The history of Creationism

What can the history of Creationism tell us about the relationship between science and faith?

On January 27, 2006 in the NSW snowy river town of Tumut, English backpacker Alex York and Scottish holidaymaker Rudi Boa went to the local pub for a drink. Rudi, his girlfriend Gillian, and Alex were neighbours at the local caravan park, and were becoming friends. Rudi and Alex also both happened to be biomedical students. Over drinks that night at the pub a sharp argument erupted between Rudi and Alex. They calmed down but later that night a confrontation ensued at the caravan park. It turned deadly when York produced a knife. Alex York was later sentenced to five years for manslaughter. Their disagreement? Creation versus evolution. 

This tragic incident is a real-world illustration of what historians refer to as the ‘warfare metaphor’ describing the encounter between religion and modern science. The warfare metaphor pervades the public discussion, such as through the bestsellers of Richard Dawkins or resulting from legal battles over the teaching of evolution in schools in the United States. In recent times the hostilities have been growing more intense because the movement known as ‘creationism’ is as vibrant as ever.

A 1991 Gallup Poll on creationist beliefs reported that 47 % of Americans believed ‘God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years’. In 2005 a similar poll reported that two thirds declared ‘creationism’ definitely or probably true. Creationism’s resurgence is illustrated in the story of one of chief contemporary protagonists, an Australian named Ken Ham. In 1987 Ham, a former high school teacher, moved from Queensland to southern California to join a creationist lobby group called Creation Science Foundation (CSF). Like other creationist groups today, CSF argued that a literal interpretation of the bible on life’s origin is also scientifically valid. Based on the first chapter of Genesis, for example, the earth is viewed as six to ten thousand years old; the major ‘kinds’ (by ‘kind’ creationists either mean species or genus) of life are believed to be created in their present form in a six day period. Fossils of extinct species and geological formations such as the Grand Canyon are said to be results of a catastrophic global flood as pictured in chapters 8-10 of Genesis. This depiction of creationism is actually one of several varieties of the movement. For a fuller, but by no means complete, outline of the versions of creationism, refer to the table at the end of the article.

CSF argued that a literal interpretation of the bible on life’s origin is also scientifically valid…for example, the earth is viewed as six to ten thousand years old; the major ‘kinds’…of life are believed to be created in their present form in a six day period

Ken Ham later formed his own creationist organisation, Answers in Genesis (AiG). The group is thriving, with branches in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, Japan and South Africa. It distributes literature in at least 19 languages. But its greatest achievement came on the 27th of May, 2007. On that day in Petersburg, Kentucky, Ham cut the ribbon to open the largest monument to creationism ever seen, the US$27 million dollar Creation Museum. The Museum is one of the largest privately funded science museums in the world. Within five months of opening, more than 250,000 people had been through its doors.

On the eve of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species (Origin, published 1859), creationism has developed a significant profile and grassroots support around the world. Creationism also typifies what for many is a stark choice between those ‘of faith’ and those ‘of science’. However the public debate on creationism is beset by parodies and pigeon-holing. The history of creationism shows that the diversity of scientific views of even highly conservative Christians belies popular stereotypes. It is simply not the case that belief in a Creator disqualifies one’s belief in evolution, let alone in science. Indeed the history of creationism shows how the fields of faith and science must relate and talk to each other as they wrestle with the volatile question of life’s origin.

While mainstream science has generally tended to ignore creationism, recently that has changed. In 2006 the academies of science of nearly 70 countries released a joint statement in support of evolution and criticizing creationism and a related movement known as ‘Intelligent Design’ (more on that below). The statement read in part:

  We the undersigned Academies of Sciences, have learned that in various parts of the world, within science courses taught in certain public systems of education, scientific evidence, data and testable theories about the origins and evolution of life on Earth are being concealed, denied, or confused with theories not testable by science.  

