The Religion of Geology: Edward Hitchcock on Natural Theology

Decades before the Civil War, a pious Christian geologist showed how the gradual development of an ancient earth enhances our conception of God.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I am available to answer questions and respond to comments. If Hitchcock sounds so familiar to you, it’s probably because so many American Christians adopted his views and attitudes after the Civil War.


Another great article! Here’s my favorite quote:

"If prevailing opinion changed over the next couple decades [that Geologists - - of all people! - - were hostile to the Bible] - - and it did [prevailing opinion did change] - - we can hold Hitchcock himself responsible to a large degree. A highly accomplished field geologist and a voracious reader of theology, Hitchcock vigorously promoted geology as a pious ally of the Christian, turning the problem on its head:

“A few years since, geology, instead of being appealed to for the illustration of religious truth, was regarded with great jealousy, as a repository of views favorable to infidelity, and even to atheism." [< WOW.
those Atheists! GB]

"But if the summary which I have exhibited of its religious relations be correct, from what other science can we obtain so many illustrations of natural and revealed religion? Distinguished Christian writers are beginning to gather fruit in this new field, and the clusters already presented us by such men as Dr. [Thomas] Chalmers, Dr. [John] Pye Smith, Dr. [William] Buckland, Dr. [John] Harris, and Dr. [David] King, are an earnest of an abundant harvest. I hazard the prediction that the time is not far distant when it will be said of this, as of another noble science, ‘The undevout geologist is mad’.” (The Religion of Geology, pp. 27-28)"

Amazingly, as surveys show, the sheer number of UNDEVOUT scientists is quite daunting! . . . . in excess of 80% of all scientists in general!

But we here, at BioLogos, have preserved the DEVOTION to God and His role . . . while still being accused of atheistic tendencies by the Literalists…



“Geology furnishes many peculiar proofs of the benevolence of the Deity,” including specific features of the earth’s surface, such as valleys, soils, and abundant water supplies. Above all, the Creator used “disturbances” in the earth’s crust to make valuable rocks and minerals accessible to us, and the gradual formation of coal and other minerals was intended “for the service of beings to be created centuries afterwards. Can there be a doubt but this is a beautiful example of the prospective benevolence of the Deity?”

What I find amazing about “The Religion of Geology” is that it was printed eight years before Darwin published, and is a collection of lectures Hitchcock gave in the 1840s. By that time, it was becoming apparent that life on earth had evolved, based upon careful study of fossils. There were already theories of how that evolution had occurred, notably that of Lamarck, and a book had been published in 1844, “Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation,” suggesting that the earth had formed and that this evolution had taken place by the rules of nature, without the aid of God. Hitchcock devotes an entire chapter to refuting this claim, the author of which was unknown at the time, later revealed to have been a Scotsman named Robert Chambers (1802-1871.) Incidentally, publication of the book “Vestiges” without serious public outcry is what convinced Darwin to publish his theory.

Actually, Larry, guess what the next column is about? Hitchcock and “development,” as evolution was called in the Vestiges. His first comments on it came in 1845, right after the first American edition of the book appeared, in his inaugural address as president of Amherst. One side comment: Darwin felt that the serious scientific outcry against Vestiges would lead some to tar his own book with the same brush, so he postponed publication at that point. In this instance, in other words, the situation was the opposite of what you say here. The longer manuscript version of "On the Origin of Species* dates from 1844, as you obviously realize, but others might not know this.

It was becoming apparent to more than just a few naturalists, but hardly to all–particularly, not to men of Hitchcock’s generation. I’ll talk about this also in the next column.

I applaud Dr. Hitchcock for celebrating God as God of the facts, rather than try to make science conform to some speculative understanding of how God created the universe.

God created the universe. That is all we need to know and that is what the Bible says. That is the starting point. Differences in the details are relatively insignificant, but some Christians put the cart before the horse.

Indeed… I certainly had no idea!

The earth has been populated at various times by “several different systems of organic life,” each suited for different conditions and circumstances. God prepared places for them, exercising “over the globe a superintending Providence,” coupled with “a perfect unity of design extending through every period of the world’s history.”

Dr. Hitchcock observed that “organic life” at different geological stages of the earth was suited for its environment. Too bad he did not see how the changing conditions on the earth gave rise to different flora and fauna and eventually to humans. Then we would have a better understanding of evolution from that of Darwinism, which focuses of genetics independent of the environment, at least until very recently.

Until very recently?

At last … so we have arrived at the PROPER understanding at last, yes?


Why do you label William Lane Craig an “old-earth creationist” rather than a theistic evolutionist - a term in which he identifies . Dennis Venema says something similar but does not explain what he means by the term. Could you please elaborate or are you just engaging in an ad hominem attack against a fellow Christian who holds theological views to the right of your own?

I said that as a point of fact, Matt, not as an ad hominem. You probably haven’t followed my columns too long, or you wouldn’t have suggested the ad hominem part. If you were to study my series on “science and the Bible”, you’d see that I am interested in helping the body of Christ understand other views, not in using any of the five labels/conceptual boxes that I presented as pejoratives.

I have not seen anything from Bill Craig that suggests he holds to a TE/EC view, at least not as I defined that view in the series I just mentioned (go see the opening column on TE for a definition). On the other hand, I’ve seen many things to suggest that he holds the OEC view. Furthermore, faculty at Biola are required to affirm the non-evolutionary origin of human beings, and Craig is on the faculty there even though he lives in Georgia. Open Biola - Biola University

If you think that I am mistaken, Matt, I invite correction. My view of Craig and his work won’t change one iota, however, if you persuaded me to describe him as a TE/EC proponent. I respect him both personally and professionally, and I regard him as the very best Christian apologist in the USA today–whether or not he holds my view on origins. (I also differ with him on some other views, unrelated to origins, but this isn’t the place for me to start a thread about that. He draws his conclusions carefully, after much study and reflection, and if he comes out somewhere else he’s fully entitled to do so. I hope others would say the same thing about me.)

Dear Ted I am replying to your post in the hope that my reply will not be blocked. My reply to you in regards to the absolute failure of Christians in the Royal Society to defend Michael Reiss after his shocking treatment at the hands of the Society or criticize the Royal Society for its behaviour was blocked.

The definition of OEC I am referring is the one on the Biologos website;
“According to Old Earth Creationism (OEC), the scientific evidence for the great age of the earth (4.6 billion years) and universe (13.7 billion years) is strong. This view typically maintains that the days of creation in Genesis 1 each refer to long periods of time. OEC does not accept the common ancestry of all life forms, often opting instead for a theory of progressive creation in which God miraculously created new species at key moments in the history of life.”

None of this applies to anything that Craig has ever said or written. Craig says the evidence for common descent is strong. If you and Dennis Venema are using a different definition of OEC then please say so; I can only assume that your use of the term is the one listed above. Craig rejects atheistic (undirected) evolution as both unacceptable to a Christian as well as factually wrong. He doubts that RM + NS with genetic drift is significant for the entire evolutionary landscape (as do an increasing number of biologists). This does not make Craig a proponent of OEC or a Creationist of any sort…

“faculty at Biola are required to affirm the non-evolutionary origin of human beings” I am sorry but you are just wrong here. I will assume that this was an honest mistake rather than a deliberate untruth.

As for a definition of TE, it is such a fluid term it can mean anything and sadly a majority of TE are so philosophically illiterate that TE implies anything from creationism to philosophical atheism. For example both Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett claim, quite rightly in my view, that Simon Conway Morris is a mind creationist. Whereas Kenneth Miller is a philosophical atheist (which I accept he may not realize) . I know that Miller identifies as a Roman Catholic but he combines his faith and science by subscribing to NOMA (science is about facts, faith about values so no conflict). This means that statements like ‘God exists’, ‘Jesus was resurrected’, ‘God created the universe’ are value statements and as factual statements, false. Miller is a theological anti-realist as are a majority of TE working in the religion and science field. Craig is a theological realist and, I suppose, this alone would disqualify him from being a TE in many peoples’ eyes.

Craig would also object to statements by TE proponents like;

"Evolution works without either plan or purpose"
Biology, by Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine (1st ed., Prentice Hall, 1991), pg. 658; (3rd ed., Prentice Hall, 1995), pg. 658; (4th ed., Prentice Hall, 1998), pg. 658; emphasis in original.)


“Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products. Darwinian evolution was not only purposeless but also heartless–a process in which the rigors of nature ruthlessly eliminate the unfit. Suddenly, humanity was reduced to just one more species in a world that cared nothing for us. The great human mind was no more than a mass of evolving neurons. Worst of all, there was no divine plan to guide us.”

(Biology: Discovering Life by Joseph S. Levine & Kenneth R. Miller (1st ed., D.C. Heath and Co., 1992), pg. 152; (2nd ed… D.C. Heath and Co., 1994), p. 161; emphases in original.)

I have a pile of similar quotes by biologists who claim to be religions.

The problem is that claiming that evolution is somehow directed is not neo-Darwinian, and this would disqualify the claimant as a TE (for example Asa Gray was not a TE as he rejected undirected evolution which Darwin pointed out was a rejection of his theory). On the other hand even claiming that there is good evidence for God in nature will also disqualify one from being a TE. For example Ron Numbers when writing about Howard J. Van Till "he is a devout Christian who sees little or no evidence of God in nature and whose view is a good example of “theistic evolution”. " which is the stance that Biologos takes with its rejection of natural theology.

Craig accepts God directed evolution how does this make him an OEC?


I hope so. We will see how things work out.

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You comments have not been blocked, as you see. That exchange about my friend Michael Reiss happened quite some time ago, and those comments are no longer visible on our site for that reason (they still exist, but we make them invisible after a long interval). However, I pointed you directly toward places where Conway Morris and Polkinghorne had publicly chastised the RS for sacking Reiss. I gather you ignored their statements?

I will reply to several more of your points, Matt, but I won’t get into a protracted disagreement. If you choose to keep re-stating the same things, then I will let readers decide whether the evidence and arguments given in my single reply to each point is still sufficient and leave it at that.

I understand why you quote the definition of OEC given on the BL site, but I asked you specifically to read the definition given in my series on science and the Bible, from this column:,because it pertains to my classification of Craig’s position.

Here is what I said: “The dictionaries I checked don’t define the term, ‘theistic evolution,’ so I offer my own definition: the belief that God used the process of evolution to create living things, including humans.”

I then immediately add this clarification: “Some might find this a vague definition, since (for example) it doesn’t include the adjective ‘Darwinian’ before ‘evolution,’ but that would eliminate most of the people prior to World War Two who would otherwise fit the definition. On the other hand, if we left out a specific reference to human evolution, then the category would be even larger, since a number of important Christian writers have accepted evolution among the ‘lower animals,’ while explicitly rejecting it for human beings. We could argue endlessly about such things, and not pointlessly; my point here is simply to be clear about terminology.

I’m sorry, Matt, but you are the one who is mistaken here. Biola’s doctrinal statement is found here: Biola University's Theological Positions - About - Biola University. Let me quote two consecutive paragraphs toward the bottom, as follows:

“The existence and nature of the creation is due to the direct miraculous power of God. The origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of kinds of living things, and the origin of humans cannot be explained adequately apart from reference to that intelligent exercise of power. A proper understanding of science does not require that all phenomena in nature must be explained solely by reference to physical events, laws and chance.

“Therefore creation models which seek to harmonize science and the Bible should maintain at least the following: (a) God providentially directs His creation, (b) He specially intervened in at least the above-mentioned points in the creation process, and(c) God specially created Adam and Eve (Adam’s body from non-living material, and his spiritual nature immediately from God). Inadequate origin models hold that (a) God never directly intervened in creating nature and/or (b) humans share a common physical ancestry with earlier life forms.”

Concerning my claim that “faculty at Biola are required to affirm the non-evolutionary origin of human beings” follows clearly from a plain reading of point (c) and also part (b) of the final sentence in the second paragraph. Clearly, Biola faculty may not hold that humans are descended from earlier life forms. Thus, if we apply my definition of TE/EC, Biola faculty may not hold such a position. In this case, Matt, I’m afraid the mistake is yours.

If Ken Miller is a “philosophical atheist,” Matt, then you’re making a distinction that is in practice worthless. In his debate with the late Christopher Hitchins, he certainly sounds like someone who believes in God, and also someone who identifies without hesitation as a Roman Catholic believer: Near the end, he said this: “In the end you have no answer to why science works, why the physical logic of natural law makes life possible, or why the human mind is able to explore and understand nature. And I agree that there is no scientific answer to such questions. That is precisely the point of faith–to order and rationalize our encounters with the world around us.” I put it to you, Matt, that no “philosophical atheist” would ever say any such thing. Even the folks at AIG agree that Miller believes in God, despite their reservations about the details: you know his book, Finding Darwin’s God, then you know that he “outed” himself as a Christian at Brown by writing it, and that he vigorously attacks the New Atheists in perhaps the best chapter in the whole book. And, I’ve talked to Ken Miller a few times, including about our common Christian faith. He’s not an atheist, by any meaningful definition.

You’ve confused “Darwinian evolution” with “evolution” in talking about the TE view. Many would say that Conway Morris isn’t a Darwinian, yet many also would say that he’s a TE. I certainly would. See my definition above.

As for Asa Gray, he himself used the very term “theistic evolution” favorably in 1880, and in context he was obviously applying it to himself. By the definition I that I told you I am using, Gray qualifies as a TE. So does Michael Behe.