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When Science and Religion Clashed at Oxford University

When Science and Religion Clashed at Oxford University

Science and Religion clashed at Oxford when Samuel Wilberforce theologian and Thomas Huxley biologist, debated God’s part in the creation of the world versus evolution. The debate continues to this day but originally took place at Oxford University.

The date was 30th June 1860, a warm Summers evening and the temperature was just about to get even hotter as Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and biologist Thomas Huxley (click to read the whole debate) met on a debating platform at the Oxford University’s Museum Library.

  • It was a meeting of  the British Association for the Advancement of Science and they were there to debate  God’s part in the creation of the world versus evolution.
  • Huxley had Darwin’s book the Origin of Species, (click to read the book online)  published in 1859 and Wilberforce had the Bible.
  • It wasn’t just Darwin’s book that caused people to question the chronology of the Bible, during the Enlightenment period, scientists such as Hutton and Lyell who were examining geological evidence were casting doubt on the story of creation.

The debate would roll on with all classes of society becoming embroiled in the question. Newspapers had a field day, whipping up the argument with cartoons and the like but the very fact that the debate was forced out into the public arena, resulted in a change in society. 

    • Religious belief was  heightened for some others became aetheists.
    • People became more knowledgeable about science, science teaching became more important to the Government, with science departments becoming established in Universties.

All of this was good for a nation and it’s people, as they learnt to adopt and adapt to the new world they now occupied. A world of increased industrial and commercial business, of poor social conditions and the need for reform. If ever people needed to be more enlightened, it was now.

So what of the debate?

It is fair to say there was a heated debate, with Wilberforce attacking Huxley over a perceived lack of evidence and with cutting dialogue it must have been marvelous to listen to. No overall winner but that was not the point, the game had begun.

To leave the last words with Wilberforce because it will appeal to all of those with a family history bent..

“Was it through his grandmother or his grandfather that he claimed his descent from a monkey?”

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