Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

Simon Greenleaf – 1, Debunking another apologetic fable

Posted on January 4, 2019






Simon Greenleaf (1783 – 1853), an eminent lawyer and founding father of the Harvard Law School, helped lay the foundations for state and federal rules of evidence. He also wrote an influential work of modern legal apologetics, The Testimony of the Evangelists. Numerous apologists tell variations of an inspiring story about how evidence for Jesus’ resurrection supposedly convinced this eminent professor of evidence to convert to Christianity.

The atheist professor myth

I prepared the following composite story to include all the key elements of this oft-told tale.

Professor Greenleaf was an atheist or, in some versions of the story, a Jew. He made fun of his Christian students at Harvard Law School.[1] He spoke openly and often in the classroom about how the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a made up fairy tale, a hoax that could only be believed by ignorant, unenlightened fools.

Depending on who is telling the story, one, two, three or “a few” of his students challenged him to apply rules from his “previously defined atheist legal writing” to the resurrection account. After much prodding, Greenleaf accepted the challenge and set out to disprove Jesus’ resurrection. 

However, Greenleaf was stunned by the powerful evidence that Jesus had indeed risen from the tomb. He could not explain away the dramatic change in Jesus’ disciples, and their subsequent willingness to suffer and die for their  belief that Jesus had  risen.

In a shocking reversal, Greenleaf accepted Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation for all the evidence. He then became a Christian and wrote his apologetic masterpiece, The Testimony of the Evangelists.

This story has all the earmarks of a popular evangelical meme, the atheist professor myth. Evangelicals enjoy supposedly true accounts about plucky – and sometimes violent  – students who humiliate atheist and/or evolutionist professors by proving God’s existence or disproving evolution. Such stories go back at least to 1972,  when Jack T. Chick published the first version of Big Daddy?  – the most widely distributed antievolution booklet in history. In the Internet age, the faithful often spread these inspiring stories through chain emails. 

Intelligent Christians understand these simplistic depictions of evangelical students schooling their atheist teachers give believers a false sense of security and superiority. Nonetheless, the 2014 Christian film, God’s Not Dead, devoted an entire movie to just such a conflict between an earnest evangelical student and an absurd caricature of an atheist professor.

Hard evidence about Greenleaf

Apologists never cite any historical evidence for the false claim that Greenleaf was an atheist. The real Greenleaf believed the “law presumes that every man brought up in a Christian land, where God is generally acknowledged, does believe in him, and fear him.” He was a lifelong Episcopalian who would be appalled and offended by anyone who called him an atheist.[2] Before he began teaching at Harvard in 1834, Greenleaf was on the Standing Committee for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine in 1827 and attended the Episcopalian convention of 1831.

Greenleaf could not have converted to Christianity after being challenged by a student. Not only was Greenleaf a devout evangelical Episcopalian before he began teaching at Harvard, he also claimed legal evidence supported his Christian beliefs. On August 29, 1834, Greenleaf gave a speech when he was named the Royall Professor of Law at Harvard. Before Greenleaf began teaching any students, he explained:

Christianity founds its claims to our belief upon the weight of the evidence by which it is supported. This evidence is not peculiar to the department of theology; its rules are precisely those by which the law scans the conduct and language of men on all other subjects,  even in their  daily transactions. …  The Christian religion  is part of our common law,  with the very texture of which  it is interwoven. Its authority is frequently admitted in our statute-books;  and  its  holy things are there expressly guarded  from blasphemy and desecration.

The plain and indisputable fact is that Prof. Greenleaf was never an atheist, and the apologetic stories about him trying to disprove Jesus’ resurrection are pure fabrication. In my next post, I will discuss the origin of this apologetic fable.

[1] Norman L. Geisler, Patty Tunnicliffe, Reasons for Belief: Easy-to-Understand Answers to 10 Essential Questions 109 (Bethany House Publishers 2013).

[2] Daniel D. Blinka, The Roots of the Modern Trial, Greenleaf’s Testimony to the Harmony of Christianity, Science, and the Law In Antebellum America, 27 Journal of the Early Republic 293 (Summer 2007).