Boyce’s Blunder

Boyce’s Blunder February 28, 2021

I recently watched Fight of Faith, a documentary on J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) produced by Nate Morgan Locke (a former classmate of mine at Westminster) just last year. I commend it to you. Its an unorthodox (in the colloquial sense, not the theological sense of the word) approach to Machen, chronicling Nate’s discovery of the figure and engaging with his legacy.

Amidst the filming of Fight of Faith, the offense archeologists of Twitter unearthed an old letter that Machen, as a newly minted professor at Princeton Seminary, had written to his mother. Therein Machen bemoaned the fact that a black student was going to be allowed to take up residence in the dorm for the approaching academic year. (The never-wed Machen famously lived in the dorms.)

Curiously, Machen made clear that he had no objection to the black student in question attending classes; only the living arrangements were a bridge to far for him. Machen’s reasoning for such an artificial and juvenile distinction is never demonstrated and is, in any case, irrelevant. His disparaging and bigoted comments regarding the nameless black student, now made public, created a stir to say the least. Those affiliated with Westminster were, in his instance, rightly embarrassed by their founder. A few of the people interviewed in Fight of Faith commented on the situation, noting that Machen’s beliefs expressed in the letter were sinful and misguided, but that a single example of such mined from private correspondence should not be permitted to diminish his entire legacy, including and especially the school.

Machen’s racism, such as it was—we can hope he repented of the errant ideas of his rather spoiled youth and changed his mind in his older, wiser years—never crops up in his scholarship, and never manifested in the institution he founded. Indeed, Westminster turned out to be a bit ahead of the curve on this front. In 1950, Eugene S. Callender was the first black student to graduate from Westminster (founded in 1929), a full year before Martin Luther King, Jr. graduated from Crozer Seminary in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania. The two ended up working together over the next decade, though Callender’s influence concentrated in New York City.

Brain Games

As I was watching the Machen documentary, wherein the question of institutional reckoning on this front is considered (some of my former classmates offered were interviewed and offered helpful perspectives), I recalled a Southern Seminary’s report on slavery and racism published last year. Over the course of 72 pages, the seminary, and the domination it belongs to, is examined, its historical connections to slavery and racism laid bare. Each of the noteworthy founders of Southern receive a short expose of sorts.

James P. Boyce (1827-1888) is obviously among them. Boyce was a, if not the, founder of Southern, a pastor, and a noteworthy theologian who studied under Charles Hodge at Princeton during its heyday. His opinions on slavery are well known, so too is the fact that he served as a chaplain in the Confederate army and as a representative to the South Carolina legislature. My aim here is not to recount his biography; Tom Nettles has written a fine book on the subject. (I will say that he surely must be the only affiliate of Southern from that era to have died in France.)

The Southern Seminary report, introduced by a heartfelt and somber letter from Al Mohler—which still, somehow, seemed to satisfy exactly no one—insofar as it treats Boyce (pp. 27-31), is straightforward and does a good job at trying to situate his thought in context whilst not downplaying its evident flaws.

Yet the report fails to identify the root of Boyce’s theological and moral error, his true blunder. It is easy enough for us to denounce Boyce’s views but more difficult to locate the (at least partial) root error, the fundamental mistake than enabled him (and many others) to theologically justify his position—the opinions that predominated his milieu and would’ve still been fashionable amongst his peers, the intellectual class, if not on slavery exactly then certainly on race.

Theologians today are unlikely to commit the same sin, in intellect and action, as Boyce (i.e., racism and support of slavery). But they run the same risk of committing the blunder underlying that sin. That is, attempting to integrate the cutting edge “research” and academic consensus of the day into their theology to either 1) justify their own position, or 2) conform their theology to fashionable opinions of the day on the issues that the culture (not necessarily scripture) demands an answer to—or rather, conformity with.

A brief survey of one excerpt of Boyce’s writing demonstrates what I mean.

In his Abstract of Systematic Theology (1887), his major and most noteworthy treatise that is still in circulation today (and has been of some benefit to me), Boyce declared, “Science accords with Revelation in teaching the unity of the race.” Every member of the human species possessed the “same essential character.” This comment introduces his discussion of human nature and led to some dark places; opinions (at least) related to racial eugenics.

