The late 18th and 19th Century, technological innovation made possible by scientific discoveries led to rapid technological, economic, and social changes – a time often described as the Industrial Revolution.
Improved efficiency of water power, the development of steam power, the use of machine tools, new iron production and chemical manufacturing processes, and the construction of canal and railway networks led to a transition from home-based hand production to factory-based machine production. With the demand for industrial labour and changing agricultural processes, cities grew. While the industrial revolution created social and environmental challenges, it also spurred scientific innovation and experimentation, allowed more people to access education, and eventually led to higher standards of living for many people as a middle class emerged.
While the technological and social changes encouraged scientific inquiry, they also led to the development of economic capitalism, widespread urbanization, growth of factory labour (including child labour), changes to the role of women, issues with public health, food, and nutrition, and social welfare challenges. With the upheaval in the economic and social order, a variety of intellectual paradigms and criticisms emerged from the intellectual and artistic critiques of romantic authors like Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley (including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and artists like Constable and Turner, to the revolutionary rhetoric of Karl Marx.
In the midst of this rapid industrial, scientific, and social change, Christian clerics, scholars, and lay people wrestled with the relationship of their faith to the changing times. Some struggled to reconcile their theological understandings with the social and industrial order. Some theologians, echoing the romantic poets and artists, pined for the old order and explored Christianity as more of an inner reality, emphasizing personal experience (Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl). Throughout Europe and North America, a series of “Great Awakenings,” characterized by personal religious experience and emotion, challenged the rationalism that had become associated with Christianity during the Enlightenment era. New Protestant denominations were formed, missionary organizations began, Bible Societies were established, social action ministries were founded, and new religious movements within and outside Christianity emerged – Pentecostalism, Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism), Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science.
Often these movements were characterized by an emphasis on the supremacy of the Bible and a rejection of the rationalism and allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Personal reading of the Bible and personal, literal reading and application of Scripture – uncluttered by further study – was paramount. Even within Roman Catholicism, neo-scholasticism – a revival of the theology of Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians, rejecting modernism and scientific thought – came to dominate.
Other Christians, in contrast with the emphasis on individualism, personal experience, emotion, and anti-scholasticism associated these revival movements, emphasized natural theology, the premise that God can be known through reason and through observing His works in nature. Continuing in the traditions of Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment thinkers, these Christians believed that God – as the creator of a rational, ordered universe – could be known and worshiped in part through scientific study. And they believed that the universe, as the creation of this God, had an inherent order that could be known through careful observation and experimentation.
At the same time as Christians were wrestling with what their religion meant in these rapidly changing times, other scholars were challenging the legitimacy of all religions, religious thought, experience, and authority. Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx wrestled with place of religion in a world that was struggling with rationalism, secularization, and profound social changes. A growing “agnosticism,” a term coined by biologist Thomas Huxley in 1869, challenged the accepted and unquestioned tenets of Christianity and authority of the church. Sara Maitland, however, notes that “interestingly, in the nineteenth century it was more likely to be the poets rather than the scientists who did not believe in God.” (Joyful Theology, p.79-80).
It is significant that many scientists during this era, however, did integrate their faith with their scientific endeavours:
William Paley (1743-1805)
William Paley, a philosopher and cleric, was an advocate for natural theology, the premise that God created the universe in logical, rational ways, and that His handiwork could be seen in the physical and social order of things. His Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature includes a number of teleological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. He is most famous for his watchmaker analogy: if you were to find a pocket watch on the ground, it is most reasonable to assume that someone dropped it and that it was made by one or more watchmakers, and not by natural forces.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
Michael Faraday, a physicist and chemist, did foundational experimentation and research on electromagnetism and electrochemistry, laying the groundwork for electric motors. He was the architect of classical field theory, discoverer of numerous chemical compounds such as benzene and fully chlorinated hydrocarbons, invented an early form of the Bunsen burner, and popularized terms associated with electromagnetism such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion. Faraday was a devout Christian, serving as a deacon and elder in his congregations. Summarizing Faraday’s science and faith, Colin Russell writes, “In his synthesis of science and Christianity, in his strong confidence in the authority of Scripture, and in his simple faith in Christ, Faraday was typical of a great many gifted scientists, both before and since. For them, and for him, the task of scientific exploration was not only exciting and satisfying. In a very real sense it was a Christian vocation.” (See Science and Faith in the Life of Michael Faraday).
