Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Evolution in the 1920's
The controversies of the early twentieth century profoundly influenced the current debate about origins: we haven’t yet gotten past it.
The Boxer: Harry Rimmer
It was unseasonably warm for a late November evening when the evangelist and former semi-professional boxer Harry Rimmer stepped off the sidewalk and onto the steps leading up to the Metropolitan Opera House in downtown Philadelphia. The balmy weather took him back to his home in southern California, back to his wife of fifteen years and their three children, back to the USC Trojans and the big home game just two weeks away against a great team from Notre Dame in what would prove to be Knute Rockne’s final season. He awaited that confrontation as eagerly as the one he was about to engage in himself—a debate about evolution with Samuel Christian Schmucker, a local biologist with a national reputation as an author and lecturer. Writing to his wife that afternoon, he had envisioned himself driving a team of oxen through the holes in his opponent’s arguments, just what he wished the Trojans would do to the Irish: they didn’t; Notre Dame won, 27-0, before 90,000 fans.
Rimmer dearly hoped that things would get even warmer before the night was over. The heat of battle would ignite the fire inside him, and the flames would illuminate the truth of his position while consuming the false doctrines of his enemy. This was exactly what had happened so many times before, in so many different places, with so many different opponents, and he was well prepared for it to happen again. He had been up late for a night or two before the debate, going over his plans with members of the Prophetic Testimony of Philadelphia, the interdenominational group that sponsored the debate as well as the lengthy series of messages that led up to it. It was in fact Rimmer’s second visit to Philadelphia in six months under their auspices, and this time he would top it off in his favorite way: with a rousing debate against a recognized opponent of fundamentalism. He approached every debate as an intellectual boxing match, an opportunity to achieve a hard-fought conquest despite his almost complete lack of formal education. As he told his wife before another debate, “It is now 6:15 and at 8:30 I enter the ‘ring.’ I am just starting to make an outline. I’ve been sorting my pebbles and greasing my sling. I shall type my notes for easy reference and then rest until the gong sounds.”
The Biologist: Samuel Christian Schmucker
Apparently, Rimmer had originally sought to debate the renowned paleontologist William King Gregory from the American Museum of Natural History, but that didn’t work out. As it happens, his opponent was Gregory’s longtime friend Samuel Christian Schmucker, a very frequent speaker at the Museum and undoubtedly one of the two or three best known speakers and writers on scientific subjects in the United States. A regular at several prestigious venues in the Northeast, he was best known for his annual week-long series at the Chautauqua Institution, the mother of all American bully pulpits. Two of his books were used as national course texts by the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, and his lectures, illustrated with numerous glass lantern slides, got top billing in advertisements for a quarter century.
Interestingly, Wikipedia pages exist for his father and grandfather, two of the most important Lutheran clergy in American history, while electronic information about the grandson is minimal, despite his notoriety ninety years ago. How quickly we forget! The grandfather, Samuel Simon Schmucker, founded the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg; his son, Allentown pastor Beale Melanchthon Schmucker, helped found a competing institution, The Lutheran Philadelphia Seminary. But, they didn’t get along, and perhaps partly for that reason the grandson was an Episcopalian.
Although he never published any important research, Schmucker was admired by colleagues for his ability to communicate science accurately and effectively to lay audiences, without dumbing down—so much so, that toward the end of World War One he was elected president of the American Nature Study Society, the oldest environmental organization in the nation. As we will see in a future column, his involvement with the Nature Study movement dovetailed with his liberal Christian spirituality and theology.
For the moment, however, I will call attention to a position that gave him high visibility in Philadelphia, a long trip by local rail from his home in West Chester. For more than thirty years, Schmucker lectured at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, located just a mile away from the Metropolitan Opera House in north Philadelphia. The Institute’s mission was to educate the general public about science, at no cost, and Schmucker was as good as anyone, at any price, for that task.
When the boxer and the biologist collided that November evening, they both had a substantial following, and they presented a sharp contrast to the audience: a pugilistic, self-educated fundamentalist evangelist against a suave, sophisticated science writer. When it comes right down to it, not all that different from Ken Ham versus Bill Nye, except that Ham has a couple of earned degrees where Rimmer had none. Come back to see what happens. Our foray into this long-forgotten episode will provide an illuminating window into the roots of the modern origins debate. The great gulf separating Rimmer from Schmucker, fundamentalist from modernist, still substantially shapes the attitudes of American Protestants toward evolution. History, as an historian once said, is just too important to be left to historians.