At the outset, Boyce affirmed, in accordance with “Comparative Zoology” and other relatively new scientific disciplines of the time, that “variations” existed within every species within creation, and this included the human species. Zoology confirmed that “great variations” were likely within species, many of which, if perpetuated long enough, would become permanent. From this basic assumption, Boyce affirmed that “the variations in man are at least equalled [sic] by those in other species.” Boyce distinguished between white and black “types,” the latter exhibiting the “greatest variety” (i.e., difference) from the former than other races, which is to say, the greatest degeneracy.

(By way of brief excursus, it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly how writers of the 19th century conceived of “race.” For instance, Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) is generally, at least today, painted as something of a bigot. This mainly for his restrictionist, Enoch Powell-esque outlook on immigration, imperialism, and other comments that reflected the common prejudices of his time. And yet, he arguably expressed more animosity toward Italians than any other group—of course, Italians had not yet been “whitened” then. In any case, Lodge was a prolific writer and wrote about seemingly everything, including race. Certainly, many of his remarks would not and should not be endorsed by us today. He talked quite freely about hierarchical racial organization, ostensibly based on the manifest achievements of respective groups, of which certain Europeans had supposedly excelled others.

At the same time, in at least one essay, he designated the New England Puritans a “race.” He also famously said, in a quote often attributed to his friend, Teddy Roosevelt (though he said similar things), that true “Americanism,” now regarded as a “nativist” idea, was “opposed utterly to any political division resting on race or religion.” These instances confuse the situation and suggests that Lodge might have—given that some of his comments were evidently racist—oscillated between two or more conceptions of “race.” This semantic difficulty must be remembered when examining relevant texts from that period, though, I think, it is not applicable here, moving forward. Boyce seems to be quite plain in his meaning. Boyce’s comments should also, to some extent, be considered in light of his own practices; like Bachman, he owned slaves and, if not always wholeheartedly, defended the “peculiar institution.”)

Returning to the point above, Boyce summoned for support the southern Lutheran theologian and amateur naturalist, John Bachman (1790-1874) and his 1850 work, The Unity of the Human Race. Therein, Bachman, inter alia, correctly insisted that the human race was a single and singular species, but with an added (and misguided) caveat regarding “variations.” Bachman asserted that just as “every vertebrated animal” is “subject… to very great and striking varieties” so too are there “numerous varieties of the human race.” As we will see, these “variations” are not negligible to Boyce and Bachman.

In the Abstract, Boyce apparently lifted Bachman’s quote from James Lawrence Cabell’s (1813-1889) The Testimony of Modern Science to the Unity of Mankind: Being a Summary of the Conclusions Announced by the Highest Authorities in the Several Departments of Physiology, Zoölogy, and Comparative Philology in Favor of the Scientific Unity and Common Origin of All the Varieties of Man (1858), implying that it is the latter text that Boyce had direct access to, and it is Cabell’s text that Boyce continued to quote from at length. Cabell was a surgeon and professor of medicine at the University of Virginia where he pioneered medical sanitation and oversaw the administration of Confederate military hospitals during the war. He was perhaps more well known for his non-medical works.

The above regarding the unity of the human species notwithstanding, Cabell, himself quoting from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840), made clear that the intraspecies “varieties” within the human race were not necessarily egalitarian. Just as the cranium of “domestic swine” differed from that of the “primitive wild boar,” so too was there (allegedly) a “quite equal” difference between “the skull of the Negro and the European.”

To traverse deeper down the rabbit hole, Blumenbach is generally regarded as the founder of comparative anthropology and zoology; he was also an early race theorist. Blumenbach’s racial anthropology simplistically (and arbitrarily) classified humanity into five divisions: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American (as in Native American, the “red race”). (Later, Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854-1936), a pioneer of eugenics, would consolidate the hierarchy into two categories, the Aryan and, well, everyone else; Columbia University economist William Ripley adopted Vacher de Lapouge’s methodology and classifications in his bestselling, The Races of Europe (1899).)

Blumenbach’s famous work on human skulls is usually credited with establishing the decidedly bunk field of craniometry (akin to the pseudoscience of phrenology), which was integrated with physical anthropology in the 19th century and became immensely popular. (Obviously, it helped scientifically justify racial segregation across the western world; Darwin was a craniometry enthusiast as well.)

