Created in Nothing Flat

Okay, I’ll bite: What is the difference? News from Denver brings us back to an old chestnut: What is the difference between young-earth creationists and other dissident-scientists such as flat earthers? Certainly, there are differences in political power—we have a young-earther in the White House these days—but is there anything more than that? Or is it all just an accident of history?

The story from Denver’s flat-earth community points out some of the obvious superficial differences. At least in Denver, flat-earthers tend to be far more about government conspiracies than biblical hermeneutics.

And prominent creationists have always insisted that their beliefs have nothing to do with a flat earth. Back in the 1920s, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley fumed and fussed that his anti-evolution activism had nothing to do with “‘a flat earth’ . . . ‘an immovable world’ . . . [or] ‘a canopy of roof overhead.’” Those outdated scientific ideas, Riley insisted, were only used to poke fun at people who rejected the false science of evolution.

These days, too, young-earth creationists at Answers In Genesis insist that their scientific ideas have nothing to do with a flat earth. AIG’s Danny Faulkner admits that there are some similarities between the two views, since both have been ridiculed by people who don’t understand them. In the end, though, Faulkner concludes that most flat-earthers are either kooks or insincere.

Officially, AIG contends that since the spherical nature of the earth can be observed directly, the question of the earth’s shape belongs in the realm of “observational science.” That is, we can trust the mainstream facts in this case, even if we can’t trust scientists who speak ignorantly about “historical science.”

For those who know the history, though, the idea of a flat earth has had a remarkably similar history to the notions of a literal worldwide flood and a six-day creation.

As creationist-history guru Glenn Branch has described, in the 1920s the two movements had enormous similarities. Back then, most anti-evolution activists did not believe in a literal six-day creation. They did not insist that the earth was only about 6,004 years old. But a vocal minority did. Spearheaded by the indefatigable activism of George McCready Price, the ideas of a young earth and “flood geology” grew until they became in the 1960s key litmus tests for fundamentalist faith. (For more on that story, check out Ron Numbers’s masterpiece, The Creationists.)

As Branch describes, back in the 1920s flat-earthers also represented a small minority of the anti-evolution crowd. Like the young-earthers, flat-earthers could claim an energetic and charismatic spokesperson, Glenn Voliva. Voliva crusaded against the notion of a spherical earth. Like George McCready Price, Voliva insisted that he had the Truth, a truth evolutionists and round-earthers were too prejudiced to admit.

At the time of the Scopes Trial, Voliva hustled to Dayton, Tennessee to help prosecute John Scopes. Voliva’s hope, according to author Christine Garwood, was to “eliminate the twin heresies of evolution and a spherical earth.”flat earth garwood

But that’s where the two ideas went their separate ways. Whereas the outlandish notion of a literally young earth came to be accepted as true by large minorities of Americans, the outlandish notion of a flat earth became an internet quirk adopted by basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists.

So I ask again: What is the difference? I have a few ideas that I’m including in my current book about American creationism. In short, I think the answer lies not in dissident science, but in the mainstream world. By the 1960s, fundamentalist Protestants faced a new choice: Embrace mainstream evolutionary thinking and find a way to reconcile it with evangelical belief, or reject mainstream evolutionary science utterly and create a new creationist science.

When it came to evolution, the choice seemed simple, to many fundamentalists at least. Either kowtow to secular science or remain steadfast to young-earth beliefs.

Flat-earthers, though, never offered such a stark and simple choice. Belief in a flat earth (or a geo-centric solar system, for that matter) had always been embraced by some Biblical conservatives, but it never became a litmus test of orthodoxy.

At least, that’s the argument I’m trying to make in my new book.

What do you think?

Zombie Science on Noah’s Ark

Smart people don’t say it’s not science.  Some call creation science “dead science.”  But anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can see the bustling activity in the world of creation science.  A recent blog post from Answers In Genesis offered an introduction to what creation science can look like.  If it’s not dead, but not quite alive in the normal sense, maybe the best term for this sort of research is “undead science” or “zombie science.”

Alternative Science in Action

Alternative Science in Action

As those of us who follow the creation/evolution debates are well aware, Answers In Genesis is planning a big new museum project.  They want to build a replica of Noah’s Ark to prove its practicality.  Indeed, this ark project has attracted a sub-controversy of its own, with secularists complaining about public tax benefits going toward this explicitly sectarian religious project.

