HPS Colloquium Presented by: Richard Bellon, Assistant Professor of History, Michigan State University
A Hodge-Podge of Philosophers and the Oxford Malignants: Science and High-Church Theology in the Age of Darwin
In June of 1832 Charles Darwin was in Rio de Janeiro when the second meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science took place in Oxford. This meeting unleashed cultural and religious politics that influenced deeply the context in which Darwin would develop and communicate his theory of evolution by natural selection. The Oxford high churchmen John Keble and John Henry Newman watched aghast as men of science of all variety of religious affiliation congregated in their Anglican university. They were particularly disgusted that Oxford granted honorary degrees to what Keble dismissed as a “hodge-podge of philosophers” (Michael Faraday, David Brewster, Robert Brown and John Dalton), none members of the English Church. The cultural role of science became a central concern for the Oxford Movement that coalesced the following year around Newman, Keble and their Tracts for the Times. Newman and his “Tractarian” allies scoffed angrily at the claim that practicing science built moral character. They also worried with good cause that science was aligning with a pluralistic broad-church vision of Christianity that cut directly against their fundamental commitment to strong clerical and ecclesiastical authority. The geologist Adam Sedgwick spearheaded a political campaign in 1834 to open Oxford and Cambridge to non-Anglicans, a reform the Tractarians saw as a mortal threat to the Church of England. Another stalwart of the British Association, William Whewell, was appointed Master of Trinity College Cambridge in 1841 with an explicit mandate to combat the influence of Tractarian theology in his university. The Oxford Movement provided an acute challenge to the moral and intellectual authority of British science—one distinct from, and in fact sharply hostile to, evangelical biblical literalism. To understand the age of Darwin, we have to take a closer look at the religious politics that radiated from Oxford.