The Two Pattersons

title page of The Other Side of Evolution

There is nothing particularly odd, I suppose, about the fact that opposition to evolution sometimes runs in families. Henry M. Morris, the father of modern creation science, was also the father of John D. Morris and Henry M. Morris III, president emeritus and chief executive officer, respectively, of the Institute for Creation Research. The flamboyant young-earth creationist Kent Hovind of Creation Science Evangelism is the father of Eric Hovind of Creation Today. The young-earth creationist and “intelligent design” promoter Paul Nelson of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture is the grandson of Byron C. Nelson, a young-earth creationist of the Scopes era. Along with the young-earth creationist Ken Ham, Answers in Genesis also reportedly employs a whole crowd of his relatives and in-laws. Doubtless there are further examples. As I say, there is nothing particularly odd, or discreditable for that matter, about it. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the two Pattersons.

While I was researching “Misquoting Murchison,” in which I was trying to locate a passage attributed to the Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison—“I know as much of nature in her geologic ages as any living man, and I fearlessly say that our geologic record does not afford one syllable of evidence in support of Darwin’s theory”—I was reading through Alexander Patterson’s The Other Side of Evolution: An Examination of its Evidences (1903). Patterson appears to be the first person to quote Murchison in that way, although he originally did so not in The Other Side of Evolution but in a previous book, The Greater Life and Work of Christ: As Revealed in Scripture, Man, and Nature (1896), except with a reference to nature’s “geologic era” rather than nature’s “geologic ages.” And Patterson garbled it: what Murchison in fact wrote was “I flatter myself that I have seen as much of nature in her old moods as any living man, and I fearlessly say that our geological record does not afford one scintilla of evidence to support Darwin’s theory.”

Anyhow, as any sensible person would, I consulted Ronald L. Numbers’s The Creationists (1992) to see what was said about Patterson. On p. 17, Numbers refers to him as “a Presbyterian evangelist and longtime friend of [Dwight] Moody’s who taught and lectured at the Moody Bible Institute” in Chicago. Patterson’s book impressed A. C. Dixon—later to coedit The Fundamentals with R. A. Torrey—as “about the best thing” on the topic; it would, Dixon thought, “do an immense amount of good if sent to all the preachers, theological professors, theological students, Y.M.C.A. secretaries and Sunday School superintendents of the English-speaking world.” Numbers devotes a paragraph to describing Patterson’s views on evolution, but offers no biographical details, not even the years of his birth and death. Fortunately, I was able to locate Patterson’s obituary in The Jewish Era—a publication of the Chicago Hebrew Mission, later the American Messianic Fellowship, which sought to evangelize the Jewish community—for January 1913.

According to the obituary, Patterson was born “in the north of Ireland of Scottish parentage in the year 1844” and brought to the United States “when but two years of age,” so in 1846 or 1847. “His father, the Rev. Robert Patterson, D. D., was a man of sterling Christian character, a deep thinker and a powerful preacher. For some years he was pastor of the Scotch Presbyterian Church and later of the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church of Chicago.” (His mother, I’m afraid, receives only one word, “godly,” which she shares with his father.) I won’t rehearse the rest of the obituary, except to note that Patterson was credited with the authorship of The Other Side of Evolution and The Greater Life and Work of Christ (so it’s certain that it’s the same Alexander Patterson), that he was identified as a trustee of the Chicago Hebrew Mission (hence the obituary in its publication), and that he died on November 2, 1912. But the mention of the name of Patterson’s father came as something of a surprise to me.

Why? In the index to The Creationists, “Patterson, Alexander” is just above “Patterson, Robert,” and the discussion of Robert Patterson appears on pp. 14 and 15, just before the main discussion of Alexander Patterson. There Numbers refers to “four creationist pamphlets—subsequently published in book form as The Errors of Evolution (1885)—by Robert Patterson (1821–1885), the Irish-born pastor of the East Oakland Presbyterian Church in California.” There’s no suggestion in The Creationists that Robert Patterson and Alexander Patterson were related, and Oakland is not exactly in the same neighborhood as Chicago. But by now I was wondering. So I took a look at the third edition of The Errors of Evolution (the subtitle of which, by the way, is An Examination of the Nebular Theory, Geological Evolution, the Origin of Life, and Darwinism), which contained a biographical note about the author, who was eight years in his grave by the time of its publication in 1893.

The Robert Patterson of The Errors of Evolution was “born in Letterkenny, County of Donegal, Ireland, of Scotch Irish parents,” emigrated to the United States in 1847, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1852. “In 1857 he removed to Chicago, where he became pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church … continuing there until the foundation of the Jefferson Park Presbyterian Church was laid in 1861, the pastorate of which he accepted.” He stayed in Chicago until 1873, and then he served in turn as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, the Central Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, and (from 1880 until his death in 1883) the East Oakland Presbyterian Church, where he worked on what would become The Errors of Evolution. The last hours of his life “were spent in sacred seclusion with his loved ones,—two daughters and a son, Alexander, a preacher of the same blessed gospel which had been his joy in life and was his comfort as death drew nigh.” Alexander!

It’s true that Patterson is not a particularly rare surname (it was the 104th most common surname in the 2000 census), especially in Chicago, where a family of Pattersons was long connected with the Chicago Tribune (“the World’s Greatest Newspaper,” as it used to style itself). But the biographical details for Robert Patterson provided in the third edition of The Errors of Evolution are so close to the biographical details for Robert Patterson provided in the obituary for Alexander Patterson that I am convinced that they are one and the same, even though the connection seems never to have been remarked in the literature. A further, if not decisive, consideration: Alexander Patterson dedicated The Greater Life and Work of Christ to the memory of his father “Rev. Robert Patterson, D.D.,” and later in the book quotes (with a very specific citation) “Dr. Patterson”’s The Errors of Evolution on the inefficacy of natural selection. If they weren’t the same person, it would be odd of him not to mention it!

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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