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Shattering the divine symbiosis: The impacts of science on clerics and church members in the Australian colonies, 1830-1890

Borowitzka, Lesley (2017) Shattering the divine symbiosis: The impacts of science on clerics and church members in the Australian colonies, 1830-1890. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Between 1830 and 1890 developments in science challenged the interpretation of scripture and the theology of the Christian churches as never before. The new scientific theories of uniformitarianism, evolution and abiogenesis were rejected as atheistic by most clerics and church members, with the most conservative aspects of British theology and science expressed in the churches and the scientific establishment of the Australian colonies. Early in the century, natural theology, which encouraged the study of nature in order to learn more about its Creator, underpinned by literal interpretations of the creation accounts in scripture, was well established in Britain and among colonial clerics such as Charles Wilton and William Branwhite Clarke in Sydney and John Lillie in Hobart. They also promoted nature study for the improvement of the moral and intellectual life of colonists and to gain practical knowledge about the natural resources of the new land.

From the 1830s however, natural theology and the creation accounts in Genesis were increasingly challenged by geological evidence. Scriptural geology and catastrophism became casualties of science. The image of a benevolent and interventionist Creator was further challenged when Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation was published in 1844, proposing that new forms of life and even celestial bodies were created by a continual process governed by natural laws, rather than by God’s direct intervention. Clerical scientists such as Clarke in Sydney and Adam Sedgwick in Britain denounced such a proposal as atheistic and idolatrous. By the end of the 1860s, Darwin’s theory of evolution of new species led to further questions about the role of God in creation, and was explicitly and controversially extended to humans by Thomas Henry Huxley and Charles Lyell. Even the role of God as provider of the essential life force was challenged by Huxley’s abiogenesis theory.

In the Australian colonies, distinct theological differences arose in response to these challenges, differences between the Christian denominations and also between the colonies. In Adelaide in the 1860s Attorney General Richard Hanson introduced the work of Lyell and Darwin to the public with the cautious support of Adelaide’s Anglican Bishop Augustus Short and Congregational Church spokesman James Jefferis. In contrast, at the same time in Melbourne Anglican Bishop Charles Perry joined Governor Henry Barkly and the conservative scientific community in publicly rejecting Darwin’s theory, although by the 1870s the arrival of Bishop James Moorhouse brought a more liberal theology to Melbourne, more in line with the more pro-science positions of Adelaide’s Bishop Short and Bishop Charles Bromby of Tasmania. New South Wales’ Anglican Bishop Frederic Barker did not contribute to public discussion about the discoveries and theories; that role fell to Clarke, through his public lectures and articles in the Sydney Morning Herald. Melbourne stood out as the place in which the public entered into the debate through public lectures and articles and correspondence in The Argus newspaper, many of which were critical of the lack of engagement of Melbourne’s clergy with the issues of science. The perception of conflict between science and scripture grew as reports of the aggressive support for Darwin from Huxley, Joseph Hooker and John Tyndall in Britain and books referring to ‘conflict’ and ‘warfare’ from American writers Andrew Dickson White and John Draper reached the colonies.

The Presbyterian, Methodist, Wesleyan and Roman Catholic Churches in the Australian colonies in the main rejected the scientific challenges to the creation accounts of scripture. The strict adherence to scripture and traditional theology of the Presbyterian Church in Melbourne defeated the efforts of its minister Charles Strong to introduce new ideas from science and new theology, leading his founding the new, more liberal Australian Church.

While there arose a general understanding in the church and scientific communities that the six days of creation in Genesis could refer to geological eras rather than literal days, most Australian churchmen and scientists continued to adhere to the tradition that the earth was formed in 4004 BCE, with a possible extension of a few thousand years. The exceptions were some leaders in Anglican and Congregational churches who, by the 1870s, found ways of accommodating a much greater age of the earth, and uniformitarian means of creation into their interpretation of scripture and their theology. Some clerics in Britain and the Australian colonies were also cautiously accepting evolution as the means by which God created through natural laws. By the 1880s Sydney clerics William Hey Sharpe and Thomas Roseby and Hobart’s George Clarke conceded that the human body was the product of evolution, with the proviso that God intervened to implant the spiritual nature and the soul, to complete the formation of humans in God’s image.

By the 1870s and 1880s the magnitude of the cosmos demonstrated by improved astronomical telescopes revealed for some an awesome, transcendent and infinite Creator, unknowable to insignificant and finite human beings and only acting in this world through the operation of universal natural laws. The question of whether one could believe in, derive comfort from, and expect prayers to be answered by an infinite and unknowable God was debated in Sydney and Melbourne. On the other hand for others, the very existence and continual operation of natural laws including evolution not only confirmed the existence of a Creator, but one who was always present and intimately involved in the world by acting through those same natural laws.

While the scientific community within the Australian colonies remained theologically and scientifically conservative, in Britain there were further developments of the theory of evolution, including the ideology of Social Darwinism and the new science of eugenics, both of which found some acceptance in the Australian colonies by the end of the century. The forced sterilisation and elimination of those deemed ‘unfit’ advocated by eugenicists surprisingly brought no objection from any Australian church except the Roman Catholic. This reflected both the lack of engagement of the churches with the concepts of human evolution and Darwinism and the diminished moral and intellectual authority of the churches, which had begun earlier with their loss of control of education, universities and of laws about the Sabbath and marriage.

In the Australian colonies by the end of the period examined in this thesis, public expressions of natural theology had all but disappeared. The opposition of many church leaders to the advances in science meant that many church members perceived the study of nature as an atheistic rather than godly pursuit. The increasing professionalization of science, which discouraged the scientific contributions of amateur naturalists, many of whom were clerics, and the professionalization of ministry also contributed to the demise of natural theology. Biblical literalism remained a barrier preventing most churchmen and scientists, with a few exceptions, from accepting evolution, and its extension to humans and abiogenesis.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
Supervisor(s): Strong, Rowan
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