In a recent blog post, AIG explained some of the scientific challenges of their Ark project.  AIG demonstrated some of the unique features of the sort of creation science practiced by AIG scientists. As the post explained, one of the challenges of designing a replica Ark is figuring out how many animals would be on board.  Most believers in a literal world-wide flood do not insist that Noah’s Ark contained two of every species we have today.  Rather, they say that the Ark contained two of every “created kind,” as described in Genesis.  That is, the Ark did not have two wolves, two dingoes, two foxes, two dogs, etc.  Instead, the Ark had two of the “kind” of canine.

The term AIG scientists use to describe these “created kinds” is “baramin.”  In the recent blog post, AIG uses the example of the mule deer to show how scientists can figure out what kind of created kinds were on the Ark.  Creation scientists hypothesize that fossils from the baramin must be in a certain fossil layer, since those fossils were predictably laid down at a certain point in the Genesis flood.  In this case, the most likely fossil deposits, according to AIG, were from “moschids buried in rock layers deposited by localized catastrophes just after Flood.”  Those samples allow creation scientists to figure out what the baramin on the ark would likely have looked like.

Is this science?  It’s tempting for those of us outside the circle of creationism to pooh-pooh this sort of thing as outlandish non-science.

But more thoughtful non-creationists have offered more subtle explanations.  Philosopher Philip Kitcher, for example, argued that we should understand this not as non-science, but as “dead science.”  This sort of thinking, Kitcher said, had a long and influential career as mainstream science.  However, it has been replaced by better science.

Historian George Marsden also offered an explanation of this sort of scientific thinking.  Marsden argued that early creationists worked in a Baconian framework.  Science, according to this way of thinking, must begin with an authority.  From that firm starting point, scientists can collect and classify information.  This is not non-science, but rather a certain form of dissenting science.

Throughout the twentieth-century history of creationism, creationists themselves have insisted on the scientific legitimacy of their projects.  The leading creation scientist of the 1920s, George McCready Price, repeatedly argued that non-creationists were behind the times.  As Price told an audience in London just a few months after the 1925 Scopes trial,

I am perfectly confident that any competent person who will take the time to traverse the evidence now available on this side will reach the same conclusion that I have reached—namely. That the theory of Organic Evolution was a very plausible theory for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century; but that this theory is now entirely out of date, and hopelessly inadequate for us, in view of the facts of geology and of experimental breeding as we know them.  We are making scientific history very fast these days; and the specialist in some corner of science who keeps on humming a little tune to himself, quietly ignoring all this modern evidence against Evolution, is simply living in a fools’ paradise.  He will soon be so far behind that he will wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.

Mainstream scientists in the 1920s and ever since would dispute Price’s prediction.  But in every generation since the 1920s, creationists have developed and honed their distinct version of science and of scientific research.  As this Ark Encounter article makes clear, over the past century creationists have identified research problems and research methodologies that are utterly foreign to mainstream science.  They have built schools, museums, and academic publications.  They have changed and honed their thinking.

“Dead” science does not grow and change in this way.

So if this sort of creation science is thriving and changing, it seems misleading to adopt Kitcher’s label of “dead science.”  I know creationists won’t like the idea of calling it “zombie science” or “undead science.”  But is there a better term to describe this unique sort of active-but-dead kind of research?

 

 

To Debate or Not to Debate

Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be going a few rhetorical rounds next month.

The mega-popular science educator will broach the creationist lion’s den of the Creation Museum on February 4th.  The topic: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

Are these debates worthwhile?  In the past they had decisive impact on the formation of American creationism and fundamentalism.  But these days such debates are a different animal.

Science pundits don’t like it.  Jerry Coyne warned that Bill Nye will only be putting money and legitimacy in Ham’s deep pocketsPZ Myers wisely concludes that each side will likely only speak past the other.

I agree.  The audience at this debate will likely not be moved by either man’s arguments.  No matter how scientifically accurate or biblically flawless, logical arguments tend not to be the deciding factor in determining one’s beliefs about human origins.

