An address delivered before the Eumenean and Philanthropic Societies of Davidson College excerpted from the printed version in Southern Presbyterian Review in 1852.

Introduction

The universal church of the future – from the present religious outlook / J. Keppler.
Joseph Ferdinand, Puck Magazine: 1883 January 10. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-28353.

Palmer’s address shows that the relationship between science and revelation was an issue well before Darwin published Origin of Species. In antebellum America, geology was already casting doubt on the literal truth of the story of creation in the Bible because recent discoveries had caused scientists to conclude that the earth was much older than the Biblical account suggested. In the face of these growing doubts, Palmer argued that there could not be any conflict between revelation and science because God was the author of both the Bible and nature. He reinforced this assertion by arguing that it was the Bible, restored to its authority by the Reformation, that made modern science possible. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) reformed science—indeed, invented modern or true science—just as Luther and Calvin reformed religion because true science and true religion share a number of fundamental principles and characteristics, according to Palmer. Once the reformation established these, true science could flourish. For example, both religion and science should be more than idle chatter (as they were in the Middle Ages, Palmer contends); they should result in charitable or productive acts, such as clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.

Palmer’s account should be read in conjunction with John Quincy Adams’s explanation of the causes and consequences of the Declaration of Independence. Adams argued that the reformation was necessary for the development of free government; Palmer that it was necessary for the development of true science. The practical effects of reformed religion, its support for human freedom and its encouragement of a useful, productive life, were central elements of the Protestant establishment that dominated America until late in the nineteenth century. When reading Palmer’s assertion that “one infinite, designing and governing mind presides over all the phenomena of nature,” we should recall the passage in Beecher’s sermon on Holiness in which he says that when we attain holiness God transfers his certainty to us. Taken together, these claims help us understand the power of the social reform movement in antebellum America. It believed it had cosmic support; that mind could govern human society as it governed the universe. This is the view against which Lincoln contended in the Temperance Address. He argued in that speech, in effect, that while the rule of mind over nature may be a metaphysical truth, it is not for that reason also a practical or political truth.

Palmer’s Address

We1 live in an age distinguished by the wide diffusion of scientific knowledge. This results from the independent labors of two distinct classes of minds. Beside the great masters of thought, whose inventive genius gives birth to systems of philosophy, has sprung up a race of interpreters, who translate the mystic Cabala2 of the learned into the common dialect of mankind.…

The second class, to whom this dissemination of knowledge must be ascribed, will embrace a nobler order of minds, whose aim is not to translate great thoughts, but to reproduce them in other forms. They are not engaged in the discovery, but in the application, of truths. They find science occupied with experiment and hypothesis as instruments to establish some theoretic principle; but the principle, when demonstrated, they embody in some practical invention.…

The profound thinkers, who open the sluices of human knowledge … never regard their first generalizations as final truths, but as successive rounds in the ascending ladder of science—processes for the elimination of mysteries still concealed. They authenticate no conclusions, till the widest induction has been reached, and the last analysis has been made. Nor, on the other hand, do theologians, who have measured the full argument of inspiration, flout or dread the growing discoveries of science. He who gave the Bible built the universe, and His voice must be heard in the utterances of both. If science lifts a theory against the inspired record, they calmly wait till a larger induction shall blend these discords into the melody of truth.… Philosophers know the history of science too well as a long record of conjectures to be verified, and of mistakes to be corrected: a wholesome recollection of which forbids the too positive assertion of hostile theories which may soon require to be vacated. Theologians know Christianity not only as a record, but as a life. For eighteen centuries, she has turned the edge of every sword and blunted the point of every spear, that have rung upon her harness. Even when struck with the leprosy of error, her inherent life has thrown off the hideous scales and “her flesh has come again like the flesh of a little child.”3 What has this invulnerable and immortal system to dread in the encounter with human wisdom?…

