When I took up my first, temporary, full-time faculty position (at The King’s College in 1987), I discovered some fascinating books in the library. They were exactly what I wanted to read at the time. I was (and am) a botanist, and I was also an enthusiastic evangelical Christian. (My religious views are now less specific.) They were the writings of a Scottish minister of the Free Kirk (Presbyterian) of Scotland, who was also trained as a botanist. Hugh Macmillan (1833-1903; he lived the perfect Biblical lifespan of three-score and ten) wrote numerous books in which he saw the signature of the Creator in every aspect of the cosmos, especially in the botanical world. To him, a forest was not just a forest but a cathedral of God, and an alpine meadow (the subject of his first book, First Forms of Vegetation (first edition 1861)) was not just little plants but living creatures who defied the harshness of their environment to create green beauty. It was not just his love of God and of plants that attracted me to read book after book of his, but his passion for seeing blessings arise out of adversity, a subject on which I wrote two articles for the American Scientific Affiliation (1987 and 1989. I have seldom read books with such pleasure as I experienced from reading Hugh Macmillan. I wanted to write a biography of him, something that has apparently still not been done; I even got a grant from The King’s College Alumni Association to partially cover the costs of travel to Edinburgh to look for his biographical information (a grant that I ended up not using).
His books, which were widely published and translated into several languages, included:
- The Ministry of Nature
- The True Vine, or, The Analogies of Our Lord’s Allegory
- Sabbath of the Fields
- Two Worlds are Ours
- The Clock of Nature
- The Spring of the Day
- Gleanings in Holy Fields
- The Poetry of Plants
There is much to like in Macmillan’s approach to the natural world. He wrote a whole book about The Sabbath of the Fields, which is an ecological commandment in Exodus, inseparable from the much-vaunted Ten Commandments, to let agricultural fields rest and recover their fertility every seven years; a commandment totally ignored by today’s Bible-waving fundamentalists. Two Worlds are Ours referred to the Bible and to Nature, from both of which humans can gain inspiration. In The Clock of Nature, Macmillan noticed the seasonal patterns of organisms, a science now called phenology, which is one of my areas of expertise; and of which Rev. Gilbert White had written in the late eighteenth century in The Natural History of Selbourne, which was one of Darwin’s favorite books. Perhaps most importantly, Macmillan for the most part steered clear of the evolution controversies that attended the publication of Darwin’s works. He was also so observant and thoughtful, very much like Darwin, and very different from the broad sweeping generalizations of Herbert Spencer. Of course, Macmillan fell into a few traps, which is nearly inevitable since scientists must use the best information available, even if this information turns out to be false. Macmillan quoted Job 38:31 in the Bible, in which God challenged Job, “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?” To Macmillan, this meant that the Pleiades were the center of the universe which, he pointed out, astronomical observations had confirmed. Oops.
But the major flaw in Macmillan’s approach was that he forced Christian beliefs upon the natural world. Unlike the prevarications of modern creationists, Macmillan’s statements were not demonstrably false, except the Pleiades statement and maybe a few others. But he imposed all of them, rather than letting the natural world inform him. I was doing the same thing at the time I read his books, of course. Macmillan was happy, and so was I, in our shared and (unlike those of modern fundamentalists) harmless delusions. It is therefore with sadness that I must say that the entire opus of Macmillan’s natural history writings was wrong. Gloriously, beautifully wrong.
But that does not mean his life was wasted. As a leader in the Free Kirk, he did a lot of good things and spiritually nourished a lot of people. Though diluted by the passing of over a century since his death in 1903, Macmillan’s influence might yet be felt in people whose lives he made better.