Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain / Edition 2 available in Hardcover
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- University of Chicago Press
Threatened by the proliferation of cheap, mass-produced publications, the Religious Tract Society issued a series of publications on popular science during the 1840s. The books were intended to counter the developing notion that science and faith were mutually exclusive, and the Society's authors employed a full repertoire of evangelical techniques—low prices, simple language, carefully structured narratives—to convert their readers. The application of such techniques to popular science resulted in one of the most widely available sources of information on the sciences in the Victorian era.
A fascinating study of the tenuous relationship between science and religion in evangelical publishing, Science and Salvation examines questions of practice and faith from a fresh perspective. Rather than highlighting works by expert men of science, Aileen Fyfe instead considers a group of relatively undistinguished authors who used thinly veiled Christian rhetoric to educate first, but to convert as well. This important volume is destined to become essential reading for historians of science, religion, and publishing alike.
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About the Author
Aileen Fyfe is a lecturer in the history of science and medicine at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
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SCIENCE AND SALVATION
Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain
By Aileen Fyfe
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
The Threat of Popular Science
IN 1853, the Reverend Thomas Pearson, an evangelical minister from North Berwick, Scotland, won a prize offered by the Evangelical Alliance for his essay Infidelity: Its Aspects, Causes and Agencies. In this work, Pearson outlined the main varieties of religious infidelity, starting with outright atheists but including all those who ostensibly accepted the tenets of Christian faith but made no effort to live their lives accordingly. The prize was not offered, however, merely for a description of the ways in which men denied themselves the opportunity of salvation. The crucial part of the essay was the explanation of the causes and agencies of infidelity, which led to a discussion of ways in which unbelief could be attacked and defeated. Of the agencies that Pearson implicated in the spread of infidelity, the printing press was identified as the worst culprit of all.
Pearson noted, "The age in which we live, is unprecedented for the cheapness and abundant supply of its literature. The huge costly tomes which were within reach of comparatively few of our ancestors, have given place to the small and low-priced volume which is accessible to all." This was certainly the cause of much good, as Pearson acknowledged, but it was also a cause for concern. Cheap print had become more influential than the pulpit, because "Millions who listen, week after week, to the living voice of the preacher, are daily fed by the press; and millions more are only accessible by its instrumentality, and to them it is the great teacher." As a consequence, "Speculations, decidedly hostile to true religion and to man's best interests, are no longer confined to the upper and more refined classes of society; but they have descended through the many channels opened up by the prolific press, to the reading millions of the present time." The implication here was that ideas that were relatively harmless when limited to the "upper and more refined classes" could become dangerous when they reached the "reading millions." It was partly a question of scale, but there was also an assumption that the so-called refined classes would be educated enough to identify and reject unfounded speculations, while other readers might succumb to its temptations.
Cheap print gave more people access to instructive, educational, and religious publications, yet concerns about its dangers were expressed by commentators across the political and religious spectrum. Evangelicals like Pearson were certainly not the only people to be worried, but they were vocal about their concerns and, more importantly for our story, were particularly active in their attempts to do something about it. All sorts of publications, from fiction to history, could be regarded as problematic, but the sciences were a particular concern. Popular publishing therefore offers us a unique opportunity to examine the involvement of evangelicals in the sciences. Their commitment to intervention meant that they were not merely commenting on the sciences from an intellectual position, but were actively engaged in creating an evangelical framework for the sciences.
The Threat of Popular Science Publishing
Thomas Pearson had highlighted two areas of particular concern for religious faith, the first of which was literature. Evangelicals are often represented as disapproving of fiction, but many were in fact happy to read the "great" works of literature, including William Shakespeare and Walter Scott. They did worry that the perusal of fiction took up valuable time that ought to have been spent on more useful activities, and they were deeply concerned by the moral tone (or lack of such) apparent in much fiction. Pearson's concerns about "literature" were largely about contemporary fiction, particularly that produced by third-rate writers and published in penny magazines for the entertainment of the masses. Plenty of commentators from less religious viewpoints despaired of the absence of literary, educational, or spiritual value in this sort of literature. A writer in the British Quarterly Review in 1855 declared it to be "trash and garbage ... which subsists in virtue of its adaptation to the lowest order of literary taste and appetite." The problem was that, with no controls but those of the market, "the great competition in the press naturally tempts its conductors to minister to the public tastes whatever these be."