These preliminary observations open a pathway into the present discourse. This alleged opposition of science and revelation, we wish to confront with one great historical fact: that the only philosophy which has given to the world a true physical and intellectual science, is itself the product of Protestant Christianity. This fact, if established, concludes debate.… If in the scriptures we find the genesis of that philosophy which gives the world its only true science, there can be no antagonism in the case. It will devolve upon us, therefore, to show the radical deficiency of the science and psychology possessed by the ancients, until the inductive method was fully expounded by Sir Francis Bacon; and then to show the historical and logical connection between his philosophy and the Christian scriptures.…

But what is science in its broadest import? … It is when the various processes of observation and arrangement, of hypothesis and experiment, of induction and generalization, have been successfully gone through; and when the secret powers, both near and remote, which underlie the outward and tangible, have been detected, that science, in robes of majesty, ascends the throne she may never abdicate. The Greek philosophy was entirely barren of fruits like these. In its whole course, no universal and pervading laws were proclaimed, such as those which have immortalized the names of Kepler and of Newton. It had therefore no key to unlock the cabinet in which Nature treasures her mysteries, and the baffled curiosity of mankind labored vainly in the search of her undiscovered secrets.…

The great vice of their physical science was the unchastened use of the speculative faculty. Not content with the relative knowledge of properties and qualities and the fundamental laws under which these are developed, they indulged the presumptuous hope of penetrating, by one transcendental effort of thought, into the essence of matter.… The inevitable result of which was a laborious trifling with words of equivocal import, and overwhelming the facts of science with petty and barren speculations.…

As in physics, men ceased to inquire about properties in the presumptuous hope to compass the knowledge of essence: so in metaphysics, the search was after abstract being and the whole science of ontology, to the neglect and disparagement of the facts of their inward consciousness. How opposed this psychology and its method of inquiry are to that productive philosophy which has been advocated by the English and Scotch metaphysicians, it is almost superfluous to remark. Bacon taught the true method of inquiry in all science to be inductive, the reverse of that a priori method pursued by the ancients. This mighty Reformer called men off from transcendental inquiries to observe and to classify facts; to ascend carefully through more comprehensive generalizations, till the most general axioms are arrived at.…

But if these barren results alone repay our gloomy search into the ancient systems which at least were fresh with the dew of original thought, what must we expect from the middle ages, when philosophy in her dotage drivels in all the absurdities of the schoolmen?4 During the long interval between Archimedes and Galileo, no solid contribution was made to science. Mind, though sufficiently active, was occupied with studies so utterly trivial as to exhaust it of productive power.… In metaphysical reasoning, all calm and patient thought was drowned in the din and clatter of dialectic wrangling. The barbarous scholastic jargon stuns the ear, and the brain whirls in the struggle to recognize as entities what before were only abstract conceptions. Substantial forms and essences, quantities and qualities and quiddities, formalities, realities, and individualities, dance in fantastic motion before the mind, like sprites and fairies in a mid-summer’s night dream.…

Compare now with these chaffy speculations the extension and rich discoveries of modern science. It is needless to enumerate them, for they lie all around us, and are in contact with the humblest minds:—blessings not within the monopoly of wealth, but freely dispensed to the poor, whose comforts they increase, and the laborer, whose toils they abridge. As one has described it, it is “the philosophy of utility, the philosophy of lightning rods, of steam engines, safety lamps, spinning jennies, and cotton gins—the philosophy which has clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and healed the sick—the philosophy of peace, which is converting the sword into the pruning hook, and the spear into the ploughshare.”5 It is a philosophy which, while applying her principles to useful and practical ends, does not pause in the career of investigation and discovery. With relentless purpose, she still pursues Nature through all her departments; who cannot retreat into deeper mysteries without yielding her discovered secrets to this resistless interrogation.… This “philosophy of utility” walks henceforth upon the two equal legs of discovery and application. While perfecting her researches, discovering by stricter analysis the original elements of matter, and unfolding the laws of their combination, she at the same time reduces every new fact to practical use. At the very moment she is discussing the nature of electricity, and testing, if possible, its identity with heat and magnetism, she is also stretching the telegraphic wires over mountain peaks and under the ocean’s bed, converting the world into one great whispering gallery—where distant nations over continents and seas exchange thoughts of the passing hour.…

