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The Australian Religious Reaction to The Origin of Species

In late 2009 CPX Fellow Larissa Aldridge attended a symposium at St Paul’s College, Sydney University. In the second of her articles reporting on the event, she examines Professor Tom Frame’s paper on religious reactions from Australia to the publication of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’.

There is a popular belief that Christians have always been opposed to Darwinian evolution. As the story goes, the reason Charles Darwin took so long to publish his theory of evolution was that he was worried, quite rightly, about the religious response. Events such as the notorious Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925 as well as current controversies about teaching evolution and Intelligent Design in schools have only served to strengthen this belief.

However, as discussed in the previous article, there were some significant points of contact between Darwinian evolution and the Christian tradition of natural theology. Further, as Tom Frame, Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, pointed out in his contribution to the symposium, Australians in the second half of the nineteenth century gave Darwin a cautiously positive response.

The earliest Australian religious response to Darwinism came from William Branwhite Clarke, a clergyman and geologist. He read the Origin with interest and enthusiasm the year after it was published, and suggested that Christians did not need to be nervous ‘as to the fate of the Scriptures’ on the basis of Darwin’s ideas. Clarke also thought that Australia provided ample opportunity for experiment and study which might further confirm Darwin’s work, and the results of his own field work were incorporated into the third edition of the Origin.

However, there were not many Anglican clergy who shared Clarke’s positive response to Darwin at this early stage. The Bishop of Melbourne, Charles Perry, studied the Origin shortly after its publication and concluded that Darwin did not have sufficient evidence to support his claims. Perry’s aim was not to oppose science itself, but merely to demonstrate that the scientific theories that were thought to contradict the Bible were not yet firmly established. Therefore, Perry would suspend judgment on Darwinism while maintaining the hope that any apparent contradictions between science and Scripture could be reconciled with further study.

Ten years later, the Reverend Dr John Bromby, headmaster of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, argued that the scientific insights of Darwinism had rendered a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-2 untenable. Overall, however, the typical response from Australian Christians was one of caution. As time progressed, however, Anglicans, the largest religious denomination in the colonies, gradually came to accept evolutionary theory as religious orthodoxy, believing that there was no inherent conflict between a scientific and theological understanding of nature.

In 1882, the Reverend Robert Potter addressed the Anglican Church Congress, saying that he had ‘always liked the doctrine of evolution,’ due to its ‘approximately true account’ of the way species had developed over time. The warden of St Paul’s College, Canon William Hey Sharp, argued that evolution could not deny the existence of a creator or undermine the natural theological argument from design, although he suggested that William Paley’s Natural Theology needed to be reworked. There were even attempts to understand the history of Christianity in evolutionary terms. For example, Bishop Alfred Barry of Sydney said in the late 1880s that the Apostles’ Creed was established by natural selection.

In contrast to the view that Darwinian evolution has always faced universal religious opposition, Tom Frame has shown that the response of Australian Christians was quite positive. Despite some opposition, Darwinism eventually became part of both scientific and theological orthodoxy. For this reason, Australia has witnessed neither a local version of the Scopes trial nor widespread acceptance of Young Earth Creationism. However, there are still religious objections raised against Darwinian evolution. My next article will examine a possible response to one of these objections.

Larissa Aldridge is a CPX Fellow and is in the final stages of a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science. She teaches Science and Religion at The University of New South Wales in Sydney.