George Fairholme was born to the wealthy Scottish family of William and Elizabeth Fairholme of Lugate, Midlothian, on January 15, 1789.1 Coming from a long-established, upper-class family, William made his living from banking and also was a serious art collector.2
Nothing is known of George’s childhood years except that in 1800, at the age of 11, his uncle bequeathed to him the Greenknowe estate (comprising 5,000–6,000 acres) near Gordon, Berwickshire, which he retained until his death.3 Given his family’s financial situation and the fact that his parents and other relatives were very well read, he was probably tutored at home and self-taught.4
According to official university records, he was not a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews, or Dublin. He was affiliated with the Church of Scotland, but he evidently was not too bothered about denomination, since his third son, George, attended the well-known Anglican school in Rugby5 and his fourth son, Charles, was baptized in an Anglican Church in Brussels.6
He was married in Dunkeld, Perth, on November 15, 1818, to Caroline, eldest daughter of the 18th Lord Forbes and granddaughter of the 6th Duke of Atholl, and together they had four sons and one daughter.7 They resided in Perth and Greenknowe for a time, and for part of 1829 they lived near Berne, Switzerland.8 Apparently, from the late 1820s until about 1832, they resided in Brussels, where George was involved in banking. From there they returned to England9 to reside in rented accommodation in Ramsgate, Kent, until at least 1843.10 Throughout his life, however, he traveled extensively, as will be shown later, and seemed to have a favorite spot in Mühlbad near Boppard on the Rhine, just south of Koblenz, Germany.11
Fairholme died in Leamington Spa on November 19, 1846, leaving his wife (d. 1865), three sons, and one daughter.12 His second son, James, entered the Royal Navy in 1834 and soon became a lieutenant.13 Besides his financial assets (e.g., he willed £3000–3500 to each child),14 land, and four homes in Scotland, Fairholme bequeathed to his wife and each of his children a painting (two of which were by Van Dyke and Correggio), each depicting some scene from the life of Christ. To his daughter he also gave a small cabinet of his collection of fossils shells and rocks.15 Clearly, Fairholme’s Christian faith and the study of natural philosophy, especially geology, were important to him and like many in his day he had the financial resources to pursue his study of geology both in Britain and on the European continent.
Scientific Work and Geological Competence
Fairholme published two lengthy books on the subject of geology: General View of the Geology of Scripture (493 pages) appeared in 183317 and New and Conclusive Physical Demonstrations Both of the Fact and Period of the Mosaic Deluge, and of Its Having Been the Only Event of the Kind That Has Ever Occurred upon the Earth (443 pages) was published in 1837.18 His Positions géologiques en vérifications directe de la chronologie de la Bible (1834), a 32-page booklet critically evaluating Lyell’s theory, was published in Munich, but apparently never appeared in English. Also in the area of geology, he wrote three journal articles on coal, Niagara Falls, and human fossils.19 He wrote four other journal articles (two of which were translated into German) on the topics of spiders, elephants, microscopic creatures, and woodcocks.20 These articles reflect his scientific skills in recording careful observations of nature, wide research in relevant scientific literature, personal correspondence or conversation with other naturalists, the use of museum and zoo collections, the application of appropriate experimentation, and a caution so as not to over-generalize from the stated observations. His writing style, vocabulary, and evident literary research skills reflect a high level of education. His English quotations from French and German literature indicate that he was quite fluent in both languages.21
Fairholme was not a member of the Geological Society or any other such society, as far as I could determine.22 He apparently attended the BAAS (British Association for the Advancement of Science) annual meeting in Bristol in 1836 and he read a paper on the nature of valleys to the 1834 meeting of the Deutscher Naturforscher Versammlung (DNV), the BAAS equivalent, in Stuttgart, Germany.23 The fact that he was invited to make field trips with several German scientists after that 1834 meeting is an indication of the level of respect they had for his geological knowledge. There is also ample evidence that he conducted his own personal geological investigations. In his Mosaic Geology (1837), he asserted that he was presenting new scientific facts and inferences from those investigations and made this general statement about his fieldwork (which he said had improved greatly since the writing of his first book in 1833):24
That the line of proof which I now adduce is new as bearing on this particular question, will not, I believe, be denied. It has been the subject of patient and attentive study during the last four years, previous to which period, the evidences in question were as completely veiled from my perception, as if they had no existence in nature, although many of them had for years been daily displayed before my eyes. I have spared no pains in personally tracing out these proofs, from point to point, not only in our own island, but also over various parts of the continent of Europe: and the simple and obvious nature of many of the facts, in those districts within my reach, has enabled me to extend with confidence the same line of reasoning to every part of the earth, where phenomena precisely similar, are clearly described by travelers.25
