The Vestiges of Creation Meets the Scientific Sovereignty of God:

Natural and Theological Science at Princeton, 1845–1859

By Ryan C. MacPherson

Presented for the History of Science Society Annual Meeting, Milwaukee, WI, 8 Nov. 2002.



  • [Robert Chambers], Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1st London ed., 1844; 1st American ed., 1845) and sequel Explanations (1845): “law of development”—solar systems from nebulae, living organisms from nonliving matter, and higher organic species from lower ones
  • Case-study focus: receptions of Vestiges at Old School Presbyterian–affiliated Princeton College (PC) and Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS)
  • Historiography: pan-Christian providentialism, the design argument, and “Baconian” Scottish Realism account for  Prof. Albert Dod’s rejection of Vestiges in Princeton Review (1845)
  • Thesis: A distinctive Old School Presbyterian emphasis on God’s sovereignty in both theological and natural sciences shaped reactions to Vestiges by Dod and others at PC and PTS, with providentialism, divine design, and Baconianism being subordinated to this distinctive emphasis.


The Presbyterian Setting

  • Princeton College and Princeton Theological Seminary jointly promoted a Presbyterian education in which natural and revealed knowledge both were oriented by the sovereignty of God.
  • God’s sovereignty: God’s will and action alone determine the destiny of each person’s soul, and natural occurrences (e.g. a planet’s orbit) result from God’s will and action (not the planet’s nature).
  • Prof. Albert Dod’s Review of Vestiges: “Development” must be rejected because it is not an empirically verified law of God’s sovereign will and action in nature, but rather an “atheistic” claim that nature can transform itself independently of God’s ordinary superintendence (natural laws) and extraordinary intervention (miracles).


Vestiges at Princeton College

  • Vestiges falsely claims that the laws of nature themselves assume a power that is God’s alone.
  • The analogies by which Vestiges links the nonliving to the living, or one species to another, do not conform to the proper method of analogy. They are merely “rhetorical” analogies.


Vestiges at Princeton Theological Seminary

  • Vestiges promotes the “atheistic” notion that nonliving matter can organize itself and become living.
  • Vestiges denies that God’s work of creation is ex nihilo, a doctrine that parallels God’s ex nihilo (sovereign) conversion of human souls to salvation.



  • Knowledge in the natural and theological sciences at Princeton College and Princeton Theological Seminary was organized around God’s sovereignty.
  • Vestiges was a widely circulated work that denied God’s sovereignty.
  • Therefore, Princeton’s professors regarded Vestiges as a threat and prepared their students to refute it.


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