The 19th century scriptural geologists: historical background


The evolution-creation controversy began in earnest in the early 19th century when the geological theories of a millions-of-years-old earth became popular, a half century before Darwin published his controversial Origin of Species (1859).

Up until the mid to late 1700s, the dominant view in Europe regarding earth history was based on a literal interpretation of Genesis: the earth is only about 6000 years old and Noah’s Flood was a global catastrophe. This was a result of the teaching of influential Christian writers such as Tertullian (c. 150–240), Basil the Great (329–379), Augustine (354–430), Luther (1483–1546), Calvin (1509–1564) and Wesley (1703–1791). The Anglican Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) and several others made scholarly calculations (at the time very respected, including by Sir Isaac Newton) based on Genesis 5 and 11 to date the beginning of creation at 4004 BC and virtually all the biblical commentaries and the notes in the margins of Bibles included this date or something close to it well into the 19th century. Geology did not become a formal science until the 19th century but many of those who had earlier studied the rocks and fossils believed they were a testimony to the Flood and wrote widely read books defending this view in the 1600s and 1700s.

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, the “Enlightenment” took hold in Europe. Human reason was increasingly elevated to the supreme place of authority for determining truth. As a result, atheism, agnosticism and deism began to flourish and many books were written which rejected the miracles and prophecies in the Bible, the deity of Christ and the inspiration and authority of the Bible. In the latter half of the 1700s some of these skeptics began to propose astronomical and geological theories which ignored and denied the biblical teaching both about the age of the creation and the Flood. The Frenchmen Compte de Buffon (a Roman Catholic, but likely a secret skeptic) postulated that the earth had gradually cooled from a molten lava state over at least 70,000 years and Pierre Laplace (a strong atheist) imagined that the solar system had slowly condensed from a gaseous nebula. The German Abraham Werner and the Scottish James Hutton (both deists) developed geological theories that the sedimentary strata formed slowly over millions of years. Their ideas had a great impact on the development of geological theories in the early 1800s. The 1700s also saw the beginning of skeptical biblical criticism which eventually spread through all branches of the church in Europe and America (and among Jews) and now controls liberal theology. Theories of biological evolution were also around at this time, such as those of Jean Lamarck (in France) and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather), but these were generally rejected.

At the turn of the 19th century, when geology was becoming a true science in its modern sense, two schools of geological thought developed. The catastrophists dominated the first 35 years or so. They believed that the geological/fossil record could only be explained by imagining that there had been several or many global or regional floods in earth history. George Cuvier, a famous French comparative anatomist and nominal Protestant, published his influential Theory of the Earth in 1813 (English version; the original in French was published a year earlier in Paris under a slightly different title). From studying the fossils found in the rocks in and around Paris he believed that the earth had suffered at least three or four floods, the last of which was Noah’s Flood. Because of Cuvier’s scientific stature and his belief in the Flood, many Christians in Britain welcomed his theory and developed several different interpretations of Genesis to harmonize it with the idea of an old earth. The other geological view became known as uniformitarianism. Proponents, such as Hutton and in 1830 his influential “disciple” Charles Lyell (also a deist), argued that everything in the geological record could and should be interpreted only by reference to physical processes now operating on earth and at the same rate of intensity observed today. In this view, global or regional catastrophes were ruled out as even possible causes of geological phenomena. As a result, the age of the earth expanded even more and the Noachian Flood was reduced to a geological nonevent. Uniformitarianism became geological orthodoxy by the 1840s and Darwin had the vast quantity of time needed for his theory.

From about 1815 to 1845, there were a number of Christian writers who raised biblical, logical and geological objections to these old-earth theories and to the reinterpretations of Scripture to harmonize with them. These men became known as the “scriptural geologists,” and are discussed further in the subarticles in this series.

Historical background

As I indicated in my first reflection on this topic, the early 19th century was a time of revolutionary changes in thought about reason, the Bible and its recorded miracles, and earth history. It was also a period when the Industrial Revolution was producing great cultural and social changes, as well as generally improving the quality of life. As a result science was growing in its influence and on its way to becoming the supreme source of truth. It was also departing from its philosophical foundations in the Christian worldview and was being increasingly controlled by philosophical naturalism (i.e., atheism), the view that nature is all there is and everything can and must be explained by the so-called “laws of nature.”