Leading evolution critic, Phillip Johnson, would view this statement as a prime example of scientists ‘refusing’ to see evidence of design in nature. He argues in his influential 1991 book, Darwin on Trial, that scientists’ ideological belief in ‘naturalism’ (ie. natural forces alone explaining life) prevents them from doing legitimate science. In a similar spirit, but from the opposite side, leading evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins would view the statement as a denunciation of religion, which he describes as ideology believed without evidence. Surprisingly there is striking agreement between the most vehement opponents on both sides of creationism: Either science is wrong (at least in the form practiced by most scientists). Or religion is. But the simple and simplistic choice is not borne out in the history of creationism.

Christianity and Darwinism

Historically some of the most conservative Christians did not react to Darwin or evolution like today’s creationists. In 1855, four years before Origin of the Species was published, Charles Darwin was assiduously refining his arguments and collecting data in support of his theory. Darwin's key idea was that all life was descended from a common ancestor. Natural selection was the means by which life descended into its multiplicity of forms. In gathering his evidence, Darwin sought the assistance of Harvard University's professor of botany, Asa Gray. Gray is now regarded as America's foremost botanist of the nineteenth century. Few people were granted a preview of Darwin's explosive (and secretive) theory prior to publication. So it is a measure of Darwin's respect for Gray that he sent him an abstract in 1857.

Gray was born in upstate New York and raised in a Christian home. However in early adulthood his spiritual outlook had drifted into an agnostic rationalism then popular among north-easterners. But when Gray moved to Harvard in 1842 he chose not to join the spiritualistic, unorthodox Unitarian chapel services which most of his colleagues attended. Instead, Gray transferred his membership to an evangelical Congregational church in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  His return to an evangelical faith was steadfast. Gray became a leading defender of Darwinism in America. He corresponded with Darwin at length, often turning to a Congregational minister, G.F. Wright (also an advocate for evolution) for theological expertise when dealing with Darwin's agnosticism.

by 1867 the phrase 'Christian Darwinism' was already in use to describe the vigorous defense of the theory by prominent conservative Christians

Despite his best efforts Gray never resolved Darwin's doubts. But this did not cause Gray himself to waver on either the scientific case for Darwinism, or its compatibility with orthodox Christianity. Gray was not a lone voice. Others including Princeton theologian James McCosh, James Iverach and Audrey Moore defended Darwinism in Britain as well as America. Indeed by 1867 the phrase 'Christian Darwinism' was already in use to describe the vigorous defense of the theory by prominent conservative Christians.

Beyond conservative Christianity, Darwin found other supporters in the liberal wings of the church. The Anglican clergyman Frederick Temple (b. 1821) accepted evolution and revised doctrine in its light. The liberal Congregationalist Henry Ward Beecher (b. 1818) extolled evolution and made it a core principle of his theology. A little later the French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (b. 1881) went further, re-casting all theology in combination with evolution.

There were, besides these, many Christian critics of Darwinism as well. The Roman Catholic church was initially hostile towards Darwinism, not revising its official position until the 1960’s at Vatican II. It is worth noting however that these critics, unlike today’s creationists, frequently responded to Darwinism with mainstream scientific arguments. For example, Anglican clergyman George Henslow wrote scientific works critiquing Darwinism such as The Origin of Floral Structures (1888) and The Origin of Plant Structures (1895).

In the years prior to the 1930’s Darwinism faced a number of scientific challenges and uncertainties. For example, Darwin’s theory suited an earth-age much longer than 19th century estimates of 40 – 100 million years. Unlike today, fossil evidence was at the time sparse and inconclusive. While Darwin had established organic evolution as the best explanation for the formation of life, other scientific theories were competing with Darwinism to explain the precise mechanism behind evolution. Alternatives to Darwinism became increasingly marginal until the 1930’s when Gregor Mendel's theory of genetics was synthesized with Darwinism (forming 'neo-Darwinism') and the competing theories essentially disappeared.  Prior to the modern consensus on Darwin, Christian leaders who questioned his theory were able to legitimately point to mainstream scientific reservations. 

