successful popularizers of evolution and eugenics in the early twentieth century. Schmucker all but equated his immanent God with the evolutionary process itself. “The laws of nature,” he stated, “are not the decisions of any man or group of men; not even–I say it reverently–of God. The laws of nature are eternal even as God is eternal.” They are “not the fiat of almighty God, they are the manifestation in nature of the presence of the indwelling God” (quoting his 1926 pamphlet, Through Science to God). His diffusively conceived God was co-eternal with the world and virtually indistinguishable from the laws of nature. The evolutionary progress those laws had produced was the ultimate source of his hope. I cannot escape the impression that White would have loved this, had he lived to see it.


In May 1922, less than two years after the word “fundamentalist” was first used, Harry Emerson Fosdick, the modernist pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, preached perhaps the most famous sermon of the twentieth century, titled “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” The ensuing controversy led him to leave the denomination and become pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church, where John David Rockefeller, Jr., was a highly influential member. A few years later, Rockefeller built the magnificent Riverside Church, in some ways a temple of science, for Fosdick. Public domain photograph (ca. 1922), New York Public Library Digital Collections.

White’s two-volume screed had first appeared in 1896, just in time to precipitate an intense spiritual crisis in the life of the young man later regarded by Martin Luther King, Jr. (no mean preacher himself), as the greatest preacher of the twentieth century–Harry Emerson Fosdick. Following his first year at Colgate University, Fosdick encountered White, and its effect on him was devastating. As he wrote in his autobiography,

“What finally smashed the whole idea of Biblical inerrancy for me was a book by Andrew D. White ...  It seemed to me unanswerable. Here were the facts, shocking facts about the way the assumed infallibility of the Scriptures had impeded research, deepened and prolonged obscurantism, fed the mania of persecution, and held up the progress of mankind. I no longer believed the old stuff I had been taught. Moreover, I no longer merely doubted it. I rose in indignant revolt against it.” (For the Living of These Days, An Autobiography, p. 52)

Like many other modernists, Fosdick lifted the “conflict” picture of White and Draper uncritically from his plate and dutifully swallowed it whole, taking its alleged “facts” as gospel truths to illuminate a new path to righteousness.

As his appearance on the cover of Time indicates, Edwin Grant Conklin was one of the leading public voices for science in the 1920s and 1930s. A former Methodist lay preacher who helped launch the field of developmental biology in the United States, he never entirely abandoned belief in a cosmic purpose, though he no longer believed most basic Christian doctrines.

One of Fosdick’s countless admirers, Princeton biologist Edwin Grant Conklin, a leading public intellectual between the world wars, had originally endorsed Asa Gray’s religious position as a junior scientist. As he grew older, however, he changed his mind, culminating a process that had begun during his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins, where he was deeply influenced by the naturalistic credo of his mentor, William Keith Brooks. As Conklin put it, Brooks held that “the term supernatural is due to a misconception of nature; nature is everything that is.” In a spiritual autobiography that he wrote at the end of his life for a book edited by Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, he said, “With the progress of science, the area of the supernatural and miraculous has gradually grown smaller,” yet “supernatural agencies or occurrences constitute the very foundations of many religions.” Conklin saw his own spiritual journey as one that “orthodox friends” might interpret as “descending steps,” leading him further from the traditional Methodist faith of his youth. “My gradual loss of faith in many orthodox beliefs,” he recalled, “came inevitably with increasing knowledge of nature and growth of a critical sense.” Significantly, he identified Draper and White as formative influences. As he saw it, they “showed the impossibility of harmonizing many traditional doctrines of theology with the demonstrations of modern science” (“Spiritual Autobiography,” pp. 72-3 and 57-58).

By making such theological moves and holding such negative attitudes toward traditional Christian theology, the modernists actually eliminated (for them) the very possibility of having a genuine Christian dialogue with science, rather than just a monologue dominated by science–precisely the result that White sought wholeheartedly and so successfully to bring about. Of this there can really be no doubt: although White denied genuine conflict between “religion” and science, he did more than anyone else to create the very type of conflict that is so stridently embraced by so many today, in which science tries to drive Christian theology into intellectual disrepute. And he did all of that, as we now know, on the basis of bogus history–despite the salient fact that he had been the first president of the American Historical Association.

Postlude: BioLogos and the Conflict Thesis

Intellectual descendants of yesterday’s modernists continue to uphold the Conflict Thesis. To offer just one very prominent example, the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, believes that science has (somehow) made theism incredible, so he tries to take Christianity “beyond theism.” The New Atheists go even further. I won’t steal any of Stephen Snobelen’s thunder, but I should point out that they proclaim what I call the “Hard Conflict Thesis,” while White’s descendants accept the “Soft Conflict Thesis.” Proponents of the former want to rid the world entirely of religion in any form—except their own “dinosaur religion,” which they naively do not even recognize as a form of religion.  Proponents of the latter want to keep religion, but reduce it to Christian ethics by removing traditional theology, thus avoiding (in their view) any conflict with science. To the extent that both groups need White’s Conflict Thesis to make their narratives work, they have built their castles on sand.

White and his modernist followers took the wrong road to paradise. On this I speak for all of us at BioLogos. Despite unfounded rumors to the contrary, we haven’t swallowed White whole, or even in part. Like Asa Gray, we believe in the divine creation of the universe, we embrace the full divinity of Jesus, and we look for the Resurrection of the dead. We find no conflict between the findings of Darwin and the words of the Nicene Creed. We don’t believe that science has been victorious over Christian theology—indeed, there never was such a war in the first place.

Looking Ahead

We return to Steve Snobelen’s essay next time, when he discusses the “medieval gap,” the widely believed notion that the Roman Catholic Church all but extinguished science during the Middle Ages.  The late Carl Sagan and others have popularized that view to such an extent that many people take it for a basic historical fact, but it’s badly wrong—Sagan simply didn’t know what he was talking about. Come back to see why.




Davis, Ted. "How Liberal Protestants Bought White’s Conflict Thesis and Lost Their Faith" N.p., 19 Jan. 2017. Web. 16 February 2019.


Davis, T. (2017, January 19). How Liberal Protestants Bought White’s Conflict Thesis and Lost Their Faith
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/how-liberal-protestants-bought-whites-conflict-thesis-and-lost-their-faith

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

I first presented some of these ideas publicly in “Appreciating a Scientist-Theologian: Some Remarks on the Work of John Polkinghorne,” Zygon 35.4 (December 2000): 971-76.  This column is mostly taken from previously unpublished comments I delivered at a private academic conference about the Conflict Thesis a couple years ago.

Two sources quoted here are not easily obtained: Gerald Birney Smith, “Significant Movements in Modern Theology: A Professional Reading Course” (Chicago: American Institute of Sacred Literature, 1915), which I read in an archive in Chicago, and a rare pamphlet by Samuel Christian Schmucker, Through Science to God (American Institute of Sacred Literature, 1926), a copy of which I own.

About the Author

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.

More posts by Ted Davis