John W. Draper as Protestant Historian

In his History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), Draper commences his historical review of the interactions between science and religion by declaring that “modern science” was born in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great, and indicates that Alexandria, particularly its Museum, was the first civilization to pursue a “practical interrogation of Nature.”[1] This was the enlightenment of humanity before Christianity arose. He then follows with a more elaborate and gloomy account of the origin, spread, and ultimate degeneration of Christianity. He relates a common idealized image of primitive Christianity when he writes that

Jewish people at that time entertained a belief, founded on old traditions, that a deliver would arise among them, who would restore them to their ancient splendor. The disciples of Jesus regarded him as this long-expected Messiah. But the priesthood, believing that the doctrines he taught were prejudicial to their interests, denounced him to the Roman governor, who, to satisfy their clamors, reluctantly delivered him over to death. His doctrines of benevolence and human brotherhood outlasted that event. The disciples, instead of scattering, organized. They associated themselves on a principle of communism, each throwing into the common stock whatever property he possessed, and all his gains. The widows and orphans of the community were this supported, the poor and the sick sustained.[2]

The primitive church, the early followers of Jesus, was thus a movement of purity, according to Draper. It was a matter of life and practical goodness, enjoining veneration toward God, purity in personal virtues, and benevolence in social life.[3]

But the purity of the Christian movement did not last, according to Draper. It became popular, and was eventually adopted by many solely from interest and expediency. “Crowds of worldly persons,” he writes, “who cared nothing about its religious ideas, became its warmest supporters.” It thus relapsed into many of the forms and ceremonials of paganism, and subsequently incorporated pseudo-Christian dogmas. Indeed, according to Draper, Christianity had become “paganized” by the reign of Constantine, the first “Christian” emperor. These “modifications,” Draper argues, is what “eventually brought it in conflict with science.” He then offers an exposition of Tertullian’s famous second-century Apology as an example of Christianity’s purer days, exemplifying a life of innocence, justice, patience, temperance, chastity under persecution and struggle. All that changed, he says, when Christianity gained imperial power. “Great is the difference between Christianity under Severus and Christianity after Constantine,” he declares.[4]

It should be clear that Draper’s account of the rise, spread, and corruption of the Church was imbued with Protestant polemics. To strengthen his case, Draper even quoted a long passage from English cleric Bishop Thomas Newton’s (1704-1782) Dissertation on the prophecies, which have been remarkably fulfilled, and are at this time fulfilling in the world (1754) to demonstrate the paganization of Christianity:

Is not the worship of saints and angels now in all respects the same that the worship of demons was in former times? The name only is different, the thing is identically the same,…the deified men of the Christians are substituted for the deified men of the heathens. The promoters of this worship were sensible that it was the same, and that the one succeeded to the other; and, as the worship is the same, so likewise it is performed with the same ceremonies. The burning of incense or perfumes on several altars at one and the same time; the sprinkling of holy water, or a mixture of salt and common water, at going into and coming out of places of public worship; the lighting up of a great number of lamps and wax-candles in broad daylight before altars and statues of these deities; the hanging up of votive offerings and rich presents as attestations of so many miraculous cures and deliverances from diseases and dangers; the canonization or deification of deceased worthies; the assigning of distinct provinces or prefectures to departed heroes and saints; the worshiping and adoring of the dead in their sepulchres, shrines, and relics; the consecrating and bowing down to images; the attributing of miraculous powers and virtues to idols; the setting up of little oratories, altars, and statues in the streets and highways, and on the tops of mountains; the carrying of images and relics in pompous procession, with numerous lights and with music and singing; flagellations at solemn seasons under the notion of penance ; a great variety of religious orders and fraternities of priests; the shaving of priests, or the tonsure as it is called, on the crown of their heads; the imposing of celibacy and vows of chastity on the religious of both sexes—all these and many more rites and ceremonies are equally parts of pagan and popish superstition. Nay, the very same temples, the very same images, which were once consecrated to Jupiter and the other demons, are now consecrated to the Virgin Mary and the other saints. The very same rites and inscriptions are ascribed to both, the very same prodigies and miracles are related of these as of those. In short, almost the whole of paganism is converted and applied to popery; the one is manifestly formed upon the same plan and principles as the other; so that there is not only a conformity, but even a uniformity, in the worship of ancient and modern, of heathen and Christian Rome.

[1] Ibid., 19-23, 33.

[2] Ibid., 36-37.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 39-45.


Joachim and Draper

A number of historians of the idea of progress trace the notion to the mystic Joachim of Floris (1131-1202). Karl Löwith, in his classic Meaning in History (1949), believed that Joachim had delineated a “new scheme of epochs and dispensations by which the traditional scheme of religious progress from Old to the New Testament became extended and superseded.” This new scheme is found in his work that came to be called the “Eternal Gospel,” which outlined three stages in history, the Age of the Father, Age of the Son, and Age of the Holy Spirit, corresponding with the Old Testament, New Testament, and an impending apocalyptic event, or eschaton.

Robert Nisbet, in his History of the Idea of Progress (1994), also saw in Joachim and his followers, the Joachimites, a combination of “belief in the necessity of a period of catastrophic violence to usher in the golden age on earth with a philosophy of cumulative, stage-by-stage progress from the past to the future.” Both Nisbet and Löwith explain how Joachim’s vision of history had unintended consequences, when Saint-Simon, Comte, and other positivists appropriated his vision for their own purposes.

Joachim had rejected the Church of his day as corrupt. His followers, the Spiritual Franciscans, or Fraticelli, also decried the corruptions of the Church.

I mention Joachim because about midway through his Intellectual Development of Europe (1863), Draper praised his “Everlasting Gospel.” He observed that “notwithstanding its heresy, the work displayed an enlarged and mastery conception of the history of progress of humanity.” Earlier in his book, Draper had also concurred with the Fraticelli when they claimed that the “fatal gift of a Christian emperor had been the doom of true religion.” According to Draper, the Spiritual Franciscans were reformers, and those generations who had survived the fires of the Inquisition became followers of Martin Luther.

Reinventing Christianity in the Nineteenth Century

Linda Woodhead - Reinventing ChristianityLinda Woodhead’s edited volume Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts (2001) is a group of portraits exhibiting the range of changes, adjustments, and initiatives in nineteenth-century Christianity. The collection, individually as well as collectively, eschews the standard assessment that Victorian Christianity was a religion in crisis. Its aim is to “introduce the most important varieties of Christianity in the Victorian era, and to consider their interactions with other aspects of western culture and society.”

After an extremely helpful introduction, this collection of essays offers a wide-ranging survey of the Victorian religious experience, beginning with the “Transcendent Christianity” of famous Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834-92), the ultramontanism of the nineteenth-century Catholic basilica of Notre Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, and the debates and controversy over confession in the Church of England. “Despite the immense emphasis on sin and damnation on the part of both ultramontane Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism,” Woodhead writes in her introduction, “neither was intended simply to engender fear and despair. On the contrary, their insistence on God’s transcendence and on human wretchedness served to intensify the need and longing for salvation.”

“Transcendent Christianity” is then contrasted with “Liberal Christianity and Alternative Spiritualities.” The following begins with an article on the world parliament of religions at Chicago in 1892, describing how the Unitarian triumphalism of its organizers was trumped by the representatives of eastern traditions, giving way to new forms of spirituality. According to Woodhead, although the rise of transcendent Christianity retained many believers, it also had the effect of alienating others. Those alienated by transcendent Christianity came to be classified as “liberal.” As Woodhead explains, “instead of viewing God as different and wholly other, liberalism affirms continuity and similarity between God and humanity. Christian liberals generally interpreted the doctrine of incarnation to mean both that there was something of the human in God, and something of the divine in human beings.” Liberals, then, were more optimistic, believing in the perfectibility of individuals and society, which often led them to a “strongly activist, ethical, and in some cases political stress” on Christianity. “Nowhere was Christian liberalism stronger than in the USA.”

