Like televised political debates, evolution debates are rarely productive. They rarely lead anyone in attendance to change their mind, or even to re-assess their views in a significant way. Instead, they tend to reinforce positions already held, by providing opportunities for adherents of those views to hear and see prominent people who think as they do. As far as we can tell from the evidence available today, Harry Rimmer’s debate with Samuel Christian Schmucker was of this type. Let’s see what happened.
The debate took place on a Saturday evening, at the end of an eighteen-day evangelistic campaign that Rimmer conducted in two large churches, both of them located on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, the same avenue where the Opera House was also found. The pastor of one of the churches, William L. McCormick, served as moderator. A few years earlier, he had garnered headlines by preaching a sermon against Sabbath-breaking, including playing professional baseball games on Sunday—the first instance of which had only just taken place at Shibe Park, not very far from the Opera House, in order to challenge the legality of Pennsylvania’s blue laws. After introducing the combatants, McCormick announced the proposition to be debated: “That the facts of biology sustain the theory of evolution.”
Schmucker wanted to accomplish two things: to state the evidence for adaptation and natural selection and to refute the claim that evolution is irreligious. As he said in closing, “I am convinced that there is a continuous process of evolution. I believe there is a kinship between all living things. The whole process is so intelligent that there is no question in my mind but what there is an Intelligence behind it. How does the Divine Planner work this thing? I do not know.”
Isn’t that a fascinating statement—a prominent theistic evolutionist endorsing intelligent design!? Historically speaking, however, there was nothing remarkable about this. In the period between the two world wars, many American scientists believed that evolution was progressive—and intelligently designed. Most religious scientists from Schmucker’s time embraced that position. Many of them were also modernists who denied the Incarnation and Resurrection; hardly any were fundamentalists. The more eminent they were in their fields, the more likely this was true.
What an interesting contrast with the situation today! Whereas theologically liberal scientists and theologians of the 1920s typically affirmed design while denying the Incarnation and Resurrection, many Christian scientists and theologians today are reluctant to speak of “design” at all. Why not? The term has been co-opted in recent decades to give it a specifically anti-evolutionary meaning; design and evolution are now usually seen as mutually exclusive explanations, which was not true in Schmucker’s day. On the other hand, most contemporary proponents of “Intelligent Design” are traditional Christians with little or no sympathy for the theological views of Schmucker and company. At the same time, it’s easy now to find leading Christian scientists, including Nobel laureates, who affirm both evolution and the ecumenical creeds, whereas such people were all but invisible in Schmucker’s day—a fact that only contributed to fundamentalist opposition to evolution.
For his part, Rimmer defended the separate creation of every order of living things and waited for the opportunity to deliver a knockout punch. The moment came during his rebuttal. A newspaper reported that Rimmer “drew hearty applause” when “he declared [that] the entire structure of the theory of evolution fell to pieces by the admission of its supporters that the inheritance of acquired characteristics has been proved exploded.” Although Schmucker knew that August Weismann’s work had ruled out that particular mechanism, he probably thought there was still some environmental influence on genetic variation. That subtlety was probably lost on the audience, which responded precisely as Rimmer wanted and expected: with loud applause for an apparently crippling blow. As he had done so many times before, he had defeated an opponent’s “theory” by citing a particular “fact.”
Before the moderator called for a vote, he asked those people who came to the debate with a prior belief in evolution to identify themselves. “A small proportion of the audience stood,” a reporter wrote. When then asked to stand again if they found Schmucker more persuasive, “it seemed that only this same small group stood up and those who voted seemed not to have had their preconceived ideas changed by the debate.” Rimmer’s own account (in a letter to his wife) differed markedly; he claimed that Schmucker’s support nearly disappeared, while gloating over his rhetorical conquest.
Regardless of whose numbers we accept, many came away thinking that Rimmer had beaten Schmucker in a fair fight. Is this really surprising? Rimmer was a highly experienced debater who knew how to work a crowd, especially when it was packed with supporters who considered him an authority and appreciated his keen wit. The late Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, who attended one of Rimmer’s debates, remembered him as “a superb humorist” who had the crowd laughing along with him much of the time (quoting a letter from Ramm to the author). Humor was a powerful weapon for winning the sympathy of an audience, even without good arguments. Rimmer’s son had him pegged well: “Dad never won the argument; he always won the audience” (interview with Ronald L. Numbers, 15 May 1984, as quoted in Numbers, The Creationists, expanded edition, p. 66).
All humor aside, Rimmer was an archetypical creationist. The leading creationist of the next generation, the lateHenry Morris, said that accounts of Rimmer’s debates made it “obvious that present-day debates are amazingly similar to those of his time” (A History of Modern Creationism, note on p. 92). Morris’ associate, the late Duane Gish, eagerly put on Rimmer’s mantle, using humor and ridicule to win an audience when genuine scientific arguments might not do the trick—and (like Rimmer) he is alleged to have won every one of the more than 300 debates in which he participated. “I go for the jugular vein,” Gish once said, sounding so much like Rimmer that sometimes I’m almost tempted to believe in reincarnation (Numbers, The Creationists, p. 316).
The final installment shows how the debate between Rimmer and Schmucker was not actually an example of that dead horse, the “warfare” of science and religion. Rather, they were each promoting a variety of what has been called “folk science,” philosopher Jerome Ravetz’ term for the use of science to support one’s world view, whether this is done by professional scientists or others. The same thing happens today: anyone ever heard of Ken Ham or Richard Dawkins?
References and Suggestions for Further Reading
This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Fundamentalism and Folk Science Between the Wars,” Religion and American Culture 5 (1995): 217-48. I have also quoted newspaper accounts of the debate, “Kansan [Rimmer] Wins in Debate on Theory of Evolution,” Philadelphia Public Ledger, 23 November 1930, part II, 2; and “See Divine Will Behind All of Life,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, 24 November 1930, 16. Rimmer wasn’t actually from Kansas, but he liked to advertise a formal connection he had made with a small state college there. For more about Compton and design, see my article, “Prophet of Science– Part Two: Arthur Holly Compton on Science, Freedom, Religion, and Morality [PDF],” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 61 (September 2009): 175-90. Those who share my interest in baseball history are invited to read John A. Lucas, “The Unholy Experiment—Professional Baseball’s Struggle against Pennsylvania Sunday Blue Laws, 1926-1934,”Pennsylvania History 38 (1971): 163-75.