The Best Panaceas for Heartaches

Why would God let children die? And other impossible questions

Standing before a crowd of listeners in 1914, the fundamentalist preacher Billy Sunday took a few moments to ridicule science’s pretensions of being a new salvation. “People are dissatisfied with Philosophy and Science and New Thought as panaceas for heart-aches!” he cried:

It does not amount to anything, when you have a dead child in your house, to come with these new-fangled theories … Let your scientific consolation enter a room where the mother has lost her child. Try your doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Tell her that her child died because it was not worth as much as the other one! … And when you have gotten through with your scientific, philosophical, psychological, eugenic, social service, evolution, protoplasm and fortuitous concourse of atoms, if she is not crazed by it, I will go to her and after one-half hour of prayer and the reading of the Scripture promises, the tears will be wiped away and the house from cellar to garret will be filled with calmness like a California sunset!

Billy Sunday was not known for nuance; a journalist once described a Sunday sermon as “the most condemnatory, bombastic, ironic and elemental flaying of a principle or a belief that [he] ever heard in [his] limited lifetime and career from drunken fist fights to the halls of congress.” The contrast Sunday describes is indeed stark: for someone faced with the death of a child, science leads to despair and madness, while Christian faith leads to a deep sense of peace. Though hyperbolic, Sunday’s condemnation of what he presented as scientists’ claims to provide both salvation and solace efficiently—even eloquently—captured profound, long-standing tensions between the promises of Western science and the obligations and goals of Christian faith.

I have taught courses on the history of science and religion, evolution theory, and medicine for more than a decade now. But although it is my job as a historian to try to understand the complex factors behind positions and beliefs, I never quite grasped what might be at stake in Sunday’s belligerent sermon against science—and, indeed, in the long-running debates among fundamentalists, modernists, and atheists—until a few years ago, when I witnessed the struggles of dear friends during the illness and loss of their six-month-old baby girl. Claire was born with a congenital condition that meant her heart and liver could not function properly. Surgeons made four attempts to repair the broken pump, the clogged filter, and the missing tubing; all ultimately failed.

In many of my classes students learn about modern science and medicine’s beginnings in seventeenth-century mechanical philosophy. Thinking of the body as analogous to a machine led not only to arguments about God as the Designer but also to the idea that broken parts might be fixed through surgery. That foundation has led to many of the greatest triumphs of modern medicine (though, in the intervening centuries, discussions of “God as the Designer” have receded from scientific texts). Yet all of this seemed of little comfort when the doctors could not, in fact, fix beautiful little Claire’s broken mechanisms.

Amid witnessing doctors’ efforts to preserve a child’s life, and her devoted parents’ struggle to understand medicine’s failure, I began paying more attention to certain biographical facts in the lives of the scientists—and science-watchers—I read with my undergraduates. The seventeenth-century naturalist John Ray, who wrote one of the most famous books about God as Designer, lost his daughter Mary when she was twelve. The Enlightenment’s Erasmus Darwin, who developed one of the first theories of evolution, buried three of his twelve (legitimate) children when they were infants. The codiscoverer (with Charles Darwin) of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, lost a boy at six, and “Darwin’s bulldog,” Thomas Henry Huxley, buried his four-year-old, firstborn son. Botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker lost his little girl Maria when she was six. (Within an hour of her death he wrote to Charles Darwin, who lost a three-week-old infant, Mary Eleanor, in 1842; a ten-year-old daughter, Annie, in 1851; and an eighteen-month-old son, Charles, in 1858. “I think of you more in my grief,” Hooker confided, “than any other friend. Some obstruction of the bowels carried her off after a few hours alarming illness—with all the symptoms of strangulated Hernia.”) Mary Harriman, a philanthropist who bankrolled American eugenics work, lost a five-year-old boy to diphtheria. Annie Besant, who tried to convince Darwin to support her campaign for contraception, became an atheist after watching her seven-month-old daughter struggle with a terrible bout of whooping cough. One could go on and on.

