History Of Creationism
Creationists present themselves as the true bearers and present-day representatives of authentic traditional Christianity, but historically speaking this is simply not true. The Bible has a major place in the life of any Christian, but it is not the case that the Bible taken literally has always had a major place in the lives or theology of Christians. Tradition, the teachings and authority of the Church, has always had main status for Catholics, and natural religion—approaching God through reason and argument—has long had an honored place for both Catholics and Protestants. Catholics, especially dating back to Saint Augustine (354–430), and even to earlier thinkers like Origen (c. 185–254), have always recognized that at times the Bible needs to be taken metaphorically or allegorically. Augustine was particularly sensitive to this need, because for many years as a young man he was a Manichean and hence denied the authenticity and relevance of the Old Testament for salvation. When he became a Christian he knew full well the problems of Genesis and hence was eager to help his fellow believers avoid the traps of literalism.
It was not until the Protestant Reformation that the Bible started to take on its unique central position, as the great Reformers—especially Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564)—stressed the need to go by Scripture alone and not by the traditions of the Catholic Church. But even they were doubtful about totally literalistic readings. For Luther, justification by faith was the keystone of his theology, and yet the Epistle of Saint James seems to put greater stress on the need for good works. He referred to it as "right strawy stuff." Calvin likewise spoke of the need for God to accommodate his writings to the untutored public—especially the ancient Jews—and hence of the dangers of taking the Bible too literally in an uncritical sense. The radical branch of the Reformation under Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) always put primacy on God's speaking directly to us through the heart, and to this day one finds modern-day representatives like the Quakers uncomfortable with too biblically centered an approach to religion.
Eighteenth-and nineteenth-century revivals.
It was really not until the revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain and America—revivals that led to such sects as the Methodists—that a more full-blooded literalism became a major part of the religious scene. Then, the emphasis was on Christ's dying on the cross for our sins (the Atonement), the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as a guide to the converted heart, although even then there were many opposed, often quite violently. To take but one example, the most significant movement within the Church of England (Anglicanism; Episcopalianism in America) was the High Church movement known as Tractarianism, the Oxford movement of the 1830s, led most significantly by the future Catholic cardinal, John Henry Newman (1801–1890). No one was more vitriolic and sarcastic on the subject of biblical literalism than was Newman. In one of his major writings, Tract 85, he ridiculed those who would use the Bible as a guide to science or religion, and, with the vigor of a hardened humanist, he pointed out inconsistencies in the sacred book.
In America particularly, however, literalism did take hold, and especially after the Civil War (1861–1865), it took root in the evangelical sects—especially Baptists—of the South. It became part of the defining culture of the South, having as much a role in opposing ideas and influences of the North as anything rooted in deeply considered theology. This was the time of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose great work, On the Origin of Species (1859), provoked much theological opposition. But for the great Christian opponents—Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873), bishop of Oxford in England, and Charles Hodge (1797–1878), principal of Princeton Theological Seminary in America—simple biblical literalism was far from the front of the objections. They were certainly keen on what became pretty standard arguments against evolution in general and Darwinism in particular. Gaps in the fossil record played a major role, as did the origin of life and the nonexistence of the direct observation of natural selection changing species. But crude reference to the Bible had no place in their scheme of things. Six thousand years of earth history was as far from the thinking of Wilberforce and Hodge as it was from that of Darwin. Problems of natural theology were far more pressing, as were topics that only tangentially have their basis in Genesis, such as the existence of immortal souls.
Early twentieth century.
Creationism became more than just a local phenomenon in the early part of the twentieth century, thanks to a number of factors. First, there were the first systematic attempts to work out a position that would take account of modern science as well as a literal reading of Genesis. Particularly important in this respect were the Seventh Day Adventists, especially the Canadian-born George McCready Price (1870–1963), who had theological reasons for preferring literalism, not the least being the belief that the Seventh Day—the day of rest—is literally twenty-four hours in length. (Also important for the Adventists and for other dispensationalists—that is, people who think that Armageddon is on its way—is the balancing and complementary early phenomenon of a worldwide flood.) Second, there was the realized energy of evangelicals as they succeeded in their attempts to prohibit liquor in the United States. Flushed from one victory, they looked for other fields to conquer. Third, there was the spread of public education, which exposed more children to evolutionary ideas, provoking a creationist reaction. Fourth, there were new evangelical currents afloat, especially the Fundamentals, tracts that gave the literalist movement its name. And fifth, there was the identification of evolution—Darwinism particularly—with the militaristic aspects of Social Darwinism, especially the Social Darwinism supposedly embraced by the Germans in World War I.
The "Scopes Monkey Trial."
This battle between evolutionists and "fundamentalists" came to a head in 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee, when a young schoolteacher, John Thomas Scopes (1900–1970), was prosecuted for teaching evolution in class, in defiance of a state law prohibiting such teaching. There was more at stake than just the facts, evolution versus the Bible. Local businesspeople welcomed the opportunity of a high-profile court case to put their community on the map and to reap financial rewards. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), backing the defense, was eager for such a case to bolster its standing with America's liberals and to highlight its existence (it was founded in 1920). Indeed, the ACLU actively sought out someone who would be willing to stand trial. Prosecuted by the three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) and defended by the noted agnostic lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), the "Scopes Monkey Trial" caught the attention of the world, especially thanks to the inflammatory reporting of the Baltimore Sun journalist H. L. Mencken (1880–1956). Matters descended to the farcical when, denied the opportunity to introduce his own science witnesses, Darrow put on the stand the prosecutor Bryan. In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, although this was overturned on a technicality on appeal. Despite never again being enforced, the Tennessee law remained on the books for another forty years.