Although numbered among the early 19th century scriptural geologists, Henry Cole was largely ignorant of the facts of geology. But as a feisty Anglican clergyman, he was deeply concerned with defending the Scriptures and orthodox Christian faith. In 1834 Cole strongly opposed the teachings of fellow Anglican Rev Adam Sedgwick, who was then the most honoured geologist at Cambridge University and a leading proponent of Lyellian uniformitarian geology. Cole was convinced that Sedgwick’s influential ideas would be ultimately subversive to the Christian faith, not only among university students but also in the wider church. History has confirmed Cole’s fears, even if they were not always expressed in the most winsome terms.
Henry Cole was born in about 1792. Little is known of his early years. His schooling or lifetime of ‘scholastic toil, trial and trouble’ began sometime in 1809.1 He commenced university studies at Clare Hall, Cambridge, in March 1817. He left before completing his training, however, and was readmitted in January 1847, matriculating later the same year. He received the B.D. degree in 1848 and D.D. in 1854.2
On 18 December 1814, in Norwich, Cole was ordained a deacon, and four years later was made an Anglican curate. For several years up to 1823, he was ‘lecturer of Woolwich, Kent.’3 Sometime before 1834 he took up residence in Islington.4 Though a comment in his 1834 book on geology suggests that he was still a member of the Church of England,5 shortly after moving to Islington he became the pastor of a Methodist chapel, the Islington Green Chapel, which in 1840 was taken over by Baptists, under a new pastor, and renamed Providence Chapel.6 About this time, Cole returned to a clerical position in the Church of England and from as early as 1841 until 1857 he was the ‘Sunday evening lecturer’ and curate at the small St Mary’s Somerset Church, Upper Thames Street, London,7,8,9 a task which involved him in ‘unceasing engagements in the instruction of youth.’10 Cole certainly did not stay in this position so long for the financial benefit; the rector of St Mary’s during Cole’s long curacy, J.S. Sergrove, had one of the lowest incomes in the diocese of London (£280 p.a.), out of which he supported himself and paid his curate.11 After struggling for much of his life with ill health, Cole died in Islington on 28 June 1858, at the age of 66, after two recent spells of paralysis.12
In addition to teaching and preaching for over forty years, he also wrote extensively. His works included a book in opposition to the 1829 emancipation of Roman Catholics to hold public office,13 two books of songs for public worship,14,15 a refutation of some of the Christological doctrines of Edward Irving,16 a book on essential Christian doctrines,17 another on ancient mythology,18 a pamphlet condemning the system of fattening animals to states of unnatural obesity for exhibition and consumption,19 another pamphlet criticizing some practices of dissenting churches,20 and a sermon on the supreme authority of the Bible over science and religion.21 He also translated six works of Martin Luther1,22,23,24,25,26 and one each of Calvin27 and Melanchthon.28 There can be little doubt that his translation work greatly contributed to his polemical writing style.29 Most of his own works show him to be a man who was passionately committed to contending for the truth (as he saw it), especially the truth of the gospel and the Scriptures, against all kinds of subtle perversions of it.
Of greatest interest is his 136-page ‘letter’ to Adam Sedgwick, entitled Popular Geology Subversive of Divine Revelation (1834).5 This was a response to Sedgwick’s Discourse on the Studies of the University,30 which along with extensive additional comments contained the sermon Sedgwick had preached in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, in December 1832.
Cole expressed respect toward Sedgwick for his superior physical and mathematical knowledge,31 but Cole’s writing style all but obscured this in many readers’ minds. He called Sedgwick’s ideas ‘unscriptural and anti-christian’, ‘scripture-defying’, and ‘revelation-subverting’, ‘baseless speculations and self-contradictions’, which were ‘impious and infidel’ and would cause untold damage to the nation.32 Cole was confident that ‘the heart of every one that fears the God of heaven, reveres his eternal Word, and favours his righteous cause’ would agree with his ‘refutation’ of Sedgwick’s Discourse and he triumphantly but naïvely declared that his book would be the final and sufficient response to the old-earth geological theories.33 Typical of his style throughout is the following response to Sedgwick’s statement that Scripture is silent about the time interval between the ‘beginning’ Gen. 1:1) and the ‘first day’ of creation:34
As to the want of a scriptural connexion of “the beginning” with the “first day,” and the silence of scripture on that point;—the heaven-given faith of Paul, Sir, found no such deficiency; no such silence; nor does any one of Wisdom’s children ever find them; nor would the REV ADAM SEDGWICK have thought of such deficiency, had not his Geological attainments cast off the fear of God, determined to pursue their man-applauded “nebulosities” in the very face of infinite Veracity. The deficiency pretended, Sir, is a willing ignorance which God himself has foretold should characterize the presumptuous “scoffers” of these “latter days” [quoting 2 Pet. 3:5].35 (Emphasis added.)