As David Long’s ethnography demonstrated so powerfully, creationists can thrive in mainstream scientific environments without abandoning their religious ideas.  Many creationists have simply been taught to regard mainstream scientists as deeply flawed and bumbling fools.  It is easy to dismiss plausible-sounding talk from someone we have already deemed unreliable.

It’s hard to imagine Ham’s Cincinnati audience won’t be prepared to dismiss Nye’s mainstream science talk out of hand.  I assume Nye is hoping that he may still plant a few seeds of science doubt in the minds of those who hear him.  Not much reason to offer Ham such a plum chance to look like a reputable scientific authority.

At the start of America’s public evolution/creation battles, this legacy of public debating functioned much more powerfully, since creationists had not yet set up alternative institutions.  As I describe in my 1920s book, some of the most influential creationists of the 1920s received humiliating public trouncings in popular debates.

At a talk on the campus of the University of Minnesota, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley found himself surprised by a student prank.  Someone lowered a monkey onto the stage as Riley tried to convince his audience that creationism was reputable science.  “Every time I hear the argument that this is a controversy between experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other, I smile,” Riley told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1927.  “This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.”

Similarly, in London, creationist godfather George McCready Price found himself hooted off the stage in the days following the 1925 Scopes Trial.  He had tried to tell the merciless audience that the theory of evolution was doomed as mainstream science.  Such flawed science, Price insisted, may have worked fine

for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century; but that this theory is now entirely out of date, and hopelessly inadequate for us. . . .  We are making scientific history very fast these days; and the specialist in some corner of science who keeps on humming a little tune to himself, quietly ignoring all this modern evidence against Evolution, is simply living in a fools’ paradise.  He will soon be so far behind that he will wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.

The audience didn’t buy it.  Price found himself heckled so mercilessly that he could not complete his presentation.  That London debacle was Price’s last public debate.  After that experience he focused his considerable energy on founding alternative scientific institutions to prevent future creationists from needing to convert mainstream scientists.

Back in those days, creationists and fundamentalist scientists still attempted to tell audiences that they represented the true mainstream of scientific discovery.  Such early creationists eagerly debated in a variety of settings in hope of convincing middle-of-the-road audiences that evolutionary science was not real science.

In that context, public debates held promise for both sides.  Creationists hoped to prove that they had better science.  Evolutionary scientists hoped to demonstrate the scientific vapidity of creationism.

These days, both sides have hardened.  Creationists these days are not unaware of the fact that their science does not represent the scientific mainstream.  Evolutionary scientists are not hoping to relieve creationists of their naïve ignorance.

Rather, both sides in these debates enter and exit with the same set ideas.  Each side knows who to trust on that stage and who to ignore.  No matter how persuasive Ken Ham can be, he doesn’t really hope to change Bill Nye’s mind.  Rather, this exercise merely serves to give each charismatic speaker the chance to gain a sliver of legitimacy and respectability in the opposite camp.

 

Barton and Evolution

You might be tired of hearing about David Barton.  I know I am.  But how about just one more point?  This morning, History News Network ran an essay of mine asking a new question about Barton.  In the essay, I ask what might happen if Barton was defending the notion of a young earth, rather than the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian.

Thanks to the History News Network for running that piece.  Since I submitted to their editor, the Barton story has developed in ways that make me even more intrigued in the comparison between (some) conservative Christians’ views of history and creationists’ views of biology and geology.

In a piece that ran in the August 13 online edition of Glenn Beck’s Blaze newsletter, Barton defended his work.  According to the Blaze article,

“Barton seemed anything but shaken by the controversy when he spoke via telephone with TheBlaze. He freely answered questions about the controversy and explained that he’s prepared to respond to some of the critiques, while dismissing what he believes is an ‘elevated level of hostility that’s not really rational in many ways.’

David Barton Responds to Jefferson Lies Controversy and Warren Throckmorton

“While he stands by his central arguments about Jefferson, Barton isn’t pretending to be immune from error. The historian said that the book has already gone through three or four printings and that there have been word and text changes based on spelling or grammar errors along the way. Also, he addressed a willingness to amend historical items, should they be pointed out and proven wrong by other academics.”

What’s intriguing to me in this defense is the way it echoes the challenges posed by 1920s creationists.  Note the phrase “other academics.”  Barton here defends his position as one academic historian among others.

