The Modern, Scientific Version of Six-Day Creationism Arose from a Seventh-Day Adventist in the 19th Century
It has been my experience, both as an advocate and critic, that few if any modern Six-Day Creationists are aware of the historical development of their position. Correspondingly, there’s this intertwined, two-fold popular assumption that a) conservative evangelicals have consistently resisted all elements of Darwinian evolutionary thought and b) young earth creationism was the dominant view among the mid-19th conservative evangelicals and early 20th century fundamentalists. Both serve as powerful presuppositions undergirding much else. Minor problem: Both are patently false. The best historical account that I’m aware of regarding this subject is Ronald L. Numbers’ fabulously named and even-handed 1992 book, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism. As I very much doubt that many who read this blog post will in turn read the book, however, my hope is that people will at least have the attention span and intellectual honesty to read the summary version from six paragraphs of top-notch evangelical historian Mark Noll’s 1994 popular work, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind:11.This excerpt can be found on pages 188 to 192.
The word creationism by rights should define all who discern a divine mind at work in, with, or under the phenomena of the natural world. Yet by a most unfortunate set of events, the term has come to mean only the view that God created the world ten thousand or fewer years ago and that God used a worldwide flood in the days of Noah to form the geological conditions that most modern scientists think reveal an ancient earth with evolutionary changes over great expanses of time.
Despite widespread impressions to the contrary, creationism was not a traditional belief of the nineteenth-century conservative Protestants or even of early twentieth-century fundamentalists. The mentality of fundamentalism lives on in the modern creation science, even if some of the early fundamentalists themselves were by no means as radical in their scientific conclusions as evangelicals have become in the last forty years. For instance, during the century before the 1930s, most conservative Protestants believed that the “days” in Genesis stood for long ages of geological development or that a lengthy gap existed between the initial creation of the world (Gen. 1:1) and a series of more recent creative acts (Gen. 1:2ff.) during which the fossils were deposited—like James Orr of Scotland or B.B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary, both of whom wrote for The Fundamentals (1910-1915) – allowed for large-scale evolution in order to explain God’s way of creating plants, animals, and even the human body. (As it happens, their position closely resembled official Roman Catholic teachings on the subject.) Popular opponents of evolution in the 1920s, like William Jennings Bryan, had no difficulty accepting an ancient earth. Bryan, with an acuity that his patronizers rarely perceive, saw clearly that the greatest problem with evolution was not the practice of science but the metaphysical naturalism and consequent social Darwinism that scientific evolution was often called upon to justify.
Modern creationism arose, by contrast, from the efforts of earnest Seventh-Day Adventists who wanted to show that the sacred writings of Adventist-founder Ellen G. White (who made much of the recent earth and Noachian deluge) could provide a framework for studying the history of the earth. Especially important for this purpose was the Adventist theorist George McCready Price (1870-1963), who published a string of creationist works culminating in 1923 with The New Geology. That book argued that a “simple” or “literal” reading of early Genesis showed that God had created the world six to eight thousand years ago and had used the Flood to construct the planet’s geological past. Price, an armchair geologist with little formal training and almost no field experience, demonstrated how a person with such a belief could reconstruct natural history in order to question traditional understandings of the geological column and apparent indications for an ancient earth. Price’s ideas were never taken seriously by practicing geologists, and they also had little impact outside of Adventist circles. One exception was the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, where a few energized critics of the modern world found Price’s biblical literalism convincing, despite the fact that on almost every other religious question the Missouri Synod was about as far as removed from Seventh-Day Adventists as it was possible to be. Although Price and various associates founded several creationist organizations (like the Deluge Geological Society), these groups were short-lived. Similarly, early creationist literature seemed to have little visible effect beyond a narrow circle. A few fundamentalists, like the Presbyterian minister Henry Rimmer (1890-1952), proposed somewhat similar views concerning the Flood, but Rimmer’s influence was greatly lessened by the time of his death.
