Essay Review



The Chronicle of a Curious Hijacking

The Creationists,  by Ronald L. Numbers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.  Pp. xvii + 458. $27.50. Paperback: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, $15.00.


Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, MI 49242

Ronald L. Numbers is William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. American Scientific Affiliation members should know his name through the book he edited in 1986 with his colleague David C. Lindberg, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science. Interested and veteran ASAers will also know him because he has published articles in the ASA journal and written about the history of the ASA.1 And historians of science undoubtedly know him as the editor of Isis, the prestigious journal of the History of Science Society, in which he has also published important articles related to science and religion.2 But if by some remote chance these publications have not rendered "Numbers" a familiar name in the bibliographic vocabulary of historically attuned ASA members, his most recent book ought permanently to cement his name into the mental card catalogues of all. So significant, in fact, is The Creationists that the following bold proposal should be adopted immediately: The ASA executive council should limit ASA membership to those signing a statement affirming that they have read the book cover to cover. Better yetóprospective members must pass a test demonstrating that they have read the book with comprehension. No wait, even better stillóbefore anyone (ASA member or not) be permitted to ramble on about, or join in on, the ubiquitous chorus of creation-evolution debaters, one must present to all interested parties a signed affidavit attesting to the thoughtful completion of Professor Numbers' painstaking study of the evolution of scientific creationism. This is an important bookónot just because the subject is important, but also because of who the author is.

I first met Professor Numbers seven years ago. A naive young graduate student attending a summer conference on the history and philosophy of science in Madison, I was casting about for the right research topic to pursue for my doctoral dissertation. Ron welcomed me into his campus office and we talked for the better part of two hours about our research interests and about the history of creationism. Our conversation had started with a declaration of my desire to explore some dimension of the recent encounters between science and Christianity, perhaps something relating to the American creation/evolution controversy. I recall vividly the sober sincerity with which Ron posed his first questions:

"Is this subject something in which you have a personal stake? That is, do you possess strong convictions about the relevant issues?"

"Well," I replied in some vague way. "I certainly want to discover the `truth'."

"... and your own denominational heritage?" he queried.

"Missouri-Synod Lutheran."

"Perhaps, then, I should offer a word of caution... "

Ron proceeded to explain the risks of pursuing a research topic which holds a place in proximity to one's heart, heritage, or family. It could be uncomfortable. One might find out things he would like not to learn. It could slant one's perspective, hinder efforts at dispassionate objectivity, or even weaken one's faith. I should be careful, he suggested, perhaps avoiding altogether a topic that involves matters about which I have strong convictions.

I assured him that despite my family's Lutheran heritage, I had no special dedication to the denomination's perspective on creationism. Furthermore, I wondered, regardless of dangers inherent in writing about something to which one is close, is not the best history written by one with a deep and abiding personal interest in his subject? I thought Barbara Tuchman had correctly argued that "it is the quality of being in love with your subject that is indispensable for writing good history."3

Perhaps Numbers believed it incumbent upon himself to offer his preemptory cautionsónot because he did not love his subjectóbut because he knew firsthand what could happen. Years earlier, advice like he had given me had not prevented his scholarly career from focusing upon subjects close to home; and, he had endured the consequences. Raised in a family of devout Seventh-day Adventists, Numbers is the son and grandson of ministers from the small sect. He learned from childhood, therefore, to revere as authoritative the teachings of the denomination's founder, Ellen G. White (1827-1915). For the serious Adventist this necessitated, among other things, strict attention to health concerns (especially diet) and unwavering belief in the recent appearance of life on earth as surmised from a literalistic rendering of the Genesis narrative.