It has been a very long while since scientific creationists insisted that they were part of of the mainstream scientific establishment.  As Ron Numbers described in his classic The Creationists, after the Scopes trial in 1925 leading creationist scientists still fought for creationism’s acceptance in mainstream science.  But they quickly learned that such debates did not offer a real chance to convince mainstream scientists of creationism’s superiority.  Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, for instance, left one debate in London shocked and demoralized by the reaction of the crowd.  “Do not confine your reading wholly to one side,” Price pleaded in response to one scornful outburst from the audience.  “How can you know anything about a certain subject if you read only one side of the case? There is plenty of evidence on the other side, and this evidence is gradually coming out.”  After this debate, Price left the stage feeling humiliated, and he never engaged in another public debate. (Numbers, ed. Creation-Evolution Debates, pg. 186).

This does not mean, of course, that creationists gave up.  No, it demonstrates that creationists moved in the 1920s, in fits and starts, away from fighting for acceptance by mainstream scientists.  Instead, they built their own powerful institutions: schools, publishers, and research organizations.  By 2012 no politician needs to retreat from creationist belief.  Similarly, no creationist feels a need to prove his or her claims to an audience of mainstream scientists.

David Barton, on the other hand, is giving us what might be a new Scopes moment.  Forced to endure the public humiliation of having his book withdrawn, Barton has taken a defiant posture.  He has insisted, like Price in 1925, that readers do more than “read only one side of the case.”  He continues to claim his credentials as one academic historian among others.  I wonder if soon historians like Barton will embrace their outsider status.  If so, as I argue in the History News Network piece, we might be seeing another sort of 1925.

Required Reading: Louis Menand and the Left-Leaning Ivory Tower

Louis Menand,  The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the
American University.
  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2010.

Fundamentalists have long argued that America’s colleges and universities had been captured by a sinister left wing.  Now they have some evidence to back up their complaints.

Most often, those accusations branded mainstream American univeristies as hopelessly lost to pernicious non-fundamentalist ideas.  For example, Texas fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris insisted in 1921 that the problem with America all started when some influential young Americans studied “in Chicago University where they got the forty-second echo of some beer-guzzling German Professor of Rationalism.”

This hostility among fundamentalists toward the professoriate was noted by one cartoonist in the Wall Street Journal around the time of the Scopes Trial in 1925.  In this cartoon, hillbilly fundamentalists sic their legislative dogs on a hapless professor.

In the run-up to that Scopes Trial, the greatest fundamentalist scientist of the 1920s, George McCready Price, informed William Jennings Bryan confidentially that evolutionists had fallen prey to a debilitating group-think.  Because they only listened to one another, Price insisted, such evolutionists had become “out of date,–behind the times,–and don’t know it.”

This outright hostility toward the academic classes continued throughout the twentieth century.  For instance, one pamphlet from the American Legion in 1930 warned that too many college professors saw their jobs as indoctrinating each new generation of young, impressionable minds.  In this author’s opinion, college professors did not try to authentically educate their students, but only saw their jobs as a chance to make new “teachers of communism and atheism out of them.”

In the early 1960s, conservative California State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty found the main culprit of America’s decline in the progressive, leftist orthodoxy promulgated in America’s institutions of higher education.  Rafferty insisted that colleges had created a new landscape of “temples . . . great universities which marble the land.”  These temples no longer pursued true intellectual endeavor, Rafferty claimed, but only passed along a deadened orthodoxy, “turning out swarms of neophytes each year to preach the gospel of Group Adaptation.  Their secret crypts and inner sanctums are the graduate schools.”

More recently, fundamentalist blockbuster author Tim LaHaye agreed.  In the twenty-first century, LaHaye believed, university faculties had placed themselves hopelessly in thrall to the false idols of the cultural Left.  After his huge publishing success with the Left Behind series, LaHaye set out to create a new biblical hero.  In Babylon Rising (2003), LaHaye described the adventures of biblical archeologist Michael Murphy.  In Murphy, LaHaye hoped to create a “true hero for our times,” one who united unwavering biblical faith with scholarly acumen and a dose of two-fisted machismo.  In one telling scene, Murphy is confronted by his smarmy secular dean.  This little episode tells us a lot about continuing fundamentalist attitudes toward the professoriate.

