Storm of Words
Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era
Publication Year: 2014
Southern Presbyterian theologians enjoyed a prominent position in antebellum southern culture. Respected for both their erudition and elite constituency, these theologians identified the southern society as representing a divine, Biblically ordained order. Beginning in the 1840s, however, this facile identification became more difficult to maintain, colliding first with antislavery polemics, then with Confederate defeat and reconstruction, and later with women’s rights, philosophical empiricism, literary criticisms of the Bible, and that most salient symbol of modernity, natural science.
As Monte Harrell Hampton shows in Storm of Words, modern science seemed most explicitly to express the rationalistic spirit of the age and threaten the Protestant conviction that science was the faithful “handmaid” of theology. Southern Presbyterians disposed of some of these threats with ease. Contemporary geology, however, posed thornier problems. Ambivalence over how to respond to geology led to the establishment in 1859 of the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion at the seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. Installing scientist-theologian James Woodrow in this position, southern Presbyterians expected him to defend their positions.
Within twenty-five years, however, their anointed expert held that evolution did not contradict scripture. Indeed, he declared that it was in fact God’s method of creating. The resulting debate was the first extended evolution controversy in American history. It drove a wedge between those tolerant of new exegetical and scientific developments and the majority who opposed such openness. Hampton argues that Woodrow believed he was shoring up the alliance between science and scripture—that a circumscribed form of evolution did no violence to scriptural infallibility. The traditionalists’ view, however, remained interwoven with their identity as defenders of the Lost Cause and guardians of southern culture.
The ensuing debate triggered Woodrow’s dismissal. It also capped a modernity crisis experienced by an influential group of southern intellectuals who were grappling with the nature of knowledge, both scientific and religious, and its relationship to culture—a culture attempting to define itself in the shadow of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
Series: Religion and American Culture
Title Page, Editorial Board, Copyright Page, Dedication
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I have been thinking about science, religion, and the American South for a long time. I had the original idea for this book many years ago while reading E. Brooks Holifield’s The Gentlemen Theologians, a work assigned in an independent study with John David Smith, who was simply responding to a (very...
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When John Brown ascended the gallows in December 1859, he elicited little sympathy from southern whites. His conviction that his Calvinist God had anointed him to purge the commonwealth of the scourge of slavery notwithstanding, they believed his execution for the raid on Harpers Ferry was just...
1. “The Presbyterian and Orthodox Idiosyncrasy of Mind”
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The Perkins chair institutionalized the widespread concern of southern Presbyterians that the waters of modernity be safely navigated. Though contemporary intellectual currents discomfited some less than others, the displacements of war and Reconstruction would render every reflective southerner’s...
2. Navigating by the “Pole-Star”: The Engagement with Modernity
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Opponents of fusion with the Northern Presbyterian Church succeeded in preventing ecclesiastical reunion. Though the Southern Church’s 1889 General Assembly agreed to a limited plan of cooperation, mainly in mission work, talk of reunion was dropped by the 1890s and denominational disjunction...
3. A “New and Frisky Science”: Race, Religion, and the Response to Anthropology
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Though characterized by an “orthodox idiosyncrasy of mind,” Southern Presbyterians did not regard the intellect or science as suspect per se. Unlike many early twentieth-century fundamentalists, who would combine a biblicist defense of theism with anti-intellectualism, late nineteenth-century Southern...
4. The Fidelity of a “Handmaid”: Genesis and Geology in the Presbyterian South
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At the same 1850 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Charleston, Alexander Dallas Bache noted that the wave of opposition to geology that had swept over the North twenty years before was now sweeping over the South.1 Indeed, controversy concerning geology...
5. “A Revolution in Our Church”: Founding and Filling the Perkins Professorship
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In 1859 Southern Presbyterians established the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion at their seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. The creation of this chair institutionalized their conviction that revelation and reason were compatible, even mutually corroborative...
6. “The Serpent-Trail of Rationalism”
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In January 1861 James Woodrow arrived in Columbia and could now concentrate on the relationship of nature and scripture, science and theology, more thoroughly than even his most fantastic dreams would have allowed. Now cloudy curiosities, formerly floating in a holding pattern above the daily exigencies...
7. “A Crown Pure and Bright”: The Southern Presbyterian Evolution Controversy
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Invoking the Apostle Paul’s warning against “philosophy and vain deceit” (Colossians 2:8), Robert Lewis Dabney charged that doctrinaire, materialistic empiricism was the chief incarnation of an age-old nemesis threatening contemporary Christianity and the scriptures. While the ancient Colossian...
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The Southern Presbyterian evolution controversy was an attempt by both pro-and anti-Woodrow polemicists to define the southern- biblicist heritage in the face of a new challenge. This interpretation of the controversy calls for some explanation of the different hermeneutic approaches taken by those who...
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Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2014
Series Title: Religion and American Culture