Contesting Mosaic Geology

In the April, 1824 issue of the British Critic—a popular quarterly journal, founded in 1793 by conservative and High Churchmen, and supported by the Anglican orthodox group known as “Hackney Phalanx”—there is an anonymous and blistering review of Granville Penn’s A Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies (1822) and A Supplement to the Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies: relating chiefly to the Geological Indications of the Phenomena of the Cave at Kirkdale (1823). Penn, fluent in several languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French, was known as a “scriptural geologist” and early biblical literalist. In the Critic review, the introductory comments are worth quoting at length:

We have always doubted the expediency of connecting the speculations of science with the truths of revealed religion; and the work now before us has fully justified all our scruples on this head. It is sufficient to observe, as the ground of our opinion, that the Holy Scriptures were not meant to convey to mankind a system of philosophy [i.e., “science”]; and that consequently every attempt to derive from them a species of knowledge which they profess not to contain, will not only be attended with complete failure, but will also, in most instances, call forth the scorn of the sceptic and the regret of the sincere believer. The book of Genesis ought never to be resorted to as a manual either of astronomy or of geology. The objects contemplated by its Inspired Author were much more sacred and important; and accordingly through he was skilled in all the learning of the Egyptians, he uniformly abstained from obtruding upon the attention of those whom he wished to instruct in heavenly things, the crude notions of priests or magicians, however ingenious or however popular.

My italics. This was a High Church periodical. In the second edition of A Comparative Estimate (1825), Penn responded specifically to this “distempered flagellant”: “This ardent critic,” he wrote, “should have lived at least three centuries ago, when reviews ad excommunicationem might have acquired some measure of power. In the fervid zeal with which he appears to copy the proceedings of the Pontifical College of 1622, he thus fulminates his Inquisitorial sentence against this Work.” Penn is of course referring to the trail of Galileo. In other words, Penn is portraying himself as a new Galileo.

This episode in the history of science reveals, to my mind, two things. First, the use of the Bible as a “science text-book” was contested, not only by liberal theologians, but also by conservative ones, even High Churchmen. Modern Young-Earth creationists may have had some precedent in nineteenth-century scriptural geological tradition, but clearly it was contested terrain. Second, writers such as Penn reveal a fear that science was being taken away from the clerical-scientist. Here the professionalization of science becomes clear. What is most interesting, however, is the imagery of Galileo. It seems that both sides, the literalists and the new geological, professional elite, used the Galileo myth against what each side perceived as a struggle against bigotry.

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