In Praise of Pickett, Part 2

Illustration from God or the Guessers

Leander Lycurgus Pickett’s antievolution screed God or the Guessers (1926), as I discussed in part 1, is elusive. You can’t find the text of it or a copy for sale on-line, and WorldCat lists only three libraries with copies in their collections. I finally obtained a copy via Inter-Library Loan (from, as it happens, a library not listing it in WorldCat), and I’m happy that I did. Pickett is a hoot, both on account of his gullibility—in addition to the usual crop of misleading quotations, he even repeats the Lady Hope story of Darwin’s deathbed doubts, which is at least rare in Scopes-era antievolution books—and his over-the-top rhetorical style. After quoting from the book of Isaiah, for example, he asks, “Who ever found such wonderful, soul-comforting messages as this in the fish-fallacies of evolution? Their ‘natural processes’ do not fill the hearts of believers therein with joy and gladness.” Fish-fallacies! (As the frontispiece to the book shows, Pickett was fascinated by fish.) But those aren’t the only delights to be found in God or the Guessers: far from it.

The Science League of America looms large in Pickett’s book—not, of course, the twenty-first-century blog of the National Center for Science Education, but the twentieth-century science education advocacy organization. Led by the polymath Maynard Shipley, the original Science League of America fought antievolution legislation, helped teachers discharged for teaching evolution, argued for evolution in articles and letters to the editor in magazines and newspapers, lectured and arranged for lectures all over the country, and basically served as “a vast clearing-house and information bureau.” (Familiar, no?) Shipley debated about evolution with two Seventh-Day Adventist evangelists, Francis D. Nichol and Alonzo L. Baker, in San Francisco in 1925, and Pickett availed himself of the published version of the debate, The San Francisco Debates on Evolution (1925), for the bulk of the evolutionary content of his book. Indeed, except for Samuel Christian Schmucker’s Man’s Life on Earth (1925), he may have consulted nothing else.

Also worthy of mention is chapter 8, “Some Questions for Evolutionists to Answer,” consisting of sixty-five numbered paragraphs with questions apparently intended to expose the weaknesses or the dangers of evolution. Some of these are straightforward: “1. Do you believe the Bible to be the Word of God? 2. If so, what part, or how much of it?” Some of them are disingenuous: “16. If Evolution harmonizes with any part of the Bible will you be kind enough to name the Chapter and Verse? … 22. Paul was a great scholar, highly educated. Did he ever give an endorsement of Evolution? If not, why not? If so, where?” Some are just argumentative: “51. If we give up Genesis what will the rest of the Bible be worth to us? It will be like a headless man. … 57. I claim no relationship with tadpoles, protoplasm, or earth-worms. But of course the Evolutionist has a right to press his claims to be the offspring of Sir Monk if he is truly interested in completing his family tree.” (No real question there!)

Just before the litany of questions, Pickett reproduces a poem, attributed to “Evangelist Thos. H. Nelson”—presumably Thomas Hiram Nelson (1863–1953), a colorful figure in his own right. In the early 1920s, for example, he tried to wrestle control of the Christian Catholic Church of Zion, Illinois, away from the flat-earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva. In a 1953 profile in the Chicago Tribune, it is claimed that he assisted William Jennings Bryan in prosecuting Scopes; I haven’t been able to verify that, although he seems to have attended the trial, at least. He wrote a different poem, “Evolution Devilution,” dedicated to Bryan, in Dayton, and later published “The Real Issue in Tennessee” in the Moody Monthly in September 1925. Anyhow, God or the Guessers contains his poem “Evolution of, Whose Wife?” “She was once a lone Amoeba / Just beginning to begin / And next an Infusoria / With neither blood nor skin.” And so on: “Her evolution still went on / [’]Mid hunger, woe[,] and strife / ‘Till in surprise we found her here / Your evoluted Wife.”

Finally, I was also amused by Pickett’s inability to stay on topic. It’s understandable, certainly, that God or the Guessers wasn’t limited to evolution. It’s by no means atypical in a Scopes-era antievolution book for opposition to evolution and to the Higher Criticism to be intermingled, which is certainly a feature of God or the Guessers. But Pickett wanders even farther afield, especially with regard to premillenialism and temperance,  his dominant concerns throughout his career. It was disconcerting, in reading chapter 3 on “The Origin of Evolution,” to see the affirmation that “[m]y Bible is a premillenial book,” or in reading chapter 7 on “A Serious Situation and How to Meet It,” to be warned, “The liquor traffic is seeking to regain its grip upon the nation.” Still, how can you not love his fervor—and candor—when he says of evolution, “It is born of the devil, and calculated to destroy the faith by which men are saved and by which God is known. The devil is its daddy and sin is its offspring”?

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.