By Fleming Smith
On Tuesday, October 20, in Gailor Auditorium, North Carolina State history professor Monte Hampton gave a lecture on “Science and Religion with a Southern Accent: Scripture, Science, and Southern Identity in the Shadow of the Civil War.” Hampton is the author of a book entitled Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era, upon which his lecture was based. While at Sewanee, Hampton discussed the way in which Southern theologians often tried to reconcile scripture with modern science during a time of political and social upheaval.
Hampton began his talk by connecting Sewanee’s campus to this rich, turbulent history. “There is an archway near here connecting All Saints’ Chapel with what used to be called ‘Science Hall,’ I think it’s called Carnegie Hall now…[it’s] an archway connecting a place of religion and a place of science,” Hampton noted. Many devout Christians in the Civil War era did believe in such a connection, that “science is the handmaid of religion,” according to Hampton.
New scientific developments could challenge this belief, however, such as when treatises on geology by James Hutton and Charles Lyell seemed incompatible with Genesis in the Bible. Many Southern Presbyterians attempted to reconcile perceived differences; the Perkins Professorship of Natural Science in Connexion with Revealed Religion sought to prove that “Christianity and science are allies,” in Hampton’s words. The idea of “revealed” religion became crucial, as reconcilers could argue that these scientific developments were simply not revealed by God in the Bible, or obscured beneath poetic and metaphorical language. “A host of Genesis-Geology reconcilers got to work, baptizing and domesticating ‘new’ geology,” said Hampton.
One Perkins Professor, James Woodrow, was the central figure of a major Southern evolution controversy in the late 19th century, often called the Woodrow Affair. Woodrow argued that “the Bible is not a textbook on modern science” and that therefore evolution was perfectly compatible with scripture. In his view, the only creature described as being “immediately” created was Eve, and therefore all other creatures—including Adam—could be results of an evolutionary process. Many theologians disagreed, claiming that since evolution was not mentioned in scripture, no such process could have occurred. This debate raged for several years, partly in connection with the transition from hypothesis-free science to a scientific process based on experimentation involving trial and error.
Hampton argues that the reason many Southerners had difficulty accepting new scientific developments was what he calls the Southern-Biblicist Apologia, the thesis of his book Storm of Words. Starting in the 1840s, Southerners believed the modern world was abandoning the Bible, and therefore Biblical orthodoxy had to be protected in the South. This group, mainly composed of white elite Calvinists, envisioned a reciprocal relationship between orthodoxy and the South, believing that the South’s prosperity hinged on Biblical orthodoxy and vice-versa. In terms of science, they inferred that “true science must be compatible with scripture,” in Hampton’s words. Such a mentality not only led to the denial of what they termed “science so falsely called,” but also to their confirmation of fake sciences like polygenism, the idea that different races are in fact different species. Hampton concluded that the “cultural trauma” of the Civil War and ensuing Reconstruction only added to the defensiveness of many Southern theologians. They believed in a “God of proper thought, [a] God of doctrine,” according to Hampton, and could put no distance between themselves and scripture. “This very Southern engagement of science and religion reminds us that knowing, whether the knowing of nature or of God or of anything else, can never occur in a vacuum. It is as concrete and as firmly situated as your beautiful archway. The human quest to know, to understand, is inevitably bounded by historical circumstances rooted in time and place,” said Hampton as his lecture ended.
The relationship between science and religion, though a contentious topic, are often deeply personal subjects both alone and in their connection to each other. Any resulting controversies are not purely ideological, but are grounded in history as well as designs for the future. “Try as we might,” said Hampton, “we can never engage things in the abstract, but only in the real world, and to this engagement we bring all the biases and blind spots of our experience, as well as the blessings and burdens of our past.”