Philosophical and theological responses to Darwinism

Scientific reservations were, however, certainly not driving anti-evolutionary feeling. Deep philosophical and theological concerns existed. The Princeton University theologian Charles Hodge (b. 1797) wrote a comprehensive critique of Darwinism and his arguments are still popular among creationists today. First, Hodge stated that Darwin's theory eliminated recourse to supernatural intervention to explain the origin of life. He charged it with actively attempting to deny divine intervention. This made Darwinism materialistic, atheistic and anti-Scriptural. Second, Hodge argued that Darwin's natural selection was philosophically indefensible in that it attributed design to unguided natural forces. The view Hodge took is known in philosophy as the ‘argument from design’ for the existence of God (or gods).  It was classically expounded in the 18th century by William Paley (a work Darwin was very familiar with). Hodge, like Paley and many others, found it difficult to envisage that mere ‘laws of nature’ had power to create de novo or produce ‘design’. And as mentioned earlier, Hodge also stressed the scientific uncertainties of Darwinism. This led him to deduce that Darwinists were motivated by humanistic ideology. Hodge asserted this point even though many devout and conservative Christians accepted Darwinism, including many in the British and American scientific communities.

Hodge stated that Darwin's theory eliminated recourse to supernatural intervention to explain the origin of life. He charged it with actively attempting to deny divine intervention. This made Darwinism materialistic, atheistic and anti-Scriptural

Interestingly though, conservative Christians were far from united with Hodge on his philosophical and theological attack. This much is clear from one of Hodge’s most eminent students at Princeton, Benjamin B. Warfield.

Benjamin Warfield was born on his family's farm near Lexington, Kentucky in 1851. The Warfield family were cattle breeders and just prior to entering Princeton in 1873, Warfield had been livestock editor for the Lexington Farmer's Home Journal. He contributed much to his father's cattle breeding book which drew heavily on Darwin's theory of natural selection. Warfield later remarked that he had met Darwin's theory ‘in the feed lot’ as it were, and not merely as an academic question. He was a lifelong supporter of evolution, and apart from some relatively minor equivocations, largely agreed with Darwinism.

Yet Warfield's lasting significance as a theologian does not involve evolution. His most influential legacy is his refinement and promotion of a doctrine of Scripture known as inerrancy. Inerrancy says that Scripture is entirely without error in every part. This particular doctrine has emerged as central to creationist interpretations of Scripture. Creationists argue that since Scripture cannot contain error on any matter, references to a recent global flood and the formation of life over six literal days must be scientifically valid. Hence the task of ‘scientific creationism’ is to find scientific evidence in support of such views. For creationists and the majority of American Fundamentalists, the inerrancy of Scripture logically denies evolution and vice versa. If Scripture was found to be in error, it would be as if God had lied. If God lied then the entire Christian notion of God collapses.

B.B. Warfield contributed to the early 20th century essay series called ‘The Fundamentals’ from which ‘Fundamentalism’ gained its name. It would therefore come as a shock to many of today’s Fundamentalists to hear that he supported evolutionary theory. But Warfield was not alone. G.F. Wright and James Orr were also ‘Fundamentalist evolutionists’ (a modern oxymoron). When asked to contribute to the Fundamentals, Orr had already published his view that evolution seems ‘extremely probable, and no religious interest is imperilled by a theory of evolution viewed simply as a method of creation.’ How did Orr, Wright, Warfield and others maintain inerrancy and evolution? They applied other doctrines to Scripture such as ‘concursus’. Concursus says Scripture is a fully human product as well as fully divine. Thus, it may be true that from the perspective of the writer of Genesis life was created in six days. But according to concursus the text is divine truth about the formation of the earth adapted into the finite comprehension and culture of an ancient society. Unlike Charles Hodge these Fundamentalists regarded organic evolution as a natural mechanism which no more excluded God than other natural forces such as gravity or magnetism.

