EVOLUTION III: SECTS AND SCIENCE
Perhaps most troubling of all is the shallowness of anti-evolutionists’ reasons for rejecting evolution. It makes a great deal of sense to reject
evolution if it is a simple choice between religion and evolution. Faith makes all sorts of demands, and spurning a scientific idea seems relatively easy. Especially if that rejection is seen as a requirement of faith. And for a lot of evolution skeptics, that is apparently part of their rationale.
But rejecting evolution as a litmus test of Christian orthodoxy is extremely problematic. For one thing, many ardent and devout Christians do not agree that they must oppose evolution in order to be faithful Christians. They believe in an all-powerful God who uses evolution as his method of
creation. To insist that one cannot be a Christian if one accepts the fact of evolution means rejecting the faith of all those people.
Even more disturbing, the idea that evolution must be rejected by faithful Christians has shallow and erratic roots. Not until about 100 years after Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species did Bible-believing Christians largely agree on the notion that the idea of an ancient earth with long periods of evolution was anathema. Before that, many fundamentalist leaders theorized that the “days” described in Genesis could represent long geologic periods in which life forms developed. Some subscribed to the notion of an enormous temporal gap between the events described in one part of Genesis, when God created light, and other parts, when he created humanity. During that gap, these early fundamentalists believed, life could have developed in an evolutionary way. The important point to these Bible-believing, fundamentalist Christians was that God intervened directly in time to create forms of life, especially human life. They did not see a conflict with their religious beliefs and the scientific observations that the planet had lived through long geologic ages.
The idea that true Christian faith only had room for a young earth began among small sects, not originally among the majority of Bible-believing Christians. Most of the first generations of fundamentalists in the 1920s through the 1950s did not agree that the earth had been created in the last 10,000 years or so, in pretty much its present form. They did not agree that the fact of a worldwide flood—Noah’s flood—constituted a test of
true belief. The story of how those extreme ideas came to be considered central tenets of Biblical Christianity shows how tenuous and ultimately unnecessary they are. It was not always the case that fundamentalist Christianity required belief in a young earth and a literal worldwide flood. Once we can understand that such beliefs represent a triumph of a certain sect, we can see why evolution does not need to be rejected by devout Christians as a whole.
Ellen G. White: Vision of the End, Vision of Beginning
In the 1920s, when these questions of evolution and Christian belief erupted in the first of America’s twentieth-century culture wars, many leading evolution opponents believed that the earth could be ancient. At least, they did not see a young earth as one of the bedrock notions of their Biblical faith. William Bell Riley, for instance, allowed that God took ages to create the earth and its life. Riley insisted that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.” We can’t doubt Riley’s opposition to evolution. In 1919, he organized the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, the first fundamentalist umbrella
organization, to combat the teaching of theological modernism and evolution. He led the fight for anti-evolution laws in the 1920s. Evolution, for Riley, meant the teaching of atheism. He dedicated his career to stopping it dead. But that did not mean that Riley believed in a young earth. He took a backseat to no one in his fundamentalism. But he did not think that it was a requirement to insist that the earth could only be 6,000 years old or so.
Similarly with William Jennings Bryan. Bryan may be remembered best for his role in the 1925 Scopes trial. In that trial, Bryan led the prosecution of John Scopes for teaching evolution and breaking Tennessee’s new anti-evolution law. The trial was remembered—badly—in the play and film Inherit the Wind. In the movie, Bryan comes off as a bitter, malevolent, ignorant man. Bryan was none of those things. He had run for President three times as the candidate of the Democratic Party. He had been Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a devout Bible-believing Presbyterian. He lent his talents and prestige to the very
successful 1920s campaign to get evolution out of America’s public schools. Like Riley, Bryan thought evolution was bad science. He thought it
was a way to confuse young people and force them to doubt their Biblical faith. Once students were told that life had evolved in a random process, Bryan believed, they would necessarily doubt the fact that God had created life in its present forms. But Bryan also believed that God might have done His creating over long geologic ages. Bryan believed that they “days” referred to in Genesis could refer to millions of years. Over those millennia, Bryan believed, God could have created life in all its forms. Any other belief would run up against the scientific evidence for the age of the earth. Bryan fought for the Bible. Bryan fought against evolution. But Bryan did not believe that he had to believe in a young earth.
In the 1920s, only a minority of evolution opponents insisted on the belief in a young earth as an article of faith. Fundamentalist geologist George McCready Price led the charge. In the 1920s, Price wrote, lectured, and debated tirelessly against evolution supporters. He built a reputation as the leading anti-evolution scientist. And Price insisted that one of the central tenets of his faith was the notion of a literal six-day creation, without long gaps for the earth to develop. Price demanded belief in a literal worldwide flood and a young earth. As opposed to his Bible-believing allies, Price insisted that adherence to such ideas formed the foundation of true orthodoxy.
