Archive for the ‘James Woodrow’ Tag

Feast of James Woodrow (January 17)   Leave a comment

Above:  James Woodrow

Image Scanned by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

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JAMES WOODROW (MAY 30, 1828-JANUARY 17, 1907)

Southern Presbyterian Minister, Naturalist, and Alleged Heretic

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Let the Church show herself the patroness of learning in everything…and let her never be subjected by mistaken friends, to the charge that she fears the light.

–James Woodrow, November 22, 1861; quoted in Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, 1607-1861 (1963), 508

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Above:  Logo of the Presbyterian Church in the United States

Image Scanned by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

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James Woodrow, brother-in-law of Joseph Ruggles Wilson (1822-1903) and uncle of President (first of Princeton University then of the United States of America) Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via two authors.  For this post I draw from Clayton H. Ramsey’s article about Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greene County, Georgia, in the Autumn 2018 issue of Georgia Backroads magazine.  I also derive information from the first two volumes of Ernest Trice Thompson‘s magisterial three-volume work, Presbyterians in the South (1963-1973).  I also derive information from Journals of Southern Presbyterian General Assemblies.

James Woodrow, a native of England, spent most of his life in the United States.  He, born in Carlisle on May 30, 1828, emigrated with his family as a youth.  He graduated from Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1849.  Then he studied under naturalist Louis Agassiz at the Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard.  After teaching in Alabama, Woodrow was a professor at Oglethorpe University, Midway, Georgia, from 1853 to 1861.  He taught geology, botany, chemistry, and natural philosophy.  Our saint also took a few years off to earn graduate degrees at the University of Heidelberg.  When he graduated in 1856, he could have become the Chair of Natural Sciences at Heidelberg, had he accepted the offer.  Woodrow studied theology after returning to Oglethorpe University.  He became a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) on October 15, 1859; the ordination occurred at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greene County, Georgia.

Columbia Theological Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina, created an endowed professorship, Woodrow’s next job, in 1861.  Judge John Perkins, of Mississippi, provided the funding for the position, with the intention that the Perkins Professor of Natural Science refute Evolution and prepare seminarians to do the same.  Woodrow, who started the job in late 1861, insisted on academic freedom, though.  He also carried into the professorship his conviction that God could not contradict himself in the Bible and in science, and that any seeming contradiction between the Bible and science must result from the misinterpretation of scripture.  This position left Woodrow, who refused to dismiss rock layers and fossil records, open to accepting Evolution, which he did by 1884.

The Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) formed at First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, on December 4, 1861.   Wilson became a charter member of the new denomination.

The Civil War disrupted elements of church life in the South.  Columbia Theological Seminary closed for most of the conflict.  Furthermore, The Southern Presbyterian did not always go to the presses.  Woodrow remained busy, though.

  1. He edited The Southern Presbyterian.
  2. He became the Treasurer of the PCCSA’s Foreign Mission Committee in 1861.
  3. He became the Treasurer of the PCCSA’s Home Mission Committee in 1863.
  4. He taught chemistry at the College of South Carolina.
  5. He managed the Medical and Chemical Confederate Laboratory, which made silver nitrate for wound care.

In December 1865, after Confederate defeat, the PCCSA renamed itself the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS).

When Columbia Theological Seminary reopened and The Southern Presbyterian resumed publication, Woodrow’s roles at them resumed, also.  He was one of the more progressive members of his denomination; he favored friendly relations with the “Northern” (actually national) Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.  As Woodrow became more accepting of Evolution, he moved in a direction opposite of that of the PCUS.  By 1884 his alleged heresy had become so controversial that the seminary closed for two years, reopening in 1886.  The seminary board requested in 1884 that Woodrow resign; he refused.  The heresy trial, held at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Greene County, Georgia, in 1886, ended in an acquittal.  Nevertheless, the seminary board fired our saint on December 8, 1886.

The PCUS General Assemblies of 1886, 1888, 1889, and 1924 passed resolutions taking the position opposite of Professor Woodrow.

Life went on for James Woodrow, who remained prominent in the PCUS.  He, the editor of The Southern Presbyterian consistently since 1866, continued in that role until 1893.  On the side, he continued to teach at the University of South Carolina, where he had been on faculty since 1869.  The seminary board forbade Columbia students to attend his lectures, though.  Woodrow went on to serve as the President of the University of South Carolina from 1891 to 1897.  Furthermore, he was, for a time, the President of the Central National Bank, Columbia.  In 1896, when the Presbytery of Charleston sought to prevent African-American men from becoming ordained ministers, Woodrow sided against the presbytery and with the Synod of South Carolina.  The General Assembly supported the position of the synod.

Woodrow retained the ability to create controversy at the end of his life.  The General Assembly of 1901 elected him the Moderator for a year.  The following year, at the General Assembly, our saint offended many in his sermon; he recognized the Roman Catholic Church as a Christian organization.  The General Assembly of 1902 passed a resolution NOT to print his sermon.

Woodrow, ailing in 1906, had surrendered his leadership roles in the church.  That year, as he neared death, the Board of Directors of Columbia Theological Seminary passed resolutions praising him for his piety and orthodoxy.

Woodrow, aged 78 years, died in Columbia, South Carolina, on January 17, 1907.

The General Assembly of 1969 affirmed:

Neither Scripture, nor our Confession of Faith, nor our catechisms, teach the creation of man by direct and immediate acts of God as to exclude the possibility of evolution as a scientific theory.

Woodrow would have approved.

Good science should always overrule bad theology.

The Christian Church has a mixed record regarding science, faith, and reason.  On the positive side are giants such as James Woodrow, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Galileo Galilei.  The Society of Jesus has a venerable tradition of astronomy.  One may reach back as far as St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 210/2015), the “Father of Christian Scholarship,” who affirmed the value of truth, whether or not of Christian origin.  One may also continue that line through his pupil, Origen.  When one skips a few centuries, one arrives at St. Albert the Great (d. 1280) and his student, St. Thomas Aquinas, who affirmed the compatibility of faith and reason.  On the negative side are figures such as St. Robert Bellarmine (who confronted Galileo and whom I will never add to my Ecumenical Calendar) and William Jennings Bryan (who, likewise, has less probability than  a snowball in Hell of joining the ranks at my Ecumenical Calendar).

All this is easy for me to write, for I am unapologetic product of the Northern Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the best of Roman Catholic tradition.  My intellectualism and my acceptance of science inform my Christian faith.  God is not the author of confusion.  Furthermore, God does not deceive us with manufactured fossils and rock layers meant to test our faith.  God cannot lie, but human beings are capable of misunderstanding.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 6, 2019 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF THE TRANSFIGURATION

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God of grace and glory, you create and sustain the universe in majesty and beauty:

We thank you for James Woodrow and all in whom you have planted

the desire to know your creation and to explore your work and wisdom.

Lead us, like them, to understand better the wonder and mystery of creation;

through Jesus Christ your eternal Word, through whom all things were made.  Amen.

Genesis 2:9-20

Psalm 34:8-14

2 Corinthians 13:1-6

John 20:24-37

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 738

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