In response to the old-earth geological theories Christians chose various options. Many accepted the old-earth theories as fact and proposed reinterpretations of the early chapters of Genesis to accommodate geological theory. In the first half of the 19th century the most popular reinterpretation was the gap theory championed from the 1810s by the Scottish Presbyterian minister, Thomas Chalmers. In this view, all the time the geologists wanted could be fit between Gen. 1:1 and 1:2 without doing any violence to Scripture. Less popular was the day-age theory propounded by the Anglican minister, George Faber, in the 1820s. He argued that Genesis could be harmonized with old-earth geology by treating the days of creation in Gen. 1 figuratively as long indefinite ages of time. A still more minor view was that developed by the Congregational pastor, John Pye Smith, who believed that Gen. 1 was describing a local creation in the Middle East, while the rest of the world was much older with many different forms of life. But in addition to the creation account, the record of Noah’s Flood in Gen. 6–9 also had to be reinterpreted. Some viewed it as a local inundation of the Mesopotamian valley. Others believed it was global, but so peaceful that it left no geological traces. In both views the Flood had nothing to do with the rocks and fossils that many geologists were saying indicated that the earth was hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years old.

In contrast to these views, many Christians clung to the traditional interpretation of the church over the previous 19 centuries, namely, a literal six-day creation about 6000 years ago and a geologically significant Flood. The leading defenders of this view in the early 19th century became known as the “scriptural geologists,” not because they were all geologists, but because they insisted that the inspired, inerrant Scriptures must provide the historical framework for correctly interpreting the geological and fossil record. I discovered 29 such writers in Britain, who wrote during the years 1820–1845, the peak years of opposition to the old-earth theories. There were some scriptural geologists in America and other countries too, but Britain was the focus of the debate. After 1845 these writers nearly became an extinct species, until in the early part of the 20th century a few people began to raise similar biblical and geological arguments against old-earth evolution (though I have found no evidence of an literary dependence by the latter on the writings of the scriptural geologists). From this has come the growing international movement called “young-earth creationism” or “creation science”, which, as far as I can tell, is largely ignorant of the scriptural geologists and their writings [until chapters from Dr. Mortenson’s Ph.D. thesis were published in TJ].

The scriptural geologists were a very diverse group and although many of them knew of and appreciated each other’s writings, they never formally organized. Some were English, others were Scottish. Most were Anglicans (the state church in England), but some were Presbyterians. The majority were evangelical. Some were clergymen, others were scientists (a few of which were very well known), a few were both (a common phenomenon in those days), and others were neither. A few were quite poor and a couple were very rich. Some just wrote widely circulated pamphlets against the old-earth theories, while others wrote massive, well-documented books. Many explicitly claimed to have no first-hand knowledge of geology and so opposed old-earth theories only on logical and biblical grounds. But, contrary to charges of their contemporary opponents and virtually all later historians, my thesis clearly shows that some of the Scriptural geologists were very geologically competent by early 19th century standards and as a result they raised both geological and biblical objections to old-earth theories. What was most interesting was that their opponents largely ignored their arguments, rather than refuting them, and this was especially true of the most geologically competent scriptural geologists.

Scriptural geologists

The common views and objections of the scriptural geologists

Having given a biographical sketch of several of the most geologically competent scriptural geologists of the early 19th century, I would like to briefly summarize some of the most common arguments against the increasingly popular old-earth theories of their day.

Like many Christians in previous church history and in the early nineteenth century, all the scriptural geologists believed that Genesis 1–11 provided a divinely inspired and historically accurate account of the origin and early history of the world. This was in contrast to the emerging view that Genesis was a semi-historical account or a mythical theological treatise, written by prescientific and primitive people, which was similar to the cosmologies of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Hindus and others. In contrast to their old-earth opponents, the scriptural geologists held to a literal six-day creation approximately 6000 years ago followed by a global, geologically-significant, catastrophic Noachian Flood. Certainly they believed that the early chapters of Genesis were more than just a record of historical events; they indeed taught theological truths. But in their minds these chapters were not less than historical. On the contrary, they believed, the theological truths depended on the literal historicity of the accounts. As a historical account they believed Genesis 1–11 could no more be rejected or ignored in reconstructing the history of the creation than the writings of Roman historians could be ignored in reconstructing the history of the Roman empire.

As a result, they all explicitly or implicitly criticized their opponents on several counts, for:

  1. a superficial handling of relevant Scriptures

  2. making theoretical generalizations based on inadequate geological knowledge

  3. closing their minds to evidence contrary to their theory

  4. faulty logic in reasoning from accurately described geological phenomena.

While the scriptural geologists were undoubtedly in error in some of their own theoretical interpretations of the geological evidence, one thing is clear: none of them was opposed to the study of science in general or geology in particular, nor did they rely on ad hominem attacks in place of reasoned arguments. Most were very respectful as they strongly disagreed with their opponents.

Virtually all of the scriptural geologists were repeatedly explicit that they opposed old-earth geological theories of the earth, rather than geological facts or even geological theorizing about physical causes of the observed effects. In fact, most of them theorized about the physical causes and time involved in producing the geological formations. They generally accepted the geological facts as described by the leading geologists, but challenged the old-earth inferences made from the observed phenomena. Such inferences, they believed, were often erroneously termed “facts” by old-earth geologists, when in reality they were theory-laden (i.e., philosophically biased) interpretations of some of the facts. This, contended some of the scriptural geologists, was in contrast to the old-earth geologists’ frequent assertion about themselves that they were just unbiased observers who were “allowing the facts to speak for themselves.”

