On November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin published his seminal work On the Origin of Species, and, as the tired story goes, the reclusive scientist was subsequently assaulted by his Christian contemporaries, who saw his ideas not for their scientific merit but their destructive religious implications. In Darwin, the church had supposedly found a new opponent in its long, futile war against the progress of natural science. It is a story we have all heard, but how accurate is it? Did the church, in fact, stall the development of biology in its war on Darwinism?
While, of course, there has always been some unease with certain scientific discoveries from Christian sectors, another, perhaps more important story is left untold in this simplistic rendition—one that shatters this flat historical reading of conflict. In this first part of a two-part exploration, I will focus on Christianity’s initial reaction to Darwin’s ideas in his home country. In part 2, I will address the American response to the biologist’s work, and lest any of my claims appear exaggerated or pure fantasy, I’ve included an exorbitant amount of footnotes for those curious enough to perform their own research.
Now on to the story…
In truth, Darwinism was mostly well-received by Christian figures, both within theological and scientific circles. This was partially due to the fact that Darwin was not the first to propose universal common ancestry. Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to Charles), Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Robert Grant, Lorenz Oken, and Robert Chambers had all toyed with evolutionary ideas prior to Darwin. Darwin’s proposed mechanism was simply one more addition to an ongoing scientific conversation. Geologists like Charles Lyell had additionally established the antiquity of the earth without much religious discontent. Thus, assimilation of evolutionary (though not necessarily Darwinian) ideas along with the scientific presuppositions behind them progressed rapidly among Protestant circles.
Surprisingly, many clerical figures even argued that Darwinism was an ally of the church. Several saw it as a force for undermining a purely natural religion which was seen as a competitor to religions founded upon the revealed scriptures. One prominent example of this is Aubrey Lackington Moore’s 1889 publication in Lux Mundi that proclaimed biological evolution was incompatible with deism, for only a God continually active in the universe could bring about a species like humanity. Thus, evolution actually increased the need for a Designer. Moore’s strategy of reading teleological implications into the evolutionary process was not uncommon. Charles Kingsley, an Anglican socialist who has been nicknamed “Darwin’s churchman”, maintained a similar position, reasoning that the Darwinian model for biological diversity created a powerful case for the Divine’s continued involvement within creation. Not only did Kingsley believe Darwinism provided a sense of wonder in nature, but it also supplied powerful ammunition in his case for social improvement.
Many other leading figures echoed Kingsley’s sentiments. The future archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, complimented the novel ideas of Darwin in a sermon at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860 (the same year as the famed Huxley/Wilberforce debate). He would later go on to write against those who attempted to derive scientific claims from the Genesis text. Additionally, the Scottish naturalist Henry Drummond found in Darwin a “real and beautiful acquisition to natural theology” and stated that his theory was “perhaps the most important contribution to the literature of apologetics” in the 1800s. Evolution, he argued, aligned with the Christian view that God aims to perfect beings.
Additional names could easily be added to this list. J. B. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, contended for the harmony of evolutionary science and Biblical revelation. Ornithologist and canon of Durham H. B. Tristram and Cambridge botanist Charles Babington both expressed favorable opinions of Darwinism shortly after Origin’s release. Sir George Stokes, a theologically conservative physicist, agreed with biological evolution but had scientific reservations regarding Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection. Other evangelicals, such as James Orr and V. F. Storr, shared the same concerns, embracing a form of Lamarckian evolution. John Pratt, a clergyman and astronomer, argued for a gap interpretation of Genesis, reconciling much of evolutionary science with Scripture through a reinterpretation of only one word.
In 1864, perhaps sensing a future conflict, Herbert McLeod created a petition called “The Declaration of Students of the Natural and Physical Sciences,” which sought peace between science and religion. By 1865, it had garnered over 700 signatures, including over ten percent of the Fellows of the Royal Society. Despite his noble efforts, the document was largely forgotten since, as John Tyndall noted, very few scientists of the day actually viewed the scientific discussions of the day as being in dispute with the church’s teachings.
But what of that famed Wilberforce-Huxley debate? In Britain, the apex of the dispute is generally identified with this (in)famous contest between Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”, and Samuel Wilberforce in the months immediately after Origin first appeared. The representatives of the debate seemed to embody the ensuing conflict. As Oxford historian Allan Chapman describes it, on the one side stood the “reactionary, anti-scientific, Bible-thumping old bishop,” while opposing him was a “vigorous young freethinking ‘man of science’.”
