Do you ever wonder why things are the way they are?
Young people are leaving church in droves. Social issues have divided the country. An American president minimizes the country’s Christian heritage. Appointed judges stamp decisions with personal bias. Business “leaders” engage in ruthless practices.
Like you, I’ve wondered about all this. Unlike some, I believe the core problem can be traced to the marketing of Darwinian philosophy in the United States. Now, a book has been written that outlines this fascinating, corrosive advancement of naturalism.
Barry Werth’s “Banquet at Delmonico’s” is a landmark book. His research into the colliding worldviews of the 19th century provides an answer for why our society functions as it does.
The skeleton around which the book is built is the semi-famous dinner held in honor of the British philosopher Herbert Spencer at a New York eatery in 1882.
Spencer, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, exported his philosophy of naturalism across the Atlantic with the help of several fawning American friends, and America is still reaping the whirlwind. Werth’s detailed research into not only the dinner at Delmonico’s, but also the lead-up is riveting and informative.
In the narrative, Werth blends in how the theory of evolution reached into every sphere of society, including politics and business. He brilliantly weaves a tale of science, hardscrabble political fights and the brutality of the Industrial Age. From Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley, to the ruthless Andrew Carnegie, “Banquet at Delmonico’s” gives a clear picture of why men think and behave the way they do.
Herbert Spencer was a friend, and one could say associate, of Charles Darwin. Whereas Darwin purported to discover the mechanisms for evolutionary development in biology, Spencer saw the vast expanse of social theory as a laboratory in which he could develop his ideas about why people behave the way they do. In short, he believed that behaviors are the product of evolution and that random changes account for each person’s makeup. This affects not only individual relationships, but more importantly, how culture unfolds.
Interestingly, Werth does not explore much the presuppositions that men like Darwin and Huxley brought to matters of faith, but these men were shaped by their own atheistic fathers and grandfathers.
Werth does engage in extraordinary research into the ramifications of these belief systems and focuses heavily on social upheaval in America at the time Spencer & Friends were promoting evolutionary theory in Europe.
For example, Werth publishes letters from Spencer to his friends and associates, then leaps over to the goings on in America: corruption in the Grand administration, Henry Ward Beecher’s progression from orthodox clergyman to Darwin disciple and the burgeoning American economy, spearheaded by men like Carnegie.
In fact, Carnegie looms large on this landscape, finding in Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” mentality the justification for brutal business practices. In fact, Carnegie’s letters to Spencer sound like a lover, so worshipful are they in their compliments of the evolutionary master.
Werth does give ample space to the changing worldview of Henry Ward Beecher. The famous clergyman was not only the Billy Graham of his day, but also the brother of the writer, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher had long struggled with his faith in his father’s religion, and eventually he gave himself wholly over the Darwin.
Interestingly, Beecher’s journey parallels that of many American Christian leaders today, especially as they yearn to jettison certain “unappealing” doctrines.
Notice this passage from “Banquet at Delmonico’s”: “Beecher broached the final redoubt of dogmatic Christianity: Hell. He had dismissed the horrors of eternal damnation all his life, once explaining, ‘Tell me that back of Christ is a God who for unnumbered centuries has gone on creating men and sweeping them like dead flies – nay, like living ones – into Hell is to ask me to worship a being as much worse than the conception of any medieval devil as can be imagined.’ But now he felt fortified by scripture and science, and Beecher took his stance public.”
And that is really the underlying theme of “Banquet at Delmonico’s”: Werth has done a terrific job of showing how the marketing of evolutionary thought had as much to do with its wide acceptance as the work of the scientists. Beecher, along with men like Asa Gray and John Fiske, helped Spencer, Darwin, and Huxley export this philosophy of death (although, to be fair, its adherents saw wonder and grandeur in Darwin’s theory) to the shores of a still-young America. Soon after, spiritism and the occult gripped the nation.
The dinner itself, held in a smoke-filled hall, is anti-climactic. Spencer himself, the guest of honor, was exhausted from his lecture tour and clearly uncomfortable with the adulation heaped on him by people he no doubt felt were inferior to him.
Yet if Herbert Spencer was tired, those change agents in America who had a vested interest in promoting evolutionary theory were energized. They tirelessly promoted Darwin in every sphere of American society.
We have been reaping that rotten fruit ever since.