Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“O God, thou hast tought me from my youth:
and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works.”
Sir John William Dawson was a geologist of international acclaim who gained worldwide attention as one of the first opponents of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Dawson’s sense of religious and scientific calling produced a missionary zeal to conquer evolution, which he qualified as crass materialism and atheism. As an educator, he served s the superintendent of education in Nova Scotia and as McGill University’s principal for almost forty years.
Dawson was born in 1820 in Pictou, Nova Scotia. His parents were Scottish Presbyterian immigrants who raised him in a devout Christian faith. At fifteen, Dawson enrolled Pictou Academy, where, under the tutelage of the Reverend Dr. Thomas McCulloch—later to become the first principal of Dalhousie College in Halifax—his faith and his intellect were strengthened. At sixteen, Dawson delivered his first scientific lecture at the Pictou Natural History Society. Never short on ambition, he entitled it On the Structure and History of the World. He graduated with a solid foundation of Latin and Greek, a working knowledge of Hebrew, and a grounding in physics and biology. In 1840, Dawson travelled to the land of his forefathers and enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study geology. After completing his studies, he returned to Nova Scotia, in 1847, as ”the first trained geologist in British North America.”
Joseph Howe—who later became Nova Scotia’s premier in 1860—was impressed when he heard Dawson give a lecture series and asked him to become the colony’s first superintendent of education. From 1850 to 1853, Dawson laid the foundation for education in Nova Scotia. He visited over five hundred schools at a time when there were no railways and authored The Journal of Education for Nova Scotia, a manual that standardized teaching methods. He initiated curricula development and the construction of new schools. Dawson also recommended that a teaching college be established to ensure that qualified instructors were teaching the province’s children.
In 1855, Dawson received an offer from Montreal’s McGill College to become its fifth principal. When Dawson began his tenure, McGill was on the verge of ruin—the college grounds were literally a cow pasture. Under Dawson’s leadership, McGill would become a world-class university.
Dawson changed McGill’s academic focus. He believed that the teaching of the natural and applied sciences—especially geology and palaeontology—was foundational. In addition to his principalship, Dawson was a professor of chemistry; agriculture; and natural history, which included geology, zoology, and botany. He and his wife even planted trees and designed the grounds. Stephen Leacock, humorist and professor at McGill, recalled: “More than that of any one or group of men, McGill is his work.”
Charles Darwin gave birth to evolutionary theory in 1859 when he published On the Origin of Species. A year later, Dawson reviewed that work in the Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, praising Darwin for his careful investigation of the nature and laws of variation within rock pigeons. However, Dawson was highly critical of Darwin’s arguments concerning the fossil record. Unlike Darwin, Dawson believed steadfastly that nature was the result of a divine creator and that nature could not be mindless, random, and without plan. Dawson observed: “It [natural selection] proved insufficient to change one species into another.” He argued that Darwin’s belief in natural selection producing varieties and incipient species showed a “huge hiatus” in his reasoning. He argued that not only did Darwinism sweep away Christianity and natural religion, but that a populace imbued with “the doctrine of the struggle for existence” would “cease to be human in any ethical sense, and must become brutes or devils or something between the two.” In Dawson’s opinion, Darwin had committed countless absurdities.
A voluminous writer, Dawson wrote more than four hundred books and articles, the majority focusing on origins. The Story of the Earth and Man (1872) went through eleven editions and stated unequivocally that humankind was created in the image of God.
Dawson placed Psalm 71:17 on the flyleaf of his autobiographical work, Fifty Years of Work in Canada, Scientific and Educational, (published posthumously), as a testimony of God’s faithfulness in his life: O God, thou hast taught me from my youth: and hitherto have I declared thy wondrous works. Even though those who shared his views were becoming fewer, he persisted in defending what for him was the pivotal issue: “the spiritual nature of man as the child of a divine creator.”
In 1878, Dawson received a tempting invitation to become a professor of natural history at Princeton. Dawson declined the offer, citing his obligation to continue the battle for Protestant educational rights in Quebec. In return for staying at McGill, Dawson received an endowment from his friend Peter Redpath for the construction of a museum of natural history. Inaugurated in 1882, the Peter Redpath Museum dominates McGill’s lower campus. Prominent in its entrance hall is an illuminated plaque citing Psalm 104:24: O Lord, how Manifold are Thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
While the principal of McGill, Dawson supported the higher education of women and instructed female students in their science classes. As a result of this pioneering effort, during the 1888 convocation eight young women received, for the first time at McGill, bachelor of arts degrees.
Dawson was knighted in 1884 and in the same year became the first president of the Royal Society of Canada. Dawson’s highest tribute, however, came when peers within the scientific community chose him as the president of the American and the British Associations for the Advancement of Science. No one had ever served in this capacity on both sides of the Atlantic before.
Principal Dawson and his wife, Margaret, were devoted parents. Each morning, he read from the Bible and prayed with his wife and five children. He also served other children as a Sunday school teacher at Stanley Street Presbyterian Church in Montreal, of which he was a founding member. As a grandfather, he was fondly remembered offering coins to his grandchildren if they could quote scripture passages from memory.
Sir William Dawson died on November 19, 1899. The Montreal Gazette paid tribute to Dawson, reminding readers of his lifelong devotion to Jesus Christ and of his devotion to the Bible. He was laid to rest in the Mount Royal Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone reads: Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them (Revelation 14:13).