A clergyman, amateur geologist, and theology professor, George Frederick Wright was born in Whitehall, New York, on January 22, 1838. His parents, Walter and Mary Peabody Colburn Wright, were farmers. The Wrights lived on the edge of the “Burned-over District” of upstate New York, known for its evangelistic fever. Young Wright doubtless came to know about the vagaries of spiritualism, and he experienced a pious upbringing. His family's interest in Oberlin College and Charles Grandison Finney made his eventual attendance at Oberlin inevitable. Oberlin's founders, and trustees of the Institute, John J. Shipherd (d. 1844) and Philo P. Stewart (d. 1868) were from towns in the vicinity of Whitehall. According to Wright’s autobiographical account, their influence led Wright's father and uncle William Wright to join the early supporters of Oberlin College. Wright’s three brothers and two sisters, as well as several of his cousins, all attended Oberlin.
After attending country schools and the Castleton Seminary in Castleton, Vermont, Wright entered the senior class in Oberlin’s Preparatory Department in 1855. His classmates included Major John Wesley Powell, Emory Upton, and Elisha Gray. He, like many students at the time, supported his education by teaching school during the winter vacations. In his four years as an undergraduate student, he taught at several district schools around Ohio, in Franklin, Medina, Fayette, and Belmont Counties. Wright graduated from Oberlin College with an A.B. degree in 1859.
Wright subsequently enrolled in the Theological Seminary to study with Reverends Charles G. Finney, John Morgan, and Henry E. Peck. His studies were interrupted by the Civil War, however. In April 1861, Wright was among the first hundred Oberlin students to volunteer; these students formed Company C of the Seventh Regiment of Ohio Volunteers. Wright was invalided home that summer after contracting pneumonia, and he returned to Oberlin, ultimately receiving his theological degree in 1862.
Wright served as a Congregational pastor for nineteen years from 1862 to 1881. His first church was in Bakersfield, Vermont, where he served from 1862 to 1872. It was during his time in Vermont that Wright developed a strong interest in glacial deposits. He left Bakersfield for the Free Church in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1872 and was pastor there until 1881.
Wright returned to the Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1881 as Professor of New Testament Language and Literature, replacing his former professor John Morgan who had retired one year earlier. In 1892 he was named Professor of the Harmony of Science and Revelation. This professorship, also known as the Cleveland Professorship, was specially endowed for Wright by alumni living in the Cleveland area. This position permitted Wright to teach a geology course in the College, in addition to his courses in the Theological Seminary, and also allowed him to devote part of each year to research. He became Professor Emeritus upon his retirement in 1907. During his retirement Wright gained a reputation as a local historian.
Wright’s first article “Ground of Confidence in Inductive Reasoning,” published in 1871, brought him to the attention of Harvard University botanist and Christian Darwinist Asa Gray (1810-1888). With Gray's encouragement, Wright took on the task of reconciling the theory of evolution with Christian beliefs and thus joined the ranks of those known as Christian Darwinists.
Wright’s early writings advanced his reputation in scholarly circles as an evolutionist. In later years, however, he became a significant figure in fundamentalist circles. His shift toward fundamentalism came about in reaction to the growing trend of biblical criticism. Wright was a staunch defender of the infallibility of the Bible, and much of his later work was devoted to using scientific evidence to verify biblical accounts. Of his views Ronald L. Numbers writes:
Although Wright never subscribed to a purely naturalistic form of Darwinism, and his final views on human evolution remain obscure, it is clear that he revised his opinions substantially. Most significantly, he gave up a relatively uniformitarian view of Darwinian evolution for a catastrophist theory of paroxysmal evolution, a switch he justified with frequent reference to Darwin’s mistakes and to the even more unforgivable errors of his followers. During his last years Wright unashamedly invoked miraculous acts of creation and felt ill at ease when people called him an “evolutionist." (p. 644)
Wright’s long association with the respected theological journal Bibliotheca Sacra began in 1875 with the publication of a series of articles on evolution. While in Andover, Massachusetts, Wright worked as an assistant to editor Edwards A. Park, and, upon Park’s retirement in 1883, Wright took over as editor, a position he held until his death in 1921. With Wright as editor, the publication of Bibliotheca Sacra moved from Andover to Oberlin.
