Reasons to Believe

Creating Creationism: Meanings and Usage Since the Age of Agassiz, Part 1

by Ronald L. Numbers

Despite a few helpful attempts to trace the development of vocabulary in the public discourse about Darwinism, no one has yet looked closely at the deployment of the terms "creationism" and "creationist" in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 1,2 Even I, in a 450-page book on the history of modern creationism, failed to address the issue of when these terms first came into use.3 In this essay I would like to draw on my previous research and some subsequent explorations to address the following queries: When, why, and how were the terms "creationism" and "creationist" first employed? At what point did they come to be associated primarily with the community of evangelical Christians? Under what circumstances did those militant evangelicals known as fundamentalists capture "creationism" to represent their own distinctive interpretation of Genesis? Most of my discussion will concentrate on American usages, from the Darwinian debates of the late nineteenth century through the fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century and on to the rise of "scientific creationism" in recent decades.


When Charles Darwin published his essay On the Origin of Species in 1859, the term "creationist" commonly designated a person who believed in the special creation of a soul for each human fetus, as opposed to a traducianist, who believed that the souls of children are inherited from their parents.4 Nevertheless, just one day after his book appeared, Darwin employed the label (in a letter to T.H. Huxley) to refer to opponents of evolution.5 Since at least the early 1840s Darwin had occasionally referred to "creationists" in his unpublished writings, but the epithet remained relatively uncommon.

In 1873 we find American botanist Asa Gray describing a "special creationist" (quotation marks his) as one who maintained that species were "supernaturally originated just as they are," and in 1880 he briefly contrasted Darwinism with "direct Creationism."6 Similarly, in the 1890s the priest-scientist John A. Zahni of Notre Dame occasionally used "creationist" as a synonym for antievolutionist.7 But the practice of describing anti-evolutionists as creationists remained relatively infrequent during the nineteenth century and confined, it seems, largely to persons who no longer believed in special creation. As far as I can tell, such prominent North American anti-evolutionists as Louis Agassiz, Arnold Guyot, and John William Dawson neither called themselves creationists nor referred to their views as creationism.8,9 During the seventy-five years or so after the appearance of Origin of the Species opponents of evolution were described by such terms as "advocates of creation," "exponents of the theory of the immutability of the species" or, increasingly, "antievolutionists."10

One reason the label "creationist" languished in obscurity for so long was the immense diversity of opinion among the dissenters from Darwinism. In Origin of the Species Darwin took issue with "the ordinary view of creation," but he failed to identify the particular view he had in mind. Almost certainly he was not referring to the biblically inspired Linnaean notion of the simultaneous creation in one locale of single pairs, which then multiplied and migrated to their eventual homes; more likely he had in mind Charles Lyell's alternative suggestion of various "centres or foci of creation," separated spatially and temporally-or possibly Louis Agassiz's proposal of repeated plenary creations, which stipulated that "species did not originate in single pairs, but were created in large numbers," in the habitats the Creator intended them to populate. 12-14

Agassiz, whose earlier studies of glaciers had led him to postulate the existence of an ice age, believed that the geological record revealed a series of catastrophes and special creations by which the earth had been repeatedly depopulated and repopulated. For him, species were linked by the mind of the Creator, not by common descent from Eden or Ararat. When Harvard botanist Asa Gray referred to "the commonly received doctrine" of creation, he explicitly connected it with this [seemingly] unbiblical doctrine of Agassiz's.15-17

It is impossible to determine how many Americans followed Agassiz in seeing creative activity this way. Most conservative Christians never expressed themselves on the matter, though many of them undoubtedly clung to the traditional view that God had created the heavens and the earth in six literal days about six thousand years ago. This reading of Genesis necessitated rejecting the rapidly growing body of geological and paleontological evidence for the earth's great antiquity, but it could be defended on the grounds that scientists had not correctly interpreted the data. At mid-century one American observer estimated that perhaps "one half of the Christian public" still adhered to this position. The remainder, he claimed, had divided largely into two rival camps: those who accommodated the findings of historical geology by interpreting the days of Genesis 1 to represent vast ages in the earth's history (the day-age theory) and those who did so by separating a creation "in the beginning" from a much later Edenic creation in six 24-hour days (the gap theory). 18,19


1. James Moore, "Deconstructing Darwinism: The Politics of Evolution in the 1860s, "Journal of the History of Biology, 24 (1991), pp. 353408.
2. Charles Hodge, What is Darwinism? And Other Writings on Science and Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1994).
3. Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).
4. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 20 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
5. Charles Darwin to T. H. Huxley, November 25, 1859, quoted in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1889) vol. 2, p. 28.
6. Asa Gray, Darwiniana: Essays and Reviews Pertaining to Darwinism, ed. A. Hunter Dupree (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1963), p. 204.
7. J. A. Zahm, Evolution and Dogma (Chicago: D. H. McBride, 1896) pp. 73-75.
8. [Alexander Agassiz], "A Natural Theory of Creation," Nation, 8 (1869), pp 193-194.
9. J. W. Dawson, The Story of the Earth and Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1873), p. 352.
10. E. D. Cope, "A Review of the Modern Doctrine of Evolution," American Naturalist, 14 (1880) pp. 166-179.
11. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), p. 437.
12. Tore Frangsmyr, "Linnaeus as a Geologist," in Linneaus: The Man and His Work (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of Calif. Press, 1983), p. 122.
13. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1830-1833), vol. 2, pp. 123-126.
14. Louis Agassiz, Essay on Classification, ed. Edward Lurie (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 173-175.
15. Asa Gray, Natural Science and Religion: Two Lectures Delivered to the Biological School of Yale College (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880) p. 35.
16. Ernst Mayr, "Agassiz, Darwin, and Evolution," Harvard Library Bulletin, 13 (1959), pp. 165-194.
17. Mary P. Winsor, "Louis Agassiz and the Species Question," Studies in the History of Biology, 3 (1979), pp. 89-117.
18. William B. Hayden, Science and Revelation; or, The Bearing of Modern Scientific Developments upon the Interpretation of the First Eleven Chapters of Genesis (Boston: Otis Clapp, 1952), p. 77.
19. Ronald L. Numbers, Creation by Natural Law: Laplace's Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought (Seattle: Univ. of Wash. Press, 1977), pp. 88-104.

The above article is a paper presented at the Evangelical Engagement with Science Conference held at Wheaton College, March 30-April 1, 1995. Dr. Numbers earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics and physics; his master's in history; and his Ph.D. in history, with emphasis on the history of science, from the University of California at Berkeley. He currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin, where he is the William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Subjects: Animal Death Before Adam, Biblical Evidence for an Old Earth , Creation "Days", Creation Miracles, Flood Geology, Scientific Evidence for an Old Earth

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