The great war

WHY DID Darwinism become the symbol of “warfare” between natural science and biblical Christianity, a war in which many people saw the spoils as nothing less than the future of civilization? One might imagine the battle taking place elsewhere. Biological evolution might have been regarded as merely one among a number of modern scientific challenges to biblical faith, and most biblicist Christian believers might have allowed differences among themselves as to how best to respond, rather than making rejection of biological evolution a test of allegiance to a crusade. Instead, Darwinism emerged as the preeminent stronghold of forces of secularism, battling Christianity for the future of humanity. 

Darwin’s bulldog

It was, in fact, the secularists who first popularized the metaphor of warfare, using Darwin’s new theory to champion their cause. As early as 1860, T. H. Huxley, the British scientist who became known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” declared, “Every philosophical thinker hails [Darwinism] as a veritable Whitworth gun in the armoury of liberalism.” Huxley, who coined the term “agnostic” to describe the open-mindedness he attributed to his party, later proclaimed, “Warfare has been my business and duty.” 

In America, chemist and historian John William Draper popularized the warfare metaphor in his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874). Andrew Dixon White, the president of Cornell University, made the same theme the centerpiece of his own scholarship, culminating in History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Both works attempted to portray the church as having a long record of making war against free scientific inquiry. Draper and White thought they testified for a civilization liberated from the superstitions and restraints of churches and guided rather by intelligence shaped by free scientific inquiry. 

The issue was represented most directly in higher education. Leading English universities had Anglican religious requirements for faculty positions until 1871. In the United States, Protestant domination over most of higher education was more complex but just as intimidating. Prior to the Civil War, even many state universities had clergymen as presidents. Most schools expected that faculty members would be practicing Protestants. In the decades after the Civil War, university reformers, such as White, campaigned against this dominance. For such purposes, Darwinism had come on the scene at just the right time and could serve as a formidable weapon.

Darwinism helped the secularist party in a larger campaign: defining natural science as the study of natural phenomena alone—with no reference to belief in God. Darwinism was useful because, for the first time, it made it intellectually plausible to explain even the highest forms of natural life, humans themselves, without reference to design by a higher intelligence. 

If everything could be explained by the blind chance of natural forces alone, bringing God into the mix was wholly optional. Secularist reformers were so enthusiastic about Darwin’s rejection of design that many were ready to dogmatically proclaim biological evolution as fixed truth even before there was much evidence to show how natural selection might work. 

In the meantime, most conservative and evangelical Protestants did not yet think of themselves as at war with biological evolution. Some reacted strongly, but for 50 years or so after the publication of Origin of Species (1859), responses were decidedly mixed. These Protestants had a long record of adapting themselves to the latest scientific findings, including nineteenth-century geological discoveries that pointed to the earth being far older than the Bible seemed to indicate. 

By the mid-nineteenth century, most biblicist Protestant leaders had found ways to reconcile Genesis and geology, suggesting that the “days” of creation might represent long periods of time. More broadly, they were confident that, since God was the author both of nature and of Scripture, true science and true Christianity would harmonize. 

Looking for fundamentals

American fundamentalists would in the 1920s make strict opposition to biological evolution one of the principal fronts in their war to preserve biblical faith and Bible-based civilization. Yet, in the preceding era, even among the forerunners of fundamentalism, there was still room for debate. 

B. B. Warfield, Princeton theologian known for championing the doctrine of inerrancy (that Scripture is totally free from error of any kind), allowed for biological evolution of animals, although he insisted that divine intervention had created humans. 

Even The Fundamentals, the series of defenses of conservative faith published from 1909 to 1915 that gave its name to the movement as a whole, did not demand strict opposition to every sort of biological evolution as a test of true faith. Evangelical scientist George Frederick Wright contributed an essay to The Fundamentals critical of extravagant claims made by supporters of Darwin’s theory. Yet Wright was also a theistic evolutionist who held that biological processes could be reconciled with God’s guidance and intervention. 

All that would soon change. World War I, and the accompanying sense of cultural crisis, prompted some conservative Christians to regard Darwinism as heralding the decline of civilization. William Jennings Bryan blamed the horrendous conflict on the spread of “a materialist Darwinian might-makes-right philosophy,” especially in Germany.

Once America entered the war in 1917, overblown denunciations of German corruption became commonplace. Evangelist Billy Sunday proclaimed: “If you turn Hell upside down, you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom.” After the war, the rapid changes in public morality associated with “the roaring twenties” made it evident that America too was becoming materialistic.

Bryan lectured widely on the Bible as the basis for civilization. He thought biological evolution undermined human dignity, led to moral relativism, and was one of the most widespread secularist weapons against the Bible. Many fundamentalists took up Bryan’s cause, joining their concerns for the Bible with their concerns for American morals. Indeed, they correctly observed that American culture was increasingly secular, materialistic, and morally permissive in the 1920s. 

Those changes had many causes, but it was also true that respect for the Bible as an authority in public life was on the decline and evolutionary views were on the rise—trends seen especially in intellectual culture and higher education. Naturalistic evolutionary models characterized almost all areas of thought, including newly formed sciences: psychology, sociology, and economics. Such models were even applied to the study of religion and of the Bible itself. 

More liberal Protestants generally adapted themselves, adopting less literal readings of Scripture and countering the culture’s pure materialism by continuing to attribute higher ideals and moral teachings to divine guidance. They retained a respected role in higher education, supplementing the culture’s materialist explanations with Christian truths. 

However, more strictly biblicist Protestants found themselves largely on the outside of the nation’s intellectual life. This was due in part to their own neglect. One of their greatest strengths had always been their ability to popularize their form of Christianity through revivalism. But the weakness of that approach was that it tended to be anti-intellectual and to thrive on simple either/or choices.  

Rallying around the flag

As allegiance to higher biblical criticism grew in America’s intellectual communities, revivalists reacted by becoming increasingly insistent on interpretations that were as literalistic as possible. Between 1860 and 1920, the gap between revivalist culture and American mainstream culture widened immensely. So when William Jennings Bryan or Billy Sunday proclaimed that the root of all America’s evils was biological evolution and that the authority of the Bible and the future of civilization were at stake, many conservative believers were ready to rally around the flag of holy warfare, “The Bible versus Darwin,” and mount a massive counterattack.

Secularizers had first popularized the warfare metaphor trying to free natural science and intellectual life from religious restraint. Now they had firmly secured the territory they desired in intellectual life, and they continued to use an emphasis on biological evolution to discredit traditional Christian belief. 

Biological evolution had become the symbolic fortress of naturalistic secularism, and it had come to symbolize so many other issues as well: the existence of God, the Bible’s authority, the nature of the universe, human nature, morality, and the future of civilization. Thus it became the major battleground. So many on both sides viewed the matter through the metaphor of warfare that the shouts of battle often drowned out the voices of those who argued for alternative approaches. CH

By George Marsden

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #107 in 2013]

George Marsden is professor of history emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the author of numerous books on American religious history and culture.
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