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6.1 History of Creationism

6.1 History of Creationism

The history of creationism is tied to the history of religions. The term creationism in its broad sense covers a wide range of beliefs and interpretations, and was not in common use before the late 19th century.

Following the spread of Christianity and the rise of Islam, most people in Europe, the Middle East and other areas of the Islamic world believed that a supreme being had existed and would exist eternally, and that everything else in existence had been created by this supreme being, known variously as God, Yahweh, or Allah. This belief was based on the account of Creation according to Genesis, the Qur’an, and/or other ancient histories.

From the days of the early Christian Church Fathers there were allegorical interpretations of Genesis as well as literal readings. The Protestant Reformation, producing translations of the Bible in common languages, allowed lay people to read it. More literal understandings followed, leading to a new belief that every biological species had been individually created by God. Natural theology sought evidence in nature supporting Christianity but with little success. Moreover, the development of geology in the 18th and 19th centuries found evidence of an ancient Earth.

Catastrophism was favoured in England as supporting Noah’s Flood, but was found to be untenable. By 1850 all geologists and many Christians had adopted various forms of old Earth creationism. In 1844 Lamarck’s concept of transmutation of species was popularized by “Vestiges of Creation”, and then in 1859 Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” gradually convinced scientists that evolution occurs. He proposed that macro-evolution from one species to another species might occur by natural selection, but he did not have the proof himself. By 1875 most American naturalists supported theistic evolution, often involving special creation of human beings, and by the 1910s evolution was widely accepted.

In the 1920s the term creationism became particularly associated with a Christian fundamentalist movement opposed to the idea of human evolution, which succeeded in getting teaching of evolution banned in United States public schools. From the mid 1960s young Earth creationism proposed “scientific creationism” using “Flood geology” as support for a purely literal reading of Genesis. After legal judgements that teaching this in public schools contravened constitutional separation of Church and State, it was stripped of biblical references and called creation science, then when this was ruled unacceptable, presented as Intelligent Design.

Early History

Biblical Creationism stems from the ancient Hebrew text of Genesis purporting it to be a historical document recording God’s creation of the World in six days, and resting on the seventh. According to the genealogies recorded in the Bible, this was calculated to have occurred approximately in 4000 BC. With the Jewish Diaspora, and the spread of Christianity throughout Europe between the 1st century and the 3rd century, creation beliefs displaced many Greco-Roman naturalistic philosophies and various pagan beliefs.

According to biblically-literal creation beliefs, God created a number of “kinds” of animals that were able to change over time, but only within definite bounds. Essentially, while all dogs have common ancestors, dogs and cats do not share a common ancestor. Approximately 4,500 years ago, God sent a world-wide flood to cover the Earth and wipe out all mankind, with the exception of the animals and eight people preserved in the ark. Before the flood, two of each unclean animal and seven of each clean animal were taken on board the ark. After the flood, those animals were released, and they differentiated and developed over time into the present variety of animals.

