Friday, 23 November 2012

The Evolution of Creationism


This piece from Michael Roberts gives a fascinating glimpse into the history of creationism in the UK from his vantage point within the Anglican church;


In a recent issue of GSAToday Dave Montgomery of Seattle has written an excellent short account of the history of Creationism. Following all recent scholars like Ron Numbers[1] he traces the roots of YEC to about 1900 in the Seventh Day Adventist church, rather than presenting the view that it is a re-incarnation of 17th century ideas. He rightly emphasises that Calvin and Steno were “young earthers” due to limited knowledge rather than a doctrinaire stance. He could have added Archbishop Ussher, who was a wise scholar. As a result he understands the gradual awareness in the 18th century that the earth was incredibly ancient, but points out that this was not of religious concern to many orthodox Christians. He stresses that in the 19th century even the most conservative Christians largely accepted geological time and local flood. He could have mentioned that many Victorians still did not accept evolution. The main part of his essay is the rise of YEC, which he presents as NOT coming from the mainstream churches but rather the Seventh Day Adventists, a sect led by Ellen White who had visions of the end and the beginning of the world.  He properly gives the foundation of modern creationism as from 1961 with Whitcomb and Morris in more detail and assesses the problems today.

Montgomery has effectively torpedoed the usual Creationist claim that their “science” goes back to the founding of the Royal Society in 1662. (Numbers, of course, did that in articles going back thirty years, as I did.) The roots of Creationism in fact go back to Ellen White’s “prophecies” in the 1880s.
I loved his final sentence;

“How many creationists today know that modern creationism arose from abandoning faith that the study of nature would reveal God’s grand design for the world?”

Much will be familiar to some but it is good to have a good brief summary of the history of Creationism, which is far more recent than many think.

It is easy to regard ancient views of the Bible, like Ussher’s as simply being an earlier Young Earth Creationism. Historically there are three periods when a “Young Earth” was common among Christians. The first is before 1700 and especially from about 1500. (The early church often understood Genesis allegorically.) Here a young earth was simply a default position as there was no evidence against a young earth. Thus Ussher with his date of 4004BC did not reject science, as the science was not there to reject. By 1690 there was some science for an old earth[2]. The second are the Scriptural or Anti-geologists who flourished from 1817 until 1855. They simply rejected the science of the day, and withered under the onslaught of Sedgwick, Buckland and others. The third is Young Earth Creationism which has recently come to the fore. They not only reject any science which speaks of “billions of years” but support this by shoddy and spurious arguments seeking to demonstrate the science is false. Many regard YEC arguments as dishonest. I couldn’t possibly comment.

I have to admit that my “entry” into the history of geology came through Creationism. In mid-1971 I was in-between working as an exploration geologist in Africa and training for the Anglican ministry and went to study at L’Abri in Switzerland under Francis Schaeffer, who later went on to be a founder of the Religious Right[3]. I was advised to study creationist books, which I duly did and soon I thought I would be taken down to Geneva to join Servetus! After an hour or so reading The Genesis Flood, I had cracked it. It grossly mis-understood and mis-represented geology at every turn and from there I was convinced I should follow the issue up both historically and scientifically. On return to England I found Creationism to be a total non-issue and it only came to the fore after the Arkansas trial of 1981. This re-ignited my interest, including in the history of geology, which has resulted in a moderate list of publications, mostly on Darwin’s geology.  Consequently I have lived the history of Creationism in Britain over the last four decades, especially within  the Anglican church.

Consequently I have lived the history of Creationism in Britain over the last four decades, especially within  the Anglican church.

Rather than be purely personal I will give brief survey of creationism in Britain. Or rather Young Earth Creationism abbreviated as YEC. Here we need to stress that a YEC is someone who believes in a “Young Earth” and rejects geological time. In The Testimony of the Rocks (1857) Hugh Miller delightfully and accurately called them anti-geologists. Before 1800 one could hardly be a YEC or an anti-geologist[4]. The first anti-geologist was Thomas Gisborne in 1817 and he was followed by Bugg, Penn, Ure, Young, and others. Bugg argued against geology in the same biblically literalist way as does Ken Ham today and others followed suit. Some of these are described by Terence Mortensen in The Great Turning Point, where he wrongly attributed geological skill to them. Mortensen works for AIG and much is on their website. There were never a great number and were effectively combatted by Buckland, Conybeare and Sedgwick[5] among others, so that by 1855 they were effectively extinct. To illustrate that I have found that about 20% of Anglican clergy were YEC before 1855 and declining after 1840. In the 1860s I cannot find one and the anti-darwinian clergy all accepted geological time. From 1860 until 1970 I have found a couple before 1900 and none after. Since 1970 numbers have grown. There were a handful in the 70s, but it grew in the 80s and now I reckon that probably about 5% of Anglican clergy are YEC with more sympathetic to ID. Wally Benn of Lewes is the only YEC bishop I know of, but I suspect there must be some more. This is not a formal survey but comes out of my dealing with fellow clergy. It also reflects what has happened to the evangelical wing of the CofE, which has grown in the last 40 years. Along with growth and a broadening out, the more conservative have become rigid especially over gays and women clergy, and with the rise of BIBLICAL INERRANCY and biblical literalism, more have taken early Genesis literally and American and Australian imports of YEC have fed this. Thus in 1980 if you went to a meeting of a Diocesan Evangelical Fellowship YEC would not be mentioned and if you said you cannot take Genesis literally and evolution happened, you would be met with a nod. Not so today. YECs like McIntosh are welcomed and “heretics” like me are asked whether we are Christian etc. etc. This is personal experience.

