The Dean of American Science

| By on Reading the Book of Nature


John Warner Barber, Eastern 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 in previous columns, 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, Benjamin Silliman, is my focus today and for several columns to come. 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, portrait of Timothy Dwight (1817), Yale University Art Gallery. After graduating from Yale at the ripe old age of 17, Dwight served briefly as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War before becoming a schoolmaster and Congregationalist minister. Elected president of Yale in 1795, his opposition to Deism contributed to the Second Great Awakening, and a few years later he helped found The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The artist’s father (Jonathan Trumbull, Sr.) and brother (Jonathan Trumbull, Jr.) both served terms as governor of Connecticut, and his niece Harriett Trumbull married Silliman in 1809. Such were the circles in which Silliman moved.

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. 

This lovely little portrait of Silliman by the skilled miniaturist Nathaniel Rogers(c. 1815), smaller than an index card, 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.

Silliman and Dwight were steadfast supporters of the Federalist Party, to which John Adams also belonged. Their opponents were the Democratic-Republican Party, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. About three months after that crucial conversation with Dwight, Silliman started writing a series of fourteen satirical letters to a Federalist newspaper in New York, the first of which appeared alongside a sermon by Dwight. The following year, they were published anonymously in a book titled Letters of Shahcoolen, A Hindu Philosopher (1802). The fictional “Shahcoolen,” a Hindu from New Delhi, had come to live in Philadelphia, where he commented on the latest trends. In addition to Democratic politics, another target was the radical feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft, who is depicted as a shameless and lewd woman who thinks Genesis is just “a poetical story” (italics in the original). Image courtesy of The Remnant Trust, Inc.


The Situation Today: Looking Ahead

Next time, we’ll see how Silliman merged Genesis and geology into what he himself called “progressive creation,” a term and an idea that many Christians still like today—though many others don’t, especially young-earth creationists like those at Answers in Genesis. Incidentally, their resources on this specific term provide some inconsistent and inaccurate information about the history of the position. For example, the late Henry Morris, the leading creationist of his generation, made the bizarre claimthat “‘Progressive creationism’ is not a modern interpretation developed to bring the Genesis record into harmony with modern science. It is a very ancient concept devised to impose a theistic connotation upon the almost universal pagan evolutionary philosophies of antiquity.” Tim Chaffey, on the other hand, says that progressive creation “is essentially an updated version of the day-age view” of George Stanley Faber, an evangelical Anglican clergyman who advocated the day-age view in 1823. Faber wasn’t the first to propose that idea, while Silliman spoke of “progressive creation” no later than 1829, so progressive creation is hardly a recent updating of Faber or anyone else. Join us next time to learn more.





Davis, Ted. "The Dean of American Science" N.p., 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 February 2018.


Davis, T. (2015, August 27). The Dean of American Science
Retrieved February 20, 2018, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-dean-of-american-science

References & Credits

Silliman’s encyclopedic autobiographical manuscript, “Origin and progress of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology in Yale College, with Personal Reminiscences,” is extensively excerpted in Life of Benjamin Silliman, 2 vols. (1866), by George Park Fisher, a divinity professor at Yale who knew Silliman well. Chandos M. Brown,Benjamin Silliman: A Life in the Young Republic (1989) includes an historically sensitive, insightful discussion of the Silliman family’s involvement with slavery, but (surprisingly) Robert Bakewell is not mentioned anywhere in the book. Rachel Lauden, “The History of Geology, 1780-1840,” in Companion to the History of Modern Science, ed. Robert C. Olby et al. (1990), pp. 314-25, provides a very helpful overview of natural history in this period.

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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