Creation and Evolution Before the Civil War

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

ABOVE: This hand-colored, foldout paleontological chart was bound opposite the title page in every edition of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology published before 1860, when his son Charles H. Hitchcock was first added as co-author. Every copy I have seen is identical, except for the coloring; this version is from the “30th edition” in 1857. Courtesy of the Historic Maps Collection, Princeton University Library, Princeton, New Jersey (image source).

Thus far in this series, we’ve reviewed Hitchcock’s career and the main points of his natural theology. Today, I discuss his carefully considered views on the interpretation of Genesis and his rejection of all forms of “development,” namely, what we now call “evolution.”

The Bible Confronts Deep Time

Like his mentor Benjamin Silliman, Edward Hitchcock fully accepted “deep time,” the notion that animal and vegetable life existed on the earth for an enormously long period of time before humans arrived. Also like Silliman, he believed that the Bible and geology both taught the separate creation of humans just a few thousand years ago. However, where Silliman endorsed Robert Jameson’s version of what we now call the “day-age” view, Hitchcock preferred what we now call the “gap theory.”

Hitchcock defended his position for about three decades in diverse places, but for a succinct presentation of his views we’ll consult Elementary Geology, the textbook that replaced the book by Robert Bakewell that Silliman had edited for American audiences. The widely circulated eighth edition (1847) has a clear summary of views he’d been advocating since the 1830s (quoting pp. 292-297). Among other ideas, we find these:

  • “Some theological (but no geological) writers maintain, that the fossiliferous rocks were … created at once, with all their organic contents, as we now find them.” While an omnipotent God could do this, it flies in the face of “our only ground for judging as to the cause of any natural changes,” namely analogy with the world as we find it.
  • Others hold “that the fossiliferous rocks were deposited by the deluge of Noah.” After listing several refutations, he just threw up his hands: “An apology is due to the geological reader, for introducing a formal refutation of an hypothesis, which, to him, appears so entirely absurd. The apology consists in the fact, that many intelligent men are still found maintaining this hypothesis.”
  • Some interpret the “days” of Genesis as “periods of indefinite or unequal length,” an idea he connected specifically with Robert Jameson, the Scottish geologist who had so strongly influenced Hitchcock’s mentor, Benjamin Silliman. Hitchcock gave several arguments in support of this view, followed by several opposed to it, most of which would be familiar to someone well versed in the conversation today. In the end, because “animals are found as deep in the rocks as vegetables: nay, in the lowest group, nothing but animals has yet been found,” he concluded that “there is no necessity for an extension of the demiurgic [creation] days into long periods, in order to reconcile [Genesis] with geology.”
  • “The theory of interpretation which is now the most extensively adopted among geologists, supposes that Moses merely states that God created the world in the beginning, without fixing the date of that beginning, … passing in silence [over] an unknown period of its history, during which the extinct animals and plants” existed. Then, Moses described “only the present creation, which took place in six literal days, less than 6000 years ago.” Hitchcock defended this view at length, finding it “sufficient entirely to reconcile the scriptural and geological accounts: because, during that period, all the fossiliferous rocks except the alluvial [the top layer], might have been formed.”

Hitchcock’s claim that this last view (now often called the gap theory) was general favored by geologists is very interesting. Unfortunately he didn’t name any geologists in this section, though he mentioned numerous theological proponents. Elsewhere he often cited William Buckland on various points, and Buckland was the leading English geological advocate of the gap view.

This handsome portrait of President Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), by William Rohner (1816-1876), a German artist who was active in United States, was painted around 1840, when the first edition of Hitchcock’s great textbook, Elementary Geology, was published. Oil on canvas. Collection of Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. POR.XX.11. Reproduced with permission of Amherst College (image source).