But his geological research before his 1833 book was not insignificant. He wrote:
In the course of repeated travels over a great part of Europe, I have also had many opportunities of practically forming a judgment of the more visible and tangible evidences adduced in support of those theories.26
These field studies involved a longitudinal journey across the United Kingdom, which included descent into several mines.27 He gave his readers detailed descriptions and many drawings (which often included careful measurements), which he made of the geological features of the English Isles of Sheppey, Thanet, and Wight and of many places along the coasts of England, Scotland,28 Wales, Ireland, and northern France. Of particular note are his careful observations and measurements of six years’ worth of erosion of the sea cliffs near Ramsgate during his residence there,29 of the peculiar features of the famous western promontory of the Isle of Wight (known as the Needles),30 and of the French coast near Boulogne.31
Other evidence of his geological field research is reflected in the fact that he spent several months exploring the valley system of the French table-lands.32 During his extended residence on the shores of Thoun Lake in Switzerland in 1829 he engaged in much geological and geographical fieldwork.33 He described his observations of the winding Neckar river valley in Germany in 1834 this way: “But having, myself, just completed an examination of the whole course of the Neckar, from its very source, down to Heidelberg, and having seen many hundreds of such windings, both above and below Canstatt. . . .”34 Such observations led him to reject the burst-lake theory for the formation of the valley explained by the geology professor at the DNV meeting, who had taken him and others on a field trip to the valley. During this time in Germany he also visited a cave to study the stalagmites and some bones found there. He described the careful observations which led him to conclude that the stalactites and stalagmites were for the most part formed rapidly a few thousand years ago, rather than slowly over millions of years by the present rate of dripping water.35
One of the reasons that Fairholme believed that most of the sedimentary rock record was produced during the year-long Noachian flood was the gradual, “insensible transitions” (or conformity) between the strata. After first having been alerted to this fact by a French professor of geology in Paris, who because of this fact had rejected Cuvier’s theory of multiple catastrophes each separated by long stretches of time, Fairholme said:
I had ample opportunities, both in Britain and on the continent of France and Germany, of inspecting the junctions of almost all the formations; and I feel persuaded that there is no fact more clear in geology that this, viz. that the upper surface of almost every formation, was yet soft and moist, when the superincumbent sediments were deposited upon it.36
Although Fairholme wrote about geological formations which he had not personally observed (e.g., Niagara Falls), he was careful to inform his reader of that fact and to cite his sources.37 In addition to his field research, he studied fossils in the possession of others, such as at the Dublin Museum, in Buckland’s Oxford collection, and in the private collections of several German geologists, as well as fossils and rock specimens which he had collected from various places in England, Wales, Ireland, Germany, and even Australia. He understood the way in which fossils were used to identify rock formations:
I have now before me some fossils and hand-specimens, which were lately sent from New South Wales [Australia]. The first glance at these specimens is sufficient for an experienced geologist to be assured that they belong to the formation termed mountain limestone, which lies low in the carboniferous group of strata; and he thus becomes certain that the mountain limestone is found in New South Wales.38
Besides the time he had spent with German and French geologists and his attendance at scientific meetings, mentioned above, he also had personal contact with naturalists in India and Africa, from whom he gleaned information about the behavior of elephants, bears, and other creatures, whose bones often were found in the caves and diluvium of England and Europe. By this information he contested Buckland’s interpretation of these fossil bones, such as those found in Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire.39
As his writings show, Fairholme was well read in the current books and journal articles (both English and foreign) of the leading geologists, scientists, and experienced explorers, contrary to the charge of some critics.40 In most cases he quoted liberally from his sources (often a page or more), especially of those with whom he disagreed, which reflects his desire to properly represent their views before he contested their conclusions.
In spite of his obvious geological competence, three scathing reviews of his writings stated that Fairholme, like the other scriptural geologists, knew nothing about geology. One said that he knew “scarcely an atom of geology as now taught” or knew “that atom imperfectly,” that he was “actually (or wilfully) ignorant of the simplest data of the science [geology]” and that he had a brain with an opening like “a diluvial chaotic pit.”41 Another said he had “little real knowledge of geology” 42 and a third spoke of Fairholme’s “want of practical acquaintance” with geology.43 Yet neither of these latter two critics cited a single example of such ignorance, and of the two errors cited by the first critic at least one is questionable, and neither is significant.