Harry Rimmer got off to a very rough start. Born in San Francisco in 1890, his father died when he was just five years old. His mother then made an enormous mistake, marrying a man who beat her children regularly before abandoning them a few years later. His home life was so difficult that he was expelled from school in third grade as an incorrigible child and had no further formal education until after being discharged from the Army. So great was his anger, that he carried a gun with him as an adolescent, hoping to find and kill his former stepfather.
As a teenager, Rimmer worked in rough places—lumber camps, mining camps, railroad camps, and the waterfront—gaining a reputation for toughness. A couple of years after his native city was leveled by an earthquake, he joined the Army Coast Artillery and took up prize fighting with considerable success. Although he quit boxing after his dramatic conversion to Christianity at a street meeting in San Francisco, probably on New Year’s Day, 1913, the pugilistic instincts still came out from time to time, especially in the many debates he conducted throughout his career as an itinerant evangelist. Sometimes advertised as an athlete for speaking engagements, he exemplified what is often called “muscular Christianity.”
Starting in the 1920s, the era of the Scopes trial, Rimmer established a national reputation as a feisty debater who used carefully selected scientific facts to defend his fundamentalist view of the Bible. Incorporating himself as the “Research Science Bureau,” an apparently august organization that was actually just a one-man operation based out of his home in Los Angeles, Rimmer disseminated his antievolutionary message through dozens of books and pamphlets and thousands of personal appearances. In the opinion of historian Ronald Numbers, “No antievolutionist reached a wider audience among American evangelicals during the second quarter of the [twentieth] century” (The Creationists, p. 60).
Like today’s creationists, Rimmer had a special burden for students. Like most fundamentalists then and now, he saw high schools, colleges, and universities as hotbeds of religious doubt. Innocent youth faced challenges from faculty intent on ripping out their faith by the roots. The very truth of the Bible was under assault, in what he saw as an inexcusable misuse of state power. “Although it is against the law to teach or defend the Bible in many states of this Union,” he complained, “it is not illegal to deride the Book or condemn it in those same states and in their class rooms” (Lot’s Wife and the Science of Physics, quoting the un-paginated preface). Rimmer’s mission was to give students the knowledge they needed to defend and to keep their faith. As a key part of his strategy, he openly challenged professors to debate him—to defend their own faith in science against his scathing assaults on their credibility.
By the mid-1930s, Rimmer had spoken to students at more than 4,000 schools. In retrospect, one of his most important engagements happened at Rice Institute (now Rice University in 1943. The invitation came from a young instructor of engineering, Henry Morris, who went on to become the most influential young-earth creationist of his generation. Morris hoped Rimmer would address the whole student body, but in the end he only spoke to about sixty Christian students. Years later, Morris expressed disappointment that he didn’t get a chance to talk to Rimmer afterward, owing to another commitment: he “had been eagerly looking forward to getting to know [Rimmer] personally, hoping to secure his guidance for what I hoped might become a future testimony in the university world somewhat like his own” (A History of Modern Creationism, p. 91). Indeed, Rimmer would have been very pleased to see Morris and others establish the Creation Research Society and theInstitute for Creation Research. Even though Rimmer wasn’t a YEC—he advocated the “gap” theory, the same view that Morris himself endorsed at that point—his Research Science Bureau was a direct ancestor of Morris’ organizations: in each case, the goal is (or was) to promote research that supports the scientific reliability of the Bible.
Epilogue: A Third Way?
One of the students who heard Rimmer at Rice, Walter R. Hearn, became a biochemist specializing in experiments exploring the possible chemical origin of life (see here and here). If his Christian commitment wavered at all, it’s not evident in his helpful little book, On Being a Christian in Science. For many years Hearn has been a very active member of the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of evangelical scientists founded in 1941. Shortly after World War Two, as the ASA grew in size, its increasingly well-trained members began to distance themselves from Rimmer’s strident antievolutionism, just as Morris was abandoning Rimmer’s “gap” view in favor of George McCready Price’s version of flood geology: two ships heading in opposite directions. When Morris and others broke with the ASA in 1963 to form the Creation Research Society, it was precisely because he didn’t like where the ASA was headed, and the new climate chilled his efforts to follow in Rimmer’s footsteps. I’d like to think that Hearn and others, including those of us here at BioLogos, have found a viable third way.