“The Great Fact of Man’s Creation”

The first edition of Elementary Geology (1840), and every subsequent edition down to 1859, opens with a large folding plate tucked inside the front cover, preceding the title page and the promotional blurbs (such as those found on the back cover of a paperback book today). This is Hitchcock’s famous paleontological chart (pictured above). It was the first of its kind, linking specific fossils with geological periods in branching trees. The 1,000 species of palms wear a tiara atop the plant kingdom, while “Man” sits atop the mammals, fully crowned king of the whole of nature.

At first glance, a reader today might jump to the conclusion that the trees were intended to imply common ancestry; after all, Charles Darwin had already drawn just such a diagram in one of his notebooks less than three years earlier, and a branching pattern has since quite properly been associated with Darwin’s conception of biological genealogy. In fact, Hitchcock denied common ancestry throughout his life. Consistent with this, as evolutionary biologist J. David Archibald has noted (cited below), the chart vanished from his textbook right after Darwin’s theory was published, perhaps to avoid creating the false impression that he accepted evolution.

Why did Hitchcock reject evolution? He did not find the scientific evidence compelling, while he did find a naturalistic explanation for the origin of species theologically dangerous. In other words, he responded to evolution no differently than many Christians today.

To understand his position more fully, I’ll turn to the address he delivered at his inauguration as president of Amherst College in 1845—the same year in which the first American edition of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation came off the press in New York. Anonymously published the previous year in London and Edinburgh by the amateur Scottish naturalist Robert Chambers (whose identity was not officially revealed until after his death), Vestiges offered an early, very crude form of theistic evolution, in which the law of “development” rules biology, analogous to the way in which gravitation governs the physical world. Ultimately, Chambers thought, behind both laws lay just “one still more comprehensive law, the expression of that unity which man’s wit can scarcely separate from Deity itself” (Vestiges, 1844, p. 360).

Chambers’ book was controversial from the start. Though quite popular with the Victorian public, especially with women (an audience for whom Chambers’ publishing house produced large quantities of literature), Darwin and many other scientists disdained its wildly speculative conclusions, while Christian reviewers often saw it as thinly veiled irreligion. In the United States, perhaps the most strident condemnation came from a leading biblical scholar, Tayler Lewis of the University of New-York (now NYU). Writing anonymously in The American Whig Review in May 1845, he put it as bluntly as he could: “The doctrine of the book is atheism,–blank atheism, cold, cheerless, heartless, atheism.” Although the author hadn’t expressly denied God’s existence—rather, he “seems to acknowledge such a power in every chapter”—his God “is the hearer of no prayer; he is the administrator of no particular providence,” and he is the basis for no morality. “This deity never wrought a miracle, never created a world in time by any special act aside from necessarily eternal influences, never was the author of any new state of things, …[and] never originated a new and distinct species of animals…” (p. 527)

Hitchcock was slightly less antagonistic, but only slightly. Vestiges showed “that a long drawn contest is yet before naturalists on these subjects, ere these fancies shall be forced into that extramundane receptacle of things abortive and unaccomplished, described by [John] Milton as ‘a limbo large and wide,’ on the back side of the moon.” Nevertheless, even if “these hypotheses should be established, an intelligent, spiritual, infinite Deity,” is still “necessary to account for existing nature,” for “infinite wisdom, power, and benevolence” are demanded by the author of Vestiges “even more imperatively” than they are demanded by “the common theories of creation.” Therefore, Hitchcock rejected the hypotheses of development “more because they have no solid evidence in their favor, than because I fear they will ultimately be of much injury to religion…” (The Highest Use of Learning, cited below, p. 31)

As we saw in the previous column, Hitchcock was fully convinced that all life forms “must have resulted from the creative agency of the Supreme Being,” because “the creation of an almost entirely new system of organic beings, could have resulted only from an exertion of an infinitely wise and powerful Being.” (Elementary Geology, p. 284) That would be his position always. The special creation of humans was even more special, and absolutely crucial for his natural theology. Nine years later, he had this to say about it:

“Admit, if you choose, that all other events on the globe, even the creation of all other organic beings, might have been by ordinary laws; yet, so long as the great fact of man’s creation stands out so conspicuously on our world’s history, we need nothing more to establish, beyond cavil, the reality of Divine interposition in nature. God has impressed his own signet so deeply upon this last act of creation, that scepticism dare not directly attempt to deface it. And this grandest miracle of nature is also the greatest of revelation. It stands up a lofty and immovable rock amid the ocean of existence, to arrest and beat back the waves of unbelief and to reflect the glories of Divine power and wisdom” (“Special Divine Interpositions in Nature,” cited below, pp. 793-94).

