Science in Christian Perspective

Essay Review 

Flesh for The Creationists' Bones

J. W. Haas, Jr.
Gordon College
Wenham, MA 01984

Creationism in Twentieth-Century America by Ronald L. Numbers, General Ed. Hamden, CT: Garland Publishing, 1995. 10 Vols. $812.00 or by the volume.

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 45 (September 1995): 199.

American Protestants have offered a wide spectrum of response to evolution since Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859). In this century, opposition to evolution has been a characteristic part of the evangelical/fundamentalist rejection of liberal Christianity, liberal politics, and liberal economics. A litmus test for participation in church life or teaching in most evangelical secondary schools and many institutions of higher learning still includes the right answer to "Do you believe in evolution?" While opposition to evolution may be a natural part of the stock of beliefs of Christians who follow televangelists, preachers, and Christian apologists who feast on an easy target, it also is part of the beliefs of many highly educated evangelicals who find it impossible to integrate what seems to be a particularly offensive part of naturalistic science into their theistic world view. Yet, I suspect that most evangelicals in the natural sciences hold some nuanced form of theistic evolution.

Critics of evolution have argued their case from biblical, biological, and geological grounds. What has been known as "Mosaic geology" has long held a place in the discussion, waxing and waning in importance according to the fashions of the day. This view of earth history has seen a renaissance since the early 1960s through the advocacy of the Creation Research Society and fellow travelers who have co-opted the first plank of theism for their own use. It should be noted that many evangelicals unhappy with evolution do not hold a "young earth" position or advocate the teaching of "Creation Science" in the public schools.

Numbers's award winning The Creationists (1992) offered a valuable entrČ into the world of the anti-evolutionist. This series of works provides the flesh for creationists' bones. Here we have a liberal sampling of the literature of 20th century American anti-evolutionism gathered from the dusty archives of Bible institutes, seminaries, college libraries, and personal collections. Each volume provides biographical sketches of the authors of the works and sets forth the context in which the reprinted works were produced.

Vol. 1. Antievolutionism before World War I by Ronald N. Numbers, Ed. 1995. xvii + 403 pages, introductions. $72.00.

This volume includes Alexander Patterson's The Other Side of Evolution (1903) and the English translation of German Eberhard Dennert's At the Deathbed of Darwinism (1904) plus Luther T. Townsend's Collapse of Evolution (1905) and George Frederick Wright's article, "The Passing of Evolution" from Volume VII of The Fundamentals (1910-15). Clerics Patterson (Presbyterian) and Townsend (Methodist Episcopal) sought to draw (liberal) Christians back from adherence to evolution on grounds based on the growing anti-Darwinian scientific discussion in Europe, which sharply contrasted with the almost unanimous acceptance of evolution in North America. Dennert detailed the flaws that German scientists found in natural selection while maintaining an overall acceptance of evolution. Wright, a Congregational clergyman, had taken up the study of geology and had become a close friend to Asa Gray, an eminent Harvard botanist. At first, he shared Gray's vision of a "Christianized Darwinism" but later became a spokesman for conservative Christianity and a skeptic of the power of natural selection. For Numbers, this period represents a grudging willingness by conservatives to consider evolution but at the same time a growing awareness of the fallibility of natural selection. The real enemy was seen as "higher criticism."

Vol. 2. Creation-Evolution Debates by Ronald N. Numbers, Ed. 1995. xiv + 505 pages, introductions. $95.00.

Debates have played a key role in antievolution history beginning with the mythic acrimonious 1860 Oxford exchange between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley. More recently, in the 1970s, more than one hundred debates involved the staff of the Institute for Creation Research, and the 1990s featured debates by Phillip Johnson and William Provine. Some debates arise as spur-of-the-moment events, others are formal affairs staged before large (sometimes unruly) audiences, still others take place on the pages of periodicals and books. Some debates were carried out with courtesy and respect; others degenerated into name-calling.

Numbers has reprinted the texts of eight important debates of the mid-1920s and 30s. In a debate carried out on the pages of the New York Times (1925), William Jennings Bryan took on paleontologist Harry Fairfield Osborn and biologist Edwin Grant Conklin, Jr. Both of the scientists had deep Christian commitment. The evolution-versus-creation debate (1924) between New York Calvary Baptist Church's John Roach Straton and Charles Francis Potter, pastor of West Side Unitarian Church, was broadcast over the radio. George McCready Price, leading fundamentalist "scientific" authority of the day debated ex-Franciscan priest Joseph McCabe before a hostile audience in Queen's Hall, London, England (1925). The outgunned Price never entered the lists again. One debate featured two leading creationists, William Bell Riley and Harry Rimmer, controverting on the "days" of Genesis 1. Another debate between flood-geologist D. J. Whitney and prep-school teacher Edwin Tenney Brewster (1937) took place in the pages of the Truth Seeker, a magazine for freethinkers. Unshakable assurance in the validity of one's argument remains an essential element of the debater's arsenal.

Vol. 3. The Antievolution Works of Arthur I. Brown by Ronald N. Numbers, Ed. 1995. xii + 208 pages, introductions. $55.00.

American-born Arthur I. Brown, M.D. (1875-1947), from Vancouver, played a major role as a critic of evolution in the 1920s and 1930s. He left a lucrative surgical practice in 1925 to devote his time to lecturing on science and the Bible. Brown argued against evolution on scientific and scriptural grounds. Enormously popular in the U. S. with his national fundamentalist audiences, he was seen by his adversaries as well educated, gracious, and a master of the lecture stage. As most of his contemporaries during the early part of the century, he accepted the notion of an ancient earth. The six short examples of Brown's writing focus on a plethora of examples of alleged deficiencies in evolutionist arguments and copious quotes from scientist skeptics of Darwinism. Scripture is used only in general terms but with the repeated affirmation that it is in complete compliance with scientific fact (even thousands of years before the facts were discovered).

Vol. 4. The Antievolution Pamphlets of William Bell Riley by William Vance Trollinger, Ed. 1995. xxii + 221 pages, introductions. $55.00.

William Bell Riley (1861-1947) epitomizes the values brought to a cause - here antievolution - by a leading fundamentalist cleric, who in defending the faith lashes out in less than consistent terms against an enemy whose ideas were incomprehensible to him. In one instance, he debated North Carolina State College biologist Z. P. Metcalf. Metcalf offered a scholarly presentation of the evidence supporting the scientific evidence for evolution. Riley's rejoinder, egged on by the crowd which "yelled and whistled, clapped their hands, and pounded the floor with their feet," offered an off-the-cuff series of one-liners, anecdotes, and cryptic indictments. Typical of his strategy was his pointing to a book with pictures of pre-historic men and commenting, "Come up here after the debate and look at these pictures, and I am sure you will see somebody who looks just like them when you get downtown."

Riley's World Christian Fundamentals Association fought the higher criticism which fueled the modernism which was invading the main line denominations of North America. He saw evolution as the centerpiece of his battle against apostasy. His organization organized efforts to outlaw the teaching of evolution in the public schools. He denounced an international Jewish-Bolshevik-Darwinist conspiracy even to the point of applauding Adolf Hitler's efforts "to foil the Jew's nefarious plot." Bell later turned against Hitler in his pamphlet Hitlerism; or, The Philosophy of Evolution in Action. This and eight other Riley pamphlets are reprinted in the volume.

Vol. 5. The Creationist Writings of Byron C. Nelson by Paul Nelson, Ed. 1995. xxvi + 505 pages, introductions. $100.00.

Bryon Christopher Nelson (1893-1972) grew up in Madison, Wisconsin and Washington, D. C., where his father was a member of the House of Representatives. Following army service, he graduated from the Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. After a term as a Lutheran pastor, he moved east to gain a Th.M. at Princeton Seminary while serving at the Danish Lutheran Church in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He became interested in the evolution question and took courses in biology at Rutgers University. He came down on the antievolutionary side, publishing After Its Kind: The First and Last Word on Evolution (1927). Four years later, he published The Deluge Story in Stone: A History of the Flood Theory of Geology, adopting the position of Seventh-Day Adventist George McCreedy Price. He, and others, joined Price in 1935 to form the short-lived Religion and Science Association. Nelson would later argue that Adolph Hitler justified the notion of the master race on evolutionary principles. This volume reflects his scholarly interest in geological phenomena and archaeology.

Vol. 6. The Antievolution Pamphlets of Harry Rimmer by Edward B. Davis, Ed. 1995. xxxiv + 482 pages, introductions. $84.00.

Davis has done exceptional work in evaluating Rimmer's life and influence and in detailing the publishing history of the antievolution pamphlets reprinted in this work. Rimmer (1890-1952), raised in a troubled west coast family and lacking significant formal education, took the advice of a friend to "read science." Converted at a street meeting by a student who later became a medical missionary, Rimmer would look to "the sidewalk evangelist with an interest in science as the model for his own life." His work with the YMCA placed him in contact with college students who were increasingly faced with anti-Christianity in their classrooms. Davis argues that Rimmer's first target was the biblical critics rather than evolutionists but this changed by the early 20s when he, and other conservatives saw evolution as "a principal cause of unbelief in the Bible and the gospel message it conveyed." Rimmer's books (300,000 at one publisher) and heavy national speaking schedule at Bible conferences, churches, and colleges made him a leading force in conservative Christianity. His claims to scientific expertise and willingness to argue with scientists attracted those who lacked scientific background. However, the emergence of scientifically literate evangelicals after WWII would drastically reduce his influence. Davis duly notes the debt that recent creationists such as Henry Morris owe to Rimmer, yet ironically "with its strict requirements that members have postgraduate degrees in science, the Creation Research Society would bar the door to the one man, who more than anyone else, showed how to be `a scientific creationist.'" Sixteen pamphlets are reprinted.

Vol. 7. Selected Works of George McCready Price by Ronald L. Numbers, Ed. 1995. xvii + 489 pages, introductions. $75.00.