While a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, Numbers took his first steps onto "the proverbial slippery slope toward unbelief." A public lecture on the fossils of Yellowstone Park sent him down the inexorable pathway toward the uncomfortable realization that Adventist recent creationism did not square with the evidences of modern geology. The story of his slide from fundamentalism to agnosticism in no small part paralleled his education in the history of science, the history of Adventism, the history of medicine and health reform, and the history of modern creationism, subjects that constitute the very warp and woof of his impressive scholarly output. Thus, instead of steering clear of personal topicsóas he counseled this young graduate student to consider doingóNumbers has generated a bibliography which appears remarkably autobiographical.4

His first book, Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (1976), ignited "a full-blown historical debate within Adventism" as it "demolished" the received Adventist interpretations of Ellen White as the sect's divinely inspired prophetess. Numbers had set out not as a radical debunker, but rather "to discover the truth." Yet in the process he had opened a Pandora's box which affected not only his faith and family, but all of Adventism. His work demonstrated, however, the validity of the "historiographical law, [that] the skeptical believer produces the best historical scholarship."5

Numbers' skepticism did not degenerate into irreverence, however. When, a few years after our first meeting, Ron kindly welcomed me as his house guest for a couple of days, we went to his study where he showed me his library and the place where he was then working on his comprehensive history of modern creationism. Above his desk, the wall held one small framed poster dating from the 1940s which advertised an evangelistic meeting at which the featured speaker, one Raymond Numbers, would be addressing the topic, "God's Answer to Evolution: Are Men and Monkeys Relatives?" At first glance one might think, "What a quaint decorationóif your hobby is amassing Creationist paraphernalia." This Raymond Numbers, however, was no piously self-deluded Elmer Gantry; he was Ron's father. Numbers explained to me that this little poster served as a reminderóa reminder to treat creationists honestly and to treat them with respect. Ron had always respected his father.

The reminder worked. The Creationists is a genuine tour de forceóan honest and respectful treatment of a sensitive subject. This is the book that stands apart from the ubiquitous axe-grinding of so many partisan observers of the so-called creation/evolution debate. The diligent obfuscation of debunkers and apologists alike has kept this controversy simmering at near boil-over for generations. No one even casually acquainted with the debates can elude the surfeit of friction-generating words churned regularly from pens and processors of the petulant protagonists.6

 Thus to chronicle the last century of their tempestuous crusading without being drawn deeply into the foray constitutes a masterful achievement.

Numbers' achievement emerges from his conviction that the historian performs his job best when he furthers understanding, rather than when he debunks or defends the objects of his investigation.7 He explains in the book's introduction, "I am much more interested in how persons and parties used "science" and "pseudoscience" to further their ends than in judging whether they employed these labels appropriately by the standards of the 1990s."8 Thus, instead of assessing the merits of creationists' arguments or bothering to engage with them himself, Numbers offers a meticulously thorough and flowing narrative in which the creationists bless, curse, delight in, and spurn, their opponents and one another. Indeed, if there is any validity to a warfare thesis, its merit lies in the psychological conflicts endured by earnest creationists striving to accommodate their Scriptures to science, and in the social turmoil generated by their bickering amongst themselves and their challenging of the conventionally received boundaries between science and religion.9 The resulting tales of earnest foibles, sincere belief, and occasional charlatanism emerge at times as gut-bustingly hilarious, at times as poignantly sad, but always as believably human.

Numbers' account focuses upon a train of events that collectively constitutes one of the most curious hijackings in American social and intellectual history. A century ago to be a "creationist" merely required one to believe that the physical world and its inhabitants existed as a product of divine action. Since then, many sane Christians have persisted in this belief and agree with Langdon Gilkey that the Christian doctrine of Creation "is merely stating the ultimate dependence of all finite existence on God."10 Accordingly, a "creationist" would be anyone affirming this general doctrine. By the late twentieth century, however, the term had undergone a significant transmogrification. "Creationist" had come to denote someone who insists, among other things, that earth history be squashed into the past ten thousand years and that Noah's flood was global and of geologically catastrophic proportions. "The creationists" of Numbers' narrativeóthe bible scholars and credentialed scientists, the hucksters and scientific wannabees, whose efforts to snuff evolutionism and fan into flame the fires of their fundamentalismsóare those responsible for engineering this curious hijacking.