The initial period of response to Darwinism by the church reveals a complex picture. Even among the leaders behind modern Fundamentalism, there were those who believed in evolution. Yet as inerrancy emerged as a defense against ‘higher Scriptural criticism’, and as the debate polarised the protagonists, careful balances of doctrine were lost. Fundamentalists saw evolution as a threat to the faith because it seemed to contradict inerrancy. This was just one of a series of factors which led conservative American attitudes to become receptive to today’s creationism. Philosophical reasoning played a role. Theological developments played a role. But perhaps more significant than either was evolution’s association with the dramatic changes sweeping society.

Society and evolution

Unlike many scientific theories, Darwinian evolution was comprehensively and deeply applied to philosophy, economics, society, ethics and much more. Herbert Spencer was one of the first to apply the science more widely, developing a humanistic ethic based on evolutionary principles. It was from Spencer, not Darwin, that the term 'survival of the fittest' first came. The industrialist Andrew Carnegie applied Spencerian ethics to economics, resulting in a harsh laissez-faire capitalism which did Darwinism's image no favours (Carnegie sponsored Spencer on a lecture tour of the United States).

By the time of the Cold War years, conservative middle-America came to see communism, atheism and Darwinism as an unholy trinity of evil

Far worse than Carnegie's industrial relations was Nazi Party domestic and foreign policy of the 1930s and 40s. The Nazis drew heavily on ‘Social Darwinism’ to both support their particular brand of aggressive and fervent nationalism, and to denounce the Jews as racially inferior. Hitler’s Eugenics programme provides a notorious example of the (mis-)application of Darwin’s theories to social engineering. Further, the other great modernist ideology of the twentieth century – Socialism  – extolled evolution for supposedly supporting its political agenda. By the time of the Cold War years, conservative middle-America came to see communism, atheism and Darwinism as an unholy trinity of evil.

Fans of classic movies may recall ‘Inherit the Wind’, based on the 1925 'Scopes Monkey Trial'. Ostensibly the trial involved a biology teacher named John Scopes breaking a state law against teaching evolution. It gained fame as a battle between ‘obscurantist faith’ and ‘enlightened science’. In reality it was a battle over changes in society. William Jennings Bryan, the three time Presidential candidate who led the prosecution against Scopes, was seeking to save the moral and spiritual soul of America. The metaphysics of evolution worried Bryan, not most of the science. Bryan had already led a nation-wide anti-evolution tour, seeking to counter what he – and many others – felt were the pernicious effects of belief in the ‘ideology’ of evolution. Despite all this Bryan was a relative liberal on the science of evolution – certainly by the standards of creationists such as Ken Ham. In fact, if Bryan applied for a job at Ham's Creation Museum he would be rejected on the grounds that he believed in an ancient earth (and much else on evolution). This is somewhat ironic as the Museum has an exhibit dedicated to Bryan's defence of creationism. Yet it is the Ken Ham version of creationism which has become ascendant among many conservative Christians in America.

Today’s Creationism

So from where did contemporary creationism emerge? George McCready Price (b.1870) has much to do with the answer. Although he never attained more than an undergraduate arts degree, Price succeeded in transforming the creationist landscape⎯by focusing on the geology of creation. By the mid nineteenth century, modern geology had established what is called the 'geological column'. This is the chronological arrangement of rock layers from oldest to youngest, corresponding to fossils, with simplest life forms in the oldest layers to more complex ones as the layers become more recent.

Some Christians sought to match the geological column with Genesis using theories such as the day-age or gap-theories, or theistic evolution [see Appendice]. Upon studying these views Price could not reconcile them with Scriptural inerrancy. Price had grown up in a rural Seventh Day Adventist church, which his widowed mother joined shortly after the death of her husband, when Price was just 12.  Seventh Day Adventism is a Christian sect which emphasises a literal six day creation and the expectation of Christ's imminent return (or 'advent'). The group's name reflects both these beliefs, the seventh day being the Sabbath day to which Adventists strictly adhere. After graduating from an Adventist college Price drifted between jobs as a door to door salesman, a high school teacher, a handyman and a labourer. He had tried and failed as an evangelist, an administrator and a writer and struggled to support his family. At one point, after yet another failed career attempt, Price even contemplated suicide.

