The 19th Century ferment—Charles Lyell, Thomas Chalmers, Henry Drummond, Philip Henry Gosse
19th Century revolt against the Bible
It is difficult for us, 150 or so years later, to appreciate the life-and-death struggle which convulsed the Christian world in the 19th century—and especially following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. It was not, of course, the scientific theory of evolution only which gave problems: Nietzsche, with his ‘God is dead’ philosophy, the political views of Marx and Engels, the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, the application of ‘survival of the fittest’ ideas to extreme capitalism, and the higher criticism dogma of some theologians leading on to modernism and present-day liberalism—all these had one thing in common: a disbelief in the historical accuracy of the Bible.
If the first chapters of Genesis are poetry, myth or legend, then God ceases to be the Creator of the GOOD earth, man becomes merely an animal, all miracles (including the Virgin birth, and Christ’s Resurrection) are suspect too. So Jesus Christ becomes, not the Saviour who died for the sin of His people and rose again to demonstrate His power over death, but a great (the greatest?) leader to conduct us higher and higher up the evolutionary pathway. In the words of a hymn, “Oh, Son of Man. my Hero strong and tender.”1 And the nineteenth century Christians realized the truth of all this.
Furthermore, they clearly understood that the demonstrable proof of whether the Christian faith was believable lay in the truth or otherwise of evolution.
Today, we tend to think of the theory of evolution as only a scientific matter which commenced with the publication of Darwin’s great work. But in fact, the surge of interest in geology, zoology and botany which commenced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had already served notice that a move to dethrone God was imminent.
One who carefully undermined what he called ‘the Mosaic systems’, that is the Creation and the Flood, was Charles Lyell. His Principles of Geology, published in 1830, was popular for half a century. It was aptly subtitled, An attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation, for it vigorously presented the idea of uniformitarianism. This theory proposes that the present is the key to the past; that the rocks were laid down over millions of years by the presently known forces of nature, that is water, frost, the weathering effect of heat and wind, etc.
The alternative theory is catastrophism. This maintains that the rocks were formed under conditions of violent change: floods and volcanic action, for example. This latter view permits a short age for the earth with the world-wide Flood of Noah as the principle cause for the vast fossil remains both of animals and plants (coal, for example). Darwin took the first volume of Lyell’s book with him on HMS Beagle to while away the hours on the long sea voyage. The second volume caught up with him in Montevideo.
One of the main purposes of Darwin’s journey was to study the natural history of the new countries he was to visit. Some of his biographers say he had embarked as a believer in Genesis, but as he travelled his views changed.
Which was really true? The earth is only 6000 or so years old, and the world-wide Flood of Noah the supreme natural catastrophe of all history? Or the world millions of years old, formed by the slow action of well-known forces?
Catastrophism or uniformitarianism? God, or the chance action of nature?
Gradually, the uniformitarian principle was extrapolated from geology to biology. And it was the genius of Darwin to suggest the simple method whereby, if permitted, millions of years in which to operate, more and more complex life-forms, and even man himself, might develop without need for the intervention of God.
Another foundational book of the early 19th century was Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844. It was not until 40 years later that the author was discovered to be Robert Chambers, the original compiler, among many other works, of the popular Chambers Dictionary. He did not dare put his name to Vestiges, because he anticipated criticism and abuse—which it certainly received. And being a literary rather than a scientific writer, he was afraid abuse might damage his other works.
Chambers appeared to believe in a God, but it is to His greater glory that He did not stoop “at one time to produce Zoophytes, another time to add a few marine mollusks, another to bring in a few crustaceans … again to produce fish”, and so on to the end. Instead he took the more dignified course, of letting nature operate through the “law of development” (later to be known as evolution).
The effect of these and similar works was profoundly disturbing to Christians. And it is impossible to exaggerate the dynamic effect on science, culture and religion of the Origin when it appeared in 1859. The soil for the acceptance of Darwin’s book had been well prepared, and the flower blossomed exceedingly.
Evolution versus creation
What were the principal areas of conflict between the new evolutionists and the creationists of those days?
- The Age of the Earth. Is the earth millions of years old, as required by the uniformitarianists, or about 6,000 years as indicated in Scripture?
- The mutability or immutability of species. Can one species change into another, e.g. reptiles into birds; apes into men? Or did God create separate ‘kinds’, such as the ‘cat kind’, the ‘dog kind’, etc., and, supremely, ‘man kind’? (We will ignore the problem of what is a species, and whether it equates with a ‘kind’.)
- Noah’s Flood. Is this the tale of some local event which once occurred in the Middle East, or was it world-wide as indicated in the Bible?
If the answer to these questions is ‘Yes’—millions of years, mutability of species, the Flood purely local—then the Genesis record is not historical, and the origin of the earth and all life on it could (possibly) have occurred by chance. The God-hypothesis is not required. There is no supernatural realm. All miracles can be explained scientifically.
How did Christians react to these new scientific ideas, which seemed so logical, so convincing, so true? Since, so they argued, the Book of Nature, and the Book of the Bible are both written by the same God, there can be no ultimate discrepancy between them. It must be possible to reconcile the two. Any difference must be because we do not fully understand one or the other. We must look again.
