Historicism Was a Greater Challenge Than Darwinism to Some Late 19th-Century Evangelicals’ Christian Faith

Historicism Was a Greater Challenge Than Darwinism to Some Late 19th-Century Evangelicals’ Christian Faith August 22, 2023

If you ask the average educated American Christian what new academic idea presented the greatest challenge to the faith of students at northeastern and midwestern colleges in the late nineteenth century, it’s quite likely they will say Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. After all, anyone who knows about the Scopes trial or who is familiar with any of the legal battles over intelligent design or creationism is aware that Darwin’s theory initiated a controversy among Christians that has only continued to grow over time.

Caricature of Charles Darwin, 1871

But perhaps surprisingly, it was not biological evolution of species per se but rather a related concept – the historical evolution of people and societies – that posed a much greater challenge for Christian orthodoxy.

The same, I think, is true today. Members of conservative evangelical churches who take opposing views on the age of the earth or the question of transmutation of species may differ on how they read the first two chapters of Genesis but will probably be mostly indistinguishable in all other aspects of their theology.

Yet people who either engage in what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” – that is, the belief that the past was much more primitive in its moral views and understanding of the world and that because of historical evolution, we are far more enlightened today – or who believe in historical relativism and that there are no timeless truths that transcend history will probably find it very difficult to reconcile those beliefs with historic Christian orthodoxy. They will instead be inclined to replace historic Christian teachings with widely accepted views of the present on the grounds that our understandings of the Bible or of historic Christian doctrines must evolve to conform to new understandings of reality.

These views, which can be described as forms of “historicism,” took hold in American academic circles in the late nineteenth century after being imported from German universities, and they revolutionized the study of nearly all of the humanities and social sciences. They also caused a severe crisis of faith even for American evangelical Christian academics who had seen no problem reconciling the Bible with Darwin.

To get a sense of why historicism proved to be a much greater challenge to the Christian faith in than Darwinism, I want to consider the lives of two pious New England evangelicals who shared a belief in Darwinian evolution but who ended up on opposite sides of the fundamentalist-modernist divide at the beginning of the twentieth century because of their different attitudes toward historicism.

George Frederick Wright, the first of these evangelicals, was born into a Congregationalist family in upstate New York in 1838, studied theology at Oberlin College, and then began pastoring a Congregational church in Vermont. But during the early years of his pulpit ministry, he often seemed more enamored with science than with the Scriptures. When preaching to his congregants about the evidence of God from nature, he sometimes lapsed into such detailed descriptions of rock formations and other phenomena from the natural world that it seemed his messages might have been better suited for the college science classroom than for the church.

George Frederick Wright (1838-1921)

Wright read avidly about science and became a self-taught geologist. He also became an evolutionist.

Ever since the early 1840s, geology professors at New England colleges – including the most devout, Bible-believing evangelicals among them – had argued that geologic evidence indicated that the world was much older than the few thousand years that many Christians assumed the biblical narratives suggested. Even without radiometric dating, they could tell that the fossil record contained evidence of long-extinct species, ancient seas, and geologic changes that must have occurred over millions, rather than merely thousands, of years. Geology professors at Amherst and other church colleges in New England therefore began arguing that the first chapters of Genesis must be reinterpreted to account for this new information, since the truths of natural and revealed religion could never contradict – and since the evidence from the natural world was clear.

This line of argumentation made perfect sense to Wright. He was also persuaded by the arguments of scientists in the 1860s that Charles Darwin’s new theories about the origin of species through an evolutionary process could be harmonized with scripture. He corresponded with one of Darwin’s earliest defenders in the United States, the Harvard botany professor Asa Gray (who, like Wright, was a devout evangelical Congregationalist) and was persuaded by his reasoning.

Like several American evangelical Christian evolutionists of his generation, Wright concluded that each of the “days” of Genesis 1 must have been a long age, an interpretation that harmonized a mostly literal reading of the Bible with the new findings of geology and the theory of evolution.

In Wright’s view, neither scripture nor science could be wrong. “When properly interpreted the Bible does not contradict the facts of astronomy or geology or biology,” Wright declared in a sermon at the Second Congregational Church in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1896. “It gives an account of the origin of the world which is consistent with all the real discoveries of modern science.  The alleged contradiction between science and the Bible originates in misinterpretations of either one of the other.” (This and all of my other quotations from Wright come from materials archived in the George Frederick Wright papers at Oberlin College).

Because Wright held this view, he was a perfect fit for Oberlin College’s new professorship of the harmony of science and revelation, a position that he assumed in 1892. At the time, Oberlin was a socially progressive evangelical college with ties to New England Congregationalists, and like most other northeastern Congregationalist colleges, its leaders publicly accepted the Darwinian theory of evolution from the 1870s onwards.

