In Praise of Pickett, Part 1

Illustration from God or the Guessers

I have a confession. When I was discussing a misrepresentation of Ernst Haeckel a while back (in “Riled about Haeckel”), I mentioned that L. L. Pickett quoted the passage in question (“Most modern investigators have come to the conclusion” etc.) in his book God or the Guessers (1926). But I was relying entirely on a snippet from the book shown in Google Books; the full text was not (and still is not) available on-line. And that nagged at me, because I prefer to consult the original source whenever possible. In the ensuing months, I occasionally checked the on-line used book markets to see if God or the Guessers was available for purchase, but to no avail. Finally, I asked my local public library to borrow a copy for me via Inter-Library Loan—which, in my view, is the unsung glory of the American library system—and a copy duly arrived. Having perused its 111 pages, I wish that I had acquired a copy sooner. For God or the Guessers is, as the kids today would say, the bee’s knees and the cat’s pajamas.

Leander Lycurgus Pickett was born in Burnsville, Mississippi, in 1859, to parents evidently fond of the classics—in Greek myth, Leander was the youth who swam the Hellespont nightly to woo Hero, while in Greek history, Lycurgus was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta. Pickett began preaching in Baptist and Methodist churches as a young man, becoming a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1880. After stints in Texas and South Carolina, he moved to Kentucky, where he was involved with the newly founded Asbury College. He was a prolific writer—the byline of God or the Guessers boasts that he was “[a]uthor of more than thirty books,” which seems plausible, since he owned his own publishing company. He argued for premillenialism (the belief that Jesus will return before the prophesied millennium), sabbatarianism, and Prohibition—he was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for governor of Kentucky in 1907. He died in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in 1928.

So why I am so pleased with God or the Guessers? There are a lot of Scopes-era antievolutionist authors, like Byron Nelson or Theodore Graebner or Frank Allen, who try to take a sober and scholarly tone. Such is not Pickett’s way, as is clear from the frontispiece, which shows Pickett’s own cartoon of a transitional form (above)—transitional between a ganoid fish (like a sturgeon) and Otto von Bismarck. After a comparatively calm, if heartfelt, prefatory note from Pickett, the zaniness resumes with a preface by Bud Robinson (1860–1942), who was a preacher in the same Holiness tradition as Pickett with a famously folksy style on display here. “Isn’t it wonderful,” Uncle Bud (as he was known) asks, “how blind Evolution can elbow God to the back of the desert, and put his puny brains to work and bring a race of people through the wiggle tail age, the tadpole age, the creeping-thing age, and then on through the four-legged animals, and finally out into a two-legged animal?”

Pickett’s rhetoric isn’t quite up to the standard of Robinson’s, but it’s close. Here, for example, is Pickett on teachers who present evolution: “Yes sir, they are doing their best to make monkeys out of their dupes. Some of them need scarcely more than a coat of hair, a tail[,] and room enough to cut their didos [i.e., play their tricks]. If they desire personally to be monkeys, turn them loose; but save the youth of the land from being misled by their pernicious falsehoods.” Or here he is reacting to a discussion of tetrapod evolution: “Burn your Bible, kill your preacher, tear down the old meeting house, and let’s all go to heaven, in the high way of evolution. But at least we have found the father of his race, ‘the Adam of evolution.’ His name is Mr. Ganoid Sauripterus Crossopterygii. Come along children and meet your grandfather, and be sure to memorize his name.” (Pickett was entranced by “ganoid”—as in the frontispiece’s cartoon—and “crossopterygii”; the terms recur again and again throughout God or the Guessers.)

Also amusing is the level of Pickett’s gullibility. He presents the usual parade of misleading quotations, from John Tyndall (whom he calls “Tyndale” at least once), Ernst Haeckel, Albert Fleischmann (whom he calls “Fleischman”), Robert Etheridge, and James Hutton Balfour (whom he misidentifies as Francis). That’s par for the course, but the book is so brief, and so light on quotations, that there are more distorted quotations than accurate quotations. Pickett even repeats the tale about Darwin’s deathbed discussion with Lady Hope (born Elizabeth Cotton, 1842–1922), in which he supposedly lamented the uncritical acceptance of his ideas. Darwin’s family repeatedly denied Lady Hope’s claims, of course, and the historian James Moore wrote a whole book, The Darwin Legend (1994), investigating them; his chapter in Galileo Goes to Jail (2009) is a good summary. As far as I know, God or the Guessers is the only Scopes-era antievolution book to repeat the anecdote. But that’s not all that makes the book worthy of note, as part 2 will reveal.