Adventists on Darwin and Evolution, Part 1
by Ervin Taylor
On the weekend of February 8-10, 2013, more than 500 congregations associated with a number of Christian traditions will celebrate “2013 Evolution Weekend” as a means of emphasizing the compatibility of Christianity and biological evolution. This is the 8th year that such a weekend had been organized. We all know the name of the 19th-century English naturalist, Charles Darwin, and the book, On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, which provided the most detailed exposition of biological evolution as one of the most influential scientific concepts in the history of science.
The Christian congregations participating in 2013 Evolution Weekend include those affiliated with the various denominations or branches of the Anglican, Baptist, Church of the Brethren, Congregational, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Swedenborgian, Unitarian Universalist, and United Church of Christ traditions. Many Jewish and a few Islamic congregations will also be participating, although surveys have determined that Orthodox Jewish and about half of all members of Islam in the United States reject biological evolution and its implications.
Although no individual Catholic parishes are listed as participating, a recent announcement by the Vatican noted that the present Pope and a number of his predecessors have declared unambiguously that Darwin’s evolutionary theory is compatible with Catholic Christian faith. Back in 2009, the Roman Catholic Pontifical Academy and Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome held a conference to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s major work. A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Catholics joined mainline Protestants, most Orthodox Christians, non-Orthodox Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and the “unaffiliated” in overwhelmingly accepting evolution as the best scientific explanation for the development of living forms—including humans—on earth.
We can be reasonably certain that no Seventh-day Adventist congregation from anywhere in the United States—or, for that matter, anywhere in the world—will participate in the 2013 Evolution Weekend. We know that institutional Adventism joins with other conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches and denominations—such as the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and Mormons—in rejecting the key scientific idea contained in Darwin’s work, which represents the view that all life forms on earth evolved from common ancestors over hundreds of millions of years, primarily by the process of natural selection.
Focusing our attention just on Adventism, we might ask the question: “What is it about the Adventist theological tradition that has caused this small branch of Protestant Christianity to reject the ideas embodied in Darwin’s great scientific work?”
We can begin by reminding ourselves that when Darwin published Origin of Species, Adventism had, at most, 800 adherents scattered in “little flocks” in the northeastern United States. The organized Adventist Church did not as yet exist. As Darwin’s ideas or, more often, interpretations of his ideas, spread into the popular consciousness through various means in the communities where early Adventists lived, the reaction of individual Adventists adherents to Darwin’s ideas were almost certainly similar to those of all other working and middle class Christians in these communities. Unless an individual possessed some formal education beyond the elementary school, the ordinary Christian layperson almost instinctively contrasted Darwin’s view with what was being taught in the pulpits on weekends, about God’s creation of the world in six days about 6,000 years ago. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis in the King James Bible editions of that day even contain in their margins the date of Creation as 4004 BC.
Thus the views of early Adventists on this topic were essentially the same as all other Protestant Christians of similar background. What has happened through succeeding decades to completely alter this? Why have other Christian bodies—some quite conservative in some matters—modified their earlier views about evolution? Why is the Adventist Church not celebrating the “2013 Evolution Weekend” to show the compatibility of Christianity and biological evolution? What has changed?
Part 2 of this blog will suggest some answers to these questions.