by Geoffrey Blodgett '53
Oberlin debated the validity of Charles Darwin's evolutionary theories as recently as 1983. (Some may ask: "That's recent?" For historians, 1983 was the day before yesterday.) One spring evening that year a long argument between a prominent evolutionist and a prominent creationist filled Finney Chapel-a rare academic happening in the 1980s. Geologist Jim Powell, acting president of the college at the time, spoke to the issue that same spring. Chemist Norm Craig followed with a critique of Creationist evidence for the Oberlin Observer. (The Observer was a useful campus forum for faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni officers. It lasted 20 years 'til its disappearance last summer.)
The year 1983 marked a long century since the Darwinian controversy first hit this campus with public force. Darwin published his startling hypothesis in 1859, but its reception in America spread rather slowly owing to the crisis of the Civil War. Outside the East Coast scientific community, serious talk about the issue got underway only after Appomattox. The debate finally broke open in Oberlin in May 1871, when Reverend Theodore Keep delivered a surprisingly dispassionate lecture on the subject to the Oberlin Society of Natural Science. He pointed to problems with Darwin's theory and big gaps in his evidence, but the measured and tolerant tone of Keep's critique seemed to lend Darwin a certain plausibility.
Some in Keep's audience could not stand for this. John Morgan, professor of biblical theory, a faculty stalwart for 36 years, promptly asked Keep what in the world could be implausible if Darwin's theory was plausible. If anything was more glaringly nonsensical, Morgan announced, he had failed to hear of it. Morgan's colleague James Dascomb, professor of chemistry, biology and physiology, a charter member of the faculty since 1834 and its senior scientist, joined the attack. He charged that Darwin's theory would damage morality, and warned that a person who read Darwin was apt to be carried right along with the theory unless he was on his guard. Dascomb cited his personal experience with uncultivated peers to question Darwin.
A younger faculty member, Charles Henry Churchill, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, who had quietly bought a copy of Origin of Species when it first hit the American market, suggested on the other hand that geologists' discoveries about the extremely long, slow development of the earth's surface lent some credibility to Darwin's notions. Churchill's comment was the only semblance of support for Darwin's theories coming out of the evening with Reverend Keep.
To concede that Darwin might have altered any aspect of one's inherited religious beliefs could be a shuddering confession in the Oberlin environment of 1871. Professor Churchill's son, Alfred Vance Churchill, who grew up to become a noted art historian and museum director at Smith College, looked back on his Oberlin boyhood with considerable nostalgia. His recollections about absorbing the religious impact of Darwin's message are, however, bittersweet. He belonged to that generation of thoughtful young Americans who tried to adapt their family faith to the scientific newness-the price of lost belief in an anthropomorphic God and the certainty of a life after death. He wrote about it this way:"The pain-the mental anxiety and spiritual torture-of such speedy changes in religious conviction are hard to comprehend and can never be fully realized by those who have not shared them. Especially to those whose faith has been firmly established in early childhood...and who are suddenly left alone in the universe-orphaned because they can no longer believe in the 'infallible Word' on which their faith is founded...I shared all that. Those anxieties and tortures darkened my youth. Fortunately for their own happiness, the majority of men change their minds slowly. They succeed in clinging to the beliefs that are essential to their mental pace, leaving it to their children to complete the destruction and put away the debris."
The psychological wrench recalled by Churchill was felt all over Oberlin as the warfare between science and religion set in for that generation. Neither college president of the era, Charles Finney nor James Fairchild, is known to have addressed the issue in public. No Finney sermon spoke to it in First Church, and Fairchild shunned the topic even in private conversation. The man who finally emerged to mediate the conflict was Oberlin's nationally renowned geologist, George Frederick Wright, who was also, like so many early Oberlin professors, an ordained minister. "There must be a divinity shaping the ends of organic life," he wrote, "let natural selection rough hew them as it will." Wright's strategies of accommodation were institutionalized at Oberlin in 1892 when he was named to a new academic chair as professor of the Harmony of Science and Revelation. The chair became a department in 1898, an early college probe into multicultural studies. The Darwinian hypothesis was now firmly installed in the Oberlin curriculum, and entered the 20th century hand-in-hand with its main rival.
Geoffrey Blodgett is Oberlin's Danforth Professor of History.
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