Price (1870-1963), dubbed "he principal scientific authority of the Fundamentalists," was nurtured in Seventh Day Adventism. Largely self-educated in science, he attended the Adventist Battle Creek College for two years and later completed a teacher training course. The B.A. and M.A. degrees often appearing after his name were honorary. At one point a physician friend sought to convert him to evolution, but his reading of prophetess Ellen G. White's writings was instrumental in his decision to lead to a life dedicated to fighting evolution. His antievolution case rested primarily on geology with "flood geology as the cornerstone. As was the case with most of the writers in this series, he quoted heavily from scientists who were not sure about the mechanism of evolutionary change. Interestingly, Numbers notes that privately "Price endorsed the common Adventist belief that Satan himself, the great primal hybridizer, was the real instigator of all the mixing and crossing of the races of mankind, and also the mixer of thousands of kinds of plants and animals which God designed should remain separate." Ridiculed by his enemies as a scientific fraud, he was embraced by conservative Christians as one "come to the kingdom for such a time as this." While his influence peaked from 1915-1935, it remained as an undercurrent in fundamentalism to emerge as the foundation of "modern creationism" in the 1960s. Three books and a pamphlet are reprinted.

Vol. 8. The Early Writings of Harold W. Clark and Frank Lewis Marsh by Ronald L. Numbers, Ed. 1995. xxiii + 531 pages, introductions. $93.00.

This work offers the writings of two students of Price who gained graduate degrees in science at reputable institutions. Harold W. Clark (1891-1986) learned flood geology under Price and replaced him on the faculty of Pacific Union College in 1922. His first book, Back to Creationism (1929), followed Price's line and was praised by his mentor. Soon after he began a series of studies of glaciation in the western mountains, which, coupled with his graduate studies at the University of California and observations of the cores of deep oil wells in Texas, caused him to change his mind about the meaning of the fossil record and to adopt limited evolution while maintaining a recent creation and a universal flood. He sought to steer "a middle course between the Scylla of the evolutionists and the Charybdis of the many diluvialists whose zeal exceeds their information." This created a split with Price who unsuccessfully sought to have him condemned by Adventist clergy.

Frank Lewis Marsh (1899-1992), who studied geology under Price at Emmanuel Missionary College in the late 20s, gained an M.S. in zoology at Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in botany at the University of Nebraska in 1940. He, too, espoused a recent creation and a universal flood but accepted the evolution of post-Edenic species. His Fundamental Biology (1941) incorporated the Seventh Day Adventist perspective that the world was the stage for "a cosmic struggle between the Creator and Satan." Later works avoided such references in order to gain a hearing from the scientific community. The eminent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky reviewed his Evolution, Creation and Science (1944) in the American Naturalist, noting that Marsh had written a "sensibly argued defense of special creation." Tellingly, for that or any day, Dobzhansky observed that "in rejecting macro evolution, Marsh's book taught the valuable lesson that no evidence is powerful enough to force acceptance of a conclusion that is emotionally [sic religiously] distasteful." Marsh drew Price's ire and had an uneven acceptance in Seventh Day Adventist circles. Ironically, he joined with nine other non-Adventists in 1963 to form the Creation Research Society serving on its board of directors until 1969, when he resigned because of the practice of holding board meetings on Saturdays.

Three long works, Clark's Back to Creationism and The New Diluvialism, and Marsh's Fundamental Biology are reprinted as representative of creationism's early credentialed scientists.

Vol. 9. Early Creationist Journals by Ronald L. Numbers, Ed. 1995. xvi + 629 pages, introductions. $100.00.

The Creationist (1935-8), The Bulletin of Deluge Geology and Related Sciences (1941-2), The Bulletin of Creation, the Deluge and Related Science (1943-5), and The Forum for the Correlation of Science and the Bible (1946-8) represent short-lived efforts by antievolutionists to propagate their gospel. Internecine wrangling over interpretations of scripture and science and power struggles by the participants proved fatal.

Vol. 10. Creation and Evolution in the Early American Scientific Affiliation by Mark A. Kalthoff, Ed. 1995. xxxix + 468 pages, introductions. $83.00.

Kalthoff is currently completing a doctoral dissertation on the history of the ASA. He has deftly chosen 40 articles from the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation and other short pieces from ASA publications in the period 1942-1961, which reflect the attitudes of the period and the inexorable breakaway of the "young earth" wing to form their own organization. The period following World War II saw a renaissance of evangelical scholarship in the sciences. Evangelicals gained Ph.D.s in large numbers in the various science disciplines and joined mainstream science culture in the university and industry. Many of these have served as officers of the organization and contributed to its publications. Few young-earth creationists have been part of the ASA since the 1960s. Kalthoff offers an important discussion of the early days of the ASA in setting forth the context in which the institution began and matured in the first two decades.

We are indebted to Numbers and his colleagues for a rich lode of resources examining the evangelical/fundamentalist interaction with evolution during the first six decades of the century. This collection belongs in the library of any institution which is concerned with the views of conservative Christians in the twentieth century.