As this passage shows, pre-Darwinian Christians invested such tremendous theological significance in the special creation of humans that they just couldn’t come to terms with Darwin after 1859, without jettisoning almost everything they believed about God. Exactly the same thing can be said about many Christians today: this is why BioLogos exists.

I don’t mean to imply that religious opposition was the sole reason, or even necessarily the main reason, why someone like Hitchcock opposed “development.” It was certainly a very big reason in Hitchcock’s case, but we need to keep in mind a few things. First, as stated above, the ideas presented in Vestiges “have no solid evidence in their favor,” an assessment that Darwin and his circle shared. In hindsight—an advantage we have over Hitchcock, who died just five years after Darwin’s book came out—a lot of highly accomplished scientists found evolution very hard to accept, even after Darwin had mustered considerable observational evidence supporting it, let alone several years earlier. Darwin and his professional colleagues found Vestiges unfortunate (because it misled the lay public) and wholly unconvincing. As Michael Ruse has quite accurately said, “It is difficult to choose from among the many offerings the most memorable phrases hurled against Chambers” by scientists (The Darwinian Revolution, p. 106). He goes on to mention highly critical reviews by Darwin’s close friend Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s undergraduate mentor Adam Sedgwick, the distinguished physicist David Brewster, and the Scottish evangelical geologist Hugh Miller, whose work Hitchcock appreciated. Of that eminent group, only Huxley later accepted Darwin’s theory.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was originally published as part of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, an unfinished collection of writings related to logical positivism, a heavy-duty movement in philosophy of science for much of the last century. Originally intended for a very narrow audience of professional philosophers, it went on to sell more than one million copies —an outcome nothing short of astonishing. Ironically, the picture of science Kuhn painted was anything but positivistic: social aspects of science are central to his argument, and paradigm change is said to take place not when proponents of the new paradigm win all the arguments, but when proponents of the older paradigm finally die off. Photograph courtesy of Darin Hayton (image source).


In general, many of the best scientists of Hitchcock’s generation rejected any theory of evolution, whether the author’s name was Lamarck, or Chambers, or Darwin. It’s not a simple matter to change one’s fundamental viewpoint, let alone to do so overnight. Thomas Kuhn, perhaps the most original thinker my academic discipline has ever produced, underscored this very point in his brilliant book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Describing scientists working within competing “paradigms” (his term for fundamentally different ways of looking at reality), Kuhn puts it like this: “Practicing in different worlds, the two groups of scientists see different things when they look from the same point in the same direction.” Kuhn went on to quote a passage from the end of On the Origin of Species, where Darwin said,

“Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume …, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. … [B]ut I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.” (pp. 150-51 in the third edition of Kuhn, quoting p. 481 in Darwin)

Darwin’s description of the “experienced naturalist” in the first sentence fit Hitchcock to a “tee,” right down to the last word. We mustn’t be too hard on him.

The Situation Today: Near Extinction

Edward Hitchcock died in 1864, but his favored interpretation of Genesis (the gap theory) together with his forthright defense of “the great fact of man’s creation” inspired conservative Protestants right down to the 1960s. At that point, proponents of the YEC interpretation made a concerted, largely successful effort to drive the gap theory out of existence—a goal they shared, rather ironically, with their arch-nemesis Bernard Ramm, who regarded it almost as a false god, blindly worshipped by the “hyper-orthodox,” who were sore afraid that any other way of reading Genesis would lead straight to infidelity.

