How Young-Earth Creationism Became a Core Tenet of American Fundamentalism, Part 1
Most Christians assume that young-earth creationism has always been a core tenet of American fundamentalist Christianity—but this linkage is more tenuous than is often presumed. The story of how American fundamentalists—and, by extension, many conservative evangelicals—came to associate young-earth creationism with biblical Christianity is one that all contemporary Christians should understand.
From the time of the Reformation to the twentieth century, most Christians believed that God created the entire universe, or that he reformed Earth and created all earthly life including human beings, about 6,000 years ago. This popularized belief was based on calculations by influential scholar Archbishop James Ussher. In calculating a date for creation, Ussher assumed that no gaps exist in the Genesis genealogies and that the six “days” (Hebrew: yôm) of creation were literal and consecutive 24-hour periods. Such was his influence that beginning in the early 1700s, many editions of the King James Bible incorporated Ussher’s chronology into their marginal annotations and cross-references, including the important Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, which held popularity among fundamentalists and evangelicals throughout much of the twentieth century.
However, by the early 1800s, some naturalists pointed to new discoveries in astronomy and geology as serious challenges to the credibility and historicity of the Genesis creation account. Within a generation, traditional Christians found themselves facing three challenges to Genesis’ trustworthiness. First, astronomers replaced the idea of instantaneous creation of the solar system with the nebular hypothesis, a view that requires eons of time. Second, geologists James Hutton, Charles Lyell, and others made the case that Earth was millions of years old, rather than a few thousand, and that life had existed on Earth for far longer than the 6,000 years that the biblical genealogies supposedly indicated. Third, and most alarming, was the challenge posed by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, which holds that all life-forms, including human beings, evolved over millions of years via the aegis of common descent and natural selection.
By the turn of the century, many Christians conceded that the Bible allowed for an ancient universe, an ancient earth, and even pre-Edenic life—a notable change from the consensus opinion only a generation or two earlier. Among the proponents of the old earth, day-age theory were the two most prominent conservative theologians of the era: Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield, both of Princeton Theological Seminary. Other supporters included distinguished geologists such as Louis Agassiz of Harvard, Arnold Henry Guyot of Princeton, and John William Dawson of McGill University in Montreal.
Meanwhile, as the historian Ronald Numbers notes in his book The Creationists, young-earth creationists (mainly Seventh-Day Adventists with little or no formal education in any scientific discipline) published very little evidence to support their view:
No doubt many Christians, perhaps most, remained unpersuaded by the geological evidence of the earth’s great age and continued to believe in a recent creation in six literal days, but these people rarely expressed their views in books and journals.1
Many believers understood that the real threat to their faith came not from the controversy regarding the age of the earth (and the universe) but from “modernism” in general, including theological liberalism and Darwinian evolution. In response to these challenges, the Reverend A. C. Dixon, a prominent Baptist pastor and evangelist, conceived of editing a series of pamphlets that would define traditional Protestant Christianity. The project, compiled during 1910 to 1915 in collaboration with R. A. Torrey, another well-known pastor and evangelist, was entitled The Fundamentals. By the time of its completion, The Fundamentals included 90 essays that address a wide range of issues including creation and evolution.