Greek and Roman Times

  • At about 45 BC, Cicero made a teleological argument, anticipating the watchmaker analogy, in “De natura deorum”, ii. 34: “When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artefacts themselves and their artificers?”
  • In 93 AD Josephus completed “Antiquities of the Jews”, in which he gave an account of creation, the Fall, Antediluvian civilization, the Deluge, the history of Israel, and Jesus based on a synthesis of a number of sources and traditions, including The Bible, ancient Egyptian and Greek writings, and other ancient traditions
  • At about 170 AD, Theophilus of Antioch wrote in defence of creation beliefs and a relatively young Earth: “There are not myriads of myriads of years, even though Plato said such a period had elapsed between the deluge and his own time, . . . The world is not uncreated nor is there spontaneous production of everything, as Pythagoras and the others have babbled; instead the world is created and is providentially governed by the God who made everything. And the whole period of time and the years can be demonstrated to those who wish to learn the truth. . . . The total number of years from the creation of the world is 5,695.29 … If some period has escaped our notice, says 50 or 100 or even 200 years, at any rate it is not myriads, or thousands of years as it was for Plato . . . and the rest of those who wrote falsehoods. It may be that we do not know the exact total of all the years simply because the additional months and days are not recorded in the sacred books.”
  • In 170 AD, Galen, Stoic Roman physician wrote against creation beliefs in “On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body”, 11.14: “It is precisely this point in which our own opinion and that of Plato and of the other Greeks who follow the right method in natural science differ from the position taken up by Moses. For the latter it seems enough to say that God simply willed the arrangement of matter and it was presently arranged in due order; for he believes everything to be possible with God, even should he wish to make a bull or a horse out of ashes. We, however, do not hold this; we say that certain things are impossible by nature and that God does not even attempt such things at all but that he [sic] chooses the best out of the possibility of becoming.”
  • In 415 Saint Augustine wrote “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” in which he argued that Genesis should be interpreted as God forming the Earth and life from pre-existing matter and allowed for an allegorical interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. For example: he argues that the six-day structure of creation presented in the book of Genesis represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way. On the other hand, Augustine called for a historical view of the remainder of the history recorded in Genesis, including the creation of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. Apart from his specific views, Augustine recognizes that the interpretation of the creation story is difficult, and remarks that Christians should be willing to change their minds about it as new information comes up. He also warned believers not to rashly interpret things literally that might be allegorical, as it would discredit the faith
  • At about 426 AD, Augustine completes “City of God”, in which he wrote: “Some hold the same opinion regarding men that they hold regarding the world itself that they have always been . . . . And when they are asked, how, . . . they reply that most, if not all lands, were so desolated at intervals by fire and flood, that men were greatly reduced in numbers, and . . . thus there was at intervals a new beginning made. . . . But they say what they think, not what they know. They are deceived . . . by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed.”
  • Between 610 and 632, Muhammad reported receiving the Qur’an by divine revelation. The Qur’an holds many of the core concepts of creationism, including a 6-day creation, Adam and Eve, Enoch, and Noah’s ark, but also provides some details absent from Genesis, including reference to a fourth son of Noah who chose not to enter the ark. Through Islam, creation beliefs and monotheism replace paganism among the Arabs.

Renaissance to Darwin

The Renaissance starting in the 14th century saw the establishment of protoscience that eventually became modern science. This was a period of great social change. From 1517 the Protestant Reformation brought a new emphasis on lay literacy leading to the Bible being interpreted more literally rather than theologically, and as discoveries of new lands brought knowledge of a huge diversity of life, a new belief developed that each of these biological species had been individually created by God.

  • In 1650 the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, published a monumental history of the world from creation to 70 A.D. He used the recorded genealogies and ages in the bible to derive what is commonly known as the Ussher chronology.
  • This calculated a date for creation at 4004 BC. The date was widely accepted in the English-speaking worldIn 1696, William Whiston published “A New Theory of the Earth”, in which he proposed an account of the creation of the world:
  1. The obvious or literal sense of scripture is the true and real one, where no evidence can be given to the contrary
  2. That which is clearly accountable in a natural way, is not, without reason to be ascribed to a miraculous power
  3. What ancient tradition asserts of the constitution of nature, or of the origin and primitive states of the world is to be allowed for true, where it is fully agreeable to scripture, reason, and philosophy

Whiston was the first to propose that the global flood was caused by the water in the tail of a comet.

  • Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) established a system of classification of species by similarity. At the time, the system of classification was seen as the plan of organization used by God in his creation. Later, the theory of evolution applied it as groundwork for the idea of common descent
  • James Hutton is often viewed as the first modern geologist. In 1785 he wrote “Theory of the Earth” based on his presumption of uniformitarianism. In it he explained that the Earth must be much older than had previously been supposed in order to allow enough time for mountains to be eroded and for sediment to form new rocks at the bottom of the sea, which in turn were raised up to become dry land. This was the base of the Old Earth creationism theory
  • Erasmus Darwin published his “Zoönomia” between 1794 and 1796 suggesting “that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality … possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity”
  • In 1802 William Paley proponent of the Watchmaker analogy, a variant of the teleological argument.  He argued that life was so intricately designed and interconnected as to be analogous to a watch. Just as when one finds a watch, one reasonable infers that it was designed and constructed by an intelligent being, although one has never seen the designer, when one observes the complexity and intricacy of life, one may reasonably infer that it was designed and constructed by God, although one has never seen God
  • Advances in palaeontology, led by William Smith saw the recording of the first fossil records which showed the transmutation of species. Then Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed in his “Philosophie Zoologique” of 1809 a theory of evolution by which traits that were “needed” were passed on
  • Philip Henry Gosse published in 1857 his book “Omphalos: Untying the Geological Knot” in which he argued that the World had been created by God recently but with the appearance of old age. Some young Earth creationists would later incorporate parts of his arguments.


