Summer for the Gods

How conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin

BY: Edward J. Larson

 
This excerpt is condensed from the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Summer for the Gods" (Basic Books), by Edward J. Larson. Larson, a historian at the University of Georgia, has in previous sections described how "religion versus Darwin," which was not a hot controversy in the United States in the decades immediately following the publication of Origin of Species, became one in the 1920s. Three forces were at work, Larson says.

One, the discoveries of ancient fossils of earlier humans, which forced men and women to contemplate the notion that not just animals but Homo sapiens descended from earlier forms. The best known, "Piltdown man," turned out to be a forgery, but several genuine proto-human fossils were uncovered as well. Two, the new social phenomenon of universal, public-financed high school education, which put the curriculum of the public school into play as a subject of general debate. The third factor came from the left. Establishment liberalism, which was aghast when the liberal president Woodward Wilson favored restrictions against free speech by those who opposed World War I, began to center much of its political and legal strategy on winning First Amendment cases. When bans against the teaching of evolution were proposed, this seemed to the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union an ideal ground on which to battle for free speech.

In this chapter, Larson describes how conservative Christians coalesced against the teaching of Darwin, with William Jennings Bryan rising as their champion.

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Fossil discoveries of the 1920s provided persuasive new evidence for human evolution and, as such, provoked a response from anti-evolutionists. Paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn threw down the gauntlet in his reply to William Jennings Bryan's 1922 plea in The New York Times for restrictions on evolutionary teaching. Bryan had argued that "neither Darwin nor his supporters have been able to find a fact in the universe to support their hypothesis," prompting Osborn to cite "the Piltdown man" and other recent hominid fossil finds. "All this evidence is today within reach of every schoolboy," Osborn wrote. "It will, we are convinced, satisfactorily answer in the negative [Bryan's] question, 'Is it not more rational to believe in the creation of man by separate act of God than to believe in evolution without a particle of evidence?'" Of course, the fact that all this evidence was within the reach of every public school student constituted the nub of Bryan's concern, and Osborn further baited anti-evolutionists by stressing how fossil evidence undermined belief in the special creation of humans.

During the years leading up to the Scopes trial, anti-evolutionists responded to the new fossil evidence in various ways. Fundamentalist leader and Scopes trial consultant John Roach Straton, for example, denounced "Piltdown man" as a fraud; ultimately, in 1950, the Piltdown fossil would be exposed as fake. Adventist science educator George McCready Price, who devised a creationist theory of geologic history that Bryan cited at trial, challenged the antiquity and evolutionary order given to the fossilized humanoids. Placing their age at only a few thousand years, rather than the hundreds of thousands of years reckoned by Osborn, Price wrote in 1924, "Such specimens as those from Heidelberg, Neanderthal, and Piltdown may be regarded as degenerate offshoots which had separated from the main stock both ethnically and geographically." Bryan simply ridiculed paleontologists. "The evolutionists have attempted to prove by circumstantial evidence (resemblances) that man is descended from the brute," he declared in a 1923 address to the West Virginia state legislature. "If they find a stray tooth in a gravel pit, they hold a conclave and fashion a creature such as they suppose the possessor of the tooth to have been, and then they shout derisively at Moses." Responding in kind, Bryan then shouted derisively at people like Osborn: "Men who would not cross the street to save a soul have traveled across the world in search of skeletons."

Certainly some conservative Christians rejected Darwinism all along, but when doing so even Bryan earlier had added, "I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory." Some articles in the fundamentalist series The Fundamentals--published from 1905 to 1915, these pamphlets were the founding documents of 20th century American religious conservatism--criticized the theory of evolution, but others accepted it. Indeed, the Baptist leader who founded that series and later helped launch the fundamentalist movement, A.C. Dixon, once expressed his willingness to accept natural selection theory "if proved," while a subsequent series editor, R.A. Torrey, persistently maintained that a Christian could "believe thoroughly in the absolute infallibility of the Bible and still be an evolutionist of a certain type." But such tolerance largely disappeared during and after the First World War, as the fundamentalist movement coalesced out of various different conservative Christian traditions.

Conservative Christians drew together across denominational lines to fight for the so-called "fundamentals" of their traditional faith against the perceived heresy of modernism, and in doing so gave birth to the fundamentalist movement and anti-evolution crusade. Certainly modernism had made significant inroads within divinity schools and among the clergy of mainline Protestant denominations in the North and West, and fundamentalism represented a legitimate theological effort to counter these advances. Biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the twin pillars of this opposing creed, stood as the logical targets of this conservative counter-attack. Without more, however, a purely theological effort rarely incites a mass movement--at least in pluralistic America. Much more stirred up fundamentalism--and turned its fury against evolutionary teaching in the public schools.

Continued on page 2: »

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