None of this, of course, is surprising to anyone familiar with both the state of medicine and the prevalence of childhood infectious diseases prior to the twentieth century. And children’s deaths are acknowledged, at times, as important within the biographies of these influential men and women and their friends. Indeed, the influence of the loss of Darwin’s daughter Annie on his beliefs, including his theory of evolution, has been the subject of an entire book and a major motion picture. But—perhaps because the loss of a child is not something many of us, at least in certain parts of the world, have to experience thanks to modern medicine and public health—I had never really thought through the commonality of my subjects’ experience with childhood death and suffering until I witnessed Claire’s parents struggling to reconcile the efforts and failures of science with God’s providence. This heightened attention to certain events in men and women’s lives, and certain paragraphs in their writings, made Sunday’s sermon, in particular, stick in my mind. I began to wonder: What role has what is said to, or believed by, parents at the bedside of a dying child played in individuals’ perceptions of the relationship between science and religion? Have the available stances on both God and Nature amid these tragic confrontations with suffering influenced individuals’ decisions on whether that relationship is one of harmony, conflict, or something in between? These questions are, in many ways, impossible to answer, for often such loss is accompanied mainly by profound silence. But asking them revealed what I find to be a very meaningful thread in many of the primary sources I use in my research and teaching.

The thread begins in the seventeenth century, amid the grand theories associated with the Scientific Revolution, but to notice it one must pay close attention to the diaries and correspondence of famous figures in the history of science, and not just their classic works. Consider, for example, that six years after the first edition of his famous natural theology, The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation, appeared, John Ray lost one of his four beloved daughters to jaundice. “My dear child,” he wrote to Hans Sloane in early 1697, “for whom I begged your advice, within a day after it was received, became delirious, and at the end of three days died apoplectic, which was to myself and wife a most sore blow.” A month later Ray wrote of the continued influence of this “sad accident” on his ability to work. His wife, he wrote, “is full of grief, having not yet been able fully to concoct her passion.” He blamed himself, for he had not given the little girl a remedy that had proved effectual for himself in the same disease. But he does not seem to have blamed or questioned his beloved all-powerful, all-wise, and benevolent God.

I have often assigned The Wisdom of God as an example of seventeenth-century natural philosophers’ devout belief that science and religion are in harmony. Ray reveled in detailed descriptions of animal and human anatomy and used the extraordinary fitness of animal parts to their uses to demonstrate the existence and attributes of God. And indeed his work is a good example of the belief—common at the time—that God gave men two books through which to know Him: the Book of Scripture, and the Book of Nature. Nature, Ray argued, helped one make “out in particulars” what Scripture asserted in general concerning the Works of God, namely In Wisdom hast thou made them all. In describing human anatomy, Ray dwelled on the purposeful parts of the body as beautiful examples of the effect of wisdom and design. Thus, he concluded, the body of man was “proved to be the Effect of Wisdom because there is nothing in it deficient, nothing superfluous, nothing but hath its End and Use.” Indeed, Ray insisted that a man who could look upon Nature and yet still disbelieve in God “must needs be as stupid as the Earth he goes upon.”

My students tend to want to throw counterarguments at John Ray: What about snakes? What about predators? What about disease? But inevitably Ray knew a lot more about disease and suffering than they do. His was not a naïve theodicy (an explanation of why a good, all-powerful, all-knowing God permits evil and suffering). When Ray reflected upon the fact that sleep alleviates pain as evidence of the wisdom of a God, he spoke from experience. At the time of writing his famous book, he suffered from blisters and chilblains; ulcers on his legs sometimes prevented him from walking; and his stomach gave him digestive trouble that incapacitated him for days. Illness, disease, and death were close, familiar, and ever-present to men and women in the seventeenth century. Nearly a third of children died before age fifteen. The bubonic plague still periodically swept through London and its outskirts. John Ray knew all too well that human beings die from diseased organs, succumb to madness, and suffer from malfunctioning parts. But that by no means vitiated his argument: indeed, the whole point of his book was that in the face of widespread pain and suffering, the marks of design proved God’s benevolence, wisdom, and goodness. Toward the end of his life, Ray was at times so reduced to weakness by the sharp pain of chronic sores on his legs that he could not stand alone, and he even confessed to despairing of life itself. Some days his sores so spoiled his memory that he could not pay sustained attention to the animals and plants he so loved to study. Yet even as his memory and body failed him, so that he was “almost continually afflicted with pain,” he urged his friend James Petiver to continue the task of “carrying and promoting natural history and the knowledge of the works of God.”

Upon first reading, submission and obedience to one’s God-given lot in life seems the main message of natural theology classics such as The Wisdom of God. After all, some people, such as St. Bernard, the medieval French abbot of Clairvaux, argued that “to consult physicians and take medicines befits not religion.” Yet we know from Ray’s letters that he was anything but submissive in the face of bodily pain. His letters are full of new prescriptions tried and disappointment on the heels of great hope of relief. And remember he blamed himself, not God, for his daughter’s death, on the grounds that he had not given her the correct medicine. But how was the anxious search for a medicine to heal his terrible sores to be reconciled with devout belief in a wise, all-powerful, benevolent God?

