Through Science to God: Eugenics as Religion

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

 

Leaflet cover: “Through Science to God: The Humming Bird’s Story”
In the year following the Scopes trial, fifty thousand copies of this pamphlet by Samuel Christian Schmucker were issued as part of an ongoing series on “Science and Religion” sponsored by the American Institute of Sacred Literature, a now-defunct correspondence Bible school at theUniversity of Chicago Divinity School. Sized to fit neatly into a shirt pocket or atract rack in a church narthex, they were distributed very widely at nominal cost to Protestant clergy, scientists, religious workers on college campuses, and many thousands of others across the United States and Canada. It was a primary vehicle through which Schmucker disseminated his modernist theology of creation. Courtesy of Edward B. Davis.

I began this series with an evolution debate from 1930 between fundamentalist preacher Harry Rimmer and modernist scientist Samuel Christian Schmucker, in which I introduced the two principals. The next two columns examined some of Rimmer’s activities and ideas. Today’s column turns a similar light on Schmucker.

Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Christian Vocation

If you were an avid reader of popular science in the 1920s, chances are you needed no introduction to Samuel Christian Schmucker: you already knew who he was, because you’d read one or two of his very popular books or heard him speak in some large auditorium. Today we explore the message he brought to so many ordinary Americans, at a time when the boundaries between science and religion were being obliterated in both directions.

Contemporary photo of Schmucker Science Center
Schmucker Science Center at West Chester University was built in the 1960s and named after a man who was widely regarded as one of the finest teachers and public lecturers of his day. Source: aeceng.net.

Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Christian vocation was to educate people about the great immanent God all around us. Even though he taught at a public college, he didn’t hesitate to bring a religious message to his students at West Chester (PA) State Normal School. What really got him going was Nature Study, a national movement among science educators inspired by Louis Agassiz’ famous maxim to “Study nature, not books”. Schmucker got in on the ground floor. His textbook, The Study of Nature, was published in 1908—the same year in which The American Nature Study Society was founded.

Nature Study was intended for school children, and in Schmucker’s hands it became a tool for religious instruction of a strongly pantheistic flavor. He actually felt that atheistic materialism is dead, and that Nature Study would help show the way toward a new kind of belief, rooted in the conviction that God is everywhere. The two books of God came perfectly together in modern science—provided that we were prepared to embrace “a higher conception of God” alongside “a clearer reverence for [scientific] investigation.” Elaborating his position, he identified “three very distinct stages in our belief as to the relation between God and His creation.” First was the “primitive belief” based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Next, “an abiding sense of the existence of law,” led to acceptance of an ancient earth, with forms of life evolving over eons of time. Religiously-motivated rejection of evolution had led “multitudes of great scientists” to throw off religion entirely, becoming materialists: that was the second stage of belief. Schmucker placed himself in the third stage, in which materialism was overturned: “But materialism died with the last [nineteenth] century. The great scientists of the new [twentieth] century are to a very large degree intense spiritualists. God is now recognized in His universe as never before. No longer is He the Creator who in the distant past created a world from which He now stands aloof, excepting as He sees it to need His interference. Now God is everywhere; now God is in everything.” Though he recognized that public schools mostly made “religious exercises entirely inadmissable [sic],” Schmucker still hoped that “the teacher who is himself filled with holy zeal, who has himself learned to find in nature the temple of the living God,” would “bring his pupils into the temple and make them feel the presence there of the great immanent God” (The Study of Nature, pp. 42-44). So much for the religious neutrality of public colleges.

Through Science to God: Divine Immanence and the Laws of Nature

If you aren’t breathless from reading the previous paragraph, please read it again. If this were Schmucker’s final word on divine immanence, it would be hard for me to be too critical. One of the best things about many post-Darwinian theologies (and that’s what Schmucker was writing here) is a very strong turn to divine immanence, an important corrective to many pre-Darwinian theologies, which tended to see God’s creative activity only in miracles of special creation, making it very difficult to see how God could work through the continuous process of evolution. I lack space to develop this point more fully, so I’ll just quote something from one of the greatest post-Darwinian theologians, the Anglo-Catholic clergyman and botanist Aubrey Moore. “Darwinism,” he wrote, “has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere.” (Quoting his 1889 essay, “The Christian Doctrine of God”) Good stuff, Aubrey Moore; I recommend a double dose for anyone suffering from serious doubts about the theism in theistic evolution. Perhaps I’ll provide that medication at some point down the road.

For the time being, I’m afraid it’s back to Schmucker. Unlike Moore, he had no interest in a God who could create immanently through evolution but could also transcendently bring Christ back from the dead. His God was embedded in an eternal world that he didn’t even create. To see what I mean, let’s examine the fascinating little pamphlet pictured at the start of this column, Through Science to God (1926). “The laws of nature,” he said, “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.” Despite the fact that Isaac Newton himself had explicitly rejected both the physics and the theology he was about to utter, Schmucker then said that gravitation “is inherent in the nature of the bodies. It was not ‘put there’ by a higher power.” This is followed by as blithe a confession of divine immanence as anyone has ever written:

“The laws of nature are not the fiat of almighty God, they are the manifestation in nature of the presence of the indwelling God. They are the principles of his being as they shine out, declaring his presence behind and within and through the whirling electrons. These eternally restless particles are not God: but in them he is manifest. Science, in studying them, is studying him. Science is man’s earnest and sincere, though often bungling, attempt to interpret God as he is revealing himself in nature.” (Through Science to God, pp. 21-22)

In passages such as these, Schmucker stripped God of transcendence and removed from the laws of nature every ounce of contingency that has been so important for the development of modern science. His God was coeval with the world and all but identical with the laws of nature, and evolutionary progress was the source of his ultimate hope. Similar pictures of God presented by some prominent TE advocates today only underscore the ongoing importance of getting one’s theology right, especially when it comes to evolution and cosmology. BL gets it right: we understand the importance of creation, contingency, and divine transcendence. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t been reading my columns very carefully.

