It is the 24th of November, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Friends, history is long. And there are A LOT of characters. So many, in fact, that there are characters who attained a level of popularity so great it would be unthinkable we would ever forget some of them. But I’m here to assure you this is indeed the case. Consider this from the influential American Quarterly Review of 1850:
“Perhaps no foreign writer has been more generally read, on this side of the Atlantic, for the last 20 years than X [HIs books] have had an extensive and constant sale. It may well be questioned whenever any modern writer in the language, on the other side of the water, has circulated in this country so large a number of volumes.”
X is none other than the Scottish Dr. Thomas Dick. And if he is a familiar name to you, please send me an email and your address so I can send you a dollar. So, who was he, and why did he vanish?
Thomas Dick was born on this, the 24th of November in 1774, in Dundee, just across the Tay from St. Andrews (in grad school, we called it “fun-dee”- you could go bowling there, and there was a Costco). His parents were members of the Secession Church- these were Scottish Presbyterians of a stricter sort who, for various reasons, broke off from the national church. His father was a linen manufacturer and hoped Thomas would take over the family business. But his mind was fixed first to eternal things (it is said he read the whole Bible before entering school) and then, in 1783, with the heavens. The great comet of that year excited him enough to want to study both theology and the universe.
He would attend the University of Edinburgh from 1794 and took degrees in theology and philosophy. In 1801, he was licensed to preach with the Secession church to augment his salary from tutoring. He would then marry and take a job at the Secession Church’s school in Methven near Perth. He taught there for ten years until he was found to have fathered a child with a servant. His wife left him, and he lost his job.
In 1832, his life, troubled by his own mistakes, took a turn for the better with the publication of his “‘The Christian Philosopher, or the Connexion of Science and Philosophy with Religion”. It was an instant success, published in many editions and in America. He became a name in the field of Natural Theology in an age that wondered if the ancient faith could withstand scientific scrutiny. He made enough that he retired, bought a small cottage near the Tay inlet, filled it with books and tools for observing the natural world, and began to publish.
Unfortunately, he was not a shrewd businessman, and the lack of copyright laws meant that he made almost no money from the sales of his books in America. He was a proponent of the theory of multiple worlds. He believed that God must have created more than just this planet. In fact, he did the math, figuring that all of the planets in the universe had roughly the same population density as London. Thus, there were some 21 trillion living beings. He also claimed that there must be people living on the moon. This brought him some contempt and ridicule, especially when the Great Moon Hoax was perpetrated. Dick’s hypothesis was told in a series of articles in the American Sun paper purporting to be the real result of research by the astronomer Sir John Herschel.
This kind of fantastically wrong hypothesis from Thomas Dick was not, however, the primary reason that he went from phenomenon to forgotten author. Rather, it was the emergence of Charles Darwin and his On the Origin of the Species- published just two years after Dick’s death in 1857. Traditional Natural Theology and some half-baked hypotheses would have found their match- and anyone doing the kind of work made popular by Dick had to wrestle with Darwin. Thomas Dick’s popularity and fall was an accident of time and Darwin. But we remember the curious natural philosopher- living in a laboratory on a Scottish hillside, wondering about other planets and creating beings on the 249th anniversary of his birth on this day in 1774.
The last word for today is from the daily lectionary here at the end of the Church year- we get Revelation which means we get the picture of Eden restored in chapter 22.
22 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 24th of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite hoaxes include the Great Moon Hoax, the academic work of Franz Bibfeldt, and the NASA Moon landing; he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man convinced walnuts are a hoax perpetrated on us by a global cabal of nut producers who try to trick us into thinking they belong in food- 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.