Harry Rimmer’s strongest objections to evolution flowed from a rock bottom commitment to the “harmony” (a word he often used, including in the title of one of his most popular books of science and the Bible. BioLogos believes the same thing, but not in the same way: our concept of scientific knowledge is quite different. To understand this more fully, let’s examine Rimmer’s view of scientific knowledge.
He laid out his position succinctly early in his career as a creationist evangelist, in a brief article for a leading fundamentalist magazine, outlining the goals of his ministry to “the outstanding agnostics of the modern age,” namely “the high school [and] college student.” The basic problem, in his opinion, was that students were far too uncritical of evolution: “With a credulity intense and profound the modern student will accept any statement or dogma advanced by the scientific speculations and far-fetched philosophy of the evolvular [sic] hypothesis.” The key words here are “credulity,” “speculations,” “far-fetched,” and “hypothesis.” Only by undermining confidence in evolution, Rimmer believed, could he affirm that “The Bible and science are in absolute harmony.” Only then could he say that there “is no difference [of opinion]” between the “infallible and absolute … Word of God” and the “correlated body of ‘absolute’ knowledge” that constitutes science.
What exactly did he mean by a “correlated body of ‘absolute’ knowledge”? He spelled it out in a pamphlet written a couple years later, Modern Science and the Youth of Today. Reread that title: his concern to reach the next generation can’t be missed. Describing himself unabashedly as “professionally engaged in scientific research” and a friend of “TRUE SCIENCE,” written in large capitals for emphasis, he added in bold type that “There is a difference between science and scientific opinion, and it is the latter that is often meant when we say ‘modern’ science.” Stating his definition of science as “a correlated body of absolute knowledge,” he then said this:
“When knowledge on a subject has been refined and is absolute, the knowledge of those facts becomes the science of that subject. But ‘modern’ science is the opinion of current thought on many subjects, and has not yet been tested or proved. When the test is made, this ‘modern’ science generally fails, and passes on to new theories and hypotheses, but this never hinders a certain type of dogmatists from falling into the same error, and positively asserting a new theory as a scientifically established fact. The author desires to clearly distinguish in this article between true science, (which is knowledge gained and verified) and ‘modern’ science, which is largely speculation and theory.”
In Rimmer’s opinion, it was precisely this false science—based on speculative hypotheses rather than absolute knowledge of proven facts—that led youth to “sneer at Christian faith because it is not scientific,” to “turn their backs on godly living and holiness of conduct, [and] to make shipwrecks of their lives as they drift away from every mooring that would hold in times of stress.” Thus, Rimmer concluded that “‘MODERN’ SCIENCE IS ANTI-CHRISTIAN!” In other words, genuine science is “Just the facts, Ma’am.”
Distinctions of this sort, between “false” (modern) science on the one hand and “true” science on the other hand, are absolutely fundamental to creationism. Without such, it’s impossible to claim that science and a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible agree. Take a low view of the “science” in the “hypothesis” of evolution, and you can say with William Jennings Bryan, “The word hypothesis is a synonym used by scientists for the word guess,” or “Evolution is not truth, it is merely an hypothesis—it is millions of guesses strung together” (quoting his stump speech, The Menace of Darwinism, and the closing argument he never got to deliver at the Scopes trial).
Let’s go further into this particular rhetorical move. Basically, Rimmer was appealing to two related currents in American thinking about science, both of them quite influential in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and still to some extent today. One is known as “common sense realism,” a form of Baconian empiricism originating in Scotland during the Enlightenment and associated with Thomas Reid. Thinkers in this tradition, including many conservative Protestants in America, hold that the common sense of ordinary people is sufficient to evaluate truth claims, on the basis of readily available empirical evidence—essentially a Baconian approach to knowledge.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but proponents are sometimes too empirical, too dismissive of the high-level principles and theories that join together diverse observations into coherent pictures. As the Christian astronomer and historian Owen Gingerich has so eloquently said, science is ultimately about “building a wondrously coherent picture of the universe,” and “a universe billions of years old and evolving is also part of that coherency” (Gingerich, “The Galileo Affair,” Scientific American, August 1982, p. 143). Proponents of common sense realism sometimes see such ideas, which lie at the core of all branches of modern science, as wholly unjustified speculations. This creates a large gap between the views of professional scientists and those of many ordinary people—a gap that is far more significant for the origins controversy than any supposed “gaps” in the fossil record.
