Optimistic Evolutionists: The Progressive Science and Religion of Joseph LeConte, Henry Ward Beecher, and Lyman Abbott

Article excerpt

Historians of science have carefully studied the post-Darwinian Protestant accommodations of evolutionary theory. This paper extends a small portion of their efforts by focusing upon three prominent nineteenth-century "optimistic evolutionists": Joseph LeConte (1823-1901), Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), and Lyman Abbott (1835-1922). Although each has been the subject of individual biographical studies, there is little scholarship looking at the three together, despite their personal relationships and mutual influences.

Thoroughgoing reformulation of traditional Christian doctrines stood among the nineteenth-century theological responses to evolution. The cases of LeConte, Beecher, and Abbott exemplify this mode. Importantly, their theological accommodations of evolution include treatments of two fundamental issues: the problem of evil and the concept of design. Matters of theodicy still vex theologians, while philosophers and scientists continue to acknowledge the implications of evolution for the doctrine of original sin. The emergence of "intelligent design" theories in recent years establishes the chronic vitality of the design hypothesis. Hence century-old deliberations upon these topics provide useful perspectives, even if only as cautionary voices calling attention to the theological difficulties awaiting Christians who recast traditional doctrines in service of new and fashionable scientific orthodoxies.


Hundreds of disappointed attendees were denied admission to the great hall of New York's Cooper Union on Saturday evening, January 6, 1883. The hall's brimming capacity of 2,500 had been reached well before the appointed eight-o'clock hour, the time scheduled for delivery of a lecture on "Evolution and Revolution." By half past seven, the police had judged the situation unsafe and closed the doors to additional guests. While a discouraged mass remained outside barred from the event, thousands crammed inside Cooper's great hall were treated to the oratory of Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), "the most famous man in America." Eighteen years earlier Beecher had been President Lincoln's selection as principal speaker at the official ceremonial raising of the American flag at Ft. Sumter. The 1865 event had formally reunited the war-torn United States. Beecher was the fitting choice, for in so many ways he spoke to and spoke for middle-class Protestant America. He certainly spoke a lot, and was well paid for it too. As minister of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church since 1847, he had become the highest-paid American clergyman, drawing an annual salary of $20,000. In addition to his weekly sermons, he delivered more than 125 popular lectures per year at the height of his career, regularly collecting honoraria of $1,000 per talk. Further, he influenced popular opinion on myriad topics through his written words that appeared in over thirty books and countless essays and articles published in his two widely read journals, the Independent and the Christian Union. (1)

Now, on this January evening less than one year after the death of Charles Darwin, Beecher was set to pronounce his views on one of the day's hottest topics, the relation of evolution to the Christian religion. He opened his Cooper Union address with the assertion that "a greater change has taken place within the last thirty years, probably, than ever took place in any former period of five hundred consecutive years." This revolution was nothing other than a shift in humankind's understanding of God's mode of creation, a shift from the "instantaneous obedience of matter to the divine command" to a "method of creation as gradual, and as the result of steadily acting natural laws through long periods of time." Simply put, Beecher embraced evolution as God's way of doing things. Beecher did not rest merely with asserting that "a man may be an evolutionist and believe in God with all his heart and strength and soul," he gloried in evolutionary theory as a new revelation that was transforming humanity's relation to the Divine. …