Dayton Dilemmas I: WBR and Christian Nationalism

How could they do it? How could earnest, intelligent, educated Christians ever mash together their faith with their patriotism? That’s the tough question people were asking yesterday at the University of Dayton. I don’t have an easy answer, but I do think the case of William Bell Riley helps shed some light on it.dayton flyers

First, the background: Thanks to the dynamic scholarly duo of Professors Bill and Susan Trollinger, authors (among other things) of Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m down in sunny Dayton, Ohio these days. Yesterday I talked with members of the Flyer community about my recent book, Fundamentalist U. I focused on the long tradition in evangelical higher education of combining conservative evangelical Protestant faith with a certain sort of Make-America-Great-Again patriotism.

The argument I tried to make is that white fundamentalists have always felt a deep sense of proprietary interest in the United States. For white fundamentalists, America has always been “our” country. Over the course of the twentieth century, in schools and society, fundamentalists have felt kicked out by trends toward secularism and political liberalism. They have repeatedly rallied to politicians who have promised to Make America Great Again.

righting america at the creation museumTrump’s not the first. As audience members pointed out, we can go back to Reagan and Nixon to find coded and not-so-coded appeals to “law-and-order,” the “silent majority,” and “shining cities on a hill.” For white evangelical voters, particularly the more politically conservative among them, those campaign promises have always been enormously appealing.

Some of the intellectuals in the audience—steeped in a very different tradition, the Catholic intellectual tradition—asked the tough question: How could any Christian of any denominational background ever mix up their priorities so badly? How could any Christian confuse his (primary) devotion to his religion with his (secondary) devotion to his country?

I had the chance to talk with Professor Bill Trollinger about the question. Bill is the universe’s greatest expert in the life and career of 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley. Riley, like many early fundamentalists, was a devoted Baptist. For Riley, in the early 1920s fundamentalism was a campaign to take back his denomination from the worrisome liberal trends that had begun to creep in.

American Baptists, ever since the days of Roger Williams, have placed an enormous emphasis on the freedom of the church from the government, and on the inviolate primacy of religious devotion over any political loyalty. By the twentieth century, however, Baptist fundamentalists like William Bell Riley seemed to have lost their yen for avoiding entanglement with government. Riley and other Baptist fundamentalists pushed hard to establish (or, as they would put it, re-establish) their evangelical religion in a more prominent place in public life. They wanted greater influence on public affairs. They hoped for increased influence on government decisions, such as banning alcohol, gambling, and other immoral activities.gods empire

How did that happen? How did ardent Baptists become so enthusiastic about “taking back America”?

Professor Trollinger and I came up with a short list, and I hope SAGLRROILYBYGTH will add their two cents.

How did fundamentalists like Riley combine their devotion to their religions with their devotion to the USA?

1.) Riley would always agree that church and state should be separate, but that the church must always represent the conscience of the society.

So although there must never be church control of government, government leaders should always be guided by religious leaders. Riley’s career could be characterized, in fact, by his increasing bitterness and resentment at his perceived lack of Main-Street influence. By the end of his life, Riley had become a vengeful, anti-semitic extremist, dedicated to sour conspiracy theories to explain his failure to establish himself in the level of public leadership to which he felt entitled.

2.) Riley wanted influence and was in part blinded by patriotic tradition.

Like many fundamentalists since, Riley failed in some measure to maintain his own Baptist tradition, even though he would never admit that. For Riley, as for many fundamentalists of later generations, America became representative of a Christian community. The division between church and society—if not church and state—became blurred in Riley’s mind and in his activism.

3.) The devil made them do it.

For many fundamentalists, political activism was intimately, necessarily connected and equated with religious activism. Patriotism was inseparable from faith. Why? Because of their belief in literal, incarnate supernatural entities acting through political entities. But we’ll save that for our next post.

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The Left Seizes Science

You’ve heard the howls from creationists over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos series.  But did you know non-creationist conservatives also get cheeved at Tyson’s science punditry?

