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Natural theology

John Davidson (August 6, 1878–February 10, 1970)

John Davidson was a botanist who popularized nature study through illustrated public lectures. He created the Vancouver Natural History Society and the University of British Columbia’s herbarium and botanical garden. Today, many consider Davidson an environmental folk hero for his conservation efforts.

Religion, natural theology and natural history

John Davidson believed in natural theology, and referred to it in his writing. Natural theologians, believe that, because nature’s various parts fit together so perfectly, there must be a God behind nature’s design. They believe that people, therefore, can see evidence of God’s existence by observing nature, rather than reading the bible. Religious natural historians collected, described and classified natural objects as a way to learn about God’s plan for the world. Davidson agreed with this and felt that, since the same author wrote both the bible and the book of nature, a reading of either would provide an understanding to God’s intentions for the world.

The amateur naturalist tradition became popular first in the UK and later in Canada, because it encouraged good character and useful activity. Natural theology, many felt, led to better behaviour and a stronger belief in God. Humans’ ability to study the world placed them above nature. By identifying and classifying specimens, naturalists searched “for patterns of uniformity and interrelatedness in nature, which would in turn reveal nature’s basic laws.”

In nineteenth-century Europe, two authors’ writings changed the way people saw the world: Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–1833) and Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). While it took decades for the religious importance of these books to reach amateurs, these books strongly affected professional scientists.

In his three volumes, Lyell stressed the idea of constant and repeated environmental change, while Darwin suggested that species evolved over time in response to those changes. Still later, American George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature (1864) convinced Lyell that he was wrong in thinking that human’s effect on nature was “no greater than that of brute animals,” as Lyell had told Marsh in a letter. Suddenly the relationship of God, nature and human beings became a subject of open debate.

A changing worldview

John Davidson’s worldview included all of these ideas. Davidson did not believe in “special creation,” which implied that nature had remained unchanged since the beginning of time. Davidson was a creationist but he believed that species could evolve. Since he allowed for environmental change, this included change caused by humans. In Davidson’s opinion, humans could do the world great harm, which could even lead to a species becoming extinct.

Davidson held both religious and scientific views and did not distinguish one from the other:

For many years, God has been revealing himself in a marvelous way to men of science in their search for truth, in their effort to “Prove all things and hold fast that which is good”; and the harmony of these revelations in Astronomy, Geology and Biology is greater, and shows a more exalted unity of purpose, than is to be found amongst our so-called Christian Churches.

He took this combined religious and scientific outlook to exaggerated lengths, even saying, “Next time you read through the journeys of Moses, think of him as a distinguished geologist on a geological survey.”

Through the course of their collecting activities, North American natural historians witnessed the role that immigrants played in changing the environmental relationships in their newly adopted home. The combination of Davidson’s botanical collecting and religious beliefs provided him with great motivation to be politically active in preventing what he saw as human-induced environmental changes, changes that went against the will of God.

As passionate about his church as he was about botany, Davidson organized the Ruth Morton Memorial Baptist Church when he first arrived in Vancouver. Later, when he moved from a rental house at 29th and Fraser to his own home on 42nd Avenue in Kerrisdale, he helped to start a second church, Kerrisdale Baptist Church. Davidson knew the New Testament very well and debated it often with fellow natural historians such as C.F. Connor.

Brink on Davidson
Listen to the audio clip: “Religion, humour, and the VNHS camps” (streaming, 1.83 MB)

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Few of the amateur natural historians in the Vancouver Natural History Society were as religious as Davidson, but Davidson always insisted on observing Sundays as a day of rest in his field camps.