The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism
by ronald l. numbers
knopf, 458 pages, $27.50
Ronald L. Numbers, who holds a chair in the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, has performed a desperately needed service in this book, and he has performed it very well. Toward the end of the volume there is trenchant, if succinct, interpretation, but mostly this is a chronicle—thorough, patient, even-handed, and exhaustively researched—of twentieth-century “creationism.” (“Creationism,” by rights, should define all who discern a divine mind at work in, with, or under the phenomena of the natural world; but alas, the term has, by a most unfortunate set of events, come to mean only the view that God created the world ten thousand or fewer years ago and that God used a world-wide flood in the days of Noah to form the geological conditions that most modern scientists think reveal an ancient earth with evolutionary changes over great expanses of time. Hence the inverted commas.) Among its other virtues, Numbers' book explains where this “creationist” view came from and how the hijacking of the word took place.
Despite a widespread impression to the contrary, “creationism” was not a traditional belief of nineteenth-century conservative Protestants or even of early-twentieth-century fundamentalists. During the century before the 1930s, most conservative Protestants believed that the “days” of Genesis, chapter one, stood for long ages of geological development or that a lengthy gap existed between the initial creation of the world (Gen. 1:1) and a series of more recent creative acts (Gen. 1:2ff.) during which the fossils were deposited. Some conservative Protestants early in the century—like James Orr of Scotland and B. B. Warfield of Princeton Theological Seminary, both of whom wrote for The Fundamentals (1910–15)—even allowed for large-scale evolution from one or only a few original life forms as a way of explaining God's way of creating plants, animals, and even the human body. (Their position came close to official Roman Catholic teachings on the subject.) Popular opponents of evolution in the 1920s like William Jennings Bryan had no difficulty accepting an ancient earth. Bryan, with an acuity that his patronizers rarely perceive, saw clearly that the great problem with evolution was not the practice of science but the metaphysical naturalism and consequent social Darwinism that scientific evolution was often called upon to justify.
Modern creationism arose, by contrast, from the efforts of earnest Seventh-day Adventists who wanted to show that the sacred writings of Adventist-founder Ellen G. White (who made much of a recently created earth and the Noachian deluge) could provide a framework for studying the history of the earth. Especially important for this purpose was the Adventist theorist, George McCready Price (1870–1963), who published a string of creationist works, most notably The New Geology (1923). That book argued that a “simple” or “literal” reading of early Genesis showed that God had created the world six to eight thousand years ago and had used the Flood to construct the planet's geological past. Price, an armchair geologist with little formal training and almost no field experience, demonstrated how a person with such a belief could reconstruct natural history in order to question traditional understandings of the geological column and apparent indications that the earth was ancient. Price's ideas were never taken seriously by practicing geologists, and they had little impact outside of Adventist circles. One exception was the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, where a few energized critics of the modern world found Price's biblical literalism convincing, despite the fact that on almost every other religious question the Missouri Synod was about as far removed from Seventh-day Adventism as it was possible to be. Although Price and various associates founded several creationist organizations (like the Deluge Geological Society), these groups were short-lived. Similarly, early creationist literature seemed to have little visible effect beyond a narrow circle. A few fundamentalists, like the Presbyterian minister Henry Rimmer (1890–1952), proposed somewhat similar views concerning the Flood, but Rimmer's influence had much diminished by the time of his death.
When a rising corps of university-trained conservative evangelical scientists founded the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) in 1941, creationist “flood geologists” thought this society would provide a receptive forum for their conclusions. It did not. Although leaders of the ASA maintained strict views of biblical authority and defended the sovereignty of God over the natural world, almost all of them held to the older day/age or gap theories, or came to feel that divine revelation in Genesis and natural revelation from empirical investigation did not need to be harmonized in the ways that had been repeatedly tried, revised, and tried again since the early nineteenth century. Numbers' documentation of the internal struggles of the ASA, and involving institutions like Wheaton College, which provided a number of leaders for the early ASA, is meticulous. Better than in any previous account he reveals the complexity, multiplicity, and divergences within the postwar intellectual world of conservative Protestant evangelicals.
Nothing daunted, creationists continued to prosecute their case. At last, in the late 1950s, a breakthrough occurred. John C. Whitcomb, Jr. (b. 1924), a theologian at Grace Theological Seminary (Winona Lake, Indiana) of the Grace Brethren denomination, and Henry M. Morris (b. 1918), a hydraulic engineer of Southern Baptist background, had each been moving in a creationist direction for quite a while before finding confirmation in Price's work. Each was also disturbed by a book published in 1954 by the evangelical Baptist theologian, Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, which had delighted most members of the ASA by proposing a much more flexible approach to reconciling evidence from nature and understanding from the Bible. Soon after Whitcomb and Morris met each other they published The Genesis Flood (1961), an updating of Price's work, but one that, because of Whitcomb's theological contribution and Morris' scientific expertise, made Price's points more persuasively.
