William Rhind (1797–1874)

by Dr. Terry Mortenson on September 15, 2011

William Rhind is virtually unknown in historical discussions of the scriptural geologists. But he is important to consider because of his geological qualifications to debate the issues of his day.

Like John Murray, William Rhind1 is virtually unknown in historical discussions of the scriptural geologists. But he is important to consider because of his geological qualifications to debate the issues of his day.

He was born on November 30, 1797, in Inverlochty, in the parish of Elgin, Scotland.2 He was one of the many children (having at least three brothers) of Margaret and William Rhind, who was a farmer.3 By then his family’s ancestors had been resident in the county of Moray, Scotland, for many centuries. Rhind received his early education first at the parish school of Duffus and later at the Elgin Academy.

In 1812 he commenced his university studies at Marischal College, Aberdeen. After two years there4 he took up an apprenticeship with a well-known Elgin physician, Dr. James Stephens. He continued his medical training in Edinburgh, becoming a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in September 1818.5 Upon completion of his medical studies, he moved to London to gain further experience and instruction, and hopefully a comfortable living.

He stayed in London only a couple of years, having found it difficult to earn the kind of living he desired. Upon his return to Elgin he began a medical practice in a shop where he also sold medicines. Although he became quite successful in these endeavors, his mind was really bent in the direction of literature and scientific research. He became a leading member of the Elgin Literary Association, and in 1822 helped to publish a periodical called Ephemera, which only ran for one year.

He soon found that Elgin was not a suitable location for his literary and scientific studies and so moved in the mid-1820s to Edinburgh, where he spent nearly 40 years of his life writing and lecturing on various subjects of natural science, primarily botany, zoology, and geology. He did not completely give up medicine, however. In 1832, he wrote the section on diseases of India in a multi-author work about that land,6 and in 1841 he was still doing surgery and publishing articles about it.7 Neither did he ever lose his love for Moray. From Edinburgh he traveled back to Elgin on several occasions to give lectures on natural history in the museum there. He also wrote a historical sketch of Moray in 1839.

In April 1854, he became a lecturer in botany in the medical faculty at Marischal College in Aberdeen.8 How long he remained in this position is not known, but he was no longer on the staff list in 1860 when Marischal and King’s colleges united to become Aberdeen University.9 He evidently returned to Edinburgh for a short while, but in 1866 his declining health inclined him to move in with the family of his older brother Alexander, a retired corn merchant, who lived in Woodhaven, near Newport, Fife. Little is known of his activities in these later years of his life,10 though he did revise some of his previous writings on botany.11 At the age of 76, he died peacefully of natural physical exhaustion on March 15, 1874, in Woodhaven.12

Rhind, like George Young, suffered from a physical disability all his life; he was somewhat lame in both legs, a fact which makes his geological field research more remarkable. His church affiliation remains unknown, though he was likely a member of the Church of Scotland. In any case, his writings reflect a strong commitment to the Scriptures. And according to one biographer, “he was universally loved for his character and bearing, and a most amiable man. He was unassuming and retiring in his manner, but a most agreeable and interesting member of society.”13

Scientific and Geological Competence

In addition to his early membership in the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, by 1830 he also had become a member of the Royal Medical Society and Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh,14 and some time before 1858 he became an honorary member of the Natural History Society of Manchester.15 In 1835 he was an annual member of the BAAS.16

He was a voluminous writer on many subjects. His non-scientific works included the historical work on the county of Moray (1839, 144 pages) and three tourist guides of Scotland (one going through nine editions). Of his scientific writings, a number reflected his strong commitment to see good textbooks available for the education of children, aged 10–18 years. Many of these books went through several editions and included class books on the natural history of the earth (1832, 69 pages), botany (1833, 76 pages), geology and physical geography (1837, 104 pages),17 zoology (1839, 119 pages),18 meteorology (1840?),19 physical geography (1850, 88 pages, and 1851, 96 pages), and elementary geography (1858, 112 pages). In 1829 he published the first thorough work on the the nature and cure of intestinal worms in the human body. He also produced for the general public Studies in Natural History (1830, 247 pages)20 and The Feline Species (1834, 183 pages).21

His magnum opus was his 711-page A History of the Vegetable Kingdom, which appeared in about 1841 and went through eight later editions up to 1877.22 Written for both the general reader and the systematic student of botany, it embraced “the physiology, classification and culture of plants [both living and fossil], with their various uses to man and the lower animals, and their application in the arts, manufactures, and domestic economy.”23

In addition to his books, Rhind published several scientific journal articles on various topics: a species of worm in sheep (1830), the spontaneous generation of living creatures (1830, an idea he rejected), the geological arrangement of the strata (1844),24 the hydrology of the British Isles (1855), and coal found in Seil Island, Argyleshire (1858).25

His books dealing directly with geology at an adult level were three. In 1833, he produced a book of excursions around Edinburgh which illustrated the geology and natural history of the area. A review of the 1836 second edition in the Magazine of Natural History said, “There is much and various interesting information in this volume: the greater portion relates to geology.”26 The Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and Physical Sciences “confidently recommended” the 1833 edition, particularly for its “lucid” geological descriptions.27 When the second edition, which was twice as long and described double the number of locations, appeared in 1836, the same journal remarked:

Mr. Rhind has most judiciously availed himself of all that has been written, while he has himself visited every corner which he describes, and has added many interesting observations. Mr. Rhind’s remarks on the Coal Fields of this district are very judicious, and give a clear view of the subject. . . . several well-engraved woodcuts of all the fossils have been introduced.28

In 1842 he published The Geology of Scotland and Its Islands (168 pages). As was the case with all of his writings on geology so far mentioned, this was a purely descriptive work which he hoped would stimulate further geological research by local students. While he relied on the work of at least 21 other local and national geologists, he also based his writings on his own field work. In the preface he wrote:

Notwithstanding the researches of several eminent geologists in detached districts, much of the particular and local geology of Scotland remains yet to be explored. Of the labors of his predecessors, the author, as will be seen in the marginal references of these pages, has frequently availed himself, more particularly of the descriptions of some few localities which he has not himself personally inspected.29

As already noted,30 Rhind showed evidence of being well-read in all the leading geological literature of his day.31 But he was also committed to field work. His concern for careful geological exploration is reflected in his preface to Elements of Geology and Physical Geography (1837), a work written for 12–14 year-old students.