In addition to the Machen documentary, I also recently watched The Professor and the Madman (2019), the story about the formation of the Oxford English Dictionary (which I highly recommend, and hear the book is even better). In the film, a schizophrenic former medical doctor, who contributes some 10,000 entries to the dictionary, is attended by a psychiatrist on the basis of phrenology, resulting in some truly shocking and gross “treatments.” If a discipline can be judged by the outcomes it produces, the measures it demands, then such cranium games were, if for no other reason, repulsive and inhuman.

Blumenbach’s presence within Cabell’s quote, as referenced by Boyce, is both predictable and significant. It is predictable because of Blumenbach’s pedigree at the time; it is significant for what it reveals both about Cabell’s thought as well as Boyce’s.

Blumenbach, like Cabell and Boyce, was a monogenist. This was intricate, rather than contradictory, to his racial science. Blumenbach endorsed the so-called “degenerative hypothesis.” Under this once popular view, the first humans, Adam and Eve, were Caucasians—at the time most anthropologists held to the assumption that the first humans evolved out of that region (as in, the Caucasus)—and all other subsequent races were a degeneration, via environmental, geographical, and nutritional factors, from that original Caucasian race. Per Blumenbach and others of his persuasion (like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)), this process could theoretically be reversed by the same means, but the chance of reversal did nothing to diminish present racial (and racist) distinctions, not least of which they took to be intellectual.

Indeed, versions of the degermation theory served as the justifying assumption of various racist scientific endeavors and theories (e.g., “biological devolution”) throughout the 19th century (including eugenics) and made inroads into psychiatry and early social criticism. And, of course, its presence loomed large in the pockets of ethnonationalism that wreaked havoc on Europe in the 20th century.

It must be said that Blumenbach did not consider his own ideas racist. Indeed, he chastised those who championed early biological racist theories, and held that the same intellectual potency (i.e., not actualized) existed in all races. It is just that it was supposedly more developed in some than others—all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others. He rejected the suggestion that any race was inherently savage and opposed to slavery, even if he was not a full-on abolitionist.

These objections and qualifications notwithstanding, Blumenbach’s ideas strike most of us as questionable at best, racist at worst—misguided and half-baked in any case—and most of his work was leveraged by more openly and identifiably racist theorists later on to suggest that northern Europeans were more hardy, resilient, and intellectually superior to southern races—some truly wild anthropological histories followed.

Whilst Boyce clearly rejected the theory of polygenism by affirming common human descent (monogenesis), equally clear is that he was taken by the then latest and greatest racialized science, thereby dipping his toe into a theory predicated on evolution, which he theologically rejected. This contradiction was, of course, not the most glaring fault here, as his comments elsewhere show. Boyce should have known better, and that he adopted these unfounded, in many cases immoral and unbiblical, views is a stain on his legacy. Such a painful and disappointing example should not go to waste, however. It is these instances of human failure and oversight in particular that the church should endeavor to learn from, lest they be repeated in form if not substance.

Boyce’s Blunder

There are lessons to be gleaned from Boyce even in his worst blunder. And that is one reason that historical figures, especially those from our own theological and church camps, should not be easily discarded in toto. It is the man, as well as his doctrine, his faults as well as his successes, that teach. Let us not be pharisaical—thank you God that I am not like other men—when we encounter them.

In the case of Boyce’s dabbling in the racialized and racist sciences of his day—which by the way, were always spawned and nurtured by the elite echelons of society, the same echelons that deliver and promote seemingly every destructive theory (including our own neo-eugenics)—we must learn not only to reject the ideas he endorsed. That much is easily apparent, all the more so because their converse is now in vogue. If we end with decrying racist ideas, we’ve only learned half the lesson at hand.

We must also grasp and avoid the more basic error, one of method and disposition, that allowed the more superficial and obvious error. The two went hand-in-hand. Anyone who fancies themselves intellectually and theoretically consistent will inevitably seek out respectable, justifying bases for their beliefs, hopefully earnestly. The question is whether both the beliefs and the justifications are true and defensible from scripture and the Christian tradition. Innovation should still, by default, be a suspect category.

