The REAL Reason It Doesn’t Matter that Ben Carson is a Creationist

Have you seen it yet? Commentators such as Rod Dreher and Jeff Jacoby have opined that Ben Carson’s creationist Seventh-day Adventist faith doesn’t matter. All sorts of leaders, they write, hold kooky religious ideas. But that’s not why Dr. Carson’s faith doesn’t disqualify him. There’s a more complicated reason.

It's always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man...

It’s always worthwhile talking to an intelligent man…

Jacoby argues that Carson would be a perfect surgeon general. He could follow other creationist surgeon generals such as C. Everett Koop. When liberals comment that Carson’s creationist beliefs mean he’s anti-science, Jacoby points out that all sorts of religious people have all sorts of anti-scientific beliefs. Such theology does not mean they can’t perform their scientific duties.

As Jacoby concludes,

Can you regard someone’s religious creed as preposterous, yet entrust the person who is faithful to that creed with public office? Of course; Americans do it all the time. I can’t see Carson as president, but what I really can’t see is why his religion or his doubts about evolution (neither of which I share) should even enter the conversation.

There’s a simpler reason why Dr. Carson’s creationism doesn’t really matter. Like other humans, Carson is not a simple religious robot. We cannot read his denomination’s creed and assume we know everything he believes on every issue.  More important, we cannot read his creed and assume we know much about his lived faith.

As critics have pointed out, Dr. Carson has ranged far afield from his SDA roots in his effort to win votes. Traditionally, for example, Adventists decry the use of violence. Traditionally, too, Adventists insist on a rigid separation of church and state. Recent campaigning seems to have pushed Dr. Carson to put his conservative American identity in front of his SDA denominational identity on these issues. He has argued for more weapons in the hands of everyday Americans and more religion in everyday government.

I disagree with Dr. Carson’s positions on all these issues (for that matter, I also disagree with SDA orthodoxy on all these issues), but I’m glad he is not simply a creature of his denominational beliefs. After all, if someone had only their religious beliefs to guide them, he or she would be a terrifying leader.

What if a surgeon general believed only in faith healing, so he or she canceled government health programs? What if a leader of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed only that non-Christians were evil, so he or she indulged in missionary warfare?

Luckily, that sort of religious extremism is atypical. Most of us have official beliefs that don’t really impact the way we live our day-to-day lives. We are Americans first, and then we are Catholic, or Muslim, or Hindu.

Indeed, it is not only religious people who do this but also anti-religious people. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan personifies in Brothers Karamazov, there are atheists who fail to follow their anti-religious beliefs to their logical conclusions.

And thank goodness they do.

In short, Dr. Carson’s creationist beliefs don’t disqualify him for high office because he seems willing to back-burner them when necessary.

Ben Carson Wants Federal Control of Higher Education

If you’d like to be popular at a GOP event these days, don’t wear an Education Department lapel pin. As they have for decades now, conservative presidential candidates these days are falling all over themselves in their threats to eliminate the Education Department. But not Ben Carson! The uber-conservative neurosurgeon has something he wants the Ed Dept. to do.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are tired of hearing this, but I’ve pointed out in my recent book and in the pages of Time.com that conservatives have not always hated the idea of federal influence in education. Back in the 1920s, cultural conservatives wanted the federal government to pump money into educational programs that would make America more conservative. Some conservative intellectuals these days have made similar noises—if the Ed Dept. can push conservative programs, some conservatives think, then conservatives need to get over their antipathy.

Dr. Ben Carson’s plan for the Ed Dept. goes even further. As he told Glenn Beck, Carson wants the federal government to seize control of higher education.

Here’s the plan: Carson hopes the Ed Dept. will “de-fund” colleges that ban conservative speakers. The department, Carson explained, should “monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists” [about 3:41 of the interview].

It’s not clear exactly what Dr. Carson thinks such defunding will mean. Nor can I tell how “extreme political bias” would be defined. But such quibbles largely miss the point.

For us at ILYBYGTH, the remarkable take-away from Carson’s candor is that he wants to assert sweeping new powers for the Education Department. This is a departure from both the past fifty years of mainstream conservative thinking and from the past hundred-fifty years of Seventh-day Adventist tradition.