Geology is one of those sciences which cannot be learnt by books alone, or studied in the closet. All that has been attempted here, then is a class book to aid verbal instruction and the actual inspection of nature. . . . In geological excursions, all that is generally necessary is a strong hammer and bag, a pocket compass, and notebook. Specimens should always be taken from the rocks in situ, and a few inches below the exposed surface, which is always more or less changed from the action of the weather. These specimens should be from three to five inches long and two to three broad, and formed by the chipping hammer into an oblong square. Crystals, minerals, and fossils, should be carefully wrapped in paper. On returning home, the whole should be labeled, and put up in drawers, for habits of accurate arrangement and neatness are among the necessary consequences of scientific training.32

The work in which Rhind discussed geological theory, and which therefore will be the focus of our study, was The Age of the Earth, published in 1838. In it he further alluded to his own geological field work, when he observed carefully the contact point between mica schist and granite, found and collected fossils, and studied waterfall erosion at several locations in Scotland.33

Attitude Toward Geology and His Geological Oppononts

It is obvious from the books he wrote that Rhind was anything but anti-geology. He considered few fields of study “of greater interest” than geology, and far from being harmful, the facts of geology, better than most information, could be “usefully employed” in “the promotion of the arts and conveniences of life.”34 But geological theories about earth history were another matter all together.

In no department of science has [sic] the vague speculations of theorists, both ancient and modern, excited more contention or ridicule than this. Most of these theories have been hastily formed, and without a due regard to facts and observations; or when these have been partially made, such facts have often been perverted; hence such theorists have exposed themselves to the lash of the Satirist. . . . We cannot look upon the visionary speculations of some of these philosophers without surprise, mingled also with regret at the dogmatism and self sufficiency with which they are propounded.35

For this reason it is not surprising that Rhind considered his own theoretical considerations of geological phenomena as “very incomplete.”36 In several places he emphasized that geology was still very much in its infant state with much controversy in interpreting the geological data.37 He did not believe, for example, that even the diluvial deposits had been adequately investigated, much less the strata they covered. And as noted above, in 1842 he asserted that the geology of Scotland still was largely unknown.38 He wondered, given the nature of the subject matter, whether geologists would ever be able to gather enough facts to conclusively prove a general theory of history based solely on the geological evidence. For these reasons, Rhind hoped his readers would not think him presumptuous to publish his own opinions on the history of the earth, to stimulate thought.

Regarding those geologists who were proposing theories contrary to the literal interpretation of Scripture, Rhind was always respectful, crediting them with a “comprehensive intellect” and “acute and patient” investigation of facts and the publication of “a mass of valuable practical knowledge.”39 In alluding to the recent changes of opinions of Buckland and Greenough regarding the Flood he said, “We by no means presume to hold them up to censure. The avowal of them, on the contrary, indicates a true nobleness of mind.”40

Rhind referred briefly to only three other scriptural geologists. In his endnote discussion of waterfall erosion, he had one sentence on Fairholme’s calculations on the recession of Niagara Falls, describing them as “interesting.”41 He cited Granville Penn’s view that Genesis 2:11–14 is a textual gloss as a possible (though not the most probable) explanation for this passage in light of a worlddestroying flood.42 But he made no comment on Penn’s geological theory. In his conclusion, he quoted at length from Sharon Turner’s Sacred History of the World (1837) to express his conviction that he would stick with Scripture and wait for time to expose the errors of the geological theories that contradicted its plain teaching on creation and the Flood.43

The Relationship Between Scripture and Science

More clearly than the other geologically informed scriptural geologists we have considered, Rhind remarked on the relation of Genesis and geology, particularly in light of the Galileo affair.

As far as Scripture was concerned, he believed that its meaning was generally very clear and its teaching authoritative.

I must also here, in the outset, state that I may be reckoned by some not an unprejudiced judge of the questions before me; for, entertaining such a belief in the Sacred Writings as makes me confident that their general import was intended to be as readily understood by the mass of mankind as by the critical inquirer, I am disposed to give implicit credence to the narrative of creation, to the whole extent that it goes; and wherever discrepancies present themselves, to await the issue of the approximation of geological knowledge to the sacred history, instead of attempting to torture this latter into a conformity with the former.44

The historical reliability of the Bible was confirmed in his mind by, among other things, the growing archaeological evidence for biblical statements about such ancient cities as Nineveh and Babylon.45 Rhind viewed geology, a science concerned about history, as being very similar to archaeology and therefore a subject to which Genesis had relevance.