The rest is history—massive demand for The Genesis Flood (twenty-nine printings and sales in excess of 200,000 by the mid-1980s); the popularization (by Whitcomb, Morris, and others) of the creationist viewpoint in tens of millions of other books, articles, pamphlets, and Sunday School lessons; the entrance of creationism into Britain (where before conservative anti-evolutionists had almost never promoted the idea of a young earth); the translation of creationist materials into many foreign languages (including Turkish, for use in Islamic education); a gradual movement by some creationists from a Christian-oriented “biblical creationism” to a public-oriented demand for equal time on behalf of “creation science”; the establishment and flourishing of several major institutes devoted to creationism; recruitment of spirited debaters to prosecute the creationist viewpoint in highly publicized public disputes with evolutionists; the eventual production of a few university-trained geologists upholding the creationist viewpoint; legislation in Arkansas and Louisiana, later overturned in court, providing for the teaching of “creation science” as an alternative to evolutionary theories; public endorsement by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan of equal time for “creation science” in American schools; wounded reactions from the scientific establishment; and intense battles in many towns and cities over how evolution was or was not taught in the schools. In sum, since 1960 creationism has done more than any other issue, except abortion, to inflame the cultural warfare in American public life.
It is inconceivable that the story of creationism as an issue could be told any better than Ronald Numbers tells it here. Over eighty sets of personal papers, many still in private hands, and over sixty interviews have gone into his re-creation of this story, which he has in turn most skillfully integrated into the larger picture of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Certain telling details—such as his brief treatment of geocentrists, who were encouraged by the rise of creationism but felt that the creationists had conceded too much to modern science—flesh out the narrative in often fascinating ways. What results is a powerful story, one that Numbers recounts with considerable respect for the creationists whom establishment scientists rarely regard with anything but disdain.
For Numbers this story is also a poignant one: he himself grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist who only abandoned creationism—“quickly, though not painlessly,” as he puts it in the introduction—while studying for a Ph.D. in the history of science at Berkeley in the late 1960s. (An extraordinarily moving account of Numbers' personal journey and the difficulties he encountered while pursuing the history of Adventist ideas is provided by Jonathan M. Butler in an introduction to the recent reissue of Numbers' Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-Day Adventist Health Reform [University of Tennessee Press, 1992].)
Thus the book succeeds splendidly in its stated purpose of chronicling the rise of creationism. In the end, however, the book is also quite convincing in its explanation of why creationism has exploded both in the United States and around the world since 1961. First, and doubtless of greatest importance, is the way creationism provides a worldview for many convinced believers in Scripture. In the words of David Watson, quoted by Numbers, “Tens of thousands of Christians have been convinced by Morris & Whitcomb's books because they made sense of the Bible.” Second, Numbers notes that in the recent past a resurgence of apocalyptic speculation, based on the same kind of biblical literalism that underlies creationism, has flourished. “For Christians expecting the end of the age,” as Numbers puts it, “Whitcomb and Morris offered a compelling view of earth history framed by symmetrical catastrophic events and connected by a common hermeneutic.”
Third, in an argument paralleling the persuasive case made by Robert Wuthnow in The Restructuring of American Religion, Numbers suggests that the intrusion of the national government into local educational concerns has politicized all the topics that are seen to lie on the borders between science and religion. After Sputnik, the United States poured unprecedented amounts of money into a frenzied effort aimed at reinvigorating the teaching of science in American schools. One of the byproducts of this effort was the production of influential biology textbooks that not only introduced major contemporary findings, but also propounded grandly phrased metaphysical claims about the evolutionary character of the cosmos. Such hegemonic governmental intrusions have regularly produced intense localist reactions. Creationism has been one of the most intense.
Fourth, Numbers notes that creationists embody some of the widespread resentment toward America's self-appointed knowledge elites. As such, they are part of a natural reaction to the intellectual imperialism so regularly practiced by a number of scholars at the nation's best-known universities. A world in which a physicist like Cornell's Carl Sagan becomes a guru concerning All Things, or a paleontologist like Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould presumes to define the theoretical limits of “science,” is a world primed for an ancient languages expert like Whitcomb and an engineer like Morris to offer their own counter- pontifications about How The World Is.
