Graphic Rule
Graphic Rule



The heresy that one species of animals could change into another not only flatly made Moses out to be a falsifier but denied God's competence to do the complete creative work in one operation. Christian scholars had encountered it, and evaded it successfully. Appreciating the vastness of the organic world, the great multitude of big and little animals, of winged creatures and of creeping things, the difficulty of the Almighty's bringing each of these creatures separately before Adam to be named, the difficulties thereby presented to Adam himself, and the further difficulty of crowding even pairs, much less seven pairs, of this great multitude of creatures into the ark and keeping them alive throughout the flood, they had made a variety of concessions to the Genesis account. Origen had expanded Noah's vessel by suggesting that the cubit was six times greater than had been supposed, while Bede had conserved its rations by suggesting that God had thrown all the animals into a deep sleep or otherwise miraculously made one day's supply of food sufficient for a year. But these were more a subterfuge than a solution, and it was Basil's explanation, that lesser creatures such as frogs, snakes, flies, gnats and the like, were continuously being created from mud and water by a creative power put there by God in the first instance, that received general approval. Augustine accepted the principle of spontaneous generation and through Isidore of Seville the doctrine of the 'secondary creation' of small animals passed to Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, the latter summing it up in the words: 'Nothing was made by God, after the six days of creation, absolutely new, but it was in some sense included in the work of the six days ... even new species, if any appear, have existed before in certain native properties, just as animals are produced from putrefaction!'

About the beginning of the seventeenth century the Jesuit theologian Suarez rejected the doctrine of spontaneous generation as erroneous, and roundly denounced Augustine as a heretic for his role in sponsoring it; and in this same century it was excluded as a plausible hypothesis by Francesco Redi by means of some simple experiments with a fly screen and a bottle of putrefying meat. Thereafter the idea of the transformation of species began perforce to reassert itself, if for no other reason than to keep the ark afloat. Giordano Bruno, who owed much to the thought of Lucretius, might have developed the notion of evolution, but he was burned. Descartes (1595-1650), whose intellectual technique owed nothing either to theology or Scholastic tradition, conceived an evolutionary scheme to account for the solar system, and would unquestionably have applied the idea of transformation to the structure and functions of organisms, but having observed Galileo's fate, and remembering Bruno, who had died in his childhood, and having himself suffered repeated condemnation, he withheld his opinions out of distaste for hell-fire and respect for the church. Leibnitz contemplated the possibilities of organic transformation but had his activities in this field curtailed by the strictures of the Jesuits. Buffon was frankly an evolutionist, but was forced by public humiliation to defer to Moses. De Maillet (1656-1738) conceived that the structure of the earth might be studied in the light of the present course of nature, and that existing species had been produced by modification of their predecessors; fearing ecclesiastic censure he presented his book on the subject as the reverie of a Hindu sage who had transmitted its contents to a Christian missionary; yet even thus disguised he was unable to get it published in his lifetime, and when it did appear shortly after his death it was vigorously denounced. De Maillet, however, suffered as much destructive criticism at the hands of Voltaire as from the church. Voltaire, although at heart a deist of sorts -- 'there is,' he said, 'something divine in a flea' -- loved to direct his most biting satire against the church and priests and nothing stirred him to higher pitch than the authority of Moses. De Maillet had seen in the presence of fossils on high mountains a proof that these mountains were once below the sea; and Voltaire, recognizing in this an argument for the deluge and a support for Mosaic tradition, ridiculed De Maillet's work until it was discredited, this writer having unfortunately put himself at Voltaire's mercy by proposing that the first human being had been born of a mermaid.

The notion of evolution was in the air when Linnaeus (1707-1778) gave to the contrary doctrine, the eternal fixity of species, the authority of his name, the greatest in the annals of biology after Aristotle. For the first time since Aristotle there was presented in the Systema naturae and other works of the Swedish naturalist a revised and reorganized catalogue of the entire plant and animal kingdoms, patterned according to their structural affinities into species and genera; here there were presented a multitude of facts demanding reinterpretation, countless suggestions of an orderly if complex transmutation of one type of organism into another. Yet it was commonplace knowledge and within every man's experience that species invariably bred true to type, and to challenge the commonplace is a heroic task. When the great naturalist published his work on sexual reproduction in plants his writings were outrightly proscribed in those states which gave allegiance to Catholic doctrine, and viewed askance by Protestants -- the idea of sex in plants was horrifying. When he showed that the miracle of turning water into blood depended on the growth of a dense mass of minute, red aquatic animals, the Lutheran bishop of Svedberg retorted vehemently, "The reddening of water is not natural ... when God allows such a miracle to take place Satan endeavors, and so do his ungodly, self-reliant, self-sufficient, and worldly tools, to make it signify nothing." Towards the end of his life Linnaeus tentatively suggested that the various species of one genus had at the time of creation constituted one species only; and from the last edition of his Systema naturae he dropped any explicit assertion of the fixity of species; but beyond this it was not within his power to resist that which was self-evident, which had been 'believed always, everywhere, and by all men,' and which was certified by God through the agency of Moses.

No less troublesome than the mystery presented by the vast variety of species was the explanation of their peculiar geographical distribution. From Augustine onward attempts had been made to explain the occurrence of a variety of animals in lands so remote from Ararat that it seemed impossible for them to have walked or swum there by themselves.

With the voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gamma, Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci and others, each navigator bringing home wholly new species from remote parts of the world, the difficulties of the radiation theory became greatly multiplied.

