Thursday, November 18, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we look at the life of a Christian botanist working through the claims of Charles Darwin.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 18th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

It is not often that a character on this show would have as the first line in their encyclopedia bio, this:

“American botanist whose extensive studies of North American flora did more than the work of any other botanist to unify the taxonomic knowledge of plants of this region.”

That’s right! In today’s show, we remember American Botanist Asa Gray who was born on the 18th of November in 1810. Of course, if he were just a botanist we might leave him for our friends over at the Natural History Almanac. Gray was a devout Presbyterian, a man who worked in the service of the church, and also happened to be a friend and critic of Charles Darwin whose own work in Natural history would later shake the church.

You might remember last week on the show we looked at a court case regarding the teaching of evolution and creationism in public schools. You might remember this quote from William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s around the time he was acting as prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial. He said”

“All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution.”

In the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies of the early 20th century, some argued that Christianity and aspects of Darwin’s theory of natural selection had always been at odds. Except, that wasn’t the case. Darwin’s first champion in America was none other than Asa Gray- the Christian botanist who challenged Darwin, disagreed with him, but ultimately saw in his work a valuable tool for understanding the mutation of species in light of God’s Providence.

For the short bio-

Born in 1810 in New York. Earned his MD by 18 but was too young to practice so he took up Botany. His first work great work on Botany was “the Elements of Botany” in 1838. This and his “Gray’s Manual” (a Botany manual still in use today). He would teach at Harvard, was a member of the Royal Society, and had just about every other honor a 19th-century man of Science could have.

Gray was a New School Presbyterian, siding with them in that controversy as he was opposed to slavery. He was fascinated with William Paley’s “natural theology” and blended that with Darwin’s work to create a view of the universe that is both steady and changing under the watchful eye of a creator.

Darwin and Gray wrote back and forth- agreeing on many things, but disagreeing on others. Gray stated that the theory of evolution and natural selection told us about order in creation, not cause. Furthermore Gray argued that Darwin showed the “how” of creation and not the “why”. Lastly, he insisted that Darwin's work dealt with secondary causes, not primary causes.

Darwin himself saw no such problems with Gray’s assessment although Darwin was himself agnostic. Darwin wrote to Gray,

“You are a hybrid, complex cross of lawyer, poet, naturalist, and theologian”.

Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary was not a fan of Gray or Darwin. He authored a tract that would have made Bryan proud in the 1920s. It was entitled “What is Darwinism” and the answer within was “Atheism”. Ironically Hodge’s predecessor B.B. Warfield followed Gray’s interpretation of Darwin. Even more ironic, B.B. Warfield was an author for the set of pamphlets known as the “Fundamentals” that would be crucial to the Fundamentalist movement which opposed Darwin.

At Gray’s funeral a friend eulogized:

“To the late lovable devout profoundly philosophical botanist of Harvard college, the Church owes more than it appreciates for its deliverance from such another mistake as was made at the time of Galileo. The world even yet is slow to learn that we may find out how God does a thing without shaking our faith in the fact that he does it”

Asa Gray, the Botanist, and defender of the idea that natural selection was not incompatible with natural theology- died in 1888. Born on this day in 1810 he was 77 years old.

The last word for today comes from Psalm 104:

Lord, you have done so many things!
 You made them all so wisely!
The earth is full of your creations!

And then there’s the sea, wide and deep,
 with its countless creatures—
 living things both small and large.

There go the ships on it,
 and Leviathan, which you made, plays in it!

All your creations wait for you
 to give them their food on time.

When you give it to them, they gather it up;
 when you open your hand, they are filled with good things!

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 18th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who believes that “all the ills America suffers can be traced back to” instant coffee and the K Cup. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who believes that “all the ills America suffers can be traced back to” the fact that there is a DH in one league, and not in the other. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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