A second idea embedded in Rimmer’s rhetoric was emblazoned on the gondola in the balloon cartoon: “Science Falsely So-Called,” which references 1 Timothy 6:20, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” For centuries, Christian authors have used this phrase derisively to label various philosophical views that they saw as opposed to the Bible, including Gnosticism, but since the early nineteenth century natural history has probably been the most common target. Rimmer and other fundamentalist leaders of the 1920s had no problem with vast geological ages, so for them “Science Falsely So-Called” really meant just evolution. Contemporary creationists continue this tradition, but their targets are more numerous. They believe all of the historical sciences are false—cosmology, geology, paleontology, physical anthropology, and evolutionary biology. This creates such a large gap with professional science that it can never be crossed: YECs will always be in conflict with many of the most important, well established conclusions of modern science. Our mission at BioLogos is to provide a helpful alternative to both Rimmer and the YECs, an alternative that bridges this gap in biblically faithful ways.
Rimmer always pitted the “facts” of science against the mere “theories” of professional scientists. At the same time, he raised the burden of proof so high for evolution that no amount of evidence could have persuaded his followers to accept it. For example, let’s consider his analysis of the evidence for the evolution of the horse—a textbook case since the late nineteenth century. After noting the existence of twelve ancestral forms related to the modern horse, he asked,
“What of the millions upon millions of forms that would be required for the transformation of each species into the next subsequent species? What of the billions of varieties that would be necessary for the gradual development of a horse out of a creature that is more like a civet cat than any other living creature? Can intelligence and reason be content with twelve links in so great a gap, and call that a complete demonstration?”
Having set up the situation in this way, Rimmer knew full well that “so great a gap” will never be crossed—we will never find millions of transitional forms. He also knew his audience: most ordinary folk would find his skepticism and ridicule far more persuasive than the evidence presented in the textbooks. Eight decades later, the horse remains a textbook example of evolution, and creationists still demand more transitional forms—despite the fact that, as creation scientist Todd Wood admits, “the evolutionists got that one right”.
Unfortunately, Rimmer sometimes used even pseudo-scientific “facts” to defend the reliability of Scripture against scientists and biblical critics. Sadly, it’s still all too commonly done—the internet helps to perpetuate such things no less than it also serves to disseminate more accurate information. Indeed, the internet has done for plagiarism, even of really bad ideas, what steroids did to baseball for a generation. For much of the nineteenth century, by contrast, many highly respected Christian scholars had introduced a substantial body of literature harmonizing solid, respectable science of their day with the evangelical faith. Written in many cases by authors with genuine scientific expertise, such works had the positive purpose of forging a creative synthesis between the best theology and the best science of their day—exactly what we at BioLogos are doing.
I have not found a comparable body of literature from the first half of the twentieth century. As Bernard Ramm lamented long ago, “the noble tradition which was in ascendancy in the closing years of the nineteenth century has not been the major tradition in evangelicalism in the twentieth century. A narrow bibliolatry, the product not of faith but of fear, buried the noble tradition” (quoting the 1976 edition of The Christian View of Science and Scripture, p. 9). Ramm’s diagnosis was never more aptly applied than to Harry Rimmer.
I began this article by exploring an evolution debate from 1930 between fundamentalist preacher Harry Rimmer and modernist scientist Samuel Christian Schmucker, in which I introduced the two principals. The last two parts examined some of Rimmer’s activities and ideas. This part 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. Now 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. BioLogos 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?
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 late Henry 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).
Getting Past the “Warfare” View of the History of Science and Religion
How should we understand the Rimmer-Schmucker debate? In earlier generations, historians would have been tempted to apply the “warfare” model to episodes of that sort, on the assumption that science and religion have always been locked in mortal combat, with religion constantly yielding to science. That way of thinking was widely received by historians and many other scholars—to say nothing of the ordinary person in the street—for most of the twentieth century. Aspects of this debate do seem to fit the warfare model, especially Rimmer’s condescending hostility toward evolution specifically and scientists generally and his elevation of a “literal” Bible (that is the word he often chose himself) over well supported scientific conclusions. Some people’s religious views do indeed conflict with some parts of science, and I could point to several good historical examples: why beat around the bush?
