The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVI. Later Theology

§ 8. Evolution

One reason, then, for the waning prestige of theology is the fact that its source of authority can no longer be regarded as lying in a class apart from all other works of the human spirit. Its aloofness and uniqueness are even more threatened, however, by the doctrine of evolution, which subsumes not only the Christian religion but the entire nature of man under universal rubrics. At first this doctrine shocked not only the theological but also the scientific thinkers of America. Louis Agassiz and Asa Gray opposed it almost as vigorously as did Charles Hodge, who declared “that a more absolutely incredible theory was never propounded for acceptance among men.” The burden of his logical and able What is Darwinism? (1874) is expressed in these sentences:

  • The conclusion of the whole matter is that the denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God. Mr. Darwin’s theory does deny all design in nature, therefore, his theory is virtually atheistical; his theory, not he himself. He believes in a Creator. But—He is virtually consigned, so far as we are concerned, to non-existence.
  • That this attitude toward evolution was speedily changed among theologians was due partly to President James McCosh (1811–94) of Princeton. He had but recently come from Great Britain to America. Many of his long list of books, expounding the Scottish “Common Sense” philosophy, had been written. There was no question of his complete orthodoxy, of his intense religious zeal, or of his international standing as thinker and educator. He, however, gave liberal recognition to “powers modifying evolution.” These agents are light, life, sensation, instinct and intelligence, morality. “As evolution by physical causes cannot [produce them], we infer that God does it by an immediate fiat, even as He created matter.… It makes God continue the work of creation, and if God’s creation be a good work, why should He not continue it?”

    In wide circles this acceptance of evolution of species went hand in hand with the denial of the unlimited sway of evolution. Chasms which “no evolution can leap” were insisted upon, “between the inorganic and the organic, between the irrational and the rational, between the non-moral and the moral.” It was widely felt that “Natural Selection” is inadequate to account for the entire process of evolution, and Darwin’s variability of species was emphasized. Thus for example Lewis Diman, who left the pastorate for a professorship of history in Brown University, asserts in his Lowell lectures on The Theistic Argument (1882):

  • Some internal principle of transformation must be admitted.… If we allow that the modifications of an organ are the result of some more or less conscious tendency which serves as a directing, principle, then we are brought to recognize finality as the very foundation of nature.… To affirm that life is the continuous adjustment of inner relations to outer relations is to affirm nothing to the point, since the adjustment is the very fact for which we are seeking to account.
  • Or as the scintillating Joseph Cook from his lecture-throne in Tremont Temple, Boston, put it: “The law of development explains much but not itself.” Gradually, however the imagination of the logians, like that of other men, refused to accentuate the small gaps of the stupendous process and evolution, not very clearly defined or delimited, became accepted as God’s method of creation.

    Belief in the unique sonship of Christ is a difficulty in the complete acceptance of evolution. George Harris of Andover Seminary and later President of Amherst College writes: “There is no reason to suppose that any other man will be thus Godfilled.… We may well believe that he was one who transcended the human.” Because Christ produced “a new moral type,” Harris feels that we need not deny either his nature miracles or his resurrection. Among the most thoroughgoing Christian evolutionists of our period may be mentioned President Hyde (1858–1917) of Bowdoin College and President John Bascom (1827–1911) of the University of Wisconsin. The latter, in his Evolution and Religion or Faith as a Part of a Complete Cosmic System (1915), rejoices in the breadth of view and the boundless hope with which the doctrine of evolution invests its believers. In youth Bascom studied both law and theology; in mature years he taught sociology and philosophy; he occupied influential positions in the educational institutions of the East and the West. His lapidary style and his avoidance of the concrete have kept his numerous works confined to a small circle of readers, but they are thankful for them.

  • Evolution [he writes] implies a movement perfectly coherent in every portion of it. It is one therefore which can be traced in all its parts by the mind—one in which we, as intelligent agents, are partakers, first, as diligently inquiring into it; second, as concurrently active under it, and third, as in no inconsiderable degree modifying its results.…The secret of evolution lies here—We always lie under the creative hand at the centre of creative forces.… We are constantly speaking of the eternal and immutable character of truth.… These adjectives are hardly applicable. The universe does not tarry in its nest. It is ever becoming another and superior product.… We must accept the truth as giving us directions of thought, axes of growth, and no final product whatever.