Garfield’s Evolution Debate

James A. Garfield, via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, I was careless. I wrote, “In a campaign biography of James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate for president in 1884, for example, [Russell] Conwell refers approvingly to [his following] ‘the paths of exploration and speculation so fearlessly trodden by Darwin, by Huxley, by Tyndall, and by other living scientists of the radical and advanced type.’” Let’s not worry about who Conwell and Blaine were or why I was bothering to discuss them at the Science League of America—you can read the earlier post if you’re interested. The present point is just that those weren’t Conwell’s words: rather, he was quoting Blaine’s eulogy for James A. Garfield (1831–1881; right), the twentieth president of the United States, assassinated in the first year of his presidency. Whoops! But at least it gives me a chance to write about Garfield now.

Garfield was a bright fellow—Lincoln may have obtained a patent, and Obama may have published a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but neither of them managed to derive a new proof of the Pythagorean theorem while serving in Congress. In a widely circulated estimate of presidential IQs, Garfield places ninth, behind Theodore Roosevelt, John Adams, Jimmy Carter, Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams. (Note, by the way, that all of those presidents from Darwin’s day onward accepted evolution: I’ve previously discussed Wilson and Roosevelt here.) But it’s interesting that, despite Blaine’s eulogy, Garfield was once highly resistant to “radical and advanced ideas” such as Darwin’s—spending the better part of a week in a public debate attacking “the development theory.”

The year was 1858. Garfield was then in charge of Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio, a school (later renamed Hiram College) operated by the Disciples of Christ. He previously attended the college, leaving to study at Williams College; on his return, equipped with a prestigious degree, he was promptly hired as a professor and then elevated to the rank of principal (the equivalent of president) of his alma mater. Not ordained, he nevertheless “delivered his powerful and convincing sermons from the pulpit with the consent and encouragement of the Church authorities,” according to F. H. Mason’s 1881 biography. Hearing of a traveling lecturer who was giving “rough handling” to “Moses” in a nearby town, he initiated a series of lectures of his own defending the scientific accuracy of Genesis in response. A clash was not long in coming.

The traveling lecturer was William Denton (1823–1883). According to a biographical essay by Almon Bruce French—who, according to the Finding Your Roots series, was a great-grandfather of the actor Ben Affleck; small world!—Denton was born in Darlington, England. Reared in a poor family, with little opportunity for education, he nevertheless formed a keen interest in geology: “his evening hours were spent with [Charles] Lyell and other geologists.” Emigrating to the United States, he discarded the Methodism of his youth and wrote a book denying the inspiration of the Bible—paving the way, French says, for Robert Ingersoll. He then became a traveling lecturer and debater on science and religion, which was anything but a comfortable sinecure: once, in a Pennsylvania town, he was burnt in effigy.

Doubtless Garfield’s criticisms weren’t quite so fiery. But they provoked Denton to issue a challenge to the future president. The challenge communicated by Denton to Garfield—or at least its “substance,” according to French—was as follows.

I shall be glad to meet in public discussion any clergyman in good standing upon the following proposition: Resolved, That plants, animals, and man came into existence by the operation of the laws of spontaneous generation and progressive development, and that there is no evidence on this planet of direct creative energy. (Signed), William Denton.

Remember, it was 1858, a year before the publication of the Origin: Denton conceived of himself as championing not Darwin but Lyell, Lamarck, and the anonymous author (Robert Chambers) of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844).

No transcript of the debate seems to exist, and French’s biography of Denton and Mason’s biography of Garfield may be suspected to favor their respective subjects. Mason, for example, stresses, “Garfield had but three days in which to prepare for the contest with an able opponent, who had his side of the subject carefully digested, and his facts and theories at his tongue’s end.” Cleverly enlisting students to help with his research, he prepared so well that he “completely overwhelmed his opponent, who, after that defeat, abandoned his theory and gave up the fight against the inspiration of the Bible.” The claim about Denton’s surrender, at any rate, is demonstrably wrong: in the introduction to his Is Darwin Right? (1881), Denton claims that “nearly or quite every argument” he employed against Garfield is contained in the book.

French similarly depicts his subject as laboring under a disadvantage. “Garfield was accompanied by a number of clergymen, who assisted in taking notes and looking up authorities. Denton had no assistance.” Moreover, while Denton’s sole authority was the Vestiges, “[u]pon Garfield’s side a voluminous literature was already extant. [Edward] Hitchcock, Hugh Miller[,] and others had labored to reconcile Genesis with advancing geological discovery.” Yet Denton was not overwhelmed but underwhelmed by Garfield, who frustratingly confined himself to defense: “No effort of Denton’s, however, could induce Garfield to defend the Bible and miraculous creative energy. Garfield claimed he did not come there to prove anything. He came there to see that Denton proved spontaneous generation and natural development.”

In the long run, what was the outcome? In Garfield: A Biography (1978), Allan Peskin suggests, “Garfield’s religious ideas had altered because of the debate. His intensive cram course in science had convinced him that religion must be harmonized with the evidence of the natural sciences.” He accordingly took steps to promote the study of science at the school. He continued later in his life to be interested: in addition to Blaine’s obituary, there is evidence from his library, which included copies of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Huxley’s Lay Sermons, according to Joseph T. Hannibal. Understandably bragging of his debate with Garfield as the latter attained prominence, Denton maintained his views on the Bible and “miraculous creative energy”—but was critical of evolution for not accommodating “the spiritual side of the universe.”