Andrew Dickson White

Tom Flynn

Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) did more than any other American to impress upon late – nineteenth – and twentieth-century thought the idea that science and religion are enemies locked in combat on an almost military scale. Ironically, this was precisely the opposite of his intent.

Born on November 7, 1832, in Homer, New York, into a wealthy and devoutly Episcopalian family, White received an excellent primary education and showed a flair for scholarship. In 1849, he entered a small Episcopal academy, Geneva College (now Hobart College) in Geneva, New York. Conditions were dismal. The curriculum was irrelevant, the teaching pedantic, and his classmates intolerably unruly—or so it seemed to young Andrew. “The whole life of the place became more and more unsatisfactory to me, and I determined, at any cost, to escape from it,” he recounted in his autobiography. He persuaded his father to enroll him in Yale the next year. Though even Yale fell short of his scholarly aspirations, he graduated in 1853 and embarked upon three years of work and study in Europe. The University of Berlin particularly impressed him; he dreamed of creating a “true university” along German lines in the United States.

At some point during his education, White broke with orthodoxy as he recognized the incompatibility of the genealogies of Jesus given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Influenced by the liberal Congregationalist Theodore Parker and the Unitarian William Ellery Channing, White settled into a poised deism that rejected beliefs in miracles or eternal punishment. Yet White never ceased to call himself a Christian and never verged near atheism or agnosticism. “I have never had any tendency to scoffing, nor have I liked scoffers,” he later wrote.

On returning to America, White joined the newly formed University of Michigan as a lecturer in history. During the Civil War, he undertook an informal diplomatic mission to bolster British support for the Union cause; afterward he returned to New York and won election to the state senate.

Leading the legislative agenda was the question of how New York should manage its windfall under the 1862 Morrill Act, the federal land-grant act that gave to each state a large tract of western land. Proceeds from the sales of this land were intended for the founding of colleges. White was the youngest senator; Ezra Cornell, who had made millions wiring the nation for the telegraph, was the eldest. The two men found they entertained compatible visions for a future land-grant university. It would be, in Cornell’s words, “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study,” offering majors in scientific and technical subjects as well as the humanities. More controversially, it would be nonsectarian.

Both men’s experiences had fostered antipathy toward denominational sectarianism. Cornell had been ejected from the Society of Friends for marrying a non-Quaker; White drew on his unpleasant experience at Geneva. (Even while at Geneva College, White wrote in his autobiography, he had begun to dream of a university that “should be under control of no single religious organization; it should be forever free from all sectarian and party trammels; in electing its trustees and professors no questions should be asked as to their belief or their attachment to this or that sect or party.”)

Cornell having pledged a portion of his vast fortune and White a portion of his more modest one—over and above the land-grant proceeds—they seized control of the project. After political controversy, Cornell University was chartered in 1865. White would be its first president.

The new university in Ithaca, New York, would be the nation’s first major academy unaffiliated with any religious body. Worn out by overwork, Cornell and White were both grievously ill on the university’s opening day in October 1868. No building was finished, and only a handful of faculty members were on hand; most of them were too busy unpacking the books and scientific apparatuses White had acquired on a midyear European tour to attend the opening ceremonies.

Sectarian papers libeled Cornell as a den of infidelity and perversity, accusing the university of “indifferentism” (insufficient attention to doctrine) or outright godlessness. So wounding was this criticism that New York Governor Reuben E. Fenton made a last-minute decision to boycott the opening ceremonies, a remarkable choice considering that he had already journeyed to Ithaca for the sole purpose of attending them.

Frustrated, White fired back. On December 18, 1869, he delivered a pugnacious lecture in which he indicted religion as the greatest enemy of scientific discovery. The next day’s New York Tribune printed the lecture verbatim. Widely reprinted, it was soon expanded into a series of articles in Popular Science Monthly. (That journal’s editor, Edward Livingston Youmans, would soon solicit historian John William Draper to write A History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion, the 1874 book that first popularized the “military metaphor” of science and religion as adversaries.) Two years later, White published an adapted version of his lecture in book form. He had sharpened its focus, now indicting “ecclesiasticism” rather than religion as the chief impediment to scientific discovery. Nor was science the only victim: “Both Religion and Science have suffered fearfully from unlimited clerical sway,” he wrote; “but of the two, Religion has suffered most.”

Cornell University thrived despite persistent controversy. It became the first U.S. university to institute coeducational study (1874), and it erected the first nondenominational university chapel. Pastors across America discouraged young people from enrolling, though this had little effect on admissions. White erected a mansion on campus in which his family resided from 1874; now housing academic offices, the mansion is a site on the Freethought Trail, the Council for Secular Humanism’s regional-history project for sites located within one hundred miles of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum.