The answer to this question—and the explanation of Ray’s stance at the bedside of his dead child—lies in the fact that Ray viewed medicines as God’s gifts, albeit gifts that would be revealed only through human effort. He envisioned mankind taking up the tools provided by a wise and good God to improve the human condition. Ray spoke of the human hand, for example, as “wonderfully adapted” for all the uses that made man an agent of civilization and improvement. He believed that God had placed man “in a spacious and well-furnished world,” full of beauty and proportion, with materials to be molded and land capable of improvement by industry. God’s provision included seeds and fruit capable “of being meliorated and improved” by human art, and useful for food and medicine. Ray described plants such as the Jesuit’s bark tree (quinine) and the poppy (opium) as clear evidence of “the illustrious Bounty and Providence of the Almighty and Omniscient Creator, towards his undeserving Creatures.” And—this is key—Ray was sure “there may be as many more as yet discovr’d, and which may be reserv’d on purpose to exercise the Faculties bestow’d on Man, to find out what is necessary, convenient, pleasant or profitable to him.”

Ray worshipped a God, then, who had organized the world and the mind of man so that men could improve upon their surroundings through studying natural philosophy and natural history. God had even made man a social creature, so that he could improve his understanding “by Conference, and Communication of Observations and Experiments.” (What a perfect justification for attending a Royal Society meeting!) Ray’s attitude was an early example of the belief that one could and should improve life in the here and now, even amid deep faith in the hereafter. Critically, that stance shifted the blame for earthly evil and suffering to man’s ignorance. Faced with the death of a beloved, as hard as it was to blame oneself, at least one need not blame one’s God.

The trajectory of this bargain—and it was a bargain, with important costs and benefits—is fascinating. The historian John Hedley Brooke has described how despite seventeenth-century natural philosophers’ insistence that natural laws were not binding on God, the pressure to make them so arose directly from the wish to address the existence of suffering. Even Robert Boyle, a founder of the Royal Society, who was said never to have mentioned the name of God “without a pause,” thought it “perhaps unreasonable” to expect God to intervene in natural law to save an individual (to suspend, for example, the law of gravity when someone fell over a cliff). At the time, that temptation to transfer agency (and thus fault) to Man rather than God often removed God to some distance. Take Erasmus Darwin’s epic evolutionary poem, The Temple of Nature. At one point Erasmus describes the slaughterhouse of the warring world—predation, pestilence, famine, earthquakes, flood—and wonders:

Ah where can Sympathy reflecting find

One bright idea to console the mind?

One ray of light in this terrene abode

To prove to Man the Goodness of his GOD?

Erasmus’s reply was that so long as one placed all the good and all the evil on the scale, “where the Good abides, / Quick nods the beam, the ponderous gold subsides.” Lest a reader miss the point behind Erasmus’s elaborate lines about Nymphs and Muses, he circled back to it in a footnote later in the poem:

When we reflect on the perpetual destruction of organic life, we should also recollect, that it is perpetually renewed in other forms by the same materials, and thus the sum total of happiness of the world continues undiminished; and that a philosopher may thus smile again on turning his eyes from the coffins of nature to her cradles.

One can almost imagine Erasmus, thinking of the cradles in which his own babes lay, grasping for some underlying goodness in it all. Once we abandon the comforting fairy tale that men and women of prior ages were not as attached to their children, we can see the author’s deep experience with the large potential for misery and suffering in the world within these lines. (The fairy tale was apparently first told by the social historian Philip Aries in his 1960 book, Centuries of Childhood. Perhaps it is an indication of how truly unimaginable such a state of existence was by the mid-twentieth century; so unimaginable that it was imagined away. Historians of the early modern period have provided extensive—and heartbreaking—evidence that mothers and fathers experienced extreme anguish at the loss of their children.) Erasmus insisted there must be a Goodness to it all, despite puerperal fever robbing young husbands of their wives. Despite the dozens of infectious diseases that robbed young mothers of their infant children. But one had to take the long-term view to witness such goodness, to see that the good outweighed the bad and that “the sum total of happiness of organized nature” increased, rather than diminished, with death. And this is where things really get interesting. For in contrast to John Ray, Erasmus believed in transmutation—evolution, in modern parlance. In his view, progressive change in biological forms provided good evidence of an overall Goodness to the plan of creation, despite death and struggle. Hope could also cling to the intellectual and technological progress of mankind, rooted in the study of natural law:

Last, at thy potent nod, Effect and Cause

Walk hand in hand accordant to thy laws;

Rise at Volition’s call, in groups combined,

Amuse, delight, instruct and serve Mankind.