Adventists, after all, have never been supporters of government power. Not even to push society in ways they might prefer. As liberal pundits have become eager to point out, Carson’s rhetoric about strong Americanism is a marked departure from SDA tradition. These days, Dr. Carson displays a weirdly non-SDA penchant for a powerful, intrusive government.

It’s certainly the case with Carson’s recent comments about the Education Department. I can’t imagine that SDA universities such as Loma Linda or Pacific Union College would endorse more federal control of their activities.

From the Archives: A Satanic Cult Leader for the GOP

US News & World Report calls him the “evangelical darling.” By some counts, he is the second-most-popular candidate in the GOP scrum. But for anyone familiar with the history of evangelical Protestants in the USA, it can be shocking that a Seventh-day Adventist such as Ben Carson can be so popular among conservative voters. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that conservative evangelicals considered Seventh-day Adventism to be trick of Satan, a cult to lure unwary believers.

Kings Business anti SDA 1For those unfamiliar with the denomination, SDA had its origins in the “Great Disappointment.” In the mid-1800s, William Miller predicted the imminent return of Christ. Some true believers sold everything to prepare for the end of the world. When October 22, 1844 came and went, some folks reasonably concluded that Miller had been wrong.

But not everybody. One splinter group, guided by Prophet Ellen G. White, explained that Christ had come and gone, but it had been a spiritual event, invisible to the mundane eye. White experienced visions of God and angels, creation and the end of time.

Her followers coalesced into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Unlike other Christian groups, SDA members had reason to believe that creation had been a literal six-day event. They had reason to believe that it had taken place within the past 10,000 years. After all, White had been shown it all.

This is the church from which Dr. Carson comes. Unlike some presidential contenders in the past, he has made no noise about separating himself from the teachings of his church. Quite the contrary. He has publicly and repeatedly embraced them.

So far, so good.

What remains shocking for those who know their SDA history is that Dr. Carson has been publicly and repeatedly embraced by evangelical Protestants. It was not so very long ago, after all, that evangelical intellectuals blasted SDA beliefs in the harshest terms.Kings Business anti SDA 2

Writing in the 1919 publication of the founding conference of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, George Guille described SDA this way:

It is Satan’s stroke against the throne and the heart of God.

Hrm.

And a few years later, in 1921, in the pages of The King’s Business, the magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola University) one writer described SDA in similar no-holds-barred language. Jessie Sage Robertson warned Biola’s cult expert Keith L. Brooks that SDA was a dangerous cult. As she put it,

Strange, isn’t it, that a whole body of religionists should decry Spiritism as of the devil, and yet accept a whole system of Biblical interpretation received by one [Ellen G. White] in a state of non-self control?

Too many evangelical pastors, Robertson believed, were not aware of these “false religious systems” with “their soul-destroying dangers.”

If I were an SDA neurosurgeon, I might feel a little trepidation at accepting the friendship of such recent enemies. I might not feel excited to be welcomed by people who had so recently accused my religion of such terrible crimes.

Now, I’m not as dumb as I look. I am aware that these warnings are all from a long time ago. I am aware that our last round of elections brought a leader of the Latter-day Saints Church (the Mormons) to staunchly fundamentalist Liberty University to speak.

But I am also aware that schools such as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago STILL sell charts warning true believers of the dangers of “cults” such as Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism.

The point, however, is not that evangelicals should or should not embrace Dr. Carson. Rather, the point for all of us is that evangelical belief is always changing.

For progressive secular folks (like me), we need always to remember that evangelicalism is not somehow a product of a past America. Evangelical Protestants are not trapped in time, either from the Victorian 1870s or the Leave-It-to-Beaver 1950s.

And conservative evangelicals need always to remember that their religion is changing, no matter what they might hear. It can be tricky in evangelical circles to talk about religious change, since so much of evangelicalism is based on remaining true to God’s Unchanging Word. Smart evangelicals, however, will be the first to tell you that human interpretation of God’s Word is always changing, and always riddled with errors.

Will evangelical voters vote for a member of a Satanic Cult? Time will tell, but it seems most evangelicals have put that past behind them.

Doctor Carson, I Presume?