It is not our purpose to inquire into the causes of difference between the garrulous and disputatious philosophy of antiquity and the practical and remunerative science of our day.… But we wish you to note the historical line of separation between the two. Until the moment when Sir Francis Bacon expounded the inductive method of inquiry, and exposed the baldness of all a priori researches into nature, there was no comprehensive science in the world. For two thousand years, the great problems of physical and mental science went unresolved. Men stood rooted, like statues, to the earth “their nerves all chained up in alabaster,”6 or else, bound up in the fetters of a stony logic and balancing in the endless seesaw of the syllogism. But in the 17th century arose the great intellectual Reformer, who, snatching the wand from the hands of the Stagyrite,7 freed science forever from the enchantments of the wizard.

The date of this new and practical philosophy reads a lesson to those who shamelessly represent scripture and science as irreconcilably at feud. What says history to this? Why, that up to the Christian epoch, and before the revelation of God was either completed or made the inheritance of mankind, philosophy lay in swaddling clothes, rocking and sleeping in her cradle … that during the dark ages, when the Bible was banished into convents and only read there at the end of a rusty chain, philosophy in her slumber raved as one troubled with the nightmare and cannot awake—that at length God, in compassion for man’s blindness and misery, sent Wiclif, and Huss, and Jerome,8 as forerunners of one greater that should come after: and again he sent Copernicus, and Galileo, and Tycho Brahe, as heralds of another style of monarch—that when Luther entered the pantheon of popery, and shattered the idols of the Church, just one century later another Iconoclast arose who smote the “idols of the tribe,” and of “the den,” of “the market” and of “the theatre,” in the temple of science—and that Tindal’s translation of the English Bible preceded by nearly one hundred years the publication of the Novum Organon.9 What does history say more? Why, that up to this hour there is no country unenlightened by the Bible, whose darkness is penetrated by the rays of science—that there is no land in which the suppression or corruption of the scriptures does not prove, in an equal degree, the suppression or corruption of philosophy—and that where genius has been most sanctified by its contact with divine truth, has science found her noblest votaries, and gained her proudest laurels. A recent writer10 has quaintly enough affirmed that coal is a Protestant formation, since by a singular providential distribution, this mighty agent of civilization and element of political wealth, is possessed almost exclusively by the Christian and Protestant nations of the earth. It might profit some of our dilettanti philosophers gravely to consider what it is that has bound Biblical Christianity and the inductive philosophy and Anglo Saxonism together for the past two hundred years—and whether it is this conjunction of the Bible and Science that has put this race, like ancient Judah, in the leadership of modern nations. At any rate, let this authenticated fact, that the Bible, throughout all history, has been the precursor of genuine philosophy, decree the just doom of him who still persists that they are foes.

These rapid and suggestive touches are sufficient to trace out the historical connection between the Baconian philosophy and Christianity, as agencies intended by God for the elevation of mankind. That there is also a natural affinity between the two, we might safely infer from their constant conjunction. But it will not be difficult to show why this philosophy should be the philosophy of Protestantism; and we enter upon this final track of thought the more readily, inasmuch as it will afford the more abundant illustration, that Revelation, so far from being inimical to science, contributes a powerful incidental influence in its favor.

1. The Theologian and the Inductive Philosopher proceed on similar principle in the construction of their respective systems. The materials of science lie scattered in the utmost disorder through the broad fields of Nature—here a rose and there a star. The business of the philosopher is to collect these, as a printer would his types, and put them together on an intelligible page. As he ascends in his generalizations, phenomena the most unlike are grouped in the same class; mere outward analogies are disregarded, and secret affinities are detected, until at length he reaches formulas expressing the great principles upon which nature acts. The key to the cypher once found, nature comes to be read like a great folio; on every leaf a new science, and its various chapters unfolding the history of Providence.