Pearson's second area of concern was publications on the sciences. As with all nonfiction, some scientific books could be labelled "trash and garbage" due to their poor execution and their contents of "unmitigated platitude-error and superstition being distinct ingredients." There was a more specific problem with the sciences, however, particularly with the manner in which they were presented to a nonspecialist audience. For example, at the time Pearson was writing, the anonymous best-seller Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) was without doubt one of the most obvious candidates for evangelical ire. It had been widely criticised by men of science for its errors and misrepresentations of scientific discoveries and for presenting speculative theories as certain, as well as condemned from a religious viewpoint for weaving discoveries together into speculative philosophical schemes that did not involve God. The Cambridge geologist Adam Sedgwick memorably described the work as a "rank pill of asafoetida and arsenic, covered with gold leaf," claiming that its attractive exterior concealed atheistic sentiments as dangerous as a foul-smelling poison. The problem was that Vestiges was a gripping read and created a fascinating tale of progressive development using sciences such as nebular astronomy, geology, and phrenology. Reliance on these sciences made it possible to imply that progressive development and change could happen in the natural world without divine intervention, which gave the term "progress" radical religious and political implications. Indeed, one of the strongest critiques against Vestiges, particularly once its errors had been corrected, was that it left little or no space for the God of Christianity.
One had only to look at the situation in France to appreciate how easily the sciences could be tied to a non-Christian framework. There, the ancient system of monarchy and Church had been dismantled in the Revolution of 1789-93, and eminent men of science such as the astronomer and mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace could openly propose cosmological systems that did not include God. Great Britain was, of course, a different country, and it had not experienced a revolution like that in France. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the majority of Britain's men of science were still Christians, and many were in fact clergymen. Their personal faith was not at issue, but general publications on the sciences did not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the experts. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the potential impact of any radical publications had been restricted, since most printed matter was so expensive that it was unlikely to get into the hands of potentially rebellious working men. The few exceptions, such as the second part of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791-92) or the illegal reprints of French works of science produced by radical printers in the 1810s and 1820s, were the target of legal prosecutions. It was understood, then, that works of science that appeared to support religious infidelity would be a significant threat to the faith of the nation if they were widely available. And, in the 1840s, much more widely available is exactly what these works became, which is why concerns about the power and influence of the press became so much more widespread.
Yet it is important to realise that while evangelicals condemned the overall worldview of Vestiges, they did not necessarily condemn the specific sciences of nebular astronomy, geology, or phrenology. As we have already seen, Sarah Pugh eventually reconciled phrenology with her evangelical faith. One of the writers she found helpful was William Newnham, who argued in a work written in 1847 (as part of the series to be discussed later) that "No right-thinking person can doubt that the brain is the organ of mind." The question at issue was "whether the said doctrines, established as true in themselves, may not have been perverted and misapplied so as to produce serious errors and consequences of a painful nature."
Similarly, geology and nebular astronomy were no threat when rightly interpreted. Thomas Milner, another of the writers to be more fully discussed later, had no trouble with the concept that the earth was older than the six thousand years calculated by seventeenth-century biblical scholars. He accepted that the earth was significantly older than mankind and that it had undergone change during the course of its history. For Milner, this was evidence of God's foresight in preparing the earth for the arrival of man. Furthermore, in books written both before and after Vestiges (in 1843 and 1846), Milner contended that even the nebular hypothesis, famously linked with Laplace, would be no threat to religion if it were proved true. Supporters of the nebular hypothesis argued that modern astronomy demonstrated that change had occurred in the heavens, as diffuse, gaseous nebulae gradually developed into solar systems such as our own, and that this took place without the help of God. Milner argued that such development might indeed have taken place, but it was an illustration of the way in which God had exercised his creative power, and not a proof that he had not done so at all. Thus, for evangelicals, the sciences of progress were not a threat to faith as long as they were properly interpreted.