If a stranger were to visit, for the first time, the ruins of Pompeii, without any knowledge of its previous history, he would view with interest the numerous fragments of most elaborate architecture strewed in ruins, and, struck with the still and silent antiquity of the scene before him, compared to the lively and luxuriant country around, his first impulse would be to inquire whether any tradition of this catastrophe existed. And thus it is, that the geologist turns from the contemplation of vast creative power, and of destruction and desolation everywhere around him, to ask of history, if it can throw any gleam of light on his perplexing meditations. With the exception of national traditions and legends, which are all traceable to one common source, the Book of Genesis contains the only record of creation given to man. We do not deem it necessary here to enter into any proof of the authenticity of the Mosaical history; but assume the fact as granted, that this account, brief as it is, is a genuine detail of the creation of the world.46

But, it was objected, the Bible is not intended to teach science. To this Rhind responded:

But if the Mosaical account of creation be not strictly and exclusively a statement of physical facts, it is nothing; and if the facts of geology and the statements of Moses, when brought to bear upon each other, be not found to coincide, one of them must be false, or there must be something wrong in the mode of their conception, or the manner of their application. Two circumstances, however, are necessary, before a perfect and harmonious coincidence of both can be acquired. We must, first, have a complete and accurate collection of the facts of geology, and we must have a precise and definite conception of the statements of Moses.47

We will consider his reflection on the facts and theories of geology shortly, but first we will follow his remarks about the correct interpretation of Genesis.

In perusing the simple but sublime commencement of the Holy Scriptures, where the successive acts of creation are recorded, what is the natural and obvious conception of the passages by the general reader, unsophisticated by preconceived notions or critical propensities? As these records were most certainly penned for the general mass of mankind, and delivered, no doubt, with the view that they should be universally and easily understood, we conceive this is the question by which their true meaning should be tried, and not by verbal criticism, and forced constructions of half sentences, and isolated passages.48

In response to Baden Powell’s view that Genesis 1 was a figurative, theological myth which taught truth about creation, Rhind added:

But this is an extremely loose mode of reasoning indeed. The Scriptures must be held to contain matters of fact applicable to all men, of all intellects, otherwise they must lead only to error and delusion; and if we can conceive that it was the pleasure of the Divine Being to reveal to man so much of the origin of the world which he inhabits, as was deemed necessary, it is reasonable to suppose that it was just as easy to give that revelation simply and unequivocally as to clothe it in mystery and allegory. Nor indeed does [sic] the other parts of the Book of Genesis partake of this character. It is, throughout, a plain, simple, and matter of fact history, with the names and dates given to a scrupulous nicety.49

But still, what about the Galileo affair? Rhind was well aware that old-earth geologists frequently used this to attempt to silence their critics. Rhind, however, saw a significant difference between that 16th century astronomical debate and the geological debate of his day.

When a check is offered to his [the old-earth geologist’s] crude and inconclusive conceptions, he fancies himself another Galileo, and glories in his imagined martyrdom. Yet no case was ever more exaggerated than that of Galileo; and even assuming it in its worst phase, it was rather the fault of the age than of the individuals engaged in it. How many really wicked attacks have been leveled at sacred things from the days of Galileo to the present, and successfully refuted by divines, laudably on the watch to preserve the purity of that faith which has been intrusted to them, and yet how small praise has been awarded them, compared to the opprobrium of this one case of exaggerated oppression! Even our modern cosmogonists triumphantly appeal to this, although the Galileon heresy has nothing in common with their objectionable theories in thus far—that the most remote revelation of astronomical truths would have been foreign to the very purpose of our limited and probationary state, while, on the other hand, a distinct revelation, so far, of the origin of the world and its physical history, was necessary to the understanding of man’s moral condition and prospects. In the former case, the common language, descriptive of phenomena as they are seen, was necessarily made use of; in the latter, language expressly descriptive of the actual facts was indispensable.50

So, for Rhind, Genesis gives us plain straightforward history of the creation, which is indispensable for a correct interpretation of the geological evidence.

His Geological Arguments Against an Old Earth

Rhind divided his book, The Age of the Earth, into three parts. First, he evaluated some of the main geological arguments for an old earth (p. 10–70). Next, he gave his objections to the various attempts to harmonize old-earth geological theories with the Genesis accounts of creation and the Flood (p. 71–124). And finally, he gave a sketch of the history of geology, from the times of the ancient Greeks to the present, and its theories of the earth (p. 125–152). These three sections were supported by lengthy endnotes (p. 153–202). We will carefully consider only the first two sections, since the historical sketch was really an extended note that supplemented his earlier arguments without adding anything substantially new.

Rhind did not attempt to give a detailed theory of how Genesis and the geological record fit together.
Rhind did not attempt to give a detailed theory of how Genesis and the geological record fit together, because of the infant state of geology, as noted above. Rather, he simply gave some of his reasons for rejecting the arguments in favor of an old earth.

After some introductory remarks about the tendency of geological speculation to transgress the “sober boundaries of facts,”51 he considered the thickness of the stratigraphic record. Old-earth geologists were convinced that the total thickness was far too great to be harmonized with a literal interpretation of the Mosaic chronology. But Rhind questioned this conclusion because of the difficulties involved in determining that thickness. For one thing, the whole geological column was not known then to exist in any single location on the earth.52 Furthermore, the strata were not the same thickness through their horizontal extent, so that the average thickness was considerably less than the maximum.53 A succession of stratified rocks having a continuous inclination to each other, which may imply enormous thickness, might instead:

. . . only be a bed of very moderate dimensions, broken up by repeated wave-like eruptions of igneous rocks from below, which may not always make their appearance on the surface. The sedimentary matter may have originally been deposited by a current of water flowing over a sloping channel, by which means a succession of inclined strata may have been formed, extending for a long space horizontally, although of no very considerable depth—a mode of deposition which may be witnessed daily in many river currents, and which has been so well illustrated by M. De la Beche.54

Finally, Rhind argued, it was difficult in many instances to determine the actual depth of the original deposition because, in the schistose strata and other slate masses, lines of cleavage could be mistaken for those of stratification and their lamination and stratification may have resulted from a process of crystallization.

