A summer vacation trip to Massachusetts exposed my husband and me to the life and work of Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) and his wife, Orra White Hitchcock (1790-1863). There are many biographical sketches of Hitchcock available online, so this introduction is rather brief.
Edward Hitchcock had training in both science and theology, and spent several years at the beginning of his career as a pastor. Many years followed as an educator, professor, and college president at Amherst College, Amherst, Mass., as well as positions as the state geologist of Massachusetts and Vermont. His wife, an accomplished artist, illustrated his books and made large diagrams for his college classes.
Hitchcock’s main claim to fame is his recognition that
there were fossil footprints in the Connecticut River valley, which runs through Massachusetts and Connecticut. He considered the many different tracks that were eventually found to be from extinct giant birds, since they looked like those from a bipedal creature. (The word “dinosaur” had not yet been coined.) He collected and analyzed many fossils from the region, displaying them in a museum at Amherst College. In later years, though, he stuck to his belief that the tracks were from birds, even though dinosaur skeletons that could have made such tracks had by then been unearthed around the world. Very few actual dinosaur bones have ever been found in the Connecticut valley, however, so it’s still not known exactly which dinosaurs made the tracks.
One of Hitchcock’s major writings is the book The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences, which is a compilation of lectures on the intersection of science and theology. In it he walks a fine line between the Christians and scientists of his day who were promoting catastrophic flood geology, and those who were recognizing the old age of rocks and geologic formations. Many of his statements sound similar to what old-earth creationists say on various topics (although his creation view was most similar to the Gap Theory). Thus there are passages arguing for a regional biblical flood, and dealing with the questions of death before Adam, the occurrence of “natural evil” (natural disasters and such), and the problem of suffering.
Here are some quotations on the relationship between science and theology.
“The final conclusion from these principles is, that since science and revelation treat of the same subjects only incidentally, we ought only to expect that the facts of science, rightly understood, should not contradict the statements of revelation, correctly interpreted. Apparent discrepancies there may be; and it would not be strange, if for a time they should seem to be real; either because science has not fully and accurately disclosed the facts, or the Bible is not correctly interpreted; but if both records are from God, there can be no real contradiction between them.” [Kindle location 237]
“I would throw out a caution to those friends of religion who are very fearful that the discoveries of science will prove injurious to Christianity. Why should the enlightened Christian, who has a correct idea of the firm foundation on which the Bible rests, fear that any disclosures of the arcana of nature should shake its authority or weaken its influence? Is not the God of revelation the God of nature also? and must not his varied works tend to sustain and elucidate, instead of weakening and darkening, one another?…
“…The very men who felt so strong a conviction of the truth of the Bible, that they were ready to go to the stake in its defence, have trembled and uttered loud notes of warning when the votaries of science have brought out some new fact, that seemed perhaps at first, or when partially understood, to contravene some statement of revelation. The effect has been to make sceptical minds look with suspicion, and sometimes with contempt, upon Christianity itself. It has built up a wall of separation between science and religion, which is yet hardly broken down.” [Kindle location 540]
Some quotations on beauty:
“Some may, perhaps, doubt whether it can have been one of the objects of divine benevolence and wisdom, in arranging the surface of this world, so to construct and adorn it as to gratify a taste for fine scenery. But I cannot doubt it. I see not else why nature every where is fitted up in a lavish manner with all the elements of the sublime and beautiful, nor why there are powers in the human soul so intensely gratified in contact with those elements, unless they were expressly adapted for one another by the Creator. “[Kindle location 2478]
“The fact is, God has made all nature ‘beauty to our eye and music to our ear,’ when it was wholly unnecessary for the perfect operation of her laws; and the inference is irresistible, that he delights in the happiness of his creatures.” [Kindle location 3006]
The Memorial Hall Museum in Hitchcock’s hometown of Deerfield, Mass., has a current exhibit highlighting the work of Hitchcock and his wife. The accompanying website has much more information, showing the artifacts on display, as well as details on the science and culture of the time, the people involved with the dinosaur tracks, maps and photos, etc. Since a thorough book-length biography of Hitchcock has not yet been written, this is a good current source for information.
Amherst College continues to have a natural history museum which features Hitchcock’s acquisitions during his tenure at the college. It is one of the the world’s largest and most studied collections of dinosaur footprints, as well as containing other trace fossils such as ripple marks and plant impressions. The museum also has mineral and rock specimens, dinosaur and other fossil skeletons, and displays illustrating the complicated geologic history of the Connecticut River valley.
Amherst’s online archives contains Hitchcock’s papers as well as the collection of Orra Hitchcocks’ classroom drawings. His books are available for free in the Internet Archive, as well as on Amazon.com.