As an historian, however, I should also point out that the warfare view is dead among historians, though hardly among the scientists and science journalists who are far more influential in shaping popular opinion—even though they usually know far less about this topic than the relevant experts. Indeed, if we historians wrote about current scientific matters with the same blunt instruments that scientists typically employ when they write about past scientific matters, I dare say that no one would pay serious attention to us. But, since I’m an historian and the subject is history, please pay attention.
For more than thirty years, historians have been probing beneath the surface of apparent conflicts, searching for the underlying reasons why people with different beliefs have sometimes clashed over matters involving science. If there is just one take-away message, it is this: the warfare view grossly oversimplifies complex historical situations, to such an extent that it has to be laid to rest. Listen to the verdict from two of the best historians of science in the world, neither of whom is religious. According to David Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, “recent scholarship has shown the warfare metaphor to be neither useful nor tenable in describing the relationship between science and religion”. The key word here is “tenable.” The warfare view is not. “Any interpretation that begins to do justice to the complexity of the interaction between Christianity and science must be heavily qualified and subtly nuanced—clearly a disadvantage in the quest for public recognition, but a necessity nonetheless.” In other words, you can use sound bites and false “facts” if you want a big audience, but only if you are prepared to kiss historical accuracy goodbye.
In an effort to put some nuance into our analysis of the debate, I turn to social philosopher Jerome Ravetz, an astute critic of some of the excesses and shortcomings of modern science. Ravetz has defined a very helpful concept, “folk science,” as that “part of a general world-view, or ideology, which is given special articulation so that it may provide comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience.” This obviously maps quite well onto Rimmer’s creationism, but it can also map onto real science, especially when science is extrapolated into an all-encompassing world view. As Ravetz observes, “the functions performed by folk-sciences are necessary so long as the human condition exists; and it can be argued that the ‘new philosophy’ [of the Scientific Revolution] itself functioned as folk-science for its audience at the time.” This was because “it promised a solution to all problems, metaphysical and theological as well as natural.” That sort of thing still happens today. Indeed, “the basic folk-science of the educated sections of the advanced societies is ‘Science’ itself” (Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems, pp. 386-87).
This means that professional scientists like Dawkins are perfectly capable of doing folk science; you don’t need to be a Harry Rimmer or a Ken Ham. The problem with the New Atheists isn’t their science, it’s the folk science that they pass off as science. In a book written many years ago, four faculty members from Calvin College pointed out that folk science “provides a standing invitation to the unwary to confuse science with religion”—something that still happens all too often. As they went on to say, “Naturalistic evolutionism is to be rejected because its materialist creed puts the material world in place of God, because it asserts that the cosmos is self-existent and self-governing, because it sees no value in anything beyond the material thing itself, [and] because it asserts that cosmic history has no purpose, that purpose is only an illusion. Naturalistic evolutionism views the cosmos as an independent, autonomous, material machine named NATURE—a singularly meaningless image compared with the rich biblical vision of the cosmos as God’s CREATION” (Portraits of Creation, pp. 188 and 121, their italics).
Shortly before most of the world had heard of Dawkins, theologian Conrad Hyers offered a similar analysis. His article about “dinosaur religion” was featured in my series on Science and the Bible, but I highlighted a different aspect of the article. Hyers called naturalistic evolutionism “dinosaur religion,” because it uses “an evolutionary way of structuring history … as a substitute for biblical and theological ways of interpreting existence.” In other words, “When certain scientists suggest that the religious accounts of creation are now outmoded and superseded by modern scientific accounts of things, this is ‘dinosaur religion.’ Or when scientists presume that evolutionary scenarios necessarily and logically lead to a rejection of religious belief as a superfluity, this is dinosaur religion.” Even though Dawkins vigorously denies being religious—for him, religion is a “virus” that needs to be eradicated, not something he wants to practice himself—he fits this description perfectly. Indeed, he’s the leading exponent of dinosaur religion today.
Rimmer’s antievolutionism and Schmucker’s evolutionary theism were nothing other than competing varieties of folk science. Of course, each type of folk science has its own particular audience, as Ravetz realized. “The external groups for which a subject functions as folk-science can vary enormously in their size, sophistication and influence,” necessitating different styles of communication. A “sub-literate audience,” he said, “needs fewer trappings of academic jargon and titles, while a sophisticated audience requires a reasonable facsimile of a leading branch of ‘Science’, such as physics” (pp 388-89). Either way, varieties of folk science, including dinosaur religion, will continue to appeal to anyone who wants to use the Bible as if it were an authoritative scientific text or to inflate science into a form of religion.
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