Ages of the Earth and Humans: No Answers in Genesis or Ellen White. Part III
by Ervin Taylor, July 6, 2016: In Part I of this discussion, we posed the question: Why would the leadership of the Seventh-day Adventist (Adventist) denomination at the General Conference (GC) level insist on supporting a Fundamentalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives?
First-time readers may assume that we must be talking about the 19th-Century Adventist denominational leadership. Normally, one would assume that those responsible for the administration of a 21st-Century church body which proclaims that it is concerned with “Present Truth” would willingly accept the most current understanding of the history of our planet based on the best current scientific evidence. Unfortunately, we are not talking about a 19th-Century situation.
In 2015, the current GC leadership, having consolidated its power for five years and having been recently reappointed by a nomination process which was then ratified by a non-secret vote, was able to engineer the passage of a revised wording of a statement declaring that the Creation of all life forms occurred “recently,” i.e., several thousands of years ago, and was accomplished in six literal days.
Most readers are aware that the revised wording of official Adventist Belief Number 6 dramatically conflicts with the contemporary scientific understanding of the nature of the time frame of the development of the earth and the evolution of its many living forms. The two major components of the contemporary scientific consensus involving the history of our planet include related, but very different, bodies of data.
The first deals with what the community of researchers undertaking the study of the biological sciences currently understand to be the mechanisms or processes by which life forms on earth have changed over time, i.e., evolved. The second community of scientists deals with an entirely different body of data which is used to determine the time frame during which the earth itself and life forms on our planet evolved.
In this discussion, we will focus our attention on the second body of scientific data that inform our modern understanding of the age of the earth and life forms on our planet, especially with reference to the human species. Thus the title of these series of discussions: “Ages of the Earth and Humans.” The core of the scientific body of research of this topic is based on geochronological research. As has been emphasized in the previous discussions, these studies have little, if anything, to do with current scientific understandings of biological evolutionary processes.
The development of a detailed chronometric time scale for geology and paleontology is one of the great achievements of 20th-Century science on which 21st-Century science continues to build. The quantification of this time scale is largely based on various types of isotopic dating methods. Employing this vast corpus of modern geochronological data, it is possible to definitively conclude that the development of earth’s life forms occurred over billions of years while the group of animals from which human life forms evolved and the evolution of humans themselves occurred over multiple millions of years.
Our first question is thus focused on the historical background of why the current leadership of the church incorporated an official belief into the list of Fundamental Beliefs which is in such dramatic contrast with a well-established contemporary scientific consensus. It is as if some thought that a religious community needed to state that they did not believe in the germ theory of disease because the Bible says that God sent plagues.
With all this as background, we will here briefly examine the first part of the historical contexts to provide one interpretation of why the current leadership of the corporate Adventist denomination continues to object to the reality of the existence of “Deep Time” in the geological record. We originally expected to be able to complete this discussion in three parts, but suggestions from several individuals have necessitated some expansion in the text, and thus we will conclude this discussion in Part IV.
In Parts I and II, we briefly reviewed important background elements of this topic. We noted that from the middle of the 19th Century into the early 20th Century many conservative Christian bodies had accepted the view that the Genesis “days” were understood to be symbolic representations of long geological periods. Noah’s flood was interpreted as affecting only the ancestors of the individuals about which the biblical narratives were concerned. A “world-wide flood” would be a flood that affected their world. No individual living in the ancient world of the Bible had any idea of the size of the earth.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, the general acceptance of these ideas within many Christian bodies was directly challenged by the emergence of a major reactionary religious movement which had its roots in the United States at the end of the 19th Century. This movement within American Protestantism became known as Fundamentalism, based on the title of a 12-volume work which appeared between 1917 and 1919.
Fundamentalism arose in opposition to what were referred to as “Modernists” within several American Protestant denominations. One of the elements of this reactionary development which was particularly highlighted was the Fundamentalist view which posited that all statements in the Bible should be regarded as inerrant, i.e., not communicating any factual errors even in the areas of history or science. With regard to the Genesis account, there was also the tendency to interpret various statements literally and to assume that the writer of Genesis used terms that had meanings as they would be interpreted by modern readers, not by an ancient Hebrew reader.
During the middle- to late-19th Century, while the early developments we have been reviewing were occurring, the Sabbatarian Adventist movement was coalescing into yet another American Protestant denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although the majority of the doctrinal positions that it adopted had been held by one or more existing Christian bodies, the initial formulations of several of its unique doctrines and doctrinal emphases were profoundly influenced and confirmed by the views and experiences of one of its co-founders, Ellen Gould Harmon-White.
The understandings that she included in her early writings concerning what we would today refer to as earth and early human history were taken largely from conventional understandings of her conservative religious upbringing and environment. These views were supplemented in some cases by imagery that she obtained from her own vivid out-of-body experiences most often referred to as “visions.” She believed that these visions came directly from God, some of which, she said, were mediated by angels. In reporting the substance of some of these visions in writing, she often employed the phrase “I was shown . . .”
For example, as we have previously noted, she stated that in one of her visions she was taken back to the Creation described in Genesis and was able to witness what had occurred at that time. In writing about her visionary experiences and in other more general discussions, she, on a number of occasions, referred to “about 6000 years” to designate the time she believed that had elapsed since the time of the Genesis Creation.
Presumably, that figure was derived by her from the margins of the King James English translation of the Bible. It is possible that, at least in her early experiences, she was not aware that these figures were not part of the biblical text, but that they had been added during the last quarter of the 17th Century. In this connection, we should note that there is no explicit statement in any biblical text that addresses the age of the universe or our solar system, (the nature of which, of course, the ancient Hebrews and early Christians had no knowledge), or of the part of the planet of which the ancient Hebrews were aware, or the life forms present in that region of the planet with which they were familiar. The “about 6,000 years” expression derives from the calculations of scholars such as James Ussher whose dates were the ones included, until recently, in the margins of the King James Version of the bible.
It is important to note that how she interpreted the opening chapters of Genesis was a relatively minor background element that became embedded into the fabric of her evolving master Adventist narrative or religious world view: “The Great Controversy.” This theme was reworked several times over three decades in her writings before being assembled into a single treatment by her and her collaborators/editors.
White died in 1915, and between that event and the late 1940s, we have noted that classical Adventism solidified into a tightly integrated, interlocking theological system. Meanwhile, schisms within several major Protestant churches had split them into separate Liberal and Fundamentalist segments. During this period, several Adventist church leaders proclaimed that Adventism clearly was aligned with those denominations in the Fundamentalist camp and, with several important exceptions, conventional Adventism continued to emphasize many Fundamentalist elements in its public evangelism and official pronouncements well into the 1960s.
At about this time, a number of conservative Protestants preferred to call themselves “Evangelicals” since, among other objections, they took issue with the Fundamentalists’ refusal to participate with other Christians in various outreach and even evangelistic enterprises. For example, Billy Graham identified himself as an Evangelical and not as a Fundamentalist, even though much of his theology was Fundamentalist.
As was typical with a number of both Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant denominations during the first three decades of the 20th Century, Adventists created a number of colleges as a means of protecting their youth from what were considered the baleful influences of secular colleges and universities and as a means of providing their clergy with a year or two of post-secondary education. At first, all of these Adventist institutions were unaccredited and could be accurately described essentially as Bible colleges. For example, the purpose of many of these institutions was clearly reflected in their names, which often included the word “Missionary.”
It is suggested that it is probable that Seventh-day Adventism to this day would have remained characterized as a fully Fundamentalist faith community if not for one unanticipated consequence of an emphasis that came into Adventism in the post-Civil War period. Without the existence of this emphasis, some suggest that it is likely that Adventism would much longer have continued to maintain its cult-like characteristics and would never have developed any sizable group which would begin to call for a reexamination of the traditional Adventist understandings of a number of theological and scientific topics in light of the most recent scientific, historical and theological scholarship.
It was the emphasis on physical wellness which, in turn, resulted in the development of Adventist-sponsored health institutions that set into motion a process which we will be outlining in this discussion. As the research that the distinguished American historian of science Ronald Numbers presented in his seminal volume Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White has detailed, the views of Ellen White and the Adventist emphasis on health and wellness were certainly not unique, since initiatives advancing “health reform” were widespread in the United States during the 19th Century. Both the physical and psychological problems that plagued Ellen White through most of her life also may have played a part in the development of this emphasis within the Adventist tradition.
As is well known, Adventism developed its first major health/medical operation in Battle Creek, Michigan. It was known initially as the Western Health Reform Institute, which opened in 1866. Under the supervision of John Harvey Kellogg MD, it was expanded within a few years into a widely known major health institution and spa, the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Although Kellogg had originally been a protégé of James and Ellen White, following the death of James in 1881, Ellen began to become estranged from Kellogg. The role of her son, William (“Willie”) White, in causing his mother to begin to harbor doubts about Kellogg’s orthodoxy is still to be determined. However, what is clear is that for the first, but not only, time, the Adventist medical and clerical establishments became at loggerheads over which group should exercise dominance in terms of deciding the direction that the church should take in its relationship with the secular world outside of Adventist enclaves.
The centerpiece in Kellogg’s Adventist medical empire was the Battle Creek Sanitarium and Hospital. A suspicious fire in 1902 essentially destroyed the property. The structure was rebuilt and much enlarged, but, in the meantime, the headquarters of the Adventist church was moved to a suburb of Washington DC. It is suspected that this shift was largely designed to distance corporate Adventism from the influence of Kellogg and his supporters in Battle Creek.
Beyond this, it was thought necessary to accomplish the vilification of Kellogg in the eyes of the Adventist public. To accomplish their plan, his detractors in the Adventist clerical establishment charged him with advocating pantheism. This has been widely viewed as a smokescreen to hide the actual reason for removing him. In fact, what was at stake was who would control the future direction of the church. Kellogg lost.
Following Kellogg’s excommunication, a large segment of medical professionals at the Battle Creek Sanitarium followed Kellogg’s lead. Despite this loss or perhaps in response to it, the church leadership continued to see the value of maintaining the Adventist corporate presence in the medical field as part of the vision that Adventist clinics and health-related institutions could serve as the “entering wedge” for Adventist evangelism. With the urging of Ellen White, the church leadership agreed that it was necessary to establish as quickly as possible an institution for the training of loyal Adventist physicians. Such an institution was founded in Loma Linda, California, in 1906 as the College of Medical Evangelists (CME) and chartered as a medical college in 1909.
Readers to this point might wonder what a recitation of all of this history of Adventist medical work has to do with our topic. How does it relate to a process which would ultimately result in the rise of a segment within Adventism which would begin to call publicly for a reexamination of a number of traditional Adventist theological and scientific understandings? This, in turn, will provide a perspective on why the current GC leadership has determined to “double down” on its attempts to force the Adventist Church to accept a fundamentalist position on earth history.
A review of the rise of those interested in reexamining the basis of the traditional Adventist understanding of earth and human history and an interpretation of the reasons for the recent actions of GC church authorities with regard to this topic will be presented in Part IV.
Ervin Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology and Past Director of the Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of California, Riverside. He is also currently a Visiting Professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA and Visiting Scientist at the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine. He has served as the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.
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