An early attempt at reconciliation was made by the godly Thomas Chalmers, founder of the Free Church of Scotland. He was a contemporary of Lyell and Darwin. He felt deeply what he regarded as the attacks of science on religion, and deemed it necessary to try to harmonize the Bible with science in order, so he thought, “to protect Christianity from the onslaughts of atheism”.
Chalmers therefore proposed what has come to be known as the ‘gap’ theory, or the ‘Ruin-Restoration’ theory, which has been popularized in the Scofield Bible. There are variants, but briefly the theory proposes a complete and perfect creation of a populated earth recorded in Genesis 1:1, the ruin of this earth during a chronological gap (as long as you like) between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, and a subsequent re-creation beginning with Genesis 1:3. (For further details, consult a 1917 edition of the Scofield Bible. In more recent editions the account of the theory has been much abbreviated. See also The gap theory—an idea with holes? By Dr Henry Morris.)
What of the ‘gap’ theory?
We know now there is no biblical or scientific evidence to support it, and the whole idea is rapidly losing ground. However, I suggest it served a purpose in its time. For, as an elderly Christian remarked to me,
“I am grateful to the theory. When I went through years of doubt and threw the whole creation/evolution matter into the too-hard basket, the theory helped me to keep my faith. Now I know it was wrong and that Genesis can stand on its own merits.”
Another attempt to counter the evolutionary onslaught was provided by Professor Drummond in his book Natural Law in the Spiritual World. This proved immensely popular, 33 editions having being published by 1897.
In the preface, Drummond states that it had been his privilege to lecture regularly to two different audiences on two very different lines.
“On weekdays,” he wrote, “I lecture to a class of students in the Natural Sciences, and on Sundays to an audience consisting for the most part of working men, on subjects of a religious and moral nature.”
Drummond states that this gave him no great difficulty at first, as
“I kept the two compartments entirely by themselves. They lay at opposite poles of thought, and for a time I succeeded in keeping the Science and Religion shut off from one another in two separate compartments in my mind. But gradually … ‘the two fountains of knowledge began to overflow, and finally the waters met and mingled, the great change was in the compartment which held Religion’.”
The rest of the book explains the result of his merging of waters. Today, the Natural Law appears as unsatisfying metaphysics, unacceptable to either scientists or theologians.
Philip Henry Gosse
Yet another attempt to reconcile science and religion was made by Philip Henry Gosse FRS (1810–1888). Gosse was an English naturalist of considerable repute. His Manual of Marine Zoology (1855) opened up a new branch of science. He was one of those approached by both Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin two years before the publication of the Origin to apprise him of the contents of the forthcoming book—in the hope that he would help to shout down the “howl of execration” which was sure to greet the work.
But they had chosen the wrong man. Gosse was a devout member of the Plymouth Brethren and a firm believer in the fixity of species. He could not accept the new science.
His son Edmund writes,
“Where was his place, then, as a sincere and accurate observer? Manifestly, it was with the pioneers of the new truth, with Darwin, Wallace, and Hooker. But did not the second chapter of Genesis say that in six days the heavens and earth were finished, and on the seventh day God ended his work? Here was the dilemma! Geology certainly seemed to be true, but the Bible, which was God’s word, was true. If the Bible said all things in heaven and earth were created in six days, created in six days they were; in six literal days of twenty-four hours each.”
Gosse learnt that Lyell was also planning to write a book—on the geological history of man. Disliking Lyell more than Darwin, Gosse retaliated by producing a book entitled Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. This was a strange and totally unsuccessful attempt to reconcile Genesis with geology. The suggestion was that just as Adam’s navel [Omphalos is the Greek word for navel] had been prepared to simulate a natural birth, so God had created the fossils and placed them in the rocks to test men’s faith.
The book was dismissed with scorn—Gosse’s [and Darwin’s] friend Charles Kingsley declaring that he could not believe that God would have perpetrated “one gigantic and superfluous lie”. Poor Gosse retired a broken man.
[Ed. note: this account of Gosse is not correct, although Gosse was mistaken in his beliefs. And he was broken only temporarily; he authored a number of books and papers after this and began a second happy marriage after being widowed around the time of Omphalos. His son was a notoriously unreliable witness who was bitterly opposed to Christianity. See Gosse and Omphalos.]
I have tried to indicate something of the devastating effect the new science had on men and women of faith in the nineteenth century, and the way three of them reacted.
- Chalmers proposed a novel method of understanding Genesis 1:1–2. Unfortunately his biblical exegesis and knowledge of geology were both incorrect.
- Drummond tried to merge scientific and biblical orthodoxy, but ended with metaphysical unorthodoxy.
- Gosse suggested an original way of understanding geology. This failed, both because he seemed to make God a liar, and because he did not appreciate the geological imperative of the Flood.
If you and I had been living at that time, would we have done any better?
References and notes
- Written by Frank Fletcher in 1924. Return to text