A footnote explained how those who discover causation furnish the powers of producing effects. These were the men who discovered and improved the sciences “which meliorate and adorn the condition of humanity.” For Erasmus, both the evolutionary progress of life and the intellectual progress of man proved the goodness of the system. Though the distance of Erasmus’s “First Cause”—which created the rule of natural law “perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind”—would have caused John Ray great distress, he would have sympathized with the belief in science as the means of ameliorating the human condition. And certainly he agreed that, on balance, the system proved God Good.

The thread evident in both Ray’s and Erasmus Darwin’s work might be called a “Science as God’s Provision to Ameliorate Suffering” theodicy. And it is perhaps most eloquently stated in the concluding pages of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, a Victorian sensation published anonymously in 1844. Scientists, including Charles Darwin’s mentor Adam Sedgwick, condemned the book as atheistic, and historians note his reaction as at least partly explaining Darwin’s famous twenty-year delay in publishing On the Origin of Species. We now know the author of Vestiges was Robert Chambers, a Scottish publisher; when asked why he had not put his name to his work, Chambers gestured to the house in which resided his eleven children and replied, “I have eleven reasons.” The concluding chapter of Vestiges provides a telling portrait of what was at stake for some Victorian readers faced with either a close versus a distant Creator (a distinction that often mapped onto static versus evolutionary creations): “How, the sage has asked in every age,” Chambers wrote, “should a Being so transcendently kind, have allowed of so large an admixture of evil in the condition of his creatures?” The question must have pressed on Chambers and his wife, Anne, amid the death of three of their fourteen children in infancy. In the pages of Vestiges, Chambers’s reply to the age-old question was as follows: The fixed laws established by the Deity were his most august works, permitting great good. But left to act independently of each other, those laws could have effects only generally beneficial, since often there must be interference of one law with another, and thus evil be produced. He gave the following example:

Suppose … that a boy, in the course of the lively sports proper to his age, suffers a fall which injures his spine, and renders him a cripple for life. Two things have been concerned in the case: first, the love of violent exercise, and second, the law of gravitation. Both of these things are good in the main. In the rash enterprises and rough sports in which boys engage, they prepare their bodies and minds for the hard tasks of life. By gravitation, all moveable things, our own bodies included, are kept stable on the surface of the earth. But when it chances that the playful boy loses his hold (we shall say) of the branch of a tree, and has no solid support immediately below, the law of gravitation unrelentingly pulls him to the ground, and thus he is hurt. Now it was not a primary object of gravitation to injure boys; but gravitation could not but operate in the circumstances, its nature being to be universal and invariable. The evil is, therefore, only a casual exception from something in the main good.

Chambers then addressed the question of what one must do in the face of this knowledge. “The Great Ruler of Nature,” he wrote, “has established laws for the operation of inanimate matter, which are quite unswerving, so that when we know them, we have only to act in a certain way with respect to them, in order to obtain all the benefits and avoid all the evils connected with them.” Yes, great suffering existed, but in the unity of nature’s laws the First Cause had benevolently provided the means of escape. Once man saw the human constitution as merely a complicated but regular process in electrochemistry, for example, the path toward elimination of disease, “so prolific a cause of suffering to man,” became clear: to learn nature’s laws, and to obey them. This was an answer to the problem of suffering that could combine the endeavor of science with a deep faith in the benevolence of God’s plan. Too, it offered a pious defense of why science should be valued and supported.

Indeed, perhaps one of the most interesting productions of this “Science as God’s Provision to Ameliorate Suffering” thread is Andrew Dickson White’s 1896 History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. This book has often been used as evidence that science and religion have always been in inevitable conflict. And yet, as historians have often pointed out, White insisted “true religion” was not in conflict with science. Indeed, he believed his book tracked the development of a truer Christianity, in which human beings could trace God’s providence and goodness in humanity’s movement away from dependence and submission to the environment, toward controlling the forces of nature to satisfy the wants of humanity. One profound example White gave of orthodox theology hindering this progressive movement—of both religion and science—appears in a discussion of the medieval church’s (supposed) persecution of Roger Bacon for pursuing natural philosophy:

In two recent years sixty thousand children died in England and in Wales of scarlet fever; probably quite as many died in the United States. Had not Bacon been hindered, we should have had in our hands, by this time, the means to save two thirds of these victims; and the same is true of typhoid, typhus, cholera, and that great class of diseases of whose physical causes science is just beginning to get an inkling.