The materials of theology indeed are not gathered precisely in the same way by observation and experiment, but are given immediately by Revelation. Nevertheless, the revelation is not made in a logical and systematic form, but in the most fragmentary and undigested manner. Its doctrines are strong in magnificent profusion though the histories, narratives, poems, epistles, predictions, of the Bible—given sometimes in the form of ethical precepts, and sometimes in the more elaborate form of logical argument. The same patience, and diligence, and caution are required in ranging up and down the Record, as in surveying Nature: the theologian collates his passages as the philosopher collects his facts, and by analogy constructs his divinity as the latter builds up his science.…

2. A second feature of resemblance, or point of contact, between the two, is the faith which lies at the foundation of both. The Bible reveals the existence of God, but who can know the Almighty unto perfection? … It demands a testimony which it remits to the most searching scrutiny of impartial and enlightened reason; and then it receives as fact what perhaps may never be compassed as knowledge. But does not faith lie as truly at the foundation of science? The first great injunction of the Inductive Philosophy is faith in well authenticated facts. As reason examines the evidences of a revelation that faith may rest upon a divine testimony, so sense scrutinizes the phenomena of Nature that philosophy may have her facts. These facts, however inexplicable, are received upon their own evidences: and upon this faith, science proceeds to classify them, and finally to eliminate the powers by which they were produced. Thus faith in what is unknown, yet fully attested, is the necessary antecedent of all scientific research and philosophical analysis.…

3. A third particular in which the Bible exerts its influence upon philosophy, is by stirring the human intellect, and preserving it from relapsing into apathy. There are obviously two conditions to be fulfilled in all search after knowledge; these must be first the object, and then the organ, of inquiry. As in optics, there must be the material universe, and the open eye; so in philosophy there must be the objective truth and the awakened intellect. If the latter be wanting, there may be truth, but there cannot be knowledge. Now the mind can never stagnate in countries where the Bible lifts up its strong and solemn voice. It announces truths of the first interest to man. It tells of God, what His glories and perfections are—of the creative power by which He brought all things into being, and of the providential care with which he sustains them. It teaches man what he himself is, partly matter, and partly spirit—explains the mysteries of his earthly lot, what is the source of all his blessings, and the spring of all his sorrows. It speaks of law and accountability, of sin and redemption, of atonement and pardon, of holiness and bliss. It throws a gleam of light into the shadowy land of death, and reveals another state of existence, with its solemn conditions. It enumerates all the relations of human society, and prescribes the duties of each. These topics, moreover, are such as must command the attention of men. There is a congeniality between them and our religious nature, by which they must be received and retained, as the materials both of worship and of thought. From this congruity between our religious consciousness and the spiritual truths taught in the Bible, the latter cannot but arouse the intellect even from its deepest slumbers.…

A ray of revelation lights up the edge of some unsearchable mystery, which, like the fringe of gold that the setting sun places on the border of a somber cloud, kindles the imagination to paint the glories hid within its dark ground. Thus incidentally does the Bible lend aid to philosophy, by sharpening the instrument with which all her researches are to be prosecuted.

4. A fourth advantage accrues to philosophy from the complete information afforded on all moral subjects, by which the mind is released to pursue the studies of science. No one can peruse the speculative writings of the ancients without perceiving how these were intermixed with their theological inquiries. What God is … and kindred inquiries were the absorbing themes upon which the speculative genius of antiquity wasted its strength. From what has before been said of man’s religious constitution, it will appear, that until they were answered, all other subjects must be kept largely in abeyance. Yet without a special revelation, what data exist from which the solution of these problems may be drawn….? Upon these subjects, however, the Bible pronounces with all the authority of God. A divine testimony reduces conjecture into knowledge, and opinion into faith. The mind is released from the torture of doubt, as well as from the agony of unbelief: with its systems of Theology and morality constructed, it can turn to reap the knowledge which may be gathered from the fields of science.…

