July 03, 2024

Controversy in Columbia

Stephen Nichols
Controversy in Columbia

What led James Woodrow to be let go from Columbia Theological Seminary in the 1880s? Today, Stephen Nichols tells us about Woodrow’s controversial beliefs on the theory of evolution.


Welcome back to another episode of 5 Minutes in Church History. On this episode, we are exploring the controversy in Columbia. Now, this is not Columbia, the nation. It is Columbia, the city in the great state of South Carolina, and this controversy surrounds James Woodrow, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary from 1861 to 1891. Well, long, long, long before he got to Columbia, he was in Edinburgh, Scotland, and his family then immigrated to Canada and they found the climate a bit too cold. So, they went a little south to Ohio. When James Woodrow came of age, he went to receive his undergraduate degree at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. He then spent a few years down in Alabama teaching in various schools, and in 1853 he enrolled at Harvard University, and he studied under Louis Agassiz, the great scientist.

Agassiz was born in Switzerland. He had earned a PhD, and then he went and got an MD on top of that. In 1847, Agassiz arrived at Harvard. He established the Lawrence Scientific School, which is now known as the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and he opened the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Agassiz left quite an impression on James Woodrow. Woodrow referred to him as “a great man, and a great man is a focal point in which a thousand points of light converge and diverge.” Agassiz also held his student, James Woodrow, in high regard, and the two of them kept up with each other throughout their careers. Well, after a few years at Harvard, James Woodrow went off to Heidelberg and there he received his PhD. When he got back to the United States, he was ordained. This was a very busy decade for James Woodrow getting his degrees, getting ordained, and he topped it off by getting married to Ms. Felie Baker. She was the daughter of an older fellow Presbyterian minister.

Well, an 1861, James Woodrow and his wife moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and he became a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. A decade later in 1870, he would be joined by his brother-in-Law, Joseph Wilson, Jr. And they named their first son after the mother’s brother, and that son’s name was Woodrow Wilson. Of course, he would go on to be a member of the First Presbyterian church there in Columbia, but he also would go on to be president of the United States.

Well, when we move into the 1880s, we get into the controversy. Darwin was everywhere, and the theory of evolution was challenging the biblical account of the origins of the universe and the origins of man. Of course, with Woodrow’s extensive scientific background, he was brought into this debate. He believed that the Bible is silent on technical issues of natural science, and he further believed that the Bible does not contradict evolution.

Well, in 1884, the board of the seminary requested Woodrow to write his views down, and he did. He also mentioned that while Adam’s soul was uniquely created, he believed that Adam’s body had “organic continuity” with previous creation. That was around the spring of 1884. By December of 1884, the board of the seminary requested his resignation, and Woodrow simply refused, and he refused to give a reason or even to meet with the board. And this controversy dragged on for a few years. It got so bad that by the time they got to the academic year 1887 to 1888 the seminary had to close its doors. Well, finally in 1891, Woodrow did leave the seminary. He went a few blocks down and a few blocks over, and became president of the College of South Carolina, now known as the University of South Carolina, a post he held throughout the 1890s. Well, that controversy in Columbia in the 1880s foreshadowed the controversy of evolution that would dominate the 1900s through the 1920s. That’s the controversy in Columbia. And I’m Steve Nichols, and thanks for listening to 5 Minutes in Church History.