Added to the problem of measuring the actual total thickness of the strata,55 Rhind believed there was evidence that the sediments had been deposited more rapidly than geologists generally assumed. Starting with the uniformitarian assumption of the present rate of deposition by rivers and ocean currents, he cited several measured examples of large rivers to show that the stratigraphic record could have been produced in thousands of years rather than millions. But he felt it was very likely that these processes would have been accelerated in the past because the primitive rocks, which provided the materials for the secondary sedimentary strata, would have been softer and more exposed than in his day, resulting in more rapid erosion. Also, contemporary geologists generally agreed that early in earth history the climate was essentially tropical everywhere. This would have meant a higher rate of evaporation producing more rain and consequently more and larger rivers again leading to greater erosion. Such a climate also naturally would have produced a more luxuriant vegetation, which as transported debris would have been the source for the production of the vast coal measures.56

He also believed there was evidence for the contemporaneous deposit of formations. Certainly some strata were deposited in the order that they were found in a local area. But he did not think that this could be proved to be the case generally. So, for example, he argued that the last great change by which the British strata were elevated out of the ocean took place at basically one period, which, if so, would mean that the carboniferous formation would have been roughly contemporaneous with at least parts of the lias and oolite (which in the old-earth view were deposited millions of years apart).57

For Rhind, one of the strongest evidences of rapid diluvial deposition of formations, even hundreds of feet thick, was the many examples of polystrate trees. He discussed in some detail the famous fossil tree found in a 200-feet thick mass of alternating sandstone and shale in Craigleith Quarry, near Edinburgh, in 1830.58 His residence in Edinburgh at the time and his detailed description strongly suggests that he had investigated this matter personally, in addition to reading journal articles about it. Besides the evidence that the sand of the sandstone had been drifted into place by impetuous currents of water, the fact that this tree, and others frequently found in the coal measures, traversed many strata firmly persuaded him that the sediments had accumulated rapidly (in less than a few months) so as to preserve the trees as found. And this applied whether the trees were buried where they grew or had been transported by water to the burial place, the latter view being more probable in his opinion. From this he concluded, “If we thus, then, have proofs of strata, two hundred feet in depth, having been formed suddenly, may we not apply the same analogy to other strata, where proofs of the fact are not now so evident?”59 In his endnote (p. 158–160) on the Craigleith fossil he discussed the history of the identification of this tree: first it was declared by Brongniart to be an extinct fern, then it was renamed as a new species of extinct tree, and finally it was proved to be identical to a living species in the islands of the South Seas. To Rhind’s mind, the fossil remains of this living species in the geologically low formation of the coal measures militated against the idea that the coal measures were from a world existing long ages before the creation of man.

Rhind believed that the elevation of the strata to form dry land was the result of volcanic action, similar to that which geologists then observed. However, he argued that:

[the extent of the] ancient mountain chains, the manner in which they appear to have elevated the strata of whole islands and large portions of continents, by one continuous and uninterrupted process, seem to indicate, that though the causes were similar to volcanic, yet the amount of the forces and the extent of the operations were in an infinitely greater degree, and much more general, than any witnessed in modern times.60

Another reason that leading geologists believed the earth was much older than traditionally believed was the alleged fact of the successive series of organic remains in the different formations. While Rhind agreed that it was generally true that each formation was characterized by peculiar fossils, he added that new discoveries were constantly necessitating revisions in the classification of species and rocks. Furthermore, he considered several factors that militated against the notion that such an organic progression in the geological record represented long ages of time marked by periods of extinction and creation. Extinctions were a fact of life, but looking at existing nature he saw no means for life to be formed from inorganic matter and the lowest strata of geological record showed well-organized life forms to have appeared on the scene suddenly. Likewise, the observed laws of nature opposed the idea that new species could arise from existing forms. If nature had the ability in itself to produce life or new forms of life, it would do so continually, he reasoned. The fact that we do not see this tendency in nature, he said, was not overcome by adding millions of years to earth history.61 We should not interpret Rhind here to be denying biological variation of any kind, for he later remarked, “Among the extinct animals there are no such diversities from the present as to render the creation of new classes or orders necessary, they are only so far different as to constitute new genera and species of old established classes.”62

One more factor opposing the idea of a long succession of creations and extinctions was the fact that many creatures range through the whole, or large portions, of the fossiliferous strata.

Now, although each of these formations. generally speaking, contains a certain amount of distinctive species, yet there are some tribes of animals which range throughout the whole. Thus, various species of coral zoophytes are found in all the strata; terebratulae also are common through the whole; ammonites extend throughout all the strata, except the tertiary; spirifers and productae extend through all the series to the oolite; while belemnites only appear in the lias, oolite, and chalk; and the echinae in the chalk alone. In short, these fossil animals appear to have strictly conformed in their habits to recent species. They had certain localities which they frequented as being suited to their organization; some inhabited deep seas; some littoral situations, and others the shallow estuaries of rivers.63

By analogy with the present diverse distribution of plants and animals, it was more reasonable in Rhind’s mind to assume that creatures in different formations were living at the same time on the earth, though in different environments, which differed where the creatures were deposited in the strata.

But Rhind’s opponents objected that a great many of the plants and animals in the lower formations differed markedly from those in the upper strata and those still existing, a fact which surely must imply multiple creations and extinctions over long ages in a pre-Adamite world. He replied:

Now, this is undoubtedly a fact not readily accounted for. But we must consider, first, that the ancient marine strata, in which the greater part of these remains are found, were at one period, in all probability, under a tropical climate, and formed, moreover, the outskirts of a region under the process of progressive organization. Second, that organized beings suited to such circumstances first took possession of the strata. Third, that we are still ignorant of perhaps one-third of the forms of animals and vegetables existing on the earth, and, consequently, cannot pronounce the fossil ones to be of an exclusive kind; and that as proof of this, every year is adding new living genera and species as analogues of the fossil kinds. Lastly, that peculiarities of climate, modifications of the saline portions of the ocean, and other local changes, may have so far influenced the external forms of many testaceous mollusca, as to deceive the most practiced conchologist with regard to the species; and that, indeed, in many instances, it is impossible from the fossil shell positively to decide on the species of many genera.64 . . . Another important circumstance has to be noticed, that as yet only about seven thousand fossil animals and plants have been discovered. It can never be supposed that this number sufficed for the ancient system of things, and filled a world which now contains thirty times the number—nay, probably three times this proportion. A mere fraction, then, of the organic remains of former strata, has yet become familiar to us, and it would be absurd to form any sweeping conclusions under our present ignorance.65

Added to this was the fact that in the diluvial clay and gravel and in caves and rock fissures were found a mixture of extinct and existing species and genera of animals, of which cases Rhind documented several examples.

