In the first part of this two-part series, I covered the rather congenial reaction to Darwinism among conservative Protestants during the Victorian era. However, I limited myself to reactions with Britain alone. What about across the pond in the United States, the country from which Fundamentalism found its roots? Might we expect the nation that has become the modern hub of anti-evolutionary sentiment to be far less welcoming to biology’s greatest mind? While seemingly plausible, it is again confronted with that pesky irritant that always seems to erode any good historical story: evidence. In sum, the American reaction to Darwin was very similar to Britain’s, and here, in mercilessly brief fashion, is the story.
The Overall Picture
Within 20 years of Darwin’s publication, the scientific community was all but completely committed to evolutionary theory (though, again, differing on the mechanism by which it occurred). According to scientific historian David Livingstone, by 1880 the sole exceptions seemed to have been Sir John William Dawson and Arnold Henry Guyot, and even they (as will be discussed below) wavered in their views.
Ronald Numbers, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the history of creationism, comes to a similar conclusion. Of the 60 members of the National Academy of Sciences between 1863 and 1900 who expressed their views, 51 accepted evolution of some sort. Only five or six remained creationists. Religion was apparently not a deterrent to evolution’s acceptance, either, since, among practicing scientists, orthodox Christians outnumbered agnostics/atheists two to one. Most tellingly, Numbers adds that he could find no evidence of any individual abandoning the faith over the issues posed by Darwinism.
In fact, Darwin’s most famous and vocal proponent in the United States was the Harvard botanist and evangelical Christian Asa Gray, and it was through his assistance that The Origin of Species was first published and propagated within the United States. Like many of his contemporaries, Gray found in Darwinism an even greater case for a cosmic designer than in special creationism. Moreover, he argued that the presence of suffering and death in the world becomes clearer if the Christian embraces a Darwinian paradigm and justified his view hermeneutically by pointing to certain seemingly suggestive passages within the Genesis narrative (such as, “Let the earth bring forth”).
Against Gray stood the eminent biologist Louis Agassiz, the strongest proponent of special creationism after the publication of Origin. Ironically, Agassiz was anything but a conservative (or even an orthodox) Christian. As a more theologically liberal Unitarian idealist, he denied both a literal Adam and Eve and the Biblical flood, and, just for good measure, justified American slavery on the premise of separately created races. Just for contrast, Gray pointed to the universal common origin of humanity to argue against slavery and publicly opposed Agassiz on his racist sentiments—a tangential point but one worth noting.
Gray was not a lone beacon of light, as his work received strong theological support from Congregationalist pastor and scientist George Frederick Wright, whose 1876 work Darwiniana argued for an evolutionary teleology and likened Darwinism to (strangely enough) a biological Calvinism. In addition, pioneering geologist and evangelical James Dwight Dana, a contemporary of both, abandoned his initial reservations regarding Darwinism and, by 1874, was a convert and active proponent for the theory.
Calvinist James McCosh, the president of what would later become Princeton University, represented another strong voice arguing for the compatibility of Darwinism and Christianity. He echoed his contemporaries in seeing Darwinism as adding to, rather than demolishing, Paley’s teleological argument. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, perhaps the most celebrated American theologian of his era, lavished praise on McCosh in a review of his work, commenting,
Heartily accepting the evolutionary hypothesis as true science, he has written this little book to show . . . that it is thoroughly consistent with Christian theism. 
The ironic truth, then, is that many of Darwin’s earliest and staunchest advocates in America were evangelical Christians, and it was their work that likely helped guarantee the eventual success of the theory decades later.
The ironic truth, then, is that many of Darwin’s earliest and staunchest advocates in America were evangelical Christians, and it was their work that likely helped guarantee the eventual success of the theory decades later.SETH HART
One oft cited objector to Darwinism was the Presbyterian minister Charles Hodge, author of What is Darwinism? Hodge’s primary objection rested neither on the scientific data nor the challenge Darwin posed to hermeneutics. Rather, he feared the theological implications being drawn by some of Darwin’s most radical proponents. Hodge admitted that there was nothing inherently conflicting between evolution via natural selection and Christianity. What Hodge deemed “atheistic” was the ateleological implications drawn being propagated by atheists and agnostics loyal to the new proposal. It was this ateleological addition to the theory that Hodge deemed “Darwinism,” a redefinition that would, strangely, not even include Asa Gray, Darwin’s American advocate.
