Reasons to Believe

Creating Creationism: Meanings and Usage Since the Age of Agassiz, Part 3

by Ronald L. Numbers

Such efforts (as "flood geologist" Dudley Joseph Whitney's) to co-opt the creationist label did not go uncontested for long, in part because evangelical scientists who did not subscribe to flood geology could ill afford to have their constituencies view them as non-creationists. Thus, leaders of the American Scientific Affiliation, organized in 1941, waged a two-pronged campaign in the 1940s and 1950s to discredit "flood geology" as pseudo-science while cloaking their own quasi-evolutionary views in the mantle of creationism. The anthropologist James 0. Buswell III, who introduced fellow evangelicals to the evidence for human antiquity and development, decried the common tendency of evolutionists to equate creationists with "hyper-traditionalist" fundamentalists like Price. He winced when he heard the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson declare in 1950 that "creationists are found today only in non- or anti-scientific circles." Buswell argued for a broad understanding of creationism that would allow both rigid hyper-traditionalists and progressive scientists like himself, "who constantly allow their interpretations to be open to the acceptance of newly discovered facts," to be called creationists. He boldly, but unsuccessfully, urged evangelicals ranging from progressive creationists to theistic evolutionists to march under the banner of "scientific creationism."1-4

The Wheaton biologist Russell L. Mixter, who gently prodded the ASA to accept more and more evidence of organic evolution, pushed for a similarly inclusive definition of creationism. "Creationists of today are not in agreement concerning what was created according to Genesis," he announced in a controversial mid-century monograph in which he defended the evolution of species within major groups of animals. "In this sense," he noted provocatively, "creationists can be called evolutionists." Indeed, they could; but, he soon discovered, they might not want to be if they desired to teach at schools like Wheaton. In terms of job security at Christian colleges, it was far better to be an evolutionist who called himself a creationist. Adopting Mixter's nomenclature, Wheaton president V. R. Edman was able to assure a concerned board of trustees in 1957 that "We at Wheaton are avowed and committed creationists."5-7

The ASA progressives received a boost in 1954, when Bernard Ramm, a Baptist philosopher and theologian, brought out an influential treatise called The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Convinced that Price's scientifically disreputable views had come to form "the backbone of much Fundamentalist thought about geology, creation, and the flood," he urged fellow evangelicals to repudiate such "narrow bibliolatry" and adopt what he called "progressive creationism," a position far to the left of flat creationism but slightly to the right of theistic evolution. It did away with the necessity of believing in a young earth, a universal flood, and the recent appearance of humans but still required that "from time to time the great creative acts, de novo," had taken place.8-9

Such attempts to stretch the meaning of creationism-almost to the point of accepting divinely guided evolution-provoked a backlash among the increasingly outspoken advocates of Price's flood geology. In 1961 John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry M. Morris published The Genesis Flood, which sought to establish a recent special creation and flood geology as the only orthodox understanding of Genesis. Two years later a group of ten like-minded scientists formed the Creation Research Society to promote this view. To enter the public schools of America, these creationists in the early 1970s peeled off the biblical wrappings of flood geology and repackaged it as "creation science" or "scientific creationism." This relabeling reflected more than euphemistic preference; it signified a major tactical shift among strict six-day creationists. Instead of denying evolution its scientific credentials, as biblical creationists had done for a century, these scientific creationists argued for granting creation and evolution equal scientific standing. And instead of trying to bar evolution from the classroom, as their predecessors had done in the 1920s, they fought to bring creation into the schoolhouse and shunned the epithet anti-evolutionist. "Creationism is on the way back," Morris proudly announced in 1974, "this time not primarily as religious belief but as an alternative scientific explanation of the world in which we live."10-11

