by Ervin Taylor, August 30, 2015: In Part I of this presentation, we noted that strong opposition to the Darwinian model of biological evolution and, in some cases, long ages, i.e., deep time (millions and billions of years), for life on this planet was expressed by the majority of members of various conservative American Protestant churches in the late 19th century. It appears that many of these readers assumed that the ages recorded in the margin of the Protestant King James Bible were as inspired as the biblical text itself.
With one exception, the views of the Adventist prophetess, Ellen G. Harmon-White (EGW), on this topic were typical of a number of commentators in many other Protestant bodies. However, one element particularly emphasized by her that appears to have been a minority view in other parts of Protestantism was her insistence that the “days” of the Genesis creation narrative had to be viewed as literal, 24-hour periods of time.
On this point, there was much diversity even within some very conservative Protestant bodies. For example, at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, populist American orator and politician, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), a devout, conservative Presbyterian who was an outspoken opponent of Darwinian evolution, was asked whether the days of creation were literal days and he said “I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in six million years or in six hundred million years. I don’t think that it is important whether we believe in one or another.”
Clearly the principal reason why EGW and the Sabbatarian Adventist denomination came to insist on the literality of the six days of creation was the central importance they placed on keeping the Jewish Sabbath as the divinely appointed day of worship. There developed the perception that the validation of the biblical basis of that doctrine required that it be linked to the literality of the Genesis Creation narratives. This position was confirmed by EGW, who had had several out-of-body experiences (visions) which she said confirmed the view that the “days” of the Creation accounts were literal 24-hour days and that the belief in evolution and long geological ages was inspired by Satan.
In addition to the overwhelming influence of EGW on the evolution of the theology of the slowly growing Adventist denomination in the early 20th century, an important additional factor that was decisive in solidifying opposition to Darwinian evolution was the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the impact of Fundamentalist perspectives began to diffuse into a number of major American Protestant denominations, several of these denominations split apart into separate Fundamentalist and Modernist branches, driven by a number of doctrinal issues. The two most important questions were whether or not the Bible was considered to be (1) inerrant, i.e., contain no errors of scientific or historical fact, and (2) always literal, except where the text itself declared passages to be non-literal or symbolic.
As documented in several works by the Adventist historian, George R. Knight, Adventism during the early 20th century naturally gravitated to view itself as in alignment with the Fundamentalist camp.
At this time, Adventism was too small and lacked few, if any, scientifically trained members (outside of the practice of medicine) who would have disputed the wisdom of such an alignment. Dr. Knight also notes that many Adventist writers of this time, both tacitly and openly, expressed complete agreement with the idea of biblical inerrancy and even extended the mantle of inerrancy over the writings of EGW. This development gained momentum after her death in 1915 and the passing of the generation of Adventist pioneers who knew the facts about how EGW writings had been assembled and edited.
It might be helpful to recall that during the early decades of the 20th century, the still relatively small Seventh-day Adventist denomination—reporting about 120,000 members in North America in 1930—was both (1) essentially ignored by mainline (non-fundamentalist) American Protestants because, at this time, Adventism manifested all of the characteristics of an apocalyptic sect, and (2) labeled by the churches belonging to the Fundamentalist wing of American Protestantism as a cult with a series of heterodox views such as worship on the Jewish Sabbath, non-biblical doctrines such as the Investigative Judgment, and holding an American female visionary to be a modern-day prophet. In their view, these beliefs placed Adventism completely outside the Bible-believing Christian world and positioned them alongside Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
We might also note that during this period, a number of Protestant conservatives who took issue with Protestant Fundamentalists over several theological and worship style issues preferred to call themselves “Evangelicals.” At the same time, the Pentecostal stream within American Protestantism burst onto the American religious scene. As a result, into our own time, the various brands of conservative Protestantism have continued to be divided into “sectarian” Fundamentalists, “born-again” Evangelicals, and enthusiastic, “speaking-in-tongues” Pentecostals. Sometimes such divisions existed within the same denomination, manifesting various combinations of these three tendencies at the local church level.
Some of our readers may recall that in the early 1950s, the efforts of the self-appointed group that wrote Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine was largely motivated by a desire to remove the label of “cult” from Seventh-day Adventism, as far as fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants were concerned. The opposition to the views expressed in Questions on Doctrine demonstrated that many Adventists continued to be attached to the theology and ethos of classical 19th-century cultic belief.
The next major element in the evolution of the institutional Adventist position on Darwinian evolution and long ages for the geological record was occasioned by the writings of a self-taught, armchair, amateur geologist, George McCready Price (1870-1963). The most important fact to keep in mind in considering Price and his work was that he was a firm believer in the inerrancy of both the Bible and the writings of EGW. It was his resurrection of the idea of a worldwide flood that ushered in the 20th-century incarnation of Fundamentalist Creationism, including the invention by others of that great oxymoron, “Scientific Creationism.” The idea of a worldwide flood—the so-called Noachian Flood—as an explanation for much, most, or all of the geological column had been scientifically discredited in the last half of the 19th century and, by the opening of the 20th century, a majority of the major evangelical Protestant denominations had dropped this as an explanation for the earth’s geological strata.
In Part III of this series, we will take up the influence of Price on what has come to be the “authorized” institutional Adventist thinking on evolution and “deep time.” For those who would like to read ahead, the work of the distinguished American historian of science and medicine, Dr. Ronald Numbers, and specifically his seminal work The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design ( Expanded Edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), will be very helpful in understanding many of the issues surrounding this topic.