A historical perspective on the effect of evolution on the church in the UK
The Great Awakening of interest in Christianity in 18th century England had blessed both the Anglican and the non-conformist churches and they were very healthy as the mid-19th century approached. Both groups had been largely untouched by the criticism of the Bible that had affected the church on the Continent for over a century.
The colonial expansion of the era, coupled with a strong church, saw an increase in missionary zeal at home and abroad. By 1860 religious toleration was virtually fully implemented and every man was free to worship God as his conscience dictated. A freedom blossomed in England which, in fact, had never been known in the world before.
At that time evolutionary ideas were known from Greek mythology but not widely accepted. The foundations of British society, its education, its laws, and its values were firmly fixed in Divine Creation and the Bible. In 1859, Darwin’s Origin of Species1 was published and sold 1250 copies of the first limited edition on the same day. This was hardly noticed by churchmen at the time, although in fact it signalled the beginning of a new era for the church, sadly, marked by an increasing uncertainty and loss of direction.
Within a year, a publication entitled Essays and Reviews created quite a stir by challenging the accepted ‘literal history’ view of Scripture. The writers challenged the reliability of the Bible’s authors. In Europe this challenge to Scripture had come much earlier. It had been put forward by Catholic scholars, Masius and Pereira, in the period following the Reformation. In 1753 the Frenchman Jean Astruc challenged the traditional view that Moses wrote Genesis. Essays and Reviews likewise went on to challenge the traditional views of authorship based on the language and style, claiming ‘writing wasn’t invented in Moses’ day’!2
This combined attack on the Bible’s authorship, and its teaching on the origin of life, shook the foundations of the Christian faith as never before in the history of the British church. The two publications lent support to each other. One spoke from the perspective of science and the other on literature and archaeology. So the stage was set. Other writers, unsympathetic to the church, were not above hopping on the bandwagon to challenge traditional views of Creation, the Bible, man and sin.
One reason for the success of the attack was that many Christians had failed to take seriously the tragedies of life and the seeming cruelties of nature, such as the lion attacking its prey. They had tended to be overly sentimental in their view of nature as ‘proving the existence of a loving God’. Darwin’s emphasis on the ‘survival of the fittest’ appeared at first to better fit the observable facts though it rested on assumptions which could not be proven or disproven at the time through lack of data.
Most of the larger denominations soon found that many of their most respected professors, teachers and laymen accepted these ideas on biblical authorship and on evolution in some form. Discipline against ‘such leaders’ was difficult, if not impossible and was usually not taken. Anyone attempting to support the traditional view was fighting virtually a ‘rear guard’ action, both in the areas of the authorship and reliability of the biblical writings, and also in the area of the research data being presented to support evolution. In each of these fields the new ideas rested on assumptions that were usually not obvious and very difficult to prove or disprove without massive further research. It is only in our own day that the whole picture has emerged and the traditional view vindicated by the finest of scholarship.
Perhaps the saddest casualties were the children, and the youth (especially at tertiary level), who saw the ‘new’ teaching as undermining the credibility of the Bible and thus the message of the church. The other group seriously affected was the younger generation of ministers. Their confidence in Scripture was shaken, if not lost, and the note of authority and certainty no longer characterised the Protestant pulpits as it had before.
In 1864 the Roman Catholic church published a papal encyclical letter The Syllabus of Errors which condemned evolution. This official stand on the issue lasted for about 100 years. It is interesting to note that the small, conservative denominations which were inclined to withdraw from the fray, have survived best. Those which accepted the assumptions on authorship and evolutionary teaching have gradually declined and in time some were swallowed up in the ecclesiastical mergers of the 20th century.
In the course of time certain results became apparent within the church. There emerged three basic groups transcending denominational barriers—the liberals, the fundamentalists, and the agnostics. The liberals and the agnostics comprised the majority. Gradually their abandonment of traditional biblical Creation-based values affected the whole fabric of British national life, till we see the sad picture of godlessness, lawlessness and poverty evident in Britain today.
With the coming of evolution the issue of biblical authority was raised afresh for the church just as it had been during the Reformation. Protestantism in the late 1800’s with an increasing group viewing the Bible differently from the Reformers, began its search for an alternative to the ‘written Word of God’.
The acceptance of ideas different from biblical Christianity soon became widespread. Some westerners began (actively rather than passively) to downgrade primitive peoples. After all if evolution were true it seemed only logical to think of such tribes and races as inferior and forget the Creation-based rule that ‘God has made of one blood all nations’. Within the Church this led to a lowering of missionary zeal at home and abroad. There was a loss of the vision of an unevangelised world waiting to be won to Christ.
Many levels of society, especially that of the student world, began to lose respect for the church and this process was furthered by such national tragedies as World War I and World War II. Churchmen desperately tried new ideas, new methods and even changing the message, in an effort to regain lost ground but it was in vain. The culture began to move away from its Christian foundation in values and priorities.
When Vatican II abandoned the traditional Catholic stance against evolution, and the biblical criticism already referred to, this was followed by the multiplication of similar sad symptoms within the Roman Catholic population as had been seen in Protestantism.
Today many Catholic institutions would be ardent promoters of evolution. The result of this shift has been the defection of many priests and nuns and a loss of confidence at the grassroots level.
A sadly humorous summing-up of the effect of evolution on the churches in Britain over the past 100 years could be. “The proof of the pudding is not in the eating—it’s how you feel afterwards.” Many churchmen had felt that a diet of evolution could be absorbed without harm—but the health of the church, a century later, is a sorry testimony of the quality of nourishment it provided.
What then about a century from now?
To foresee the future wellbeing of the Christian church, it is essential to recognise humanism’s hostility to true Christianity. It is also necessary to understand that the worldview underlying evolution is humanistic. Whether we can perceive it or not, a life-and-death struggle between Christianity and humanism is being fought out now. There is only one way to fight it. We must rediscover the authority of the Bible, and think through our faith. Then we must live out the faith we hold in a lifestyle that is characterised by godliness, integrity and love.
References and notes
- Darwin, C., On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, John Murray, London, 1859. Return to text.
- The whole “Form Critical” School was finally disproven in our own day both by more recent archaeological research, and in the essay by C.S. Lewis ‘Fern Seed and Elephants’, in which he demonstrates the faulty assumptions on which the whole method rests. Return to text.