The scriptural geologists believed that no one could (or should even try to) develop a whole “system of natural science” from the Bible. They were certainly not trying to do so, as their critics so often implied. But all the scriptural geologists were convinced that the early chapters of Genesis did give an infallible, historical outline or framework for developing a history of the earth and its inhabitants. Within this outline they believed there was much room, and need, for geological research and speculation about the details.

A final similarity among the scriptural geologists is that all of them appeared to believe in the general uniformity of the operation of the laws of nature, which were an expression of God’s providence. They believed that the miracles recorded in Scripture were rare and localized exceptions to the general uniformity of nature. But apart from the initial creation period and the Flood (times when, they believed, the Bible indicated that supernatural power was being exercised on a global scale) they did not invoke miraculous causes for physical phenomena. Rather they sought to argue by analogy from present-day processes. They did not explicitly discuss the notion of God’s continual providential control and maintenance of the physical creation. But without a doubt they all believed in it, for the idea of divine providence was part of their worldview as traditional orthodox Christians, and was not an issue of debate with their opponents.

In future articles we will begin to consider the specific biblical and geological objections to the old-earth theory, which were raised by the scriptural geologists.

Summary of the scriptural geologists’ objections to old-earth geology

Having briefly introduced you to several of the scriptural geologists, I would like to summarize some of their most important theological and geological objections to old-earth theories. As young-earth creationists, none of the scriptural geologists was opposed to the study of science in general or geology in particular. Virtually all of them repeatedly and explicitly stated that they opposed old-earth geological theories of the earth, rather than geological facts or even geological theorizing. None of the scriptural geologists believed that anyone could develop a whole “system of natural science” from the Bible. They were certainly not trying to do so, as their critics so often implied that they were doing. But all the scriptural geologists were convinced that the early chapters of Genesis did give an infallible historical outline or framework for developing a history of the earth, and that within this outline there was much room, and need, for geological research and speculation, and biblical analysis.

Besides giving detailed biblical refutations of the day-age, gap, local flood and tranquil flood theories, there were two major theological objections:

  1. The old-earth geologists superficially treated or completely ignored relevant Scriptures, especially Genesis 6–9 and Exodus 20:8–11, as they attempted to convince Christians that their theories did not contradict the Bible.

  2. Contrary to Scripture, the old-earth theories postulated long ages of violence, death and destruction before man was created and had sinned.

The major geological objections to the old-earth theories were five.

  1. Several scriptural geologists argued that the gradual transitions between different conformable mineralogical formations were a common feature of the geological record. This characteristic of one kind of mineral deposit gradually changing into another kind (e.g., sandstone blending into limestone), without evidence of erosion or soil at the transition boundary, they argued, shows that the strata were deposited in rapid succession (as expected in a year-long global flood), while the subjacent strata were still rather soft and moist, and that therefore the notion of long ages during slow deposition of each mineralogical layer (the uniformitarian view) or between deposition of two different catastrophically deposited strata (the catastrophist view) was erroneous.

  2. Several scriptural geologists argued that polystrate fossil trees found in many places in the geological record, though most notably associated with coal formations, and generally traversing more than one stratum and often many strata, were evidence that the strata were rapid deposits of transported mineral and organic debris. Since the formations where the polystrate trees were found were analogous in their alternating mineralogical content to other formations where no trees were found, the scriptural geologists saw these trees as strong evidence that most of the strata were formed by the Noachian Flood, and were not the remains of successive forests that had grown where they had been gradually buried by successive submersions and elevations over many ages.

  3. Since shells made up the vast majority of fossils, they had a great, if not singular, importance for old-earth geologists in working out their history of the earth. A number of scriptural geologists raised objections to this use of fossil shells in dating the strata because of both the great uncertainties in taxonomic classification of shells and the ambiguities about the geological distribution of the various shells.

  4. A primary reason that the vast majority of geologists believed that most of the geological record was deposited long before the creation of man was their conviction that no fossil human bones had been found except in recently formed deposits (close to the earth’s surface), and never with extinct animals. Again, several scriptural geologists argued that there were a few instances which refuted this widespread opinion but that this evidence had been misinterpreted (due to superficial investigation) or ignored by old-earth geologists.

  5. A major contention of most of the scriptural geologists was that since geology was in its infancy as a science, geological knowledge was far too limited in the early nineteenth century to justify a theory of the whole earth based solely on the geological data then known.

In the case of each of these geological objections I have documented in my Ph.D. thesis that some leading old-earth geologists or experts in ancillary fields of science had pointed out the same facts. So the objections were not irrelevant or insignificant.