"If the press be a powerful agency for good," wrote Thomas Pearson, "it is unquestionably a powerful agency for evil also.... It is ceaselessly sending forth publications of almost every shape and character, like the sand by the sea-shore for number, which must be assigned to the account of evil." In this sentiment, Pearson and the British Quarterly found themselves in rare agreement with the most senior Roman Catholic in Britain. Evangelicals tended to regard Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman with loathing, yet, only a year after Pearson's essay, while addressing an audience at the Educational Exhibition of the Society for Arts, Wiseman condemned "those publications which at present creep-which I may rather say crawl-in their own slime on the surface of the earth, and ... insinuate themselves into the peaceful and happy domestic circle, and there introduce pain, and ruin, and death." He accepted that exterminating these "reptiles" would be impossible, but urged that an antidote be provided in the form of sound wholesome literature. The problem was one of controlling the undesirable publications without restricting the flow of wholesome and respectable cheap publications. As Pearson said, "Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing, and this fountain sends forth sweet water and bitter.... We can very well hold that the press does more good than evil, and yet maintain that the evil is fearfully great." Censorship was not an option for a country proud of its libertarian traditions. When Wiseman proposed an antidote, he was suggesting fighting back in kind, using the press to unmake what it had wrought. While men of science often found it easier to criticise popular works than to do something about them-according to the Westminster Review, men of science generally "disdain to popularise science"-there were plenty of Christians who were willing to get actively involved with the popular press. Although Wiseman had envisaged doing so from a Roman Catholic perspective, it was actually his archenemies, the Protestant evangelicals, who were best suited to fight this battle, having been experts for more than half a century in the use of the cheap press for missionary purposes.
Evangelicalism and the Religious Tract Society
Evangelicalism had its roots in the eighteenth-century revivals associated with John Wesley and George Whitefield. By the early years of the nineteenth century, it had become a significant religious force in Britain. Methodism had emerged as a new denomination, the Congregationalists (or Independents) and the Baptists had largely become evangelicals, and there were substantial parties of evangelicals within the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland and the (Episcopalian) Church of England. These groups all laid great emphasis on the reality of Original Sin and the Fall, and the necessity of accepting Christ's sacrifice on the cross as Atonement for the sins of mankind. Conversion (that is, the conscious acceptance of that sacrifice) was a life-changing moment and the mark of true evangelical faith. Evangelicals believed that faith in the Atonement was their sole route to salvation.
During the eighteenth century, evangelicals had been a minority with great ambitions to influence the religious opinions of the rest of the country, and ultimately the world. By the second and third generations of evangelicalism, in the decades leading up to 1850, the characteristics of the movement had begun to change. Evangelicalism had become part of mainstream, middle-class life. A young man rebelling against his upbringing was now more likely to abandon evangelicalism than embrace it. On the fringes, there were charismatic figures like Edward Irving, whose followers expected an imminent apocalypse and claimed to speak in tongues. Moving farther afield, one might be inspired by John Henry Newman and his followers, who meditated on the historic links between the Church of England and the Church of Rome, and whose Oxford Movement shocked evangelicals by reintroducing ritual, imagery, decoration, and Gothic architecture into the English Church. Equally, one might move in the opposite direction and abandon Christian faith altogether, becoming a Freethinker (or atheist). There were children of evangelical families who followed all of these routes.
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Table of ContentsContents
List of Illustrations....................ix
List of Abbreviations....................xi
I The Threat of Popular Science....................16
II Christian Knowledge....................60
III Reading Fish....................107
IV The Techniques of Evangelical Publishing....................141
V The Ministry of the Press....................184
VI Reinterpreting Science....................224
Appendix A: Biographical Sketches of RTS Writers and Staff....................277
Appendix B: Volumes of the "Monthly Series"....................294