How Have Christians Responded to Darwin’s “Origin of Species”?
Even before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, many Christians had already accepted an old Earth.
Image Credit: Sarah Bodbyl Roels
Many believe that before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, Christians as a whole maintained an entirely literal, six-day interpretation of Genesis in which the earth was only a few thousand years old. In fact, however, the idea of an old earth had already become increasingly popular among Christians throughout the half century leading up to The Origin of Species.1
Another misconception is that the arrival of Darwin’s theory led the scientific and theological communities to immediately take up positions opposing each other. But history reveals that one of the earliest supporters of evolutionary theory in the American scientific community was a devout Christian botanist named Asa Gray. And among theologians, BB Warfield—an architect of the contemporary evangelical understanding of biblical inerrancy—believed that certain forms of evolution were also compatible with a high view of Scripture.
The first Christian response to Origin of Species in America
Darwin did not invent the idea of evolution. By the time The Origin of Species was published, the idea of evolution in many natural processes was already popular, and the term development was used in its place for discussions of society’s change or the history of the solar system.2 What’s more, it was widely accepted that the earth was much older than previously thought. Most of the groundwork for this understanding resulted from geological work done earlier that century. Through meticulous study of the fossil record, naturalists helped spread the view that the earth was old rather than young.
Though many people like to focus on Christian hostility to evolutionary theory, a careful look at history reveals some surprising facts. For instance, the first American scientist to carefully review and publicly support Darwin’s Origin of Species was a devout Christian named Asa Gray, now regarded as one of the most prominent American biologists of the 19th century. A shy person who avoided politics, Gray worked quietly and does not have the same name recognition as scientists like Louis Agassiz and T.H. Huxley—both flamboyant self-promoters who provoked public debate. But, his brilliant research during his 30-year career at Harvard University helped usher in the era of modern biology in the United States.
Asa Gray made his commitment to Christ in 1835, a few years after completing medical school (much like Francis Collins of our own era).3 As a professing Christian, Gray was a committed churchgoer and member of a local congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a professional scientist, he insisted that science was neutral in matters of religion and metaphysics. Gray found evolutionary theory incredibly stimulating to his scientific research, but never found it threatening to his faith. Both before and after reading Origin of Species, Gray remained firmly grounded in the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith that Christians have shared since the early Church.4
What happened when Origin of Species burst onto the scene? Gray’s extensive research on American and Japanese plants—which he published after corresponding with Charles Darwin—had already convinced him that species and genera found in both countries resulted from common ancestry, not separate creations. He responded to Darwin’s book by writing the first major review5 of Origin on his side of the Atlantic, and he defended Darwin’s scientific theory in a series of meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1859 and 1860. Gray was determined that Origin would get a fair reading from the scientific community, and he even took a leading role in negotiations to reprint Origin in the United States in 1860, ensuring that Americans could have the most accurate edition in their hands.
Regarding the theological implications of evolution, Gray believed that Darwin’s theory was not atheistic, although he recognized that some would use it as an “excuse” for unbelief. Henceforth, he concluded, we need “to reshape” the argument from design “in such wise as to harmonize our ineradicable belief in design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature, now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms, to living beings as well as inanimate things.” The question of whether or not life evolves should not be confused with the issue of God’s existence. Instead, Gray thought that each issue should be investigated using methods appropriate to the subject of inquiry. His refusal to argue for either extreme in this contentious debate upset both anti-evolutionists and radical popularizers of science, both of whom were eager to believe that evolution implied atheism.6
Regarding the theological implications of evolution, Gray believed that Darwin’s theory was not atheistic, although he recognized that some would use it as an “excuse” for unbelief.
Early theological concerns with evolution
In the decades after Origin of Species was published, theologians began to ponder the compatibility of Darwin’s theory and Christian doctrine. Some of them adopted Gray’s view that evolution was God’s method of creation.7 Others argued that since Darwin explained away the apparent design in nature, it was compatible only with atheism.8 Some scholars accepted Darwin’s argument for common ancestry, but rejected the idea of natural selection, either for scientific, philosophical, or theological reasons.9 Others resisted evolution specifically for the human species, partly due to concerns that evolution could conflict with Christian claims that human beings are created in the image of God.10
With time, however, even some of the more conservative theologians became comfortable with evolution. B.B. Warfield, for instance, developed a powerful and enduring legacy in American evangelicalism for his belief that the Bible communicates revelation from God entirely without error. Yet while he defended biblical inerrancy, Warfield was also a cautious proponent of the possibility that God could have brought about life through evolution. His basic stance was a doctrine of providence that saw God working in and with the processes of nature, rather than completely replacing them. In Warfield’s mind, a high view of biblical authority was fully compatible with a divinely guided process of evolution.11
Rise of young earth creationism
Although many Christians were concerned about the implications they found in Darwin’s theory of evolution, by the end of the nineteenth century very few Christian authors argued for a young earth. Enthusiasm for this was largely confined to the Seventh-day Adventists, who followed the writings of their founding prophet, Ellen G. White. She claimed to have seen the creation of the earth in a vision from God. In another vision, God revealed to her that Noah’s flood produced the fossil record.12 Early Adventists thus explained the geological data found in the early nineteenth century with their interpretation of the flood story of Genesis 6-8.
Between 1910 and 1915, a group of conservative Christians wrote a large collection of papers titled The Fundamentals.13 They clarified the beliefs of conservative Christians intent on preserving the faith from the threats of their time. Interestingly, The Fundamentals put no emphasis on Noah’s flood as an explanation of geological data and the contributors accepted an old earth. Even William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist who crusaded against the teaching of evolution in public schools, accepted an old earth.
Nevertheless, the modern Creationist campaign gained traction as an anti-evolution movement in the decades that followed. The 100th anniversary of Darwin’s publication in 1959 brought with it a cry from academics to make the public more aware of Darwin’s theory. Around the same time, the federal government funded the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), which produced a series of textbooks that taught evolution without reservation. Many conservative Christians at the time saw this as an attempt to “ram evolution down the throats of children.”14
As if in response to this outcry, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris updated Adventist flood geology in their 1961 book, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications.15 Whitcomb and Morris gave an explanation for how Noah’s flood could account for the geological evidence for an older earth. Soon after, small groups of conservative Christian scientists began to form in support of this research. They came to be known as Young Earth Creationists and referred to their flood geology as scientific creationism. The movement continued to grow, and by the 1970s the term “Creationism” increasingly came to mean only the narrow belief that God created in 6 days and the earth is young, not the larger, foundational belief that God is the Maker of heaven and earth, regardless of the time scale involved.
Going back to the original publication of Origin of Species in 1859, we have seen that the original Christian reception of Darwin’s theory was not universally hostile, and that Asa Gray even found it scientifically insightful. With his faith firmly grounded in the creeds of the early church, Gray conducted brilliant scientific research and maintained an unwavering commitment to Christ.
It was actually not until the second half of the 20th century that Young Earth Creationism became a mainstream view within the evangelical community. Knowing this, many Christians today have decided to stop perpetuating a “war” with science. Prominent scholars like Asa Gray and B.B. Warfield demonstrate that it is indeed possible to maintain a high view of scripture and accept scientific evidence of evolution.
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