What follows in this review is only a sketch, not an exhaustive run-down of the story. Other reviewers have already made available fairly complete summaries.11 Besides, when my opening proposal is adopted, everyone will have to read the book anyway. I offer the following synopsis only as a springboard for some concluding commentary. The book's first four chaptersówhich together serve as a sort of prologue to the real dramaóuse only twenty percent of the volume's ink. These sections, which review "creationism" from the "Age of Darwin" through the "Age of Bryan," introduce readers to the swirl of names and themes which comprised the lively creation-evolution exchanges before the arrival of modern flood geology. With the ideas of familiar figures like Louis Agassiz, Arnold Guyot, John William Dawson, George Frederick Wright, William Jennings Bryan, Arthur I. Brown, and Harry Rimmer lined up alongside those of lesser lights like Eleazar Lord, T. T. Martin, Albert Fleischmann, George Barry O'Toole, S. James Bole, and Alfred Watterson McCann, Numbers right from the start puts the lie to the popular assumption that if you've seen one creationist you've seen 'em all. Indeed, this constitutes one of the book's important themes. Despite contemporary pronouncements of creationists (like the crowd at ICR) insisting that creationism is really only one thing (viz. flood geology), the remarkable diversity of these early "creationists" indicates otherwise. Numbers' explanation of the various concordist schemes by which late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century creationists harmonized their Bibles with geology and biology is laced with humorous anecdotes and corroborative detail. For instance, we learn that Harry Rimmer, whom Harold Hill identified in 1976 as "one of the foremost scientists of the century," did indeed have his own research laboratory. It contained, according to his wife, "a darkroom, a sink and running water, a microscope, centrifuge and test tubes." This humorous tid bit is typical of Numbers' style throughout. Rather than explicitly refuting or endorsing his subjects, he lets them do it to themselves.

Interestingly, what from our contemporary perspective stands out as most striking is neither the humor of their enterprises nor the bizarre diversity of creationists and their schemes, but the fact that young life/earth creationism, in which flood geology reigns as the governing paradigm, appears as the oddity. Numbers' chronicle portrays the so-called "gap" or "ruin and restoration" theory together with versions of the "day-age" theory as dominating early fundamentalist cosmogonical thought. Some conservative evangelicals even welcomed various evolutionary scenarios.

From whence, then, comes modern "creationism" of the "flood geology" brand? Enter the Seventh-Day Adventists and the chief architect of the "New Catastrophism," George McCready Price (1870-1963). Who could be better equiped than Numbersóformer Adventist wunderkind and biographer of Ellen Whiteóto spell out the Adventist origins of modern flood geology? We learn that Price, as a devout Adventist, believed in the divine inspiration and authority of Ellen White's alleged visions. Numbers explains, "If she [White] harbored any doubts about the correct reading of the first chapter of Genesis, they were erased during one of her visions, in which she was `carried back to the creation and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week'."12 Unsatisfied with the day-age and gap theories, Price found a workable alternative in White's vision of Noah's flood as the central catastrophic event in earth history. Thus he imaginatively combined this "revelation" with his scant scientific knowledgeóthe sum of which was gained from a few elementary courses in a one-year teacher-training programóand voil·, "flood geology"óan idea which according to Price solved "every major problem in the supposed conflict between modern science and modern Christianity"ówas born.13 Price set to work expositing flood geology, explaining his "Law of Conformable Stratigraphical Sequence," and eventually producing his 726-page magnum opus, The New Geology (1923).

Thus on the eve of the infamous Scopes Trial, Price's name was increasingly on the lips of fundamentalists, despite the fact that few non-Adventists really understood his position or knew of his primary indebtedness to a "prophetess" who had lived at the fringes of American Protestantism. Price claimed to be a real scientist; he opposed evolution; and his book made sense of the Bible by offering the uninitiated a plausible alternative to uniformitarian geology. These facts were good enough to persuade most fundamentalistsóeven William Jennings Bryanóthat Price was one of them. But no credentialed geologists took him seriously. And, excepting Missouri Synod Lutherans, who were predisposed to embrace Price's flood geology by virtue of their ingrained literalist hermeneutics and devotion to the dogmatics of their own theological gurus, most evangelicals were too confused to choose between the varieties of creationism.14 As Dudley Whitney, one of Price's non-Adventist followers, complained, most were "all mixed up between geological ages, flood geology and ruin, believing all at once, endorsing all at once... A swell gang we are, trying to fight evolution when we can agree on nothing among ourselves except that evolution is wrong."15 It was such internal discord that prevented the Religion and Science Association in the 1930s and later the Deluge Geology Society from mustering sufficient stability to forestall implosion. Indeed, it seemed that the infant mortality rate for science-religion organizations was staggeringly high. Apparently any person sufficiently committed to anti-evolutionism to join such a group, usually did so because of a similarly unwavering commitment to a favorite brand of creationism. The results were not especially salutary. Now by this point in the narrative, the reader understands why Numbers never got around to defining explicitly the term "special creationism" at the outset. Aside from the beliefs that evolution was bad and that divine creative activity was pretty "special," there was plenty of room for disagreement among biblical literalists.