Conservatives love Ben Carson! But they don’t seem to know one of the most important things about him. At least judging from the utterly unscientific evidence on hand at this humble blog, it looks like people want to know more about Dr. Carson’s peculiar religion.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that we’ve spent our share of time discussing Carson’s ideas and background. As a devout Seventh-day Adventist, Carson has publicly and explicitly supported his denomination’s firm and fairly extreme creationist doctrines.

Unlike most other conservative Protestant denominations, SDA believers have a good reason to believe in a literal six-day creation within the past 8,000 years ago or so. Their founding prophet, Ellen G. White, saw it herself.

Today in the ILYBYGTH newsroom, we got some evidence that suggests people are curious about Dr. Carson’s religion. In this screenshot captured early this morning, we can see a number of people came to these pages searching for news about Carson’s denomination. Is he a Seventh day “aventist?” What religion is he? What church does he attend?

Who is this Carson fellow, anyway?

Who is this Carson fellow, anyway?

Conservatives love him, but it seems some of them want to know more. Would it be a turn-off for some voters if they knew about Carson’s denomination? Historically, as I argued in my first book, some conservative evangelical Protestants viewed Seventh-day Adventism as a dangerous and deceptive cult.

Things have changed, for sure. I wonder, though, if news of Carson’s denomination would hurt his chances with some conservative Christians.

More Proof that Conservatives Won’t Win

Every once in a while a progressive pundit will howl a warning about the fundamentalist conspiracy. Watch out, we’re told, rich and sinister conservatives are organizing a vast army to mount an electoral coup of this great land. We see more proof today that these warnings are more fantasy than reality. The nature of conservative religion tends to work against any insuperable fundamentalist coalition.

The end is near...

The end is near…

From the beginnings of America’s modern culture wars, fundamentalist-watchers have warned of the coming fundamentalist storm. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.”

Yikes.

But these Cassandresque warnings tell us more about Asimov and Shipley than they do about real fundamentalists. In practice, the nature of conservative Protestantism in America has usually made any sort of collective action impossible.

In the 1950s, to cite only the most obvious historical example, fundamentalists split from evangelicals over the question of Billy Graham’s crusades. Fundamentalists refused to embrace Graham’s wildly successful outreach, in spite of Graham’s conservative theology. Why? Because Graham also worked with liberal and progressive Protestants. Instead of making a pragmatic decision to support Graham as the least-bad option, fundamentalists instead clung to a purer separatism.

Conservatives' best hope?  Or biggest threat?

Conservatives’ best hope? Or biggest threat?

These days, too, conservative Protestants often refuse to win. Most recently, we see a protest among conservative Calvinist Southern Baptist pastors against conservative Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson. As we’ve noted in these pages, Dr. Carson is a profoundly conservative religious thinker. And he seems like the best hope of religious conservatives in the 2016 elections.

Yet as Christianity Today reports, Southern Baptist conservatives have dis-invited Carson from their annual meeting. Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, some SBC pastors noted, put him at odds with Baptist orthodoxy.

They’re right, of course. Seventh-day Adventism holds to many peculiar theological doctrines, including those in the prophetic writings of Ellen G. White.

But the refusal of Calvinist Southern Baptists to welcome a prominent Seventh-day Adventist helps demonstrate why Isaac Asimov and Maynard Shipley could have relaxed. Among conservative Protestants, suspicion and even virulent hatred of theological near-neighbors have long roots. The notion that a fundamentalist army—a creationist army—is organizing in conservative colleges and meetings just doesn’t match reality.

Could conservatives win? Sure. But intra-conservative clashes like this show how difficult it is for conservative Protestants to act together.

Here’s How We Get a Creationist in the White House

It will take more than six twenty-four hour days. Months ahead of time, the team to put Ben Carson in the White House has been assembled and is feverishly working to get a solid creationist in the White House in 2016.

As Eliana Johnson reports in National Review Online, Carson hasn’t announced his candidacy, but his team is now interviewing thirty-five potential staffers for a possible White-House run. When Johnson asked Carson if he were serious, Carson dodged. “We believe in being prepared,” Carson said,

And that requires a sophisticated and complex infrastructure if I decide to run. . . . It’s like the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared.”

