- Historic Sites
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
“The Scopes trial did not at the time appear to be the turning point it has become in the minds of later historians.”
The other and perhaps more widely held interpretation of Genesis 1 was the so-called gap theory. This contends that between the original creation of the heavens and the earth described in Genesis 1:1 and the subsequent Edenic creation described in the rest of the chapter there elapsed a vast period of time during which the earth witnessed repeated creations and destructions revealed today in the fossil record. This approach could accommodate everything geologists were teaching. The gap theory was particularly popular among fundamentalists because it had been endorsed in the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, the fundamentalists’ favorite version in the 1920s.
Only one prominent anti-evolutionist in the 1920s, a man named George McCready Price, argued for a special creation of life and for a universal flood at the time of Noah that explained the geological evidence. The notion of a geologically significant flood had disappeared not only from American science a hundred years earlier but also from Christian apologetics. Virtually no one outside of marginal religious circles endorsed this idea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The big shift in creationist thinking began to occur in the 1960s as a result of the influence of The Genesis Flood , a book by John Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry Morris that endorsed Price’s views, and the subsequent founding of the Creation Research Society. These creationists abandoned the day-age theory and the gap theory in favor of Price’s flood geology, which subsequently became known as creation science or scientific creationism. To illustrate the vast distance traversed by fundamentalists in the twentieth century, I need only point out that William Jennings Bryan would be far too liberal to be welcomed as a member of the Creation Research Society today.
Does the phrase scientific creationism actually reflect any real change over time in the scientific training of creationists?
One of the most notable changes has been the number of scientifically credentialed creationists in recent years. At the peak of the anti-evolution controversy in the 1920s, the creationist with the best scientific credentials, a biologist at Wheaton College named S. James Bole, had a master’s degree in elementary school penmanship from the University of Illinois and for a few years had studied fruit culture there. There was not a single spokesman in the creationist camp who possessed so much as a master’s degree in either biology or geology. When the Creation Research Society was organized in 1963, five of the ten founding members held Ph.D.’s in the biological sciences, another had a doctorate in science, and one had a Ph.D. in engineering.
Just how did flood geology become the dominant variety of creationism?
Oddly enough, at the very time that more and more fundamentalists were going on for higher education, they were growing increasingly intolerant of schemes that accommodated historical geology and instead turned to flood geology, a theory that restricts the history of life on earth (and in some accounts the history of the entire universe) to no more than ten thousand years.
No event was more important in promoting flood geology than the publication in 1961 of The Genesis Flood . Price’s views had been suspect because he had been a Seventh-day Adventist, but Whitcomb and Morris gave them a proper fundamentalist baptism, and after that flood geology was popularized not by people on the margins of Christianity but by prominent fundamentalists.
Moreover, for those who wanted to take the Bible literally, flood geology meant having to make no assumptions. After all, if you were an advocate of the day-age theory, you had to assume that when Moses wrote of days, he meant ages. Why didn’t he simply say ages? If you were an advocate of the gap theory, you had to assume that for some inscrutable reason Moses silently passed over this long and important gap in the earth’s history between the first verse in Genesis and the Edenic creation. If you accepted flood geology, you could take the Genesis story—as well as the story of Noah and the universal flood that destroyed most of life on earth—literally.
Why did the phrase scientific creationism come in to use when it did—in the early 1970s?
Up through the 1960s the advocates of Price’s flood geology were quite happy to stress its biblical roots. Price himself eagerly acknowledged that he never would have developed this model of earth’s history without the Scriptures. However, with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1968 that overturned the 1928 Arkansas law banning the teaching of evolution, it became increasingly clear to creationists that they would get into the public schools of America only by advocating an alternative scientific theory. So in the early 1970s creationists made a conscious and concerted effort to repackage Price’s flood geology—biblical creationism, if you will—as creation science or scientific creationism. This was simply biblical creationism stripped of all references to the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s flood.