Creationism, broad range of beliefs involving an appeal to God’s miraculous intervention to explain the origin of the universe, of life, and of the different kinds of plants and animals on earth. Adherents, called creationists, all invoke divine intervention to explain at least some of these phenomena, although they do not necessarily agree on the length of time involved in creation. In the second half of the 20th century, the most visible and politically active creationists maintained that the entire universe was created within the past 6000 to 10,000 years.
|II||EARLY VIEWS ON CREATION|
Before English naturalist Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, most people in the West—including the great majority of scientists—accepted creationism in some form, although they rarely used that term to describe their views. Despite mounting evidence of the great antiquity of life on earth (see Paleontology), many Christians continued to accept the traditional biblical account of a relatively recent six-day creation in the Garden of Eden, culminating in the appearance of Adam and Eve. Writing in 1852, American commentator William B. Hayden estimated that one-half of the Christian public remained loyal to the traditional view; the other half had adopted one or the other of two popular reinterpretations of the creation account in the biblical book of Genesis. These reinterpretations permitted Christians to accept the accumulating paleontological evidence without abandoning their faith. The first was the so-called Day-Age theory, according to which the six days of the biblical creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4) represented vast geological ages rather than 24-hour periods. The rival reinterpretation, known as the Gap theory, allowed for an immense interval between an initial creation and the creation of the Garden of Eden in about 4000 bc.
In scientific circles, at least three competing versions of creationism circulated during the first half of the 19th century. One version, espoused by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, loosely followed the biblical story in proposing the simultaneous creation in one location of single pairs of animals, which then multiplied and migrated to their eventual homes. English geologist Sir Charles Lyell, by contrast, advocated the notion of multiple centers of creation established at various times and in different places. A third view was held by Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz, who denied that species originated in single pairs, whether at one location or many. Agassiz argued instead for the simultaneous creation of multiple individuals in each species, all distributed over the ranges God meant for them to inhabit. All three of these views, and especially the last two, allowed for Earth’s history to extend far beyond 6000 years.
|III||DARWIN AND EVOLUTION|
One of Darwin’s objectives in writing On the Origin of Species was to replace current theories of separate creations with a theory of natural evolution. Darwin nevertheless left room for an initial act of creation: “I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number,” he wrote at the conclusion of his book. He added that the presence of analogous physical structures across many different species implied “that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed” (see Adaptation). Darwin later expressed regret over this concession to creationism, and for the rest of his life he ruled out any role for God in the origin and development of living things.
Within 15 years of the publication of On the Origin of Species, most well-known American naturalists had followed Darwin in embracing the theory of evolution, although few shared his desire to eliminate God from the process altogether. For example, botanist Asa Gray, one of Darwin’s leading American disciples, embraced a form of theistic evolution (the belief that the process of evolution was divinely supervised). However, in the case of human beings and complex organs such as the eye, Gray argued for special creation (direct creation of a particular organ or organism). Geographer-geologist Arnold Guyot, an anti-Darwinist, insisted on at least three supernatural interventions: one for the creation of matter, one for the creation of life, and one for the creation of human beings. The blending of creation and evolution in the views of scientists such as Gray and Guyot makes it difficult at times to distinguish special creationists from theistic evolutionists.
|IV||THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY|
Despite the increasing presence of the theory of evolution in schools and churches throughout the United States, evangelical Christians in the United States tended to remain skeptical of the theory. However, even the most militant among them refrained from organizing campaigns to have it removed from public discourse. The Fundamentals (1910-1915), a series of pamphlets that launched the fundamentalist movement (see Fundamentalism), treated evolution critically but did not reject it as the work of the Devil. In a Fundamentals essay entitled “The Passing of Evolution,” minister-geologist George Frederick Wright, a one-time collaborator of Asa Gray’s, affirmed that the Bible taught “an orderly progress from lower to higher forms of matter and life.” Yet he insisted that the first humans had come “into existence as the Bible represents, by the special creation of a single pair, from whom all the varieties of the race have sprung.”
American fundamentalists did not turn against the threat of evolution in earnest until after World War I ended in 1918. This change in attitude toward evolution resulted partly from the popular belief that German aggression expressed a Darwinian doctrine of survival of the fittest (see Social Darwinism). The leader of the crusade against evolution was Presbyterian layman and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who entered the controversy in the early 1920s. Before the decade ended, three states—Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas—had passed laws banning the teaching of human evolution, and two others—Florida and Oklahoma—had officially condemned it.
No event drew more attention to the creationist cause in the United States than the 1925 trial in Dayton, Tennessee, of high-school science teacher John T. Scopes (see Scopes Trial). Scopes volunteered to assist the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in testing the constitutionality of the recently passed Tennessee anti-evolution law, even though he was not certain that he had ever taught the banned theory. International attention focused on the event when well-known Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow, an outspoken agnostic (one who believes that certainty in religious matters is impossible), agreed to defend Scopes, and Bryan offered to assist the prosecution. The jury convicted Scopes and the judge fined him $100, a verdict later set aside by the Tennessee Supreme Court on a technicality. Despite scathing attacks in some magazines and newspapers on fundamentalists and their creationist beliefs, and the death of Bryan a few days after the trial, the anti-evolution movement continued to flourish for two or three years more before dying out in the late 1920s.
Contrary to widespread belief—inspired in part by the play Inherit the Wind (1955; motion picture, 1960)—Bryan did not follow 17th-century Irish Archbishop James Ussher in dating the creation of the world to 4004 bc. For years Bryan had subscribed to the Day-Age theory, which permitted him to believe that the process of creation might have occupied hundreds of millions of years. In fact, with one prominent exception, virtually all of the leading creationists of the 1920s endorsed either the Day-Age or Gap interpretation of Genesis. The exception was Seventh-day Adventist teacher and amateur geologist George McCready Price, who followed Adventist prophet Ellen G. White in limiting the history of life on earth to about 6000 years. Price attributed most fossil-bearing rock formations to the geological disruptions of the biblical flood (see Deluge). Although Price converted a few non-Adventists to so-called flood geology before his death in 1963, the overwhelming majority of creationists during the first two-thirds of the 20th century rejected his rigid reading of Genesis in favor of the more flexible Day-Age and Gap theories.
Flood geology gained wider acceptance after the publication of The Genesis Flood (1961), jointly authored by conservative biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris. This immensely influential book promoted Price’s views as fundamentalist orthodoxy, and prompted the formation in 1963 of the Creation Research Society. The society is dedicated to the promotion of what has come to be known as young-earth creationism (by contrast with the old-earth creationism associated with the Day-Age and Gap theories). The most distinctive feature of young-earth creationism is its reliance on catastrophism, the doctrine that large-scale changes in the earth’s crust are to be explained by violent, unrepeatable geologic events, such as the biblical flood.
About 1970 the adherents of flood geology, hoping to gain a forum in the public schools, stripped their theory of its biblical references and called it scientific creationism or creation science. Instead of trying to outlaw the teaching of evolution, as creationists had done in the 1920s, the creation scientists sought equal time in school curricula for their views. In the early 1980s, two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed laws mandating the teaching of creation science whenever evolutionary theory was taught in public schools. In 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws to be unconstitutional intrusions of religion in the public schools. Despite this setback, creationists have not abandoned their efforts to persuade local school boards to permit the teaching of creationism in U.S. public schools.