Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Say You Want An Evolution

What is it about Kansas and the Theory of Evolution? In 1999, the Kansas State Board of Education voted to stop requiring that students demonstrate knowledge of evolution on statewide achievement tests. This decision, since rescinded (but always subject to the vicissitudes of politics), had the unfortunate effect of casting Kansans, in the eyes of many, as a people mired in the past, with a nineteenth-century (or earlier) prejudice against science.

Indeed, for the Sunflower State, the debate between Darwinism and creationism is more than one hundred years old. And in the 1880s and 1890s, when the public discussion over evolution began to heat up, the Kansan most associated with the propriety of teaching it in the public schools was Francis Huntington Snow, KU’s fifth chancellor and its first professor of natural science. On January 30, 1894, he agreed to give a series of lectures on evolution through the University Extension program in Kansas City.

It is unclear when Snow first encountered the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, whose 1859 work, On The Origin of Species, shook the scientific world. Darwin concluded, “Species have been modified, during a long course of descent, chiefly through the natural selection of numerous successive, slight, favorable variations.” And furthermore, he stated that human beings gradually evolved from non-human ancestors, baldly contradicting the Book of Genesis account of God creating man in His own image. Theologians like Princeton’s Charles Hodge articulated the standard Christian response when he charged that Darwinism “is atheism and utterly inconsistent with the Scriptures. [The] denial of design in nature is virtually the denial of God.”

Such was the view of the science textbooks Frank Snow encountered while a student at Williams College from 1858 to 1862. These teachings, according to Snow’s biographer, Clyde Kenneth Hyder, “stressed the argument from design” and expounded an understanding of the natural world based upon “orthodox revelation.” After graduating from Williams and serving as a medical aid in the Union Army, Snow entered Andover Theological Seminary in 1864. There his instructors “blissfully ignored the encroachments of science and the new kinds of biblical criticism already well developed in Germany.” Upon graduation from Andover in 1866, Snow opted for the Congregational ministry and would have pursued a career in the clergy had not he learned from family friends about job openings at the new University of Kansas. That fall, he became professor of mathematics and natural science, one of the University’s first three faculty members.

During his first few years at KU, according to Hyder, Snow continued to preach regular sermons, “particularly to county congregations in the Kanwaka and Wakarusa communities in North Lawrence.” One noteworthy sermon, titled “Science and Revelation,” and delivered in June 1867, contained the firm assertion that “the God of the Bible and the God of Nature are one.” It did, however, contain slight diversions from orthodoxy that possibly foreshadowed greater heterodoxies to come. In that sermon, Snow mentioned favorably a theory suggesting that each of Creation’s “six days” could be periods of indefinite length, perhaps even geologic ages. Hyder notes that Snow also expressed interest in a theory professing that “the races of men did not all originate in Eden or from one source, an idea offensive in religious circles.”

That was the extent to which Snow was willing to question traditional Christian orthodoxy during his early professional years. His comments following a Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture in Lawrence in March 1867 are indicative of his still-strong attachment to his theological roots. In a lecture entitled “The Immortality of the Soul,” Snow commented that Emerson “made use of a vast amount of learning and said some striking and original things. I thought he gave evidence of holding the Darwinian theory of the development of the human race from the tadpole, and was pained to hear him speak of Confucius with as much respect as of Christ.”

It seems clear that during the 1860s and 1870s, Snow was familiar with Darwin’s theories and rejected them. As a natural science professor, he spent a great deal of time in the field observing, studying and collecting countless varieties of plants, birds, insects and reptiles, so he was not mulling over the theory in the abstract. He was also in periodic contact with fellow scientists. In the summer of 1874, for example, Snow attended the Anderson School of Natural History at Penikese Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Organized by Snow’s former professor at Williams, Louis Agassiz, the school aimed to promote the teaching of science and was essentially a continuing education program for college-level instructors. According to Hyder, evolution was the subject of contentious debate that summer. “The scientists at Penikese were debating the theory,” he said, “and … many had already accepted it.” Snow, however, had not.

The merits of Darwin’s theory of evolution began to weigh more heavily on Snow’s mind during the 1880s. From 1880 to 1885, Snow’s opinion apparently underwent a gradual metamorphosis. In 1880, he delivered his standard sermon on science and religion, which ran contrary to Darwin’s theories, for the last time. His biographer, Hyder, has cited contemporary evidence from one of Snow’s former students who, in 1885, “was surprised to learn that Snow’s views [on evolution] had changed” from the stance he had taken a year earlier. In fact, a number of former students recalled Snow including the theory of evolution in his natural science courses during the mid-to-late 1880s, until he became the University’s chancellor in 1891. There is no indication, however, that his undergraduate lectures incited any serious degree of controversy.