Does Carson think he can win? He told Johnson that the recent mid-term elections pushed him closer. “People are starting to wake up,” Carson told her.

Conservatives love Carson. His rags-to-riches tale and unapologetic religious conservatism, along with his stop-complaining messages to his fellow African Americans, have endeared him to the conservative wing of the party.

That doesn’t mean he has a chance. In the past, conservative hard-liners have entered the primaries even if they don’t think they’ll win. Their goal, in some cases, has been to move the party in a more conservative direction. By running as an unyielding social conservative, Carson will force other GOP hopefuls to tack toward the right.

And whether he wins or not, Carson will bring a dose of good old-fashioned Seventh-day Adventist creationism to the race. Seventh-day Adventism, as historian Ron Numbers argued so convincingly, played a leading role in converting American religious conservatives to a young-earth creationism.

Have you read it yet?

Have you read it yet?

Of course, just because Carson is a member of that staunchly young-earth creationist denomination, it doesn’t mean that he would emphasize those beliefs from the White House. After all, similar fears were raised by conservatives when Catholics such as Al Smith (1928) and John F. Kennedy ran for President. Each candidate had to assure voters that policy would not be dictated from the Vatican.

But Carson has taken a different approach. Instead of distancing himself from the rather extreme form of creationism that is official dogma in his church, Carson has publicly embraced it. In an interview last year, Carson doubled down on his SDA creationism. “I’ve seen a lot of articles,” Carson explained,

that say, ‘Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, and that means he believes in the six-day creation. Ha ha ha.’ You know, I’m proud of the fact that I believe what God has said, and I’ve said many times that I’ll defend it before anyone. If they want to criticize the fact that I believe in a literal, six-day creation, let’s have at it because I will poke all kinds of holes in what they believe. In the end it depends on where you want to place your faith – do you want to place your faith in what God’s word says, or do you want to place your faith in an invention of man. You’re perfectly welcome to choose. I’ve chosen the one I want.

Maybe I’m viewing the world through evolution-tinted glasses, but I can’t help but think that such a firm statement of YEC belief will be off-putting for many voters. But even if Carson can’t win the race, he can pull his fellow Republican prospects into more firmly creationist positions. By standing firm on a six-day recent creation, Carson can make the entire GOP field friendlier to creationism.

Our Creationist President

What would it mean to have a fervent young-earth creationist in the Oval Office?

With Dr. Ben Carson mooted as a possible GOP candidate in 2016, it is a possibility we need to consider.

Creationists themselves trumpet a long history of presidential creationism, from Ike to George Dubya.  The case can be made, by both creationists and their foes, that several conservative presidents have been friendly to the politics of creationism.

Carson’s creationism, however, would be different.  In a recent interview with the Adventist News Network, Carson defended his creationism.  “I’ve seen a lot of articles, Carson told ANN,

that say, “Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, and that means he believes in the six-day creation. Ha ha ha.” You know, I’m proud of the fact that I believe what God has said, and I’ve said many times that I’ll defend it before anyone. If they want to criticize the fact that I believe in a literal, six-day creation, let’s have at it because I will poke all kinds of holes in what they believe. In the end it depends on where you want to place your faith – do you want to place your faith in what God’s word says, or do you want to place your faith in an invention of man. You’re perfectly welcome to choose. I’ve chosen the one I want.

Carson’s earnest creationism should come as no surprise.  As a lifelong member of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Carson belongs to one of the staunchest creationist denominations out there.

As historian Ron Numbers has demonstrated, much of today’s young-earth creationist orthodoxy among conservative Protestants can be traced back to the creationist activism of Adventists such as George McCready Price.

However, presidential politics in the USA have a long history of denominational wrangles.  In 1928, Al Smith failed to convince voters that his Catholicism would not mean a Roman dictatorship of the White House.  A generation later, Kennedy pulled it off.  Most recently, Governor Romney seemed to have convinced Americans that his LDS religion would not mean a similar sort of Utah overlordship.

As a politician, the good doctor could make a similar plea to be free from the sectarian demands of his denominational background.  He could distance himself publicly from the more controversial aspects of Seventh-day Adventism.  In this interview, Carson does not seem interested in such tactics.  Instead, he embraces the creationism of his church.

What would that mean in the White House?

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).