Closed Mouth, Open Mind: Lewis Henry Morgan and Religion

Courtesy of Rare Books, Special Collection and Preservation, University of Rochester.

Authored by: Daniel Gorman Jr.

Rev. J.H. McIlvaine became friends with Morgan while serving as pastor of Rochester’s First Presbyterian Church in the 1850s. McIlvaine joined Morgan’s “Pundit” Club, where leading men from Rochester society presented papers on the latest scientific and historical research. Although McIlvaine moved to Princeton, he served as a peer reviewer for Morgan’s book Systems of Consanguinity in the 1860s and maintained a lively correspondence with Morgan through the 1870s. While Morgan’s letters to McIlvaine do not survive, McIlvaine’s letters to Morgan are full of religion, politics, and philology. When Morgan died in December 1881, McIlvaine traveled to Rochester and gave the eulogy at the funeral.

This letter, which McIlvaine wrote to Morgan on 19 Dec. 1876, illuminates Morgan’s religious beliefs in a roundabout way: “You are so abominably closed mouthed upon this subject, even to your best friends, (which is a great fault) that a body does not know where to have you. As for me, I know of nothing better than to trust in Christ for salvation.” McIlvaine reiterates his faith in God’s will and suggests that Morgan should accept Christ as his savior. Indeed, McIlvaine notes, a friend’s child has ceased kneeling to pray, claiming that he is merely copying Morgan’s behavior.

Morgan’s religious views remain enigmatic. He never wrote a definitive statement of his views, but his ideas about the capacities of animals and humans are suggestive. Eliphalet Nott, president of Morgan’s alma mater Union College, was a Common Sense Presbyterian who thought science reflected the will of God. To Nott, animals and humans could both think, but only humans could appreciate religion or morals. Morgan modified Nott’s views in his writings: Animals could think and feel. Indeed, Morgan’s writings from 1843 to 1877 affirm that God has given animals and humans portions of the thinking principle, a force that has existed since creation. Morgan’s theology seems to replace the Word of God — Christ as presented in the Gospel of John — with cognition. Darwin influenced Morgan’s evolutionary model of society, but it is unclear if Morgan embraced Darwin’s idea that humans came from lesser animals. McIlvaine wrote that Morgan deleted a pro-Darwin passage from Ancient Society at his request.

In any event, the deistic, contrarian Morgan associated with orthodox Christians. He harbored the anti-Catholicism common to Protestants of his era, and he relied on foreign missionaries as anthropological research assistants. His wife Mary, with whom the McIlvaines were close, was a devout Presbyterian. She filled her 1870–71 travel diaries with the sermons she heard and religious books she read while in Europe. All three Morgan children were baptized at First Presbyterian. Church records indicate that Morgan himself never became a full communicant at First Presbyterian, but we know that he accompanied Mary to services for decades. Indeed, when Morgan grew depressed after finishing Ancient Society (1877), he took up church politics as a hobby. When First Presbyterian’s pastor resigned, Morgan recruited several people — including McIlvaine — for the job. McIlvaine refused to leave his Princeton congregation, and the two men were briefly estranged. Their friendship resumed by 1879, however.

McIlvaine’s eulogy paints a rosy picture of their friendship. He says they never fought; their letters reveal they argued over religion. The reverend asserts that Morgan’s evolutionary model of society never challenged the Bible, and Morgan was not a Darwinian. In fact, Morgan and McIlvaine disputed the age of the Earth, and Morgan may have had deeper Darwinian sympathies than he let on. McIlvaine is clear that Morgan, shortly before his death, said he had embraced Christianity, but this statement challenges Morgan’s 40-year-old theology of cognition. On some matters, Morgan will always remain closed-mouthed. Yet the eulogy reveals that he inspired one change in McIlvaine’s traditional beliefs: McIlvaine says that even a religious doubter like Morgan can enter heaven.