Slavery, Science, and Southern Presbyterians before the Civil War

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Thomas Cooper, professor and president of the South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) in the 1820s and early 1830s.

INTRO BY TEDLast spring 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 three essays, the first of which commences right after the heading. 

The Messy Particularities of History

As Ted Davis’ articles in this series have already 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. Next time, we will look at the Baconian Paradigm in action, as Southern Presbyterians engaged anthropology and geology.


Looking Ahead

My (Ted Davis’) series continues next week with a study of Benjamin Silliman’s interpretation of the creation “days” in Genesis, followed in subsequent weeks by two more columns from Monte Hampton—where he will pursue the fascinating inquiry outlined in his final sentence above.

Personal note by Ted: My late father wrote a doctoral dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary on Albert Barnes, a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia who was a prominent abolitionist, a prolific author of hugely popular Bible commentaries, and a leader of the New School group, who opposed the Old School group mentioned here in connection with James Woodrow. Barnes narrowly missed being convicted of heresy by the Presbyterian Church for his views on predestination, free will, and original sin.





Hampton, Monte. "Slavery, Science, and Southern Presbyterians before the Civil War " N.p., 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 February 2019.


Hampton, M. (2015, November 12). Slavery, Science, and Southern Presbyterians before the Civil War
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/slavery-science-and-southern-presbyterians-before-the-civil-war

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

The fullest treatment of the Baconian frame of mind in antebellum America is Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (1977), by Theodore Dwight Bozeman. Unless otherwise indicated, Hampton cites the following sources, in order: James Henley Thornwell, “Our National Sins,” in Fast Day Sermons (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861), p. 45; Benjamin M. Palmer, “Slavery a Divine Trust,” pp. 57-80 in the same work; Thornwell, “The Being of God,” in John B. Adger, ed., Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. 1 (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871), p. 63; and Thornwell, “Miracles,” Southern Presbyterian Review (July 1857), 167.

About the Author

Monte Hampton

Monte Harrell Hampton studied under Donald G. Mathews at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a PhD in history. His academic interests include the relationship of science and religion in American history, history of the American South, and the interaction between culture and biblical hermeneutics. All of these interests are reflected in his recent book Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era (University of Alabama Press). He is a Teaching Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University and is a pastor in the Raleigh, North Carolina area.

More posts by Monte Hampton