So when in 1941 the American Scientific Affiliation appeared under F. Alton Everest's leadership, no smart bookie would have been inclined to bet on another science-religion organization surviving more than a decade. But Everest gingerly handled the various "bombs" that landed in his lapólike the formal invitation from members of the Deluge Geology Society to have the ASA close ranks with them. As a result of his shrewd leadership and the able energy of real evangelical scientists (i.e. real evangelicals who were real scientists) like J. Laurence Kulp, Russell Mixter, J. Frank Cassell, and Walter Hearn, the ASA lived on, despite its controversies. And there were controversies. Rather than detailing them, however, I recommend that ASAers interested in their group's early heritage turn right to Chapter Nine, "Evangelicals and Evolution in North America." Numbers proves his ability as a first-rate storyteller as he traces some of the highlights from the ASA's early decades. He gets the story right, too. This chapter, like all the others, is meticulously documented and on the mark.

The outline of the rest of the story is simple enough. John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris reacted differently than most ASA members to the appearance of Bernard Ramm's The Christian View of Science and Scripture (1954). Ramm had, to the minds of many, granted theological permission to evangelical biologists to board the evolution bandwagon. But Whitcomb and Morris, outraged by Ramm's concession to uniformitarianism, read his work as the clarion call for a definitive restatement of Price's flood geology. Modern "creation science"óironically, a term originally proffered by ASA's James Buswell III as a generalization for positions such as progressive creationism and theistic evolutionówas born with the appearance of The Genesis Flood (1963), a formal rebuttal of the alleged "absurdities" of Ramm's position. And once Price's brand of creationism had undergone this professional-looking baptism by a credentialed theologian and scientist, deluge geology spread at a remarkable rate, gradually flooding the world. The Creation Research Society, the Institute for Creation Research, the Paluxy River fossils, the Arkansas trial, Robert Gentry's polonium halos, the second law of thermodynamics, etc. and etc.óare, as expected, all included in the tale.

But the fact that the book includes all the episodes that we rightly expect such a story to encompass is not what renders this volume such a gem. Rather, for every episode that the creation-evolution aficionado anticipates, the book details at least three more that he does not. From the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Korea Association of Creation Research, to the Christian Reconstructionists, Great Britain's Biblical Creation Society, Clifford Burdick's bogus degrees, and the eccentric Arthur Custance, it's all there, even geocentrists, the Turkish Ministry of Education, and the "Gap-Flood" model of S. Hugh Paine. That it is all woven together into a genuine page-turner is the real wonder and pleasure of this encyclopedic chronicle.

In the end, it is principally a chronicle, too. The book's great strengthótaking a warehouse of details and cementing them together into a narrative that could have been much bumpierómight also be its chief weakness. For all its exhaustive research, nearly fifty interviews and scores upon scores of archival sources, more ink might have been devoted to answering that persistent question, "So what?" To be sure, the narrative is peppered with occasional critical commentary. For example, Numbers observes several subtle ironies: a new subject called "flood geology" which for some time could claim not one real geologist; a discipline called creation "science" in which the practitioners place a bewilderingly low premium upon experimenting or studying nature; anti-evolutionists who railed against the ideas of credentialed scientists while coveting those credentials with an unsavory fervor. But Numbers reserves his explicit attempt to make sense of it all for his brief concluding section, entitled "Why Flood Geology?" Here he offers a few reflections on the curious hijacking of "creationism" by "flood geologists." What he has to say is insightful and thought provoking. I only wish that he would have carried on here for more than four pages. After decades of research and reflection, there must be more to say. Maybe that will be another book some day.

