It is the 5th of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1851.
Today we will turn our attention back to Great Britain as we see trends in democratization both socially and theologically. If you think about the end of Slavery in America as one of the stories in the second half of the American 19th century, it was a similar story in the United Kingdom in the first half of the British 19th century.
We've alluded to the story many times on the show, from the reformed ways of former slave trader John Newton to William Wilberforce's leadership. By 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in Parliament, and the following years saw its eventual demise. By mid-century, abolitionists in the UK had turned their attention to the international slave trade and watched the events unfolding in America.
Along with abolitionism, another democratic impulse in the first half of the 19th century can be seen in Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League's rise. Chartism was essentially a suffrage movement that demanded equal representation in Parliament. The Anti-Corn law League opposed the imposition of a tax on imported grains that disproportionately hurt the poor. The important take away is that all these movements, Abolitionism, Chartism, and The Anti-Corn Law League, had at their core democratic and populist impulses. The church, especially the Church of England, was ambiguous (at best) towards popular movements such as these, and dissenting churches of "non-conformists" found a new audience.
Social democratization thus dove-tailed with theological democratization. Mid-century saw not only the various revolutions of 1848 but also the social and scientific bombshells from the likes of Darwin, Dickens, and Marx. The church would have to decide what wheat could be separated from the chaff. And today, we remember a figure from the English church from this time whose life was devoted to these important questions of social and theological democratization.
On the 5th of February in 1851, John Pye-Smith, the theologian, headmaster, and geologist, died. Today we remember a few of his contributions to the church and contemplate his significance. John Pye-Smith was born in Sheffield in 1774 to a congregationalist bookseller and his wife. Being a non-conformist would be strike one and strike two was the working-class status that would have closed up many education opportunities. But growing up in a bookshop, young John would be self-taught. For a time, he was the editor of the Iris, a well-known Sheffield abolitionist paper, and he was a member of the Anti-Corn Law League. He attended the Rotherham Academy before becoming the theological tutor at the dissenting Homerton College. The Reverend Dr. John Pye-Smith would spend most of his life in Homerton's orbit.
Smith would become the first non-conformist to be invited to become a fellow of the Royal Society. That and his charter membership to the Royal Geological Society came based mainly on his "On the Relation between the Holy Scriptures and Some Parts of Geological Science," published in 1840. This was at the dawn of the geological sciences, and Smith was at the forefront of explaining why it could be reconciled with a high view of Scripture. The idea of "deep time" would reconcile known historical events recorded in the Bible and the new scientific facts revealed in nature. As with the Copernican revolution, Smith believed that Christians shouldn't shrink from reconciling the words in "both of God's books," his special revelation in the Bible and General revelation in nature.
Smith's views would be praised by Asa Gray and B.B. Warfield. The latter would endorse Smith's view in an article he wrote that became part of the infamous "Fundamentals" published in the next century. A landmark character in the democratization of life, work, and theology in the 19th century: John Pye-Smith died on this the 5th of February in 1851.
The last word for today comes from Sarah Maitland, from her "A Joyful Theology."
"Natural history is not taught in seminary. This is curious, as most people in pastoral ministry are about 567 times more likely to be asked about cosmology or sub-nuclear physics or human biology or evolution than they are to be asked about irregular Greek verbs or the danger of the patripassionist heresy. If we monotheists are going to go around claiming that our "God made the heaven and the earth," it is not unreasonable to expect us to know something about what that heaven and earth actually are."
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who was disappointed to hear that the Anti-Corn Law League was political and not just opposed to corn, Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by 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.