Boyce and Bachman and Cabell represent the desperate attempt to integrate scientific theory—now laughable and discarded scientific theory, to be sure—into revelation. That is, to make the dictates and assertions of revelation scientifically coherent and respectable—palatable to the academy. (“Science” is being employed as a broad euphemism for extra-biblical theories ill-considered and wantonly married to Christian belief and is not meant to imply that science as such need be antagonistic to revelation and vice a versa. Rightly conceived, both should cohere, but the issue should not be forced. Patience is a virtue.)

The Christian urge for this maneuver is seemingly perpetual, especially when it comes to the “issues of the day,” for which “culture” relentlessly demands an answer from the church, as if the former had any proper authority over the latter to assert such a demand—Christians usually buckle under the pressure anyway. But the case of Boyce and “Comparative Zoology” should remind us of how fleeting the latest and greatest often proves to be. Boyce’s affiliation with the theories surveyed above was intellectual and scholarly malpractice. The disciplines had not been proven in any legitimate sense, a fact that was demonstrated in relatively short order, making Boyce and all who entertained them look the fool in hindsight. The speed with which such theories were adopted by so many otherwise respectable likely presents a chicken and egg scenario: were they embraced purely to justify preexisting but yet indefensible beliefs to cover them with a veneer of respectability, or did the theories themselves produce the beliefs?

At bare minimum, we must exhibit prudence and circumspection in these contexts. We should not be timid in playing the long game no matter how much manufactured urgency is slung our way by the culture writ large. Before integrating new theories and ideas into our theology, for whatever purpose, we owe our forebears and progeny the courtesy of making good and sure that the ideas in question are well suited for the deposit of truth entrusted to us.

Surely our doctrine of providence, which Boyce treated only a few sections subsequent to the one in focus here, supplies us with confidence in this regard. Surely nothing is actually that pressing—more often than not, the supposedly novel questions demanding an answer are just repackaged derivations of those already answered by the church decades if not centuries before. We should ask the question of Boyce, “why was scripture’s declaration on the matter insufficient?” Given that Boyce held to racist views prior to penning the Abstract we can probably infer the answer. But the question is worth asking ourselves as well.

It is not that Christian theology should not be rigorous. Indeed, we are, in my estimation, at an all-time low in that regard. We could do with some more rigor. Christians should also confidently engage with ideas originating outside of their intellectual camp. They should not fear a rich intellectual life. They should not flippantly discard any extra-scriptural idea simply because it is extra-scriptural. (I recently addressed this dynamic at my Substack). Extra-scriptural is not per se synonymous with un-scriptural. The church has benefited time and again from extra-biblical thought. It has articulated many central, indispensable doctrines through those means. (Of course, those who derive truths from the light and law of nature may be acting extra-scriptural but not extra-revelational; but that’s a topic for another time.)

Another possible, if subconscious, motivation for Boyce’s use of these sources is that he wished to aid scripture’s claims. This seems a reasonable inference based on the opening line of the section from his Abstract quoted earlier. Boyce was not substituting scientific claims for scriptural ones but rather, in his mind, bolstering scripture’s reputation by demonstrating its coherence with scientific inquiry. This is a superficially laudable goal. The case can be made that the lion’s share of the church’s blunders throughout history, including and especially internal heresies, were born of a similar impulse. But the faith once delivered for all has no need of such assistance, nor does the holy spirit who proclaims it through the vessels of mercy that inhabit Christ’s bride on earth.


More insights could be derived from Boyce’s blunder but hopefully this is enough to get us thinking. Lest we arrive at similar awkward conclusions and justifications in our theology as Boyce, ones that embarrass our children and contribute to fissures in their church, we must be deliberate and introspective. Who or what is demanding an answer of us? Should we answer? Why do we think our theology, as it stands, inept at answering it? What beliefs standing back of our answer might skew or frustrate supplying one?

Those of you who read my writing often will likely have an idea of what I’m referring to. Many pastors, theologians, Christian thought leaders, are, in my estimation, presently committing a blunder similar to Boyce’s (again, in form not substance) when it comes to their embrace of critical social theories (to varying degrees). But it need not be confined to that context. Boyce’s blunder seems to me to present a timeless, if lamentable, lesson for the church, one that will transcend our present consternation and squabbling.


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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