Etched in Stone

Edward Hitchcock, Science and the Bible

By Nancy Pick ’83

It is a stunning title for a book: The Religion of Geology. In it, Amherst College’s third president, Edward Hitchcock, laid out the synthesis he was famous for in the 1850s, a blend of hard science and Jesus Christ.

The thesis reflected—and in fact influenced—the profound philosophical and cultural change taking place in Western society in the first half of the 19th century. New discoveries and theories were causing dramatic shifts in the way people understood the world. These shifts were perhaps most evident in the field of geology, where the biblical descriptions of reality that had for many years formed the unquestioned basis of the discipline (and of science in general) were being replaced by a new understanding of the history of the physical world. These shifts were happening in many aspects of life, and they did not happen gracefully. (For example, Charles Darwin delayed publishing his theory of natural selection for 20 years, until 1859, because he feared the public reaction to having God taken out of the equation. “It was like confessing a murder,” he said.)

Edward Hitchcock found himself in the unusual position of not only straddling this schism but, in some regards, causing it.

As a fundamentalist Christian, Hitchcock was hardly an anomaly at Amherst. Throughout the 19th century, the college’s primary aim was training indigent young men to be ministers and missionaries. The motto Terras Irradient was no mere poetic sentiment; “Let them enlighten the lands” articulated an evangelical credo. In the 1840s and ’50s, the college regularly held Christian revival meetings, often led by Hitchcock himself.

At the same time, Hitchcock did brilliant science, and was a leading figure of his day. On foot and on horseback, he explored every inch of Massachusetts, creating America’s first state geologic map. He pioneered the study of dinosaur tracks and assembled the world’s largest collection of such fossils. His textbook Elementary Geology went through 31 editions, and some say he did more than any other writer to popularize geology in America. Congress named him one of the founding members of the National Academy of Sciences. And over the years, Hitchcock recruited distinguished scientists to Amherst College, raising its standards to among the highest in the country.

With a foot firmly in each camp, Hitchcock vowed to reconcile the contradictions between science and scripture. He sought a middle road, grappling with such biblically challenging ideas as extinction, evolution and the ancient age of the Earth. His efforts to embrace both God and the latest discoveries required, as you might well imagine, some fascinating mental gymnastics.

The Formation of Edward Hitchcock

Hitchcock was born in Deerfield, Mass., in 1793, the son of a hatter. Although plagued by frail health, he was a boy of extraordinary drive and tenacity. Amusements did not tempt him. As Hitchcock noted in his diary, “I never learnt to dance or to play cards.”

He attended public school in Deerfield and, under the influence of his uncle, Major General Epaphras Hoyt, developed a passion for natural history. At age 18, he spent three months painstakingly recording the progress of a comet, aspiring to study astronomy at Harvard. That dream was dashed three years later, when an attack of the mumps left his eyesight permanently impaired. He never did attend college.

In 1816, Hitchcock became principal of Deerfield Academy, despite, as he phrased it in his memoir, “defective education, weak eyes and poor health.” While at Deerfield, Hitchcock experienced a spiritual awakening. Raised a Congregationalist, he had felt no particular pull toward religion. That changed when his eyesight partially failed at 21; Hitchcock grew melancholy, and his thoughts turned inward. “I began to realize that I was a sinner,” he wrote, in an account of his awakening. He joined the “Orthodox Church,” the Calvinist branch of the Congregationalists, then vehemently opposed to the more liberal Unitarians. Hitchcock left Deerfield to become minister in the nearby town of Conway, staying until his responsibilities there left him utterly drained. In 1825, at the age of 32, he received an offer to teach at Amherst College. In preparation, he spent several months at Yale, working in the laboratory of Benjamin Silliman, a geologist and chemist who was a founding member of the National Academy of Sciences. Among the lessons that Hitchcock learned, as he noted in his memoir, was this: “Never attempt an experiment in public which you have not within a few hours performed in private.”

