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My book is ready for the printer, and as I begin this preface my eye lights upon the crowd of Russian peasants at work on the Neva under my windows. In the early Church, as we have seen, the idea of a creation direct, material, and by means like those used by man, was all-powerful for the exclusion of conceptions based on evolution.With pick and shovel they are letting the rays of the April sun into the great ice barrier which binds together the modern quays and the old granite fortress where lie the bones of the Romanoff Czars. From the more simple and crude of the views of creation given in the Babylonian legends, and thence incorporated into Genesis, rose the stream of orthodox thought on the subject, which grew into a flood and swept on through the Middle Ages and into modern times.But there is danger that it may resist the pressure too long and break suddenly, wrenching even the granite quays from their foundations, bringing desolation to a vast population, and leaving, after the subsidence of the flood, a widespread residue of slime, a fertile breeding-bed for the germs of disease. The barrier, exposed more and more to the warmth of spring by the scores of channels they are making, will break away gradually, and the river will flow on beneficent and beautiful. In the latter half of the sixteenth century these evolutionary theories seemed to take more definite form in the mind of Giordano Bruno, who evidently divined the fundamental idea of what is now known as the "nebular hypothesis"; but with his murder by the Inquisition at Rome this idea seemed utterly to disappear—dissipated by the flames which in 1600 consumed his body on the Campo dei Fiori.My work in this book is like that of the Russian mujik on the Neva. THEOLOGICAL EFFORTS AT COMPROMISE.—THE FINAL VICTORY OF SCIENCE. Yet within the two centuries divided by Bruno's death the world was led into a new realm of thought in which an evolution theory of the visible universe was sure to be rapidly developed.As the struggle deepened, as hostile resolutions were introduced into various ecclesiastical bodies, as honored clergymen solemnly warned their flocks first against the "atheism," then against the "infidelity," and finally against the "indifferentism" of the university, as devoted pastors endeavoured to dissuade young men from matriculation, I took the defensive, and, in answer to various attacks from pulpits and religious newspapers, attempted to allay the fears of the public. There was established and endowed in the university perhaps the most effective Christian pulpit, and one of the most vigorous branches of the Christian Association, then in the United States; but all this did nothing to ward off the attack. He dwelt on the action of law, rejected the continuous exercise of miraculous intervention, pointed out the fact that in the natural world there are "errors" and "bungles," and argued vigorously in favour of the origin and maintenance of the universe as a slow and gradual development of Nature in obedience to an inward principle.
I was also obliged from time to time to throw off by travel the effects of overwork. Then came the great contribution of the nineteenth century to physics, aiding to explain important parts of the vast process by the mechanical theory of heat.
It is something over a quarter of a century since I labored with Ezra Cornell in founding the university which bears his honored name. It was vigorously urged against him that by his statement of the law of gravitation he "took from God that direct action on his works so constantly ascribed to him in Scripture and transferred it to material mechanism," and that he "substituted gravitation for Providence." But, more than this, these men gave a new basis for the theory of evolution as distinguished from the theory of creation.
Our purpose was to establish in the State of New York an institution for advanced instruction and research, in which science, pure and applied, should have an equal place with literature; in which the study of literature, ancient and modern, should be emancipated as much as possible from pedantry; and which should be free from various useless trammels and vicious methods which at that period hampered many, if not most, of the American universities and colleges. Especially worthy of note is it that the great work of Descartes, erroneous as many of its deductions were, and, in view of the lack of physical knowledge in his time, must be, had done much to weaken the old conception.
It had certainly never entered into the mind of either of us that in all this we were doing anything irreligious or unchristian. Cornell was reared a member of the Society of Friends; he had from his fortune liberally aided every form of Christian effort which he found going on about him, and among the permanent trustees of the public library which he had already founded, he had named all the clergymen of the town—Catholic and Protestant. Thirty years later came, in England, an effort of a different sort, but with a similar result.
As for myself, I had been bred a churchman, had recently been elected a trustee of one church college, and a professor in another; those nearest and dearest to me were devoutly religious; and, if I may be allowed to speak of a matter so personal to my self, my most cherished friendships were among deeply religious men and women, and my greatest sources of enjoyment were ecclesiastical architecture, religious music, and the more devout forms of poetry. In 1678 Ralph Cudworth published his Intellectual System of the Universe.