Friday, 21 July 2017

Two Creationists, Christian sects, and religious tolerance

Philip Henry Gosse (1810-1888) and Francis Orpen Morris (1810-1893) were two of the most well-known Natural Historians of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Gosse is famous as the populariser of aquaria, the use of microscopes, and the observation of marine organisms on the shore; Morris for his works on moths, butterflies and birds, and also for his campaigns against fox hunting, vivisection and much else besides. Both had biographies written by their sons [1,2] and it is from these that we know much about the two men.

Henry Gosse (above) was the son of a painter of miniatures and, as a young man, was sent to work as a clerk in Newfoundland, returning to England after travelling to Alabama where he held a teaching post. He was interested in insects as a boy and was introduced to shore life by a knowledgeable aunt. Like Gosse, Morris (below) was also very interested in Natural History as a boy, but his background was rather more privileged, being the son of a Royal Navy officer (who became an Admiral) and going on to study Classics at Oxford University. On graduation, Morris was ordained in the Church of England and progressed to be rector of Nunburnholme from 1854-1893 [3]. From this small village in the Yorkshire Wolds, Morris kept up a correspondence on many topics and he was an enthusiastic pamphleteer, best known today for attacking Darwinism and, especially, Darwin's On the origin of species [3].

Having returned from North America, Henry Gosse was a schoolmaster and also wrote books, the first being based on his experience in Canada and published by Van Voorst. This was followed by a number of other publications, most of which he illustrated, having acquired the skills and training of an artist from his father (the plates in Morris's books were by others). Eventually, Gosse became recognised and he was able to live off his work as an author and lecturer, settling in Torquay from 1857-1888. He was a devout non-conformist and he produced his book Omphalos [4] as an "attempt to untie the geological knot": the conflict between geological periods of time and the account of Creation in The Bible. Although written in London, Omphalos was published soon after Henry moved to Torquay and this was two years before the publication of Darwin's famous book. Gosse's thesis was that geological time periods, strata and fossils were all likely to be real but that they were created at the time the Earth and all organisms came into existence. Needless to say, this idea was not met with any enthusiasm by either the scientific or religious communities [5] and Gosse continued his work in Natural History, making many outstanding contributions.

Both men were Christians and Creationists, but I wonder whether they would have enjoyed each other's company if they met (I cannot find a record that they did so, and both travelled little in their mature years). Gosse was shy, but this did not stop him proselytising his views if he had the chance. He was an evangelical Christian with a profound belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent, something that strongly influenced his thinking. He was intolerant of Catholicism and always referred to the village in which he lived as Marychurch, rather than St Marychurch (its proper title), as he objected to the use of the term saint in the Catholic tradition [5]. Morris had equally strong views about the practice of religion, but these centred on the need for the traditions of the Church of England. On the organisation of religion, then, the two men are likely to have clashed – would their mutual love of Natural History and the evidence it provided constantly to them of Divine Creation have enabled them to celebrate together? Somehow, I doubt it. Yet, if there weren't religious differences to get in the way, one can imagine Gosse and Morris talking for hours about the boyhood collection of insects, their love of birds and all manner of other Natural History.

Henry Gosse's religious views provided difficulties in his relations with Edmund, his son and biographer and these led Edmund to write Father and Son, published anonymously in 1907. In contrast, Morris's son not only became ordained in the Church of England, but also followed his father as the Rector of Nunburnholme. Both "official" biographies written by the sons are factual and, in parts, affectionate, but Father and Son is rather different. It paints Henry Gosse as being intolerant of Edmund's views and he was always encouraging him to return to the values of the Brethren that Henry believed in so profoundly. The result of Henry's unshakeable beliefs was thus alienation from the scientific world and also from his only child. It all seems so unnecessary, especially as he was such a splendid enthusiast for Nature. Having asked whether Morris and Gosse would have enjoyed each other's company, I'm tempted to ask whether I would get on well with either of them. I like to think that the answer is yes, but I'm not sure. Religious belief has a way of becoming so intrusive and damaging.

It is not far-fetched to suggest that both Gosse and Morris had a Christian faith that made them isolated and narrowly focussed and which provided challenges from the scientific developments occurring in the mid-Nineteenth century. Their faith was the most important thing in their lives and they believed in all that was written in the Bible, yet their preferences in form of worship were different and neither was likely to budge from their position. As a non-Christian, that is something I find difficult to understand, yet it has been a feature of the Christian religion, with its many schisms and formation of splinter groups. As there must be one God and one Heaven, I am puzzled about the inability of some Christians to agree and to believe that their version of the faith is the only true one.

To gain some insight, I looked up the website of the Evangelical Alliance to find out if we are now living in an age of greater tolerance. In a piece entitled "Should we all go to one Church? What denominations mean for unity" Amaris Cole begins by introducing two questions [6]:

Anglican. Baptist. Brethren. Assemblies of God. Vineyard. Elim. Newfrontiers. Foursquare. The list goes on. There are many churches in the United Kingdom, all with their own worship styles, preaching practices and theological frameworks. But if we're aiming for unity as evangelicals, is it a problem that we are split down denominational lines? Shouldn't we all go to one Church?

One of the five respondents, Alexandra Davis, replied as follows [6]:  

God created us in diversity, with differences in style on so many levels – learning, worshipping, fellowshipping, communing. I suspect if we all went to one Church we'd just end up in a very mono-cultural way of doing things. Meeting with God and other Christians in a diversity of ways is one way of bringing glory to the creator God whose imagination is beyond anything we could... imagine. We could, of course, get a bit better at being more accepting of difference, keeping a check on how valuable our particular preferences really are, and making more.. ..effort to cross those diversity lines. We will be one Church in heaven so we might as well start practising for the perfection now.

Alexandra implies that the various sects and branches of Christian practice derive from differences inherent in human individuals and society. In advocating tolerance between sects (as I believe she is doing) she will attract the wrath of those like Gosse and Morris who were firmly of the opinion that only their version of Christianity was the correct one. Also, what are evangelical Christians proselytising if it is not their own personal version (usually shared by a few others) of belief?

Of course, if religions are the result of human imagination, one could understand it all. It must be difficult to be a Christian believer and face the questions that Amaris poses.

[1] Edmund Gosse (1896) The Naturalist of the Sea-shore: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse. London, William Heinemann.

[2] M. C. F. Morris (1897) Francis Orpen Morris : A Memoir. London, John C. Nimmo.

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: An attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst,

[5] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810 – 1888. London, Faber and Faber.

The illustration of Christian worship above is taken from

1 comment:

  1. Now this is some information which was not known to me, i am going to look for more information and hope it will be worth visiting it. Thanks for sharing it