Get more content like this with our weekly newsletter. Subscribe
(With the help of our new editor, Rebecca Randall, we introduce you this week to George Washington Carver as a resource for Christian engagement with science and will show you next week how Hood Theological Seminary and several black churches have leveraged Carver’s inspiration in their programming. Enjoy! – Drew)
The agricultural scientist George Washington Carver’s faith and accomplishments provide a useful lesson in this moment of climate crisis, says Sharon Grant — particularly for the Black church. Grant, a church historian at Hood Theological Seminary, blended her background working in an environmental science lab testing water and soil samples to create Hood’s new International Center of Faith, Science and History funded through the American Academy for the Advancement of the Sciences.
Grant’s favorite exemplar is Carver, who inspired her to form new programs to engage the Black church in science and spiritual formation (which we will tell you more about in next week’s newsletter). By focusing on Carver, who historians believe was a survivor of eugenic practices, the program at Hood acknowledges a history of using science to justify beliefs about Black inferiority — including events such as the well-known Tuskegee experiment and the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without consent — and yet shows how science alongside faith can dramatically impact society. “In spite of that, we have this genius who can’t be denied,” said Grant.
This aligns with the African American experience, she said. While many science and faith conversations are dominated by questions about how life began on Earth or if God exists, Black people aren’t questioning that, said Grant. What they do wonder about can be discussed through the life of Carver: “Why is there so much evil and why are we treated less than human? We want to look at the nature of evil, and what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be disregarded and dehumanized?”
This week, we share about Carver’s discovery of his own humanity and how it motivated his sense of calling in his relationships with people and the planet.
The Life of George Washington Carver
Carver was born enslaved in Missouri in 1864. His owner Moses Carver, a German immigrant in need of labor for his farm, bought Carver’s mother despite not being a proponent of enslavement. His father was enslaved on a neighboring farm. As an infant, slave raiders from the Ku Klux Klan kidnapped Carver and his mother. Carver was found but returned without a mother, afflicted with whooping cough and never fully recovered. Instead of working in the fields along with his brother, he performed domestic labor for his enslaver’s wife.
Historians believe Carver experienced castration involuntarily at the age of 10, citing as evidence his feminine-sounding voice, suggesting a voice that had never deepened, and a rumored autopsy report that revealed scar tissue where there should have been testicles. While Carver never actually says he’s been castrated, at one time he said something like, “Well, I was an unprotected orphan and some things made it impossible to have children,” said Grant.
Carver appears to be a victim of the vastly influential eugenics movement. During the 19th century, those who followed the pseudoscience of eugenics sought to improve the human gene pool by weeding out those they thought were weak and intellectually inferior, often targeting Black people. Further, Carver’s domestic work around women may have made him vulnerable. “Carver and his brother were the only Black boys in this area. They would have been viewed as a threat,” said Grant.
As a child, Carver found solace in the woods. “He wanted to learn about every tree, every plant, every flower, every animal,” said Grant.
Carver likely learned basic math, reading, and writing from his former enslavers, but like a lot of Blacks during the Reconstruction Era, he had a hunger for more education. Unable to attend the local white school, he traveled up the road a few miles to Neosho, Missouri, where there was a Black school for all ages. His first night there, he slept in the barn of Mariah Watkins, the town healer and midwife, and then stayed for a little more than a year. Deeply religious, Mariah took him to the local African Methodist Episcopal church.
Due to her expertise, Grant believes she probably understood a lot about medicinal plants and likely imparted her spiritual understanding to Carver, as well. “There’s something about Carver’s later work that you can trace back to Mariah — how human beings ought to relate to plant life and all of creation,” said Grant.
Later in 1890, after being turned away from a Kansas college for being Black, he was accepted at Simpson College, a Methodist school. By the time Carver got there, the college — which was named for bishop Matthew Simpson, an abolitionist during a time when the Methodist church was divided on the issue — stood as a community of Methodists who felt responsible for people who had been enslaved.
“That’s where I discovered I was a human being,” he would say. Grant argues that Carver’s social consciousness was derived out of the Methodist influence and his discovery of his own humanity at Simpson.
Carver struggled to decide on a major, at first choosing art. But he loved botany and participated in ROTC and drama. “He’s doing anything and everything his heart desires,” said Grant.
Out of concern for Carver’s ability to make a living, an art teacher encouraged him to study science and use it to help his people. So, he transferred to Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), which culminated with a master’s degree. There he met Henry Cantwell Wallace, who became the US secretary of agriculture in the 1920s. Henry A. Wallace met his father’s student as a child and describes Carver as “the man who made science come alive for him,” said Grant.
After he graduated in 1896, Booker T. Washington offered him the position of director of agriculture at Tuskegee University in Alabama. He accepted with the goal of serving poor farmers, whose crops suffered from depleted soil due to repeated plantings of cotton. Black sharecroppers bore the brunt of these agricultural losses.
Carver taught methods to improve soils, which had been stripped of organic matter. He urged farmers to practice crop rotations with peanuts, legumes, and cowpeas, which could return nitrogen to the soil. “There’s a parallel between how you revitalize soil and how you revitalize souls, people who have been stripped of their potential,” said Grant.
Carver gained fame, particularly after his testimony before Congress in 1921 on behalf of peanut farmers, who were being undercut by foreign trade. Due to Carver’s genius, the agricultural industry in the South processed peanuts for over 300 products.
Having connections to the younger Wallace, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became secretary of agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Carver’s work is pivotal in the New Deal, which included funds to prevent soil erosion amid the Dust Bowl.
An Integrated Methodology
Carver’s methods were never solely scientific. He used the technical skills of science, but he also used prayer. He asked God for understanding, and when he needed it, it was revealed to him. Whether he was in the field or the lab, he considered coming to scientific findings as “receiving revelation,” said Grant.
Henry A. Wallace, who later served as vice president under President Harry Truman, described coming to understand Carver’s secret while visiting his lab at Tuskegee. “He told me that God was in everything — that if he asked, God would talk to him about the various parts of nature he was investigating,” he said during a speech delivered at Simpson College.
“This western division between matter and spirit, that allows us to objectify one another and objectify nature for material gain. That’s suicidal,” said Grant.
This same attitude of division has attempted to push out an African cosmology and worldview. “An African Methodism influenced by African cosmology that emphasizes healing, salvation, freedom and equity for all of creation is a possibility for consideration,” wrote Grant. This wisdom resides in the memories of elders within local Black churches, she continued. And we need it now to help heal the relationships that have broken down in our environment and society.
Grant sees parallels between Carver’s environmental challenges and our own. “Nature is really rising up against us,” she said, referring to the many climate catastrophes unfolding around the world. We have not been good caretakers. “The plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, the mineral kingdom — humans have to understand how they all relate to each other and to humanity for all of us to be able to flourish. There’s a language of inter-relationality,” which Carver would have understood.
Grant referred to the late Charles Long, a historian of Black religion, “He said we’re going to have to include human subjective experience as we’re looking at human science methodology.”
Carver exemplified that methodology — not seeing God nor his own human experience as separate from his science but an integral part of it. A century later, Carver is still teaching those of us committed to engaging faith and science.