Martin’s Mysterious Myrmidons

T. T. Martin's stand in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925

In “A Ringer in the Contest” (part 1; part 2), I mentioned T. T. Martin (the initials are for Thomas Theodore), who enterprisingly entered a contest conducted by the original Science League of America. Addressing the topic “Why Evolution Should Be Taught in Our Schools Instead of the Book of Genesis,” Martin cleverly appealed to the precedent of Jesus’s rejection of tradition to argue for the rejection of the Genesis account, taken literally, in favor of evolution. But it was odd for him to enter the contest, even (as he did) under a pseudonym, because Martin was (as Ronald L. Numbers writes in The Creationists [1992]) “among the earliest and most outspoken critics of evolution…an itinerant evangelist with a reputation for combining doctrinal fanaticism with compassionate Christianity,” and the author of the unforgettably titled Hell and the High Schools (1923), which complained, “Evolution and the teaching of Evolution in tax-supported schools is the greatest curse that ever fell upon this earth.”

I have just embarked on the project of reading Hell and the High Schools cover to cover, and already, on page 11, I was struck by a list that Martin offers. Responding to a hypothetical reader who asks, “Why not meet these great professors who teach Evolution and discuss with them and go to the bottom of the matter?” Martin retorts, “They will not meet! … They will discuss with an untrained school boy in the school room, where they have every advantage, but catch one of them, will you, discussing with a man who is posted, and open and above board!” Who are those “posted” gentlemen? “Philip Mauro, the lawyer of New York, or Alfred W. McCann, LL. D., the lawyer of New York, or George McCready Price, the scientist of California, or J. W. Porter of Kentucky, or W. B. Riley of Minneapolis, Minnesota, or L. W. Munhall of Pennsylvania, or R. A. Torrey of Los Angeles,—or William Jennings Bryan!” I recognized six of them offhand, so I thought that I’d investigate the remaining two, Porter and Munhall.

L. W., or Leander Whitcomb, Munhall (1843–1934) was a conservative Methodist evangelist and editor of The Methodist, a weekly published in Philadelphia. He wrote a number of books offering advice for evangelism and attacking modern criticism of the Bible, and also contributed two essays—“Inspiration” and “Doctrines that Must be Emphasized in Successful Evangelism”—to The Fundamentals (1910–1915), the ninety essays that formed the basis of modern Christian fundamentalism. Although he seems not to have been fond of evolution, Munhall appeared to have regarded it as merely part of a chimera that menaced the faith. In 1920, he wrote of “the most striking and peculiar creature the world has ever seen. Its body is Higher Criticism. The neck and head are Evolution. The antennae are Skepticism and Rationalism. The legs are Liberalism, Unitarianism, Agnosticism[,] and Infidelity. The tail is Christian Science…The wings are Spiritualism and Theosophy…I call it a Humbug!

During the Scopes era, there wasn’t any antievolution legislation in Pennsylvania. In fact, the Keystone State seems only to have been afflicted by such legislation only once, in 2005, when House Bill 1007 was introduced, probably on account of the imminent trial in Kitzmiller v. Dover. The bill would have allowed school boards to include “intelligent design” in any curriculum containing evolution and allow teachers to use, subject to the approval of the board, “supporting evidence deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of intelligent design.” It failed. And if Munhall was active in supporting antievolution legislation elsewhere, I haven’t been able to discover any trace of it. Later, when the Anti-Evolution League of America was formed in 1924 to pursue a “Bible-Christ-and-Constitution Campaign against Evolution in Tax-Supported Schools,” Porter assumed its presidency and Martin became its field secretary and editor of its newsletter The Conflict, but Munhall, as far as I can tell, was not involved.

J. W., or John William, Porter (1863–1937), was a Baptist minister. Born in Tennessee, he spent his career largely in Lexington, Kentucky, where he was the pastor of the First Baptist Church from 1908 to 1922 and the pastor of the Immanuel Baptist Church from 1924 to 1937. His influence wasn’t limited to Lexington, however, partly because he was the editor of the Baptist Western Recorder from 1909 to 1921. In 1922, his Evolution—A Menace was published. The titles of its eight chapters adequately indicate its contents: “Evolution Defined by Evolutionists,” “Evolution Contradicts and Subverts Revelation,” “Evolution Falsely Explains Origin of Life,” “Evolutionary Origin of Species Untrue and Unscientific,” “Evolution Advocates the Law of the Jungle,” “Evolution Fails to Explain Facts of History,” “Evolution Resurrects Bogus ‘Missing Links,’” and “Evolution—The Tree and Its Fruits.” Interestingly, its preface defends “[t]he recent general uprising against the teaching of evolution in our schools.”

Porter knew all about the uprising, since he helped to foment it in the Bluegrass State. In 1921, he launched a campaign to ban the teaching of evolution in Kentucky. Under his leadership, the Kentucky Baptist State Board of Missions adopted a resolution charging that “the false and degrading theory of Darwinian evolution is taught in textbooks” used at the University of Kentucky and at public high schools across the state. In a sermon, he declared, “Darwinism would be run out of Kentucky if it took every cent the Baptist people of the Commonwealth had to do it.” On January 23, 1922, House Bill 191 was introduced: “An act to prohibit the teaching in public schools and other public institutions of learning, Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism or evolution as it pertains to the origin of man.” It was the first bill in American history explicitly to target the teaching of evolution. Thanks in part to the efforts of the University of Kentucky’s president Frank McVey, the bill was defeated—by a single vote.