Reflections on the Writings of William Jewett Tucker

A Radical Unity: Reflections on the Writings of William Jewett Tucker

William Jewett Tucker holds a special place in Dartmouth College history as a graduate of the class of 1861 and as the College’s ninth president. His tenure as president encompassed many significant changes for Dartmouth. Not the least of these include almost tripling the student body, raising money for dormitories to create a community of spirit among the students, and starting “Dartmouth Night” to bring together students and alumni in celebration of the college, a tradition that has today been transformed into Homecoming. Before becoming president, Tucker worked as an orderly in the army and then a pastor, ultimately finding his way to Andover Theological Seminary. These two roles provided Tucker with a front row seat as the world changed at the time of the turn of the century. Acutely aware of how these changes were affecting people, Tucker developed a uniquely forward-thinking perspective, which at Dartmouth became most apparent in his founding of the Tuck School of Business. Recognizing long before the turn of the century that business would drive the economy of the 1900s, Tucker founded Tuck to provide Dartmouth students with the preparation needed to succeed in the business world. In bringing Tucker on as president, the “trustees knew full well that they were hiring a man who was looking toward the future… Tucker transformed Dartmouth…into a prestigious national university,” and helped make Dartmouth into the school we know and love today.[i] But Tucker’s ability to see how the changes in the world around him would shape the future applied not only to Dartmouth College, but also to the larger world. His understanding of the contemporary crises in Christianity and secularism extended beyond the controversies themselves into their ultimate capacity to unify traditional beliefs with emerging ideas stemming from scientific discoveries.

Tucker’s forward-thinking perspective emerged when the world was facing a “period of theological reconstruction” in which once indisputable theology became the new modern crisis.[ii] People were concerned with which authority they should trust in matters of spirituality. Tucker, in his reflections on the spiritual and moral authority of the church at the turn of the century, explained that the most prominent theological discussion point was the exploration of Scripture using historical criticism. The next most notable, and possibly more far-reaching, was the debate about evolution, with its particular challenge to divine creation and miracles.[iii]  The two issues grew closely intertwined as focus on them increased at the end of the 1800s, since the debate about evolution versus creation was founded in the growing questions about the reliability of the Bible.[iv] There arose two major players in the debate. On one side were liberal Christians, who supported evolution and a shift towards a new interpretation of Scripture. This interpretation took into account the historical context of the writings but also read them through the lens of modern ideas and values. On the other side were evangelical and other conservative Christians, who maintained belief in the infallibility of the Bible and, by extension, belief in divine creation as described in Genesis.

Historical biblical criticism, also known as higher criticism, arose in Germany when Johann Gottfried Eichhorn began exploring the factuality of the Pentateuch and the possibility that it was not written by Moses. This opened the door for further exploration into the historicity of the Old Testament, and then the New Testament.[v] As the movement grew, people began to accept the view that the Bible is a historical text influenced both by the religious, social, and political environments of the books’ respective time periods, and by the audience for which they were written. The theory held that understanding this historical context, and therefore any potential bias of the authors, would yield further understanding of the text’s meaning that may have been otherwise lost to modern readers. This was possible because “the historical consciousness of the higher critics separated the question of the meaning of the Bible from the question of its truth.[vi] The higher critics believed that the Bible did not have to consist of entirely true histories to reveal God’s teachings. They felt that discovering the historical context around the stories, as well as which were most likely to be real, would give a better understanding of what the truth really was.

As increasing numbers of liberal Christians began to ascribe to higher criticism, the more conservative camps reasserted faith in the inerrancy of the Scriptures and the need for literal interpretation. These Christians became known as Fundamentalists for declaring that the inerrancy of Scripture is one of five beliefs fundamental to being a Christian. They felt that the alternative risked opening the door to doubt in the redemptive work of Christ; if the Bible contains errors, then it cannot have been divinely inspired, and a claim that the Bible is flawed places a human standard above God’s word. If the true meaning of the Old Testament differs from what it literally states, then Jesus and the apostles were mistaken in their demonstrated faith in the literal meaning of the Old Testament teachings and stories. And if Jesus’ and the apostles’ faith in the Old Testament was wrong, then any trust Jesus’s teachings and the witness of the apostles to his miracles and his redemptive actions is undermined.[vii]

The increasing evidence for evolution, one of the strongest contributing factors to the growing doubt about the Bible’s infallibility, became the subject of much debate itself. Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, two years before Tucker’s graduation from Dartmouth College. By the time Tucker took over as Dartmouth’s new president almost twenty years later, there were only two prominent naturalists in North America who did not accept evolution in some form.[viii] Yet, while the scientific community, along with a good number of the more liberal Christians, was almost unanimously supportive of evolution based on the scientific evidence, the rest of the population, particularly in religious circles, was split. Fundamentalists retained their belief in Divine Creation as it is described in Genesis. The Bible gives a detailed description of God’s creation of the world in seven days; therefore, the claims of evolution, significantly different from those in the biblical account of creation, must be false. In response to evolution in the public debate, fundamentalists primarily relied on the argument that evolution was still just a hypothesis, and therefore not completely based on fact.[ix] This stemmed from the sense that many of the more liberal arguments were founded on unproven assumptions from naturalism.[x]