Price studied the earth’s crust to find evidence. The striated levels in exposed cliffs showed most geologists that the earth had formed in long ages of sedimentation and crust upheavals. Price saw something different. Price explained the striation in rocks as proof that they had been formed in a huge flood. The fossils embedded in those rocks came from plants and animals trapped by the rising waters. It was the flood, in Price’s geology, that explained the complicated crust.
Price did not just stumble upon his beliefs. He was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For members of that faith, the idea of a young earth and a literal worldwide flood really were requirements. One could not be an orthodox believer and still doubt such notions. But the rub for non-Seventh-day Adventists comes from understanding the roots of such orthodoxy. It did not come from the Bible itself, but rather from the prophetic experience of the denomination’s founder, Ellen G. White.
White began her prophetic career as a follower of William Miller. Miller had predicted the date of the coming apocalypse around 1843 or 1844.
His predictions proved so popular among his neighbors in Vermont and New York that he published them for wider circulation. Soon, he took his lecture on the road, presenting his biblical case for 1843 as the end date predicted in the Book of Daniel.
Thousands were convinced. The Millerite revival grew from a local curiosity to a national movement. At first, Miller was hesitant to give an exact date for the Second Coming. But he believed that the world must end by March 21, 1844. Some believers sold their farms, wrapped up their earthly concerns, and donned white robes to await Jesus Christ. Famously, some even sat on the roofs of their barns and watched the sun rise on March 22. On that morning, things appeared much as before. No Jesus.
Some gave up. Others listened to a new date—a correction William Miller agreed to—that said the true date must be in April. Those must have
been anxious weeks. Not wishing to be caught out like the foolish virgins, but now maybe a little skeptical that these predictions had the true power of prophecy, Millerites still waited. After April 18, Miller himself gave up. He apologized for his mistake but did not refute the notion that the world would soon be coming to an end. He merely admitted that his calculations of its date must have been in error.
Ellen White did not give up. In 1844 she was a young woman, convinced by the power of prophecy. She had been converted by William Miller when she was still a young girl of twelve. His predictions of judgment and apocalypse had terrified her, and she had spent nights crying, sweating, and shaking in fear of her body and soul’s suffering and damnation. She was convinced. But when Miller’s date came and went, she wasn’t sure what to believe. Like many Millerites, her answer was to pray. Unlike most of the disappointed ones, though, White’s prayers brought her outside of herself. She was entranced in visions of heaven and earth. She began seeing divine histories of the future scrolled out for her with the universe as a canvas. She described the experience as being surrounded by a bright light. She would be swept out of her body and hear the commanding voice of Jesus as God, telling her the story of the universe’s past and future. She was surrounded by clouds of angels celebrating her divine experience. At first, she kept her experiences to herself. But she knew that could not last. Jesus himself had directed her to share what she had been told. She had become a prophet, equal in power and vision to those whose inspiration had created the Bible itself. It was not intended for her alone, but for all humanity, to make known the truth of life.
White listened, and spoke. She spread the word of her visions with the help of her new husband. She described what God had shown her, which included the creation of the earth in six literal days.
Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) will tell you that White’s prophecies aren’t the same as the Bible. Although she was inspired by the same power that inspired the Biblical authors, and White’s writings are authoritative among SDA believers, they do not make up a new Bible. But the visions
she described, along with the implications for life and faith, still had the power to dictate behavior and belief among her followers.
Among those followers were the founders of big food companies, like Kellogg’s and Little Debbie’s. The dietary restrictions that resulted from White’s prophecies meant that SDA members could not eat lard, so a Little Debbie’s snack will not have the same lardy filling as a Hostess Twinkie. They also led Mr. Kellogg to experiment with healthy new foods, including by accident the original corn flake.
More important here, one of White’s visions included the creation of the universe and life. White described her vision of God’s direct creation in six literal days. She placed the date either 6000 or 4000 years before her writing.
Just as SDA members needed lard-free food, they also needed to believe in a literal six-day creation. Not six “ages,” in which the words of Genesis stood for long geologic ages. Not one day, then a long geologic gap, then five more days. For Seventh-day Adventists, White’s vision affirmed a literal six-day creation, not very far in the past.