Science Snob?

Science Snob?

The creationist complaints make sense.  The hugely popular new science series pointedly called out young-earthers for their belief in a newish universe.  The series also insisted on the creation of species through evolution.

But the complaints of non-creationist conservatives might not seem so obvious.  In the pages of National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke took Tyson to task for his leftism, not just for his love of evolution.  Cooke accuses Tyson and others of his ilk of a puffed-up condescension, of glibly associating liberal politics with superior intellect.

Too many of these self-righteous faux-nerds, Cooke writes, wrap their insouciance in the mantle of science.  For these Tyson fans and wanna-bes, being smart does not mean doing actual intellectual work, but rather simply adopting a pre-packaged list of things to dislike.  As Cooke puts it, that list includes anything

southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.

This sort of prejudice against anything recognizably conservative likes to call itself the side of “science,” Cooke argues.  Yet among progressives, real science often takes a beating.  “Progressives . . . ,” Cooke says,

believe all sorts of unscientific things — that Medicaid, the VA, and Head Start work; that school choice does not; that abortion carries with it few important medical questions; that GM crops make the world worse; that one can attribute every hurricane, wildfire, and heat wave to “climate change”; that it’s feasible that renewable energy will take over from fossil fuels anytime soon . . .

Yet in spite of this demonstrably unscientific attitude, Cooke laments, the Left insists on calling itself the “reality-based” party.

Cooke is not the first to complain about such things.  In the first generation of creation/evolution controversies, anti-evolution activists worked hard—and failed—to claim “science” for their side.  As I noted in my 1920s book, leading anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan maintained his membership in the staunchly pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He refused to allow that leading science group to be wholly taken over by fans of evolution.

Similarly, prominent 1920s fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley fought hard to keep his generation of Neil deGrasse Tysons from pushing conservatives out of the world of science.  As Riley put it in a 1927 speech, the creation/evolution debate was not a debate between

Experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other.  This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.

Like Bryan in the 1920s and Cooke in 2014, the conservative Riley was loath to cede the scientific and intellectual high ground to evolution-lovers.

One of the results of that first decade of evolution controversies was the formation of durable cultural associations, the associations about which Cooke complains.  Since the 1920s, “science” has become indelibly associated in the public mind with progress, with social experiment, with iconoclasm.  Politically, if not logically, all of those things are part of the broad package of cultural leftism.  And, like it or not, conservatism has been associated time and again with obstructionism and heedless obscurantism.

For conservative pundits like Cooke, trying to fight that tradition will be an uphill battle.

 

 

Bad News for Everyone

Have you seen it yet?  The new Gallup poll on creationism and evolution is out.  The numbers are about the same as they have been for the past thirty years.  But beyond those numbers, the backgrounds of Gallup’s respondents has some bad news for creationists.  It also has bad news for evolution-lovers.

Stable Numbers Since the 1980s

Stable Numbers Since the 1980s

Since the 1980s, Gallup’s pollsters have been offering respondents three options about the origins of humanity.  This time, 42% chose the young-earth creationist option: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  In contrast, 31% chose “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process.”  A whopping 19% selected “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process.”

Those numbers have remained fairly stable for the past generation.  But another result of the recent poll numbers needs some examination.  The young-earth position is much more common among less educated adults.  For those with less than a high-school diploma, 57% selected the young-earth option.  A far smaller proportion, only 27%, of Americans with a college degree chose the young-earth explanation.

"Organized Ignorance?"

“Organized Ignorance?”

This is bad news for everyone.

For creationists, these numbers suggest that more education means less creationism.  Throughout the lifespan of American creationism, creationist intellectuals have fought a rearguard action against accusations of ignorance.  In 1927, for example, Minneapolis fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley told a reporter,

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.  This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.

Riley’s smile grew more and more strained as the 1920s wore on.  And later generations of creationists found it even more difficult to take the intellectual high ground.  These numbers mean bad news for them.