It is not surprising that Cole was castigated by many contemporaries for this condemning tone.36 In fairness to Cole we need to note, however, that he was very conscious of his style and the response it would receive:
If I should be less courteous and disguised in my words and manner than you might have expected, you must not attribute it, Sir, to any undue personality. I know you not, save by eminent academic distinction: and it is not with you personally, as a Gentleman, but with your promulgated principles and doctrines, and the eternal honour of divine Truth as concerned in them, that I have to do: and when engaged in such a work, I ever wish to speak plainly, decidedly, and unmistakably. I cannot move according to perverted charity and compromising courtesy, which characterize the present day’s treatment of divine and eternal things: for while the things of God are thus, in this day, sifted through the wires of prostituted courtesy, scarcely a grain of the divine truth in question is to be found in the sieve, and almost every error may be fangled out of the chaff upon the floor.37
Contrary to the charge of a reviewer in the Christian Observer,38 Cole was not judging Sedgwick’s motives or intentions:
You will I hope, and doubt not, Sir, in a moment, disclaim all intention of setting your SERMON in opposition to the Word of God, and all thought of designing the subversion of that Word. But, though all must believe that you had no such appalling purpose in conscious view, yet the positions you took, and the doctrines you promulgated, have that direct and inevitable tendency.39
We must also contextualize Cole’s style with some of the words used by Sedgwick against the scriptural geologists, before Cole denounced him. It would be difficult to describe his language as any less abusive and condemning. Without qualifying his remarks in relationship to particular scriptural geologists,40 he generalized in 1830 that they had promoted ‘a deformed progeny of heretical and fantastical conclusions, by which sober philosophy has been put to open shame, and sometimes even the charities of life have been exposed to violation.’41 Early in 1834, he added that, ‘They have committed the folly and SIN of dogmatizing’, and ‘of writing mischievous nonsense;’42 they have an ‘ignorance of the laws of nature and of material phenomena’43 and ideas ‘hatched among their own conceits;’ they ‘have sinned against plain sense’,44 display ‘bigotry and ignorance’, and ‘assail with maledictions and words of evil omen’ because of the ‘truth their eyes cannot bear to look upon;’ so they invent ‘an ignorant and dishonest hypothesis.’ So the debate was indeed heated, expectedly producing sharp words on both sides.
As harsh as Cole’s words were, we have no reason to doubt his genuineness in the expressed pain he felt in criticizing Sedgwick’s views:
Really, Sir, I feel myself engaged in a most painful task, as far as you are personally concerned; though quite happy in the work of everlasting Verity’s vindication. But, as far as your eminently scientific, academic, and sacred station is involved, I feel myself in a situation of much pain; For I cannot help averring, that this is the deepest folly in a man of distinguished learning,—the greatest presumption in a fallen and fallible mortal,—and the most dangerous instruction from a minister of divine Revelation, that either I, or I think few others, have witnessed in the days in which we live!45
Also, Cole was quite clear that he was not opposed to science generally or even to geology in particular, as human investigations of the physical world, but rather he objected to the speculative theories of origins and earth history which he believed were perverting science as well as being contrary to Scripture. He never called for an end to the study of geology or any other science. On the contrary, he said that ‘geology is a legitimate science’46 and he believed that ‘God has blessed the human race’ with the various sciences and that ‘surgery, chemistry, mechanism, and all branches of experimental philosophy, are advanced and pushed on to excellence . . . by comparisons, classifications, and combinations of, and improvements on, previous human productions.’47 What he wrote to criticize was Sedgwick’s ‘account of the Creation of the world, and of man, and all the creatures therein’, and ‘the dreams’, ‘principles’, and ‘popular doctrines’ of geology, and ‘the infidel tendency of geological speculations’ and ‘the revelation-subverting deductions of the new science.’48
The relation between Scripture and science
Cole’s argument was primarily based on Scripture and as such he devoted only a few pages to discuss geological methods for dating the strata. To Sedgwick’s assertion that the Bible is not and does not pretend to be ‘a revelation of natural science’ but only ‘a rule of faith and life’ and ‘a record of our moral destinies’49 Cole retorted that this was a ‘palpable evasion’ of the truth of the Word of God for
the Scriptures do not, indeed, pretend to be a Revelation, or a rule, of all the pursuits and experiments of all natural science and philosophy; but, Sir, deeply and sacredly remember, that they do pretend to be, and are designed to be A REVELATION OF THE CREATION OF THE WORLD! With that Revelation the Book of God opens; and there is no other record of the World’s Creation but that Revelation: and it is the express design of the Creator that there never should be any other.50 (Emphasis added.)
