Simon Newcomb and An Advertisement for a New Religion

The North American Review was established in Boston in 1815 by co-founder and first editor William Tudor (1779-1830). The first issue was in fact almost written entirely by Tudor.  Wanting to establish literary independence from Great Britain, Tudor designed the magazine to include strong literary intelligence, book reviews, reports of leading cultural societies, and inaugural addresses from elite universities, particularly from Harvard.

Changes to the structure of the Review came with new editors. Jared Sparks (1789-1866), appointed editor in 1817, introduced travel and history essays to the magazine. His editorship, however, lasted only a single year, as he resigned at the end of 1817 to take a pastorate of the Unitarian Church in Baltimore.

Under his successor, Edward T. Channing (1790-1856), brother of the famous Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), the Review discarded news notes, general essays, and poetry. Channing attempted to imitate more and more the literary reviews of England. But like Sparks, Channing’s editorship lasted only a year before he resigned. He was replaced with a young professor of Greek from Harvard, Edward Everett (1794-1865), who was also a popular Unitarian minister. Under his editorship the Review grew in circulation and popularity.

Sparks returned to the Review in 1824, when he purchased the magazine and thus became its chief editor and owner. Under his continued influence the magazine returned mostly to American topics. In 1830 Sparks sold the Review to Alexander H. Everett (1792-1847), brother of Edward Everett. Under his leadership the magazine reached new heights. He included articles and reviews on both American politics and European affairs.

In 1836 the magazine once again changed hands. Everett, immersed in politics during his editorship, sold his holdings in the Review to John Gorham Palfrey (1796-1881), yet another Unitarian minister. During his term, Palfrey introduced to the American public the writings of Emerson, Bowen, Holmes, Hawthorne, Whittier, Longfellow, Dana, Poe and others.

The next three decades several new editors came and went, including Francis Bowen, Andrew P. Peabody, James Russell Lowell, Henry Adams, and Charles Allen Thorndike Rice. With Rice (1851-1889) the Review reached a new turning point. When he was appointed editor in 1876, he brought the magazine (now a monthly) into a maelstrom of controversy.

It was during Rice’s editorship, for example, when Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb (1835-1909) began writing regularly for the magazine. Newcomb had developed a reputation not unlike that of John Tyndall in Britain. In his 1878 presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Newcomb related to his audience that the AAAS was the sister society of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS). The connection seems to have been intentional, for Newcomb, like Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address in the BAAS 1874 meeting, addressed the alleged conflict between religion and science. “We hear much at the present time of a supposed conflict between science and religion,” he observed. But according to Newcomb, “it is rather a conflict between two sets of men, who view Nature from opposite and irreconcilable standpoints.”

Simon Newcomb Tombstone

Newcomb wants to address these different points of view. On the one hand, the theologian, he says, is too invested. He cannot weigh arguments on both sides of a debate. “His idea of truth is symbolized in the pure marble statue”: unmovable, fixed, stagnant. The scientific idea of truth, on the other hand, is symbolized by an iron-clad turret, “which cannot be accepted until it has proved its invulnerability.” Truth for the scientist requires testing, even demolition. There are no sacred cows in science. “A countless host of theories have thus been demolished and forgotten with the advance of knowledge,” Newcomb notes. Therefore those which remain “can show us a guarantee of their truthfulness which would not be possible under any other plan of dealing with them.” The scientific man, in short, “recognizes no such attribute as orthodoxy in his doctrines.”

His main concern in this address is to present his views on “the course of Nature.” The doctrine of the uniformity of nature, he says, “is generally acquiesced in by the mature thought of intelligent Christendom, yet objections are frequently made to it, because it seems to run counter to some of our most cherished ideas.” For his part, Newcomb claims to be the peacemaker. “My desire,” he asserts early in his speech, “is to act the part of the peacemaker, rather than that of a combatant.” At the same time, in his discussion of “the course of nature,” Newcomb pitted natural law against the doctrine of Providence. He attributed the great advance of civilization to the “development of the understanding of the course of Nature.”

The great progress which the last three centuries have witness [he says] has been wholly in the field of phenomena…The progress here alluded to has been rendered possible only by entirely rejecting the mode of thinking about Nature which was prevalent in former ages, and into which the untrained mind is almost sure to fall at the present day.

The new understanding of nature, for example, “tells us that the whole course of Nature takes place in accordance with certain laws, capable of expression in mathematical language; that these laws act with more than an iron rigor and without any regard to consequences; that they are deaf to prayer or entreaty; that, if we would succeed, we must study them, and so govern ourselves that their action shall inure to our benefit.”

During the same month that Newcomb delivered his AAAS address, the North American Review published his “An Advertisement for a New Religion,” under the signature of “An Evolutionist.” Most of this article was written with tongue in cheek; however, Newcomb does make a serious proposition. “Among our advanced thinkers,” he begins, “two points are now happily settled beyond the need of further inquiry.” First, that all traditional religions, including Christianity (“in one sense the best and in another the worst of them”) are “waxing old, and must soon die.” Revealed religion has been undermined, so has “natural religion.”

But Newcomb also stressed that these same “advanced thinkers” maintain that humanity has a capacity for religion, that man has “religious instincts.” Indeed, great men have all been “profoundly religious.” Since the old religions are “sick, dying, or dead,” and since man must have a religion, it follows, according to Newcomb, that we must found a “new-born religion.”

This new religion must have certain conditions, however. Dealing strictly with the negative, Newcomb writes that this new religion “cannot have a God living and personal.” The God of the new religion cannot be anthropomorphized or personified. Moreover, this new religion cannot “insist on a personal immortality to the soul.” Another condition for the new religion is that “there must be no terrors drawn from a day of judgement.” These terrors only “frighten children, and men and women weak as children.” Highly-developed men, he says, are beyond them. Furthermore, there can be no “ghostly sanctions or motives derived from a supernatural power, or a world to come.” Finally, what cannot be understood by the senses must be “represented as unknown and unknowable.”

What, then, will be the basis for this new religion? The new religion, Newcomb declares, will have “humanity as its god.” He sees contemporary men of science as the new prophets of the people, and organs such as the Contemporary Review and the Nineteenth Century as the new platforms (pulpits?) of the new religion. But the new religion will take time to fully emerge. It will evolve slowly. Thus Newcomb desired to “advertise” among “our scientific doctors all over the world” to help with the birth of the new religion.

“This new religion must come” and it “must all come by development.” There is an urgency in Newcomb’s words here. Although he understands that this new religion will require time to blossom, he hopes that it will come speedily. Why? “We are at present,” he says, “in a transition state, which is a critical state; we are in danger of being crushed in a collision between two trains, one of which has come upon the other before it has started.” Newcomb in particular sees a problem with the morality of the next generation. “Our sons claim that in prosecuting their rights they are just as much entitled to advance beyond their fathers as their fathers did beyond their sires.” Whereas Darwin, Huxley, Tyndall, and others saw the continued need of religion for moral reasons, this new generation, according to Newcomb, wants to do away with it altogether. “We honestly tell them to be honest, and obliging, and chaste—always according to our ideas, which are surely liberal enough. But they puzzle us with questions which we have difficulty enough in answering satisfactorily to them in their present unsettled temper.” What Newcomb seems to be saying here is that when religion was undermined, so was morality.

Thus the new religion must come, and come quickly. And when it does come, “it will collect around it a faith and attractive associations; and it will generate an artistic worship full of glow; and the hearts of our young men and women will be drawn toward it, and we shall have a joyous religion, with a free and generous morality, rejecting all asceticism, and attracting by its own charms.”

Over a century later, we are still waiting for this optimistic vision of the future.

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