He conceded that no well-authenticated ancient fossil men had been discovered, but accounted for this by several facts. Geologists had not yet studied the lands where it was most likely to find such remains. The pre-Flood human population was undoubtedly much smaller in proportion to animals, and so human fossils would naturally be much rarer. But also, concurring with Cuvier, he thought it very probable that the continents of early man’s habitation had become part of the ocean bottom. Lastly, he believed that the modern theories “render geologists now averse to believe the possibility of finding a true fossil man.”66 Actually, Rhind reasoned, the fact that there was no physical proof of man before the Deluge, strengthened one’s belief that the Flood was a global catastrophe.67

The theory of a progressively cooling earth was popular among many old-earth geologists. But Rhind argued that if it was true, it actually would refute the notion of long ages having transpired in the history of life and the formation of strata. For example, plants and mollusca at the top and bottom of the coal measures were the same. But this would be impossible if, as some old-earth geologists believed, the coal measures represented at least one million years of gradual cooling of the earth.

Rejecting the theory of central heat, Rhind thought it more likely that Lyell was right in suggesting that the former, generally tropical climate was attributable to a change of position and proportions of land and sea. In contrast to Lyell, however, he believed this change was abrupt and global because there was no trace of intermediate vegetation between the system of extinct plants and existing species and because the fossil plants of the carboniferous formation and the animals in fossil beds and the diluvium “extending over many regions of the globe, exhibiting one era of existence, all indicate a similarity of climate.”68

Virtually all geologists agreed at the time that the commencement of the present system of life and natural processes on the surface of the earth was quite recent. Though the combined operations of biological, chemical, and mechanical forces at work over long ages in the inorganic world must have left traces of their effects on the earth, especially more so in the ocean than on land, it was astonishing, said Rhind, how little change had occurred in the last 4,000 years. To use such processes to calculate the relative ages of the countries was possible to some extent, but Rhind cautioned against the wholesale uniformitarian extrapolations.

Yet, in making calculations of this nature, we must bear in mind, that the amount of disintegration will be in proportion to the impetus and constancy of the forces at work, and to the degree of hardness of the materials acted upon. Thus, some shores are of very soft materials, easily yielding to the waves, while others are so hard as to resist in a great measure any very extensive destruction. The ocean, too, after having acted with considerable force and effect on some shores for a long period, at last throws up a barrier of loose debris which shuts out its waves, and completely excludes their farther operations; tides and currents, also, interfere with the regular deposition of deltas, and circumstances take place in the course of ages which may materially modify the impetus of rivers. Thus, the constant effect of flowing streams is to lower the level line of their courses, and consequently to lessen the velocity and force of their currents. All rivers exhibit this to a greater or less extent; the gradual lowering of the height of many waterfalls is evidently caused by the abrading force of the currents on the sides of the rocks, now many feet above the commencement of their present descents. Under these modifications, however, this subject of inquiry is an interesting one, and deserving of further prosecution. If a collection of accurate data of this description were made, it would then be seen how far these may tend to throw light on the actual age of particular countries, or that period when the surface of the strata first became dry land, as also on the relative ages of different continents. For it is still an important desideratum to ascertain whether the great leading outlines of the continents of the earth have had a simultaneous formation, and have been afterwards partially modified and filled up by successive operations, or whether they are of very different ages, and owe their origins to causes acting at remote intervals of epochs.69

These, then, were the main objections he had to geological theories of an old earth. Next he turned to a consideration of the various attempts to harmonize the Bible with such theories.

Creation and the Flood

As already noted, Rhind considered the traditional literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis to be correct. Therefore, he rejected the three alternative theories: the day-age theory, the gap theory, and theological framework theory.

The day-age theory, most recently promulgated by the Reverend George Faber,70 was problematical because in Genesis 1 Moses so clearly defined “day” in reference to morning and evening and light and darkness.71 Furthermore, the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8–11 would have only been understood by Jews to be speaking of literal days, though Rhind allowed that, because the sun was only created on day 4, it was possible that the first three days may have been more indefinite.72 But even in this case, there were geological objections to this theory, since the fossil record did not reflect the order of events in Genesis 1. In fact, he argued, contrary to what some geologists believed, there was no progression from simple to more complex forms of life as we move up through the strata.73

Rhind rejected the more popular gap theory, propounded by Chalmers, Sumner, Buckland,74 and some of the most eminent geologists in England and Europe because he was not convinced by their arguments that any interval of time between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 was even remotely suggested by the language. Nor, in his opinion, would Moses’ predecessors or contemporaries have ever dreamt of such an interpretation. But in addition to the geological objections to an old earth which he had earlier discussed, the fact of many examples of existing species having been found buried in strata with extinct ones also militated against the notion of many pre-Adamite worlds. Furthermore, in light of the perfect state of preservation of delicate leaves, shells, and animal tissue lying almost on the surface of the uppermost strata:

We would require strong facts and powerful reasonings to persuade us that these have survived through “millions of millions of ages,” the wreck of ancient worlds, the dark period of chaos, and the various commotions incident to the formation of an entirely new world.75