From the 1860s, the concept of natural selection was widely understood. After Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” first suggested that species had evolved by the process of natural selection, the theory of evolution would later develop through the 20th century. Even in his unpublished 1842 “pencil sketch” of his theory, Darwin was conscious of explaining commonplace mysteries that “can only be viewed by the Creationist as ultimate and inexplicable facts”, and anticipated the satire of “Intelligent Falling” by comparing Creationist belief in separate creation of every species with belief that “the planets revolve in their present courses not from one law of gravity but from distinct volition of Creator.”

Darwin’s book caused less controversy than he had feared. However, it posed fundamental questions about the relationship between religion and science. Though Origin” did not explicitly deal with human evolution, both supporters and opponents of the theory immediately made the link. The idea that man was simply an animal (common descent) who had evolved a particular set of characteristics -rather than a spiritual being created by God- continued to be one of the most divisive notions of the 19th century. One of the most famous disputes was the Oxford Debate of 1860, in which T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s self-appointed “bulldog”, debated evolution with “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford. Both sides claimed victory. Others in the scientific élite of the day did not accept naturalistic evolution. Even Alfred Russell Wallace with whom Darwin had first published on natural selection in 1858, and the American Asa Gray with whom Darwin had corresponded before and after publication of “The Origin”, later both argued for special roles for a creator when applying the theory to humans.

In 1862, the physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) published calculations, based on his presumption of uniformitarianism, that fixed the age of the Earth and the solar system at between 20 million and 400 million years, i.e. between ~3,000 and ~70,000 times Ussher’s value. This came as a blow to Darwin’s anticipated longer timescale. It would take further advances in geology and the discovery of radioactivity to recalculate it to the present estimated 4 billion years, or ~700,000 times Ussher’s value.

The Swiss-American palaeontologist Louis Agassiz opposed evolution. He believed that there had been a series of catastrophes with divine re-creations, evidence of which could be seen in rock fossils. Though uniformitarianism dominated ideas from the 1840s onwards, Catastrophism would remain a major paradigm in geology until it was replaced by new models which allowed for both cataclysms (such as meteor strikes) and gradualist patterns (such as ice ages) to explain observed geologic phenomena.

In 1878, American Presbyterians held the first annual Niagara Bible Conference, founding the “Christian Fundamentalist Movement” which took its name from the “Five Fundamentals” of 1910, and came to be concerned about the implications of evolution for the accuracy of the Bible. Most churchmen sought to reconcile Darwinism with Christianity.

Darwin died in 1882, and in 1915 there were rumours that he had repented and accepted God on his deathbed, spread by Lady Elizabeth Hope. The Lady Hope story is almost certainly false, and it is unlikely that she visited Darwin as she claimed.

Differing Beliefs

By now, the various concepts regarding evolution had been established, though ideas and positions continued to develop through the following century. Generally, the advent of evolutionary ideas divided people into two main camps: those who opposed theories of evolution, and those who accepted or promoted such theories.

Those opposed to theories of evolution were:

  • Young Earth creationists, who believe that evolution is scientifically untenable, and merely an attempt to justify atheism, assert a literal interpretation of biblical creation taking place less than ten thousand years ago.
  • Old Earth creationists, who accept the uniformitarian age of the Earth but interpret Genesis in various ways such as Catastrophism in order to account for that.
  • Progressive Creationists, who accept that species change or evolve and also believe that the process is continuously guided by God.

In reality, there is a continuum of creationist viewpoints from young Earth Creationist to evolutionary creationists, with each accepting and rejecting different aspects. In the late 1800s, science was making inroads into the religious public, and even many evangelicals subscribed to notions of an old earth and natural selection. By the early 1900s, most religious Americans, including evangelical Christians, held beliefs that might be closer to theistic evolution today. Mainstream churches still typically subscribe to this moderate position and tend not to be dogmatic. However, there are an increasing number of fundamentalist Christians in America who dismiss evolution.

While opinion in the scientific community and public opinion in Europe came to almost universally accept evolution, the situation in the United States developed differently from the 1920s. Although the debate may include scientific arguments, the controversy involves deep philosophical and religious beliefs, and reflects the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

Early 20th Century

The period immediately after Darwin’s death in 1882 is known as the “Eclipse of Darwinism”, where Darwinian natural selection was considered inadequate by the scientific community. Evolution itself was accepted, but the mechanism of how it happened was in considerable debate. Among the theories of that time were neo-Lamarckism which merged certain aspects of Lamarck’s theory of acquired characteristics with certain aspects of Darwinian evolution and the discontinuous variation of Mendelism and Hugo De Vries’ mutation theory. Some of these alternative theories, in particular neo-Lamarckism and orthogenesis, allowed for the intervention of God, which appealed to many scientists at the time. By the first decades of the 20th century, the debate was between continuous-variation biometricians and discontinuous-variety Mendelians. By the 1930s and 1940s, though, they were combined into the modern evolutionary synthesis, which soon became the dominant model in the scientific community.