Now to add to such obvious perplexities were the ever increasing evidences afforded by Hutton that the age of the earth was not 4004 years, nor yet four hundred thousand years, but untold millions; that in the great epochs of the past and in all parts of the earth fauna after fauna had succeeded each other, only to suffer annihilation; that the surviving species, even these together with all recoverable extinct types, were by any account but a small fraction of the great cavalcade of life that had moved slowly through the geologic ages. Fossil as well as living species accumulated faster than men could classify them, and with each addition the theory of the interrelatedness of organic life became more and more attractive. Saint-Hilaire, Treviranus, Herder, Oken, Blumenbach, Zimmerman, Soemerring, a long list of men in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had timidly or openly proposed one or another process of transmutation, but the idea was ridiculed by Cuvier and others, who were determined to adhere to Moses.

With literary license Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) has been called the grandfather of evolution because he was the grandfather of Charles who fathered it. A successful physician, Erasmus yet possessed such time and energy beyond the requirements of his patients that he could indulge in the pastime of mechanical invention so productively as to produce a manifold writer, a talking machine which said 'Mama' and other words, a canal lock, a rotary pump, and a 'very singular carriage,' from falling off of which he sustained a lifelong injury to one of his legs. His notes on pathology were intermingled with ideas on electricity, meteorology, sleep, lunacy, sanitation, phonetics, slavery and a hundred other subjects, while the rest of his spare time was devoted to the effort to convert Linnaeus's great technical works on botany into verse.

It was in his Zoonomia (1794), ostensibly a textbook of medicine, in a chapter dealing with generation, that he interpolated what is not so much a theory of evolution as a panegyric on the idea. After citing certain evidences of a developmental process, he wrote:

'From thus meditating on the great similarity of the structure of the warm-blooded animals, and at the same time of the great changes they undergo both before and after their nativity; and by considering in how minute a portion of time many of the changes of animals above described have been produced; would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which The Great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity world without end!' Endorsing the notion expressed by Buffon and Helvetius, that mankind had arisen from one family of monkeys on the 'banks of the Mediterranean' who accidentally had learned to use the thumb; and approving Hume's suggestion that the world itself might have been produced gradually rather than created suddenly by Almighty fiat, he envisioned The Great Architect accomplishing the work of creation by slow degrees and constantly improving the whole, as is evidenced by 'the excellence observable in every part of the creation; such as in the progressive increase of the solid habitable parts of the earth from water; and in the progressive increase in the wisdom and happiness of its inhabitants; ... our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.'

Erasmus Darwin anticipated both the doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characters, to be formulated later by Lamarck, and the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, formulated by his grandson, Charles. That he should come upon both ideas and yet fail to develop either may be attributed to his failure to perceive that here was the question which lay at the heart of the biological problem: granted the doctrine of the mutability of species from whatever cause, what force or forces pattern the final, living forms? He remained unaware that the problem existed, because his evolution was a pious fantasy differing from Genesis only in that creation consisted of continuing 'process' instead of a series of six quickly completed acts; the bleaker aspects of the picture, the quick destruction of animals and plants by great catastrophes, their slow destruction by competition and disease -- 'nature red in tooth and claw' -- were for him but those somber elements by which the poet was wont to emphasize through contrast the essential beneficence of the whole. His 'evolution' was suffused with goodness and light, and was moving irresistibly if erratically toward perfection under the better maxims of Jesus and the brighter philosophical lamps of the late eighteenth century.

This rose-wash of morality and progress, coupled with the poetic form of most of his writing, was one reason why Erasmus Darwin escaped the ecclesiastic condemnation which embarrassed those of his contemporaries who ventured into infidelity. But equally important in securing this immunity was the fact that there was nothing in his speculations in the way of evidence or authority to give them even the air of a serious doctrine. Consequently they were neglected by orthodox and unorthodox alike, and the worst injury he brought upon himself was that for a time 'Darwinizing' became a cant term for unrestrained hypothesis.

For the most part, those who studied nature in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were imbued with the idea that creation mirrored in every detail the mind of the Creator. Natural theology, as it was called, was the art of demonstrating the existence of God, and his goodness, from the exquisite accommodations which were to be discovered in all animals and plants. The popular textbooks of the day consisted of such ancient works as John Ray's The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691), that argued the beneficence of the Almighty from the adaptations of animals to man's requirements, as well as to their own environment; and Nehemiah Grew's Cosmologica Sacra, or a Discourse on the Universe, as it is the Creature and Kingdom of God; chiefly written to demonstrate the Truth and Excellency of the Bible (1701). Grew proved creative design and the good intentions of Providence by such arguments as, 'A crane, which is scurvy meat, lays but two eggs in the year, but a pheasant and partridge, both excellent meat, lay and hatch fifteen or twenty'; 'if nettles sting, it is to secure an excellent medicine for children and cattle'; 'if the bramble hurts man, it makes all the better hedge'; 'weasels and other hurtful animals induce us to watchfulness; thistles and moles, to good husbandry; lice oblige us to cleanliness in our bodies, spiders in our houses, and the moth in our clothes.' The masterpiece of this type of thinking was Archdeacon Paley's Natural Theology (1802), the thesis of which was that nature, and particularly human anatomy, requires in each of many particulars 'an intelligent designing mind for the contriving and determining of the forms which organized bodies bear.' The argument from design culminated in the 'Bridgewater Treatises,' a series of eight volumes each prepared by an expert and purporting to show by a mighty array of pious science that God the Creator had foreseen and taken care of all the requirements of man, down to the chemistry of the stomach and intestines.

