Hitchcock, Edward, 1793-1864

Titles by this author
A wreath for the tomb : or, extracts from eminent writers on death and eternity: with an introductory essay and sermon on lessons taught by sickness

Hitchcock was born in Deerfield, Massachusetts to Mercy Hoyt and Justin Hitchcock, a poor farmer and hatter. He attended Deerfield Academy and served as its preceptor from 1815 to 1819. He married Orra White in 1821, and she also illustrated his works. Hitchcock was raised in Congregationalist tradition, and he left Deerfield Academy to study for the ministry at Yale. He graduated in 1820 and became a pastor at Conway, Massachusetts from 1821 - 1825. In that year, he also became the professor of chemistry and natural history at Amherst College where he taught courses on geology and mineralogy as well. He stayed at Amherst for the remainder of his life, although he changed his title to professor of natural theology and geology in 1845 (866).

Hitchcock was influential as a state geologist in Massachusetts (1830 - 1833 and 1837 - 1841) and Vermont (1856 - 1861), as a teacher and popularizer of geology, and as an authority on issues of science and religion. He was instrumental in adding geology into the American college curriculum. His extremely successful textbook, Elementary Geology (1840) was the second geological textbook produced in the U.S. and the first that was not a version of a British text. Hitchcock worked to reconcile science and religion. The 1820's and 1830s were a period of developments in the classification and dating of the geological strata through the examination of the fossil record. This work revealed species that never interacted with mankind and led to the conclusion that the earth was much older than biblically based accounts of creation would suggest. Hitchcock first remarked on this issue in a series of articles in a Congregationalist review, the Biblical Repository (1835). Here, he pointed out that the geological and scriptural accounts had such things in common as viewing fire and water as agents of change. He also reconciled the six day account of creation in the Bible by proposing the interpretation that each day was an epoch. He concluded, "The principles of science, rightly understood, should not contradict the statements of revelation, rightly interpreted" (qtd. in Theerman) (Elementary Geology, 1840 ed., p.264). The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences was a collection of lectures insisting that human life was created miraculously and could not be contemplated by human reason. Stanley Guralnick, a historian of Hitchcock's religious thought suggests that Hitchcock's positions defied those who adhered to the literal truth of the Bible and to those, on the other hand, who were critical biblical scholars or seeking moral instruction from the Bible.

A Wreath for a Tomb or Extracts From Eminent Writers on Death and Eternity: with an Introductory Essay and Sermon on the Lessons Taught by Sickness by Professor Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College.

Hitchcock states his hope for the book in the Preface: "... I trust it will be found to contain many precious gems and flowers: and I earnestly pray, that it may serve to comfort the afflicted, to cheer the desponding, to animate the humble, to quicken the slothful, and to alarm the careless. The introductory essay begins by emphasizing the "appalling fact" that every human being must die (2). It follows that it is extremely important for each person to prepare for death. The source of self ruin, according to Hitchcock, is that "Something else is crowded into the mind that the thoughts of the evil day of death may be crowded out of it: or rather be crowded forward to some future time when death is near" (11). Political life, business, even the hardness of the minister who is often near death can prevent "consistent and devoted piety" (25). In fact, mathematics, philosophy, literature, chemistry, physiology, or any other kind of focus on learning are the most dangerous distractions from the concern with death and the fate of the soul. Hitchcock states of his own area of enquiry: "Geological researches bring a man into almost constant intercourse with the most astonishing and sublime of nature's productions... In short, he is everywhere in inevitable contact with the most unequivocal displays of God which creation can furnish. And yet to the God of the Bible; to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he may be an utter stranger" (37-38). Although, sickness is not an act of God, it is only when sick that we realize the precarious nature of our existence and are forced to acknowledge the imminent judgement. Similar to The Last Witness, Hitchcock postulates that the moment of truth comes at death, and provides evidence for his views by collecting the writings of notable friends. Interestingly, many of these testimonies contradict each other. For example, Jeremy Taylor emphasizes the penal character of death (136) while Baxter describes death as a desireable release from the world: " "Willingly depart, O lingering soul! It is from a Sodom, though in it there be righteous Lots, who yet are not without their woeful blemishes!" (172).

Theerman, Paul. "Hitchcock, Edward." American National Biography. Vol.10. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford, 1999. (866-867).

Other sources:

Guralnick, Stanley: "Geology and Religion before Darwin: The Case of Edward Hitchcock, Theologian and Geologist (1793 - 1864)" Isis 63 (1972) 529 - 43.

" " Science and the Antebellum American College (1975).

Aldrich, Michele L. Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

Written by Stephen Rachman