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The Modern, Scientific Version of Six-Day Creationism Arose from a Seventh-Day Adventist in the 19th Century

by Carson T. Clark on March 19, 2012

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.

  • mBlaiseb

    Carson, I think this article needs to be nuanced to avoid the impression that six-day creationism only arose from a Seventh-Day Adventist in the 19th century. You will notice that Mark Noll uses the term ‘Modern Creationism’ and Numbers uses “Scientific creationism”to avoid this confusion. I would hate for those who are working through this issue and who learned to trust your teaching to miss this key distinction.

    While the first chapters of Genesis were interpreted in a variety of ways in both the 2nd temple/Rabbinic Judaisms and pre-enlightenment Church, there is no doubt that at least some of the interpreters (E.g. Luther) did hold to a young earth that was created in a very short period of time, often a literal six days. I am not suggesting this view was the majority, only that there were important exegetes who favored a six-day creationism well before Ellen White.

    The type of Modern-creationism that both you and Noll are speaking of, is the attempt to not only find a six-day creation in the text of scripture, but to coerce the natural sciences into supporting that view.

    Despite the confusion caused by the use of the generic “six-day creationism”, I think the point of the essay is well taken. Thanks for including the the Noll quote and the Numbers reference (I have not read Numbers).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=163800401 Carson T. Clark

      Valid and helpful criticisms, Blaise. I’ve revisioned the title and tried to subtly adapt some of the terminology to more accurately reflect the historical realities. If you have other suggestions, I’m all ears. Thanks.

    • mBlaiseb

      Nothing more on this post. I think its great! I am sure a follow up post some time tracing the interpretation of creation even further back would be interesting and would also support the point that a literal 6 day creationism has not historically been a badge for identifying those with the “right view of scripture.” Even Augustine’s work “On the Literal Meaning of Genesis” didn’t have a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. And we both know that if Augustine said so then it is both unarguably correct for all time and that it was the bar by which all other western interpretations were measured.

  • John W Brandkamp

    An excellent piece Carson. Kudos!

  • David Koyzis

    What about Archbishop James Ussher’s chronology in the 17th century? He too appeared to accept a 6-day creation.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=163800401 Carson T. Clark

      Yes, that point was brought up in a corresponding fb discussion. There a friend wrote:

      “Ronald Number’s book ‘The Creationists’ doesn’t look at Usher, because the purpose is look at the rise of a ‘scientific’ justification of 6 day creation. It’s not that no one ever believed in 6 day creation before the Seventh Day Adventists, but that no one was trying to justify it with science, or something science-like.

      It’s one thing to say that the Genesis has a six day creation account and believe that it’s historically reliable. It’s different to suggest that the entire science of biology is a grand conspiracy which purposefully misreads the evidence of nature, and the whole thing is about to be revealed as a hoax (which is what many 6 day creationist say).”

      Also, another friend offered some valuable criticisms below that have since been integrated into the post. For example, I added the words “The Modern, Scientific Version of” to the post’s title.

  • Ben Wilson

    Found this interesting.

    I’ve recently wondered why:
    1. Creationists want a unnatural (supernatural) origin for the world, and yet want the earth to continue by natural scientific means
    and…
    2. Evolutionists want a natural origin, and yet want the earth to continue by unnatural means

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=163800401 Carson T. Clark

      Intriguing inquiry. Innate human tendencies/desires conflicting with intellectual trends?

  • David Koyzis

    I am definitely a creationist: I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. . . .

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=163800401 Carson T. Clark

      Agreed. That’s why I liked the way Noll dealt with it in the opening paragraph.

  • Richhellman

    GH Pembers work from the 19th century I believe gives an excellent account of creation. http://www.scribd.com/doc/30752186/EARTH%E2%80%99S-EARLIEST-AGES-G-H-PEMBER-1884-EDITION

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    Thanks, Carson. Very insightful look into the history of this modern “orthodoxy.”

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

    Like!

  • Isaac

    Carson, I couldn’t disagree more strongly.
    While Ron Numbers’s has some excellent in-depth research, and his books are well worth reading but he’s hardly an unbiased source on this. As something of a bitter ex-Adventist he focuses on Adventist contributions to the exclusion of all others.

    As has been noted, the default and majority interpretation of Genesis since the beginning of the recorded history of interpretation has been to see a sequential six-day creation ex nihilo sometime between the 5th and 8th millenium BCE. Alternative interpretations aren’t modern developments (see Augustine’s instantaneous creation for the most famous example) but they were arguing against the traditional mainstream interpretation.

    To argue as Noll does that the ‘scientific’ side of creationism is new can only be supported by defining ‘scientific’ as conforming to 19th and 20th century ideas about what science is — which of course leads to the conclusion that ‘scientific’ young earth creationism is a product of the 19th and 20th centuries (by definition), but this of course would imply that ‘scientific’ old earth creationism and ‘scientific’ theistic evolutionism also developed at the same time.

    If we define ‘scientific’ more broadly, to include the entire enterprise of natural history and natural philosophy, then the debate is ancient indeed (in fact I would argue that even Augustine’s theory of instantaneous creation was deeply indebted to 4th century scientific notions that he thought conflicted with the traditional straightforward reading of the text).

    As for the early 20th century developments, there are indeed a few important scientific creationist theories that trace back to Adventist authors and practicing scientists like Price, Clark, and Marsh, there are plenty of others that can be traced to authors from other traditions (mostly Lutherans, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, but with a few Reformed and Eastern Christians thrown into the mix). You could even argue that many of the ideas that Numbers does trace to Adventist authors were borrowed from earlier non-Adventist authors. For example some of Marsh’s arguments are strikingly similar to those advanced in the late 19th century by Erich Wasmann (a Jesuit). Other examples can be adduced as well.

    I really don’t see what your final paragraph is based on. Yes there were very few American evangelical Christians in the early 20th century who were both practicing scientists and held to a traditional interpretation of Genesis. So what? Why should this be seen as speaking to a question of orthodoxy?

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