June 2017 Media and Reviews

Lost in the Flood: Young Earth Creationism from George McCready Price to Ken Ham

With Jerry Falwell, Jr. joining the White House task force on higher education policy, it is safe to say that the movement for young Earth creationism will not be dissipating any time soon.

Note: This essay is the inspiration behind the inaugural episode of  Sectstra Credit—a new podcast series brought to you by the creators and co-hosts of Sects Ed, Michael Albani and Patrick Reynolds. Please join Michael, Patrick, and our very own media editor, Cory Young, as they discuss young Earth creationism, the fraught relationship between science and religion, and the value of multi-platform activism. 

by Michael Albani

On the evening of May 25, 2017, Montana voters waited anxiously for the results of their special congressional election pitting Democrat Rob Quist against Republican Greg Gianforte. Less than 24 hours earlier, the latter made national headlines after news broke that he had body-slammed a reporter. Following his subsequent assault charge, discussions of Gianforte’s political positions were drowned out by a flood of debate surrounding his violent encounter. Similarly, few pundits took time to acknowledge the religious positions that the member-elect would be bringing to the House of Representatives, particularly his young Earth creationism.

Defined simply, young Earth creationism denies “that human beings share common ancestors with other species while affirming that [the Christian] God was the designer of organisms and that life on earth is at most ten thousand years old.”[1] Gianforte made no secret of the fact that he shared these views on the campaign trail. When asked in an interview if he believed in evolution, he responded, “I believe that God created the earth. I wasn’t there. I don’t know how long it took. I don’t know how he did it exactly, but I look around me at the grandeur in the state and I believe that God created the earth.”

Indeed, Gianforte is not alone. According to a recent Gallup poll, 38% of American adults believe that “God created humans in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years or so.” While this statistic represents a 35 year low, young Earth creationists maintain vast ambitions, and, in some cases, deep pockets. Gianforte, in fact, donated a considerable sum to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum, which teaches that the Earth is approximately 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs and humans once coexisted. Nevertheless, a variety of misconceptions surround young Earth creationismparticularly that it is fundamentally opposed to science and synonymous with intelligent designnecessitating an analysis of this belief system from a historical standpoint.

38% of American adults believe that “God created humans in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

While a compelling history of creationism could certainly be traced through the longue durée, the turn of the twentieth century provides a helpful starting point for the history of young Earth creationism in the United States. The two prevailing interpretations Christian fundamentalists held of the creation narrative in Genesis were the day-age theory and the gap theory. The former, championed by Scopes Monkey Trial prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, asserted that the six days of creation (and single day of rest) the Bible described really represented much longer ages.[2] The latter proposed that God shaped the world in six literal days, millennia after the universe first appeared.[3] It was in the midst of these competing old Earth creationist paradigms that George McCready Price emerged.

Creationism Chart
An overview of several creationist interpretations from Ronald L. Number’s The Creationists. Image courtesy of Harvard University Press.

Price was a member of the recently founded Seventh-day Adventist Church. This Protestant denomination traced its lineage back to a nineteenth-century Baptist preacher named William Miller who predicted that Jesus Christ’s second coming would occur on October 22, 1844.[4] After Miller’s promised day came and went without miraculous incident, many of his followers reorganized into new millenarian sects. Chief among the leaders of the Seventh-day Adventists was Ellen G. White. White claimed to experience divinely guided visions, including one that transported her back in time to the six days of creation. Consequently, she asserted, “Infidel geologists claim that the world is very much older than the Bible record makes it. They reject the Bible record, because of those things which are to them evidences from the earth itself, that the world has existed tens of thousands of years…I have been shown that without Bible history, geology can prove nothing.”[5] Since White’s visions seemed to corroborate a literal reading of the Genesis account, Seventh-day Adventists were left with little room to contemplate the more flexible day-age or gap theories. Thus, as Price started reading books about evolution, he struggled to reconcile his religious worldview with scientific explanations for the origin of species on a world billions of years old. This ultimately drove him to study geology.

In 1923, Price published a textbook entitled The New Geology in which he argued that “there has been, at some time in the past, a world change quite different from the present order of thingsso different as to make unreliable any attempt to tabulate off in an accurate historical succession the events preceding this world catastrophe.”[6] Essentially, he followed White’s lead in proposing that a cataclysmic event like the great flood in Genesis could invalidate the techniques contemporary geologists used to assess the planet’s age.

In the mid twentieth century, a new generation of young Earth creationists “maintained their forebears’ strategy of not wholly rejecting science, but instead implanting it into the Biblical accounts they took on faith.”

Although Price lacked substantial scientific training, it should not be assumed that he was completely antagonistic towards science. He simply approached what he called “flood geology” with the immutable premise that the Bible was true. Nevertheless, flood geology quickly garnered controversy even among other Seventh-day Adventists. For example, a Seventh-day Adventist biology teacher named Harold Clark conducted his own field work that convinced him of the validity of contemporary geological methods. Thus, he countered Price’s flood geology with his “ecological zonation” theory, postulating that the great flood in Genesis swept through different planetary zones in sequence, creating the strata (or rock layers) that geologists studied.[7] Both of these theories, however, gained relatively little traction partially because even other Christians considered their early Seventh-day Adventist supporters somewhat fanatical.[8]

20120814
The first panels of a wonderful SMBC comic on the stresses of teaching introductory biology. Image courtesy of Zach Weinersmith.