Tucker himself took a more liberal perspective on the theological issues of his time, yet unlike both liberals and conservatives, he did not view the new ideas as forming a new Christianity that, if accepted, would replace the old faith. Instead, Tucker believed that “the spirit of Christianity is not an improvable quality judged by any known ethical or spiritual standards.”[xi]  As such, he was confident that despite the many changes Christianity would encounter as new historical and scientific discoveries were made or interpretations explored, the meaning of Christianity, which transcended the actual historical truth of the Bible or its component stories, would remain the most significant part of the religion. He believed that this meaning would withstand any changed understanding of it brought on by the Church’s adjusting its teachings to embrace new discoveries.[xii]

While Tucker did support the new higher criticism that was taking the world by storm, he believed that it would increase the authority of the Bible as a text, thereby bolstering rather than undermining faith. He asserted that “it is as reverent a thing to reinvestigate the authenticity of Scripture in any of its parts as it is to re-examine and revise the text of Scripture. Indeed if textual criticism is justifiable, much more in every way is historical criticism.”[xiii] To Tucker, “the essential gain to faith, and therefore to the spiritual authority of the church, lies in the change of emphasis from the external to the internal authority of the Bible.”[xiv]  As such, Tucker believed wholeheartedly that higher criticism of the Bible did not detract from the authority of the Bible, but merely changed its nature. This conviction contributed to his support of the movement towards higher criticism.

Significantly, Tucker recognized that the growth of Protestantism was due in large part to the increased reliance on the Bible as the foundational source of spiritual truth, rather than the Pope or Church.[xv]  To Tucker, the Bible that is spared any critique from a historical perspective cannot be trusted as authoritative on the subject of interpretation of God’s teaching or on the historical truths of the time, and therefore is not reliable as the source of truth. He argued that “it is as necessary to ask what the Bible is, and how it came to be, as it is to ask what the Bible means.”[xvi]

But Tucker went beyond merely thinking that the new higher criticism would increase belief in Christianity, he also believed that the controversy over the issue among Christians was not a problem for the church. Rather, he held that historical criticism of the Bible, contributed greatly to advancing Christian unity by breaking down the literalism of denominational beliefs. He based this belief on the grounds that when read literally, the Bible was caught up in a myriad of controversial rules and inconsistencies, but that when understood historically and read with a focus on the true meaning behind the stories, rather than the events themselves, it was able to carry God’s revelation and truth to mankind. In doing so it would build up the Church, as evidenced by the growth in faith of Christians at the time. Tucker took great joy in his perception that “the first result of [the] intellectual revival of Christianity has been the apprehension of Christianity in its wholeness. It has brought out the one aim and purpose of the Bible in true proportion.”[xvii] Other liberals at the time believed that Christ himself criticized the Old Testament and therefore historical criticism was not only justified but also encouraged.[xviii] This contrasted with much of what had been accepted up to this point, which had put the conservative camps who thought higher criticism undermined Christ at odds with the liberals who thought Christ himself was in favor of it. Tucker recognized the continuing value of the Old Testament and authority of Christ while still affirming the new criticism, bridging the two seemingly opposite perspectives.

Tucker did acknowledge the early divisiveness of the higher criticism, recognizing that “doubtless the historical criticism of the Bible seemed at first to many to be needlessly destructive, and its results too far negative.”[xix] But, Tucker also felt that the positive effects of the higher criticism, the increased focus on the true meaning of the Scriptures and revelation of their primary truth in the context of the modern world came over time. He firmly believed that they would continue to become clear as time progressed and that ultimately the new approach to faith would not replace the old one, but blend with it to form a more cohesive perspective. Tucker saw higher criticism as directly causing an increase in both respect for the church and Christians on an intellectual level, and an increase in faith among those who were already Christians themselves. To Tucker, the discovery of truth, even if it came at the expense of long held beliefs or traditions, would ultimately help Christians to be more confident in their own understanding of their faith. In fact, Tucker, who was greatly concerned with the status of spiritual authority at the time, saw the higher criticism as restoring authority to the church, rather than undermining it. In his view, proving that the truths of Christianity could withstand intellectual testing revitalized not only the Church itself, but also people’s confidence in its leadership as a spiritual authority.