“Hold it, Murphy!”

A bony hand grabbed Murphy by his backpack as he left the hall. “Dean Fallworth.  What a fine example you set for the students by monitoring my lecture.”

“Can it, Professor Murphy.”  Fallworth was as tall as Murphy but cursed with a library-stack pallor that would make some mummies look healthy by comparison.  “You call that a lecture?  I call it a disgrace.  Why, the only thing separating you from a Sunday tent preacher is the fact that you didn’t pass the plate for a collection.”
“I will gratefully accept any donation you wish to make, Dean.  Did you need a syllabus, by the way?”

“No, Mr. Murphy, I have everything I need to get the university board to begin accreditation hearings for this evangelical clambake you’re calling a class.”

“Temper,” Murphy mumbled to himself.  “Dean, if you feel my work is unprofessional in any way, then please help me to improve my teaching skills, but if you want to bash Christians, I don’t have to stand here for that.”

“Do you know what they’re already calling this silly circus around the campus?  Bible for Bubbleheads, Jesus for Jocks, and the Gut from Galilee.”

Murphy couldn’t help but laugh.  “I like that last one.  I’m intending this to be a quite intellectually stimulating course, Dean, but I confess I did not post an I.Q. requirement for taking it.  The knowledge will be there, I promise you, but I will likely fall short of your apparent requirement that the only acceptable instructional method is to bore your students to an early ossuary.”

“Mark my words, Murphy.  Your hopes of this course surviving and your hopes of tenure at this university are as dead as whatever was in that bone box of yours.”

“Ossuary, Dean.  Ossuary.  We’re at a university, let’s try to use multisyllabic words.  If it doesn’t turn out to be legitimate, maybe I can get it for you cheap and you can keep your buttons in it.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new artifact to begin work on.”

In this vision of the world of higher education, only fundamentalists have remained true to the original mission.  Fundamentalist intellectuals, this line of reasoning goes, have retained their sense of inquiry and intellectual honesty.  They have not been seduced by the showy appeals of false science, such as evolution.  They have not been lulled by a peaceful-sounding pluralism that in practice degrades human dignity.  And they have not been willing to accept the hidebound leftist, secularist, evolutionist orthodoxy required of the mainstream academic.

This trope has remained so ubiquitous among fundamentalist activists that is tempting to dismiss it as sour grapes.  In this sour-grapes line of thinking, fundamentalists attack the intellectual pretensions of college professors since those professors show universal disdain for the Biblical belief of fundamentalists.  Fundamentalist attacks, this argument goes, actually prove the intelligence and perspicacity of college professors.

Louis Menand’s new book suggests otherwise.  Menand, best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Metaphysical Club, now takes aim at the sclerotic intellectual culture of American higher education.  Menand is no fundamentalist.  Nor does he have an axe to grind against the left-leaning cultural politics of today’s universities.  However, he does agree with fundamentalist critics that the professoriate encourages group thinking and intellectual conformity rather than innovative ideas and iconoclasm.

Unlike fundamentalist critics of higher education, Menand does not blame evolution, socialism, or secularism for this state of affairs.  Rather, Menand’s critique is more prosaic.  In order to become a tenure-track professor in the humanities, Menand points out, aspiring professors must endure years, even decades, of powerless apprenticeship.  Those who survive this ordeal do so not by bucking the intellectual party line but rather by honing their ability to locate and placate the institutionally powerful.

In Menand’s view, this leads to a dangerous state of affairs in which “The academic profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself” (153).  Until and unless research universities find a new way to train the next generations of faculty, Menand frets, the trend toward intellectual conformity will accelerate.  [UPDATE: For a full review of Menand’s book, be sure to check out the H-Education list review commissioned by Jon Anuik:  https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33892 Thanks, Jon, for this notice.  –Editor]

Fundamentalists won’t be surprised.  For generations they have dismissed the protestations of the kept intellectuals at America’s universities.  Menand’s book should serve to give them support from outside their own ranks for their deeply held distrust of pointy-headed professors.

Pro-Evolution III: Sects and Science

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.

That matters.

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).