Although Wright’s formal scientific training was limited to his undergraduate courses at Oberlin, he continued to study geology throughout his life. During his years as an active minister, Wright’s geological interests became focused on the study of glacial deposits. His theory that gravel ridges in New England were the result of glacial deposits brought him to the attention of geologists. He soon became a respected member of scientific circles, and in 1881 Wright, with Henry Carvill Lewis (1853-1888), was asked to survey the glacial drift border in Pennsylvania as part of the Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania. He continued this survey work independently, and later as part of the United States Geological Survey, to include Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.
Wright's best-known geological work was The Ice Age in North America, and Its Bearings Upon the Antiquity of Man, published in 1889 by D. Appleton and Company. This well-received book, which was largely based upon his 1887 Lowell Institute lecture series, went through six editions. The positive reception led Wright to publish a new book in 1892. Man and the Glacial Period (also published by D. Appleton and Company) was essentially a condensed version of The Ice Age in North America with the addition of some new data. Unlike the earlier work, however, Man and the Glacial Period was met with attacks by a number of geologists who disagreed with Wright's theory of a single Ice Age and questioned his scientific accuracy. Despite the fact that many geologists took his side in the debate, Wright lost much of his sense of belonging to the geological community and began to focus less of his time on geological matters and more on his theological studies.
While teaching at the Oberlin Theological Seminary, Wright devoted vacation periods to continuing his geological studies. In addition to examining geological formations across the United States, he traveled to Alaska in 1886 and Greenland in 1894 to study their glaciers. During his 1886 trip, Wright became the first person to study the Muir glacier in Alaska. He also visited Europe several times between 1892 and 1908 to see archaeological sites and glacial phenomena. His most ambitious voyage was a 1900-01 trip across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe with his son, Frederick B. Wright, which came about from his desire for firsthand observation of geological conditions.
His geological interests expanded to include archaeology. He and his son, Frederick B. Wright, edited the archaeology journal Records of the Past, from its creation in 1901 until its 1914 merger with Art and Archaeology. During his retirement, he was president of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1907-19, and he was active in efforts to preserve prehistoric earthworks.
Wright was a prolific writer and a popular lecturer. He published sixteen books and nearly six hundred articles; during the last years of his life he averaged one article a month. Wright was invited three times to give lecture series at the Lowell Institute in Boston. These lecture series were “The Ice Age in North America” (1887), “The Antiquity and Origin of the Human Race” (1892), and “The Scientific Aspects of Christian Evidences” (1896). He also lectured in Japan at the beginning of his 1900-01 trip across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
He was honored in both theological and geological circles. Wright received two honorary degrees in 1887, the degree of Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) from Brown University and Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from Drury College in Springfield, Missouri. He was named a Fellow of the Geological Society of America in 1890.
Throughout his many years living in Oberlin, he was an active community member. Wright was a longtime member of Second Congregational Church and was involved in its leadership for many years. He also had an interest in music and was a charter member of the Musical Union. With Professors Fenelon B. Rice and Edward Dickinson, Wright edited the hymnal New Manual of Praise: for Sabbath and Social Worship, published in 1901.
In addition to his theological and geological work, Wright was known as a local historian. He wrote a scholarly biography of Charles Grandison Finney which was published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in 1891. Wright also compiled the two volume work, A Standard History of Lorain County, published in 1916.
Wright married Hulda Maria Day (d. 1899) in August 1862. They had four children, all Oberlin graduates: Mary Augusta Wright Berle (1867-1940, A.B. 1889), Etta Maria Wright (1870-1943, A.B. 1893), Frederick Bennett Wright (1873-1922, S.B. 1897), and Helen Marcia Wright (1879-1983, A.B. 1902). In 1904, five years after his first wife’s death, he married Florence Eleanor Bedford (d. 1943). George Frederick Wright died in Oberlin of cardiac asthma on April 20, 1921, and he is buried in Westwood Cemetery in Oberlin.