Not so today. YECs like McIntosh are welcomed and “heretics” like me are asked whether we are Christian etc. etc. This is personal experience. 

The situation in mainstream non-conformists churches is similar but Independent Evangelical Churches are almost entirely YEC. This is seen in publications too, whether books or magazines and when a Cambridge biochemist Denis Alexander wrote Creation or Evolution; you don’t have to decide (Monarch 2008) the InterVarsity Press responded with Should Christians embrace evolution? (IVP2009) complete with a recommendation by a bishop (Wally!). The position in Britain is that YEC is significant in all churches (but dominant in Northern Ireland – hence the Giants Causeway debacle) and is almost the default position for evangelicals.

The position in Britain is that YEC is significant in all churches (but dominant in Northern Ireland – hence the Giants Causeway debacle) and is almost the default position for evangelicals. 

YEC is not confined to churches as it is influences education. Evangelical Christian Unions in schools and colleges are now YEC, in contrast to 40 years ago when evolution was widely accepted. Gone are the days when during a University mission I could chair a discussion in a geology department along with a senior lecturer and professor of geology at the suggestion of the Christian Union. Over the last 40 years YECs have built up a strong power-base. In the 70s various YEC groups were started like the Biblical Creation Society and the Evolution Protest Movement was rebranded as the Creation Science Movement. These are still small and are overshadowed by Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International. AIG gained a foothold in about 1990 and CMI is an acrimonious breakaway. All have professional websites with a vast number of pages. They provide a parallel universe of science!
There have been several attempts to introduce YEC into science education, as with truthinscience    from 2006 and recently C4ID. In both of these the stress is on DESIGN rather than YEC, though the fossil lesson in truth in science is clearly YEC as is the recent DVD Set in Stone. The committee of TIS is varied, one CofE vicar , various scientists, and the ubiquitous Andy McIntosh, a Leeds professor whose geology is horrendous. Taken together these are largely YEC with strong links to the Discovery Institute of Seattle. Both have received much opposition from various scientists and the BCSE. There have recent controversies over YEC-sponsored Free Schools. Along with that there a fair, but unknown number of YEC science teachers in state schools (both faith and county). Some do teach YEC as science but evidence is difficult to find. There are also some “Christian” schools which unlike most faith schools teach YEC. The problems here are complex and hence are only touched on.

Evangelical Christian Unions in schools and colleges are now YEC, in contrast to 40 years ago when evolution was widely accepted. Gone are the days when during a University mission I could chair a discussion in a geology department along with a senior lecturer and professor of geology at the suggestion of the Christian Union.

Very briefly I have given an outline of the development of YEC in Britain since 1970 and its influence in churches and education. The contours are very different from the American situation but it has created a severe problem which is scarcely acknowledged by government or the churches. YEC took off a decade later in Britain and has never had the size of support that it has in the USA, but it has considerable influence in all protestant and evangelical churches, and is seeking to influence the teaching of science. It is not only a religious problem but threatens the whole basis of science and its teaching in Britain and, as we have seen, iconic geological sites like the Giants’ Causeway.

Michael Roberts

[1] Ron Numbers, The Creationists, 2006,Knopf
[2] Genesis Chapter One and Geological Time from Hugo Grotius and Marin Mersenne to William Conybeare and Thomas Chalmers (1620 to 1825),p39-50  
 Myth and Geology; ed Piccardi and Masse (Special Publication 273 of the Geological Society of London) (March 2007) 
[3] To get a flavour of Schaeffer read Frankie Schaeffer’s Zermatt, a semi-autobiographical novel
[4] http://www.scibel.com/scibel/paper_genesis_and_geology_unearthed_history.html
[5] Adam Sedgwick (1785_1873): geologist and evangelical; p155-170
Religion and Geology. Ed Kolbl-Ebert, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2009; v. 310;

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