In dealing with the arguments of his opponents, Fairholme displayed a very respectful attitude. One could accuse him of being boring in the use of adjectives, because his most frequent descriptions were “able” or “learned,” which he used equally with regard to deistic uniformitarians, such as Lyell, Playfair, and Hutton, and to Christian catastrophists, such as Buckland and Sedgwick. For example, after quoting James Hutton’s famous statement that he found “no traces of a beginning, no prospect of an end,” which had provoked the charge of atheism from many others, Fairholme refrained from character assassination and simply, but firmly, criticized his conclusions by saying:
But Hutton, intent only on proving the vast antiquity of the earth, carried his sweeping conclusions far beyond the limits prescribed by his premises; and was thus amongst the first to mislead the scientific world into that tangled labyrinth, which most men now perceive, and which some regard without much hope of ultimate extrication.44
Fairholme also critically evaluated the views of those more sympathetic to his own with regard to geology and the Flood, such as André Deluc.45 Scriptural geologists, to whom he made passing positive reference, were Thomas Gisborne, Sharon Turner, and George Young.46 In Geology of Scripture (p. 431–438), he favored Granville Penn’s argument that Genesis 2:10–14 was a textual gloss.
So Fairholme dealt respectfully with his opponents, commending them as persons and acknowledging their contributions to scientific knowledge, while at the same time disagreeing with them where he thought their arguments were weak or fallacious. He also expected and invited response to his ideas from geologists. In his journal article on Niagara Falls he wrote:
It will give me the greatest pleasure to be set right in the arguments which I have ventured to draw from various distinct, and otherwise unaccountable, sources in support of the Scripture statement [regarding the Mosaic Deluge]; and last, though not least, from the above phenomena of the greatest of known cataracts; and I shall look with some anxiety for a simple and consistent refutation of the subject of this paper.47
He was willing to admit his errors, when so proven by the evidence, and to modify his views accordingly, as shown in the appendix to his 1834 article on Niagara Falls and in his introductory chapter to the 1837 book with reference to his 1833 book.48 In commenting on Buckland’s recantation of his belief in the Flood, which Buckland felt obliged to make because of new geological evidence brought to his attention, Fairholme described himself in comparison, saying:
So far from condemning these candid admissions of supposed error, I look upon them as in the highest degree praiseworthy; nor can there be the slightest doubt of their disinterested and honorable nature, when we consider that they voluntarily level with the ground, some theoretical structures which were once regarded with general delight and admiration. Nor could I, indeed, be justified in any such censure, as I shall, myself, have occasion, like so many other geological students, to recant, in the following Treatise, some opinions which I had adopted on the same independent grounds, but which a more mature study of facts had subsequently led me to abandon.49
In addition to analyzing existing geological theories, Fairholme also attempted to add to the storehouse of geological facts by presenting new knowledge on the basis of his own fieldwork. From his reading of many contemporary and leading geologists, he felt confident in saying that no one had ever made these observations before. The new facts he claimed to present related to the formation of valley systems, sea cliffs, and waterfalls. His work on valleys was especially significant in his mind, because it was the arguments of Lyell, Scrope, and Murchison, in the late 1820s (that valleys had been cut by the rivers now flowing in their bottoms), which had substantially increased doubts about the violent nature of the Noachian flood and led to the recantations of Sedgwick, Buckland, and Greenough. Fairholme wrote:
“To elicit new and prominent facts,” says a recent and highly talented writer, “is the lot of few; but all may investigate truth, and thus contribute more or less, towards the advancement of knowledge. Moreover, even the humblest contributors may rest assured, that they are imperceptibly raising a structure, which will, sooner or later, include the conspicuous labors of their more fortunate coadjutors; in which structure, their labors will, indeed, still appear conspicuous, though their importance will be diminished as the fabric is extended around them.”50 Under this impression, and in the hope of thus conducing to ultimate good, I am induced to offer this contribution to the general stock of facts, on which alone, scientific knowledge can be solidly based. From the critic, I feel that I can look for but little indulgence, while deliberately entering on the field of controversy, in opposition to so numerous a host of powerful combatants. But humbly invoking the divine blessing, without which all scientific efforts, however brilliant, are to man but “a stumbling block,” to God “foolishness;” and confidently trusting in the simplicity and clearness of the facts which have at length been disclosed, I submit both these facts and the inferences which seem naturally to flow from them, to the candid and unbiassed [sic] judgment of the world.51
After the presentation of his “new and conclusive” evidences regarding the time of the formation of the present land masses and the changes that have taken place on them since then to the present, Fairholme went to some length to establish that they were, in fact, a totally new contribution to the advancement of geological knowledge. So he quoted extensively from Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831) by the astronomer Sir John Herschel,52 who was a man of encyclopedic knowledge, including of geology, and was almost deified by his contemporaries.53 Fairholme then remarked of his own present work:
Such were the judicious observations of this able astronomer, a very few years ago; and such as he describes it, was then the very limited state of our knowledge, with regard to the progress of meteoric and marine agencies, in constant action upon our dry lands. I may, perhaps, be permitted, without presumption, to hope, that the evidences just produced, from seacliffs and water-falls, have now become of a sufficiently distinct and definite nature to entitle them to a place amongst such inductive reasoning, as are so beautifully applied to the more experimental sciences. . . . Having thus justified the character of novelty, as applied to the facts of sea cliffs and water-falls, which have now been, for the first time, brought forward in a new light, let us proceed in our proposed summary of the evidences which have now been adduced.54
The Relationship Between Scripture and Geology
Fairholme did not discuss at length his view of the Bible. But clearly he held to the traditional Christian view of the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture.55 In this belief he was not ignorant of critical biblical scholarship. In the preface to his 1837 book he decried the fact that the “all too common view at present” is that the early chapters of Genesis were mythical or allegorical, the result of successive traditions of ignorant and superstitious people.56 He believed, like many educated and uneducated Englishmen in his day, including some Christians who opposed his view of Genesis and geology, that the “Sacred Word of God can neither err, nor stand opposed to His works, however blindly or imperfectly man may interpret them.”57 So he made a distinction between the unerring Scriptures and a person’s interpretation of them, which could be in error. But, he said, when rightly understood, God’s truth in creation would be harmonious with the truth of divine revelation.
