Skip to content

Darwin was not badly received by the church

Robert J. Berry is a geneticist at University College London. He is also an evangelical Christian and has written a number of works on the compatibility of religion (his kind, anyway) and evolution. He has a quite accurate letter in today’s Nature. Since that is behind a paywall, I have excerpted it below the fold.

The Church in England did not generally react so “badly” to Darwin’s ideas as readers of your Editorial may be led to believe (Nature 461, 1173–1174; 2009).

Reverend Charles Kingsley, Regius Professor at the University of Cambridge, UK, wrote in 1863 “God’s greatness, goodness and perpetual care I never understood as I have since I became a convert to Mr Darwin’s views.” The Bishop of Carlisle, Harvey Goodwin, proclaimed after Darwin’s funeral in Westminster Abbey “It would have been unfortunate if anything had occurred to give weight and currency to the foolish notion which some have diligently propagated, but for which Mr Darwin was not responsible, that there is a necessary conflict between a knowledge of Nature and a belief in God.” In 1884 Frederick Temple, Bishop of Exeter and future Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote “The doctrine of Evolution restores to the science of Nature the unity which we should expect in the creation of God.” Aubrey Moore, a leading theologian at the University of Oxford, welcomed Darwinism “as a friend in the disguise of a foe” because it struck at the heart of nineteenth-century deism.

Ironically, in view of later developments, even some of the authors of Fundamentals (a series of Christian booklets published in the United States between 1910 and 1915) were happy to see evolution as the method that God used in his work of creation.

The assumption that there must be conflict between evolution and religion was (and is) the result of the distorting “cultural lenses” that you mention. Modern ‘creationism’ was born only in the twentieth century, largely through the efforts of the Canadian adventist George McCready Price. There has probably been less conflict in England than in most other countries.

None of this is to claim that all religious people view evolution in a positive light, nor that all evolutionists are objective about religion. But we need to remain aware of our cultural lenses.

Two things about this. One is that Berry is absolutely right about the religious response to Darwin prior to 1920 or so. For the first 50 years, Darwin was a friend to religion. Second, he is right also that we tend to read back into the past the battles of today, or overgeneralise one minority opinion of Christianity – the modern, post-1960, fundagelicals.


  1. Allen Hazen Allen Hazen

    The openness to evolution of the authors of the “Fundamentals” is one of the curiouser historical factoids in the area. My understanding is that the term “Fundamentalist” came into use first as meaning someone sympathetic to the line defended in “The Fundamentals”!

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      That is quite right. Creationism was indeed an invention of the Adventists, and not widely adopted by fundamentalists until Morris’ 1960 book.

      The text of the Fundamentals volume that deals with Evolution is here. Amusingly the essay that is critical of “Darwinism” (not evolution) is online, but not the essay that is not. See here for a discussion. Ah, I found an original copy here.

  2. Allen Hazen Allen Hazen

    I haven’t tried to track down the primary texts, but thank you very much for your second link, the discussion of Wright! Wright seems like a very interesting figure (another in the line of Oberlin-educated philosophers): somebody should write a novel based on his life, maybe taking Marilyn Robinson’s “Gilead” as a model.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      Please don’t make me read anything new! I have enough on my plate already!

  3. Allen Hazen Allen Hazen

    Sorry: Marilynne Robinson

  4. Leon Leon

    Really fascinating — thanks for the post.

  5. JJ Anderson JJ Anderson

    It’s valuable to be reminded that some religious thinkers were comfortably assimilating versions of “Darwinian evolution” into their worldview so soon after the publication of “The Origin of Species”. The joy and anger of today is nothing new. But I think we oversimplify if we try to paint too rosy a picture of the reactions in the period 1859-1885.

    I was amused by Berry’s paragraph:
    “None of this is to claim that all religious people view evolution in a positive light, nor that all evolutionists are objective about religion. But we need to remain aware of our cultural lenses.”

    I sense no irony in him in wishing that evolutionists would be “objective” about religion! How exactly would he define “objective”?

  6. John, it’s well known that Charles Kingsley was sympathetic to evolution. But Kingsley is an idiosyncratic figure in English letters (and theology), so this can’t really be used as evidence for anything much, and the other quotes from Anglican clergy seem to come rather later. The most we can infer from the quotes is that they are consistent with what we already knew – that the Anglican Church had accepted evolution as a fact by the late nineteenth century.