As noted earlier, Baden Powell76 and other commentators viewed Genesis 1 as a figurative, pictorial framework for teaching us some theology. Rhind rejected this notion because of the clear indications in Genesis that the whole book was “plain, simple, and matter of fact history.”77

In his mind, the utmost latitude in interpretation of Genesis 1 was that possibly there had been an indefinite period of time between the creation of the earth and the first day when light appeared and that maybe the first three days were not exactly the same length as the latter three. But even if we became convinced that such interpretations did no violence to the Mosaic narrative, it would not help harmonize the Bible with the dominant geological theories. At best, it could explain the formation of the primary, non-fossiliferous strata, but not the secondary strata, for reasons previously cited. Nevertheless, Rhind thought the general tenor of Genesis 1 implied a consecutive, uninterrupted process of creation in six literal days (i.e., with no time gap at Genesis 1:2).

He believed that the Noachian deluge was a unique, year-long, global catastrophe. The flood traditions among the nations of the world, the detailed description in Genesis (especially 7:11–12, 19–21, 24 and the use of universal terms), the general belief of the Jews (as ascertained from Josephus and Philo), and the references to the Flood in the rest of the Bible convinced him of this. Furthermore, if it had only been a local flood, the ark would have been unnecessary to save the animals, which could have escaped to the adjacent countries. The notion of a tranquil flood, suggested by Linnaeus and promoted by Fleming and Buckland, was totally out of harmony with a text like Genesis 6:13, he asserted.

Rhind devoted several pages to considering historical and contemporary answers to the question of whether geology afforded proof of the Flood. Though he did not think it necessary for geology to do so, he gave two main geological factors which strengthened his belief in the biblical account. One was the fact that no remains of antediluvian man had yet been found, even though the pre-Flood population would have been large, due to the longevity and reproductivity of the antediluvian people over a period of nearly 2,000 years, and their technology was advanced, according to Genesis.78

Secondly, the secondary strata seemed not to be the remains of an anterior world but part of the present creation. These geological phenomena indicated to him that there had been a sudden change of climate, the extinction of a considerable portion of plant and animal life on the earth, and the sudden deposition of diluvial matter over the strata, which had been forcibly elevated from the ocean.

He did not think that the cause of the Flood could be determined with certainty. Doubtless, it was a mixture of natural and supernatural causes.

The catastrophe may have been produced by natural operations, or a special cause—that is, the operations periodically taking place on the surface of the globe—such as the sudden overflow of rivers and bursting of lakes, of the sinking and submergence of dry land from volcanic action, may have acted both with increased intensity and enlarged extent of operation; or some special cause may have been employed for this specific purpose, which is not to be repeated, and which, therefore, remains a miracle unknown and inexplicable.79

Rain alone would have been an inadequate water supply. The Flood almost certainly would have involved volcanic activity, which would have heated the oceans (thereby increasing evaporation and precipitation) and produced more tumultuous seas. He gave several reasons for ruling out a change in the tilt of the earth’s axis as a cause.

In any case, the Flood was completely different from an ordinary event of nature and never to be repeated. Therefore, trying to explain it from man’s present knowledge was nigh impossible.

In speculating on the deluge, however, we must bear in mind that it was a supernatural event, and though it may have been in a great measure caused by natural operations, yet we are entirely ignorant of the manner of its accomplishment. For this reason there are circumstances attending it which must be to us inexplicable—such as the reinvesting [sic] the new surface of the earth with plants—the verdant condition of the olive tree, immediately on the cessation of the waters—the miraculous preservation of every terrestrial animal, etc. As we have no facts or analogies in nature to guide us in such operations, any attempted explanation of them would be preposterous.80

Since the Flood was a unique global catastrophe, speculating about the past on the basis of the absolute uniformity of present-day processes would be faulty. So also it would lead to erroneous conclusions about the future. As Peter had written in 2 Peter 3:3–7, the Flood was a harbinger of things to come. Though Rhind would not presume to say exactly what kind of judgment this would be and to what extent the globe would be differed, he gave reasons why he did not think life would yet continue for millions of years.


In the first part of The Age of the Earth, Rhind attempted to show that the strata could have been formed in the time allotted by Moses. The thickness of the secondary strata was difficult to determine and usually exaggerated. The strata were clearly formed from the debris of primary rocks. While their relative ages could be determined in the case of physical superposition, there was no direct and convincing proof that widely separated strata were not formed and the continents were not raised above the sea at roughly the same time period. On the contrary, he saw positive reasons for believing that most of the geological record was deposited rapidly. Because of this fact and the analogy of present-day biological processes, he considered the idea of successive creations to be unphilosophical. Certainly, we ought not to introduce miraculous interventions without biblical justification, and dogmatism in geological theory was unwarranted, given the infant state of the science, he argued.

The intellect of the present age has been characterized as acute, discriminating, active, and energetic, in the pursuit of facts; but loose, illogical, and inconclusive in the application of them. If we glanced at the theoretical geologies of the day, these characteristics could not, perhaps, be more happily applied.81

As far as Scripture was concerned, he favored the traditional literal interpretation of Genesis. But he was not dogmatic about the time involved in Genesis 1. Regardless of how it was interpreted, it could not be made to harmonize with the dominant geological theories of his day. The imperfect state of geological knowledge, the ambiguities of Genesis 1, and the miraculous nature of the creation and the Flood hindered the complete harmonization of geological facts with Genesis. Rhind believed that although Scripture did not completely settle the question of the age of the earth, it did unmistakably teach the following:

. . . that the world was created and furnished with plants and animals for the express habitation of man within a definite period; that, after a time, it suffered a partial destruction and change by some great catastrophe; and that ultimately, it will be totally destroyed, after it has ceased to be needed as the theater of moral probation for the human race.82

