by Ervin Taylor, May 25, 2015:    The Web site of an online news organization on May 22 provided readers with a story written by reporter, Sarah Barth, with the title, “Five Christian Denominations with Most Conservative Stance on Evolution.”

Her report begins with the observation that “Evolution and religion are two controversial topics, and opinions vary widely even among different Christian denominations about where the truth lies. The Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the idea that society slowly developed from adaptation do not align. With Christianity as complex and divergent as it is, denominations take widely varying stances on this hot topic.”

She then provides a short overview of the positions taken by five Protestant denominations with a conservative stance on evolution. The following mostly quotes her descriptions:

  1. Southern Baptist Convention’s R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky, told Time magazine in 2005 that evolution and biblical views could not be reconciled: “I believe the Bible is adequately clear about how God created the world, and that its most natural reading points to a six-day creation that included not just the animal and plant species but the earth itself”;
  2. Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (a Baptist-derived denomination) lays out its objection to evolution on its Web site, citing passages from Genesis, Hebrews, Exodus, Jeremiah, and Revelation that reject evolution. Its belief statement says, “The Genesis account of the creation is true. The simple yet profound revelation must be received by faith. The theory of evolution, which teaches a continuous natural development from the lowest to the highest forms of life, is a contradiction of the teachings of the Bible”;
  3. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod — (the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America supports the theory of evolution in union with a non-literal reading of the Bible) directly rejects the conciliation of evolution and religion. In its Creation and Evolution pamphlet, President Dr. A.L. Barry writes that Adam and Eve and the Genesis story of Creation are true, “not merely a ‘myth’ or a ‘story’ made up to explain the origin of all things. …Many aspects of evolutionary theory are directly contradictory to God’s Word. Evolution cannot be ‘baptized’ to make it compatible with the Christian faith”;
  4. Seventh-day Adventists — The Adventist Church’s president, Ted Wilson, spoke in 2014 in vehement opposition to the theory of evolution: “If one does not accept the recent six-day creation understanding, then that person is actually not a Seventh-day Adventist since the seventh-day Sabbath would become absolutely meaningless historically and theologically,” Wilson said;
  5. Amish—Lastly, the Amish, who stop formal education after the eighth grade, cited religious objections as one of the reasons its denomination opposes the idea of evolution. On its Web site, they state, “Theories such as evolution are objectionable to the Amish, who take a literal view of the Bible and the Creation story.”

Commentary 

In light of the fact that several other Christian denominations reject the idea of evolution, the observation that the views of Ellen White alone are responsible for the position taken currently by traditional Adventism on the subject of evolution and long geological ages clearly needs to be significantly nuanced. The historical facts are much more complex.

It appears to be clearly more historically accurate to suggest that when the early Adventist Church emerged toward the ending phases of the Second Great Awakening in American religious history, it was at a time when opposition to evolution was widespread within conservative Protestant Christian circles, due to its association with Deism, skepticism and rationalism.  However, it should be immediately noted that even some of what we today would label as the most conservative individuals within the Christian communities of the time—both in England and the United States—had been able to reconcile evolution and the Genesis account, using various strategies.  Ellen White and early Adventism adopted views on these topics largely because the specific sectarian groups out of which most Adventists emerged had not accommodated their religious views with evolution.

As most readers will know, the immediate historical context for the rise of early Adventism was the so-called “Great Disappointment” that ended the Millerite Movement, one of the periodic episodes in European and American religious history where there is a proclamation that the Second Coming of Jesus is imminent. One of the three co-founders of Adventism was the young charismatic visionary, Ellen Harmon.  Some of Ellen’s out-of-body-experiences (“visions”) provided authoritative collaboration for her assumption of the role as a divinely inspired prophetic figure who provided divine guidance in the formation of what originally was the smallest group to emerge from the debris of the Millerite episode.

All of Ellen’s early “visions” were edited and published by her chief advisor, who became her husband, James White.  These writings were taken as divinely inspired by most of her followers, and the views expressed within the edited texts of these views were embodied into normative Adventist theological lore and lifestyle habits. However, again, it needs to be noted that some of these views were widely shared with the most conservative of the contemporary Protestant faith communities. What was emphasized by early Adventist propagandists and evangelists were the theological points that most contrasted with those of other conservative Protestant groups.  That evolution was not true was not one of these unique beliefs.

As the 19th century came to an end, Protestant America witnessed its second major schism within its major denominational traditions.  The first schism had occurred in mid-century at the time of the American Civil War—in the South, known as the “War for Southern Independence.”  Southern segments of the Presbyterian, Baptist and Congregational churches broke away from those in the North. The issue that caused the separation was the institution of slavery. Southern Protestant branches used biblical statements to support slavery while the Northern segments objected to such interpretations.  When the Civil War ended, the institutional separations continued.  The Adventist Church was too small and almost all of its members lived in northeastern or north-central portions of the United States, and thus no organizational separation over slavery was experienced.

In contrast, the late 19th-century schism in many church bodies making up Protestant America was caused by major cultural and theological differences. Those differences resulted in the split between American Modernist and Fundamentalist Protestant Christian bodies.

In Part II of this blog, we will review the impact the rise of Fundamentalism had on the still-relatively small Adventist denomination and how Fundamentalism has influenced discussions within Adventism over the subject of evolution and long ages in the fossil record.

For those who wish to consult sources that will provide details about the historical and theological contexts and issues considered in this blog, a list of references will be included at the end of Part II.