White was called out for the strangely unhistorical passage at the time, but this brief but weighty tirade against any interference in science makes sense when you consider it was written by a man who had almost lost a son to typhoid a few years earlier. For some people, at least, White’s account of science triumphing over orthodox theology became a lens through which God’s immanent presence in history could be seen. And through that lens some found a path toward harmonious relations between science and religion. Indeed, the naturalist Karl P. Schmidt recalled that White’s book contributed most to his own reconciliation with religion. And White’s grand narrative inspired the Catholic modernist George Tyrrell to try to reconcile theology with modern science, rather than assume such reconciliation was impossible.

The key to both Schmidt’s and Tyrrell’s responses to The Warfare, I believe, is that White gave readers an opportunity to find evidence of God’s benevolence in man’s increasing ability to ameliorate suffering through science. That opportunity was embraced in Contributions of Science to Religion, edited by the famous modernist theologian Shailer Mathews. Published in 1924, the book was an attempt to counter increasing talk of a conflict between God and Evolution, most evident in William Jennings Bryan’s campaign to pass legislation against teaching evolution in American schools. In his contribution to the book, the influential sociologist Ellsworth Faris described White’s History as telling the story of an ongoing change from dependence and submission to conscious intervention and control. Human nature itself was being brought within the realm of the sciences of psychology and sociology, opening up the hope that it could be controlled. And thus, Faris noted, “war, poverty, and crime which were formerly defended, apologized for and even conceived as a part of the divine plan, appear to our modern eyes as problems to be solved, as challenges to the technique of control which scientific men persistently seek.” Faris did not explicitly attribute the possibility of progress in the sciences to God, but another contributor, Eugene Davenport, did, writing: “Whoever soberly considers what science has achieved for agriculture in the short space of half a century, can but render thanks to Almighty God for His revelation of the laws of nature, and he will face the future with confidence unlimited and with gratitude unbounded.”

But it was exactly these kinds of “scientific consolations” Billy Sunday had railed against ten years earlier. Sunday found scientists’—and liberal and modernist Christians’—emphasis on nature’s laws a poor kind of salvation, which seemed to sacrifice the truly redemptive power of prayer, belief in miracles, and the comforting promise of Heaven. It was useless, he insisted, at the bedside of a dead child. By marked contrast, liberal and modernist ministers described the very fate of Christian faith as at stake if Americans turned to Sunday’s brand of Christianity—a Christianity that included, for example, petitionary prayer. In a 1926 sermon, the Unitarian Reverend Harold Speight described how often he heard people complain bitterly of unanswered prayer: “The desired aid did not arrive, the sickness was not stayed,—and then faith went, as a candle flickers and goes out if an outside door is open.” And yet, Speight urged, it was at that very moment that science could reestablish and strengthen faith. If men and women only understood that at the moment of loss, it was not God who was absent, but the scientific knowledge required to control nature—that someone’s ignorance “accounted for the disaster which prayer had failed to avert”—then not only could faith remain, but action could be “diverted as rapidly as possible to the purposes of science” so that men and women could be of better aid in the future. Speight believed, in other words, that God had organized the world in such a way that skill could be improved, albeit slowly and laboriously, via science. Indeed, for Speight, doing science became a better form of prayer, for in progressively alleviating suffering and pain, human effort and ingenuity would ultimately vindicate faith in God’s benevolence, power, and wisdom. This, for Reverend Speight, was not just “scientific consolation” but a religious call to trust in natural law and pursue scientific progress.

John Ray, Erasmus Darwin, Robert Chambers, Shailer Mathews, Andrew Dickson White … all, despite their theological differences, would surely reply “Amen” in theory. But at the bedside of a lost child, both believers and nonbelievers must concede that Speight’s optimistic demand to take the long-term view is perhaps too weak a comfort for the human heart. I note above that inspired by Claire, I began noticing—for the first time—a meaningful thread in the primary sources I study with my students. Why do I think this thread is meaningful and important? Because I believe that in attending to the moments and experiences where decisions regarding the relationship between science and faith are at their most starkly personal and intimate, we might develop a more empathetic understanding of both historical and present stances, whether they agree with our own or not. For who can judge the response of a mother or father at the bedside of a dying child—in the seventeenth century or the twenty-first? That an individual’s attitude toward science may be intertwined with answers to why God would allow such things, or whether God exists at all, is worth attending to. That attention might produce a more historically accurate portrait of the factors involved in controversies over the relationship between science and religion. And just as important, it will help ensure that we view stances through a more compassionate lens, sensitive to the meaning found (or lost) in moments of both misery and bliss.

About the Author

Kristin Johnson

Kristin Johnson is an associate professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Her research focuses on the history of the naturalist tradition and, more recently, the history of the relationship between science and theodicy. 

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