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  • Protestant Responses to Darwinism in Denmark, 1859–1914
  • Hans Henrik Hjermitslev

From the 1870s onwards, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in On the Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871), was an important topic among the followers of the influential Danish theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig (1783–1872). The Grundtvigians constituted a major faction within the Danish Evangelical-Lutheran Established Church, which included more than ninety percent of the population in the period 1859–1914.

This article demonstrates the influence of local contexts on the reception of scientific ideas by analyzing how specific aspects of Danish intellectual culture made the Grundtvigian reactions to Darwin’s theory different from Protestant denominations in America and Britain. Firstly, Grundtvig’s critique of Lutheran scriptural theology and his preference for the living word to the letters of the Bible legitimized liberal interpretations of Scripture. Secondly the philosophy of the Søren Kierkegaard protagonist, Rasmus Nielsen, made it possible for Grundtvigians to draw radical distinctions between science and faith. This specific “Danish Protestantism,” as the clergyman Frederik Jungersen phrased it in 1873, led the way for liberal Grundtvigians in coming to terms with Darwinism in the first decades of the twentieth century.1 [End Page 279]

Protestant Responses to Evolution

In recent decades historians have paid considerable attention to religious responses to Darwinism. Studies have revealed a variety of reactions to evolution depending on local contingencies, which has made it impossible to uphold any grand narrative of the dissemination of Darwinism.2 In his study of Calvinist attitudes toward Darwinism in Princeton, Belfast, and Edinburgh, David N. Livingstone thus emphasizes the importance of place in the reception of evolution.3 The historical complexities shaped by local contexts have been further demonstrated by scholars, who have explored the responses to Darwinism in a wide range of Protestant denominations in Britain and America.4 From the 1870s, when evolution was generally accepted among British and American scientists, liberal and even some orthodox theologians advocated various kinds of theistic evolutionism. It was not until the 1920s that creationists, who rejected evolution in general and human evolution in particular, took center stage in American Protestant answers to the Darwinian challenge. While many Protestant theologians in the decades around 1900 accepted that God had created the living world, including man, through evolution, very few embraced the specific Darwinian mechanism of natural selection that was often said to have atheistic implications. Instead liberal theologians, in line with many naturalists, often applied Lamarckian concepts of use-inheritance and teleological [End Page 280] development and prevalent ideas of progress that were seen as consistent with viewing evolution as a meaningful process and the unfolding of the Creator’s plan. According to James R. Moore, Peter J. Bowler, and Frederick Gregory this was the common way for liberal Christians to respond to organic evolution at least in the English-speaking world. It offered an acceptable compromise between science and faith. However, this article demonstrates that this strategy did not dominate in Denmark, where a separation model of science and faith was a more widespread approach when embracing the theory of evolution.5

While studies by Jon H. Roberts and Ronald L. Numbers reveal considerable differences within the leading Protestant denominations such as Calvinists, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Methodists in their attitudes toward evolution, they detect no significant differences among the groups. Numbers notes however that “distinctive theological convictions sometimes influenced how people viewed Darwin’s theory.”6 This was especially the case when we move from the Protestant mainstream into distinctive groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists and the Pentecostals. In the case of the Adventists, their hyper-literalism and strong support for young-earth creationism owed much to the inspired writings of their founding prophetess Ellen G. White, while the relative indifference to evolution among Pentecostals can be explained by their Wesleyan-Methodist focus on religious experience over the study of Scripture.7 Likewise, in a study of attitudes toward evolution within the British Quaker community, Geoffrey Cantor has shown how discussions of Darwinism between evangelicals and moderates centred on the relative importance that should be paid to the Bible versus the doctrine of the Inner Light. Emphasizing...


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