Because of this idiosyncratic description of Darwinism, there has been quite a bit of confusion surrounding his actual stance. Hodge held to a day-age interpretation of Genesis and regarded Darwin himself highly. As such, he was anything but a literalist regarding Genesis. In fact, Hodge went so far as to grant evolution to all but man. It was only the evolution of man, he maintained, that was incompatible with his being God’s image bearer. Thus, even the extreme end of Christian academic resistance to Darwin bears little resemblance to modern counterparts, and this lone warrior can hardly be said to constitute an army of resistance to Darwin’s theory.
While Hodge’s stance may seem reactionary, it is not difficult to see where his fears stemmed from. Compteans of the era often utilized Darwinism to bolster their anti-religious ideas. Moreover, various pseudo-religions quickly developed around the new theory. A notable example would be Thomas Huxley’s practice of giving “lay sermons” to the public. Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, even invented an alternative religion called “practical Darwinism” in order to promote the practice of eugenics. Likewise, the atheist biologist Ernst Haeckel penned his desire to see the replacement of religious symbols in churches with scientific and natural ones. In the same era, Edward S. Morse and John Powell campaigned for the usurpation of religion by science. Thus, if there were first shots in any actual war between science and Christianity, it came from the side of overzealous atheists and agnostics, and it was against these specific forms of Darwinism, and not Darwinism in general, that Hodge primarily wrote.
The aforementioned J. W. Dawson and Arnold Guyot, America’s last two anti-evolutionists, shared similar sentiments, combatting Gray on the teleological implications of the theory. However, even these individuals were willing to admit a theistic version of evolution was a possibility, and by 1884, Guyot had radically shifted his position, only maintaining the special creation of matter, life, and humanity. As such, any analogy to the modern young earth creationist movement is simply absent in the decades immediately following Darwin’s publication, and, in fact, such nonresistance is carried over into the most unlikely of movements: the Fundamentalists.
Naturally, no analysis of conservative theological reaction to Darwinism would be complete without commenting upon the advent of fundamentalism, which is often represented as a reaction to Darwinism. While the later movement of the 1920s and onward did, in fact, repudiate all forms of evolution, James Orr, George Frederick Wright, and Benjamin Warfield—three individuals who we have seen throw their weight behind Darwin—were some of the initial authors of The Fundamentals, the 1910 work that sparked the movement. Even R. A. Torrey, the main editor and founder of movement, embraced an old earth view, the existence of pre-Adamites, and praised Darwin as the greatest scientific mind of the nineteenth century.
Admittedly, two minor works against evolution appear in The Fundamentals, neither of which was authored by a major figure in the movement, and, given that the work spanned twelve volumes, the sheer unimportance of the issue to theological conservatives of the day is strikingly evident. Thus, it would be mistaken to suppose that The Fundamentals was a reaction against Darwinism. Rather, its prime target seems to have been the liberal theology (largely stemming from Germany) currently in fashion. None of this is to deny Fundamentalism ultimately did help birth anti-evolution sentiment; it is merely to show the origins of the movement showed little evidence of this future antagonism.
Summing It Up
Consequently, the tale of a great conflict between the Church and Darwin in the immediate aftermath of Darwin’s publication can be deemed one of the great myths of history. The statistical evidence is uncontroversial: the American scientists of faith offered virtually no resistance to evolution’s eventual acceptance, and much of the church acted as an eager cheerleader along the way. In other words, rather than deterring the spread of evolutionary ideas, theologically orthodox Protestants were often at the frontlines advancing them. By the time a significant a significant anti-evolution movement formed within American churches (well after the turn of the century), evolutionary theory was already deeply ensconced within the scientific community. Thus, the myth of scientific advance being stymied, resisted, and suppressed by a legion of radical, anti-intellectual religious fanatics is just that: pure myth—one worthy of taking its place next to the supposed “Dark Ages” and the “torture” of Galileo in the trash bin of bad history.
The tale of a great conflict between the Church and Darwin in the immediate aftermath of Darwin’s publication can be deemed one of the great myths of history.SETH HART
While, of course, some Christians were hesitant regarding Darwinism’s implications for theology, especially the argument from design, most found easy reconciliation between the two beliefs. Some even went so far as to find Paley and Darwin to be close allies, a project that has been picked up and greatly reworked by some notable thinkers today. To quote historian of science John Durant, “William Paley, one feels sure, would have been proud of them.” Evangelical Christians, in general, should be proud of them.