The Second Conversation: Historical Positions on the Age of the Earth

The second conversation is about our community’s original position on the age of the earth from about the mid-1800s. It’s worth considering what our founders wrote about this, because it shows that they were unafraid to embrace what we now broadly call ‘science’. To them it was nothing more than a systematic way to study God’s creative works.

But before we look at some of their thoughts, let’s put them into the context of the early to mid-1800s, which saw some very interesting developments when geologists began documenting the fossils they were finding in sedimentary layers.

In about 1815, a mineral surveyor by the name of William Smith coined a new word – stratigraphy – to define his study of rock formations in England and Wales. Stratigraphy became the staple scientific work of most geologists. Their most common kind of publication was a detailed description of the formations (and their fossils, if any) in a specific area. Over time, geological formations were given names that were eventually accepted internationally by informal agreement among geologists, and became known as Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic, and so on.

The fossil record of both animals and plants clearly indicated a history that could also be interpreted as ‘progressive’, in that ‘higher’ kinds of organisms seemed to have appeared in succession over the course of time: mammals later than reptiles or fish, flowering plants later than the flowerless kinds, and so on. It also presented overwhelming evidence that human history had been preceded not just by one week of God’s primal creative action, but by an immensely lengthy and eventful history, all of it apparently pre-human and stretching back into a long-distant past.

One of the most influential summaries of stratigraphy was Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales (1822), which was largely compiled by William Conybeare but drew extensively on Smith’s work.

Conybeare was clergyman, as well as a geologist and a palaeontologist. He was known for his ground-breaking work on marine reptile fossils in the 1820s and wrote numerous papers for the Geological Society of London. His publications included descriptions of ichthyosaur anatomy, and he was the first to publish a scientific description of a plesiosaur.  Conybeare worked hard to introduce the insular English to the kind of biblical criticism long practiced in the rest of Europe. He and his theological allies believed that in the new age of reasoning that was emerging, only a more scholarly approach to the Bible could save it from being dismissed as irrelevant or worse.

In 1830, a Geologist called Charles Lyell published a work offering evidence that the world was at least millions of years old.⁠1 Academic and geological circles were abuzz with new discoveries and theologians pursued a more scholarly approach to the Bible to ensure it wasn’t dismissed in this new scientific age.⁠2 By the mid to late 1800s many educated and devout scholars were openly discussing these new discoveries and how they might shed light on the history of the Earth prior to that described in the Bible.

Out of this culture came scholars, Bible students, and lay-preachers like those who are quoted below. They were the progressives of their day, unafraid by what they might learn from nature and excited for how it may help better understand the Bible. Having this little snapshot of history in mind helps their words come to life when read in that context:

“Fragments, however, of the wreck of this pre-Adamic world have been brought to light by geological research, to the records of which we refer the reader, for a detailed account of its discoveries, with this remark, that its organic remains, coal fields, and strata, belong to the ages before the formation of man”.⁠3

“The very first incident described is the movement of the spirit of God ‘on the face of the waters’ (same verse), from which it follows the earth and the waters existed before the re-organising work of 6,000 years ago began. How long it had existed in that state there is nothing to show; but there is room for any length of time the evidences of geology may claim”.⁠4

“It is well for us to contemplate the mighty works of God. Geology teaches us much; it speaks of a time and creation on this earth when animal life, if not totally, was nearly unknown, and only the lower order of vegetable life covering its face, and this must have existed many thousands of years; and during the whole of that long period, the earth was undergoing wonderful and necessary changes to fit it for a creation of a higher order, and evidently with the creature man in view”.⁠5

“I have not the slightest doubt concerning the truths revealed in the strata of the earth’s crust. There can be no reasonable doubt that long ages have passed away since the matter of the earth first took existences by the fiat of its Almighty Creator. There can be no reasonable doubt that when the non-fossiliferous rocks were first formed the heat of the earth’s matter was too intense for vegetable and animal life to exist. There can be no reasonable doubt that it was only in a later age that the lower forms of plant and animal life could exist. And there can be no reasonable doubt that the succeeding ages allowed the creation of still higher and more perfect forms, till we reach the age called the “Tertiary,” and the “Post-pliocene” period of that age, when we are told remains of man are found for the first time. All of this, I say, I do not doubt. The facts of old mother earth’s storehouse are too convincingly inscribed upon her crust to allow me to doubt. At the same time, and amid it all, I have the most implicit faith and unbounded trust in God and His sacred word”.⁠6

These Bible scholars were clearly unafraid to explore the evidence being uncovered about the natural world, and they happily allowed it to inform their theology. As Robert Roberts stated in 1885, “It is a demonstrable fact that the earth has existed for ages. To adopt a view that appears to make it begin only 6,000 years ago would create a difficulty. There is no need for adopting such a view”.⁠7

The quotes above were all written in the 1800s, but leave little doubt that Bible scholars had absolutely no quibbles with the idea of an old Earth, or the fact that there was a pre-Adamic creation. This perspective continued with the next generation of scholars in the 1900s who wrote the following:

“The conclusions of geology, and the undoubted existence of fossil remains of incalculable antiquity are quite in harmony with this view, whereas the view that the earth itself was created some 6,000 years ago is hopelessly irreconcilable with facts”.⁠8

“Ten years ago the average scientist would have asserted that our habitable globe had not existed for more than a hundred million years. Now it would be hard to find a competent physical specialist who would fix a definite maximum below a thousand million years”.⁠9

“Having seen the harvest in the coal field, let us turn to the seed time. Millions of years ago, nature stored away billions of tons of coal for us, and then left us a record of her processes written in a language that all ages and tongues can understand”.⁠10

These quotes above show that these scholars were quite comfortable with what geologists were discovering about the age of the earth, and the progressive appearance of life through the ages. That being said, it must be noted that they did not endorse evolution as we understand it today; but more on that later.

Young Earth Creationism 

Understanding these viewpoints is important when considering how many people today have embraced young-earth creationism (also known as ‘YEC’ or ‘Creationism’ – The idea that the earth itself was only created between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago). As we have just seen, early scholars did not believe this view; so, where did it come from, and how has it become such a prominent view in many Christian communities, including our own?

The roots of young earth creationism (as an ideology) can be traced back to Ellen White (1827-1915) who was an Adventist prophetess. White was known for her visions, one of which focused on the Genesis flood narrative. At the time that White had this vision, almost all western geologists were Christians and in agreement that Noah’s flood was a local event. It’s worth noting that at the time there was nothing controversial about this, and it was accepted by Hebrew and Christian scholars alike.

White’s interpretation of the biblical narratives attracted little interest outside Seventh Day Adventist circles until a self-taught geologist by the name of George McCready Price (1870-1963) wrote a book based on White’s visions. Although Price had limited education beyond high school, he was a gifted writer, and his 723-page book The New Geology was published in 1923.

Initially, these ideas were limited to Seventh Day Adventist circles, and most Christians outside that group paid almost no attention to them. This changed a few decades later when John Whitcomb and Henry Morris co-authored The Genesis Flood, which gave these young earth ideas serious momentum and convinced millions of Christians about White’s vision of earth history. What is not widely known, is that Morris & Whitcomb’s book is really just a rewrite of Price’s arguments.

Thus, young earth creationism is an ideology made popular by authors whose hypotheses have been repeatedly disproven and debunked, not only by science, but also by sound scriptural exegesis. However, the fact remains that it’s a view that became widely adopted largely as a result of Morris & Whitcomb’s book.

If anyone wishes to read further on this topic, the links below might be useful:

The Adventist Origins of Young Earth Creationism;⁠11
Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism;⁠12
The Genesis Flood Wikipedia;⁠13
The Fatal Flaws of Flood Geology.⁠14

The first conversation showed that matters of science need not be of concern to those of faith, and the second conversation above has shown that it certainly presented no problems to scholars as far back as the mid-1800s. With all this in mind, let’s consider the third conversation…

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1 Fairbanks, D. “Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters” (2012) p19.

2 Rudwick, M. “Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (2014) (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NYWRJ82)

3 John Thomas. “Elpis Israel”, (1990 ed.) p11.

4 R. Roberts, The Visible Hand of God (The Christadelphian, 1881) 18:60

5 “Chat with Correspondents, and Extracts from some of their Letters” (The Christadelphian, 1884) 21:178

6 L. Welch, Geology (The Christadelphian,1891) 28:419

7 R. Roberts, In the Beginning (The Christadelphian, 1885) 32:141

8 C. Walker, Genesis (The Christadelphian, 1910) 47:223

9 C. Walker, The Age of the Earth (The Christadelphian, 1911) 48:450

10 W. Minnerly, The Creation of Coal (The Christadelphian, 1921) 58:14

11 http://biologos.org/uploads/static-content/Giberson-scholarly-essay-1.pdf

12 http://wp.me/pXBVO-fR

13 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Genesis_Flood

14 https://ncse.com/node/2288