Rhind was neither ignorant of nor opposed to geology. Neither was he disrespectful of those he criticized. Confident that Genesis would be vindicated eventually, he simply sought in his book “to enter a caveat against hasty conclusions” made by contemporary geologists, rather than “to bring the reader to any secure and stable haven of certainty.”83

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  1. Pronounced like the “rind” of a fruit.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, this biographical sketch is based on Robert Douglas, Sons of Moray (1930).
  3. Mormon International Genealogical Index for Elgin, Morayshire.
  4. Peter John Anderson, Fasti Academiae Marischallanae Aberdonensis (1898), p. 414.
  5. Personal correspondence (December 21, 1994) from the archivist of the RCSE, Miss A.M. Stevenson.
  6. Hugh Murray, editor, Historical and Descriptive Account of British India (1832), 3 volumes. In the preface to the first volume (p. 5) Rhind is described as one of the contributing “gentlemen whose abilities and acquirements have raised them to the first eminence in their respective departments of literature and science.”
  7. William Rhind, Cases Illustrative of the Division of Tendons (1841). This little tract first appeared as an article, by the same title, in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, vol. LV, no. 146 (1841), p. 126–135. It shows that he was performing surgery alone and in cooperation with other doctors at the time.
  8. Anderson, Fasti Academiae Marischallanae Aberdonensis, p. 70.
  9. Personal correspondence (November 30, 1994) from Mrs. Jane Pirie, library assistant in the Department of Special Collections and Archives of the Aberdeen University Library.
  10. After much effort, it was surprising to me, several librarians, and the head of the Fife Family Historical Society, that no obituary for such a prominent citizen as Rhind could be located in any of a number of local newspapers, or in scientific journals which had published his articles.
  11. His last revision of his massive History of the Vegetable Kingdom was published in 1868. Two more unrevised editions appeared before his death.
  12. The precise date of death was obtained from the Scottish Records Office in Edinburgh.
  13. Douglas, Sons of Moray, p. 6.
  14. William Rhind, Studies in Natural History (1830), title page.
  15. William Rhind, Elementary Geography (1858), title page.
  16. “Appendix,” Report of the BAAS (1835), p. 31.
  17. William Rhind, Elements of Geology and Physical Geography (1837). Further editions appeared in 1838 and 1844. At the end of this book Rhind gave a list of useful works on geology, many of which he had consulted in preparing the book. They included the recent editions of works by Macculloch, Conybeare, Jameson, Phillips, Bakewell, de la Beche, Lyell, Buckland, Playfair, Daubeny, Sowerby, Woodward, Parkinson, Murchison, Sedgwick, Mantell, William Smith, Greenough, and Silliman. He likely knew French and German as he cited French titles by Cuvier, Daubuisson, Boué, Agassiz, and Brongniart, and German works by Sternberg and Goldfuss.
  18. A positive review appeared in Athenaeum, no. 620 (Sept. 14, 1839), p. 696. A second edition was published in 1845.
  19. I could not find this in any major library catalogs but it was advertised in the back of his Elements of Zoology (1839) as “in preparation for publication.”
  20. This received rather negative reviews in Athenaeum, no. 109 (Nov. 25, 1829), p. 738, and in Magazine of Natural History, vol. III, no 11 (Jan. 1830), p. 79, because, the reviewers said, the scientific information was not current enough and too shallowly treated.
  21. These works are listed in the bibliography.
  22. The title page of the work has no date. The publication date comes from Benjamin Jackson’s Guide to the Literature of Botany (1881), which lists Rhind’s book as a very worthy contribution to botanical studies. The 1868 edition was a complete revision by Rhind to bring it up to date with current knowledge, though the changes were small and the new edition was only 727 pages, compared with the original 711.
  23. William Rhind, A History of the Vegetable Kingdom (1841), title page, i.
  24. This article was republished in a German science journal in 1844.
  25. See the bibliography for full details.
  26. Magazine of Natural History, vol. IX, no. 65 (1836), p. 504.
  27. Edinburgh Journal of Natural History and Physical Sciences, vol. I, no. 3 (1835), p. 12.
  28. Ibid., vol. I (1836), p. 60.
  29. William Rhind, Geology of Scotland (1842), p. v.
  30. See Footnote 17.
  31. Besides the many books published by geologists, the leading journals were also part of his reading, such as the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, American Journal of Science, Transactions of the Wernerian Society, Asiatic Journal, Transactions of the Philosophical Society (of both London and Edinburgh), Philosophical Magazine, and Transactions of the Geological Society of London.
    Since Rhind also responded to theological arguments for an old earth, it needs to be noted that his accurate knowledge of opposing views is reflected in several very long quotes in The Age of the Earth (1838), p. 171–194, by Thomas Chalmers, John B. Sumner, William Buckland, Baden Powell, and John Fleming, which accurately conveyed their current positions on the subject.
  32. Rhind, Elements of Geology and Physical Geography, p. iii–v. The second edition of this work received a positive review in Athenaeum, no. 549 (May 5, 1838), p. 322. The reviewer wrote, “Mr. Rhind deserves the thanks of the class of students for whose use this treatise is intended. The facts are arranged in a concise and systematic form. . . . His work may be safely recommended to the friends of that comprehensive system of education now generally pursued.”
  33. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. v, 144, 153, 166, 171. Since none of Rhind’s geological notebooks are known to survive, we cannot know with certainty if in his field work he noted such geological features as dips, strikes, and cleavage (as were frequently noted in the notebooks of old-earth geologists). However, the positive reviews of his 1833 book on the geology around Edinburgh (quoted earlier) and the content of his other books and journal articles on geology suggest that he was a careful observer of all kinds of geological phenomena.