In the 1950s, an evangelical theologian in training named John C. Whitcomb took inspiration from Price when writing his dissertation, “The Genesis Flood.”[9] To turn this work into a manuscript, he partnered with engineering professor Henry M. Morris. Morris was a devout Christian who, according to historian Ronald L. Numbers, “believed that God had revealed himself in two books, nature and the Bible, which could be studied independently, though with priority given to the Scriptures.”[10] This is clear from the introduction of their 1961 monograph, also entitled The Genesis Flood, where Whitcomb and Morris argued that they “examine the anthropological, geological, hydrological and other scientific implications of the Biblical record of the Flood, seeking if possible to orient the data of these sciences within this Biblical framework.”[11] This new generation of young Earth creationists, therefore, maintained their forebears’ strategy of not wholly rejecting science, but instead implanting it into the Biblical accounts they took on faith.

As a foundational text of the new “creation science,” The Genesis Flood reached an international audience. One reader was a young Australian Christian named Ken Ham. In a 2006 post on his ministry’s website, he revealed that reading The Genesis Flood directly inspired him to embrace young Earth creationism. The next year, he opened his own Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky which clinical ethicist John Lynch describes as an “embodied conversion narrative” meant to reinforce the faith of young Earth Creationists while “Creating the tension and dissonance that will lead to a purging of an old identity” for skeptics of creation science.[12] It is not difficult to identify continuity between Ham’s strategy and Price’s from nearly a century earlier. For decades, in fact, Ham has compared the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens to the “fountains of the great deep [breaking] up” before the great flood in Genesis. For Ham, like for Price, the deluge persists as a rigid data point.

creation-museum-30-800x600
A clearly befuddled penguin resides in the Eden of Ken Ham’s creation. Image courtesy of Jeremy Nixon.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that the creation science which Ham and his cohort embrace differs from the concept of intelligent design that gained prominence in 1990s. Nevertheless, the two share a common lineage. The term “intelligent design” originated in the 1989 textbook Of Pandas and People by young Earth creationists Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon as a means of circumventing the recent Edwards v. Aguillard decision ruling the teaching of creationism in public schools unconstitutional.[13]

Unlike flood geology or creation science, intelligent design is a theologically neutral term. It may propose that some intelligent force had a hand in forming humans into their present state on Earth, but it does not formally define that intelligence as the Christian God, theoretically inviting a more diverse range of adherents. When interviewing intelligent design proponents at an event in Washington, D.C., mathematician Jason Rosenhouse found that interviewees were aghast at being compared to creationist “Bible-thumpers.”[14] Conversely, founding father of creation science Morris scoffed that “a goodly number of atheists may convert to pantheism through such [intelligent design] arguments,” but that they ultimately lacked enough grounding in Christian scripture to be sufficient.

The purpose of this piece has not been to defend the positions of young Earth creationists. Many more qualified writers have already critiqued their shaky scientific conclusions. Nevertheless, it is important to understand how for nearly a century young Earth creationism has managed to capture the hearts and minds of many Americans by sincerely presenting itself as a scientific venture. Recently, the White House confirmed that Jerry Falwell, Jr. will be joining its task force on higher education policy. Since Falwell is the president of Liberty University, an educational institution that actively promotes young Earth creationism through its Center for Creation Studies, it is safe to say that the movement will not be dissipating any time soon.

Michael Albani 6Michael J. Albani is a PhD student at Michigan State University where he studies United States history, Native American history, and women’s and gender history. His research primarily focuses on Native American and Euro-American relations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Great Lakes region. He also co-hosts Sects Ed, a podcast that explores and shares the history of unorthodox faiths. He can be contacted here or followed on Twitter @mjjalbani. 

Notes

[1] Elliott Sober, “What is Wrong with Intelligent Design?” in But is it Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, ed. Robert T. Pennock and Michael Ruse (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009), 495.

[2] Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 7.

[3] Ibid., 83.

[4] Jonathan M. Butler, “The Making of a New Order: Millerism and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventism,” in The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 196.

[5] Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts: Important Facts of Faith, in Connection with the History of Holy Men of Old (Battle Creek, MI: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1864), 91-92.

[6] George McCready Price, The New Geology (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1923), 679-80.

[7] Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, 2nd ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), 328.

[8] Numbers, The Creationists, 114.

[9] Ibid., 213.

[10] Ibid., 225.

[11] John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R Publishing, 2011), xxxvi.

[12] John Lynch, “‘Prepare to Believe’: The Creation Museum as Embodied Conversion Narrative,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 16, no. 1 (2013), 9.

[13] Nick Matzke, “But Isn’t It Creationism? The Beginnings of ‘Intelligent Design’ in the Midst of the Arkansas and Louisiana Litigation,” in But is it Science?, 378.

[14] Jason Rosenhouse, Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolution Front Line (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 85.

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1 comment on “Lost in the Flood: Young Earth Creationism from George McCready Price to Ken Ham

  1. Pingback: How did the original readers understand Gen 1:1? – Jeshua-ists

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