Portrait of Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton at age 46, as painted by Godfrey Kneller (1689). When Robert Boyle died at the end of 1691, his will provided for an annual series of apologetics lectures, in which science would be used for “proveing the Christian Religion” against unbelievers. Newton probably helped choose the first lecturer, Richard Bentley, who proceeded to write lectures drawing on Newtonian physics. This led the two men to correspond about aspects of Newton’s physics, in which Newton told Bentley, “You sometimes speak of gravity as essential & inherent to matter: pray do not ascribe that notion to me …” Schmucker was obviously ignorant of Newton’s position here.

Eugenics as Religion

Consistent with his high view of evolution and his low view of God, Schmucker believed that evolution would eventually but inevitably produce moral perfection, as our animal nature fades away. He expressed this in language that was more in tune with the boundless optimism of the French Enlightenment than with the awful carnage of the Great War that was about to begin in Europe. “A time will come when man shall have risen to heights as far above anything he now is as to-day he stands above the ape.” There seemed “no end” to what “Infinite Power” and “limitless time” could bring about. “Slowly the brute shall sink away, slowly the divine in him shall advance, until such heights are attained as we today can scarcely imagine.” That was the message of his national Chautauqua text, The Meaning of Evolution (pp. 190-91) –the title says it all.

Eugenics, the idea that we should improve the evolutionary fitness of the human species through selective breeding, held the key to this transformation. The “high hope” of eugenics was to “increase the proportion of fine strong beautiful upright human families and diminish the ratio of shiftless, weak, defaced, unmoral people,” in order that “the world will be bettered for ages.” Progress was boundless. “There is no limit to human perfectability [sic]. There is enough perfectly certain knowledge now on both sides of the problem to make human life a far finer thing than it now is,” if only enough people could be “persuaded of the truth of what the scientist knows and to act on it.” (Heredity and Parenthood, pp. 13-14) Ultimately, Schmucker all but divinized eugenics as the source of our salvation; he believed it was the best means to eliminate sinful behaviors, including sexual promiscuity, the exploitation of workers, and undemocratic systems of government.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this. Eugenics was part of the stock-in-trade of “progressive” scientists and clergy in the 1920s. Without a transcendent lawgiver to stand apart from nature as our judge, it was not hard to see eugenic reforms as morally appropriate means to spread the kingdom of God on earth. Wasn’t that just putting the work of the wholly immanent God into practice, by applying the divine process of evolution to ourselves? Schmucker himself put it like this: “With the growth of actual knowledge and of high aims man may really expect to help nature (is it irreverent to say help God?) in lifting human life to ever higher levels.” (Heredity and Parenthood, p. vi) As Christine Rosen has shown in her brilliant book,Preaching Eugenics, liberal clergy (whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish) were keen to cooperate with scientists just when the fundamentalists were combatting evolution with everything they had. Dozens of modernist pastors served as advisors to the American Eugenics Society, while Schmucker and many other scientists offered explicit religious justification for their efforts to promote eugenics.

With Rimmer and his crowd decrying good science, and Schmucker and his crowd denying good theology, American Christians of the Scopes era faced a grim choice. The twin horns of that dilemma still substantially shape religious responses to evolution. Isn’t it high time that we found a third way?

TIME magazine cover showing Edwin Grant Conklin
A former Methodist lay preacher who helped launch the field of developmental biology in the United States, Princeton professor Edwin Grant Conklin was one of the leading public voices for science in the 1920s and 1930s. At the turn of the century, several years before Princeton president Woodrow Wilson hired him away from Penn, Conklin supervised Schmucker as a postdoctoral student and teaching assistant—even though Schmucker was actually three years older. Conklin went on to become both a top researcher and a public intellectual, while Schmucker would make his national reputation solely in teaching, speaking, and writing for lay audiences. Both men strongly supported eugenics.

Looking Ahead

Next, we’ll go back to the beginning of this series, back to the debate between the boxer (Rimmer) and the biologist (Schmucker), to see how it turned out.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from two articles by Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalism and Folk Science Between the Wars,” Religion and American Culture 5 (1995): 217-48, and “Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Christian Vocation,” Seminary Ridge Review 10 (Spring 2008): 59-75.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Through Science to God: Eugenics as Religion"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 25 Sep. 2014. Web. 14 December 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2014, September 25). Through Science to God: Eugenics as Religion
Retrieved December 14, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/through-science-to-god-eugenics-as-religion

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.

More posts by Ted Davis

Comments