The next essay then turns to the remarkable influence of Swedenborgianism, which “enjoyed a unique period of social and intellectual respectability after the 1840s.” Emanuel Swedeborg (1688-1772) is remembered as a seer, a mystic, a revelator or a theosopher by biographers. His reputation and influence rests on his authorship and his claims in the eighteen religious works he published between 1749 and 1771—from the Arcana Coelestia (1749-1756) to Vera Christiana Religio (1770-1771). He believed he was called to reveal the internal sense of the Bible and to announce a new “True” Christianity. During the nineteenth century, Swedenborgianism “helped bridge the gap between transcendent forms of Christianity and a purely inner spirituality; it offered a discourse in which key Victorian obsessions including death and ‘conjugal love’ could be articulated, and it offered a form of toleration towards other religions much greater than that which even liberal Protestantism could countenance.”

The final essay in this section discusses transcendentalists and Catholic converts in America, tracing the Catholic destinations of a number of Boston transcendentalists, including Orestes Brownson, Isaac Hecker, and Sophia Ripley, thereby showing how “radical spirituality could lead back to transcendent Christianity.”

Part two of the volume surveys some literary approaches in “Christianity and Literature,” going on to “Christianity and Gender,” before concluding with “Christianity and Science.” Particularly noteworthy is a chapter on the nineteenth-century roots of the religion of English novelist, poet, playwright, essayist, literary critic and painter D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). The Bible was central to Lawrence’s religiosity. Yet he rejected “traditional Christian uses of the Bible,” preferring the “radical reinterpreters of Christianity like the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the Biblical exegete Ernest Renan, and partly through the influence of representatives of alternative spirituality like Edward Carpenter and Madame Blavatsky (the founder of the Theosophical Society).” According to Woodhead, this chapter show “how challenges to Biblical authority from science and historical investigation did not necessarily lead to a straightforward choice between accepting or rejecting the Biblical text and the faith that rested on it”; questioning the authority of scripture more often led to a “disjunction between materialism, rationalism and literalism on the one hand, and more imaginative, poetic, aesthetic, open and creative modes of religious knowledge and interpretation on the other.”

Another essay discussing the astonishingly daring feminist theology of Florence Nightingale is worthy of notice. Nightingale is an example of “the remarkably subversive uses to which theology could be put in the hands of women.” According to Woodhead, Nightingale’s critique of contemporary Christianity and her radical reinterpretation of the Gospels can be said to “anticipate many of the achievements of feminist theology over a century later.”

The final section on Christianity and science begins by attacking the image of a “war” between the two and the way contrived master-narratives have contributed to misunderstanding. What is important for understanding science and the nineteenth century, says Woodhead, “is not the creation of a more adequate single story, but an investigation of why such stories came about, which contexts supported them, and whose interests they upheld.” The picture of Christianity in this chapter, as with the previous chapters, casts doubt on simplistic assertions about universal and inevitable secularization in the nineteenth century. “The sciences have never simply led to secularization. At issue has always been the cultural meaning to be placed on new forms of science” (my emphasis).

The following essay further contextualizes the “war” in terms of a new “knowledge class” seeking to rival the power of the clergy established in the universities, demonstrating that “the ideas of war between science and religion was a rhetorical strategy from the start.” An essay on influential and widely-ride naturalist and illustrator Philip Gosse (1810-1888) shows how far Edmund Gosse’s Father and son (1907) has misled the public into thinking he was a “scientific crackpot,” “bible-soaked romantic,” “a stern and repressive father,” and a “pulpit-thumping Puritan throwback to the seventeenth century.” In fact, writes Woodhead, “[Philip] Gosse was a severe critic of more optimistic forms of natural theology, his transcendent Protestantism leading him to emphasise both the fallenness of the created order and the greater authority of the Bible in matters pertaining to God.”

In her conclusion, Woodhead notes that the nineteenth century brought “unprecedented social, political, economic and cultural change,” and although Christianity was “profoundly affected by such change,” it was not “merely a passive victim of such forces.” “Christianity was actively and centrally involved in many of the most important cultural shifts and debates of the nineteenth century, and was transformed and reinvented in the process.” It responded by provoking, resisting, embracing, or selectively appropriating.