I have a continuing interest in popular historical mythology—that is, the yawning gulf that separates what really happened in the past from what large numbers of even quite well-educated individuals think occurred.  Given contemporary cultural debates, it is scarcely surprising that such myths commonly focus on religious themes, usually to the massive disadvantage of religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular.

To take an example, I’m struck by the simple misstatements that surround Charles Darwin and his role in the intellectual world of his time.  To be sure, Darwin was a magnificent scientist who reshaped Victorian thought, but many of his supposedly revolutionary insights just were not that new in the context of the age.  Reading The Origin of Species in 1859, people did not throw up their hands in astonishment to find that the world was potentially millions of years old, or that it long predated 4004 b.c.  Nor would they have been too startled by the suggestion that animals developed from other forms.  Such ideas had been common currency since the 1790’s, and religious believers had for decades been striving, quite successfully, to integrate the new scientific paradigms into the worldview set forth in the Bible.  In itself, then, Darwin’s work clearly did not ignite a broad cultural crisis of faith.  The fact that we often think it did results from our tendency to frame history as a series of dramatic stories, preferably with striking heroes and villains.  We can imagine the scriptwriters now, portraying an heroic young Darwin who strides manfully onto the stage, while knuckle-dragging churchmen plot to silence him.

To get a glimpse of that older world—to understand how devoted Christians were not just coping with new research, but vigorously leading it—look at the once world-famous William Buckland (1784-1856).  Although he has nothing like the celebrity cachet of Darwin today, Buckland and other believers like him created the intellectual world in which Darwin could flourish.

Like most of England’s greatest scientists at the time, Buckland was a clergyman, who ultimately held the prestigious position of Anglican dean of Westminster.  Of course, his religious beliefs did not for a second interfere with his intrepid scientific pursuits, in geology and mineralogy. He had a special passion for the signs that were then emerging of the distant geological past, and from his youth, he sought out the fossils being discovered in the building boom of England’s Industrial Revolution.  He knew perfectly well that strange animals had become extinct in the remote past: It is to Buckland that we owe the first full published account of a dinosaur, a megalosaurus.

Much of Buckland’s work by the 1820’s involved the exploration and excavation of caves, and he has a good claim to rank as the founder of scientific paleontology.  In one of his most important digs, at the spectacular Welsh site of Paviland, he turned up human remains dating back over 30,000 years.

It was in the course of this scientific work that he demonstrated the character that made him not just brilliant, but highly likable.  Buckland was anxious to find out just how the bones he discovered had been arranged into the chaotic patterns he saw, and he speculated plausibly about the role of scavengers.  (He pioneered what has become a whole subdiscipline of studying these postmortem patterns.)  As an inquisitive scientist, he sought to prove his theories by experiment, buying his own live hyena, christened Billy, and observing how the animal treated his food.  Scientific propriety demanded that at the end of the experiment, he should kill and dissect Billy, which he could not bear to do.  The animal spent many years as a beloved domestic pet, causing perpetual havoc in the sober ecclesiastical setting of his deanery.

As a believer, Buckland had to reconcile the vast time-scales he was describing with the Book of Genesis, dilemmas that he was wrestling with when Darwin was still a schoolboy.  In his classic Reliquiæ Diluvianæ (1823), Buckland suggested a kind of Old Earth Creationism.  Yes, Genesis recorded the story of Creation, but vast periods of geological time separated that original event from the establishment of the current human order.  Originally, he postulated a world repeatedly destroyed and repopulated after floods and catastrophes.  By the 1840’s, though, he showed himself flexible enough to take account of the potent new evidence suggesting that most such changes resulted from ice ages and glaciation.  His faith, of course, never wavered.

Later generations can argue with details of William Buckland’s view of prehistory, but in broad outline, he had as good a sense of how the world had reached its present state as anyone then living.  And he died three years before the publication of Mr. Darwin’s book—which was far less shocking than we often assume.