It was his conviction that the Genesis-geology debate was foundational to faith in the rest of Scripture. In response to Lyell’s insistence on explaining every geological phenomenon by the current laws of nature Fairholme said:
Such is the line of reasoning by which the distinct testimony of Inspiration is to be set aside, on the subject of the deluge; and such the steps, whether intentional or casual, by which, if acceded to, all confidence in Scripture must eventually be shaken, on subjects of infinitely greater importance than that which we are now examining.58
Some of those more important subjects to which he alluded included the historicity of the accounts of the miracles of Jesus as well as the truthfulness of the prophetic statements in the Bible about the future.
But it was as a result of his geological investigations up to 1833 that his “confidence in the unerring accuracy of these Records [Genesis 1–11] [was] firmly established.”59 After another four years of more firsthand study of geological evidence, as well as analysis of the current theories of Buckland and Lyell, he concluded in 1837 that “we find that the combined efforts, even of the ablest men, have proved totally incompetent successfully to contend against the simple yet unbending Words of Eternal Truth.”60
Though he had this view of Scripture, he decided in his 1837 book to restrict himself to scientific arguments. But in so doing he did not want his readers to think that he was belittling the Word of God. Thus, before proceeding into the last stages of his argument, he made this digression (which reveals not only his view of the Bible, but also his perspective on purely scientific arguments):
My design is rather to follow the course already pursued in the foregoing chapters, and to draw my inferences from natural phenomena, as far as their evidences are exposed to our view. But though this may be the most proper, and the most philosophic mode of dealing with the subject, I would by no means have it inferred that I undervalue, or set aside, the conclusive testimony of Revelation, on this point. On the contrary, I should myself be content to rest, with the fullest confidence, on the unerring truth of revealed testimony, on this as on all other points, especially if they are beyond my own ready comprehension; but as this may not be the feeling of numbers who take an interest in geology, and who conceive that its facts ought to corroborate and explain the more obscure notices of physical events relating to the earth, which are incidentally afforded by Scripture, in recording God’s dealings with man, it may be more satisfactory to such persons to exclude, for the moment, what the Scriptures have taught us, with regard to this particular subject, with the distinct reservation, however, that they are in no wise freed from their allegiance to the Word of God, by any imperfection which they may conceive to exist, in the evidences which I may now adduce, in support of that Word.61
So in Fairholme’s view, all of the Scriptures were produced by divine supernatural inspiration. They are God’s unerring revelation, and as such they are completely trustworthy in all that they affirm.
On the Laws of Nature
I have briefly alluded to Fairholme’s view of the so-called “laws of nature” when describing his view of Scripture. But since he had more to say about this topic than any other scriptural geologist and since Buckland, Lyell, and his other opponents insisted on explaining the geological phenomena on the basis of such laws, it would be well to note carefully how Fairholme used analogy with the existing laws of nature and how eager or reluctant he was to invoke the First Cause to explain what then-known secondary causes could not. I will quote extensively to let him speak for himself and then will summarize.