    It has to be kept in mind that much educated opinion in Europe had turned against biblical literalism – and in many cases against Christianity itself – well before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The spur was not so much the pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories, and the spectre of “nature red in tooth and claw” that troubled Tennyson, as the gradual realisation that the Christian holy books were all-too-human constructions and unlikely to be the word of God in any but the most tenuous sense. This realisation was, of course, was not completed by 1859, and continuing battles over the Higher Criticism probably took some of the heat off Darwin.

    Moreover, the age of the Earth issue had already been fought over the ambitions and eventual failure of diluvial geology, which had pretty much been scuttled by the late 1830s. The stumbling block for educated opponents of Darwin was not so much a great age of the Earth, and what that implied about the literal Genesis narrative, as the possible implications of our descent from (earlier) apes. Many feared that this eliminated what would now be called human exceptionalism, and allowed a bestial interpretation of human nature.

    The bit about “some” of the writers of the Fundamentals is more interesting, and it would be nice to know more about it. The word “some” implies “not all”, and tends to suggest “a minority”, but perhaps, for all I know, the position is stronger than that.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      And yet I find plenty of leading Anglicans and more than a few Catholics in the period from the Origin to the 1890s who treat evolution as just another facet of the modern world. Yes, one can find those agin it, especially in America, but in Europe and the UK, the voices seem relatively muted.

      • Mike Mike

        It was also badly received in France and the Continent, which regarded the theory as “too English” and obviously based on laissez faire free enterprise economics. This also underlay the Leftist critique.
        + + +
        A literal reading of the scriptures, meaning the “historico-narrative” reading, came to the fore because of the influence of science, which also requires a literalist reading of her texts. As the prestige of science grew, so did its reading protocols. It became accepted that only material facts were truthful – one reason for the long tension between science and humanism – and if so, then the Bible’s truths had to be read as material facts. But a millennium and a half ago, Augustine pointed out that the Bible was not an astronomy textbook and the authors of its various books had simply used the knowledge and science of their own times.

        As one Thomstic scholar has put it, the theory of evolution, if true, provides some mild support to the existence of God, since it is the natural lawfulness of the world that is supposed to be the evidence, not the supposed exceptions.

  7. I suspect that the “some of the authors of the Fundamentals” Berry has in mind are George Frederick Wright and James Orr, each of whom is often considered a theistic evolutionist. The thing is, Orr’s didn’t contribute a chapter on evolution, and Wright’s is antievolutionist, if rather awkwardly so. I agree that each of them reconciled evolutionism and Christianity, but not in the Fundamentals.

  8. Don Don

    Rather than “James” do you mean Alan Orr?

  9. Michael Michael

    One who holds “a bestial interpretation of human nature” downplays, by definition, the nature of humanity. If the Bible asserts that man was made in God’s image, this either asserts that God is bestial or that man’s nature is unique and particularly significant. The Genesis account does not regard the rest of creation (animals, plants, etc.) as having been granted God’s image.
    The particular functions of humans must therefore be seen as ultimately higher than the rest of nature, by definition. How is it that someone who holds a fond view of evolution and theism together can justify Gen. 1.27? If evolution were God’s way of making humans come into existence, would it not say that God evolved man into his own image?
    The fact that there are theistic evolutionists who sympathize or agree with Darwin is an absurdsity to Christianity in every sense. Perhaps the problem was the misguidance of those who knew no better at the time of Darwin’s publication, perhaps it was a desire to agree with current scientific findings at any expense. It is unfortunate that Darwin can even be seen as a friend to religion, namely Christianity. The eventual outpouring of evolution is such a status, one that man is just an overgrown intellectual beast. Any religious setting that credits Darwin’s evolutionary theory as an asset to their belief is a sad display of ignorance. An attempt to credit Darwin as being a friend with religion misrepresents religion that is plausible and worthwhile, namely orthodox Christianity.

    • Mike Mike

      “If evolution were God’s way of making humans come into existence, would [Gen. 1.27] not say that God evolved man into his own image?”

      Depends. What was the Hebrew word for “evolve”? Come to think of it, what would have been the Greek word for it? And come to think of it, the Latin word “ex volare” is very close to what Augustine described in his book “On the literal meanings of Genesis,” which stressed the multiple ways in which the text could be read literally.

  10. Thank you for that great post! I now read some of your posts, do really like your blog, will twitter about it and put in on my blog roll.

    Best wishes from Germany!

Comments are closed.