A tide of skepticism was, however, swelling. In 1801 Lamarck began developing his famous (and fallacious) theory, which he presented more fully in 1814, that since many organs may undergo some change in consequence of use and disuse, new wants in animals can give rise to new organs which develop in proportion to their employment, and that these new organs can be transmitted to the offspring. Among the examples which Lamarck chose to illustrate his views were the giraffe, which he supposed had lengthened its neck by stretching it to gather high-growing foliage, and the kangaroo which he supposed had lengthened and strengthened its hind legs by jumping. These homely examples, which to the untutored seemed reasonable enough, helped to popularize the idea of progressive change and adaptation even while they laid the author of the theory open to the taunts of Cuvier and the orthodox. In 1813 Wells analyzed the varieties of mankind in evolutionary terms; in 1820 Herbert summarized his evidences on the mutability of plants; in 1831 Matthews tentatively conceived a process of natural selection operating on offspring, which varied from the parent stock. In 1844 Chambers in his Vestiges of Creation presented a naïve theory of evolution which called for two distinct creative impulses compressed in the first and only creative act, one imparting life and a second imparting a tendency to modification more or less in accordance with the Lamarckian view. The Vestiges was innocent of both zoologic accuracy and substantiating evidence, but its literary charm and reasonableness made it popular and it went through many editions, spreading the idea of transmutation by giving it an appearance scarcely less pious than Paley's argument from design, or Erasmus Darwin's poetic rhapsodies.


Had the publication of his books been delayed by twenty years even Erasmus Darwin might have been ostracized for atheism, for in the last decade of the eighteenth century there set in a reaction against infidelity of any sort, a Puritanical intolerance of nonconformity more severe than had existed for a hundred years. The newly risen danger of democratic revolution, the consequences of which were all too evident in France and in the colonies, impelled the upper and middle classes of England to unite in defending the ecclesiasticism which was the chief repository of their cultural tradition, and on which they were inclined to lean heavily in the interests of property rights. Although the allegation was scarcely justified in fact, the revolution on the Continent was attributed by many to disbelief, particularly to the ironically critical type represented by Voltaire; while the War of Independence was identified with the self-declared infidel Thomas Paine, the freethinker Franklin, the deist Washington, and with Jefferson, whose frank skepticisms coming from a person of lesser position would have quickly reduced their author to ill repute. The very Constitution of the rebellious states, with deliberateness amounting almost to federal blasphemy, omitted all mention of the deity. Revolution, or worse, must be the product of such freethinking, and to forestall its direful consequences an ever angrier resistance was offered to impiety in any form. Dissident opinion in theology was considered akin to anarchy. Students looking forward to careers, public servants seeking popular approval, teachers dependent for their livelihood on positions nearly all of which were under ecclesiastic control, ordinary citizens fearful of their neighbors' estimation, did not readily entertain, much less disclose, heretical beliefs.

The terms 'freethinker' and 'free thought,' descriptive of skepticism of accepted belief, had come into use in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and still savored of Satanism because skepticism threatened the status quo. After a hundred years skepticism continued to find voice only through those individuals, relatively few in an age of social conformity, who esteemed the right to free thought sufficiently to be prepared to fight for it, and to suffer the consequences. Robertson notes that for translating and publishing the Histoire critique de Jesus Christ of d'Holbach, George Houston was fined £200 and imprisoned for two years in Newgate. Between 1817 and 1835 Richard Carlile underwent nine years' imprisonment for the publication, among other condemned books, of Paine's Age of Reason; and in 1824 eight of Carlile's shopmen were sentenced to various terms with fines, for the sale of this same volume and other irreligious works. In 1820 Thomas Davison was fined £100 and imprisoned two years for publishing in The Deists Magazine, 'A Defence of Deism and Dissection of the Bible Story.' In 1823 Susanna Wright was fined £100 and imprisoned for eighteen months for 'having been instrumental in publishing a libel on the Christian religion'; Robert Taylor, author of Diegesis and The Devil's Pulpit, was imprisoned one year in 1828 and two years in 1831-1833 for expounding the mythical origins of Christianity; and Charles Southwell, the founder and editor of the first avowedly atheistic English periodical, The Oracle of Reason (1842-1843), was fined £100 and imprisoned for a year for an admittedly offensive article entitled 'The Jew Book.' It was for a remark made in public debate, to the effect that "the reigning deity, considered as manager of human affairs, was indicated as fitly to be placed on half pay," that Southwell's successor on The Oracle, George Jacob Holyoake, was imprisoned for six months. The third editor, Thomas Paterson, was imprisoned for using 'blasphemous' placards in London, and the fourth, George Adams, was imprisoned for a month for selling a copy of the paper.

In the main, however, these legal processes gave more aid than hurt to the freethinking movement, by bringing to it much needed pecuniary support from men who cherished freedom of thought, of speech and of the press, and by exciting the interest of the people generally in the forbidden but all too attractive subject of what paradoxically had come to be called the Higher Criticism. Young men, attracted by the new challenge to courage and liberty, offered themselves to martyrdom by undertaking editorships of suppressed periodicals, by printing pamphlets in cellars and by stirring up public debates. In Scotland the prosecutions for blasphemy reached such proportions that a number of Anti-Persecution Societies were formed to defend the right of free speech, while in England, Hyde Park and the soap box became cathedral and pulpit of the new intellectual liberty, still expounded but in unharmonious competition with the Salvation Army's, 'I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.'

