Origins of Creationism

During the 1800’s, in response to evidence of vast geological epochs, most theologians equated the days of creation in the Genesis account with geological ages. They accepted the idea that the Earth was very old. William Jennings Bryan still held these views in the 1920’s when he led the anti-evolution crusade.

During the early 1900’s, evangelicals in America often reconciled science and scripture by positing that the Genesis of account wasn’t really complete. They posited that there could be a gap between “In the beginning…” and the rest of the account. This would allow for unnumbered geological ages and a vaster array of fossils. That was a widely held belief among conservative Christians early in the 1900’s.

Prior to 1960, in fact, the leading advocates of a literalistic reading of Genesis tended to be in small Protestant sects, like the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Indeed, the most visible proponent of young-earth creationism was a Seventh-Day Adventist science teacher named George McCready Price. He argued for a recent six-day creation, with Noah’s flood shaping the Earth’s features and laying down its fossils. His teachings were limited mostly to Seventh-Day Adventist Churches and colleges. This view of a young-Earth would utterly split religion from mainstream science. That is what has been happening during the last 40 years.

Creation Science

How this belief did became a main conservative Christian belief in America? Central in this story is a Baptist engineering professor named Henry Morris, who revived “Noah’s flood geology” in 1961, and began spreading it widely among conservative Protestants. He used the name “scientific creationism” or “creation science”.

Henry Morris was a very intelligent young man, I must admit. He became convinced that the entire bible must be literally true, or none of it can be trusted. Genesis had to be believed equally with the Gospel accounts. Believing this, he focused his career on the study of hydraulic engineering, to learn how catastrophic water action could impact geological features. Working with theologian John Whitcomb, Morris published the book The Genesis Flood. This book presented “scientific arguments” for creation within a biblical chronology. It attributed the fossil record and most geologic features to a single worldwide flood.

This book, as one could expect, was virtually ignored by the scientific community. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, it gained an enormous following within conservative protestant circles. Morris followed this book with a string of books, articles, tapes and lectures. He compounded his efforts with an institutional development. Henry Morris founded the Institute for Creation Research, or ICR, which has widely promoted “scientific creationism” through books, pamphlets, films, lectures and debates. ICR biology textbooks dominate the Christian school market.

During the mid 1970’s, the ICR prepared a creationist textbook stripped of any reference to a creator for the public school market. It was this textbook which began to be adopted by conservative school boards around the country, and drew the attention of secular scientists to these developments. This restarted the battle over biology education in public schools.

The battle for the teaching of scientific creationism in public schools began with the legal argument that it was as scientific as evolutionary science. The struggle ended, though, with the judicial conclusion that creation science was simply religious dogma. Morris and his followers freely admitted that teaching creation promotes belief in a creator. Indeed, he never tried to cover that. He claimed, however, that the promotion of this belief in a creator was simply an incidental result of teaching scientific evidence supporting the abrupt non-evolutionary appearance of the universe, life and species.

Morris claimed that teaching evolution promotes a philosophical viewpoint, citing the examples of Huxley or George Gaylord Simpson. Assuming this position, both evolutionary science and creation science, according to Morris, could be given balanced treatment in public school biology without violating the Constitution. He said that creationism isn’t more religious than evolution.

This argument had wide appeal. Public opinion surveys persistently found that Americans were evenly split over the questions of origins. About half believed that humans were created recently, as the Bible says; and half believed humans evolved. Americans broadly supported the idea of teaching both views in public schools. Three States adopted so-called “balanced treatment laws”. This is when there was a tremendous reaction by the other side.

Science groups, mainstream religious organizations and civil liberties groups challenged these new policies and laws in court. They argued they violated the separation of Church and State. One by one, each one of these laws was declared unconstitutional. In 1987, the United States Supreme Court ruled against the Louisiana balanced treatment act. No law is needed to teach scientific evidence for or against evolution.

These rulings ended the teaching of scientific creationism in public schools, but the battle sensitized school officials to the issue. The excluding of creation science from public schools further fed the Christian academy and homeschooling movements, where parents could control the type of biology was taught.

The battle continues to this day, and there aren’t signs of an ending.

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