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A New History of the Sermon
A New History of the Sermon

BRILL, 2010
574 pp., $254.00

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Timothy Larsen


The Science of the Sermon

19th-century exemplars.

The 19th century was the "Age of the Sermon." It was also, however, as Keith A. Francis observes in his essay in this important volume, the "Age of Darwin." The notion of a war between faith and science has been abandoned by professional historians, but it stubbornly persists in the popular imagination. The archetypal moment is the debate on Darwinism between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley. In the legendary account, Huxley presented sound reasoning and science which Samuel Wilberforce—son of the evangelical patriarch, William Wilberforce—stopped his ears against, choosing biblical obscurantism over truth.

Actually, that debate took place at the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the premier venue for scientific discussions. This was the first possible occasion such an exchange could take place. (The Origin of the Species was published in November 1859 and the conference was held in June 1860.) In other words, it is ridiculous to label someone obscurantist for defending the reigning scientific viewpoint in the initial debate about a new theory immediately upon its publication. Moreover, Wilberforce (who, unlike his father, was a High Churchman, not an evangelical) criticized Darwinism on scientific not theological grounds. He had been chosen to present the anti-evolutionary case not because he was a bishop but because of his formidable skills as an Oxford debater.

In a careful study of the Victorian pulpit, Francis demonstrates that preachers showed scant interest in denouncing Darwinism. Moreover, those who did discuss it were sometimes supportive. The Anglican priest George Henslow delivered a sermon entitled, "Genesis and Geology. A Plea for the Doctrine of Evolution." The championing of Darwinism by the eminent clergyman and author Charles Kingsley is well known. Sherlock Holmes taught us that sometimes the best way to understand a situation is to observe what is absent, ...

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