Freedom vs. Order: The Evolution Controversy at Columbia Theological Seminary, 1857-1901

Freedom vs. Order: The Evolution Controversy at Columbia Theological Seminary, 1857-1901

September 23, 2019—While touring the Smithsonian Institution’s Exploring Human Origins exhibit featured on the first and second floors of the library, take a moment to visit the reading room to see Freedom vs. Order: The Evolution Controversy at Columbia Theological Seminary, 1857-1901. The documents on display reflect a series of turning points in the life of the institution, points that set a trajectory for how the seminary addressed questions on the relationship between natural science and theology for years to come.

In 1859, the year Charles Darwin published, The Origin of Species, Judge John Perkins – a wealthy slave plantation owner from Mississippi – donated funds to Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS) for the purpose of endowing a chair that would focus on the relationship between science and divine revelation. Conspicuously titled, the Perkins Professor of Natural Science in Connection with Revelation was established. The Board of Trustees called James Woodrow to fill the chair and he began teaching at Columbia in 1861.

Prior to entering the classroom at CTS, Woodrow brought with him a distinguished education and renown as a chemist. He studied at Jefferson College and Harvard before completing his Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in 1856. Having declined a full professorship offer at Heidelberg, Woodrow returned to teach chemistry at Oglethorpe where he had taught before studying abroad. Upon his return he was the first educator in the state of Georgia to hold a Ph.D. The combination of his background in contemporary natural science and his ordination within the Hopewell Presbytery, solidified him as the obvious choice to fill the Perkins professorship.

In 1882, after teaching for over twenty years at CTS, the Board of Trustees called Woodrow’s commitment to orthodoxy into question when they asked him to define and defend his views on evolution. Four years later, after a long and drawn out drama involving multiple presbyteries, synods, ink spills, and broken relationships, Woodrow was dismissed from teaching at CTS. He continued to teach at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) where he would go on to serve as president from 1891-1897.

The C. Benton Kline, Jr. Special Collections and Archives is pleased to present resources related to this controversy as CTS hosts the Exploring Human Origins exhibit and associated events and guests. Freedom vs. Order: The Evolution Controversy at Columbia Theological Seminary, 1857-1901 includes a copy of the Perkins deed endowing the chair, letters from James Woodrow and John L. Girardeau (one of Woodrow’s most vocal opponents), published pamphlets from the 1880’s, newspaper clippings covering the proceedings, and more. Links to related digitized items are also available to scan via QR codes. Original manuscripts and other material related to the Woodrow controversy are accessible to the public upon request. For further questions and curiosities, please email Brian Hecker, Public Services Archivist: archives@ctsnet.edu.

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