However it was to be on the subject of evolution that Price found his life mission. Unconvinced by the creationism of his day, Price set about challenging the core of geological science – the geological column. He did so by applying Noah's flood to the problem, formulating ‘deluge theory’ or ‘geological catastrophism’. Geology had its column, but Price had the Flood – and to his supporters at least Price washed away most of modern geology’s assumptions. In 1923 Price's magnum opus appeared, The New Geology. He spent half a century promulgating its thesis.

Price re-framed geology and Genesis to fit together into a neat story-book format

What explains Price's success in re-imagining geology? His appeal to biblical inerrancy resonated at a time when many conservative Christians felt the bible was being undermined by liberal theologians. His persistence and prodigious output helped. But perhaps more than anything Price’s ‘laymans-logic’ was potent. Price re-framed geology and Genesis to fit together into a neat story-book format. In the end, Price, along with other leading creationists such as Harry Rimmer, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris, resonated with Fundamentalists who felt isolated, anxious, yet defiant. Price calibrated a response to Darwinism which suited the mood of middle America and the concerns of the evangelical churches. The formula has kept the movement resilient and resurgent over recent decades.

Intelligent Design

Despite Price, geological science has maintained its belief in the geological column and an ancient earth. On October 6, 2005, The New York Times reported on creationist tours of the Grand Canyon. The tours describe the Canyon as having formed through a giant flood 4,500 years ago, just as Price taught. The same month the paper also reported on a trial in Dover, Pennsylvania over an issue called 'Intelligent Design' (ID). To its critics, intelligent design is nothing more than a Trojan Horse for creationism. To its advocates ID is a legitimate scientific enquiry into the evidence that an intelligent life form is responsible for the apparent design of the universe.

Dover school science teachers refused to use the text, claiming…that intelligent design was a religious concept which transgressed the constitutional separation of religion and public education

The Dover trial came about because the board of a public school directed its science teachers to use a textbook which promoted intelligent design as a valid scientific alternative to evolution. The Dover school science teachers refused to use the text, claiming it did not represent credible science and that intelligent design was a religious concept which transgressed the constitutional separation of religion and public education.

The case garnered enormous publicity, aided in part by U.S. President George W. Bush's endorsement of intelligent design as deserving a place in school science curricula on the basis that ‘both sides [for and against evolution] ought to be properly taught’. The movement gained traction in Australia too, where intelligent design advocates were lobbying in Canberra. The then education minister Brendan Nelson stated that Intelligent Design should be considered in science education in Australian schools. This provoked a swift response from science teachers, when peak bodies representing 70,000 of their number signed a statement affirming evolution and describing intelligent design as religious doctrine rather than science.

Return of the Christian Darwinists

Meanwhile the Dover trial was attracting many of the best advocates from either side of the controversy over the teaching of evolution in schools. Among those leading the defense of the science teachers was a professor of biology from Brown University, RI named Kenneth Miller. In 2000 Miller had published a book entitled Finding Darwin's God: a Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. In the book Miller describes his passionate embrace of Darwin's theory, when as a teenager he read Origin of the Species for the first time. It led him into his career as an evolutionary biologist. But Miller devotes the book not just to a robust defense of Darwinism but also to the way evolution is entirely compatible with his strong Roman Catholic faith.