But the numbers mean bad news for evolution mavens, too.

Though more college grads embrace a non-young-earth understanding of the origins of humanity, 27% is still a significant number.  It means that over a quarter of adults who have been to college—educated adults, that is—select a young earth as the best explanation.  Over a quarter!  Some of those, to be sure, may attend what young-earth creationists embrace as “Creation Colleges.”  Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis, for example, publishes a list (and a map!) of schools that he views as faithful to the Bible’s obvious meaning.

But many of those college-educated young-earth creationists likely attend non-creationist colleges as well.  As anthropologist David Long demonstrated in his study of creationists at a large public university, studying biology at a secular university does not tend to shake the faith of creationist students.  Of his interview subjects, only one abandoned her creation faith as she majored in biology.  And it wasn’t the science that convinced her.  She had already begun to move away from her faith in high school, due to an early pregnancy and the sour reaction of her church community.

As I argued a while back in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, anti-creationists are too fond of calling all creationists “ignoramuses.”  Certainly, some folks must embrace creationism because they just don’t know better.  But many educated adults DO know about evolution.  They simply choose young-earth creationism instead.  That is a troubling fact that anti-creationists have always had a hard time dealing with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Reds Under the Bed? Christians Under the Couch!

Conspiracy sells.  Just ask Dan Brown.  But unwarranted anxiety about conspiracy also poisons our shared public life.

Source: The Guardian

Conspiracy hunting used to be a sport dominated by conservatives.  Think Joe McCarthy waving his sweaty lists of communist infiltrators.  In recent years, though, politicians and commentators have found a new subversive threat: the Religious Right.  A new book by former GOP functionary Mike Lofgren, for instance, warns of the ways his Republican Party was infiltrated and taken over by “stealthily fundamentalist” religious conservatives.

This kind of “paranoid style” has a long history in American public life.  Witches were fiendishly difficult to detect in seventeenth-century New England.  Scheming Catholics worried nineteenth-century WASPs.  Communists emerged as the primary subversive threat in America’s twentieth century.

Leaders of the Religious Right have often worked up convincing conspiracies of their own.  As historian William Trollinger has described, this tradition started with the first generation of American fundamentalists in the 1920s.  One of the most prominent leaders of that Scopes generation, William Bell Riley, finally blamed evolutionary theory on a far-reaching plot of “Jewish Communists.”

In 1926, as I describe in my 1920s book (now in paperback!), one of the new grassroots fundamentalist organizations, the Bible Crusaders, announced the root of the evolution problem.  “Thirty years ago,” the Bible Crusaders revealed,

“five men met in Boston and formed a conspiracy which we believe to be of German origin, to secretly and persistently work to overthrow the fundamentals of the Christian religion in this country.”

A generation later, writing in the magazine of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, one evangelical writer shared his experience with the famous progressive educator John Dewey.  This writer told a cautionary tale of secularist conspiracy, with a story of Dewey’s eighty-fifth birthday party in 1944.  Our evangelical witness had been invited to the celebration, the other guests unaware of his theological commitment.  Celebrating the life of the prominent progressive educator, the guests proudly recalled their efforts to transform America’s schools from Christian institutions to secular training centers.  “A generation has passed since that birthday gathering,” reported the evangelical spy to the MBI readership,

“and the plan has been immeasurably advanced by a series of court decisions that have de-theized the public schools.  As a result, American state-supported schools are as officially secular and materialistic as are their counterparts in Communist countries.  Are we awakening?”

Such warnings shouted by Christian conservatives have occasionally attracted enormous audiences outside of religious circles.  In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth became a runaway bestseller.  With his co-author Carole Carlson, Lindsey spun a premillennial dispensationalist reading of the Bible into a riveting tale of international conspiracy.  In the premillennial dispensational interpretation, popular among some conservative evangelical Protestants, the Antichrist will return in the guise of a savior, combining governments into a massive superstate.  What seems like secular salvation is quickly revealed as the ultimate cosmic conspiracy, dedicated to binding all of humanity to a Satanic anti-religion.