He added that God never led any of the Scripture writers to any source about creation other than Genesis. ‘The denial of Revelation, therefore, Sir, as a history of the Creation, is an infidel refuge, and an open war of science with the God of everlasting Truth.’51 Consequently Cole charged that for Sedgwick to say, as he did, that Scripture was silent about the time between the first creation of earth and the creation of man, was a case of deafness caused by wilful ignorance (in fulfilment of Peter’s prophecy in 2 Peter 3:5) of what the Bible plainly taught on the subject, which Cole claimed to be setting forth.
On geological theory
In his Geology, Cole addressed the three main points of Sedgwick’s Discourse: Sedgwick’s geological theory of earth history, his view of natural theology/religion and his ethics.52 I will focus primarily on Cole’s remarks on geological theory. Cole first began with a brief summary of Sedgwick’s theory of the earth by quoting extensively from the Discourse. He rightly said that Sedgwick believed in the nebular hypothesis for the origin of our planet,53 the recency of man, and many divine interventions to create new forms of life during the course of the ‘evolution of countless ages’54 on earth before man appeared.
In reference to the recency of man, Sedgwick had said this was proved geologically, ‘independently of every written testimony.’55 This was the phrase that really lit the fire in Cole and he repeatedly referred to it in his book. He interpreted it to mean that Sedgwick was declaring his independence from Scripture and Cole reacted to the evidence of this independence which he saw not only in Sedgwick’s geological theory, but also in his ideas about natural theology and ethics.56 Cole argued fiercely that the whole Bible, the historical as well as the moral and theological parts, was equally inspired. Therefore, Scripture gives us a ‘simple, plain, divinely majestic, and self-explanatory (as to the main facts)’ record of the creation and history of the world.57
Cole then proceeded with his scriptural refutation of the old-earth theory. First, he presented his interpretative comments on Genesis 1:1–2:3, in which he argued for a literal six-day creation about 6,000 years ago.58 He also emphasized that the Fall of man in sin had affected the whole creation (plants, animals, atmosphere, etc.). In this presentation of his understanding of Genesis, he used extensive footnotes to quote Luther’s views as confirmation of his own.59
While he clearly believed the Flood was related to the interpretation of the geological phenomena, he devoted all his efforts to refuting the day-age theory and, more importantly, the gap theory. His comments on the Flood were limited essentially to pages 91–92. There in response to the objection that one flood could not possibly have accounted for the geological record, he said,
We have already insubvertibly established it from the lips of eternal Veracity, that neither the earth, nor the material of which it was formed, nor any creature that is found therein, had existence before the FIRST DAY of revealed Creation:—THAT TRUTH we have undeniably and everlastingly established, insubvertible and immoveable by mortal ability! What phenomena soever, therefore, of order or confusion, of combination or disorganization, of quiescence or convulsion, the researches of the Geologist may discover, all must inevitably be the production of the beauteous Creation and destroying flood, recorded in the annals of everlasting Truth.60
The days of creation had to be taken literally, said Cole, because of the context of Genesis 1 (the use of ‘evening and morning’ and ordinal numbers with ‘day’) and because Exodus 20:8–11 stated that God created the heavens, earth, seas and everything in them in six days, which by parallelism to man’s work week must have been literal.61 In addition he cited Psalm 33:6,9, Job 37:18, Proverbs 8:22–29 as proof that God had created ex nihilo by His word.
Cole anticipated that his opponents would object that all this may have been true, but it did not prove that a gap of millions of years did not transpire between the ‘beginning’ in Genesis 1:1 and the first day of creation of this present system in verse 2 or 3. To rebut this idea, Cole turned (in addition to Exodus 20:8–11) to passages in the New Testament, which were used by no other scriptural geologist I have investigated. From John 1:1–3 he argued that ‘the beginning’ (which he said had to refer to the same time as the words in Genesis 1:1) and ‘all things that were made’ were inseparably linked with no great time gap between them. Likewise, Hebrews 1:10–11 precluded the possibility that the ‘beginning’ and the ‘foundation’ of the heavens and earth were separated by vast epochs of time.62 Next he quoted Mark 13:1963 and remarked
Now, is there a geologizing mortal upon earth who will assert, that the Redeemer is here speaking of “afflictions” experienced by a world of creatures, who lived in a mighty space between “the beginning,” and the present race of mankind? Will any geological sceptic, we repeat, dare aver, that our Lord is here referring to a race of beings of whom his disciples had never heard, and whose existence was never known to men or saints, till discovered by wondrous Geologians in the nineteenth century! Must not every scientific [sic], unless he violate every remnant of natural understanding, honesty, and conscience, confess that the Saviour is here speaking to sons of men of the “afflictions” of the same sons of men which have been from the beginning of the Creation of this world? Then, here is the creation of man immediately, manifestly, and undeniably, connected with “the beginning”!64 (Emphasis added.)