Despite his reform rhetoric, White never ceased to emphasize Cornell’s embrace of generic Christianity, and on several occasions he made concessions to sectarian pressure. In one case, having recruited Ethical Culture founder Felix Adler to the faculty, White allowed conservative trustees to force Adler’s dismissal after he lectured on doctrines that Christianity had borrowed from Judaism and other religions.

White held various diplomatic posts, some while president of Cornell. As U.S. minister to Germany, he participated in establishing the international tribunal at The Hague. On an 1878 transatlantic voyage, White met agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll; they talked about art. (White and Ingersoll would also share a posthumous maritime connection; both had World War II U.S. “Liberty ships” named for them.) Throughout these years, White continued to develop his ideas on science and religion.

Posted to St. Petersburg as U.S. minister to Russia from 1892–1893, White began to assemble his magnum opus, a two-volume work published in 1896 as A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. In correspondence he wrote that he intended the History to stake out a position between “such gush as [Catholic apologist John Henry] Newman’s on one side and such scoffing as Ingersoll’s on the other.”

As before, White made clear that he wrote not to undermine but to defend religion, “to keep the faith—faith in a Power in the universe good enough to make truth-seeking wise and strong enough to make truth-telling effective.” He distinguished sharply between religion, which he reduced to the pure love of God and one’s neighbor, and theology, which used the Bible like a scientific text to make unprovable claims about the cosmos. He offered his History as a “warning against basing religious systems on miraculous claims which are constantly becoming more and more discredited and therefore more and more dangerous to any system which persists in using them.”

Given White’s intentions, his method was curious. He wrote that “theological views of science” have “without exception . . . forced mankind away from the truth, and have caused Christendom to stumble for centuries into abysses of error and sorrow.” Commitment to free inquiry made a scientist, he argued, and dogmatism a theologian. This standard was not without its problems: for example, in the course of his book, White placed St. Augustine firmly in both camps.

In florid chapters, White described how the medieval church’s condemnation of usury had hobbled economic development. He offered a romanticized account of Galileo’s travails at the hands of the church. A similar treatment was accorded to Copernicus. Whereas Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion had been anti-Catholic in tone, White profiled Protestant failures as well, including belief in witches, the construal of earthquakes and comets as divine portents, and resistance to vaccination. White concluded that Christian theology had “arrested the normal development of the physical sciences for over fifteen hundred years.” For good measure, he charged that beliefs concerning eternal punishment had emboldened contemporary European states to engage in increasingly brazen tortures and inhumane punishments.

A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom was commercially successful, enjoying numerous printings over some twenty-five years and translation into four languages. Its impact on both scholarly and popular thinking regarding science and religion was greater still.

But White’s History would be broadly misunderstood. A few clerics grasped White’s intentions and praised the work. But most who lauded it—among them Alexander Graham Bell, Lord Acton, and Andrew Carnegie—dismayingly agreed with critics that it constituted a devastating blow against Christianity. Freethinkers embraced it; atheist booksellers added it to their lists. Even Ingersoll wrote White a letter of praise—though he chided White for his deism, reversing one of White’s phrases to read: “The only power in the universe strong enough to make truth-seeking safe is man.”

White remained active, serving another term as minister to Russia and writing a two-volume autobiography (1905) in which he struggled once more to explain what he had meant for his History to achieve. In later years he worked for German-American friendship and other peace causes. He died on November 4, 1918, just a week before the Armistice that ended World War I. He was entombed in the nondenominational Sage Chapel at Cornell University.

Writing in 1971, historian Paul Carter declared that A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom did as much as any other published work “toward routing orthodoxy in the name of science.” In Rocks of Ages (1999), zoologist Stephen Jay Gould’s strange plea for harmony between science and religion, Gould said much the same about White. Insofar as science and religion came to be widely viewed as enemies, with science holding the moral high ground—and insofar as that conviction contributed to the growth of rationalism, naturalism, and secularism across the West during the twentieth century—Andrew Dickson White stands, however inadvertently, as one of the most effective and influential advocates for unbelief.

Further Reading

  • Atschuler, Glenn C. Andrew D. White: Educator, Historian, Diplomat. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.
  • Becker, Carl L. Cornell University: Founders and the Founding. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1943.
  • Draper, John William. History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999.
  • Lindberg, David C., and Ronald L. Numbers. “Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39, Volume 3 (1987).
  • Moore, James R. The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
  • White, Andrew D. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896.
  • ———. Autobiography of Andrew Dickson White. New York: The Century Company, 1905.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) did more than any other American to impress upon late – nineteenth – and twentieth-century thought the idea that science and religion are enemies locked in combat on an almost military scale. Ironically, this was precisely the opposite of his intent. Born on November 7, 1832, in Homer, New York, into …

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