When rising corps of university-trained conservative evangelical scientists founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941, creationist flood geologists thought this society would provide a receptive forum for their conclusions. It did not. Although leaders of the ASA maintained strict views of biblical authority and defended the sovereignty of God over the natural world, almost all of them held to the older day-age or gap theories. Some even came to feel that divine revelation in Genesis and natural revelation from empirical investigation did not need to be harmonized in the ways that had been repeatedly tried, revised, and tried again since the early nineteenth century. Internal debates on these matters have been interminable in the ASA. Contentions over such matters – that is, contention over the fundamentalist agenda – has been one of the reasons for the ASA’s limited influence in the more general world of science, although the ASA has sustained a solid roster of capable scientists and published remarkably helpful material on controversial scientific issues.
Undaunted by their failure to take over the ASA, creationists continued to prosecute their case. At last in the late 1950s, a breakthrough occurred. John C. Whitcomb, Jr. (b. 1924), a theologian at Grace Theological Seminary (Winona Lake, IN) of the Grace Brethren denomination, and Henry M. Morris (b. 1918), a hydraulic engineer of Southern Baptist background, had each been moving in a creationist direction for quite a while before finding confirmation in Price’s work. Each was also disturbed by a book published in 1954 by the evangelical Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, which had delighted most members of the ASA by proposing a much more flexible approach to reconciling evidence from nature and understanding from the Bible. Ramm, for example, chastised fundamentalists for failing to read the Bible in its proper cultural contexts instead as a nineteenth-century Baconian text: “The radical error of the hyperorthodox is his failure to see that there is a measure of accommodation. We believe that the true position is that the revelation of God came in and through the Biblical languages and their accompanying culture.” Ramm also leveled stern attacks on the harmonization provided by Price and Rimmer. Soon after the appearance of Ramm’s volume, Whitcomb and Morris met. Their cooperation was productive and led in 1961 to the publication of The Genesis Flood, an updating of Price’s work, but one that, because of Whitcomb’s theological contribution and Morris’s scientific expertise, made Price’s points more persuasively.
The reception of the book was overwhelming. It was obviously a match thrown onto well-seasoned tinder. There was massive demand for the volume (twenty-nine printings and sales in excess of 200,000 by the mid-1980s). The creationist viewpoint was popularized (by Whitcomb, Morris, and others) in millions of other books, articles, pamphlets, and Sunday school lessons. Creationism soon exerted an influence in Britain, where conservative antievolutionists had almost never before promoted the idea of a young earth. Creationist materials were translated into many foreign languages, including Turkish, for use in Islamic education. Some creationists sponsored a drive to move from a Christian-oriented “biblical creationism” to a public-oriented demand for equal time in public education on behalf of “creation science.” Several institutes were established to promote creationism. Spirited publicists defended creationism in highly publicized public debates with evolutionists. Eventually, a few university-trained geologists came to advocate the creationist viewpoint. Legislators in Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws, later overturned by the courts, to teach creation science as an alternative to evolutionary theories. Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan called for the nation’s schools to provide equal time for creation science. Wounded defenders of the establishment science published books in rejoinder. And intense battles have taken place in many towns and cities over how evolution was or was not taught in the schools. In sum, since 1960 creationism has done more than any other issue except abortion to inflame the cultural warfare in American public life.
OK, so what conclusions can one draw from this? It seems to me that whether or not one agrees or disagrees with modern, scientific version of Six-Day Creationism is largely irrelevant to a simple understanding of where the view/methodology came from historically. The fact that it arose from a Seventh-Day Adventist in the 19th century doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a false interpretation of Genesis. Yet unless one is genuinely willing to discount the views of even the majority of conservative evangelicals prior to the mid-20th century, then it certainly does suggest that the claim that it’s the orthodox, biblical position that must be upheld by all Christians who are “faithful to and serious about Scripture” is untenable.