What does he say here? Numbers proposes that the question "Why Flood Geology?" does not admit to simple answering. That, however, does not stop him from offering what seems to be a rather simple answer. Morris and Whitcomb, to many Christians, succeeded in making "sense of the Bible." Numbers explains that they "at one stroke eliminated the need for such `biblical gymnastics' and deprived evolutionists of the time required for the natural origin of species."16 While this simple explanation of flood geology's popularity may not be the whole answer, it certainly is not the wrong answer.

Flood geology did not only make sense of the Bible; it also made sense of human history. For the many American Protestants waiting in eager anticipation for the return of Christ in a catastrophic apocalypse, the symmetry provided by a catastrophic deluge near the beginning of time proved irresistible. Of course, this vision of earth history is hardly news. Historians of science will recall the frontispiece of Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684) in which drawings of Noah's flood and the final global conflagration provide a tidy pair of boundaries for human history.

Upon consideration of the near-comprehensive world view offered by creationism, Numbers also notes that it becomes increasingly difficult to tar "creationists" with the "anti-intellectual" epithet. Their tradition was in part "just as `intellectual' as the one they rejected," he explains. "What most distinguished the leading creationists from their evolutionary counterparts was not intellect or integrity but cosmology and epistemology."17 Creationists could read the same literature and review the same evidence as evolutionists, but reach wildly different conclusions. And this is not because creationists are stupid. Rather, as the British evolutionist H. S. Shelton put it, creationists "see things differently."18 If this is right, then so is Numbers' conclusion that understanding creationism has far less to do with expertise in science or philosophy than it does with gaining "familiarity with the Byzantine world of popular religion."19

But if entry to the "world of popular religion" is the prescription for genuine understanding of the creationist subcultures, then I wish Numbers had given a larger dose of the medicine. Yes, creationists live along those contested borderlands between science and religion. So the focus of the chronicle must be where it is. Yet border skirmishes often reflect activity further inland. In short, for all the richness of Numbers' tale, had the book been sufficiently longer to imbed the narrative more deeply in the contexts of American evangelicalism, in the history of American science, and in that concomitant scientism that infects so much of contemporary secular culture, then, perhaps, the activities of the borderlands would have been even more intelligible.

Then, too, I believe it would become clearer that flood geology, a curious mutation of Seventh-Day Adventist prophecy, flourished mightily because, while for some it made sense of the Bible, it also met the silly unyielding scientism of a Carl Saganó"The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be"ówith an equally unyielding hyperliteralism; the former eschewing the Creator, the later every shred of conventional science. Thus when the scientific elites pose as pontiffs uttering their secular cosmogonies, nobody should be surprised when populist spokesmen for the unconvinced masses finally came forward with a tale just as hard to swallow. Still, neither extreme satisfies the patient minds of those many believers who take both conventional science and Christianity seriously. Ironically, this thoughtful group of the faithful, wary of any world view that has all the I's dotted and T's crossed, would also like to think of themselves as creationists. But they dare not use the term; for they know it has been the victim of a most curious hijacking.



1Numbers first contributed to the ASA with his article, "Science Falsely So-Called: Evolution and Adventists in the Nineteenth Century," Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 27 (March 1975) 18-23. About a decade later the ASA reprinted the important Church History article that Numbers had coauthored with David Lindberg, "Beyond War and Peace: A Reappraisal of the Encounter between Christianity and Science," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 39 (September 1987) 140-149. Numbers' work on ASA history, especially the ASA vis-a-vis modern creationism, first appeared in his article "Creationism in 20th Century America," Science 218 (1982) 538-544 and later in a revised form in "The Dilemma of Evangelical Scientists," in Evangelicalism and Modern America, edited by George Marsden (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), 150-160.

