Although most mainstream scientists and most of the developed world now accept the theory of evolution and the scientifically established age of Earth and the universe, there is still a group of people that resist the status quo and insist, based on a particular literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in the Hebrew Bible, that the universe is only 6,000 years old and was created in six literal days. As of 2014, 42% of Americans believe that the universe was created about 10,000 years ago and that all life was created more or less in its present form at that time. This has, of course, been a common belief in Christian circles for most of the history of the faith, but the modern Young Earth Creationist movement has relatively recent origins in the Seventh Day Adventist movement. The prevalence of Young Earth Creationism in the United States is also related to the history of Christianity in the United States, from the founding of the Republic to the culture wars which have raged for the past few decades.
‘The Creation of Adam’ (c. 1511) by Michelangelo. (Public Domain)
Guessing and Dating the Age of the Universe
For the first 1700 years of Christian history, belief in a literal six-day creation and a world that was a few thousand years old was widespread within Christendom. This is because, until the early Modern Period, there was no reason to think otherwise. The early Church Fathers and Medieval theologians did not know about radiometric dating or how rock layers formed, so a few thousand years was a reasonable guess for the age of the universe.
In 1650, the Anglican archbishop James Ussher calculated that the world was created around 4004 BC based on the genealogies recorded in the book of Genesis. In terms of what was known about human history and the history of the universe at the time, this was a perfectly reasonable date. It was compatible with the science of the day.
Portrait of James Ussher by Peter Lely. (Public Domain)
Problems with this interpretation began to arise in the 18th century, when scientists began to study geological formations and found that they had been laid down slowly over long periods of time rather than rapidly in a great flood as described in the book of Genesis. This concept is today referred to as deep time. Deep time was further popularized by Charles Lyell. By the early 19th century, almost all geologists had embraced deep time, including geologists who were professing Christians. These Christian geologists did not originally see belief in long ages as conflicting with the Bible.
Geological time spiral. (Public Domain)
Denial of Deep Time Emerges
Between 1910 and 1915, a group of conservative Evangelical Christians published The Fundamentals which laid out what they believed to be the fundamentals of the Protestant Christian faith. This launched the Fundamentalist movement. One thing that might surprise many people considering the modern connotations of the term “fundamentalist” is that the leaders of the Fundamentalist movement did not have a problem with evolution or deep time. One of the original Fundamentalists, Benjamin B. Warfield, a prominent conservative theologian of the day, even talked about how evolution could be the process used by God to create life.
As evolution became widely accepted in the 1870s, caricatures of Charles Darwin with an ape or monkey body symbolized evolution. (Public Domain)
It was not until the 1960s that denial of deep time and evolution became prevalent in Evangelical circles in the United States. If this is the case, then where did the Young Earth Creationist movement come from? Why did the position of many American Evangelicals shift so dramatically?
Modern Young Earth Creationists
Although most conservative Christians did not reject evolution or deep time in the early 20th century, there was one group that did, the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA). The Seventh Day Adventists are an unusual but nonetheless theologically orthodox sect of Christianity which was founded by the prophetess Ellen White in 1863. One of their more visible beliefs is that church services should be held on Saturday instead of Sunday. Ellen White had a series of visions which her followers took to be divinely inspired. Among these visions were visions of how the world was created. From her visions, she concluded that the universe was created only 6,000 years ago in six literal days and that all the rock layers and fossils within them were laid down in a global deluge based on the flood account recorded in Genesis 6-9.
Ellen G. White in 1899. (Public Domain)
Seventh Day Adventist scientists, such as the geologist George McCready Price, defended this view with scientific arguments for a young earth and a global flood. These arguments had a significant influence on the writers of the book, The Genesis Flood. That book was written in 1961 by Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb who both had read the writings of SDA young earth creationists.
This book is most often associated with the beginning of the modern Young Earth Creationist movement. After this book was published, Young Earth Creationism began to become popular in mainstream Evangelical circles. By the 1970s, it was common among conservative Christians in the United States and a few other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, to reject the mainstream scientific account of cosmic origins in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 which describes the period from creation to right after the flood of Noah.
‘Noah’s ark on the Mount Ararat’ (1570) by Simon de Myle. (Public Domain)
This movement reached a peak in 1982, when Young Earth Creationists pushed for a creationist science curriculum to be taught in schools. This curriculum would explain natural history from the perspective of a 6,000-year-old earth, a global flood, and the idea that all life was essentially created in its present form. The attempt was ruled as unconstitutional in the famous Mclean vs Arkansas case. Since then, Young Earth Creationism has become less of a force in American cultural life, but a little less than half of Americans still believe in Young Earth Creationism.
Why Did Young Earth Creationism Take Root So Strongly?
One question that can be asked is how and why Young Earth Creationism took root so strongly in the United States. There is a sizeable creationist presence in in Britain, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other countries, but Christian Young Earth Creationism remains a predominantly American phenomenon. What is it about the American cultural and religious landscape that makes creationism particularly attractive to Americans? One possible explanation is how religion fits into American political philosophy.
After the Revolutionary War, churches came to be considered by many people, especially conservative Protestant Christians, as central to the development of a healthy republic. This is partly because the Founding Fathers believed that for a republic to flourish, its citizens had to be virtuous. They believed that the best way to instill virtue in citizens was through the moral teachings of religions such as Christianity, though many of the Founding Fathers themselves would have accepted any religion that had satisfactory moral teachings. Since Christianity was overwhelmingly common in the Thirteen Colonies, they believed that it would be best to encourage Christian morality to instill virtue in American citizens.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940) by Howard Chandler Christy. (Public Domain)
Also, as a byproduct of the rise of American republicanism, all sources of authority that came from the state or a state church came to be viewed with suspicion. One source of authority which was not viewed with suspicion was the Bible because it could be read by anyone and was thus believed to belong to the common people and was therefore democratic.
Because of this and the perceived importance of religion in the maintenance of a healthy republic, the Bible came to be considered central to the continuing prosperity and success of the American nation. As a result, anything that threatened Biblical authority was considered a threat to the social and moral fabric of American society by American conservative Christians.
How Young Earth Creationism is Maintained
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal theologians and other academics began to question Biblical authority and literal interpretations of the Bible. They advocated non-literal interpretations which, to many conservative Christians, seemed to rob the Bible of its authority and relevance. This was considered a threat to traditional Christianity but probably also to the American republic and to liberty and freedom itself – since a truly free republic was only possible with virtue, and virtue, according to American Christians, came from the Bible.
In response, conservative Christian theologians began to emphasize literal interpretations of the Bible. This preference for a literal interpretation of the Bible gradually led to the acceptance of literal interpretations of Genesis, even ones that conflicted with what was known of human or natural history. Which brings us to today.
Display at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, USA. (David Berkowitz/CC BY 2.0)
Thus, it could be said that Young Earth Creationism lives on in America because it is intertwined with the history of American religion and political philosophy and things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with orthodox Christianity itself.
Top Image: Detail of ‘God creating the Sun, the Moon and the Stars’ by Jan Brueghel the Younger. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
“Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview” by Mark Noll (N.D.). BioLogos Foundation. Available at: https://biologos.org/uploads/projects/Noll_scholarly_essay.pdf
“In U.S., 42% Believe Creationist View of Human Origins” by Frank Newport (2014). Gallup. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx
Numbers, Ronald L. The creationists: From scientific creationism to intelligent design. No. 33. Harvard University Press, 2006.