Similar reasoning applied to Matthew 19:4–8 led him to the conclusion that the ‘beginning’ could not possibly be thousands and thousands of years before the creation of Adam and Eve. And if the old-earth geologists objected that the ‘beginning’ may have been formed out of preexisting matter, he countered, using Hebrews 11:3, that God did not using preexisting matter to create.65 With these arguments, Cole concluded that the old-earth geologist ‘must either deny the truth of his geological doctrine, or deny the truth of the Word of God!’66
In addition to these scriptural arguments, Cole devoted about fifteen pages to a consideration of ancient pagan traditions about creation,67 which he believed undoubtedly were derived from and served as a collateral confirmation of the true source of the patriarchs found in Genesis.68 Though these pagan accounts were more or less distorted, Cole believed, they were closer to the truth than the contemporary geological theories.
When he came to a five-page analysis of the geological arguments for an old earth, he manifested his ignorance of the details and current state of geology.69 He believed that the three pillars on which the old-earth theory rested were ‘the affixed dates of mineral or other deposits’, ‘the chronological specimens of organic remains’ and ‘the conclusive indices furnished by the various strata.’70 He neither defined them well nor documented his assertions from the writings of Sedgwick or other geologists. Nevertheless, he dismissed them all on the basis that Neptunians and the Plutonians held completely opposite views on the chronological order of the rocks and fossils. Such geological ignorance surely fuelled the antagonism of his opponents.
On natural theology and ethics
In the remainder of the book, Cole criticized the natural theology and ethical system of Sedgwick. We touch on them only briefly for the sake of context.
Sedgwick asserted that the religion of nature and the religion of the Bible were in perfect harmony. Cole agreed, but contended that the natural religion expressed in the Discourse was opposed to Scripture, since it appeared to teach that people could know God and eventually enjoy His eternal presence through applying their mind to the study of nature.71 Cole argued that the ancient pagan philosophers were unsurpassed by any moderns in their intelligence, but that they could never know God by reasoning from nature. Furthermore, he stated that the only reason that natural religion so harmonized with the religion of the Bible in Britain at the time was because of the long influence of the Scriptures on the nation.72
Likewise, Sedgwick’s ethics were perceived to be an unchristian system of ‘natural-religion-morality.’73 Cole’s criticisms were three. One, Sedgwick’s system was rooted in the belief that man had some inherent goodness, contrary to the teaching of Scripture and the articles of the Church of England concerning the total depravity of man. Secondly, the fruit of Sedgwick’s system was the fostering of pride in the minds of those who think themselves good. Lastly, it destroyed the gospel in that it promised salvation to people as a result of their goodness.
It would be beyond the scope of this thesis to develop Cole’s argument on these two topics. Suffice it to say that if Cole did misconstrue Sedgwick’s meaning, as Sedgwick later retorted, he was not the only one to have misunderstood.74 Also, Sedgwick was partly to blame, evidenced by the fact that he deemed it necessary to devote several pages in a later edition of his Discourse to clarify his meaning.75
Cole wrote against the old-earth geological theories, not for any personal advantage, but in defence of the truth, as he saw it. In Cole’s mind, the real battle was not between science and Christianity, for he believed that experimental science and the study of the rocks and fossils were legitimate and worthwhile endeavours. Rather, more explicitly than any other scriptural geologist I have investigated, he stated his conviction that the old-earth geological theories, which contradicted what for him was the plain teaching of the Bible, were part of a great spiritual battle that had begun in the Garden of Eden. Since that time, Satan had been subtly tempting and using people (even professing Christians sometimes) to cast doubt on or to deny the Word of God. Cole referred to this battle over and over again.76
The geological debate was, for Cole, just one evidence of this spiritual battle. Other contemporary evidences were the 1829 law allowing Catholics participation in parliament, and the proposed legislation being considered in the early 1830s to no longer require university graduates to affirm their faith in fundamental Christian truths. In both these cases, as in the case of Sedgwick’s geology and ethics, it had been argued (as Cole saw it) that these issues had nothing to do with biblical revelation and vice versa.77 This divorce of Scripture from these issues was of grave concern to Cole.
So in spite of Sedgwick’s intentions, Cole believed that the inevitable tendency of the Discourse was to contribute to the subverting of Scripture and to the dechristianization of Britain, with all the negative moral and social consequences attending.78 These factors then help to explain both Cole’s argument and prophetic style of writing. He perceived that he was part of a cosmic battle of the greatest eternal and temporal significance.