First, with regard to the relationship of Scripture to geological reasoning he wrote:
“A natural deluge, arising from physical causes, within our view,” says geology, “may be readily understood and assented to; and of such local convulsions we have numerous proofs, in the strata of the earth; but to a universal flood, such as Moses describes, we cannot subscribe, because we can conceive no law in nature, by which it could possibly be effected.” It may readily be admitted, that, as a general rule, this determination of adhering closely by the established laws of nature, is most necessary and wise; for, without such rule, human ardor, combined with human blindness would recur, in every difficulty, to a final cause. But “although it be dangerous hastily to have recourse to final causes,”62 yet there are some subjects, and those too, not unworthy of philosophic attention, which cannot possibly be credited, without drawing a certain line of exception to this rule. Is the chemist in his laboratory, for example, to refuse his assent to the statement of history, with regard to the physical fact, that, on one occasion, water was converted to wine, merely because he is certain that the laws of chemistry would not enable him to succeed in any similar trial? Is the physician or surgeon to put in the plea of the laws of nature, in objecting to the no less physical facts, respecting the blind being made to see, the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, and even the dead body, on which corruption had begun its work, to rise again into life, and once more to resume its former station in human society? On similar grounds might the soldier refuse his assent to the statement of Joshua respecting the destruction of the walls of Jericho, on the strength of his never having either seen or heard, in modern warfare, of walls being destroyed by the mere shout of a besieging army. We can, in short, see no bounds to scepticism on such subjects, from the moment that we subscribe to any such objections, however talented they may be, who set us the example. If these, and such like statements of physical facts are to be erased from the Word of God, as being altogether inconsistent with the common laws of nature, then, indeed, but not till then, will the Christian geologist be justified in entertaining doubts with respect to the fact of a general Deluge, on the pleas of his inability to account for it, by the fixed laws of nature. . . . We must act with due consistency with regard to such decisions as are here demanded from us. We cannot believe one of the above preternatural, yet physical, facts, and deny another, simply because we have not discovered the means by which that other was effected. If it can be clearly shown, from natural facts, as I hope to make it appear, that a great change occurred, over all the present dry lands of the earth, at the very period assigned by history to the Mosaic deluge; and if the known laws of nature will not, or cannot, furnish us with any means of explaining how this change was effected; we must, perforce, admit into our scientific reasoning, a preter-natural power and agency; and thus attribute to the power and will of nature’s God, what nature itself can by no means account for.63
When Fairholme discussed the erosion of the sea cliffs along the coast of England we see something of his idea of the uniformity of processes and rates of nature and how he argued from analogy.
We have, in such instances, only to reason with regard to what has been, by a study of what is, and what we see will be, in order to discover the real path of truth. We plainly see in examining all these coasts, that in a thousand, or in ten thousand years, the edge of the cliffs on which we now walk will not exist, and that instead of being elevated, as we are, far above the waves, the geologists of that day, must walk upon what is now the foundation of the rock on which we stand, left dry by the ebbing tide, and covered, like those below us, with a protecting coat of sea-weed. What must thus happen to future philosophers, now happens to ourselves with reference to bygone times, and to masses of solid rock already washed away. Unless we forcibly reject all analogy, our forefathers might have foretold what we now see has taken place; and in the same manner, we can now with certainty foretell what our descendants must witness in succeeding ages; for as an action which is ceaseless, is now slowly destroying the lands at D in the plates [see replica below], so has it progressively advanced from A to B and C;
and so must it continue to advance from its present place D to E, F, and G; but beyond the point at A we can by no means advance, under the guidance of the existing laws of nature. We then reach the commencement of a new state of things; and it is as clear as any mathematical demonstration, that as, on a certain day, this action, which is now ceaseless, must have begun, by the breaking of the first powerful surf on a fixed shore, so, before that day, there was there no such action, simply because there was no fixed land for such surf to beat upon. Beyond this point, and beyond the date (whatever it may be, of 5, 10, or 100 thousand years) to which it points, we cannot advance; we must there embark on the obscure sea of theory, without chart or compass.64
Concerning the difference between the sedimentary rocks and the sediments being deposited by the present rivers and oceans he stated:
The existing lands consist of all the strata already described. The rivers, by means of which much of the detritus of these lands is carried into the sea, flow over the whole of them; and, consequently, the sediments now lodged in the waters, must be a mixture from the destruction of all sorts of rocks. In like manner, the sea coasts are composed of every variety of mineral formation; consequently the destruction by the waves, there so constant, must occasion deposits of moved matter, of a like mixed character, partaking of the composition of the whole, and not confined to that of any one species of rock. One river is perhaps charged more especially with the detritus of argillaceous formations; another with arenaceous sediments,65 each according to the prevalence of the rocks, over which it flows. If we view this process on the great scale, we cannot fail to perceive that though the movements of the waters may sift and arrange the whole into distinct strata, such strata cannot have the universality of character, which the older formations exhibit. Far less can their fossil contents, consisting of fish, shells, or vegetables, be the same in all latitudes, as appears formerly to have been the case. The analogy, then, on which geologists reason, between the mode of former depositions, and the result of existing action, can, in no point, hold good, except that water still possesses, as it always has done, the power of arranging its sediments in strata.66
A few pages later in a discussion of the origin of soils he compared the action of contemporary flooded rivers with that of the Deluge.