As the story goes, the curmudgeonly Wilberforce made a fool of himself against the Bulldog, demonstrating the inevitable decline of religion in the face of growing scientific advance. This caricature has served as an archetype for the supposed war ever since, yet despite the lore that has grown up around this debate, Chapman notes that virtually nothing is known of the debate’s actual contents, let alone its victor. What can be ascertained, however, is that Wilberforce’s objections centered not on the theological implications of Darwinism but on the lack of evidence for the transmutation of species. The debate, regardless of the initial interest surrounding it, did little to impact the subsequent discussion on Darwin’s ideas. Even John William Draper, who was present for the debate, failed to mention it in his vicious critique of Christianity some years later. Since Draper, along with Andrew Dickson White, is considered to be the originator of the conflict narrative between science and Christianity, such an omission seems remarkable if, in fact, bishop Wilberforce received the scientific thrashing he is reported to have endured.
In sum, a notable percentage of Protestant leadership welcomed Darwinian or, at the very least, evolutionary ideas. However, Jon Roberts does note that a “sizable minority” continued to hold to special creation in the initial years following Origin’s publication. This resistance was triggered less by biblical exegesis than by the challenge Darwinism posed to Paley’s popular argument from design. Even then, by 1875, few Protestants remained who still held to this objection.
A better summary of the initial Christian reaction is that it was theologically comfortable with Darwinism but nevertheless rejected it upon scientific grounds. Some of the strongest scientific objections included Fleeming Jenkins’s argument that advantageous genes are overwhelmed in a broader population and Lord Kelvin’s young date for the earth based on terrestrial heat loss. Darwin called this latter objection one of the greatest attacks against his theory. George Mivart likewise recognized the gaps in the fossil record as empirical evidence against Darwin’s hypothesis. The famous paleontologists Richard Owen and Louis Agassiz were two more high-profile dissenters against Darwin and might be added to the list of scientific dissent from Darwin.
By the 1880s, Darwinism had made little headway in the scientific community even while evolution itself was nearly universally held. Scientists simply felt that natural selection was not the primary mechanism. In other words, the Christian response to Darwin was nearly identical to that of the broader scientific community.
The Christian response to Darwin was nearly identical to that of the broader scientific community.Seth hart
One alternative explanation, supported by James Orr (an editor of the later Fundamentals), was the saltations view of Hugo De Vries. Other theologians and scientists favored a neo-Lamarckian approach, finding it easier to integrate with a view of Original Sin. Yet while theological motivations were inevitably present, the ultimate grounds for resistance to Darwinism was scientific in nature, and the objections of Mivart, Kelvin, and others provided more than enough evidence for this rejection. Even Samuel Wilberforce, the “reactionary, anti-scientific, Bible-thumping old bishop,” writes:
…we have objected to [Darwinism] solely on scientific grounds… We have no sympathy with those who object to any facts or alleged facts in nature, or to any inference logically deduced from them because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by Revelation.
There were, however, occasional exceptions to this generalization. In 1894, Horace Noel argued in the Record that any hermeneutic that attempted reconciliation between Genesis and evolution was comparable to John Henry Newman’s treatment of the Thirty Nine Articles—a famous but strained attempt to reunite Anglican and Catholic dogma.
Others saw Darwinism in league with Wellhausen and other radical critics in its challenge to the Genesis narrative. While this minority report must be acknowledged, it would be a mistake to suppose Ussher’s chronology and six-day creationism as being the popular viewpoint in this era. As Martin Wellings notes, very few theologically conservative Protestants maintained this literalistic interpretation prior to Darwin’s publication. Rather, the common strategy was to attempt reconciliation between the words of Scripture and the testimony of the sciences, and a shortlist of examples would include Handly Moule, J. J. S. Perowne, W. H. Griffith Thomas, R. B. Girdlestone, C. H. Waller, and J. C. Ryle.
Beyond interpretive issues, however, there were others who worried about the doctrinal implications of Darwinism. For instance, celebrated zoologist Adam Sedgwick worried Darwinism implied a universe without moral dignity or divine intervention. There was also some concern that Darwinism would lead to the same philosophical materialism that had caused such chaos in France in the previous decades. However, these issues did not prevent the majority of conservative leadership from embracing evolutionary and, eventually, Darwinian views. As Denis Alexander states,
What is perhaps more surprising in retrospect is how quickly Darwinian evolution was baptized into a traditional Christian understanding of creation.
Regarding the theological issues, David Livingstone adds,
These, as a number of historians of science have shown us, were part of a larger debate concerning the nature and structure of society that affected Christians as much as anyone else.
While this historical survey is entirely too brief, it gives a more accurate overall impression of the reception of Darwin within otherwise theologically conservative circles in Britain. But what about across the pond in the United States, where fundamentalism would eventually challenge Darwinian ascent into prominence? The answer will come in part 2.