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.
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.
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?
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.