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Many people in the church today think that “young-earth” creationism is a fairly recent invention, popularized by fundamentalist Christians in the mid-20th century. Is this view correct?
Geologist H.H. Read prefaced his book on the granite controversy a few decades ago with these words, “Geology, as the science of earth history, is prone to controversy. The study of history of any kind depends upon documents and records. For the history of the earth’s crust, these documents are the rocks and their reading and interpretation are often difficult operations.”1
This book analyzes one such controversy, and an extremely important one at that, during the first half of the 19th century in Britain, which has sometimes been called the “Genesis-geology debate.” At that time a tenacious and denominationally eclectic band of scientists and clergymen (and some were both) opposed the new geological theories being developed at the time, which said that the earth was millions of years old. These men became known as “scriptural geologists,” “Mosaic geologists,” or “biblical literalists.”
The label “scriptural geologists” is preferred since three of their book titles used these terms and it was the most common label used by their contemporaries and by later historians. However, we need to be aware of the label’s liabilities. It has not always been used carefully, resulting in confusion and inaccurate analysis. Calling them scriptural geologists obscures the fact that some of them were competent geologists while others were not (and did not claim to be). Conversely, it sometimes is and was used by opponents to imply, erroneously, that these men all developed their objections to old-earth geological theories solely on the basis of Scripture. Also, at least one of their contemporary critics, an old-earth geologist, also described himself by the same title.2 Finally, a few of their contemporary critics and several later historians have lumped scriptural geologists together with their opponents under this label.3 So it is necessary to have a clear view of what they believed.
The scriptural geologists held to the dominant Christian view within church history up to their own time, namely, that Moses wrote Genesis 1–11 (along with the rest of Genesis) under divine inspiration and that these chapters ought to be interpreted literally as a reliable, fully historical account.4 This conviction led them to believe, like many contemporary and earlier Christians, that the Noachian flood was a unique global catastrophe, which produced much, or most, of the fossil-bearing sedimentary rock formations, and that the earth was roughly 6,000 years old. From this position they opposed with equal vigor both the “uniformitarian” theory5 of earth history propounded by James Hutton and Charles Lyell, and the “catastrophist” theory6 of Georges Cuvier, William Buckland, William Conybeare, Adam Sedgwick, etc.
They also rejected, as compromises of Scripture, the gap theory,7 the day-age theory,8 the tranquil flood theory,9 the local flood theory,10 and the myth theory.11 Though all but the myth theory were advocated by Christians who believed in the divine inspiration and historicity of Genesis 1–11, the scriptural geologists believed their opponents’ theories were unconvincing interpretations of Scripture based on unproven old-earth theories of geology.
There are several reasons, besides merely satisfying our historical curiosity, why it is important to gain a better understanding of these scriptural geologists and the Genesis-geology debate. First, these British writers have received limited scholarly analysis and in what has been done they have been generally misunderstood and often mischaracterized, both by their contemporaries and by later historians. Typical is Charles Lyell, the leading uniformitarian geologist of their day, who described them in 1827 as “wholly destitute of geological knowledge” and unacquainted “with the elements of any one branch of natural history which bears on the science.” He said that they were “incapable of appreciating the force of objections, or of discerning the weight of inductions from numerous physical facts.” Instead he complained that “they endeavor to point out the accordance of the Mosaic history with phenomena which they have never studied” and “every page of their writings proves their consummate incompetence.”12
Turning to the historians, we find an equally disdaining view. In 1896, Andrew White, whose views had enormous influence on the next generation of historians, referred only to clerical scriptural geologists, such as James Mellor Brown.13
Quoting Brown and others out of context, White said that these scriptural geologists believed that geology was “not a subject of lawful inquiry,” “a dark art,” “dangerous and disreputable,” and “a forbidden province.”14 Also in 1896, William Williamson, professor of botany in Manchester, described the work of George Young, the most geologically competent scriptural geologist, as “prejudiced rubbish.”15
Moving into the 20th century, the scriptural geologists have been described as “scientifically worthless,”16 “scientifically illiterate Bibliolaters,” and “obscurantists.”17 And they were “vociferous,” negative, and defensive in their reaction to geology.18
Particularly pertinent to the present analysis of George Fairholme, John Murray, William Rhind, and George Young are comments by the late Harvard University geologist Stephen Gould: “By 1830, no serious scientific catastrophist believed that cataclysms had a supernatural cause or that the earth was 6,000 years old. Yet, these notions were held by many laymen, and they were advocated by some quasiscientific theologians.”19
Davis Young, a Christian geologist, progressive creationist, and prominent writer on the creation-evolution debate in America, has implied a similar view—these scriptural geologists had no real geological knowledge.
