Glenn Branch's picture

Bryan’s Missing Witness, Part 2

William Jennings Bryan (1902)

In part 1, I was talking about Henry F. Lutz, mentioned by Ronald L. Numbers in The Creationists (1992) as a mysterious “unidentified resident of Cincinnati” approached by William Jennings Bryan (right) as a prospective expert witness for the prosecution in the Scopes trial. Lutz was the author of To Infidelity and Back (1911), but there’s not a lot about the book that would explain why Bryan thought that Lutz would be helpful. And there’s not much in his life that would explain it, either. Born on April 30, 1868, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Lutz attended Millersville State Normal School from 1885 to 1889, and taught school for a year after graduating. He then attended Meadville Theological Seminary—which was then teeming with Unitarians, judging from To Infidelity and Back—from 1890 to 1893, and then graduated with the degree of A.B. from Hiram College in 1894 and with a B.D. from Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1896.

Over the next two decades, Lutz served as a pastor in various towns in the Midwest, and concurrently bounced around a number of graduate schools for a while, receiving a Ph.D. from American University in 1918 with a thesis on “Law in Science and Philosophy.” Equipped with his Ph.D., he was a professor of psychology at Bethany College from 1916 to 1919 and a teacher at the Washington School of Religious Education from 1920 to 1923. In 1923, he became the president of the brand-new McGarvey Bible College in Lexington, Kentucky, where he was also professor of apologetics and philosophy. In 1924, McGarvey Bible College and the Cincinnati Bible Institute merged to become the Cincinnati Bible Seminary, now Cincinnati Christian University, and Lutz became a professor of philosophy, apologetics, and pastoral theology at the new institution. Not for long, however: he died on February 8, 1926, after undergoing surgery for appendicitis.

Lutz’s relative proximity to Dayton, Tennessee, might have played a role, but it wasn’t until I discovered Lutz’s obituary in the Bible Champion that I started to think that I had a solid clue about why Bryan might have sought his help. As William J. Morison explains in his article on the magazine in The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America (1999), “Antievolutionism in particular became a constant theme of the Bible Champion throughout the 1920s, expressed in articles by such fundamentalist luminaries as William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), whose final crusade was against evolution...George McCready Price (1870–1963), self-taught geologist and defender of a highly literalistic interpretation of the biblical account of creation; and William Bell Riley (1861–1947), founder of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association and ‘one of the chief architects of fundamentalism.’” (Morison is quoting George Marsden there.)

Now, the Bible Champion’s admiring obituary of Lutz, published in its April 1926 issue, commented, “He had gracefully consented to become one of the Contributing Editors of the CHAMPION, and the announcement of this fact had already been set up in this office, when the news of his death came to us like a bolt from a clear sky.” So, although it wasn’t clear from his previous activities that he was really interested in fighting against evolution, the fact is that he was poised to join the editorial staff of a magazine that was practically Antievolutionist Central. According to the obituary, Lutz was a booster of the Bible Champion—“not a few subscriptions were sent into this office through his kindly recommendations”—and used articles from it in his classes on Christian apologetics. The obituary also noted, “In the May issue of our journal we expect to print the last article he wrote, its title being, ‘Evolution and Scholarship.’”

“Evolution and Scholarship” duly appeared in the May 1926 issue of the Bible Champion, but I don’t think that it demonstrates that Lutz would have been a material help to Bryan in assailing evolution. It begins by saying, “The overwhelming majority of scholars have been against the theory of evolution, and in favor of creation and the Bible,” a claim of which even Bryan, after his fruitless search for scientific expert witnesses, might have been wary. Certainly Clarence Darrow would have enjoyed cross-examining Lutz on the point. Strangely, Lutz then argues at length, including a potted history of philosophy and a sampling of examples of changing views in science along the way, for the fallibility and limitations of scholarship: “The voice of scholarship may be unanimously for or against a proposition without either proving it true or untrue.” Well, okay, but why cite the “overwhelming majority of scholars” as against evolution, then?

Lutz then turns to the usual practice of quote mining, trying to extract a nugget of apparent skepticism or rejection of evolution from amid the dross of scientific discourse. His main source of ore is Louis T. More, whose The Dogma of Evolution he describes as combating “practically every argument that has been advanced to prove evolution,” but he quotes copiously instead from More’s earlier Limitations of Science (1915), on the general theme of scientific overreach, e.g., “A large and increasing number [of scientists] have become idolaters, and are worshipping the graven images of science with dogmatic fervor.” Lutz’s essay ends with the familiar quasi-Baconian distinction of theory and fact: “we can usually trust the scholarship as to facts, but can judge of the merits of the theories based on these facts about as well as the scholars.” Evolution, for Lutz, is of course a theory, so “is really philosophy, and not true science.”

It’s possible, of course, that, if he had testified in the Scopes trial, Lutz would have actually launched a focused attack on evolution that would have been useful for the prosecution, but nothing like that is on display in “Evolution and Scholarship” or in any of his writings that I’ve been able to locate. He might have been a reasonably effective expert witness on theological matters, and perhaps better than William Bell Riley, John Roach Straton, and J. Frank Norris, all of whom offered to testify for the prosecution, in part because with a Ph.D. and a professorship his credentials were more impressive than theirs, in part because he had less of a record of publications on evolution that the defense could attack, and in part because he was less famous and thus less likely to divert the attention of the court and the press from the issues on which the prosecution wanted to focus. But eighty-nine years later, of course, only speculation is possible.