An ongoing “cloud of misinformation and lack of understanding”

A “storm is brewing among the Baptists of this state” (1922).

Outdoor proceedings in the Scopes Trial on July 20, 1925, showing William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow. Photo by Smithsonian Institution.

Updated: November 24, 2018. Happy #EvolutionDay!

Unlike in Tennessee (infamously) and several other southern states, North Carolina legislators never passed a law banning the teaching of evolution in public schools. Attempts to do so in the 1920s failed repeatedly, thanks in part to the president of a notable private college founded by Baptists. Ironically it was a Baptist minister from Kentucky, T. T. Martin, that is said to have struck the first blow in our state in 1920 by publishing articles demanding the resignation of Wake Forest College president William Louis Poteat, the “son of a conservative Baptist slaveholder“ who “became one of the most outspoken southern liberals during his lifetime” (Hall, 2015).

Professor of Biology at Wake Forest from 1883 to 1905, Poteat “was a popular teacher who introduced the laboratory method to his biology classes and was well known as a public lecturer on topics such as science, religion and temperance. His position as a leader of the Baptist Church in North Carolina and president of a Baptist college did not prevent him from accepting Darwin. Poteat believed that the theory of evolution did not touch the fundamentals of Christian faith and could not, therefore, be antagonistic to it” (UNC). The University of North Carolina (UNC) has an online collection of primary source documents related to the controversy, including a timeline.

My (Presbyterian) third cousin twice removed, Walter Ney (“Frank”) Keener, weighed in on the controversy in his role as the editor of the Durham Morning Herald. One of the “grim alumni” who defended Poteat at the time “with red eyes and no scruples about flying at a fundamentalist throat,” Walter had previously weighed in on proposed anti-evolution legislation in Kentucky:

“Speaking of invading territory where angels fear to stroll, the Kentucky legislature takes the cake for rambling around in graveyards at midnight in the dark of the moon. Those fellows will soon be wanting barred from the schools everything they don’t believe in. If they should happen to believe the earth is flat, textbooks telling us that it round would be barred. Being Kentuckians, it is a wonder that they would not want all prohibition literature banned, and textbooks dealing with the glories of a bourbon jag substituted.”

And in April, Walter wrote the following editorial in defense of Poteat and the teaching of evolution at Wake Forest College:

“There has been for some time rumors that a storm is brewing among the Baptists of this state, the center of the promised disturbance being the able and learned head of the denomination’s college for boys who has merely repeated in the course of his teachings things he has stated before concerning the scientific theory of the origin and development of man…Certain scientific theories have been advanced by men of acknowledged wisdom such as Darwin and Huxley, and they have gained ground by and through the efforts of scientists down to the present day. The theories have been accepted by modern thinkers and have been considered along with the broad conception of the divine origin of man rather than in antagonism to the teachings and doctrines of theologians. Dr. W. L. Poteat, admittedly one of the greatest thinkers and one of the brainiest educators and whose knowledge of the science of life is probably unsurpassed in the state or the south, has long been a supporter of the doctrine of evolution, or Darwinism as some prefer to call it, and there has been an element in his church with whose narrow interpretation this did not agree. Somewhere somehow the old controversy has come up again, and it is rumored that the adherents of the strict application of their understanding of the bible’s teachings are out after the scalp of the president of Wake Forest. We hope that this is not true.

We believe that the Baptist denomination in this state is too broad to be caught by the fallacies of superstition under the guise of a strict interpretation of the bible. We do not believe that they would care to be placed in the category with Voliva, who still contends that the earth is flat…It is to be regretted that the dispute should ever have arisen. The Baptists of the state and their magnificent college will suffer if wrangling of that sort is permitted. We did not think that that great force for the cause would develop such a spirit of narrowness and intoleration as evidently has been displayed in the attacks on Dr. Poteat. Because some cannot follow the reasoning of Dr. Poteat to its logical sequence, and because they are incapable of evolving a mental conception of a sufficiency to sound the depths of scientific inquiry and reconcile its teachings with that of the bible, they with the impetuosity of ignorance rush to the attack…We have a friendly, aye, a dearer feeling for Wake Forest and would be grieved to see her an innocent victim of bigoted assault.” — Walter Ney Keener (presumably), writing for the Durham Morning Herald (April 26, 1922)

Two days later, the Jim Crow Democrat took aim at a fellow Democrat who would later represent the prosecution in the Scopes Trial in Tennessee (1925). In response to the program committee of the International Sunday School convention reissuing a previously withdrawn invitation to William Jennings Bryan to speak at their convention that year, he opined:

“Learning of [the withdrawn invitation to speak] his admirers and those who take stock in his theories and antagonisms raised such a storm that the program committee decided to again extend the invitation. The committee very probably did what it really wanted to when it withdrew the first invitation, the reissuance being to appease a disturbing element rather than any desire to hear Bryan express his radical views on theology, some of which are even more impossible, radical and untenable that his political theories not excepting his famous ‘16-to-1’ issue. As a bull in political and religious china shops, Bryan is without equal. Just as he tore up the political situation in this country and almost wrecked the Democratic party, as well as undermining stability in business some years ago, he is now trying to arouse conflicts in religious circles which threaten even more serious injury than his political invasion.” — Walter Ney Keener

Later, in June, he announced the “complete victory” of Poteat after a vote of confidence by the trustees of the Wake Forest:

For a few days the dark cloud of misunderstanding hung over the college, the denomination and the state, and there was danger that the knife of prejudice would cause a dangerous wound to the cause of religion, education and fair play. But fortunately, the sunlight of common sense was able to break through the cloud of misinformation and lack of understanding, and today the threatened storm is rapidly disappearing from the horizon, never to return we hope. The incident may now be considered as closed, and any effort to revive it should be promptly and vigorously rebuked. Dr. Poteat’s victory is a victory for freedom of thought; of fair play, and is a defeat of prejudice, narrowness, and superstition. — Walter Ney Keener, Durham Morning Herald (June 3, 1922)

Poteat continued his progressive efforts in the state to reform public education, race relations, and care of the mentally ill while remaining a staunch advocate for prohibition and becoming a strong supporter of eugenics based on his flawed beliefs in a natural hierarchy and absolute moral order (Hall, 2015). And a year and a half after this controversy at Wake Forest, North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison announced his opposition to state schools “using any textbook that ‘prints a picture of a monkey and a man on the same page’” and “[t]wo of six biology textbooks recommended by the state Text Book Commission [we]re rejected by the State Board of Education, with the Governor’s support, because the books discuss[ed] evolution” (UNC). And, unfortunately, the battle against the “cloud of misinformation and lack of understanding” of evolution continues today, most recently in Arizona…

John Christian Keener would probably be happy to hear that the evolution-denial genre is still around…



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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.