Image source: Wikipedia

These themes saw another burst of popularity in the late 1990s, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins repeated Lindsey’s feat.  LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Left Behind series fictionalized Lindsey’s tale, again turning a conspiratorial interpretation of the apocalypse into beach reading for millions of Americans.

These Christian conspiracies have not been without cultural cost.  Though LaHaye and Jenkins carefully included a righteous Roman Catholic Pope among their fictionalized true Christians, other Christian conspiracy theorists, like William Bell Riley, have been too quick to implicate anyone outside of their circle of conservative evangelical Protestantism.

The dangers from conspiracy theorizing are not limited to the conspiracies imagined by conservative Christians.  Overheated accusations about the threat from subversive groups have long posed a profound danger to our public life, as any blacklisted Hollywood writer or interned Japanese-American could attest.  The threat is not limited to false conspiracies.  Satan may not have inspired Salem’s witch troubles, but historian Ellen Schrecker has argued that the communist-hunters of the 1950s often targeted real communist conspirators, if in a clumsy and overly aggressive way.

Similarly, Lofgren’s ominous warnings are not spun of whole cloth.  Lofgren warns vaguely of the “ties” of many leading Republican politicians to extreme positions such as Christian Dominionism.  This theology, associated most closely with the late Rousas John Rushdoony, wants to establish Christian fundamentalist control over American political life.  As Lofgren emphasizes, such thinkers approve the need to act “stealthily.”

Lofgren did not make this up.  Dominionism exists.  Prominent Republican politicians such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann really do work with groups who support such notions.  But the way Lofgren and other commentators discuss such threats from the Christian Right distort the public discussion over the role of religion in the public sphere.  As with warnings about President Obama’s connections to the “terrorist professor” Bill Ayers, this kind of conspiratorial rhetoric encourages a no-holds-barred approach to politics.

After all, as Lofgren intones, the “‘lying for Jesus’ strategy that fundamentalists often adopt” gives anti-fundamentalists a reason to punch below the belt in their culture-war battles.  If they did not, the warning goes, they would be helpless before the wiles of the Christian Right.  This is the primary danger of such breathless exposes as Lofgren’s.  They build a shaky and fantastic argument upon a foundation of authentic examples in order to convince the convinced.  Activists swallow the outlandish examples without demur.  Such true believers do not consider the real complexities of their opponents, but rather paint a simplistic and terrifying image to shock and motivate their own side.

As with the real communist movement, the real world of American conservative Christianity is not such a simple place.  Nor is it so headline-grabbingly power hungry.  Consider a recent leadership poll by the National Association of Evangelicals.  This organization, an umbrella group for conservative evangelical Protestants, asked just over one hundred of its leaders if the United States constituted a “Christian Nation.”  Sixty-eight percent said no.  One respondent told the NAE, “I hope others will learn to love Christ as I do, but that will happen more authentically through the Church and individual Christians sharing the Good News and demonstrating the person of Christ through our words and actions.”

This kind of statement from a conservative Christian does not sell books.  What does sell is a cherry-picked catalog of statements by Christian leaders revealing their plans to take over American politics and public life.  It was easy enough in Cold War America to discover evidence of a world-wide subversive communist movement.  But as America learned from Senator McCarthy’s outlandish claims, there is a danger in stripping down the image of subversives to cartoonish bogeymen.

I am not a conservative Christian myself.  I do not hope to apologize for the excesses of some conservative Christians.  Indeed, I believe denunciations of the schemes of conservative Christians have some basis in fact.  But when they serve only to encourage anti-fundamentalists to fight dirty, they do more harm than good.  When such conspiracy-hunters ignore the complexities and ambiguities of their targets, they attack more than their real enemies.  They smear innocent bystanders and poison the political life of the nation.

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).