Samuel Wilberforce & the Great Debate of 1860

27 07 2010

I’ve often heard people say, ‘I didn’t come from no monkey’.  Turns out the sentiment is 150 years old:

‘Then the Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?’


The 1860 interaction between Samuel Wilberforce, a Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley, an ‘intemperate’ proponent of early Darwinism, known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, is now the stuff of legend.  Perhaps to the modern, educated reader, Wilberforce seems ignorant and his arguments easily dismissed.  However, it is important to realize that, at the time, Wilberforce was not in the minority, and, at the time, his arguments held much more weight than they do now.

(By the way, according to a 2009 gallup poll (and many other similar polls), only about 40% of Americans give credence to evolution.  So, Wilberforce likely would find good company, even in the 21st century.)

With that in mind, our class will stage a debate on Thursday in which each member of the class represents an important figure in the evolution debates of the mid- to late-nineteenth century.  One of these important figures is Samuel Wilberforce.  I found Wilberforce’s published review of Darwin’s The Origin of Species online here.

The arguments of Samuel Wilberforce:

  • ‘His Word’ and ‘His Works’ are always in harmony.
    • ‘He who is as sure as he is of his own existence that the God of truth is at once the God of nature and the God of revelation, cannot believe it to be possible that His voice in either, rightly understood, can differ, or deceive His creatures.’
  • One must argue against science on scientific grounds, not religious grounds.
    • ‘We cannot, therefore, consent to test the truth of natural science by the word of revelation. But this does not make it the less important to point out on scientific grounds scientific errors, when those errors tend to limit God’s glory in creation, or to gainsay the revealed relations of that creation to Himself.’
    • ‘To oppose facts in the natural world because they seem to oppose revelation, or to humor them so as to compel them to speak its voice, is, he knows, but another form of the ever-ready feeble-minded dishonesty of lying for God, and trying by fraud or falsehood to do the work of the God of truth.’
  • Christian doctrine is not compatible with Darwin’s notion that man is simply another animal, and, as such, also is descended from other animal forms.
    • ‘Man’s derived supremacy over the earth; man’s power of articulate speech; man’s gift of reason; man’s free will and responsibility; man’s fall and man’s redemption; the incarnation of the Eternal Son; the indwelling of the Eternal Spirit—all are equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God, and redeemed by the Eternal Son assuming to himself His nature.’
  • Christian doctrine is not compatible with Darwin’s notion of the future evolution of man, which would be of unknown course.

    • ‘Equally inconsistent, too, not with any passing expressions, but with the whole scheme of God’s dealings with man as recorded in His word, is Mr. Darwin’s daring notion of man’s further development into some unknown extent of powers and shape, and size, through natural selection acting through that long vista of ages which He casts mistily over the earth upon the most favored individuals of His species…’
  • Christian conception of God is incompatible with evolution because God is not the supreme creating force.
    • ‘It is, in truth, an ingenious theory for diffusing throughout creation the working and so the penonality of the Creator. And thus, however unconsciously to him who holds them, such views really tend inevitably to banish from the mind most of the peculiar attributes of the Almighty.’





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