I am aware that on the subject of the origin of soils, there are various contending opinions; and a very common idea is, that they have almost entirely arisen from the long-continued action of the sun and air, upon that portion of the surface, and to that particular depth only, which is exposed to this action. But though we cannot doubt that this action of the atmosphere is another proof of design, and that it greatly ameliorates all soils, which, indeed, without it, would soon become barren, it is evident to any one who will examine the sections of that general diluvial covering which exists only on the surface of the earth, that those rich soils, generally termed vegetable loams, are quite distinct from any thing found amongst the regular strata beneath. This diluvium, being the result of the action of waters, may perhaps be said to be a mere natural consequence of such action, and therefore that we cannot justly attribute to express design, what any, and every, flooded river produces, on a smaller scale. But inasmuch as a general Deluge covering the whole earth, exceeds the flooded brook or river, by so much do the universal and preternatural effects of the former, exceed the local and merely natural effects of the latter.67
The catastrophists believed that the geological record revealed that throughout the millions of years of quiet periods interspersed with catastrophes God had periodically, after each catastrophe, interrupted the normal course of nature to create new forms of plants and animals. To this view Fairholme responded:
We are told by geologists, that with the commencement of certain mineral strata, certain animal and vegetable forms also commenced. Have we any such commencements in the present state of nature? And if we find ourselves entirely deprived of all such points of comparison, by which alone we are capable of judging, are we not naturally led, by the creative Power which these animal forms so obviously bespeak, to attribute to the same Power and Will, such changes and arrangements in the mineral strata, as appear to have accompanied those changes in organic beings? If this inference be just and natural, we cannot, without force, separate, as geologists do, the two facts, and suppose that in the one case, a creative Power was exercised, and that in the other, corresponding as it seems to have done in point of time, the mineral formations were the mere casual effects of the same common laws of nature which are still in force around us. The mutual and oft-repeated correspondence between such changes, is too remarkable to admit of this distinction. We see, in both, a complete deviation from existing nature. But by existing nature alone, can we form just conceptions of things. In the absence, then, of this sole criterion, we are forced to quit the laws of nature, by which philosophy so tenaciously holds; and we are handed over to a different and superior power, of which we can have no knowledge except that it exists.68
In 1833 Fairholme had also expressed his rejection of evolution on the grounds that it was contrary to the laws of nature, though he did believe in limited biological variation to produce different races (e.g., of men).69
In his final conclusions of Mosaic Geology, Fairholme returned to the relation of secondary causes and the First Cause.
This fact being proved, and the truth of the so long doubted, and now rejected Mosaic flood, being thus attested, we look around us, into the beautiful volume of the laws of nature, as far as that volume has been graciously unsealed for our perusal, to discover some law by which this great event could have been brought about, that we may not unnecessarily have recourse to a Final Cause, where second causes might be found capable of accounting for the phenomena. But although we find a variety of destructive causes, such as volcanoes, and local floods occasioned by earthquakes, exercising considerable violence in different parts of the earth, throwing up islands from the bottom of the sea, and perhaps even slightly influencing the relative level of sea and land over a limited extent; although we may admit, to the very utmost, the extent of these results (which are, however, often still but problematical), we look in vain for any law of nature, by the action of which even a small district like the Isle of Wight could be at once elevated to the height of several hundred feet, above the level of its native deep. How much more hopeless, then, the discovery of a law which could cause the seas and continents of our planet to change places, and this not by a very slow and gradual, but by a paroxysmal movement! And yet so different has this movement been from any thing that we know of volcanic effects, or of terrific and instantaneous earthquakes, that instead of such confusion as these latter almost always occasion, we find an order, a beauty, and a general smoothness pervading the new dry lands,70 which all bear testimony to the fact that the Final Cause to which we are thus at length driven, could produce, and had produced, the most admirable good out of evil and the utmost possible order, out of the most awful and destructive judgment. . . . The proofs of the rapidity, and of the uninterrupted deposition of sedimentary matter, so totally different from any existing action on which we can form our judgment, seem to remove the mode of these strata entirely beyond the sphere of man’s distinct comprehension; and lead us to attribute them to the action of second causes indeed, but under the special and direct guidance of THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE, in the same manner as the Deluge, and the present beautiful order of things resulting from it, seem to have been brought about.71
Fairholme’s ideas can be summarized as follows. He firmly believed in the general uniformity of the processes of nature, such as gravity, the flow of water downhill, the erosive and sorting powers of moving water, the ameliorating effect of the atmospheric forces on the surface of the earth, that earthquakes cause faults, etc. He was therefore strongly committed to the sound and necessary scientific principle of analogy. He assumed, because of the physical evidence he observed, that the present gradual processes, such as wind, rain, river and sea erosion, and river, lake, and ocean sedimentation, have continued ceaselessly, since the land masses were elevated. But he did not believe that the rates of these processes had been constant, for in the case of sea cliffs and waterfalls he observed evidence that in the past the present force of water was working against a much smaller rock resistance (i.e., softer rocks), resulting in more rapid erosion.72
He argued that the present-day processes and rates of erosion, sedimentation, volcanos, and earthquakes...completely failed to explain the major features of the land masses.