2For Numbers' History of Science Society publications on science and religion see "The Creationist Controversy," Isis 76 (September 1985) 375-377; "George Frederick Wright: From Christian Darwinist to Fundamentalist," Isis 79 (December 1988) 624-645; and "Science and Religion," Osiris, 2nd series, 1 (1985) 59-80.

3Of course being in love with one's subject is not the same as participating in it. See Barbara W. Tuchman, Practicing History: Selected Essays by Barbara W. Tuchman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 14.

4The remark about the "proverbial slippery slope" is from Numbers, The Creationists, xvi.

Among the many books that Numbers has either authored or edited are Creation by Natural Law: Laplace's Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought (1977); Almost Persuaded American Physicians and Compulsory Health Insurance, 1912-1920 (1978); The Disappointed Millerism and Millenariansim in the Nineteenth Century (1987), co-edited with Jonathan Butler; Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in the Western Faith Traditions (1986), co-edited with Darell Amundsen; and God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (1986), co-edited with David C. Lindberg.

5The poignant story of the writing and reception of the original edition of Prophetess of Health is movingly told by Jonathan M. Butler in the introduction to the book's new edition. See Jonathan M. Butler, "Introduction: The Historian as Heretic," in Prophetess of Health: Ellen G. White and the Origins of Seventh-day Adventist Health Reform (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992), xxv-lxviii. Quotations from Butler, pp. xxxiv, xxxv, xxxvii, and xlviii.

6A fine compendium of literatureómuch of which illustrates this pointófrom one side of the debate is Tom McIver, Anti-Evolution: An Annotated Bibliography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1988). If one considers the assorted propaganda issuing from such divergent organizations as the Institute for Creation Research and the National Center for Science Education, it rapidly becomes clear that for many, proselytizing is of greater value than understanding. This is not to suggest that the entire creation-evolution industry is in the business of generating friction. The ASA's own annotated bibliography, Contemporary Issues in Science & Christian Faith, contains many entries that bear this out.

7Interestingly, I have seen an evolutionist publicly charge Numbers of being no more than a sophisticated apologist for creationism, and I know creationists have labeled him a champion of evolutionism. Together, these accusations should say something important about his zeal for treating his subject fairly.

8Numbers, The Creationists, xv.

9Ibid., xiv-xv.

10Langdon Gilkey, Maker of Heaven and Earth: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1959), 31.

11The most thorough rehearsal of the volume (ideal for anyone wanting a "Cliffs Notes"-type overview by an ASA member and participant in the drama) is Davis Young's essay review. See Fides et Historia 24 (Fall 1993) 100-110. Three other reviews worth reading are Mark A. Noll, "Ignorant Armies," First Things (April 1993)45-48; George M. Marsden, "Literal Interpretations," Nature 360 (17 Dec. 1992) 637-638; and J. David Hoeveler, Jr., "Inside Creationism," Science 258 (16 Oct. 1992) 487-488. Less valuable reviews include Stephen R. L. Clark, "In the Beginning Was What?" New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, 24; and Richard G. Hodgson, "The Creationists," Pro Rege (March 1993)24-25.

12Numbers, The Creationists, 74.

13Ibid., 75, 81.

14Conservative Lutherans, to my knowledge, never entertained the gap theory; and the day-age theory was strictly verboten. Most were widely influenced by Francis Pieper, the Missouri Synod's chief dogmatician and president from 1899-1911. In his magnum opus, Christian Dogmatics (completed in 1924), he pronounced unequivocally, "Scripture forbids us to interpret the days as periods, for it divides these days into evening and morning. That forces us to accept the days as days of twenty-four hours." And, "It is by no means a clever objection to the inspiration of Holy Scripture when modern theologians remark that the Bible is no textbook of history or geography or natural science and that for that reason inspiration could not pertain to the historical, geographical, and scientific data." From Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, trans. Theodore Engelder (reprint; Saint Louis: Concordia, 1950), 468, 221.

15Numbers, The Creationists, 102, 114.

16Ibid., 338.

17Ibid. 336.

18Quoted in Ibid.

19Ibid., 337.