While the essays on creation argue for the historicity of the Genesis account, they avoid the controversy over age of the earth and the length of the creation days. For example, in his essay, “The Early Narratives of Genesis,” Presbyterian theologian James Orr writes:
You say there is the “six days” and the question of whether those days are meant to be measured by the twenty-four hours of the sun’s revolution around the earth—I speak of these things popularly. It is difficult to see how they should be so measured when the sun that is to measure them is not introduced until the fourth day. Do not think that this larger reading of the days is a new speculation. You find Augustine in early times declaring that it is hard or altogether impossible to say of what fashion these days are, and Thomas Aquinas, in the middle ages, leaves the matter an open question. To my mind these narratives in Genesis stand out as a marvel, not for its discordance with science, but for its agreement with it.2
In addition to Orr’s piece, four other essays deal with science-related issues. The Reverend H. M. Sydenstricker’s “The Science of Conversion” is an unimpressive attempt to impose a scientific methodology on the phenomenon of spiritual conversion, while the Reverend Henry H. Beach’s “The Decadence of Darwinism” argues that Darwinism, being based on natural selection and the survival of the fittest, “degrades [both] God and man.”3
On the other hand, “Evolution in the Pulpit,” written anonymously by “An Occupant of the Pew,” is a powerful essay that exposes fatal flaws in Darwinian theory and chastises liberal clergymen who “adopted the new philosophy”4 and accepted “the destructive higher criticism which has so viciously assailed both the integrity and authority of the Scriptures.”5 In one particularly convicting passage, the author writes:
The layman…finds his first feeling to be one of astonishment that men calling themselves Christians can on grounds so frivolous repudiate large parts of Scripture, and deliberately sow the seed of unfaith in the minds and hearts of thousands of their hearers. This is apt to be followed by one of indignation at the low moral quality and cowardice of their action in thus undermining the faith of the Church while accepting its pay….And this despite the fact that, according to their own witness of themselves, their strong point is the possession and preaching of a very superior quality of ethics. Indeed, in listening to them one can hardly escape the conviction that righteousness, personal and civic, was a thing almost unknown before their advent….Far better would it be for all concerned if these ministers had the courage of their convictions, and sense of honor enough to compel them to leave the Christian Church.6
George Frederick Wright’s essay, “The Passing of Evolution,” is also particularly noteworthy. As a minister and geologist, Wright was one of the few Christian anti-evolutionists of the time who possessed both scientific and theological credentials. Ironically, he had been an ardent supporter of Darwin a few decades earlier, even referring to himself as a “Christianized Darwinist.” Wright believed in the divine inspiration of Scripture but held that it was infallible only in matters “necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation.”7 In the 1880s, Wright became a professor of New Testament studies at Oberlin Theological Seminary where his focus shifted to the defense of the Bible against proponents of biblical “higher criticism.” From that time on, he saw his mission as defending the historical accuracy of the Bible, and it was in that context that he abandoned his earlier advocacy of theistic evolution due to its connection with liberal theology.
In his essay, Wright argued that Darwinian evolutionary theory was the latest attempt to explain the wonders of creation via natural causes. He predicted that just like its predecessors it would eventually fade away. In particular, he charged that Darwinism “practically eliminates God from the whole creative process,”8 and that “to carry out their theory [Darwinists] must leap to the conclusion that life itself has originated, spontaneously, by a natural process, from inorganic matter.”9 But, of course, “they have no scientific proof. For, so far as is yet known, life springs only from antecedent life.”10 Furthermore, Wright added, there is no evidence of any “connecting links” between man and previous life-forms. Therefore, he concluded, man is so distinct from other creatures “that it is necessary to suppose that he came into existence as the Bible represents, by the special creation of a single pair, from whom all the varieties of the race have sprung.”11
Significantly, the science-related articles in The Fundamentals do not promote young-earth creationism. In fact, some essayists such as Wright unabashedly upheld the old earth position. So how then did young-earth creationism come to be so closely associated with American fundamental Christianity? Part 2 of this series will examine the answer to this question.
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, exp. ed. (Harvard University Press, 2006), 30.
- James Orr, “The Early Narratives of Genesis” in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, eds. A. C. Dixon and R. A. Torrey, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 237.
- Henry H. Beach, “The Decadence of Darwinism” in The Fundamentals, 4:64.
- An Occupant of the Pew, “Evolutionism in the Pulpit” in The Fundamentals, vol. 4.
- Ibid., 94.
- George Frederick Wright, “The Passing of Evolution,” in The Fundamentals, vol. 4.
By Dr. Jefrey Breshears
Dr. Jefrey Breshears received his PhD in history from Georgia State University in 1988 and currently serves as president of and historian and apologist at The Aréopagus, an interdenominational Christian study center in Atlanta, Georgia.