But by the same process of analogical reasoning, Fairholme concluded that the contemporaneous elevation of the continents was an almost unimaginably great paroxysmal and temporally brief event. He argued that the present-day processes and rates of erosion, sedimentation, volcanos, and earthquakes (which were generally described as the “present processes of nature,” the “laws of nature,” or the secondary causes of effects) completely failed to explain the major features of the land masses. The present paroxysmal events (e.g., floods, volcanos, and earthquakes) are only miniature analogies of the past singular paroxysm which laid down the geological record of fossiliferous sedimentary strata and diluvial surface rubble all over the earth, raised the continents, and scooped out the valley systems. In this regard he was reasoning very much like the catastrophists of his day, though he believed he had uncovered geological evidence, which corroborated the testimony of Scripture, that there had only been one catastrophe in the past and that it had not been a natural event of nature, which we should expect again in the future, but a unique never-to-be-repeated preternatural event associated with the judgment of God on a sinful world.
So Fairholme did not freely invoke miracles to explain what he saw. He sought to find secondary causes for the observed effects, as much as he could. Rather, from his own geological observations he argued against those who said that the present processes (and rates) of nature did explain everything. When he felt that the natural secondary causes demonstrably failed to explain the effects, he concluded that the First Cause had preternaturally acted. As the catastrophists applied this line of reasoning to the biological realm to explain the origin of life forms, Fairholme insisted it could and should be applied to the geological realm as well to explain the features of the earth. In reality he argued that such preternatural divine activity only occurred, with reference to geological history, at the time of the Flood and original creation, as the biblical record testified.
Furthermore, he argued that to insist on explaining everything by present-day processes or “laws of nature” would necessarily involve the denial of all the miraculous elements of the Bible, which in his view was impossible for a Christian.73
Summary of His Two Books
The argument of his Geology of Scripture (1833), which mainly attempted to refute Lyell’s uniformitarian theory, can be summarized as follows.
- It is unreasonable and unphilosophical to attribute all things to the mere laws of nature. Even if secondary causes can explain the transformation of the original chaotic mass into the present globe, they cannot explain the origin of the chaotic mass, and therefore we are forced to acknowledge a creative power. This logic applies even more forcefully to the origin of animals and plants, which display such evident design. God must have made originally a mature, perfect man, oak tree, bear, etc. When we compare such reasoning to Scripture we realize that God did such creating in six days, which arguably were literal 24-hour days. So the original creation was perfect; it did not improve gradually from an imperfect state over eons of time.
- The first great geological change on earth took place on the third day, when God made the dry land by divine decree. He did this not by the normal laws of gravity, fluid flow, and slow accumulation, but by the depression of the earth’s thin crust in places. From that moment, the ocean, operating in a manner similar to its present action, produced the earliest, non-fossiliferous, secondary formations on the base of the primary primitive rocks created in the initial act of creation.
- A great portion of the secondary formations (those containing marine fossils, e.g., the chalk) was formed by the current laws of nature operating during the 1,656-year period from the creation to the Noachian flood. The Flood, for which there is evidence all over the dry lands, produced all strata containing the fossil remains of land animals as there was a gradual interchange of the former sea and land. The Flood waters, moving in currents similar to the movements of the present oceans, distributed the floating plants and animals to where they are now buried. The pre-Flood climate was not significantly different than presently, and plants and animals similarly lived at different latitudes. Man was coexistent with the pre-Flood plants and animals. Contrary to the catastrophist views of Buckland and Cuvier, there were no progressive creations over long ages before man.
- On the basis of the worldwide traditions and other proofs, such as the origin of languages, we may conclude that the human race is descended from Noah’s family in the Middle East.
- All the evidence presented in support of these points corroborates the historical truth of Genesis 1–11 and other statements of Scripture. This evidence, along with the evidence of fulfilled prophecy, shows the Bible to be the product of divine inspiration.
In his Mosaic Deluge (1837), Fairholme stated that further personal study of the geological evidence convinced him that he had made some errors in his first book. The line of argument then in 1837 is quite different and more limited in scope, focusing completely on the Noachian flood, which he now believed, contrary to his earlier book, laid down virtually all the sedimentary fossiliferous rocks. First, he reviewed his previous arguments in favor of the global extent of the Flood (e.g., quadruped animal remains, especially mammoths in the diluvial deposits and in various caves). To this he added remarks about some recently discovered human fossils which he believed were strong evidence that the secondary strata were not all formed before the creation of man,74 and he gave an overview of the traditional non-geological defense of the Flood account in Genesis. After this brief introduction, he turned his attention to arguing strictly from the phenomena of nature in proof of the following points.
