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The New Creationists
The foremost student of a belief held by nearly half of all Americans traces its history from Darwin’s bombshell through the storms of the Scopes trial to today’s “scientific creationists”—who find William Jennings Bryan too liberal
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
Ten years later there were really only two scientists of repute in North America who didn’t subscribe to some form of organic evolution: John William Dawson of McGill University in Montreal and Arnold Guyot of Princeton. Here again it is necessary to emphasize what type of creationists they were. Guyot insisted on only three special creative acts: creation of matter, creation of life, and creation of the first humans. He saw himself as an opponent of evolution. Today one who accepted that view would probably be regarded as a theistic evolutionist or a progressive creationist, certainly not a strict creationist. Dawson also tried to limit the number of special creations. So the leading scientific defenders of creation in the late nineteenth century were both few in number and intellectually far distant from late-twentieth-century creationists.
Thirty miles north of where we’re sitting today there occurred the most famous event in the history of American evolution-creation battles: the Scopes trial. Why was evolution such a troubling issue to the generation of the 1920s?
I think for two very different reasons. One had to do with the perception of an ethical and moral decline in Western society. William Jennings Bryan was particularly concerned about this. How, he wondered, could Germany, the most civilized nation in the world, engage in such barbaric acts during World War I? And why were American young people like Leopold and Loeb committing such terrible crimes? His explanation was the influence of evolution, which taught that humans had descended from apes and that the basis of morality is “Might makes right.” Second, more American young people were being exposed to evolution. The early decades of the twentieth century witnessed the increasing popularity of high school education, where evolution had entered the science curriculum. The studies of a prominent psychologist at Bryn Mawr, James Leuba, showed a correlation between exposure to a higher education and a decline of orthodox religious beliefs. Bryan used that sort of information to argue that evolution was primarily responsible for increasing crime and decreasing morals. He liked to say, if you teach children they are related to apes, they will certainly behave like apes.
Conventional wisdom about the “Monkey Trial” holds that although he lost the case, Clarence Darrow exposed the foolishness of anti-evolution laws and dealt a near-fatal blow to fundamentalist creationism.
Right, and that is a very widespread historical myth that does not hold up under scrutiny. John Thomas Scopes had volunteered for the trial, and he never went to jail. And as you pointed out, Darrow did lose. The case was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the decision on a technicality: that the jury rather than the judge should have assessed the hundred-dollar fine. But the court upheld the constitutionality of the law, which was the last thing the American Civil Liberties Union wanted. Its goal was to have a test case go all the way to the Supreme Court, and it needed Scopes to be found guilty for this to happen. To have the case over- turned in the Tennessee Supreme Court was very disappointing to the ACLU.
In fact, the crusade to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools did not reach its peak until about 1927, two years after the Scopes trial. Arkansas passed its law in 1928, and then a fairly rapid decline set in. Some historians have suggested that the 1928 presidential election involving the Catholic Al Smith diverted the attention of fundamentalists to another target. Others simply think that both sides were exhausted by the struggle. The fundamentalists had captured five states in the South, and they had come to realize that they weren’t going to win in the North. The issue had reached a temporary resolution.
But certainly the Scopes trial did not at the time appear to be the turning point that it has become in the minds of later historians—partly, of course, because of the play and movie Inherit the Wind . Like the Galileo affair, it has taken on mythical proportions.
In 1963 Richard Hofstadter wrote that “today the evolutionary controversy seems as remote as the Homeric era.” Yet unknown to him and most Americans, a new variety of scientific creationist was in the making, one that would become fully visible in the 1970s. How was this new group of creationists different?
It’s ironic that Hofstadter made this statement in 1963, because that was the very year the Creation Research Society was born. This society took the lead in promoting what has come to be known as young-earth creationism.
Previously, in the 1920s at the height of the anti-evolution controversy, most fundamentalists believed that the first chapter of Genesis allowed for geological ages, and virtually no one attributed any geological significance to Noah’s flood. Among the better-educated fundamentalists probably the most popular view was the day-age theory. This interpreted the days of Genesis not as twenty-four-hour periods but as vast geological ages—which meant that they could accommodate all of historical geology and quite a bit of organic development as well. William Jennings Bryan believed this, and so did George Frederick Wright, who contributed the article on evolution to The Fundamentals (the set of pamphlets that defined fundamentalism in the early twentieth century). It was a very orthodox view.