Helpful as Numbers is with such explanations, however, even more might have been said. Numbers' own account makes abundantly clear that the last thing creationism is concerned with is empirical observation of the natural world. Creationism is rather the deductive extrapolation from a particular pre-understanding of how the Bible should be read onto the metaphysical issues posed by modern theories of evolution. In fact, one of the most persistent themes in Numbers' study is how relatively unimportant the actual looking at the earth or the carrying out of experiments has been for the creationists. There is research, and there are experiments, but usually it is because the creationists are checking out something they have discovered in scientific literature that seems to pose problems for large-scale evolutionary theories. Creationism is, at root, religion. It has become politics because of the overweening metaphysical pretensions of elitist pundits exploiting the prestige of “science.”
To observe that creationism is primarily religion, and then secondarily politics, does not disqualify it from a place in the public square, or from making comments on the workings of professional scientists or on the metaphysical assumptions of those who exploit “science” for their own expansive metaphysical claims. It means, rather, that responses to creationism must try to assess it for what it is. Numbers' volume is indispensable for that task. But the book also opens the door to larger interpretive questions.
Those larger questions are complex, but on the basis of what Numbers has presented so well a few suggestions are possible. One is that the activity of creationists should be welcomed by all who regret the mindless ease with which, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, the popularizers and pundits have transformed the carefully qualified observations of working scientists into grandiose cosmological claims about the Nature of Things. Creationist literature is filled with oceans of nonsense, but has probably never descended to the level of obfuscating banality to be found in the anti-creationist pamphlet published in 1984 under the pretentious title, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. In this glossy booklet, distributed widely in American schools, are found choice bits of purest scientism, like the following quoted by Numbers: “In a nation whose people depend on scientific progress for their health, economic gains, and national security, it is of utmost importance that our students understand science as a system of study, so that by building on past achievements they can maintain the pace of scientific progress and ensure the continued emergence of results that can benefit mankind.” Creationists have every right to be infuriated by such hokum, in which “science” takes over for God.
But if creationists are justified in attacking the pretentious use of science to perform tasks once reserved for the deity, their own strategies are nonetheless a disaster in those discussions taking place at the intersection of Christianity (which has always made important claims to the reality of empirically observable events) and empirical science (which has always proceeded within the context of religious-like assumptions about the world). In other books, Numbers has been joined by colleagues in the history of science in showing how convoluted, complicated, and sometimes ironic these negotiations between “religion” and “science” have been in Western history. In God and Nature, edited by Numbers and David Lindberg, however, it was pointed out that those negotiations, albeit delicate, have rarely led to outright intellectual warfare. But creationists push religion-science negotiations toward the brink of battle. Their work assumes that the Bible should be read in a Baconian fashion, which supposedly features the “simple,” “literal,” and “natural” meaning of texts. In actual fact, the hermeneutics of creationists are dictated by certain very specific assumptions that dominated Western intellectual life from roughly 1650 to 1850. Before and after that time, a whole host of observers, many of them faithful Christians, have recognized that no observations are “simple” and no texts yield to uncritically “literal” readings. The only major analogy to the creationists' naive positivism with respect to texts is the naive positivism with respect to natural observations that lingers among some of those who worship at the shrine of modern “science.”
By adding their weight to the politicizing of science that has been going on with a vengeance at least since the time of “Darwin's bulldog,” T. H. Huxley, creationists make it harder, rather than easier, to isolate the critical issues found at the intersection of religion and science. The roar of battle between creationists and their scientistic opponents drowns out more patient, more careful voices. Those who want actually to look at nature as a way of understanding nature and those who want actually to look at themselves as a way of understanding how cosmological explanations are formed get shouted down. The great tragedy of modern creationism is that its noisy alarums have made it much more difficult to hear careful Christian thinkers—like many in the American Scientific Affiliation or like Phillip E. Johnson in his careful examinations of grand-scale “Darwinistic” theories (Darwin on Trial, 1991; “Creator or Blind Watchmaker?” First Things, January 1993).
Finally, Numbers' book shows that what goes around comes around. It is sad to note how little progress has been made over the last century in framing questions concerning the relationship between God and the physical world. (And no one should claim that, even where clearer understanding exists on how to frame the issues, spectacular breakthroughs have occurred.) In his 1933 biography of Thomas Aquinas, G. K. Chesterton wrote words he intended as a retrospective but which are just as descriptive of the 1990s as of the 1860s. They could serve as a summation for Ronald Numbers' extraordinarily helpful book: “Private theories about what the Bible ought to mean, and premature theories about what the world ought to mean, have met in loud and widely advertised controversy, especially in the Victorian time; and this clumsy collision of two very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the quarrel of Science and Religion.”
Mark A. Noll is Professor of History at Wheaton College.