With his brief Yale experience lending him credibility, Hitchcock taught chemistry and natural history at Amherst. A turning point came in 1835, when he saw something that would change his life: a slab bearing fossil footprints, the so-called “turkey tracks” that resembled footprints of gigantic birds. Hitchcock became instantly obsessed, and his studies of dinosaur tracks would secure his place in the paleontology history books.

In 1845, Hitchcock became the third president of Amherst, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. During his nine years in office, he restored the college to financial health, drew many talented young men to Amherst and—starting from scratch—established its outstanding program in the sciences.

In many ways, Edward Hitchcock embodied the liberal arts ideal. During his 70 years, he wrote in every conceivable genre—memoir, sermon, scientific treatise, newspaper article, diary, poetry, parable, a play about the downfall of Napoleon, a treatise on juggling and magic tricks, even a health tract on preventing dyspepsia. Although exquisitely sensitive to the world around him, Hitchcock could climb mountains and break rocks with the best of them. “He was a large man,” wrote Amherst colleague William Tyler in Hitchcock’s 1864 eulogy. “His frame was large, his mind was large, his heart was large.”

The Religion of Geology

Hitchcock’s efforts to make scripture fit science required marvelous creativity, as the following examples reveal.

In Hitchcock’s era, the story of Noah’s ark was—believe it or not—a subject of fierce debate. Here was the problem: the ark was getting terribly overcrowded. By the 1850s, biol­ogists had identified some 150,000 distinct species of animals. Christian ministers were hard pressed to explain how 300,000 animals—there were two of each species, of course—could have squeezed onto the ark. In his book The Religion of Geology, Hitchcock admitted this would have been impossible. But he came up with a clever twist to make the biblical account plausible. Hitchcock suggested that the flood had covered only the Middle East, a region with relatively few animal species. This smaller set of creatures could have comfortably fit on board.

Hitchcock also grappled with the ancient age of the Earth. He knew from his own observations of rock layers that the Connecticut River Valley was vastly more than 6,000 years old, the age calculated by theologians based on the Bible. Charles Lyell’s influential Principles of Geology, published in 1830, argued convincingly that the Earth’s crust had been formed by natural events taking place over millions of years, not by the flood or other occurrences described in the Bible.

Still, Hitchcock refused, once again, to dismiss the Bible’s validity. To bring Genesis into line with geology, he looked closely at biblical language. In true scholarly form, he went back to the original Hebrew to make his point. He examined the opening lines: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was desolate….” Hitchcock zeroed in on the word “and” that begins the second sentence. He pointed out that “and” is a translation of the Hebrew “v’,” which arguably has more than one meaning. He noted that “v’” can also mean “afterwards.” This allowed Hitchcock to read Genesis in a dramatically different way: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Afterwards”—meaning over vast spans of geologic time—“the earth was desolate, while it was being formed.” And voilà! With a bit of imaginative interpretation, Genesis agrees with geology.

Noah’s flood made other appearances in Hitchcock’s work, in one case revealing how Hitchcock modified his views over time to fit the latest scientific developments. In 1833, Hitchcock’s geologic map of Massachusetts showed a stratum of rocks called diluvium. He chose the name diluvium as a direct allusion to Noah’s deluge. Hitchcock believed that the flood could have accounted for the layer of gravel, boulders and sand that covers Plymouth and most of Cape Cod. He argued that a biblical flood might actually have occurred in Massachusetts. In his 1833 Report on the Geology of Massachusetts, he described seeing signs of “a powerful deluge, sweeping from the north and northwest, over every part of the state, not excepting its highest mountains.” That view changed again when Charles Lyell’s revolutionary Principles of Geology convinced geologists that the flood had not occurred worldwide, and by 1840, Hitchcock no longer believed that a biblical flood might have swept across Massachusetts.

