The First Major Evolution Controversy in America

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

Like his more famous contemporary, Asa Gray (pictured on stamp), the first Darwinian in America, James Woodrow held that science and the Bible teach truths of a different order, so that we shouldn’t try to establish a clearly delineated “harmony” of the book of nature with the book of Scripture.



This is the final installment of a 3-part series by historian and pastor Monte Hampton, based on his new book, Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era South (2014). He focuses more sharply on James Woodrow, the first occupant of the Perkins Professorship, about whom he told us in his previous column. Woodrow’s overall attitude toward science and the Bible is best captured in a passage from an 1884 address on “Evolution,” in which he said, “We do not speak of the harmony of mathematics and chemistry, or of zoology and astronomy, or the reconciliation of physics and metaphysics. Why? Because the subject-matter of each of these branches of knowledge is so different from the rest.”

Woodrow’s position mirrored that of Harvard botanist Asa Gray. In lectures he gave to the Theological School of Yale College just four years before Woodrow’s address, Gray specifically distanced himself from Benjamin Silliman’s classical position of harmony between the two books:

“many of us remember the time when schemes for reconciling Genesis with Geology had an importance in the churches, and among thoughtful people, which few if any would now assign to them; when it was thought necessary—for only necessity could justify it—to bring the details of the two into agreement by extraneous suppositions and forced constructions of language, such as would now offend our critical and sometimes our moral sense. The change of view which we have witnessed amounts to this. Our predecessors implicitly held that Holy Scripture must somehow truly teach such natural science as it had occasion to refer to, or at least could never contradict it; while the most that is now intelligently claimed is, that the teachings of the two, properly understood, are not incompatible.” (cited below)

Unfortunately, when Woodrow said similar things in South Carolina, it didn’t go down all that well—as Dr. Hampton relates after the heading.

God’s “Two Books,” Southern Presbyterians, and Evolution

As has been seen in the previous two articles in this mini-series, 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)

Galileo’s ideas and attitudes about science and the Bible greatly influenced American conversations throughout the nineteenth century, to say nothing about today. Proponents of the new natural history, including James Woodrow, often followed consciously in Galileo’s footprints, interpreting the Bible in light of science. Like Galileo, Woodrow held that the inerrant, inspired text of the Bible was meant to teach salvation, not science, to sinful people who entirely lacked modern scientific knowledge. Conflicts arose when the interpreters of Scripture did not sufficiently heed this axiom. This portrait of the stocky, red-haired mathematician (note the Latin abbreviation, “MATH[EMATIC]US”), probably by the great Dominico Robusti, was painted when Galileo was in his mid-40s (ca. 1605-07), just a few years before he became world famous for being the first to publish astronomical observations done with a telescope. Somehow, it ended up in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (Image source).


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.

The creation of Eve, woodcut from Hartmann Schedel, Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). The magnificent illustrations in this famous book are from the workshop of Michael Wohlgemut and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. (image source)


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.

Looking Ahead (By Ted)

After Christmas I’ll resume my own series on Antebellum religion and science with a column about a Reformed believer from the North—geologist Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College. The first person to publish images of dinosaur tracks, he was also one of the most widely read natural theologians before the Civil War.





Hampton, Monte. "The First Major Evolution Controversy in America" N.p., 17 Dec. 2015. Web. 16 February 2019.


Hampton, M. (2015, December 17). The First Major Evolution Controversy in America
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-first-major-evolution-controversy-in-america

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. The long quotation from Asa Gray comes from his Natural Science and Religion (1880), pp. 7-8, a work that merits more historical attention than it has received. Unless otherwise indicated, Hampton cites the following sources, in order: Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, “Evolution or Development,” in Mark A. Noll and David N. Livingstone, eds., B. B. Warfield: Evolution, Science and Scripture, Selected Writings (2000), pp. 130-31; James Woodrow, Evolution: An Address Delivered May 7th, 1884, before the Alumni Association of the Columbia Theological Seminary (Columbia, South Carolina: Presbyterian Publishing House), pp. 14 and 4; John Adger, My Life and Times, (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1899), p. 541; and two works by Robert L. Dabney, The Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century Considered (New York: Anderson D. F. Randolph, 1875), p. 202, and “Caution Against Anti-Christian Science,” C. R. Vaughan, ed., Discussions, Vol. 3, Philosophical (Richmond, Virginia: Presbyterian Committee of Publishing, 1892), Reprint, Harrisonburg, Virginia: Sprinkle, 1996), p. 121.

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