The Original American Creation-Evolution Debate

The Original American Creation-Evolution Debate December 9, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-11-29 at 3.52.56 PMWhen it comes to evolution vs. creation, American history story-telling focuses on none other than William Jennings Bryan and the famous Scopes trial in Dayton, TN. But the first major evolution vs. creation debate occurred in the South, it was almost entirely confined to Southern Presbyterians, and it was one string in a cultural knot: the “southern-biblicist apologia.” This is the story told in Monte Harrell Hampton’s engaging and complete analysis, Storm of Words: Science, Religion and Evolution in the Civil War Era (University of Alabama, 2014). Hampton shows how Southern and how Southern Presbyterian this original debate was.

We find in this book an articulate and thoroughly documented and sensitive voice attentive to theology, Bible and the contours of American history. It should be in every theological library and is a model of how history theses can be written.

Hampton opens his published dissertation with a wide-ranging theoretical sketch of what occurred in this more original creation-evolution debate. Here are the major players:

Across the Atlantic, in another 1859 event that would in due course carry implications for faith and cultural identity, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. Its publication would dictate the terms of the discourse about science and religion for the next seventy years and beyond.

Not all of course paid attention; other issues, like slavery, was rocking the United States. But…

One American who did take notice almost immediately, however, was the Swiss emigre and scientific celebrity Louis Agassiz…. Precisely as Agassiz assayed the Origin, however, he was breaking ground on an institution that he would come to envision as a
bastion of antievolutionism, his Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Agassiz’s fleldwork and the philosophical idealism he acquired under German mentors had years before convinced him of the immutability of species; similarities between organisms past and present simply suggested common origin in the same divine mind, which had gradually manifested itself in the unfolding epochs of natural history….

He insisted that God, by successive creations and catastrophes, had directly originated each set of organisms now preserved in the fossil-bearing strata according to his divine master plan.

Two critical players: Darwin and Agassiz. Next comes the person in the center of a culture war, who was given an academic post designed to protect the Bible and southern culture:

… in addition to the appearance of On the Origin of Species and the inauguration of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Southern Presbyterians founded their Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion in that year.

What happened has happened time and time again: a professor appointed to stand firm on some cultural or theological or philosophical rock decided, on the basis of evidence, to follow his or her nose on the evidence. Woodrow himself loved nature and, like many other Presbyterians, believed in two books — the book of of revelation (Bible) and the book of nature — but his affection for nature led him to a higher respect than many of his contemporaries. They opposed his acceptance of observations and conclusions about nature, but originally they thought Woodrow the perfect person for the Perkins chair.

And they had every reason to think he would, for they appointed James Woodrow, an ordained Presbyterian minister whose credentials included not only scientific training under the great Agassiz himself but also a commitment to theological orthodoxy, of which Agassiz was distressingly devoid. But while Agassiz went to his grave in 1873 a dedicated antievolutionist, his protege, James Woodrow, came to believe by the 1880s that some kind of natural evolution was probably true. Unlike many other late nineteenth-century theologians who espoused evolution, Woodrow did not blend his evolutionism with higher criticism or any other type of theological liberalism. Insisting that he believed in biblical inerrancy every bit as strongly as when he had affirmed it in his inaugural address as the Perkins Professor, Woodrow maintained that evolution and Genesis need not be regarded as enemies. The Bible, he argued, did not intend to teach science. Genesis stated only the fact of creation, not the mode God had employed in creating. Believing the Bible’s silence on the latter freed him to look to science for guidance, Woodrow found the scientific evidence in favor of evolution convincing. Evolution, he wrote, was “God’s method of creating.” Any suspicions that Woodrow’s affirmation of biblical infallibility was disingenuous were belied by his exception of Eve from the evolutionary process. Since scripture did clearly specify the mode God had used in creating Eve, Woodrow maintained that he had created the first woman by fiat, from the rib of the sleeping Adam. The Bible had not so elucidated God’s method of creating Adam, however, since the generic “dust” from which he was made, Woodrow reasoned, was likely a scriptural metaphor for organic matter….

Woodrow soon became embroiled in a heated controversy that raged in the Southern Presbyterian Church from 1884 through the end of the decade.

The issue, a thesis carried through by Hampton, is that a culture war was the context for the whole debate and his public accusations and defenses. He was expected to stand for southern culture, a culture that its strongest voices did not easily distinguish from the Bible itself and that was deeply enmeshed in a system of exploitation called slavery of African (Americans), which itself was a source of “scientific” debate. Add major debates about geology and the Bible and you have the brew that created a southern apologia or, better yet, an apologia for southern Christianity in the Presbyterian mode.

… these Southern Presbyterians perfected an apologia that identified biblical orthodoxy as the basis of southern culture, and southern culture as the protector of the authority of scripture.

He was dismissed through the General Assembly of 1886.

So what was the debate about? Pre-conceived theological traditions (John Girardeau) vs. honest, open-minded adjustment to facts and conclusions (James Woodrow) as new frontiers were probed. Woodrow was highly regarded: brilliant, devout, level headed, seeker of truth, and charismatic.  Fully committed to inspiration and a exemplary figure for his students, Woodrow drew a generation of students into his orbit and defense. He was no iconoclast but one to whom many trusted their hearts and minds for wisdom. He believed in an older version of what is now called non-overlapping magisteria.

Southern Presbyterians formed an early, and vociferous, conservative and biblical reaction against those who moved as did Woodrow to a gentle embrace of scientific theories like evolution. Though there were other conservatives on this issue, Southern Presbyterians seemed to lead the charge against evolution — so much so that they generated the first major debate. Their strength of view stood in contrast to many Americans who made plenty of concessions to evolution, and one thinks here of Princeton after Charles Hodge (A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield). It was not until later fundamentalism that antievolutionism was firmly associated with evangelicalism. Notice, too, that when it did it was part of a much deeper culture war.

This sketch describes the essence of this debate — more than 150 years later. The fear in this debate is also the same: slippery slope logic (“the serpent trail of rationalism”) that surrendering on one conclusion will lead to surrendering the entire faith. It leads, so it is claimed, to naturalism and atheism or to a profound disrespect for humans as made in God’s image. And yet one more element: a received interpretation, or traditional interpretation, is understood to be the same as revelation. Yet, inherent to the Protestant faith (these are Presbyterians after all) is the principle of subjecting all our claims to the Bible and to let the Bible be the authority rather than the interpretive tradition.

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