The ASA's drift toward theistic evolution and the CRS's insistence on young earth creationism left many self-described creationists out in the cold. As Canadian antievolutionist and gap theorist John R. Howitt put it, while many ASA members were embracing theistic evolution "or some such rubbish, the true fundamentalists are all going over to flood geology. Oh me, oh my!" In the mid-1960s he begged CRS leaders not to make flood geology a test of creationist orthodoxy. May it be truly a Creation Research Society," he urged, "seeking for truth, no matter where it ends up-as flood geology, the gap theory, theistic evolution, or what not." By the early 1970s, however, he had abandoned any hope of reconciliation. "The flooders are getting pretty dogmatic these days," he noted with sadness and not a little irritation. Before long, even in Great Britain, where evangelical anti-evolutionists had long kept the flood geologists at bay, the so-called young earthers captured the Evolution Protest Movement, condemned the gap and day-age theories as unscriptural, and reinvented themselves as the Creation Science Movement.12-14

Although many evangelicals who regarded themselves as creationists, from Billy Graham to Jimmy Swaggart, resisted the allure of scientific creationism, by the last decades of the twentieth century Price's intellectual heirs had virtually taken over the creationist label for their own interests. Even their severist critics often conceded as much. When in 1984 the National Academy of Sciences issued an official condemnation of "creationism," that august body defined it as comprising beliefs in a young earth and universe, flood geology, and the miraculous origination of all living things. Writing in the early 1980s in defense of the day-age theory and against flood geology, the Calvin College geologist Davis A. Young noted regretfully that, although he still believed in the biblical story of creation, he was opposed to creationism. This ironic turn of events had resulted because "those who advocate the creation of the world in seven literal days only a few thousand years ago have come to be known generally as creationists." When he and two Calvin colleagues, Howard J. Van Tin and Clarence Menninga, later collaborated on a book entitled Science Held Hostage (1988), they assigned equal blame for this terrorist act to naturalism" and to "creationism," which they explicitly identified with the views of the scientific creationists.15-18 Latter day flood geologists may not have liked being lumped together with godless evolutionists as enemies of true science (and religion), but they could only have appreciated the often grudging but increasingly widespread recognition that their once marginal views, inspired by the visions of an Adventist prophetess, now defined the very essence of creationism.


1. Interview with J. Lawrence Kulp, July 23, 1984.
2. James 0. Buswell III, "A Creationist Interpretation of Prehistoric Man," in Evolution and Christian Thought Today, ed. Russell L. Mixter (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 165-189.
3. Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), pp. 159-181.
4. Mark A. Kalthoff, ed., Creation and Evolution in the Early America Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 10 of Creationism in Twentieth Century America.- A Ten-Volume Anthology of Documents, 19031961, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (New York: Garland Publishing, 1995).
5. Russell L. Mixter, Creation and Evolution, Monograph Two (Wheaton, Ill.: American Scientific Affiliation, 1950), pp. 1-2.
6. V. R. Edman to the Board of Trustees, Caton College, October 28, 1957, Russell L. Mixter Papers, Special Collections, Buswell Library, Wheaton College.
7. Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 181-183.
8. Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 180, 228, 293. The phrase "narrow bibliolatry" appears on p. 9 of the paperback edition, also published by Eerdmans.
9. Edwin K. Gedney, "Geology and the Bible," in Modern Science and Christian Faith: A Symposium on the Relationship of the Bible to Modem Science, by Members of the American Scientific Affiliation (Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, 1948), pp. 49-55.
10. Henry M. Morris, The Troubled Waters of Evolution (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1974), p. 16.
11. On the renaissance of flood geology and its christening as "creation science," see Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 184-257.
12. J. R. Howitt to A. C. Custance, October 22, 1962, December 24, 1965, and August 25, 1973, A. C. Custance Papers, Special Collections, Redeemer College library.
13. J. R. Howitt to W. E. Lammerts, late 1963, Walter E. Lammerts Papers, Bancroft library, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley.
14. On creationism in Great Britain, see Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 323-330.
15. Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1984), p. 7.
16. Davis A. Young, Christianity and the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), p. 10.
17. Howard J. Van Till, Davis A. Young, and Clarence Menninga, Science Held Hostage. What's Wrong with Creation Science AND Evolutionism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 45, 125.
18. Robert E. Snow defines "creationist" in Howard J. Van Till and others, Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World's Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), p. 167.

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.

For Further Reading:

  1. Edward J. Luson, Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution, updated ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989).
  2. Christopher Tourney, God's Own Scientists.- Creationists in a Secular World (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1994).

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

Guest Writer

For a listing of all of our guest writers, click here.