A torrent of books and pamphlets were published on “scriptural” geology and Flood geology, all designed to uphold the traditional point of view on the age and history of the world.20 The “heretical” and “infidel” tendencies of geology were roundly condemned by some churchmen, few of whom had any real knowledge of geology. Those who had geological knowledge were now largely convinced that the earth was very old.21
Charles Gillispie, an evolutionist and one of the most influential recent historians of early 19th century geology, was even more stinging in his general evaluation of the scriptural geologists when he stated that they were “men of the lunatic fringe,” who published “their own fantastic geologies and natural histories,” none of which “marked any advance on Kirwan,” who wrote at the turn of the 19th century. In fact, their ideas were all “too absurd to disinter.”22 He later continued:
The productions of men like George Fairholme, Andrew Ure, and John Pye Smith set forth sillier, less well-informed systems (than Vestiges23) reconciling the Mosaic record with empirically misconceived fact. Their errors cannot have seemed sufficiently damaging to science to merit professional refutation because no one bothered to refute them.24
In commenting on their significance, Gillispie concluded:
Although too neat a generalization would be erroneous, the arguments of one generation of purely theological disputants more or less reflected the interpretations of the obstructionist side in the discussions among scientists of the preceding generation. Granville Penn, for example, Dean Cockburn of York, and George Fairholme, to name three of the opponents of geology in Buckland’s time, leveled against the whole of the science—catastrophist as well as uniformitarian—arguments very similar to those with which Deluc and Kirwan had attacked the Huttonians 25 years earlier. . . . After Kirwan, no responsible scientist contended for the literal credibility of the Mosaic account of creation.25
Millhauser similarly described them as “foes of science” who were woefully ignorant of science and especially geology.26 Referring to these scriptural geologists, Haber condescendingly asserted that “geological science and the advancement of scientific truth [were] pilloried and stoned by the ignorant literalists” who vainly fought against “the heroic warriors in the army of science.”27 More recently, James Moore has expressed an equally negative view of these scriptural geologists: “Thus their typical ploy of ransacking geological works for contradictory assertions, for passages of which no real understanding is shown but which serve admirably to exercise and display the interpreter’s own proficiency in logic and linguistics.”[sic]28
Quite unlike most other contemporary historians, Nicolaas Rupke was somewhat positive in describing some of the scriptural geologists as competent naturalists. In his view, even some of the clergy were quite expert in the local geology around their parishes.29 Paul Marston acknowledged that they were not anti-geology, but only opposed to the old-earth geological theories.30 Nevertheless, these are very much minority views among historians. Whenever a group of people is so severely castigated by contemporaries and later historians, the student of history can be excused for being just a little suspicious that maybe there could be another side to the story. So it is important to investigate the evidence more closely and carefully, and as objectively as possible. As we shall see, the above evaluations of the scriptural geologists are wildly inaccurate.