They also continued to argue for the general accuracy of scripture and the truth of evangelical Protestantism until at least the early twentieth century. Wright’s position as professor of harmony of science and revelation put him at the center of resolving whatever apparent tensions between scripture and science (especially the theory of evolution) that might arise.

In his early adulthood, as a young minister, Wright’s discussions of science and the Bible frequently focused on an explanation of why a Christian could believe in evolution – an argument that put him somewhat to the theological left of some devout New England evangelical Protestant families that were still suspicious of Darwin’s theories. But by the 1890s, Wright became much more focused on arguing against historical criticism of the Bible than on defending evolutionary theory.

As editor of Bibliotheca Sacra, Wright wrote articles defending the historicity of the Genesis flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, and other biblical miracles. A study of ancient Near Eastern myths showed that the Old Testament books did not belong to that genre, he argued. They were instead historically factual accounts.

“The narrative in Exodus so conforms to the physical conditions existing in the neighborhood, and is so free from the grotesqueness and indefiniteness of myths and legends, that it can but be looked upon as a piece of genuine history,” he wrote.

In essence, then, Wright thought that historical study gave Christians reasons to be confident in the factual truth of biblical narratives. This was important, because without a biblically factual record, there would be no basis for Christianity, he thought. “Christianity rests upon a historical basis of facts,” Wright declared. “Its motive power is a belief in the facts recorded in the Bible.”

Wright’s acceptance of evolution and the day-age theory of Genesis did not substantively change his view of his Bible or the epistemological basis for his Christian faith. His view of Christian evidences as an aging Oberlin college professor in the early twentieth century was nearly identical to the views that he had adopted as an Oberlin college student in the 1850s, before ever hearing of Darwin. The truth claims of Christianity were empirically verifiable through historical study, he thought, and the Bible was a historically factual record, not a collection of myths. Evolutionary theory did not change any of that.

But for other New England evangelical Protestants of the late nineteenth century, it did. The reason for that had less to do with Darwin than with the new German view of historicism. Wright never studied in Germany, and he never accepted historicism. But one New England Protestant who did was Shailer Mathews.

Shailer Mathews (1863-1941)

Mathews was 25 years younger than Wright, but he was raised with a similar set of values and view of the world. His evangelical Baptist upbringing in Portland, Maine, revolved around regular church attendance and all of the proscriptions that would later become a hallmark of fundamentalism, such as prohibitions on dancing, cardplaying, and, above all, drinking.

He grew up with a very skeptical view of Darwin’s theory of evolution, because he thought that it was “contrary to Christianity.” Yet as a student at Colby College (which was then a small Baptist college in Waterville, Maine), he found to his surprise that his biology professor accepted both evolution and Christianity – a surprise that prompted him to read everything that he could find on evolution. He soon became convinced of the theory’s truth.

Yet the discovery did not change his evangelical beliefs at the time – just as it had not challenged the evangelical faith of Mathews’s biology professor or of George Frederick Wright. Mathews finished his studies at Colby just as pious a Baptist as he had been before. “I had no questions to be answered and no serious doubts to be settled,” he recalled years later in his autobiography New Faith for Old.

The real challenge to his beliefs came during his graduate studies, when he encountered historical criticism of the Bible and the new assumptions of historicism.

Nineteenth-century American evangelicals, including George Frederick Wright, generally assumed that the differences between the biblical world and their own time were not significant – which is why moral commands given two or three thousand years ago were just as binding in his own time as they had been in the time of Jesus or Moses. They believed that a great chasm existed between pagan superstition and the world of Christianity, but the difference between paganism and Christianity was a product of God’s revelation, not cultural evolution. And Jesus’s teachings, they thought, were eternal and universal; they were not a product of historical evolution, and they did not need to be updated.

But historicist thinking saw all of history as a long process of cultural evolution. The past was very different than the present, and the future would be different still. What was needed was not a recovery of past moral principles, but an upward ascent toward the mores of the future. Even the Bible itself was a product of historical evolution, which meant that it borrowed from pagan sources. And since the Bible was merely a cultural evolutionary step toward an ever-progressing future, there was no reason why biblical teaching itself could not continue to be updated as the needs of society changed.

When Mathews began his seminary studies in 1885 at Newton Theological Seminary, a Baptist institution in Massachusetts, he was completely unaware of the new historicist thinking that had taken hold in Germany. Although he now accepted the biological theory of evolution, his views about history and the Bible were the same as other American evangelicals of the time held. He had no knowledge of historical criticism of the Bible.