When it came to the question of evolution, a closely connected issue to that of historical biblical criticism, Tucker once again sided with the more liberal perspective, supporting the theory of evolution. He recognized that, as more discoveries were made in the field of astronomy, mankind gained a new understanding of itself in relation to space, with an expanded view of the universe and earth’s place in it. Similarly, he saw that evolution “set forth a new relation of man to the universe of time.”[xx] Ultimately, he saw Christians settling into this “larger world of time” more naturally than into the world created by the expanded knowledge of space because, while the discoveries about space showed the “power and glory of a transcendent God,” the discoveries about time demonstrated the “nearness, the patience, the forethought of the immanent God.”[xxi] In claiming this, Tucker did not deny the supernatural, as did many of the liberals at the time. Instead, Tucker affirmed the traditional perception of God and the supernatural, which was a critical belief of the conservatives.[xxii] Once again, Tucker bridged the two opposing sides by embracing a new perspective in order to reaffirm and bolster his faith in the traditional God.

Tucker not only believed that evolution was true and fit naturally with the Christian faith, but he also believed it played a role in proving Christianity’s truth. Rather than providing evidence against a Divine Creator, the theory of evolution seemed to Tucker “to let the human mind into the inmost secrets of the working of the Almighty.” Evolution details the tiny changes in a species that, over massive amounts of time, contribute to creating a new species. In Tucker’s mind, these factors pointed to the amount of patience and care that must have been involved in creating life on earth, and therefore to the role of an eternal, loving God in directing this process.[xxiii] In spite of the heated controversy among his peers at the time, Tucker was able to see beyond the debate about the legitimacy of evolution to the value of the theory in ultimately supporting faith, just as he was on the issue of higher criticism. Tucker similarly saw the positives to physical science on a broader scale. He was convinced that subsequent discoveries of physical science would point to God and ultimately serve as better evidence for the reasonableness of faith rather than for a completely materialistic worldview.[xxiv]

William Jewett Tucker bridged the two sides of the modern crises over historical criticism of the Bible and the question of evolution at the turn of the twentieth century. More than adopting a liberal viewpoint on the issues, he took an incredibly radical one: that the advent of historical criticism of the Bible and the theory of evolution were not only positives for the church, but the defining factors in unifying the different sects of Christianity and strengthening the authority of the church over men. Tucker did not believe that either concept would play a very central a role in Christian Apologetics, but that even if they were to become widely accepted as such, they would not alone be able to sufficiently to convince anyone of the truth of Christianity. This type of conversion would have to come from the spiritual authority as a whole. Tucker argued that the spiritual authority, however, appeals not just to one’s reason, “but to the whole man.”[xxv] To Tucker, the intellectual revival in Christianity at the turn of the century was crucial for strengthening the faith, but he believed that it did merely that— strengthen it.

Faith in Christ could not itself be built solely on reason and debate, for “the truths of Christianity were designed to be felt.”[xxvi]  Whatever one argued the true meaning or lesson of the Scriptures might be, they are at their most foundational level “the story of the forgiveness, compassion, patience, and sacrificial love of God finding response in the gratitude devotion, trust, and sacrificial love of the human heart.”[xxvii]  For this reason, historical biblical criticism and evolution were ideas that, though they sparked controversy, did not have the power to tear apart Christianity as Tucker’s contemporaries feared they did. Rather, the Church would emerge on the other side of the debate, having regained its moral authority in the lives of men, and able to touch them more personally. In fact, even as Tucker recognized the weakness of a religion built solely on emotion and celebrated the return of intellectualism to the Church, he also admitted that his greatest fear was that a Christianity built solely in intellectual- ism would become a “dry religion.”[xxvii] The spiritual authority of Christianity could only appeal to the whole man, because the truest and most complete form of the Christian faith balanced intellectualism and emotion.

i. N. Brooks Clark, “A Lifetime of Total Recall: The Biography of Charlotte Cushwa Clark,” 17-20.

ii. William Jewett Tucker, On the Function of the Church in Modern Society (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911) 3.

iii. Tucker, 14.

iv. Arthur McCalla, “Creationism,” Religion Compass 5 (2007): 547-560.

v. Michael L Kamen, “The Science of the Bible in Nineteenth-Century America: From ‘Common Sense’ to Controversy, 1820-1900,” (University of Notre Dame, 2004).vi. Paul, xiv-xv.

vi. McCalla, 547.

vii. McCalla, 549.

viii. Ronald L. Numbers, “Creationism in 20th- Century America” Science Magazine (1982): 538.

ix. Numbers, 539.

x. Mark A. Noll, Between Faith and Criticism: Evangelicals, Scholarship, and the Bible in America (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College Publishing, 1991) 20.

xi. Tucker, 51.

xii. Tucker, 50-51.

xiii. Tucker, 20.

xiv. Tucker, 22.
xv. Tucker, 11.

xvi. Tucker, 19-20.

xvii. Tucker, 20.

xviii. Jerry Wayne Brown, The Rise of Biblical Criticism in America (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969) 125-7.

xiv. Tucker, 26.

xv. Tucker, 49.

vi. Tucker, 50.

xvii. Noll, 146.

xviii. Tucker 49.

xix. Tucker, 42.

xx. Tucker, 52.


Sara Holston ’17 is from Wayne, PA. She is a prospective double major in Biology and English.

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