5. Revelation does not confine itself to these indirect methods of benefiting science. It reveals the uniform laws of God’s moral government, and thereby hints to science her true province, that of tracing and expounding the fundamental laws of the physical universe.…

If there be one idea, more absolutely a reigning idea, in the scriptures, it is that of Law—law written upon man’s heart, defining his moral relations—law, whose transgression placed him under the dominion of guilt and death—law, whose demands, inflexible, because just, cannot be realized, but requiring, in the sinner’s salvation, all that is involved in the terms atonement and sacrifice. Like the higher generalizations of the inductive philosophy, the Bible extends the empire of law, until its jurisdiction shall embrace angels in their unspotted holiness, and devils in their guilt and despair.

Now this conception of law, embodying the will and operations of one supreme and intelligent being, is the germ of all true science.… As one infinite, designing and governing mind presides over all the phenomena of nature, there must be perfect harmony in all her parts. The philosopher having confidence in the certainty of these connections, and in the energizing power of God, argues boldly from effect to cause.…

6. But the Bible contains within itself the highest philosophy. Its subject is man, in the full exercise of all his powers, and exhibited in all the relations which he can sustain.… Is there no philosophy in this? And what finer scope is there for the speculative faculty than to analyze human actions, the compound results of thought and emotion—to detect the processes through which the mind is carried, from the first dawn of light upon it till the volition is consummated in the overt act?….

What philosophy is more comprehensive than that of government and law? Yet the Bible reveals both upon the grandest scale, as God administers them over moral beings in heaven and upon earth. It reveals both, not only in the didactic exposition which we find in statutes and ordinances, especially as summed up in that comprehensive compend known as the Decalogue; but illustrated and enforced by that diffuse commentary running through the whole of sacred history, the narratives and biographies of the inspired volume. We cease then to wonder that the fathers of a true speculative philosophy were not born before the Bible was drawn forth from its concealment. For while this blessed book was given to teach something far better than either philosophy or science; and while … no physical error can be found upon its pages, because its language is discreetly framed to adapt it to the growing discoveries of science, yet even the Bible cannot do its higher office of inculcating religion without at least insinuating philosophy.…

We thus discover the relations of true science to revelation. There never could have been a Bacon without the Bible. The world travailed long and anxiously, giving birth to many philosophers; but Francis Bacon was the offspring of the Reformation, doing that for philosophy which Luther had before done for religion. The one brought out the Bible and read it aloud to the nations: the other brought out the older volume of Nature and interpreted its cypher to mankind.…

…But error will never cease its struggles to usurp the throne and to sit in the temple of truth until “the Lord shall consume it by the brightness of his coming.” The dapper infidelity of our day sits, with a spruce and jaunty air, in the halls of science and in the chairs of philosophy. Too bland and nice ever to distort its features with a sneer, a smile of vanity ever lurking upon its lips, it simply handles its fossils and ignores the Bible. Putting on its wise spectacles, it reads off, from Egyptian monuments and Chinese records, the world’s chronology in millions and billions of years, just as calmly as though God had never written a book, in which was set down the age of man.… Would Bacon have done so? … [W]ould he have excluded any verse of scripture, because forsooth this was meant to teach religion and not science? No! the very genius of the inductive philosophy forbids the exclusion of a single pertinent fact from its generalizations, from whatever quarter the fact may come. The philosophy, therefore, which will ignore the Bible, and cancel its testimony, is not only baptized into the spirit of infidelity, but has apostatized from the fundamental articles of the Baconian creed. The union of these two depends upon affinities which cannot be destroyed. If, then, science proclaims a theory seemingly at variance with scripture, the alternative is plainly this: Either the interpretation of scripture is wrong, or else science has made a blunder. If the former, as we have no a priori scheme of interpretation, we are willing to correct our errors by any light which can be turned upon the sacred volume. If the latter, we wait till science shall gather other facts and make a truer induction. By the one or the other method, the two must eventually harmonize in their teachings. But when the theologian employs the facts of science in aiding his interpretations of scripture, he manifests a confidence in the inductive principle, and puts to shame the philosopher who refuses to employ the facts of scripture in generalizing the conclusions of science.