Miller is far from alone in reconciling science and faith. As far back as 1954, leading voices within American evangelicalism such as Bernard Ramm were calling for more openness towards science and more responsible use of Scripture. Ramm called for evangelicals to dispense with George Price's 'strange' ideas. Current conservative biblical scholarship indirectly or directly discounts Price's views on Genesis. Many Christian individuals, groups and movements protest against creationism (some of whom protested the opening of the Creation Museum). Their protest largely surrounds what they consider to be a misguided reading of the Genesis creation accounts. The Roman Catholic Church has moved to re-affirm its acceptance of evolution and the Protestant liberal wing has sat comfortably with Darwin for some time. Along with figures such as the geneticist Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller is now the contemporary exemplar of the 19th century 'Christian Darwinist'. His high school biology text, which upholds evolution, is widely used in American schools. Like Asa Gray in the past, a committed Christian is once again leading Americans to Darwin.

The Dover school trial turned out to be a resounding setback for Intelligent Design. The conservative judge (a George W. Bush nominee) emphatically ruled that ID was religiously based. The verdict made the front pages of every major newspaper in the country. Despite setbacks such as Dover, many American evangelical churches still reject evolution and affirm strict creationism. Hostilities continue both from those of science, such as Richard Dawkins, as well as those of faith. As we have seen, the history of creationism shows the debate is about much more than science. Theologians must address creationist premises, such as inerrancy. Philosophers must address the ethical assumptions of a Herbert Spencer or Edward O. Wilson. Leaders in all fields of society must acknowledge the nature of a discussion over human origins. The challenge to move beyond the impasse is theological, philosophical and social. It is a project best managed in partnership and dialogue where the perspectives of faith are respected and valued alongside those of empirical science. It is an endeavour that is well-served by paying attention to the history of the debate – a history that is all too often forgotten or ignored.

Angus McLeay is an Anglican Minister who is on leave of absence to pursue business and philosophical interests. He is the Director of ‘IsaiahOne’, a Christian Human Rights Group

Appendice: Varieties of ‘Creationism’

Evolutionary Theism  (essentially not creationism at all) (eg. Asa Gray, B.B. Warfield, Teilhard de Chardin, Kenneth Miller)
•    God guided evolution to form human beings and the world as we know it.
•    Noah’s flood unlikely to be global or possibly not literal at all.
•    Garden of Eden may be poetic not literal language.
•    An ancient earth.

Pre-history evolution & geology according to mainstream science. Recorded history going back tens of thousands of years.
Humans became ‘spiritual beings’ either through evolutionary processes or by divine creation of soul. 

Creationist Day-Age Theory  (eg. G.F. Wright, W.J. Bryan)
•    ‘day’ in Genesis 1 is non-literal and each day represents aeons of time, which allows for evolutionary processes to have occurred.
•    An ancient earth.
•    Noah’s flood not necessarily worldwide.

Day 1
Matter created


Day 2


Day 3


Day 4
Fossils laid down


Day 5
Fossils laid down


Day 6
Humans appear in present form
Day 7
Recorded history →



Creationist Gap-Theory (also called ‘Ruin & Restoration’) (eg. C. Hodge H. Rimmer)
•    Evolutionary processes occurred prior to creation of human beings.
•    An ancient earth.
•    Noah’s flood not necessarily worldwide.

Pre-history of millions of years, formation of earth, fossils laid down 6,000 years ago, Eden ‘restored’ to earth and Adam & Eve created. Recorded History  – present

‘Strict’ Creationist Literal Six Day Creation (based on ‘Deluge / Flood Geology’) also called “Scientific Creationism” (eg. Ken Ham, George McCready Price, J. Whitcomb)
•    Genesis 1 refers to literal 24 hour days.
•    A young earth, not older than 10,000 years.
•    Cataclysmic global flood destroyed Edenic earth, laid down fossils and changed climate (hence the Ark’s dinosaurs perished).
•    No evolution of one species into another (macro-evolution), only micro-evolution within species.

Possible pre-existence of matter in lifeless, chaotic state 6,000 – 10,000 years ago, all life created over six 24-hour periods. Recorded History – present

Intelligent Design advocates can be in any of the above camps. Intelligent design rejects macro-evolution as a ‘natural’ process (ie. undirected by an intelligent being). Its advocates generally claim they are only seeking to assert that ‘design’ is scientifically verifiable. Eg. Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski.