What Was the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial’ Really About? – History Bit for July 21

Some events in history bring a faint glimmer of memory to many people, but what they remember may not be the most relevant point. One such event was the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” decided on July 21 in 1925. What actually was this trial? Wikipedia’s summary[1] is that “a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, where it was held.” The trial descended into theatrics and was covered by national news organizations. Time magazine called the trial a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war.” Each side had a famous lawyer seeking publicity: the Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times, was the prosecuting attorney, and the agnostic Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

The immediate result of the trial was that Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a small fine, but years later, that’s not what people remember.  For some, the lesson of the Scopes trial is simple: “science good; religious fundamentalism bad.”  Another group of people might think the lesson was: “religious fundamentalism good; science bad.”  But did the case conclude either of these things?  It didn’t, so what’s the real issue?

The Culture Behind the Scopes Trial
In the background issues were simmering which still linger today – whether religion should have a voice in how science is used and taught.  Tim Keller notes that “Few people remember…that the textbook Scopes used, Civic Biology by George Hunter, taught not only evolution but also argued that science dictated we should sterilize or even kill those classes of people who weakened the human gene pool by spreading ‘disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country.’ This was typical of scientific textbooks of the time.”[2]  Wikipedia notes that “Scopes was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he incriminated himself deliberately so the case could have a defendant.”  So, the trial did not hinge on Scopes’ teaching, this textbook, or even eugenics, but the subject of eugenics sheds some light on how over-simplified the take-away of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad” really is.

Geneticist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, popularized the term “eugenics” from the Greek, meaning “good birth,” to describe ways humans could use evolutionary science to improve their condition.  He usually left unspoken that he meant not specific humans, but some abstract sense of humans in aggregate, and also that he meant to improve the condition of those humans in charge, or those humans with a voice among the humans in charge.   These beliefs were not rare, but quite mainstream.  Joseph Loconte, writing of the culture J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis lived in[3], notes: “In Britain, the Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 to take up the cause.  By 1913, the American Genetic Association was established in the United States to promote the doctrines of racial purity.”  The United States was actually the first country where compulsory sterilization was legalized, and some practices implemented by Nazi Germany were lifted right out of laws used by U.S. States.  U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Three generations of imbeciles is enough” in defense of Virginia’s sterilization law.

The church was not entirely immune from the eugenics movement either.  According to Loconte, “Ministers in the Church of England held a Church Congress in 1910 in Cambridge, inviting several members of the Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded to participate.”  Also, “By the 1920s, hundreds of American churches participated in a national eugenics sermon contest.  As the Rev. Kenneth McArthur, a winner from Sterling, Massachusetts, put it in his sermon: ‘If we take seriously the Christian purpose of realizing on earth the ideal divine society, we shall welcome every help which science affords.’”

This background to the Scopes Trial, often simplified to a “science” vs “fundamentalism” debate, makes us ask: which science and which fundamentalism?  Was eugenics, for a moment, part of “religious fundamentalism” for some of the church?  And is perfecting society on earth truly a fundamental Christian belief?  With a rule of thumb of “science good; religious fundamentalism bad,” or the opposite, what do you do if a scientific idea becomes also central to religious belief?

Also, if you take away science and religion from the equation altogether, which is better: “all humans have dignity and are worthy of care and love” or “some people deserve to be neutered like an ordinary animal”?  If science is the only source of our “fundamentalism,” where do we turn when it insists on destruction for the less favored?  Tim Keller argues that “Secular, scientific reason is a great good, but if taken as the sole basis for human life, it will be discovered that there are too many things we need that it is missing.”  What is missing is a meaningful reason to love your neighbor, regardless of their scientific knowledge, religious belief, disability, economic impact, level of intelligence, or any other characteristic.

It’s Not (Entirely) a Fantasy
Loconte says that although Tolkien and Lewis wrote of fantasy worlds populated not only by men, but also by elves, dwarves, orcs, and many other races, the topics of eugenics and other Progressive Era ideas served as background.  In Tolkien’s epic The Lord of The Rings, the solution to conflict between the races was not for one race to rule the others, or (even worse) to eliminate them.  Instead, the answer is to utterly destroy the Ring of Power, representing the desire of any tribe to use power to rule others “for their own good,” as some say.  While Tolkien insists his story is not a direct allegory, he may have been thinking of the centuries of tribal conflict between the English, Irish, Scots, and Welsh.  Or the conflict between any group of conquerors and the conquered.  By using fictional races, Tolkien was arguing that this lesson applies to everyone, in all places and at all times.

Therefore, when scientific fundamentalism says it’s OK not to love some people, Christians need to respond without exception that every person is a creation of God with innate dignity and should be loved as Christ loved us.  However, as shown on the cross, power is not the answer.  As Jesus told his disciples in Mark 10:42-45 – “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

God does not expect us to understand every issue of history, or even in our daily news feed, which is increasingly a “fantastic cross between a circus and a holy war,” but when we all meet our Lord in heaven, He will say “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” – Matthew 25:40


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial
[2] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  This post draws from pages 12-13.
[3] Loconte, Joseph.  A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918 (2015).  This post draws on pages 15-19.

Give Everyone Some Longitude? – History Bit for July 8

On this date in 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, offering prizes to anyone who could accurately measure longitude at sea.  Failure to measure longitude was causing massive economic damage from shipwrecks and piracy.  Galileo had established a method using Jupiter’s moons, generally accepted soon after his 1642 death, but it only worked on land.  Use of Galileo’s methods on land led to many maps being redrawn, “shrinking” France on maps and causing King Louis XIV to complain that he was losing more territory to astronomers than to his enemies.  At sea, the tossing of the waves, changes in the weather, and other factors made the problem more difficult, leading to the Longitude Act.  The problem was eventually solved by the chronometer, invented by self-educated carpenter John Harrison, who overcame resistance from multiple fronts, including religious leaders who, like Galileo, were convinced the solution was in the stars of the heavens, sometimes citing Bible verses like Psalm 19:1 – “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.”  The Board of Longitude paid out over £100,000 for research and in prizes before disbanding in 1828.[1]

Science and religion each have a role to play in improving the lot of mankind on earth, but a lot of unnecessary conflict has come from either claiming a monopoly on worldly progress.  While “the heavens declare the glory of God,” the stars are also “for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.[2]  But that is not all they are for. They also declare that the world is not all there is, and that we are to love others as the Creator of the stars loves us.  Therefore, let’s all give each other some latitude, or even some longitude.


[1] Sobel, Dava.  Longitude (1995).
[2] Genesis 1:14

A Great Festival in Zimbabwe – History Bit for June 18

Each June 18 in in the African nation of Zimbabwe, a festival is held to remember the service of Bernard Mizeki and his martyrdom on this date in 1896.  As recently as 2005, almost twenty thousand attended the festival at a time when Zimbabwe had massive food shortages and an unemployment rate of 80 percent!

As profiled in the book “Clouds of Witnesses” by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom[1], Mizeki found Christ, was baptized, and became a missionary under the influence of an Anglican order in Cape Town, South Africa.  He planted[2] a one-man mission among the Shona people in an area then known as Theydon, now part of Zimbabwe.  The Shona worshiped a creator-deity they called Mwari and sometimes practiced the killing of twin babies and the murder of those identified as sorcerers by their leaders.

Mizeki befriended Shona Chief Mangwende, learned their language in one year, translated key Biblical texts and Christian creeds, held Anglican services, and sought to reform the practices mentioned above.  He also identified with and invested in the Shona by marrying a Shona woman, teaching children and others to sing, and providing medical care.  His work prospered, and many came to believe.

However, opposition to his work began to grow, especially from those who saw his work as an assault on their culture and authority.  On the night of June 17th, 1896 he was assaulted in front of his home and had a spear driven into his side.  It seems Mizeki’s removal of some “sacred trees” was the last straw.  Then the account gets truly interesting.

Multiple accounts by Africans and Europeans attest to a “great and brilliant white light” and “a noise ‘like many wings of great birds’” around the hut where Mizeki was laid while his friends cared for him, seemingly near death.  There was a “strange red glow” around Mizeki’s hut and afterward his body was gone, never to be seen again. Jean Farrant, who documented witness accounts in her book on Mizeki, says each person must decide what to make of this, but that “something happened that night which to the Africans was beyond explanation, which frightened them very much, and left a deep impression”[3]  This event is still celebrated today, and others have taken up Mizeki’s work.

Soli Deo Gloria!


[1] Noll, Mark A.; Nystrom, Carolyn.  Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia (2011).  This post is drawn from chapter 1.
[2] John 12:24 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
[3] Farrant, Jean.  Mashonaland Martyr: Bernard Mizeki and the Pioneer Church (1966).  P. 216-22.  Cited in Clouds of Witnesses P. 30.

“No reserve, No retreat, No regrets” – History Bit for April 9

At the young age of 25, American millionaire and philanthropist William Borden died in Egypt on April 9, 1913.  Despite never making it to the mission field in China, Christianity Today once called him “the most influential missionary of the early 20th century.”  Borden’s story has inspired Christians and missionaries ever since.

As an heir to his family’s fortune from silver mining, William Borden had many opportunities in life, yet shortly after high school he became interested in missionary work.  Some said he was “throwing himself away,” but while a student at Yale, he quickly gained a reputation for his sense of purpose and dedication to Jesus.  He established a Bible study and prayer group that eventually included about 1,000 of Yale’s 1,300 students.  Off campus, he funded the Yale Hope Mission in New Haven with his own money and was often seen with widows, orphans, homeless people, and drunks, providing for their needs, and telling them about Jesus.  It looked like God was preparing him for a fruitful future as a missionary.

After graduating Yale, Borden turned down attractive job offers, choosing instead to study at Princeton Seminary, intending to minister to Uighur Muslims in China.  He finalized his plans and set sail, stopping in Egypt to study Islam and Arabic in preparation.  However, he contracted cerebral meningitis in March 1913 and died a few weeks later on April 9.  Did God take him too soon, before his work was done?  Borden didn’t seem to think so.

After his death, family reported that in his Bible were written the words “no reserve”, referring to his willingness to put everything aside for Christ, then later “no retreat”, after turning down job offers upon graduating Yale, and finally “no regrets”, apparently written shortly before his death.

Skeptics deny this note exists, citing “no evidence.”  However, friends and family claim to have found the note, and testimony is evidence.  Even if the note doesn’t exist, he still made the choices he made, living a life which declared that the salvation given through Jesus Christ was worth more than all the earthly benefits a young millionaire could have.

Skeptics may also say Borden, and God, failed because Borden’s life didn’t go according to his plans.  What was the point?  But as they say, the LORD works in mysterious ways and His plans are not always our plans.  Borden impacted many during his days at Yale before leaving for Egypt, and by events he couldn’t control, he may have become a better witness for Christ by death than from living as a missionary.  In his will, he left his fortune to several Christian agencies, including China Inland Mission, which named Borden Memorial Hospital in Lanzhou, China, in his memory.  Seized by the government in 1951, the hospital is now the Lanzhou Second People’s Hospital, but locals know its history.

During his short life, William Borden lived with a dedication to Christ that continues to inspire believers over a century later.  Even though he never made it to China, his testimony made it there and provides hope for persecuted groups and those who Christ calls to serve them.

Having all this world could offer, he chose to live for the next world.  Engraved on his gravestone in Egypt are the words “Apart from Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.”   Even if the note is just a legend, “No reserve, no retreat, and no regrets” summarizes the life of William Borden well. 

Interested in more History? Select “History Bits” from the “Blog” drop down menu at the top of the page.


Sources:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Whiting_Borden
https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2017/february/forgotten-final-resting-place-of-william-borden.html
http://home.snu.edu/~HCULBERT/regret.htm

Missionaries Saved By Mysterious Army: History Bit for March 28

Even people who believe in angels and demons may not see how they are relevant.  The Bible contains a lot of hints about a spiritual world we can’t see, but not a lot of detail about what it all means to us.  One of these hints is in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings during a war between Israel and Syria.  Trying to kill the prophet Elisha, the Syrian army surrounded the city of Dothan where he was staying.  Elisha’s servant saw the army, was worried and asked Elisha what they should do.  Elisha (and the LORD) responded:

“He said, ‘Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” – 2 Kings 6:16-17

On today’s date, March 28th, in 1953 something happened in Kijabe, Kenya which may be eerily similar to the events of 2 Kings.  I know several solid, Christian, professional people not known for sensationalism who were at the site of this event a handful of years later, and who spoke to people who witnessed it.  For this post, my primary source is the book “School in the Clouds: The Rift Valley Academy Story” by Phil Dow[1], but I could have written it entirely from second-hand accounts from people I know.  So, what happened?

In the decade of the 1950’s, Kenya was a British colony, but was embroiled in what is known as the Mau Mau, an extremely violent uprising against British rule.  Colonialism had added a new facet to tribal animosity in Kenya that existed long before the “Scramble for Africa”[2], where some Africans embraced and defended British efforts, while others strongly resented it and endorsed any means to repel the British and restore the “pure” African culture that existed before.

As part of a broader pattern of atrocities designed to scare the British into leaving, the Mau Mau planned an attack on Rift Valley Academy (RVA), a boarding school for children of missionaries.  Not only was the school symbolic of unwelcome outside influence in the eyes of the Mau Mau, but the school had also opened its doors as a refuge for Africans fleeing Mau Mau threats elsewhere.  On March 26th, Mau Mau fighters attacked a Christian group of Kikuyu (one of the Kenyan tribes) a few miles from RVA, killing 97 villagers and wounding 32 others, largely with machetes.  The Kikiyu tribe, historically a lower socioeconomic group, was divided between those who joined the Mau Mau for independence and those who backed British involvement because they saw Christianity and other Western influences as a positive.

RVA was on high alert, knowing the campus of schoolchildren and their caregivers were the Mau Mau’s next target.  Phil Dow wrote in his book:

“The sun rose Saturday morning accompanied by a host of rumors that confirmed an impending Mau Mau raid on RVA. Convinced that they would be attacked, several high school girls took time in the afternoon to write letters they hoped would be read by their parents if they were to be killed. That night the students went to bed under a star-filled sky fully clothed and expecting to be awakened by the sounds of gunfire and angry voices.”

They were awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of an alarm, some distant gunfire, but soon followed by an “all clear” bell.


Weeks later, some Mau Mau were caught hiding near the school and questioned about what happened on the night of March 28th.  They confirmed that an attack on RVA was attempted with the intention of burning the school to the ground and killing anyone they found there, but the attack was repelled by lines of British soldiers encircling the campus.  Later, other witnesses claimed the same.  However, “in March of 1953 there were no British soldiers at Kijabe.”  Multiple sources on RVA’s campus and among British authorities attest that the campus was vulnerable and mostly undefended, but something happened that spared the community and the lives of everyone in it so that the missionary work could continue.  The attempted attack raised the awareness of the British and provided time for them to install “protection of the very worldly kind” for RVA, including limited troops stationed there, along with defensive walls, barbed wire, and guard posts with mounted machine guns.

Dow concludes: “Whatever did happen that night, the Christian community at RVA was convinced that they had been kept safe by supernatural intervention. Indeed, the night’s events continue to be remembered as an example of God’s provision for the devoutly Christian community.”

What Elisha said in the Old Testament as:
Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them”

Paul echoes in the New as:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” – Romans 8:31-32

Amen.


Interested in more History? Select “History Bits” from the “Blog” drop down menu at the top of the page.


[1] Dow, Phil. School in the Clouds: The Rift Valley Academy Story.  (2003).  P. 130-132
[2] See summary at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scramble_for_Africa