‘All the Light Here Comes from Above’ by Robert T. McMaster

Staff Writer
Published: 4/29/2021 9:51:15 AM

Williamsburg author Robert McMaster, a former biology professor at Holyoke Community College, is also the author of a trio of historical novels, known as the “Trolley Days” series, set in the Holyoke/Springfield/Westfield area in the early 20th century.

In his latest work, McMaster has combined his interest in science and history to take a close look at a seminal figure from Amherst College: Edward Hitchcock, a prominent science professor at the school in the early 19th century and the college’s third president, as well as a skilled geologist who made notable surveys of Massachusetts — especially of the Connecticut River Valley — and of New York state and Vermont. It’s the first-ever biography of Hitchcock, the author says.

Hitchcock, who also left his mark as a paleontologist, is remembered as well for helping rescue Amherst College from dire financial circumstances after he became president in 1845, and for his promotion of women’s education. He became the first state geologist of Massachusetts in 1830.

In an introduction to this in-depth work, for which he says he’s relied heavily on Hitchcock’s voluminous writings — studies, letters, diary entries, sermons — McMaster recalls visiting the Pratt Museum of Natural History at Amherst as a boy and being impressed even then with the number of artifacts, such as dinosaur tracks in stone, that Hitchcock had discovered.

Since that day, McMaster writes, “I have not stopped thinking about, reading about, and studying Edward Hitchcock — poet, playwright, pastor, preacher, professor, paleontologist, president and pater familas. The more I have learned of the man, the more convinced I am that there is a story yet to be told — many stories in truth.”

The book traces Hitchcock, born in 1793, from his humble beginnings in a financially strapped family in Deerfield to his growing interest in science as a teen, then his developing interest in religion as a young man. Largely self-taught, he would become an ordained Congregationalist pastor in 1821 and pastor of the Conway Congregational Church for several year before moving to Amherst College, where he at one point was a professor of natural theology.

Aside from its exploration of Hitchcock’s scientific achievements, “All the Light Here Comes from Above” also looks closely at Hitchcock’s inner turmoil: a fear of failure, worries about his health and fears he would die young, and the difficulty he sometimes had with reconciling scientific evidence with “the simple truths of the Bible,” as McMaster puts it.

Hitchcock, who died in 1864, was fortunate, the author writes, that his wife, Orra White Hitchcock, was at his side; she was a supremely talented scientific illustrator whose work illuminated her husband’s publications and books and whose close care of Hitchcock kept him going.

“She was his anchor, his rudder, his keel,” he writes. “Without her steadying hand, her constancy, her faithfulness, his career would have had a very different trajectory … (and) his soul buried in self-doubt and guilt.”

McMaster notes that Hitchcock’s work as a paleontologist was dismissed by some 20th century scientists; in 1969, one called him “the last of the first-rate amateurs.” Yet Hitchcock’s belief that some fossil footmarks here in the Valley were made by giant birds has now been confirmed, McMaster notes, by more recent research showing links between dinosaurs and modern birds.

In the end, McMaster says, the most enduring legacy of Hitchcock’s life might be that, with his wife’s help, he “allowed science to lead him where it might, without regard for his faith.… He was certain, as certain as one can be about anything, that the search for truth would not lead him astray, that all knowledge was derived from God.”

More information about the book and about Edward Hitchcock’s writing can be found at edwardhitchcock.com.




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