The opening page of Genesis, from a mid-century reprint of the “new and improved” 1917 edition of the Scofield Bible. The three italicized headings inserted into the biblical text refer to “The original creation,” its subsequent destruction, and a “new beginning” with the creation of light on the first “day.” In footnote 2, affixed to the verb “created” in verse 1, Scofield explicitly dated the original creation to “the dateless past,” just as Hitchcock had done, an exegetical move which “gives scope for all the geologic ages” to precede the creative activities of the six “days.” Nevertheless, Scofield allowed the possibility that the creation “days” were indefinite periods of time. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


Hitchcock’s presentation of the gap theory is pretty much limited to Genesis One. Later proponents often appealed to certain prophetic texts to fill deep time with the fall of Satan and the angels, creating a whole new story of creation and fall long before the Fall of Adam and Eve. This glorified version, often called the “ruin-restitution” view, later became the standard interpretation of early Genesis among the fundamentalists—by which time not one scientist of Hitchcock’s stature still defended even Hitchcock’s less speculative version. It was unreservedly taught by the Scofield Reference Bible, which was very widely used by Anglo-American Protestants (including charismatics) for much of the last century, especially at Bible institutes but also at many seminaries and Christian colleges.

At Wheaton, the flagship evangelical college, chemist L. Allen Higley made the gap theory effectively the only curricular option, so much so that he had to resign his position after being exposed as the author of anonymous letters to the trustees, in which he charged the college’s president with heresy for advocating the day-age view. In a book published the following year, Science and Truth (1940), a work of learned ignorance that is still somehow in print, Higley announced that he had written it “to disprove evolution and many other false speculations,” notably including “the speculation that the days of Genesis are æons of geological time.” Like Hitchcock, he promoted the gap view instead of “six literal days,” because of abundant “evidence showing that the history of the earth has extended over a very long time” (pp. 6, 181, and 173). Unlike Hitchcock, he hoisted his flag on ideas that were almost a century out of date. All too often, that’s just what American Protestants have done: keep saying the same things that their parents and grandparents said, regardless of the progress of science.

Looking Ahead

Next, we consider Hitchcock’s position on animal death before the Fall of Adam and Eve—a crucial theological issue related to origins, then and now.




Davis, Ted. "Creation and Evolution Before the Civil War" N.p., 18 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 October 2017.


Davis, T. (2016, February 18). Creation and Evolution Before the Civil War
Retrieved October 20, 2017, from

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

I frequently cite “Connection between Geology and Natural and Revealed Religion,” from the eighth edition of Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology (1847). Starting in 1860, when Charles Hitchcock collaborated with his father, this part of the book changed substantially but not entirely. Although they devoted much less space to certain details, the result is just as interesting. For example, see the edition from 1863 here. I also quote The Highest Use of Learning, An Address Delivered at His Inauguration to the Presidency of Amherst College (Amherst: J. S. & C. Adams, 1845), and “Special Divine Interpositions in Nature,” Bibliotheca Sacra 11 (1854): 776-800. Readers who want to see more extensive discussions of the day-age and gap views will need to locate a print copy of Hitchcock’s early paper, “The Connection between Geology and the Mosaic History of the Creation,” The Biblical Repository and Quarterly Observer 6 (Oct 1835): 261-332.

For an account of the paleontological chart, see J. David Archibald, “Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) ‘Tree of Life’,’’ Journal of the History of Biology (2009) 42: 561–592. The best study of Hitchcock’s assessment of evolution and special creation is Stanley M. Guralnick, “Geology and Religion Before Darwin: The Case of Edward Hitchcock, Theologian and Geologist,” Isis 63 (1972): 529-543, but Guralnick incorrectly saw Hitchcock as a proponent of the day-age scheme. For short histories of the gap theory, see especially Andrew J. Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (2014), passim; an article by sociologist Tom McIver, “Formless and Void: Gap Theory Creationism,” Creation/Evolution 8 (1988): 1-24; and Weston W. Fields, Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory (1976). Information about Higley’s resignation comes from Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (expanded edition, 2006), p. 135.

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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