But in the year that Mathews began his seminary education, some of the theology professors at neighboring Andover Seminary published Progressive Orthodoxy, which argued that although the apostles had received genuine revelation from God, their presentation of this revelation was shaped by the assumptions and mores of their own time and place, which were very different from the assumptions and mores of the late nineteenth century. This meant that “the apostolic teaching was not fixed or absolute but subject to development,” Mathews concluded.

He was most taken aback, though, by Kenningale Cooke’s The Fathers of Jesus, which argued that Jesus himself derived some of his teaching from Jewish rabbinical sources. “I can still recall how it left me bewildered,” Mathews wrote in his autobiography fifty years later. “If the teaching of Jesus was to be derived from that of the rabbis and the oriental religions, what divine authority would he have? That was rather too searching a question to answer except by recourse to piety.”

But after a while, Mathews found that piety alone was not sufficient to quell the growing realization that perhaps both the Bible and Christianity itself might have developed through a process of historical evolution – an idea that was far more troubling than the theory that the natural world might have been the product of an evolutionary process, as Darwin had posited.

Mathews’s commitment to the principles of historicism – that is, that cultural mores are continually evolving and that people in the past had very different beliefs than those in the present – increased after he enrolled at the University of Berlin to pursue graduate study in history.

The environment was shockingly liberating to a provincial New England Baptist. In Maine, evangelical Baptists knew they should never touch liquor; in Berlin, Mathews’s fellow graduate students held their academic discussions in a beer hall. In Maine, many of the Baptists still shunned the theater; in Berlin, entertainments of every sort were readily available. The old American evangelical prohibitions on cardplaying, smoking, dancing, and other amusements suddenly seemed narrowly parochial and irrelevant.

But as startling as these scenes were to a culturally conservative New England evangelical, the approach to history that was taught in the classroom was even more likely to shatter conventional American evangelical paradigms. The historicism that Mathews had seen glimpses of in a few of his seminary texts was now the entire focus of his graduate training, because it was the central philosophy undergirding the German study of the past.

Mathews returned to the United States convinced that Christianity needed to be updated to account for historical criticism of the Bible and a progressive, historicist understanding of the world. As a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, he combined his critical biblical scholarship with advocacy of the Social Gospel, because he believed that the social ethics of Jesus were some of the core doctrines of Christianity that no amount of historical criticism could take away – and that were also essential for the preservation of international democracy.

In 1924, after years of teaching a theology influenced by historical criticism, Mathews presented a defense of his liberal approach in The Faith of Modernism. Taking an evolutionary view of history as his foundation, Mathews argued that Christianity had always adapted to meet the social needs of the moment.

The Protestant Reformation met a different set of needs than the church of antiquity or the church of the Middle Ages had. John Wesley met a different need than John Calvin. Now, in the twentieth century, it was time, he argued, for yet another evolution in Christian doctrine.

“The insistence that theological doctrines be regarded as the supreme test of Christianity comes from men of the passing generation,” Mathews wrote. “To their appeal the youth of the world is increasingly indifferent. The men and women who are endeavoring to remake our world need moral dynamic. They have outgrown the theology of earlier days. Like the worldview, the politics and social customs they embody and represent, our inherited theological tests no longer are recognized by a world in the making” (emphasis in original).

For Mathews, a progressive view of history led to a progressive view of doctrinal development. Ancient Christian doctrines had to be jettisoned if they did not meet the social needs of the moment, because Christianity had to keep up with social progress and the advance of history.

Such thinking took Mathews outside of historic evangelicalism and into the realm of theological liberalism. Darwin per se had not done that. George Frederick Wright and numerous other theologically conservative evangelicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (such as B. B. Warfield at Princeton Theological Seminary, for instance) remained staunch defenders of biblical authority even while accepting the theory of biological evolution.

What took people outside of historic Christian orthodoxy was not the theory of biological evolution but the application of historicism or a progressive view of history to Christian doctrine. If animal species evolved into other species or even if life developed from non-life, the core doctrines of Christianity were not necessarily affected. But if the doctrinal tenets of Christianity were not timeless truths revealed by God but rather the mere products of progressive cultural evolution, traditional evangelicalism would have to give way to liberal Protestantism, which was much more accommodating to historicist understandings of history.

The real test for which side of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy a Protestant Christian of the early twentieth century might end up on was not their view of biological evolution. It was instead their view of historical evolution. And that, it seems to me, is still largely the case today.

Daniel K. Williams is a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University and the author of The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship. The views expressed in this piece are his own, not those of the Ashbrook Center or Ashland University. You can read more about the author here.

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