Charles Lyell (1797-1875)
Charles Lyell, a devout Christian, was a geologist who popularized James Hutton’s theory of uniformitarianism, the concept that geographic processes are consistent over time. Like Hutton, Lyell therefore believed the Earth was hundred of billions or billions of years old. He did the first large scale study of mechanisms of earthquakes and volcanoes, study glaciers and glacial deposits, and refined the geologic time scale.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Biologist and geologist Charles Darwin is best known for his work on the theories of evolution. He proposed that all species of living organisms have descended from common ancestors over time. One of the mechanisms he suggested for this was natural selection, in which species with specific traits are more likely to reproduce and survive than others. By the time his famous The Origin of Species was published, the idea of evolution in many natural processes was already popular, and the term development was used in its place for discussions of society’s change or the history of the solar system. Darwin’s great contribution was to popularize these notions and give the first really functional account of how evolution could happen through rigorous empirical observations.
Darwin began his university education to be an Anglican clergyman before switching to biology. As Darwin developed his theories, he struggled with his Christian faith, but remained active in his local parish church, was good friends with the vicar, and never repudiated his faith, unlike his most ardent defender and proponent, Thomas Huxley.
Asa Gray (1810-1888)
Asa Gray, one of the most respected American biologists, was a committed Christian, a regular churchgoer, and a professor of botany at Harvard University for decades. Gray believed science was neutral in matters of religion and metaphysics. Regarding the theological implications of evolution, Gray believed that Darwin’s theory was not atheistic, although he recognized that some would use it as an “excuse” for unbelief. He argued we need “to reshape” the argument from design “in such wise as to harmonize our ineradicable belief in design with the fundamental scientific belief of continuity in nature, now extended to organic as well as inorganic forms, to living beings as well as inanimate things.” Gray saw nature as filled with “unmistakable and irresistible indications of design” and argued that “God himself is the very last, irreducible causal factor and, hence, the source of all evolutionary change.”
In the decades after Origin of Species was published, theologians began to ponder the compatibility of Darwin’s theory and Christian doctrine. Some of them adopted Gray’s view that evolution was God’s method of creation. Others argued that since Darwin explained away the apparent design in nature, it was compatible only with atheism. Some scholars accepted Darwin’s argument for common ancestry, but rejected the idea of natural selection, either for scientific, philosophical, or theological reasons. Others resisted evolution specifically for the human species, partly due to concerns that evolution could conflict with Christian claims that human beings are created in the image of God.
With time, however, even some of the more conservative theologians became comfortable with evolution. B.B. Warfield, for instance, developed a powerful and enduring legacy in American evangelicalism for his belief that the Bible communicates revelation from God entirely without error. Yet while he defended biblical inerrancy, Warfield was also a cautious proponent of the possibility that God could have brought about life through evolution. His basic stance was a doctrine of providence that saw God working in and with the processes of nature, rather than completely replacing them. In Warfield’s mind, a high view of biblical authority was fully compatible with a divinely guided process of evolution. He wrote, “… There is no necessary antagonism of Christianity to evolution, provided that we do not hold to too extreme a form of evolution. To adopt any form that does not permit God freely to work apart from law and which does not allow miraculous intervention (in the giving of the soul, in creating Eve, etc.) will entail a great reconstruction of Christian doctrine, and a very great lowering of the detailed authority of the Bible. But if we condition the theory by allowing the constant oversight of God in the whole process, and his occasional supernatural interference for the production of new beginnings by an actual output of creative force, producing something new, i.e., something not included even in posse in the preceding conditions, we may hold to the modified theory of evolution and be Christians in the ordinary orthodox sense.”
British theologian, Aubrey Moore, argued evolution “as a theory is infinitely more Christian than the theory of ‘Special Creation.’ For it implies the immanence of God in nature, and the omnipresence of his creative power. Those who opposed the doctrine of evolution in defence of ‘a continued intervention’ of God seem to have failed to notice that a theory of occasional intervention implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence.”
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I am thankful for sabbatical time from my congregation and a Pastoral Study Project Grant from the Louisville Institute to support my research.