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Fisher’s Great Owl, a hand-carved woodcut in his book <em>Scripture Animals</em>.
Farnsworth Art Museum
Fisher’s Great Owl, a hand-carved woodcut in his book Scripture Animals.

Clash of worldviews?

Worldview | Caitrin Nicol and Jonathan Fisher could have a good debate about humans and animals

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

So here’s a newsworthy event—guaranteed to be worth whatever it costs to cancel whatever else you had in mind, and buying a handful of tickets for you and your friends. I’m talking about a one-on-one two-hour public debate between Caitrin Nicol and Jonathan Fisher.

Don’t recognize those names? I’m not surprised, because neither did I until a few days ago. And I’m obliged to tell you right up front that the debate will never occur for the simple reason that Jonathan Fisher died in 1845.

It’s a certainty, therefore, that Nicol and Fisher never met. I’d be surprised if Nicol, bright and accomplished as she is, has ever even heard of Fisher. Their worldviews seem pretty radically opposite.

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Caitrin Nicol is the author of a recent article in The New Atlantis magazine entitled “Do Elephants Have Souls?” It’s maybe not as radical as it sounds, and you should also know that Nicol typically writes for “conservative” journals. “Do Elephants Have Souls?” is a thoughtful and fascinating piece.

But how I wish that Jonathan Fisher were still around at least to discuss, and maybe to be part of an all-out debate, on the subject of how humans relate to animals. Fisher was a 1794 graduate of Harvard University, where he majored in both mathematics and theology. He went on to become a Congregational pastor in Blue Hill, Maine—and Christian ministry was a cornerstone of his entire life. Even to summarize all the other endeavors that came from this remarkable man’s hands would more than fill this page.

Fisher was a carpenter and cabinetmaker. He built the house his wife and nine children lived in. He was a clockmaker, designing and fabricating the alarm clock that woke him up at 3 a.m. so he could get on with his day’s work before leading his family in devotions between 6 and 7 o’clock. He practiced architecture, drafting, and surveying. He studied and wrote in Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew. He was an artist, sketching, copying, carving, and painting in watercolors and oils.

Jonathan Fisher was also a botanist and a zoologist—and it’s in that latter category it’s appropriate to think of him alongside Caitrin Nicol. Fisher was obviously a sophisticated and learned person. But his crowning achievement was a book for children simply titled Scripture Animals. In its 345 pages Fisher describes in anatomical detail, illustrates with his own drawings and woodblock cuts, and draws spiritual lessons about virtually every animal mentioned in the Bible. (The book of Job offers Fisher’s imagination some challenging assignments.)

All this I saw on display at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. Included in this special Fisher exhibit are some of the original drawings, paintings, maps—and a replica of the small printing press Fisher used to proof his work before sending it off to the publisher. And yes, Fisher designed and built the printing press himself!

Of note, though, is the integrity the museum has exercised in highlighting Fisher’s biblical worldview. Too often educational and cultural organizations either ignore or misstate the kind of thinking that was central to Fisher’s work. In this case, assistant curator Jane Bianco has taken care to include examples not just of nominal references to some distant “creator,” but to a God who designs and supervises all that goes on in the animal kingdom. Bianco notes that Fisher’s worldview sees humans just a bit below the angels but above the menagerie that he loved to explore and then illustrate.

Putting down his telescope on one occasion, Fisher wrote in his journal: “Look at yonder star; it appears like a dim taper in the blue expanse. It is a sun in the center of a system; it disperses light and heat through regions by us immeasurable. … Far above that star, regions infinitely above, is placed the Throne of God. From that throne with the greatest ease imaginable he governs the universe. The soul can hardly support the weight of the enlarging idea.”

Caitrin Nicol’s 70-page exploration of whether elephants have souls is full of insight and intrigue. But it never gets close to citing foundations like those sustaining Jonathan Fisher’s encyclopedic little book. I would still love to see the two of them get together to discuss it all.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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