Reasons to Believe

Creating Creationism: Meanings and Usage Since the Age of Agassiz, Part 2

by Ronald L. Numbers

To compound the confusion about special creation [Was it a recent, six-day phenomenon, an ancient day-age phenomenon, or a dual phenomenon with a gap between "the beginning" and Eden?], its most vocal scientific proponents disagreed markedly over the number of supernatural interventions required.

As we have seen, Agassiz, a fair-weather Unitarian, called for a virtual infinitude of miracles, while his Swiss-born compatriot Arnold Guyot, an evangelical Presbyterian, demanded only three intrusions into the natural order: for the special creation of matter, life, and humans. The Presbyterian geologist John William Dawson, who served as principal of McGill University in Montreal, took an intermediate position. He followed his mentor Charles Lyell in postulating successive creations in various "centres" but stopped short of insisting that "all groups of individual animals, which naturalists may call species, have been separate products of creation." 1-4

Although a few advocates of creation, such as the British naturalist Philip Gosse, indulged in speculating; about the details of creation -- Gosse suggested, for example, that God had created Adam with a navel, thus giving him the appearance of age at the time of his creation – most non-evolutionists resolutely avoided the topic. Louis Agassiz on more than one occasion frustrated colleagues by refusing to provide a single specific description of how a species came into existence. "When a mammal was created, did the oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon of the air, and the lime, soda, phosphorus, potash, water, etc., from the earth come together and on the instant combine into a completely formed horse, lion, elephant, or other animal?" inquired Agassiz's Harvard colleague Jeffries Wyman, who noted that if this question were "answered in the affirmative, it will be easily seen that the answer is entirely opposed by the observed analogies of nature." The ichthyologist Theodore N. Gill, who likewise complained about the "vague and evasive" responses of non-evolutionists when called upon for scientific explanations, demanded answers to the following questions: Did elemental atoms flash into living tissues? Was there vacant space one moment and an elephant apparent the next? Or did a laborious God mould out of gathered earth a body to then endue with life? In his opinion, such information was prerequisite to conceiving of creation in any scientifically useful way. 5-9

In 1899 Dawson, the last major nineteenth-century scientist to defend special creation, passed away. By this time the scientific community was promoting organic evolution as an established "fact," even as members quarreled among themselves over the exact mechanisms of change. About the only Americans left debating the merits of special creation were conservative, often evangelical, Christians. In the early 1920s the most concerned critics of human evolution launched a movement to eradicate the offending belief from the churches and schools of America. But throughout the so-called fundamentalist controversy, their goal remained the elimination of evolution, not the promotion of a particular doctrine of creation. They dedicated their organizations to "Christian Fundamentals," "Anti-Evolution," and "Anti-False Science," not to creationism.10 Evangelicals had still reached no consensus about the correct reading of Genesis 1, although even the most conservative commentators had come to terms with the antiquity of life on earth and a deluge of local or geologically superficial significance. Leaders of the fundamentalist movement tended to promote either the day-age theory, endorsed by William Jennings Bryan and William Bell Riley, or the gap (or ruin-and-restoration) interpretation, taught in the popular Scofield Reference Bible and preached by the evangelist Harry Rimmer. About the only Christians to insist on the recent appearance of life and on a fossil burying flood were the Seventh-Day Adventist disciples of Ellen G. White, who claimed to have witnessed the creation of the world in a vision. Shortly after the turn of the century the self-instructed Adventist geologist George McCready Price began advocating a scientific version of White's views that he called "the new catastrophism," "the new geology," or simply "flood geology." According to Price, a correct reading of Genesis 1 ruled out any notion of "creation on the installment plan," that is, creative acts interspersed over millions of years, which he regarded as a "burlesque" of creation. The gap theory required too much verbal "dodging and twisting" to conform to his standards of biblical literalism, and the day-age theory seemed even more egregious. This "libel on Moses" struck at the very basis of the Sabbath-and thus the identity of Seventh-Day Adventists-by suggesting that the seventh day of the creation week had not been a literal twenty-four-hour period. The Bible, as Price saw it, allowed for only "one act of creation, which he said may easily be supposed to have included all of those ancestral types from which our modern varieties of plants and animals have been derived." 11-13

Early in his career Price toyed with the idea of starting a magazine called The Creationist to popularize his views, but for years he avoided equating his theory of flood geology with creationism generally. As far as I can tell, it was not until 1929 that one of his students, Harold Clark, a Berkeley-trained biologist, explicitly packaged Price's new catastrophism as "creationism." In a brief self published book entitled Back to Creationism, Clark urged readers to quit simply opposing evolution and to adopt the new "science of creationism," by which he clearly meant Price's flood geology. 14-15