A second reason for studying these men is that their views are very similar to those of modern young-earth creationists (YEC), even though there is no literary dependence of the latter on the former and most YEC have never heard of the scriptural geologists (prior to my research). The historical facts about the scriptural geologists stand as a strong corrective to the misleading argument of respected church historian, Mark Noll, who has castigated young-earth creationists for the scandalous use of their minds and for interpreting Genesis in a way that “no responsible Christian teacher in the history of the church” (before the 20th century) has.31
A third reason for studying the scriptural geologists is a fact closely related to the last point, namely, that recent historians of science have written a number of articles and books giving reinterpretations of the historic relation of science to religious belief.32 In this area the “warfare” thesis of White and Draper dominated scholarly thinking for far too long. According to them, science and Christianity were constantly in conflict and science won every battle.33 Brooke points out that this warfare thesis was flawed because 1) White and Draper only considered the extreme positions and neglected those who saw religion and science as complementary, and 2) they evaluated past scientific achievements on the basis of later, rather than contemporary, knowledge.34 Rudwick summarized the need for such fresh reinterpretations of the past when he stated:
This kind of scientific triumphalism is long overdue for critical reappraisal. Its claims to serious attention have been thoroughly demolished in other areas of the history of science, but it survives as an anomaly in the historical treatment of the relation of science to religious belief. This may be because the historians’ own attitudes are conditioned by the immature age at which religious beliefs and practices are abandoned by many, though not all, intellectuals in modern Western societies. This common experience may explain why many historians of science seem incapable of giving the religious beliefs of past cultures the same intelligent and empathic respect that they now routinely accord to even the strangest scientific beliefs of the past.35
This difficulty in giving a fair treatment of scientists who held strong religious beliefs, especially orthodox Christian beliefs, calls for a more careful assessment of the scriptural geologists, to whom the warfare myth continues to be applied.
Lastly, the battle that the scriptural geologists fought sheds much light on the modern creation-evolution debate in many countries and especially on the controversy within the church over the age of the earth. As will be seen, contrary to popular opinion both inside and outside the church, the controversy is not between science and religion, but between anti-biblical religions/philosophies and biblical Christianity. And those Christians who favor the approach of the “intelligent design” movement will have cause to reconsider the validity of that position on the age of the earth and on its strategy to reform science and culture. The origins debate was the nineteenth century and still is today a worldview conflict, a conflict over the assumptions used to interpret the geological evidence and a battle over the reliability and authority of the Bible.
After a discussion of the historical context of the Genesis-geology debate, a separate chapter is devoted to each of seven scriptural geologists (presented roughly in chronological order). These seven writers wrote the most on this subject and represent the diversity of the scriptural geologists who were most active in the years 1820–45.36 In each of these chapters a biographical sketch is followed by a summary of the man’s views.
It is essential, as Porter has said, for the historian to allow people from the past to speak for themselves and to endeavor to understand them and their ideas in their own terms.37 Therefore, in the process of summarizing their arguments, I quote liberally from their writings. To do so is especially important because their works are not easily accessible to most readers, even to scholars.38
Having considered them individually, the last part of the book will make overall comparisons and generalizations in analysis and evaluation of the debate. I will suggest reasons for their engagement in the debate and for the response they received from their contemporary opponents.
A remark is in order about how the seven men I have analyzed were selected. The study has been restricted to Great Britain, because this was the heart of the debate.39 There were many other scriptural geologists who wrote on the subject in pamphlets, a chapter of a book, or book-length treatises during the years 1820–45, the period of their most intense opposition to old-earth theories.
In addition to the ones on which this book concentrates, the works of about 25 other scriptural geologists were also examined, though some in much less detail. These included the writings of Anglican clergymen such as Thomas Gisborne, Henry Cole, Samuel Best, William Cockburn, James Mellor Brown, Frederick Nolan, and Sharon Turner. The Methodist clergyman and geologist Joseph Sutcliffe, and the Anglican clergyman and famous entomologist William Kirby, likewise defended the view.
Others were Thomas Rodd (a bookseller), Fowler de Johnsone (a clergyman in an unknown denomination), William Brande (a prominent chemist and professor at the Royal Institution), William Martin (a natural philosopher), Walter Forman (a Royal Navy captain with strong interests in physics and astronomy), and Robert FitzRoy (Royal Navy captain of the H.M.S. Beagle on which Charles Darwin made his famous voyage).40 Six of these were discussed at length in my thesis (Gisborne, Cole, Best, Cockburn, Brown, and de Johnsone).41 All of the works related to the Genesis-geology debate of these 25 men not discussed here are listed in the bibliography, for those who care to pursue the subject further.
As a result of this broader study, I am satisfied that the seven men analyzed in this book accurately represent the whole class of writers. This provides a sound basis for the generalizations and conclusions at the end of the book.