The controversy began three years into Snow’s tenure as chancellor. On January 30, 1894, he told his friend and colleague Vernon Kellogg that, “I am now booked for a course of six University Extension lectures on Evolution at Kansas City, Missouri. These are to be given in the new high school auditorium and 500 tickets have already been taken for the course…. I have bought over fifty books on Evolution,” he added, “which will enable me to present the subject more thoroughly.” Such lectures had been given by a number of KU faculty members from different disciplines since the University Extension program began in 1891. Snow’s lectures on evolution, however, given in 1894 and 1895, were the most popular – or, perhaps more accurately, the most heavily attended.

By this time, Snow had moved far away from the beliefs of his Andover days, the most significant change being in his conception of Jesus Christ. A letter he wrote to a Fort Wayne, Indiana, minister in April 1893 provides the clearest window into his personal theological shift. “I recognize in Jesus of Nazareth the most perfect character in history…. I recognize in the Bible a record of the religious development of the human race culminating in the glorious personality of Jesus Christ, and I believe that its pages contain the truths essential to salvation.” Here Snow cannot go so far as to declare Jesus Christ the Son of God, but merely praises him as the moral exemplar for (not the Savior of) mankind. The Bible “contains” essential truths, but is not Truth itself. According to Hyder, Snow began to affirm, “No good can come from overlooking inconsistencies and absurdities due to human authorship.” In other words, fallible men wrote the Bible; it was not the infallible, revealed Word of God.

However, as many post-Darwinian scholars and theologians were doing at this time, Snow was attempting to reconcile evolution with traditional Christianity, to “assimilate the new truth to the old,” as Hyder put it. He found it useless to suppress basic human reason and man’s faculties of observation and conjecture, yet he certainly saw the wonders of the natural world and the harmony of the universe as creations of a benevolent God. In a paper entitled “The Wise and Fearless Use of Truth,” Snow wrote that, “If any man thinks he approves himself to God when he does violence to his reason and moral sense, he gravely misconceives God’s character.”

Within this intellectual and theological reconciliation, Snow differed from staunch defenders of Darwinism, such as T.H. Huxley. He lamented in September 1894 that Huxley “has a bias against Christianity and [thus, his books] should be used with caution. His Evolution is O.K. but some of his anti-religious speculations are rather dubious.” From 1894 to 1895, Snow received and responded to a flurry of letters questioning, even attacking, his views on evolution. Yet he always took pains to assure people that “evolution is fully in accordance with the Scriptures and with Christianity.”

When people attending his lectures charged him with atheism (as often happened), Snow explained that he was not “setting aside the doctrine of a Divine creator of all things. The question is simply as to God’s method of creation. Was it by an instantaneous act in each case or was it by a long process?” He told another correspondent, “the structure of my own mind is such that I cannot account for the origination of the first germ of life without an omnipotent cause of all things. It is a law of biology,” he informed her, “that every living thing must have had a living cause and the cause of all things is the Creator himself.”

Despite Snow’s repeated assurances to the contrary, some area residents came to consider him both an atheist and a bad influence on impressionable students. For example, on April 30, 1894, a sermon by Rev. J.O.B. Lowry of Calvary Baptist Church of Kansas City, attacking Snow’s evolution lectures, appeared in the Kansas City Times. “It requires more credulity,” said Rev. Lowry, “to believe that man and the ape sprang from the same root or primordial germ than to believe that man was made in the image of his Creator.” While Lowry mischaracterized many of Snow’s arguments, his primary concern was that evolutionists (even “Christian Evolutionists” as Snow fancied himself) were placing man above God and seeing “survival of the fittest as the new gospel.” “Why worship the created,” he asked, “when the Creator is standing by?”

And in a February 14, 1895, letter to the Centralia Journal, Mr. A.J. Coe stated flatly, “Chancellor Snow is not a Christian. He denies the divinity of Jesus Christ.” Coe went on to indict Snow for contributing to sparse chapel attendance and a general weakening of the religiosity of KU students. “It is not denied that there are Christian professors, or that there are Christian students [at KU], but it is denied that there is any such thing as may fairly be called a Christian life…. Unless a student when he comes there is rooted and grounded in his religious belief, his Christian life does not last on an average of more than six weeks…. Students may be religious there but not through any influences of the University.”

Yet Snow, while always courteous, was never apologetic. He saw it as his duty to present the Theory of Evolution to his students and his audiences, not to hide it from them. According to Hyder, Snow’s lectures “helped hundreds of people … to readjust their religious views. Looking back upon their college careers, some graduates found Snow’s religious faith one of their most inspiring memories. He seemed to them, too, to be a man who incorporated the essence of the religious spirit.” His love of nature, and of Nature’s God, was sublime indeed.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: The single best resource for information on Francis Snow is Clyde Kenneth Hyder, Snow of Kansas, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1953). For his views on evolution, see pp. 111-112, 150-151, and 229-241. Also, Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1978), pp. 82, 92, 162-220; on the University Extension program, see specifically pp. 244-251. A great number of primary source documents dealing with Snow’s tenure as faculty member and chancellor, including sermons, speeches, and letters, can be found in the Francis H. Snow Papers, University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library.]