Creationism in the USA

In 1910, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church introduced the principles of Christian Fundamentalism into what were known as the “five fundamentals”, one of which was the inerrancy of the Scriptures, including the Genesis account of creation.

After the First World War, the teaching of creation and evolution in public education grew as a public controversy. By this time, many texts taught the theory of evolution as scientific fact. Many Christians in the U.S.A. and later Jews and Muslims, expressed concern that in teaching evolution as fact, the State was unconstitutionally infringing on their right to the free exercise of religion as, in their opinion, this taught their children that the Bible was false.

For example, the Democratic Party politician William Jennings Bryan “became convinced that the teaching of Evolution as a fact caused the students to lose faith in the Bible, first, in the story of creation, and later in other doctrines, which underlie the Christian religion.”

During the First World War, reports of horrors committed by Germans, who were citizens of one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the World, led Bryan to state “The same science that manufactured poisonous gases to suffocate soldiers is preaching that man has a brute ancestry and eliminating the miraculous and the supernatural from the Bible.”

A popular book published in 1917 by Stanford University professor and entomologist Vernon L. Kellogg entitled “Headquarters Nights”, drew a direct association between German war ideology and Darwinian description of nature as a struggle. Kellogg was a leading authority on evolution of insects, and had published “Darwinism Today” in 1907. His anti-Darwinian and anti-German rhetoric influenced biologists who tried to play down the negative implications of “survival of the fittest”.

Benjamin Kidd’s 1918 book “Science of Power”, claimed that there were historical and philosophical connections between Darwinism and German militarism.

In 1922, William Jennings Bryan published “In His Image” in which he argued that Darwinism was both irrational and immoral. On the former point, he pointed to examples such as the eye, which he argued could not be explained by Darwinian evolution. On the latter point, he argued that Darwinism advocated the policy of “scientific breeding” or eugenics, by which the strong were to weed out the weak, a policy which directly contradicts the Christian doctrine of charity to the helpless.

In 1923, fundamentalist preacher and evangelist William Bell Riley, known as “The Grand Old Man of Fundamentalism”, founded the “Anti-Evolution League of Minnesota” which in 1924 became the “Anti-Evolution League of America”.

In 1924, Clarence Darrow defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb on the charge of kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks; his defence included an argument that “this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor”.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Harry Rimmer was one of the most prominent American creationists. He published many creationist tracts, debated other creationists and was involved in a famous trial known as the “Floyd-Rimmer trial” against the atheist William Floyd.

In 1925, G. K. Chesterton published “The Everlasting Man”, in which he developed many creationist ideas and criticisms of evolution.

H. L. Mencken, whose nationally published coverage of the Scopes Trial referred to the town’s creationist inhabitants as “yokels” and “morons”, referred to assisting counsel for the prosecution as a “buffoon” and his speeches as “theologic bilge”, while referring to the defence as “eloquent” and “magnificent.”

The Scopes Trial of 1925 is perhaps the most famous court case of its kind. The Butler Act had prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools in Tennessee. Clarence Darrow was the defence counsel, and William Jennings Bryan was the prosecutor. Bryan appealed for assistance to George McCready Price, Johns Hopkins University physician Howard A. Kelly, physicist Louis T. More, and Alfred W. McCann, all of who had written books supporting creationism. They all refused. Nevertheless, the schoolteacher John T. Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and fined, although the case was later dismissed on a technicality.

Following up on the Butler Act, antievolutionary laws were passed in Mississippi in 1926, and then in Arkansas in 1928. However, the 1928 election and the onset of the Depression changed things. Creationists shifted their attention from state legislatures to local school boards, having substantial success. Discussions of evolution vanished from almost all schoolbooks. By 1941, about one third of American teachers were afraid of being accused of supporting evolution.

In 1929 a book by George McCready Price’s former student, Harold W. Clark, described Price’s catastrophism as “creationism” in “Back to Creationism”. Previously anti-evolutionists had described themselves as being “Christian fundamentalists”, “Anti-evolution” or “Anti-false science”.

In 1933, a group of atheists seeking to develop a “new religion” to replace previous, deity-based religions composed the “Humanist Manifesto”. The first two of its fifteen-point belief system, said that “Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created”, and “Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process.” This document exacerbated the ideological tone of the discussion, as many creationists came to see evolution as a doctrine of the “religion of atheism”.

In 1935, the “Religion and Science Association” was formed by a small group of creationists to form “a unified front against the theory of evolution”. There were three main schools of creationist thought represented by Price, Rimmer, and tidal expert William Bell Dawson. However, since Dawson was a proponent of day-age creationism and Rimmer was ardently convinced that gap creationism was correct, the staunch supporters of a literal 6 day creation and 6000 year old earth were incensed, and the organization fell apart.

Price and his supporters retreated to California, and with several doctors working at the “College of Medical Evangelists” (now Loma Linda University), formed the “Deluge Geology Society”. They made secret plans to unveil discoveries of fossils of human footprints that were in rock that was purportedly older than accounted for in evolutionary theory. However, again the organization foundered over disagreements about a 6000 year old earth.

The American George Gaylord Simpson (1902–1984) argued that the paleontological record supported evolution in the 1940s. Some creationists, however, objected to his supposed equation of microevolution and macroevolution, acknowledging the former but denying the latter, and continue to do so to this day.


The creationist explanation for the “Second World War Holocaust” is that it had been driven in part by eugenics (individuals with “undesirable” genetic characteristics should be removed from the gene pool). Eugenics was based in part on principles of cultural evolutionary theory. Eugenics was rejected by most nations after the war but its memory did not quickly fade. Most scientists sought to distance themselves from it and other racial ideologies associated with the Nazis.

In the 1950s Cold War with the communist Soviet Union started. Communism had as one of its principles atheism. At the same time, the scientific community was making great strides in developing the theory of evolution, which seemed to make belief in God unreasonable under Occam’s razor.

The American shock and panic about the Sputnik launch by the USSR in 1957 lead to the passage of the “National Defence Education Act” in 1958 to reform American science curricula. The “Biological Sciences Curriculum Study” (BSCS) led to new biology textbooks that included a discussion of the theory of evolution. Within a few years, half of American schools were using the new BSCS biology textbooks. The hundredth anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species” in 1959 sparked renewed public interest in evolutionary biology. The creationist fervour of the past seemed like ancient history.

In spite of this, in 1961 Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb published a book entitled “The Genesis Flood”, in an effort to provide a scientific basis for “Young Earth Creationism and Flood Geology”. Its publication resulted in the “Creation Research Society” in 1963 and the “Institute for Creation Research” in 1972.

In 1968, the US Supreme Court ruled in Epperson vs. Arkansas that forbidding the teaching of evolution violated the “Establishment Clause of the US Constitution”. This clause lays out the separation of church and state in the United States and states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or restricting the free exercise thereof.”

In 1970, creationists in California established the “Institute for Creation Research”, an organization devoted to research, publication, and teaching in fields of science relevant to the study of origins.

In 1973, an “Anti-Young Earth Creationist” essay by the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky was published in the “American Biology Teacher” entitled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. He argued that evolution was not incompatible with a belief in God or a belief in the accuracy of scriptures.

In the late 1970s, “Answers in Genesis”, another creationist research organization, was founded in Australia.

In 1975 in Daniel v. Waters, the U.S. Sixth Circuit of Appeals struck down Tennessee’s “equal time” bill.

In 1978 the “International Council on Biblical Inerrancy” developed the Chicago Statement which denies “that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

In 1981 the San Diego based fundamentalist group the “Creation Science Research Centre” claimed, in a trial dubbed the “Monkey Trial Replay”, that teaching evolution as the sole theory of development violated the rights of children who believed in biblical creation. Their lawyer said that the plaintiffs were seeking protection for the belief that “God created man as man, not as a blob”. At the same time Frank D. White, the Governor of Arkansas signed a Bill requiring that creation science and the theory of evolution be given equal weight in schools. Although fifteen states attempted to introduce such Bills around this time, only that in Arkansas made it into law. Following hearings in Little Rock the law was overturned by Judge William Overton early in 1982, just as similar (and equally unsuccessful) bills were approved by legislators in Mississippi and Louisiana.

In 1986 another creationist organisation called “Reasons to Believe” was established. Unlike most current creationist organisations RTB supports “Old Earth Creationism”.

Carl Baugh established the “Creation Evidence Museum” in Glen Rose, Texas in 1984. Kent Hovind’s “Young Earth Creationist Ministry” was founded in 1989.

“Answers In Creation” was established in 2003 to provide answers to young earth creation organizations. They claim that the young earth position is unscientific. Although they are anti-young earth, they promote Christianity by endorsing old earth creationism.