- As we look at the topographical features of the land masses all over the world, we observe systems of valleys draining in all directions from the summits to the present sea level. These valley systems were clearly formed by water, but, contrary to the ideas of Hutton, Playfair, and Lyell, they were not formed by the existing rivers over immense periods of time. The greatest evidence of this is the many dry valleys (no longer containing any river) in the valley systems, which connect into the drainage system at just the right level. These suggest that the carving, scooping waters which produced the valley systems are no longer seen on the continents.75 As the valley systems end at the level of the present seas, so in a similar way the dry and wet valleys on the sides of lakes end at the present level of the lakes. These two points show that the whole network of valleys was formed contemporaneously, regardless of the length of the valleys. Since the valleys were not carved by the present streams but the latter merely flow down previously prepared valleys, a study of the additional erosion by the rivers leads us irresistibly to the fact of a commencement of their flow in a certain place.
- By measuring the rate and amount of erosion of major waterfalls such as at Niagara Falls or at Schaff hausen on the Rhine, we can calculate the time of commencement of water flow to be, at most, 10,000 years, though additional consideration of the fact of constant power of the water coupled with a considerably smaller rock resistance in the past can reduce that date of commencement to about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Since the waters of Niagara represent the drainage of nearly half of North America and other river systems there are similar, even if they lack a falls, we can by analogy conclude that all the rivers started to flow, and hence the continent became dry land, about 5,000 years ago.
- Careful examination of the present sea-cliffs of Britain and Europe shows that they have eroded a relatively short distance. This leads us to a definite point in space and time where and when the present ceaseless activity of the waves commenced, which means that the continents rose at a definite period (contrary to Hutton, who saw no evidence of a beginning). The average coastal erosion in England and France is observed to be about one-half mile. Over 10,000 years this works out to an annual loss of three inches, which is too little, given certain observed facts about the coasts. Therefore, the commencement of the sea erosion, and with it the elevation of the present continents, began sometime between 10,000 years ago and the beginning of historic times (i.e., human histories, at that time reckoned to reach back about 5,000 years). We cannot at present get any nearer to the true age of the present continents, but since there are similar effects and causes on all sea coasts, we can conclude that there was a simultaneous birth of the continents.
- The coincidence between the commencement of the existing state of the continents and the Genesis flood and the worldwide traditions of a global flood is obvious. To the biblical evidence for the uniqueness of the Flood may be added geological evidence that the sedimentary strata were laid down in relatively rapid succession (during the year of the Flood) on top of each other when the lower one was yet damp and soft. These evidences include fossil trees found frequently in the secondary and tertiary strata (though primarily in the coal formations), which are buried in an upright position (at various angles) and which traverse several strata.76 Also, smooth gradual transitions (in terms of the mixture of rock type) from one strata to the next generally characterize the stratigraphic record. Ephemeral markings (e.g., ripple marks and animal tracks) at the transition boundaries between strata likewise indicate that the strata must have been buried before erosion could take place.77 Finally, there is a general lack of vast erosional features between the geological formations such as the present surface valley systems, which are shown to be the result of the Flood.78 Therefore, the geological record is not the result of many catastrophes over millions of years.
- All these lines of evidence, Fairholme argued, prove the fact, the recency, and the uniqueness of the global Noachian flood, which was the goal stated in the title of the book, and corroborate the literal truthfulness of the biblical account.
By early 19th century standards, George Fairholme was quite competent to critically analyze old-earth geological theories. He attempted to contribute new observations and inferences to the bank of geological knowledge. He was most certainly not opposed to the study of geology, but only to old-earth geological theories, which he believed were contradictory to both Scripture and the scientific facts.
In his view, Genesis does not teach an entire system of natural philosophy or even of geology, but rather it provides trustworthy beacons to guide geological studies into a true understanding of earth history. He attempted to show from the geological and geographical evidence (e.g., valley systems, waterfalls, sea coast erosion, human fossils, polystrate fossil trees, insensible transitions between the strata, etc.) that the global Flood had formed the present surface of the land masses about 5,000 years ago and that the strata were not the result of modern processes operating over millions of years, but were associated primarily with the Flood.
Being a wealthy landed gentleman, he had plenty of money to travel and pursue his strong interest in the study of nature, especially geology. His two books on geology were motivated by a deep conviction about the historical, as well as theological and moral, truth of Scripture and the detrimental effects that old-earth reinterpretations of Genesis would have on faith in the rest of the Bible.