Evolution, the Bible, and Presbyterians in the Civil War South (or, please stop the merry-go-round I’m getting nauseous)

Evolution, the Bible, and Presbyterians in the Civil War South (or, please stop the merry-go-round I’m getting nauseous) September 19, 2014

stormofwordsToday we have an interview with Monte Harrell Hampton (PhD, University of North Carolina), visiting instructor of U.S. history at North Carolina State University and a pastor in the Raleigh, North Carolina area.

He’s written Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era. The title sort of gives it away, which means it’s a good title. 

My in-depth summary: Before the Civil War southern Presbyterianism got along with science quite well. Then…dum DUM DUUUUUM…evolution happened and the old guard freaked.

Spoiler alert: a professor got fired over it.

If you want to read a real summary, the publisher’s is here. And you should definitely read my interview below with the author.

If anything, this book should give us a bit of historical perspective on this issue. The same old problems keep coming up in conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist circles in America with the same old pathetic results.

And if anyone wants to stop the merry-go-round, feel free because I’m getting nauseous.

What is Storm of Words about?

It is a history of the science/religion relationship as grappled with by a particular group of conservative Christians in nineteenth-century America.

Though embedded in a different cultural context than we are, they were asking what many Christians today ask, namely, how believers should interpret the portions of the Bible that touch on nature and natural history—the kinds of things that scientists also study.

Of course, Christians have been dealing with such questions for the last two thousand years, and their approaches and conclusions have exhibited great variety. From commentaries on Genesis by figures like Origen and Augustine, through the church’s response to Galileo and Newton, to debate over Darwinism and beyond, Christians in different ages and places have brought different assumptions to the project of relating scripture to science. Everyone reads the Bible through lenses colored by their society and culture and past.

So, to answer the question on a more fundamental level, this book essentially examines the ways that a community’s historical experiences shape its reading of scripture. While it’s about science and religion, it’s all about the relationship between culture and hermeneutics.

Who are the principal characters in your story?

While it touches on numerous Christian responses to scientific developments in order to gain context and provide contrast, the book’s primary focus is on nineteenth-century Southern Presbyterian ministers and theologians.

It follows the path they took through the mid- to late-nineteenth century scientific landscape—from the hot-button anthropological question about the nature and origin of human races, through geology and the age of the earth, to Darwinian evolution.

Indeed, the first extended evolution controversy in American history occurred among these Southern Presbyterians in the 1880s, fully forty years before the Scopes Trial. In this de facto heresy trial, which raged from 1884 through the end of the decade and drew the attention of the nation, Southern Presbyterians ultimately deposed their own handpicked expert, James Woodrow, the “Perkins Professor of Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion” at their seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.

Woodrow believed the Bible did not intend to teach natural science, and he came to believe that evolution did not contradict the language of Genesis. Despite his repeatedly affirmed commitment to an infallible Bible, and despite numerous colleagues coming to his defense, his theistic evolutionism resulted in his dismissal.

The story of the evolution controversy alone would qualify Southern Presbyterians’ engagement of science a worthy topic of investigation, since evolution controversies appear to be a perennial feature of American cultural history. But I chose these Southern Presbyterians because I wanted to look at a community of Christians who took both the Bible and science very seriously, but who did so from within an obvious social and cultural milieu.

These Southern Presbyterians fit that bill perfectly. One would be hard-pressed to find a group who had a higher view of the Bible; they routinely used terms like “infallibility” and “inerrancy” to talk about scripture. And, since their sense of ministerial calling included demonstrating the compatibility of reason and revelation, they were well versed in science and other contemporary intellectual developments. But they hardly did their work in a socio-cultural vacuum. Indeed, their very identity was forged during the culture wars of mid-nineteenth century sectionalism.

Their ranks included prominent producers of biblical defenses of slavery like James Henley Thornwell, Benjamin M. Palmer, Robert Lewis Dabney, and John L. Girardeau. They cut their theological teeth in the 1840s and 1850s at a time when the very basis of their socio-cultural order, race slavery, was being challenged by northern Christians who appealed to the same Bible for their antislavery views.

Civil War defeat and a Reconstruction imposed from without only strengthened Southern Presbyterian conviction that they were the custodians of the world’s last, best hope for Christian civilization, and that it was their job, using the Bible as their guide, to safely navigate the confusing currents of modernity for their church, the South, and Christianity in general.

So, what does the book teach us about hermeneutics, about biblical interpretation?

The community of believers whom I study was thoroughly of the Reformed theological tradition, which means that one of their fundamental commitments was to the authority of God, as expressed through the authority of His word. Like many Protestants they believed they were upholding scriptura sola, the Bible alone.

Against the rationalistic departures of their age, which they believed they saw in everything from antislavery to public education to higher criticism and evolutionism, they called their contemporaries back to the universal standard of the Bible.

But they hardly stood outside time and space as they read and deployed the scriptures. Ironically, their own social and cultural situatedness, particularized this universal standard of holy writ; in their hands the Bible became Southbound. They read the Bible through a particular lens, and that lens was shaped by their culture and history. Incessant affirmations of the Bible’s divine provenance and authority, which every Southern Presbyterian agreed with, could not stave off diversity in interpretation or in conceptions of orthodoxy.

So, I think their case reminds us that no human reader of scripture utterly escapes the influence of history and culture; perhaps denying their impact serves only to strengthen their grip. History and culture matter, not only in the ancient production of the scriptures but also in the modern appropriation of scripture.

What is the meaning of the title, “Storm of Words”?

Well, careful readers will notice that the book is not part of George Martin’s series of novels, which includes the title Storm of Swords, though my son and a couple of friends have jokingly predicted that mistaken identity will actually provide the book’s best chance for garnering any sales.

Before I had ever heard of the novel, I found my book’s title in the primary documents associated with the evolution controversy of the 1880s. One of the opponents of James Woodrow’s teachings dismissively referred to the contemporary furor over evolution as “this recent storm of words.”

I thought it was catchy and that it evoked the energy, angst, and high-stakes mentality that participants brought into the controversy and indeed to the whole project of relating science and scripture.

What is the central argument of the book?

Among other things, this book explains why the first extended evolution controversy in the trans-Atlantic world occurred in the American South, forty years prior to the Scopes Trial. By examining these eminent Southern Presbyterian ministers and theologians, a community that had been in the forefront of linking the defense of slavery and the South to the Bible, it shows that their unique response to Darwinian biology, as well as to contemporary trends in anthropology, geology, and numerous socio-cultural developments, resulted from their particular way of reading the Bible and from the cultural trauma experienced during sectional crisis, Civil War, and Reconstruction.

In response to these traumas, they developed what I call a southern-biblicist orthodoxy. This conception of orthodoxy informed their pastoral and denominational identity, which centered on holding up a southern-Biblicist apologia to the world.

What kinds of readers will find Storm of Words helpful or interesting? What would you consider to be the major contributions of the book?

As a historian, I intended this book primarily for serious students of American religious history, the history of science, the history of the science/religion relationship, and the history of the American South. But I believe anyone concerned or curious about the Bible’s role in faith and life would find this interesting.

For centuries Americans have called upon scripture to support or oppose all sorts of ideas and practices—sometimes even on opposite sides of the same issues. This is because the reading and application of the Bible have been inevitably embedded in the history and culture of the people reading it.

So, perhaps this book can function as a case study of the ways the Protestant commitment to sola scriptura has been complicated by the assumptions and experiences that readers of the Bible have brought to their interpretation of the Bible.

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