It is with an earnest purpose we labor to establish the harmony of scripture and science. For if they are made antagonists, and science build up its glory upon the ruins of revelation, the issue joined is most appalling. There is no system, either of philosophy or science, which rests upon such various and satisfactory evidences as the Bible. There is no system which has stood for ages as the Bible has done, impregnable against the most furious and preserving assaults. If, then, you shake my faith in it, you destroy belief in every thing. If science turns upon me her discoveries, sweeping away in their ruthless current that system which met all the wants of my nature, and which I had supposed to rest upon immovable foundations, upon what that is firmer and better attested can my faith fall back? … Destroy my faith in the scriptures of God, resting upon higher and broader evidence than every thing else, and you launch me upon a sea of doubt which has neither bottom nor shore. Steering by no chart, guided by no compass, wafted by no breezes, without observation of the stars or sounding of the deep, with no haven in prospect, without cargo to lose or save, with eyes, but nothing to see, and ears, but nothing to hear, without aim and without heart, I drift a wandering wreck, in hopeless Pyrrhonism,11till death’s vortex swallow me in eternal night. From such a doom reason shrinks back aghast.… Oh, give me not over to the doom of cherishing forever the instinct of faith, with nothing to believe; nourishing powers of reason, with nothing to demonstrate; conscious of an understanding, with nothing to know; and feeling the movements of passion, with nothing to love or to hate.

Such are the appalling consequences of this momentous issue to all who have once been persuaded of the inspiration of the scriptures. Those, indeed, who are content to abide in the solitudes and mists of a dreary deism, may experience no such shock. But all who have gone round about the Bible as the citadel of revealed truth, and have “marked her bulwarks” and “counted her towers,” will have nothing left for hope or faith, when philosophy has put this in siege, and science has razed it to the ground. The harmony of science with revelation might be shown in detail, by a particular comparison of the established truths of both. But such a line of proof requires a minuteness of learning which few, outside the Professor’s chair, may expect to command. This discourse gives, in two words—Baconianism and the Bible—a portable argument paralyzing the skeptic with the shock of the torpedo. The Baconian philosophy is the mother of that proud science which sheds such glory upon the age in which we live; and this philosophy, as already shown, has historical and logical connections with the Bible, the charter of our religious hopes. We may rest, therefore, in the conviction that as the Bible has conferred the largest benefits upon philosophy, true science will yet repay it with the largest gratitude. Kindling her torch at every light between a glowworm and a star, she will read to us “the silent poem of creation.” She will appear, like an ancient priestess, in the sacred temple of religion; and burn the frankincense of all her discoveries upon the altar of inspired truth. She will assemble the elements and powers of Nature in one mighty orchestra, and revelation shall give the key-note of praise, while heaven and earth join in the rehearsal of the grand oratorio.

Study Questions...

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Does Palmer’s article draw a connection, even implicitly, between science and the Declaration of Independence? If so, what is the connection? How does Palmer argue that the Reformation and modern science are alike? What is the status of the Bible for Palmer?

Compare...

Compare Palmer’s account of science and religion to Youmans’ and Hall’s. How do they differ? Are the alike in any ways?

Notes

1 Excerpted from the printed version in Southern Presbyterian Review, 6(1852), 226-253.

2 Cabala or Kabbalah is a mystical explanation of the relationship between eternity and the temporal universe.

3 2 Kings 5:14.

4 Medieval philosophers.

5 Samuel Tyler, Discourse on Baconian Philosophy (1844).

6 An allusion to John Milton’s Comus.

7 A nickname for Aristotle, who was born in Stagira.

8 Wiclif or Wycliffe and Huss were early reformers.  Jerome translated the Bible into Latin.

9 Bacon’s account of the new science.

10 Hollis Read, “The Hand of God in History,” (Hartford: H. E. Robbins, 1852), p. 49.

11 An extreme skepticism, first formulated in the work of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho.