How Young-Earth Creationism Became a Core Tenet of American Fundamentalism, Part 2
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.
Published in response to the early twentieth century’s challenges to Scripture’s trustworthiness, The Fundamentals, a collection of 90 essays, addresses a wide range of issues relevant to core Christian doctrine, including creation and evolution (see part 1). Though the essayists present sharp critiques of Darwinian evolution, they do not promote young-earth creationism. Despite the belief that fundamentalist Christianity and young-earth creationism have always been intertwined, the connection wasn’t forged until the anti-evolution campaigns of the 1920s.
Though Baptist pastor William Bell Riley, founder of the interdenominational World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, and William Jennings Bryan, a former secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate, were the most formidable defenders of fundamental Christianity in the early twentieth century, they and many other fundamentalists of the time, were not young-earth creationists. Although somewhat ambivalent, Bryan conceded that the universe certainly could be millions of years old and that all life-forms, including humans, could have been created by God more than a few thousand years ago—a point that he admitted under cross-examination by Clarence Darrow in the famous Scopes Trial in 1925. By far the most influential proponent of young-earth creationism in the 1920s and 1930s was George McCready Price, the acknowledged “father” of modern young-earth creationism.
George McCready Price
Price, a Seventh-Day Adventist1 and a self-described “geologist,” had nothing beyond an elementary school-level education in the sciences. However, historian Ronald Numbers points out that Price “considered it a virtue that he had never been infected with the disease of ‘universityitis.’”2 Undaunted, and believing that God had called him to uphold the true biblical view of creation, Price began researching and writing on science-related issues in the early 1900s.
Price rejected the day-age theory and advocated what he labeled “the new catastrophism” or “flood geology,” a theory that held that a universal flood had reshaped the earth according to its current features. This was an extreme position that relatively few Christians held, including most educated anti-evolutionists—but the theory gradually gained wider acceptance due to Price’s exhaustive efforts. In 1902, he published Outlines of Modern Christianity and Modern Science, which he later hailed as “the first Fundamentalist book.”3 In it he asserts that “life has been on our globe only some six or seven thousand years,” and that “the earth as we know it…was brought into existence in six literal days.”4
Over the next 30 years, Price penned more than two dozen other books and hundreds of articles promoting his flood geology theory. Yet he devoted relatively little attention to critiquing evolution per se. After all, if Earth was in fact only a few thousand years old, then no time would be left for evolution to take effect. Price dismissed Neanderthals and other bipedal hominids as “degenerate offshoots which had separated from the main stock”5 of humanity.
After laboring in relative obscurity for 15 years, Price’s New Light on the Doctrine of Creation (1917) finally brought him recognition beyond the narrow parameters of Seventh-Day Adventism, and in 1923, he published his magnum opus, a 700-page textbook entitled The New Geology. As in his other works, Price critiques uniformitarian geology and offered as an alternative his new catastrophism theory, contending that the Genesis flood was the central geological event in Earth history. Coming as Price’s ideas did in the midst of the contentious controversies over Darwinism and secularism, many fundamentalists found him to be a useful ally whether they totally accepted his overarching theme or not. With the 1929 publication of Back to Creationism by Harold Clark (a protégé of Price’s), young-earth creationism was repackaged as the new “science of creationism.”
Like most conservative Christians, Price considered evolution to be unscientific, but his greatest concern was that it was unbiblical and innately immoral. In that regard, he argued that it was a deterministic theory that left no place for human free will and morality. Accordingly, he charged that “the ruthless ethics of Darwinism”6 were a major contributing factor to German militarism and imperialism in the Great War, and in 1921, he sought to link Darwinism to Marxism and cultural decay in his books Poisoning Democracy and Socialism in the Test Tube.
To his credit, unlike most disputants in the creation-evolution war of the early 1900s, Price understood that science cannot be divorced from philosophy. As he argued, even the collection and analysis of scientific “facts” was conditioned by the scientist’s own philosophical (and theological) orientation and presuppositions. Therefore, just as geologists and paleontologists look at facts “through the colored spectacles of Darwin and Lyell,”7 so too do creationists view the natural world through the lens of Scripture.
So for Price, the determining factor in what to believe came down to the philosophical principle of abduction: What is the most reasonable explanation of the facts of nature? In this regard he was quite correct, but unfortunately his whole interpretive framework was restricted by biblicist presuppositions—namely, the assumption that the Bible is the sole and exclusive repository of all knowledge. Although his hermeneutics are usually described as a “literal” reading of the Genesis creation account, they could be more accurately described as a literalistic interpretation that discounts factors such as the text’s literary genre, linguistic characteristics (such as figures of speech, hyperbole, phenomenological language, etc.), authorial intent, and the historical context of the passage.
Acceptance of Young-Earth Creationism
Throughout his career, Price was a controversial character, but his young-earth creationist theory was nonetheless appealing to many Christians who were confused by the perplexing complexities of the creation-evolution debate. In particular, his case for no animal death before the fall seemed theologically sound, as did his argument for a universal deluge in the time of Noah and his flood geology hypothesis. Many proponents of the gap theory, although holding to an ancient universe and Earth, believed that Genesis 1:2 and the following verses refer to a restored creation that was only a few thousand years old. Furthermore, as Price had long contended, if Earth (original or restored) and all life-forms were indeed so young, then the whole debate over evolution was a moot point.
Young-earth creationism continued to meet stiff resistance from most educated Christians and virtually all believing scientists from the 1920s into the 1960s.8 Yet as time went on more fundamentalist pastors and evangelists accepted many if not all of its major tenets. Then in 1961, with the publication of The Genesis Flood by Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, young-earth “scientific creationism” became a mainstream doctrine for most fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals in much the same way that many considered dispensational eschatology a core tenet of the faith.9 In 1963, Morris founded the Creation Research Society, the first significant young-earth research institute to provide an alternative “scientific” explanation for their understanding of the age of the earth. Over the next several decades, other similar organizations cropped up both in the United States and abroad.
Over the past 50 years, other groups have scrupulously critiqued and thoroughly discredited young-earth creationism. Yet young-earth creationism continues to maintain a stronghold in most fundamentalist churches and among many evangelicals and Pentecostals. So what explains this incongruity? I would ascribe it to three factors.
First, various scientific theories such as Darwinian evolution have often been erroneously promoted as scientific fact, which understandably causes many Christians to be skeptical of science in general. Second, among believers there exists a general lack of understanding regarding the basic principles of biblical hermeneutics, which has led to many bizarre and errant interpretations of Scripture throughout the centuries. Third, there is a prevailing anti-intellectual mentality that is pervasive in most of our churches, and, like most other people, Christians prefer easy and simplistic answers to complex questions. However, to paraphrase the great Yale church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, the church should always be more than a school, but the church should never be less than a school.10 When churches fail in this regard the consequences are severe. Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig warns believers:
American churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith…The church is perishing today through a lack of thinking, not an excess of it.11
Young-earth creationism is a major impediment today to many intellectually driven people who seriously consider the truth-claims of Scripture. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to understand how it became a core tenet of American fundamentalism and, by extension, how it influenced modern evangelicalism, and how we can respond with a convincing apologetic—a reasoned argument—that is philosophically, biblically, and scientifically credible.
- Seventh-Day Adventism was founded on the “revelations” of Ellen G. White, who took the Genesis creation account literalistically and even claimed that in one of her visions she was “shown the first week of creation” in which “God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day.” White also taught “flood geology,” the theory that Noah’s flood was a worldwide catastrophe that reshaped the planet’s surface and buried all the fossils. See Frank M. Hasel, “Ellen G. White and Creationism: How to Deal With Her Statements on Creation and Evolution: Implications and Prospects,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17 (Spring 2006): 232.
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. exp. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 107.
- Ibid., 92.
- Ibid., 102.
- See Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 52–56.
- Interestingly, Henry Morris once observed, “If you take Genesis literally, you are more inclined to take Revelation literally.” I agree, except that I would contend that Morris confuses a “literal” interpretation with a “literalistic” interpretation. See Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America, 7.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 1. Paraphrased.
- William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), xiv, xv.
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.