Monte Hampton teaches history at the North Carolina State University. This interview is based on his book Storm of Words: Science, Religion, and Evolution in the Civil War Era (University Alabama Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Storm of Words?
MH: Having been reared in the South, I have always found
southern history fascinating. I was also very impressed by the
perennially prominent role played by both religion and science in American
cultural history. This project wove together all three of these
categories of academic interest by looking at a community of southern Christian
intellectuals who thought deeply and wrote frequently about how to understand
the relationship between science and theology, nature and scripture. Of
course, as white southerners who had been committed to defending slavery and
the ethos of the Old South, these theologians and ministers conceptualized the
relationship between scripture, science, and the socio-cultural order in their
own unique way
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Storm of
MH: Among other things, this book explains why the first
extended evolution controversy in the trans-Atlantic world occurred in the
American South, forty years prior to the Scopes Trial. By examining a
group of eminent Southern Presbyterian ministers and theologians, a community
that had been in the forefront of linking the defense of slavery and the South
to the Bible, it shows that their unique response to Darwinian biology, as well
as to contemporary trends in anthropology, geology, and numerous socio-cultural
developments, resulted from their particular way of reading the Bible and from
the cultural trauma experienced during sectional crisis, Civil War, and
JF: Why do we need to read Storm of Words?
MH: Anyone interested in that seemingly incessant American
phenomenon known as the evolution controversy, not to mention the larger
relationship between science and religion in American discourse, should find
this book informative. Beyond that, however, this book examines the ways
culture and history have shaped the ways communities conceive of science and
religion, especially religion claiming to be based in scripture. For more than
two centuries Americans have invoked God and the Bible to support or challenge
a welter of ideas, causes, and movements—often on opposite sides of the same
issues. This is because the appropriation and use of the Bible have been
inextricably intertwined with the history and culture of the community reading
it. So, this book serves as a kind of case study of the ways the
Protestant commitment to sola scriptura has been complicated by the theological
assumptions and lived experiences that its readers have inevitably brought to
their interpretation of the Bible.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an
MH: I made the decision in the mid-1990s. As a
minister dealing with scripture and the interpretation of scripture in the
concrete life of a church and a community, I began to notice the many different
ways the Bible had been and continued to be interpreted, applied, and
deployed. This led to a curiosity about the relationship between culture
and biblical hermeneutics. I began to study the dialectic relationship
between socio-cultural identities and religion, especially religion that
claimed to find its authority in the Bible. At bottom, then, most of my
work has stemmed from a strong curiosity about epistemology, about how humans
come to know what they know, and how differences in race, gender, social class,
culture, and historical experience shape a community’s concept of knowledge and
how it should be acquired.
JF: What is your next project?
MH: I am working on two projects at present: First, with Regina Sullivan I am co-editing a
forthcoming festschrift, entitled Varieties of Southern Religious Experience
(University of South Carolina Press), which will be a collection of essays
dedicated to our doctoral advisor, Donald Mathews. Second, I am working on a paper examining the
pervasiveness in antebellum America of the so-called “conflict thesis,” the notion
that science and religion must necessarily be perennial enemies. Numerous historians, led by Ronald Numbers,
have shown that this military metaphor, which continues to enjoy popular
currency, has had less to do with the actual relationship between science and
religion in American historical discourse than with the influence of seminal
late-nineteenth century works by anti-clerical proponents of such endemic
conflict, such as Andrew Dickson White.
My paper will examine the extent to which the notion had currency in the
half-century prior to these works.
JH: Thanks Monte! Great Stuff!
Thanks to Allyson Fea for her work on this edition of the Author's Corner.