In actuality, the gravelly layer that Hitchcock called diluvium was debris—technically called drift—left by the glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Cape Cod was formed when the glaciers retreated some 18,000 years ago, leaving behind the familiar sheltering arm. Apparently, Hitchcock never accepted the concept of ice ages, first disseminated in 1837 by the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz—yet ironically, his name has been immortalized in connection with them. Lake Hitchcock, named in his honor, is the vast body of water that filled the Connecticut River Valley when the glaciers retreated. (At that time, the hill on which Amherst College stands was an island in Lake Hitchcock.)

Hitchcock and Emily Dickinson

Although Hitchcock was intellectually conservative in many ways, he was an unabashed progressive in one regard: He found women worthy of studying science. In his era, most men considered women constitutionally unfit for higher education, believing that knowledge would tarnish their virtue. Hitchcock disagreed. He believed that God could be brought closer through the study of natural history, and that women would be elevated by that pursuit.

That view was reinforced by Hitchcock’s wife, Orra White Hitchcock, whom he met at Deerfield Academy, where she taught cartography and astronomy. No shrinking violet, she accompanied him on many of his geological expeditions. She was also a gifted artist who illustrated his college lectures as well as his books. Further, Hitchcock counted among his protégés Mary Lyon, a chemist and the founder of Mount Holyoke College. Lyon fully embraced Hitchcock’s synthesis of religion and science.

But one other woman influenced by Hitchcock ultimately resisted his religious zeal. Emily Dickinson grew up under Hitchcock’s intellectual shadow, exposed to some of the most sophisticated scientific ideas in the country. Hitchcock shaped the curriculum at Amherst Academy, where the town’s elite students—including Dickinson—were schooled, and we know from her letters that she attended Hitchcock’s public lectures on geology. Her poems are scattered with scientific terms. She refused, however, to accept Hitchcock’s mixture of science and religion. At Mount Holyoke, Dickinson famously attended a school meeting at which Mary Lyon asked those students choosing to be Christians to stand. Dickinson alone remained seated. It is worth noting that Dickinson’s essentially secular poetry transcended her age, whereas Hitchcock’s books—although I personally take much pleasure in them—went out of print long ago.

Hitchcock and Evolution

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, five years before Hitchcock’s death. Although Darwin was rapidly gaining adherents among scientists, Hitchcock remained an anti-evolutionist to the end. He spelled out his views in the 31st and final edition of Elementary Geology. In this 1863 edition, he argued that animals in the fossil record showed great changes over time that could be explained only by “new creations,” not gradual transformations. Hitchcock believed that God had created (and destroyed) successive generations of animals, each in separate acts of creation. He did not believe that life forms gradually changed over time through the process of evolution by natural selection. He warned his textbook readers not to be swayed by those scientists who advocated evolution, “with Darwin at their head.”

It was a view echoed by the college itself, perhaps because of Hitchcock’s influence. President Julius Seelye (Class of 1849), inaugurated in 1876, effectively banned the teaching of Darwin’s theories on campus. The college’s biology department went along with his directive, instructing students in what would today be called creationism. But Benjamin Kendall Emerson, professor of geology and zoology, defied President Seelye and insisted on endorsing evolution. In 1880, Seelye stripped geology courses from the college’s required curriculum, finding them too radical. To counter his move, progressive professors created a system of elective science courses four years later, giving students the option of studying in the pro-evolution geology department.

In the final analysis, Hitchcock was squarely a man of his time. What distinguishes him, beyond his many achievements, may be that he tried harder than any other scientist of his era to bridge the realms of science and religion. In 1859, Hitchcock published a second edition of The Religion of Geology. His preface responds to the storm of criticism he had received from both sides—the Christian believers as well as the scientific unbelievers—following publication of the first edition. Seemingly, he had made peace with himself. He wrote:

The Infidel raves furiously, because I have endeavored to make geology sustain and illustrate revelation; but my Christian friend declares my book to be thoroughly infidel. One of the parties must surely be mistaken in its bearing. Till they can settle that question, I think I may rest quietly. Like an acid and an alkali in chemistry, the two attacks neutralize each other and leave me unharmed.

Images: Mead Art Museum