  34. Ibid., p. vi.
  35. Rhind, Studies in Natural History, p. 29–30.
  36. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. iv.
  37. Ibid., p. iii–iv, 10 and 109–112.
  38. The great Scottish geologist Hugh Miller would have agreed with Rhind in relation to the deep and extensive Old Red Sandstone. See Miller’s Old Red Sandstone (1841), p. 40–49.
  39. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. 138–141.
  40. Ibid., p. 196.
  41. Ibid., p. 171.
  42. Ibid., p. 196–197.
  43. Ibid., p. 121–122.
  44. Ibid., p. iv–v.
  45. Ibid., p. 88.
  46. Ibid., p. 71–72. This remark was similar to one made by Kirwan and, as noted earlier, quoted by Penn. In a footnote, Rhind said it was uncertain, but also immaterial to the historicity of Genesis, whether Moses wrote Genesis from direct revelation or on the basis of traditions passed down from Noah.
  47. Ibid., p. 73.
  48. Ibid., p. 73–74.
  49. Ibid., p. 84.
  50. Ibid., p. 117–118. It was not just in geology that Scripture had a bearing. Rhind saw other connections. In a footnote he said, “Nor can we allow that revelation does not, in many important questions, bear upon physical science. Can science, for instance, demonstrate the immortality of the soul? Is this conception innate? Or without revelation could unassisted reason have ever dreamt of a future state of existence? Let us only think what would have been the state of this question without the aid of revelation, where all the physical facts are decidedly in favor of the materialist.”
  51. Ibid., p. 12.
  52. This is still true. See Derek Ager, The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (1981), p. 35.
  53. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. 17–18. He argued in the same way as George Young did. But there is no reason to believe that he was dependent on Young for this conclusion.
  54. Ibid., p. 19. Here he footnoted the work of old-earth proponent, Henry De la Beche, Researches in Theoretical Geology (1834).
  55. His fellow Scottish geologist, Hugh Miller, did not venture to estimate the depth of the Old Red Sandstone in Scotland, because “there are no calculations more doubtful than those of the geologist.” See Miller, Old Red Sandstone, p. 54.
  56. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. 20–30.
  57. Ibid., p. 31–35.
  58. Ibid., p. 36–37, 158–160.
  59. Ibid., p. 37.
  60. Ibid., p. 39. He elaborated on his view of greater and more general volcanic activity in the past on pages 148–151, where he discussed Lyell’s theory of igneous rocks and metallic veins.
  61. Ibid., p. 41–44.
  62. Ibid., p. 57. On page 163 he added, “The idea of spontaneous production has long ago been scouted from science, and the no less illogical one of equivocal generation is fast going. We see no analogy in nature to lead us to suppose that such a law exists—we see no provision for such operations, and no trace of such having ever occurred—we can predicate that the earth will produce certain plants after we have deposited certain seeds, but that if such seeds are carefully excluded, that no species of vegetation will follow—we can predicate that a lupin seed will produce a certain flower, followed by a seed similar to the parent one; and we may speculate freely on certain varieties of these, but we know to a certainty, from experience and analogy, that the lupin can never produce a rose, and that the soil alone will never bring forth a new species of plant.”
    Earlier he had made similar remarks against the idea of spontaneous generation, concluding that matter had no inherent creative property. In his rejection of evolution between the various kinds of creatures, he did not deny variation within divinely ordained biological groupings. He wrote, “Some First Cause must have given a determinate form, and prescribed to such creations regular and definite limits.” See William Rhind, “An Examination of the Opinions of Bremser and Others on the Equivocal Production of Animals,” Edinburgh Journal of Natural and Geographical Science, vol. II (1830), p. 391–397 (the quotation is on 397).
  63. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. 44–45.
  64. Ibid., p. 49–50. Rhind made a similar comment about shells being effected by water depth and temperature, thus making species classification (and therefore strata identification) difficult. See his “The Geological Arrangement of Ancient Strata, Deduced from the Condition of the Present Oceanic Beds,” Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, vol. XXXVI, (1844), p. 333.
  65. Rhind, The Age of the Earth, p. 50–51. He supported this with a table in the footnote comparing the numbers of living and extinct species of plants and animals in the different classes.
  66. Ibid., p. 54–55.
  67. Ibid., p. 96–97.
  68. Ibid., p. 60.
  69. Ibid., p. 63–64. The last part of this quote would suggest that Rhind had not read George Fairholme’s Mosaic Deluge (1837), which was devoted to just such an analysis and age calculation.
  70. Rhind quoted Faber’s view at length in the endnotes, ibid., p. 171–173. Faber’s work appeared in 1823.
  71. Of the few scriptural geologists who explicitly argued against the day-age theory, only Rhind, here (ibid., p. 74), referred to some of the early church fathers (Origin, Augustine, and Bede) who had proposed this interpretation.
  72. Such an interpretation, however, could be seen as a compromise of his belief that Genesis 1 is “a plain, simple, and matter of fact history” that all men of any intelligence could understand (ibid., p. 84).
  73. This was precisely what Lyell argued in his Principles of Geology (1830–33), especially Volume II.
  74. Ibid. He quoted these men extensively in the notes, p. 180–188.
  75. Ibid., p. 81.
  76. Ibid., p. 188. Rhind quoted him at length.
  77. Ibid., p. 84.
  78. Ibid., p. 88–89 and 96–97. Rhind was not dogmatic about the length of the antediluvian period. He compared the Hebrew, Samaritan, and Septuagint versions of Genesis without giving a firm conclusion about which one he believed was correct.
  79. Ibid., p. 99.
  80. Ibid., p. 101–102.
  81. Ibid., p. 112.
  82. Ibid., p. 114–115.
  83. Ibid., p. 122.

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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.