Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton, June – Dec 2009;Motivation

JH: Ted, with your background in physics it is easy to see why Arthur Compton would attract your historical attention. Were there other factors that drew you to study this important American scientist?

TD: Quite right, Jack, I studied physics as an undergraduate. I also did a year of graduate work before I became a high school science and mathematics teacher. And, for several years I taught introductory physics at Messiah College. Although I am not a physicist, I understand physics better than the other sciences and I knew something about Compton’s work before I became an historian. I can’t say that I understand all of his work in a technical sense—much of it went well beyond my limited training, even apart from the fact that I’ve forgotten quite a bit of physics over the years. But, I wasn’t completely at sea, and I’ve never lost my early interest in physics.

What led me to study Compton, however, was not simply the fact that he was a leading physicist with an active religious life; he was hardly alone in that. What led me to study him was a combination of three things. First, he was one of the top American physicists of his generation; second, he was not only very religious, but he wrote extensively about science and Christian faith for many years, for a wide popular audience; third—and this was actually the crucial factor for me—Compton wrote a pamphlet called Life After Death for the American Institute of Sacred Literature, an arm of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. (The final part of my essay tells about this pamphlet and the organization that printed it.)

That might seem arbitrary to many readers, so let me fill in some background. It all started with a whale—actually, several whales. Back in December 1991, the ASA Journal published my essay about modern Jonah stories—I’m sure you remember this, Jack, because you were the editor at the time. A key figure in that study was Harry Rimmer, a self-educated evangelist who was probably the most widely visible fundamentalist opponent of evolution from the late 1920s through the 1940s. In doing research on Rimmer, I learned that in November 1930 he participated in a debate about evolution with Samuel Christian Schmucker. Hardly anyone remembers Schmucker today (though many have heard of Rimmer), but at that time he was nearing the end of a long career as a nationally prominent writer, speaker, and teacher on scientific subjects. Like John Muir, he had a deeply religious response to nature that comes out even in the textbooks he wrote for the future elementary and secondary science teachers who mainly populated his courses at West Chester (PA) State Normal School. I wrote an essay about that debate for the journal, Religion and American Culture, and in doing so I discovered a rare pamphlet on natural theology and theology of nature that Schmucker had written for the American Institute of Sacred Literature. This was before the world wide web was really world wide. I learned about the pamphlet from the old National Union Catalog from the Library of Congress. It was rare—all of the AISL pamphlets are hard to find today—but a local college library had a copy that I was able to study. Inside the front cover was a list of several other pamphlets in a series called “Science and Religion” that the AISL distributed very widely during the years surrounding the Scopes trial in 1925. On further digging I found that there had been nine pamphlets in all, and that Compton had contributed to a tenth pamphlet that closely relates to the others, even though technically it was not issued as part of the same series.

I knew then that I had made a very interesting and potentially important discovery: a whole series of pamphlets on science and religion, written mostly by very famous scientists (such as Robert Millikan) and clergy (such as Harry Emerson Fosdick), that neither historians of science nor historians of religion knew anything about. I made plans eventually to write a history of the pamphlets, but since I was heavily involved then with an edition of Robert Boyle’s works I had to postpone further work on the pamphlets for many years. Since finishing the Boyle project in 2000, most of my research has been focused on the pamphlets and their authors. That’s where Compton comes in.

Even so, I didn’t envision a separate study about Compton until I realized how much he had actually written about science and religion and the range of important topics he had covered. Nor did I know until quite recently how much unpublished material related to this vital interest of his—letters, speeches, draft versions of published works, even a lengthy autobiographical essay that was crucial to my research. Nearly all of his manuscripts are at Washington University in St. Louis, where he did the work that led to his Nobel Prize and where he was Chancellor after World War Two. The archival staff there are as knowledgeable as they are friendly, which always helps. In addition, Compton’s younger son, John Joseph Compton (named after the famous physicist Joseph John Thomson), is still living. He had briefly been my department chair at Vanderbilt, and he was delighted to help me with my project. So it was easier than it might have been to pull together the materials for the essay.

Sorry for such a long answer, Jack. What’s your next question?

2 comments to Prophet of Science: Arthur Holly Compton, June – Dec 2009;Motivation

  • Randy Isaac

    Ted, you said ” second, he was not only very religious, but he wrote extensively about science and Christian faith for many years, for a wide popular audience.” Clearly Compton didn’t hide his faith. In your research, did you come across any criticism of Compton by his peers for his faith? Was there any backlash? If not, why not? Because liberal theology attracts less criticism than conservative? Or that he wasn’t dealing with evolution? Or did he dodge the controversial areas?


  • Ted Davis


    Yes, I did find a few criticisms of Compton’s religiosity by his peers; I quoted a couple of them on the final page of the essay (Dec issue, page 251). By and large, however, his peers deeply respected him, sometimes b/c of his faith but more often in spite of it. The one common criticism involves an incident during the Manhattan Project. Compton told about this on pp. 109-110 of his book, “Atomic Quest.” At a critical point during the organization of the project, when it was being decided whether it was a military, scientific, or industrial project (it was really all 3), Compton spoke to a large group of “research and administrative heads.” He “reminded them of the story of Gideon, as he selected from a much larger band the three hundred who were most eaget to press the attack against the Amalekites. I had to make the decision according to my best judgment. This would be to enter into as favorable an agreement as we could with some competent engineering or industrial concern. Those who wished to remain on the project with such associates would be most welcome.”

    Several scientists remembered this meeting and did not appreciate the way in which Compton handled it. It isn’t clear to me, however, whether their negative memories owe more to the seemingly arbitrary fashion in which Compton announced his decision, or to his use of the Bible in doing so.

    As for evolution, Compton’s views were typical for liberal Christians of his generation, including distinguished biologists such as Henry Fairfield Osborn. The whole shebbang of evolution from molecules to man made no sense unless it was guided by God–though without miracles. Compton himself used the term “intelligent design” in 1940 (see Sept issue, p. 180), and in some ways his views would fit in with those of ID advocates today. In other ways, however, they would not–esp his disbelief in miracles (including the bodily Resurrection) and his full acceptance of human evolution. (I realize that ID is officially silent on both of these points, but nearly all ID advocates probably affirm miracles and deny human evolution; they also probably think that ID provides some support for both of those positions.)

January 2010
« Dec   Apr »