The atheists of 1800-1850 did not deny 'the existence of God,' or 'the existence of gods'; like Thomas Paine, whose Age of Reason had evoked violent condemnation in all countries and contributed to his imprisonment in France as well as to the spread of atheism in the colonies, they more often than not asserted only what Spencer later was permitted to affirm with the greatest philosophic dignity, and personal safety, that God was 'the Unknowable'; only they held, with a logic absent from Spencer's definition, that if he was Unknowable, neither the Christians nor themselves could know whether he was or not. If some of these freethinkers were excited to vilification by oppression, the greater number were but determined on reasonable grounds to reject revelation, ecclesiastic authority and the current definitions of the theologists. If in the defense of their positions they excursed beyond theology into mundane matters and charged that the Protestant Church was a revenue-drawing corporation in very profitable operation, that individual clerics supported this vested interest because it was a well paid and socially esteemed profession or because their fathers and grandfathers had elected it before them, that it was bigotry and not knowledge that prompted the orthodox to impose their beliefs on others, that the churchmen were afraid to debate their points in public and by rational arguments -- they were but leveling the same charges against the sectarians as had been hurled against the mother church from the days of the pagan 'persecutions' on through the Reformation, charges which the Protestants like the Catholics ignored as merely the spawn of ignorance and malice. What could not be dismissed so highhandedly was the geology with which the spirit of disbelief challenged the validity of the Mosaic history, the increasing credence in the uniformity of nature that challenged the existence of miracles and the divinity of Jesus, and the skepticisms that challenged the authority of the church to dictate on morals in general, and particularly on the nature of God.

It seemed to many who had put aside the devil and the doctrine of original sin that if, in Anselm's terms, God was 'supreme essence, life, reason, salvation, righteousness, wisdom, truth, goodness, greatness, beauty, immortality, incorruptibility, immutability, blessedness, eternity, power, and unity,' then he must also be 'singularity, death, inanity, damnation, disobedience, ignorance, falsity, evil, pettiness, ugliness, corruption, flux, transience, futility and chaos.' Any attempt to escape from the oppositions of good and evil could result only in the reinstatement of the devil as a subordinate deity, or in a definition that consisted merely of a string of negatives denying all positive attributes -- of such expressions as 'impersonal,' 'timeless,' 'changeless,' 'purposeless,' and 'without desire,' which was no definition of anything except a vacuum. In all intellectual honesty, so thought the new atheists, one could not affirm the existence of a God who was defined as nothing at all.

Holyoake, the atheist who in 1851 first called himself a 'secularist,' and who founded the first of the Secular Societies that were to become numerous in later decades, defended atheism on the grounds that it was only 'reason putting questions to theology.' Charles Bradlaugh asserted in 1862: 'Denial of God is Netheism. An Atheist says, I am ignorant; I do not know what you mean by the word; I am without any idea of God: to me the word God is a word conveying no meaning. The Bible God I deny; the Christian God I disbelieve in; but I am not rash enough to say there is no God as long as you tell me you are unprepared to define God to me.' Although Bradlaugh's distinction between netheism and atheism is indefensible on etymological grounds, his philosophical position was unanswerable and productive of results: his challenge to the theists to 'Define your God' was particularly embarrassing at a time when sectarian schisms were rife and when even Anglican prelates were drawing censure for their lack of orthodoxy. Feared and bitterly hated all his life by the conventionally minded, Bradlaugh was none the less able in two score years to win successively the right of an avowed freethinker to sit in Parliament, the virtual discredit of the blasphemy laws, the liberty of public meetings in the London parks, the freedom of newspapers from suretyship for articles and editorials and the right of nontheistic witnesses to make affirmation instead of taking the oath in the courts of law. It was by this challenge that he and the other atheists of the nineteenth century paved the way for the more orthodox but wholly revolutionary Charles Darwin and the Second Reformation, as Roscellinus, Francis Bacon, William of Ockham, Wycliffe and Huss had prepared the way for the only slightly unorthodox Martin Luther and the first Reform.

While the freethinkers were fighting with epithets in the front line, sometimes bloodily and always at the expense of respectability, less radical critics of orthodoxy were executing lateral movements against the entrenched beliefs by more devious methods, and with much less risk to their persons and reputations. William Howitt, author of a Popular History of Priestcraft in all Ages and Nations (1833) could safely assert that 'arrogance and atrocity are prominent and imperishable features in the priestly character,' and that 'the clergy form a dark eclipse between God and men's souls.' Robert Owen, the founder of socialism, could safely denounce all the tenets of Christology because he was addressing the 'masses' and advocating in their behalf, and to the embarrassment of the upper classes, the very reforms which, if doctrine and dogma were discarded, were epitomized in the idealized gospel Jesus. License also was granted the poets. Shelley, in his youthful tract, The Necessity of Atheism, had written, 'God is an hypothesis, and as such, stands in need of proof; the onus probandi rests on the theist ... God is represented as infinite, eternal, incomprehensible; he is contained under every predicate in non that the logic of ignorance could fabricate. Even his worshippers allow that it is impossible to form any idea of him.' Byron, Keats and Coleridge, although less iconoclastic, were in varying respects antagonistic to Christian dogma. The otherwise pious Coleridge brought upon himself the epithet 'atheist' for his views on the Trinity, the doctrine of the expiatory sacrifice and the validity of miracles. As for the crucifixion, Coleridge said, 'The law of God and the great principles of the Christian religion would have been the same had Christ never assumed humanity. It is for these things, and for such as these, for telling unwelcome truths, that I have been termed an atheist. It is for these opinions that William Smith assured the Archbishop of Canterbury that I was (what half the clergy are in their lives) an atheist. Little do these men know what atheism is. Not one man in a thousand has either the strength of mind or the goodness of heart to be an atheist. I repeat it, not one man in ten thousand has the goodness of heart or strength of mind to be an atheist.'

If it is inquired what that the rare individual extolled by Coleridge must deny to be an atheist, it must be answered that he must deny, in whole or in part, the Protestant creed which, condensed to brevity, consisted of the sober belief that a God with vital functions equivalent to hands and mouth, with emotions identical with love and jealousy, and moved by some divine deficiency equivalent to human desire, had on a certain occasion created the universe out of nothing in exactly six days of twenty-four hours each; that he had created Eve out of Adam's rib; that Adam and Eve had lived in the Garden of Eden and been tempted by a serpent; that they had sinned by breaking God's command and been expelled from Eden; and that in consequence of Adam's sin death, labor and all forms of misery came about, and all babes born into the world were damned to purgatory by God's predetermination except as they be redeemed by baptism; that Noah, forewarned by God, had built a boat into which he had taken seven other persons and either twos or sixteens of every animal in the world and fed them for sixty-one or three hundred and sixty-five days, all other creatures on earth being destroyed; that because of Adam's sin all except the Jews (in the first instance) were destined to eternal perdition -- until Jesus Christ, who was human and yet uncreated, both God and not God, had been born of a virgin in order to save those few who believed in baptism and the sacraments, now leaving the Jews to burn along with the goyim in hell-fire; that Moses had personally written the entire Pentateuch, including the account of his own death; and that his work as well as all others which had been finally selected for the canonical scriptures had been divinely inspired; that God had deliberately sent Jesus to earth and had sacrificed him in order to save those who would accept the sacrifice as literally that of a scapegoat; and that those who did not interpret Jesus's death in this sense, or who rejected the other Christian tenets, were damned in advance of birth, and with the foreknowledge of God, to hell -- ignorance of the gospel or geographic accident of birth being a doubtful plea for innocence; that at doomsday the remains of the dead would come alive (Luther had damned the immortal 'soul' as a pagan belief and the Protestant churches officially endorsed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body) and ascend to heaven or, if they were not so fortunate, descend to hell; that prayer was efficacious, especially against bad weather, bad health and war; and that a sinless marriage was impossible without sacerdotal seal -- in 1850 denial of only a few of these beliefs would suffice to make a man an atheist. Or alternatively, he might deny that civilization in the proper sense had begun only with the founding of the Christian church and had been preserved against the destructive influences of infidelity only by the inspired militancy of the Christian faith.

Atheism would no doubt have been less frequent had it been more difficult. In diverse ways, by means of soap-box orators and free-lance writers, in poetry and fiction, in the rapidly accelerating studies of earth and man, its spirit began to touch people who, though lacking any contact with the 'higher literature' or 'higher philosophy,' none the less possessed a slight measure of innate skepticism and a greater measure of innate curiosity. As in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so in the nineteenth, heresy spread first among the relatively uncultured classes, to rise unexpectedly and engulf the clergy and aristocracy to whom by tradition belonged the prerogative of 'thinking.' The complexity of Christian dogma was such that only experts could comprehend its devious arguments, only the ecclesiastic discipline of the public schools could assure the firm acceptance of the faith; and the common people, still uneducated except in the elements of reading and writing and common sense, were the first to delight in seeing the proponents of orthodoxy discomfited.

But as in the first Reformation, the crisis was marked by infidelity within as much as without holy orders. The furore that attended the publication of the volume entitled Essays and Reviews (1860) reveals both the conservatism of the majority of ecclesiastics, and the extent to which a few receptive minds had realized the futility of defending the more particularistic dogmas. On invitation, seven individuals, six of them clerics, had prepared for this volume articles discussing sundry of the older theologic positions which had been rendered untenable by modern discoveries. The authors were eminent scholars holding positions in the universities and public schools, and all approached their subject most conservatively. The Reverend Frederick Temple of Rugby, who had instituted laboratories and scholarships in natural science at that school, discoursed on the intellectual and spiritual growth of the race and the contributions made by the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other non-Christian peoples to European thought. The Reverend Rowland Williams called attention with approval to the 'Biblical Researches' of Baron Bunsen, the Egyptologist. The Reverend H. B. Wilson discussed the conflicts, past and present, in Protestantism, going so far as to deplore 'a very widespread alienation, both of educated and uneducated persons' from the church (the census of 1841 showing that nearly half the population declined allegiance); and noting further that 'the sceptical movements in this generation are the result of observation and thought' rather than politics and passion, and suggesting that if the church were to prosper a selection must be made in interpreting the Bible 'between the dark patches of human passion and error which form a partial crust upon it and the bright centre of spiritual truth within' -- one prudent course being to abolish the necessity for subscription to the fundamental -- and fundamentalist -- Thirty Nine Articles of the creed. The Reverend Benjamin Jowett, already questionably distinguished for a radical volume on The Epistles of St. Paul, enlarged upon the newer aspects of scriptural interpretation and acceded that 'the theologian too, may have peace in the thought that he is subject to the conditions of his age rather than one of its moving powers.' The Reverend Mark Pattison, in a survey of religious thought in England from 1688 to 1750, deplored the descent of reason and the circumstance that now 'a godless orthodoxy threatens, as in the 15th century, to extinguish religious thought all together, and nothing is allowed in the Church of England but the formulae of past thinkings, which have long lost all sense of any kind.' The Reverend Baden Powell, an unabashed champion of geology who had abandoned the church for the pursuit of mathematics and other secular knowledge, argued against the acceptability of Christian evidences for miracles. The single layman, Mr. C. W. Goodwin, argued the incredibility of the Mosaic account of creation.

Every contributor to Essays and Reviews was an acknowledged authority in his field, and all were orthodox on many points. Singly each author might have escaped censure, but collectively, and in the spotlight of ecclesiastic condemnation, their work added up to outright heresy. The chief defender of orthodoxy who was aroused to fury was Bishop Wilberforce, of Oxford, who in an explosive article in the Quarterly Review attacked the volume with the epithets 'infidel,' 'atheistic,' 'false,' and 'wanton.' To deny the Mosaic account of creation, said the bishop, 'sweeps away the whole basis of inspiration and leaves no place for the Incarnation.' The writers were 'guilty of criminal levity,' their work full of 'sophistries and scepticisms.' The volume had hitherto received scant notice from reviewers, but now it needed no other advertising and within a year it had passed through nine editions and had everywhere become the center of argument. Its authors became known as the 'Seven against Christ,' 'the seven extinguishers of the seven lamps of the Apocalypse,' 'the seven champions not of Christendom,' and their combined argument was taken to imply that the established church was 'little more than a late legend founded upon a misconception.' Clergy and laity alike, frantic with fear and rage, began to beseech the bishops to exert themselves in behalf of Christianity and the church.

The book having been widely distributed and read, the archbishops pointed out that there was really little to be done. Privately they tried to alienate the more conservative Temple and Jowett from their blackened associates, but without success: Temple replied to the Bishop of London: 'Many years ago you urged us from the university pulpit to undertake the critical study of the Bible. You said that it was a dangerous study, but indispensable. You described its difficulties, and those who listened must have felt a confidence (as I assuredly did, for I was there) that if they took your advice and entered on the task, you at any rate, would never join in treating them unjustly if their study had brought with it the difficulties you described .... To tell a man to study, and yet bid him, under heavy penalties, come to the same conclusions with those who have not studied, is to mock him.' And again: 'What can be a grosser superstition than the theory of literal inspiration? But because that has a regular footing it is to be treated as a good man's mistake, while the courage to speak the truth about the first chapter of Genesis is a wanton piece of wickedness.'

The storm spread to the Lower House, where Archdeacon Denison demanded the severest treatment of the authors, 'for the sake of the young who are tainted, and corrupted, and thrust almost to hell by the action of this book.' At another time the Archdeacon avowed, 'Of all books in any language which I ever laid my hands on, this is incomparably the worst; it contains all the poison which is to be found in Tom Paine's Age of Reason, while it has the additional disadvantage of having been written by clergymen.' Bishop Wilberforce insisted that it was the church's duty to clear itself of complicity with men who 'gave up God's Word, Creation, redemption, and the work of the Holy Ghost.'

The controversy acquired legal importance when the Reverend Williams, who had written on Egyptology, and the Reverend Wilson, who had discussed the history of Protestantism and the growing skepticism of the age, having been suspended from their offices by their clerical brethren, appealed to the crown and their appeal came to trial before the Judicial Council, consisting of the lord chancellor, the two archbishops, the bishop of London and several lay judges. During the trial Dr. Pusey personally and unethically beseeched the bishop of London, who as judge was presiding over the case, to convict the defendants, basing his arguments on the terrible consequences to the church should they be acquitted. The court refused to pronounce any opinion upon the book as a whole, limiting itself to certain extracts. Among the charges which had been leveled against the Reverend Wilson was his denial of the doctrine of eternal punishment, and on this point the court decided -- the two archbishops dissenting -- that it did 'not find in the formularies of the English Church any such distinct declaration upon the subject as to require it to punish the expression of a hope by a clergyman that even the ultimate pardon of the wicked who are condemned in the day of judgment may be consistent with the will of Almighty God.' In respect to the suspension of Williams and Wilson, the court found in favor of the appellants, denying the power of the episcopacy, even as represented in a general convocation, to suspend anyone from the privileges of orders for heretical opinions.

This judicial decision only multiplied the panic, the orthodox taking it as a virtual approval of Essays and Reviews. High and Low churchmen gathered together at Oxford and under Dr. Pusey and Archdeacon Denison circulated an impassioned declaration to every clergyman in England and Ireland, begging them 'for the love of God' to sign it. Thus it was that Pusey collected eleven thousand reverend signatures affirming belief in the eternal punishment of hell. Deputations claiming to represent one hundred and thirty-seven thousand laymen waited on the two archbishops to thank them for dissenting from the unorthodox decision of the court.

At the Convocation of Canterbury the book was a major topic of discussion. Bishop Thirlwall, who had throughout disdained the orthodox panic, said that he considered Pusey's eleven thousand names endorsing a belief in hell as 'a row of figures preceded by a decimal point, so that however far the series may be advanced, it can never rise to the value of a single unit.' In spite of his opposition, however, and the opposition of other liberal churchmen, the Convocation passed an act condemning 'the said volume,' as contrary to the 'received doctrine.' But the Judicial Council of the crown having already tried the case and passed its judgment in favor of the defendants, the lord chancellor dismissed the ecclesiastic condemnation as 'simply a series of well-lubricated terms -- a sentence so oily and saponaceous that no one can grasp it; like an eel, it slips through your fingers, and is simply nothing.' For the first time in fifteen centuries a secular court denied the bishops the power to dismiss from office a colleague who disagreed with them.

An echo of the 'somewhat notable occasion' of Essays and Reviews remains in the epitaph of the judge who presided over the volume's notorious trial:


Richard Baron Westbury,
Lord High Chancellor of England.
He was an eminent Christian,
An energetic and merciful Statesman,
And a still more eminent and merciful Judge.
During his three years' tenure of office
He abolished the ancient method of conveying land,
The time-honoured institution of the Insolvent's Court,
The Eternity of Punishment,
Toward the close of his earthly career,
In the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council,
He dismissed Hell with costs,
And took away from Orthodox members of the Church of England
Their last hope of everlasting damnation!


The tempest aroused by the 'Seven against Christ' had not subsided, however, before another violent storm of heresy broke upon the English scene. J. W. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, had long been teaching his black converts the New Testament and other portions of the Bible from his own translations into the Zulu language. Abashed by the frank skepticism of his protégés, he had come to doubt the historicity of certain parts of the Pentateuch. Could an army of six hundred thousand men be mobilized in a single night? Could three million people, with their flocks and herds, have obtained food and water on the small, arid desert over which they were said to have wandered for forty years? Was not the butchery of two hundred thousand Midianites by twelve thousand Israelites an atrocity which had happily been carried out only on paper? Gradually he had come to the conclusion that a large portion of the Pentateuch was the work of a comparatively late period in Jewish history, that many passages in Deuteronomy had been written after the Jews settled in Canaan, that the Mosaic law was not in force before the captivity -- that in all the books there is much that is mythical and legendary.

Summing up his views in The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1862) Colenso discovered that the skepticism which had seemed reasonable enough in facing his Zulu converts, without which, indeed, he could not have faced them at all, was wholly intolerable to the educated Christian mind. The outcry against his book was fully equal to that which had greeted Essays and Reviews: the archbishops denounced it with anathemas, a convocation solemnly condemned it, and Bishop Gray of Cape Town took it upon himself to depose and excommunicate its author, declaring him 'given over to Satan.' As a passing detail Colenso had noted that the reference in Leviticus to the hare chewing its cud must contain an error. Upon this point, Hitzig, of Leipsic, an outstanding Hebrew scholar, commented: 'Your bishops are making themselves the laughing stock of Europe. Every Hebraist knows that the animal mentioned in Leviticus is really the hare ... every zoologist knows that it does not chew the cud.' And from the argument there sprang the epigram:


The bishops all have sworn to shed their blood
To prove 'tis true the hare doth chew the cud.
O bishops, doctors, and divines, beware --
Weak is the faith that hangs upon a hair!


The storm over Colenso spread into home and colonial politics, the effort to humiliate him and to reduce his friends to poverty ultimately drawing dispassionate persons into the bitter fight. He was called an 'infidel,' 'traitor,' 'apostate' and even 'an unclean being,' and when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council denied the validity of the excommunication laid upon him by the Bishop of Cape Town, Bishop Gray denounced the judgment of the high court as 'awful and profane,' and the Privy Council as 'a masterpiece of Satan.' Even Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford alluded with regret to 'the devotion of the English people to the law in matters of this sort.'

Although there were many men within the church who had little sympathy with the orthodox reaction against either Colenso or Essays and Reviews, they were so outnumbered and outargued that their total effect was but to give a slightly confused aspect to the ecclesiastic mean. It was perhaps this confusion which echoed in the words of Emerson when, in his English Traits (1856), this quasi-mystic, ex-Unitarian minister recorded the impression of an outsider. 'The torpidity, on the side of religion, of the vigorous English understanding shows how much wit and folly can agree in one brain. Their religion is a quotation: their church is a doll; and any examination is interdicted with screams of terror. In good company you expect them to laugh at the fanaticism of the vulgar; but they do not; they are the vulgar .... The church at this moment is much to be pitied. She has nothing left but possession. If a Bishop meets an intelligent gentleman, and reads fatal interrogations in his eyes, he has no resource but to take wine with him. False position introduces cant, perjury, simony, and ever a lower class of mind and character, into the clergy; and when the hierarchy is afraid of theology, there is nothing left but to quit a church which is no longer one.'

By a sympathetic observer, what Emerson encountered in his British cleric friends might be interpreted as but a conflict between traditional confidence in the certainty of dogma and a newly awakened suspicion that skepticism was a mode of belief just as useful and creditable as faith. Such an interpretation is, however, more charitable than Emerson intended, and, as events were soon to prove, it is nearer the truth to take the appraisal literally. The church was in possession, but in possession of what, other than stone and land? Roger Bacon, Descartes, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Buffon, and more recently, Werner, William Smith, Hutton, Lyell, all great names in the history of human intellect -- all were names to be recalled by churchmen with embarrassment. Only recently Wöhler had synthesized the first living or 'organic' compound, Lavoisier had analyzed the 'fire' of life, and Von Baer had demonstrated the existence of the human egg. The last could under no conceivable circumstances have been a topic of conversation in any episcopal company, yet the fact of its discovery might by subliminal channels have reached the bishops' ears. Too many of the church's dogmatic denials had come themselves to be denied to warrant mobilizing the small arms of condemnation, much less the great gun of excommunication, against Wöhler, Lavoisier and Von Bear as potential heretics, yet the ideas they propounded were wholly foreign to the Pentateuch and charged with implications of disaster. Over and above its tangible wealth and prestige, the church was in possession of man's immortal soul and many spiritual prerogatives deriving therefrom: if Emerson's words are taken literally, the bishops, with an intuition which was at once clairvoyant and stone blind, were apprehensive lest it was about to lose all but its real estate.

It came about, in fact, that the discoverer of the human ovum supplied the weapon which was to deal the orthodox conviction its most damaging blow in the pre-Darwinian decade. Von Baer in 1828 had described the process by which the fertilized egg becomes an embryo by the pithy summary that 'the development of every organism is a change from homogeneity to heterogeneity.' Which was to say that an adult organism was formed by the development of many differentiated and specialized parts out of a relatively simple, inert blob of protoplasm. Herbert Spencer, then in his thirty-first year, came upon Von Baer's embryological epitome in 1851 and from it shaped his theory of evolution.

Except for three years at Hinton between his thirteenth and sixteenth years, Spencer was wholly self-educated, yet taking up philosophy at the age of thirty he emerged the outstanding English philosopher of the nineteenth century. He had at first earned his living as a civil engineer, surveying and designing railway lines and bridges, and, like Erasmus Darwin, on the side inventing patent saltcellars, jugs, candle extinguishers, invalid chairs and the like, none of which were financially successful. At twenty-two he began to delve into sociology, and at twenty-eight he dropped engineering to become a sub-editor on The Economist. In 1852 Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society stimulated him to write an essay on 'The Theory of Population,' in which he suggested that the struggle for existence leads to the survival of the fittest, here coining these historic phrases. In this same year he ventured into evolution (in the manner of Chambers and Lamarck) in an essay entitled 'The Development Hypothesis,' rebutting the objection that no one had ever seen the development of a new species by the progressive modification of an older one with the reply that neither had anyone seen the de novo creation of a new species.

From 1852 onward change and development became the essence of Spencer's thinking, and he found in Von Baer's words a dynamic formula which lent itself admirably to a theory of the evolution of the mind with which he was then occupied, and which he presented briefly in his Principles of Psychology (1855). Stimulated by the notion of a dynamic creation, he quickly produced Progress, its Law and Cause (1857), in which he applied Von Baer's idea on an astronomic scale: cosmic evolution consisted of the passage of simple, undifferentiated substance into differentiated and complexly formed bodies; the world was heterogeneous and complexly fabricated relative to the uniform if nebulous matter from which Laplace supposed it to have been evolved; the higher plants and animals were heterogeneous relative to the primordial forms from which they in turn had been evolved; the mind of man was, in some as yet undefined manner, a concomitant of the heterogeneity of the brain; in the course of evolution it had been elaborated from the simpler type of mind possessed by animals which in turn owed its superiority to the physiological complexity of the animal brain. So ran the course of events from star dust up to complex stars, from the geologically pristine earth through plants and animals to man, from savage life through the development of families, clans, cities, states and federations, from vague sensations through memories into knowledge and understanding -- the history of stars and earth and man could be described within the general formula of a change from homogeneity to heterogeneity.

Spencer conceived that this process of evolution was directly deducible from the physicists' law of conservation of energy coupled with a constant tendency towards the dissipation of energy, the two always working against each other to produce the rhythmic oscillations of molecules, the birth and death of stars, the rise and fall of nations; and he compressed all the complexity of the cosmos into a formula which for sheer concentration and imposing quality is unsurpassed: 'Evolution is an integration of matter and a concomitant dissipation of motion [energy], during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation.'

It required ten volumes and nearly forty years to explain this definition in his Synthetic Philosophy, but that was in part because the definition is so broad. It suffers the weakness common to all generalizations, that words, at best weak vehicles of thought, are increasingly burdened with every increase in knowledge until they can no longer bear their full load of meaning; but if his words are justly redefined in the light of advancing knowledge, his apophthegm remains one of the most successful philosophic summaries of all time.

The worst fault, in retrospect, attaching to Spencer's idea of evolution was his identification of the process as 'progress.' However unavoidable in a Victorian who in his youth had been inculcated with the theologic doctrines of the Methodists and Quakers, and for whom 'the greatest happiness is the purpose of creation,' it was none the less a purely arbitrary and pietistic act. It was, however, this pious feature which gave his theory its immediately effective force. It startled the more erudite among the faithful into the dreadful suspicion that in 'progress by evolution' Spencer had come upon something religiously profound, that here was a new cosmic conception based upon the operation of Natural Law -- the latter being practically synonymous with the Will of God; that creation by progressive change suggested an even more subtle creator, one of a higher type, than was required for a single creative act; and that in defending Genesis so vehemently they might actually have been on the wrong side of the argument. So readily did Spencerian evolution settle into the mental niche prepared for it by Chambers and Lamarck that those to whose attention it came were almost unconscious of its infidelity.

However, time had not permitted any wide appraisal of Spencer's armchair speculations when there appeared Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), to claim modestly but on the most overwhelming evidences and by the most conservative reasoning that the mutability of species was an established fact. The creative act was not completed in the first week of time, but had continued, ergo probably was continuing, through all time.

If Darwin was right, it followed that much of Genesis, and probably even the whole of it, was wrong. What then might become of man's immortal soul, of God himself?

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