International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859-1900

by Jon H. Roberts

Introductory Essay by Frederick Gregory

Jon Roberts was among the first historians to assess the response of protestant American intellectuals to Darwin's Origin of Species. He left few stones unturned in his investigation. For example, in addition to the well-known major players involved in sorting out the impact of Darwin's work on religious belief during the last half of the nineteenth century, he consulted the views of a host of lesser known figures. The thoroughness of his research imparts to his book almost an encyclopedic quality. Readers should be aware, however, that Roberts's book was published before later compendia, one example being Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (1999), which included material on the American religious reaction to Darwin. Further, none of the American transcendentalists makes an appearance, perhaps because they can hardly be considered protestant. Good sources here include Paul Croce's work on William James (Science and Religion in the Era of William James, 1995) and Laura Dassow Walls's studies of several key individuals, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson's Life in Science, 2003).

Readers should also be clear that Roberts deals with transmutation, which he equates with evolution. In other words, he is aware that historians have shown how problematic Darwin's central concept of natural selection was in the late nineteenth century, but he argues that during this period "Darwinism" and "evolution" were equated in common parlance. This stands in marked contrast, of course, to the twentieth century, where the fate of natural selection more and more became the focus of the issue "Darwinism" presented to religion.

According to Roberts, there were a few protestant thinkers for whom natural selection was the nub of the matter (e.g. Charles Hodge), but Roberts' work asserts that the issue for most protestant thinkers was simply the descent of living things from lower forms, which challenged those concerned with religion either to reject transmutation or to adapt their religious beliefs to permit it. In fact Roberts shows that prior to 1875 American thinkers largely rejected evolution, based on the conclusion that it simply represented bad science. But the growing acceptance of evolution among scientists later in the century caused some protestant thinkers after 1875 to adjust their doctrinal views to accommodate transmutation. Roberts is careful to explain exactly what means were employed to accomplish this resolution.

Most significantly, Roberts demonstrates that, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the conflict Darwin's theory helped to exacerbate was "not between scientists and theologians but between thinkers who embraced fundamentally different views of nature and sources of truth and knowledge" [234]. Some refused to concede that scriptural interpretations had to be adjusted in light of the achievements of science and secular scholarship. More liberal-minded Protestants, on the other hand, acknowledged that a shift of cultural authority was taking place. Whereas earlier clerics and theologians included nature among the topics under their jurisdiction, in the half century after Darwin it was more and more to the scientist that one turned to learn the meaning of nature.