Thomas Condon was an Oregon pioneer and self-taught scientist who came to America from Ireland in 1833, graduated from the Theological Seminary in Auburn, New York, in 1852. Though choosing ministry as his career, he held an abiding interest in geometry and spent leisure hours in nearby hills and quarries gathering fossils. He traveled around the horn by ship to Oregon to spread the gospel as he had an itch to go West ever since hearing of the Whitman Mission. He was ordained as a minister and served as pastor in St. Helens, Forest Grove and Albany before establishing a church in The Dalles in 1862, at the historic center of trade where The Columbia opens into the interior.
So why am I interested in a pioneer protestant minister? Because Condon learned from soldiers stationed around The Dalles in 1862 about areas to the south with abundant fossils and after visiting the area we now call the John Day Fossil Beds, he began excavating and sending specimens to museums. He was the first person to realize the scientific importance of the area. In 1902 he published The Two Islands and What Came of Them, a geological sketch of Oregon territory in which he proposed the Klamath range and the Shoshone (Blue Mountains) were at one time islands. Though further evidence suggested the Blue Mountains formed more of a peninsula than an island, Condon’s book was influential and inspiring. He became the first state geologist in 1872 and the first teacher of geology at the University of Oregon. The Thomas Condon Paleontology Center in Eugene is named after him.
Condon didn’t just make a hobby of gathering interesting fossils, he had the intellectual and imaginative courage to look into the distant past and consider the formation of lands and rocks might have taken millions of years. Much of what we know about the fossil beds and early geological forces that shaped Oregon and the Northwest were proposed by Condon. What makes this story so relevant now, over a century after his death, as that a self-taught scientist was so inspired that he in turn inspired. He was so overwhelmed by the scope and majesty of God’s work that he was able to build a bridge between science and religion – something we sorely need to do in a divided America, a nation being torn apart by interests who refuse to see beyond black and white. One encyclopedia entry I read stated that Condon’s scientific passion for paleontology led him to believe “science was a means to understand the spectacular nature of God’s creation,” that the hills from which the evolutionary evidence had been excavated were made by the same God that made the hills of Judea, and that the Church had nothing to fear from the truth. The Oregon Cultural Heritage website quotes Condon as saying, “The Holy Spirit is a scientific necessity, a constant emission from the Being of. God, affecting human character just as the sun affects the crude starch of an unripe peach, transforming it into sugar, and making the rich, luscious, perfected fruit. The human brain has been gradually evolved to prepare it to receive these rays of divine light, and the human spiritual life is but the crowning of preparation.” And “God wants, commands you to use your own judgment in the light of this twentieth century, to tell you what is right and beautiful and true. I believe in inspiration as a living force now.”
Soldiers returning from expeditions and teamsters on return trips around Oregon country came back with empty beds rattling with rocks and fossils for Condon. And once the railroad came through The Dalles, many spent time with Condon in discussions about past age of Oregon and never once did Condon lose God in his study of the simple grandeur of a fossil. Maybe a hundred years is not nearly long enough for such an enlightened view to broaden the minds of most Americans. But I am hopeful that the same good faith of Thomas Condon can find its way into the hearts of not only religious leaders and scientists, but Democrats and Republicans. We need real bridges from island to island, and not just bridges to nowhere.