In the mid-1930s Dudley Joseph Whitney, one of Price's earliest non-Adventist converts to flood geology, observed that fundamentalists were "all mixed up between geological ages, flood geology and ruin, believing all at once, endorsing all at once." How, he wondered, could evangelical Christianity possibly convert the world to creationism if they themselves could not even agree on the meaning of Genesis 1? To bring order to this chaotic state of affairs, he pushed for the establishment of a society to create a united fundamentalist front against evolution: the Religion and Science Association. In a press release price declared that the association backed flood geology as "by far the best and most reasonable explanation of the facts of the fossils and the rocks," while "condemning and repudiating the only other possible alternatives about the fossils: (a) The Day-Age theory, which is false scientifically and cannot be made to harmonize with the record of Genesis 1, and (b) The PreAdamic Ruin Theory, which makes nonsense of the scientific facts and is utterly fantastic theologically." This description represented mere wishful thinking on Price's part. The infant association died within two years of birth largely because its leaders could not agree on a common interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. 15-18

Unfortunately for Price and Whitney, they had recruited for the association's presidency a Wheaton College chemist, L. Allen Higley, who, like so many fundamentalists, believed in the truth of the ruin-and-restoration theory as adamantly as Price and Whitney believed in flood geology. In Whitney's opinion, the views Higley espoused had become "a Fundamentalist dogma; and when I say dogma in that connection I mean DOGMA and then some…The thing is an obsession." Whitney had initially hoped to convert the "Wheaton crowd" to flood geology, believing that "the more Wheaton can be played up in our association, the more influence it will have with the Fundamentalist." When the Wheaton establishment proved immovable, Whitney despaired of the future for flood geology. Nevertheless, in 1937 he began circulating a mimeographed sheet, The Creationist, hoping thereby to identify creationism with the Price school. 19-22


1. Arnold Guyot, Creation; or, The Biblical Cosmogony in the Light of Modern Science (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1884), pp. 116-128.
2. J.W. Dawson, The Story of the Earth and Man (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1873), pp 40-41,352.
3. J.W. Dawson, The Origin of the World, According to Revelation and Science (Montreal: Dawson Brothers, 1877), pp. 238, 37 1.
4. Jon H. Roberts, Darwinism and the Divine in America Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1859-1900 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), pp. 209-231.
5. J[effries] W[yman], Review of Monograph of the Aye-Aye, by Richard Owen, in American Journal of Science, 86 (1863), pp. 194-199, quotation on p. 196.
6. Theodore Gill, "The Doctrine of Darwin," Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 1 (1881181), pp. 47-55, quotation on p. 52.
7. Burt G. Wilder, "Jeffries Wyman, Anatomist," in Leading American Men of Science, ed. David Staff Jordan (New York: Henry Holt, 1910), p. 194.
8. Nathaniel Southgate Studer, The Autobiography of Nathaniel Southgate Shafer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909) p. 128.
9. Frederic R. Ross, "Philip Gosse's Ompbalos, Edmund Gosse's Father and Son, and Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection," Isis, 68 (1977), pp. 85-96
10. Numbers, The Creationists, p. 49.
11. George McCready Price, The Phantom of Organic Evolution (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1924), pp. 99-100.
12. George E. McCready Price, Outlines of Modern Christianity and Modern Science (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1902), pp. 125-127.
13. Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 72-101.
14. W. W. Scott to G. M. Price, November 6, 1908, both in the George McCready Price Papers, Adventitst Heritage Center, Andrews University.
15. Harold W. Clark, Back to Creationism (Angwin, Calif.: Pacific Union Press, 1929), p. 135.
16. D. J. Whitney to G. M. Prim, December 11, 1935, Price Papers.
17. G. M. Price to B. C. Nelson, July 8, 1935, Byron C. Nelson Papers, Institute for Creation Research.
18. Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 102-107.
19. D.J. Whitney, "For Consideration of the Directors of the Religion and Science Association," August 6, 1935, Nelson Papers.
20. D.J. Whitney to G.M. Price, December 11, 1935, Price Papers.
21. D.J. Whitney to G.M. Price, September 9 and 14, 1934, Price Papers.
22. Ronald L. Numbers, ed. Early Creationist Journals, Vol. 9 of Creationism in Twentieth Century America: a Ten-Volume Anthology of Documents, 1903-1961 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995).

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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