One of those followers was George McCready Price. In the 1920s, when other Bible-believing fundamentalists believed in the possibility that the earth had existed for long ages before God created humans, Price campaigned for a much more radical kind of opposition to evolution. He had to. Ellen G. White attested to it. To do otherwise would have been unthinkable for any Seventh-day Adventist, even if it would not have been for other conservative Christians.
As so often happens, Price’s unshakeable commitment to the notion of a recent, literal six-day creation carried the day. Other fundamentalists were open to the idea of a young earth, but they didn’t insist on it. Price did. In addition to debating every prominent evolutionist he could find, Price helped establish the Deluge Geology Society. As the name implies, this group was committed to the notion of a literal worldwide flood
that was responsible for forming the apparent layering of the earth’s crust. This flood could explain the fossil record of extinct species.
When new generations of Christians wanted to find out more about evolution, it was the Deluge Geology Society that seemed the most active
and ardent opponent to the idea. Part of that opposition, the new generations learned, must mean a literal six-day creation. It must include a real worldwide flood. And it must mean that the earth was young, no older than ten thousand years.
One of this new generation of anti-evolutionists was Henry Morris. Morris was not SDA, but as he explored the possibilities of opposition to evolution, he found the most congenial home in Price’s Deluge Geology Society. As he developed his ideas about the age of the earth and the origins of life, he did so under the influence of Price’s ideas.
In 1961, Morris published his own anti-evolution bombshell. Along with John Whitcomb, another non-SDA anti-evolutionist, Morris explained his ideas about creationism in The Genesis Flood. This book became the inspiration for a new generation of evolution opponents. Unlike the folks that started the fight in the 1920s, this generation agreed on some basic ideas: the earth was no older than 10,000 years; it had been created in six literal days as described in Genesis; and it had been destroyed in a literal worldwide flood. Most important, The Genesis Flood
made a convincing and influential argument that all of these beliefs were central to Biblical Christian orthodoxy. As had not been the case for earlier Biblical Christians, the new generation, readers of Morris and Whitcomb’s book, believed that these fairly radical notions had always been central to true faith.
They had not. They developed in large part from the visions of Ellen White. They were not part of the ancient orthodoxy of Christian belief, but rather of the influence of one energetic SDA scientist, George McCready Price.
Understanding the sectarian roots of this kind of anti-evolutionism will show that such opposition is much newer and peripheral to Christian belief than its advocates will admit. But here’s another twist. Even for those anti-evolutionists who dispute this line of argument, the story of Ellen G. White’s prophecies tells us something about religious opposition to the idea of evolution. That is, many earnest anti-evolutionists could say that this SDA history has nothing at all to do with their anti-evolution beliefs. They could say that Ellen White’s visions may agree with their belief in a young earth, a six-day creation, and a worldwide flood, but that they were convinced by arguments that came directly from the Bible, not from White’s prophecies. That wider biblical argument, after all, was the one laid out in Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood. Fair enough.
Just because Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that governments should impose a graduated income tax does not mean that every such tax is a communist law.
But here’s the kicker.
Non-SDA anti-evolutionists do not care much about Ellen White’s prophecies. Her vision of God’s work does not compel them to fight against the teaching of evolution. For those outside of the SDA tradition, White’s prophecies are irrelevant. They may even be blasphemous, assuming the role of something near the Bible itself. In any case, those who believe in the Bible are not generally motivated by anything White may have seen. It makes no part of their anti-evolution activism.
For these non-SDA anti-evolutionists, I suggest the following mental experiment. Imagine your feelings about the prophecies of Ellen White. You do not find her visions compelling. You do not think they should be guiding public policy. That feeling is the feeling of many Americans, Christian and non-Christian, about all Bible-based opposition to evolution. Most Americans do not agree that the Bible dictates a belief in a literal special creation. Lots of people do not care what the Bible says at all, the same way many anti-evolutionists don’t care about Ellen G. White. Is it fair to base our public education system on ideas that are only meaningful for one segment of the population? No matter what proportion of the population hold that belief? The answer is obvious. No sectarian belief ought to dictate public policy. It should be left to private individuals to promote their particular beliefs, whether that be the vegetarianism and flood geology of a Seventh-day Adventist or the transubstantiation beliefs of a Catholic. None of those beliefs should guide the planning of public school education. Keeping evolution out of schools, or even watering it down by teaching it side by side with the notion of special creation, takes those sectarian beliefs and elevates them to the notion of universal doctrine. It is not fair to those who do not come from that tradition, whether they are a minority or a majority.
EVOLUTION III: FURTHER READING
John C. Whitcomb Jr. and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1966); Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, expanded edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); William V. Trollinger Jr., God’s Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).