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Ted Davis
 on February 22, 2017

Ken Ham’s Alternative History of Creationism

Almost a century ago, the greatest theologian of the modern era rejected the false dichotomy between evolution and biblical faith.

leather bible with gold cross on cover

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

At BioLogos we respect the zeal of Young-Earth Creationists for the gospel and their intention to defend biblical truth. We disagree strongly with many of their conclusions, of course, but we want to express these disagreements charitably and in a way that respects the complexity of the issues involved. Responding directly to every statement made about our position by Young-Earth Creationists would not, in our opinion, best facilitate this sort of dialogue. But sometimes claims are made about our positions or authors that are demonstrably false, and out of our commitment to truth we believe these must be corrected. We expect no less from our critics.

ABOVE: Illogical Geology

ABOVE: Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in The Evolution Theory (1906), a self-published pamphlet by George McCready Price, contains most of the core tenets of young-earth creationism—especially a full-scale assault on the validity of mainstream geology, thus entirely undermining any evolutionary inferences from the fossil record. At that time, almost all conservative Christian authors endorsed some version of old-earth creationism, such as the gap theory or the day-age theory, not young-earth creationism. It was from Adventist authors like Price that the modern creationist movement obtained their version of natural history. Photograph by Ted Davis.

Ken Ham’s beef about the history of creationism

Earlier this year, Ken Ham wrote a column on his official blog at Answers in Genesis (AiG) directed against one of our guest authors, botanist Joel Duff of the University of Akron, who wrote a piece about the history of creationism on his own blog (not for BioLogos, although Ham implicates us by association). Ham’s column specifically addresses “the false accusation that what we believe at AiG had its roots in the Seventh Day Adventist movement with Ellen White.” Ham then reviews a bit of his personal story, noting that he learned about creationism from his parents, “before I ever heard of Henry Morris or any others that Duff mentions…”

Ham’s main point is as follows:

Dr. Duff is just following the distorted historical analysis of the openly agnostic, apostate Seventh Day Adventist historian, Ronald Numbers (whom he refers to in the article). Young-earth creation is not a novel view invented by Seventh Day Adventists. It was historic Christian orthodoxy until the 19th century when the millions of years myth was popularized by atheist and deist geologists (and some professing Christian geologists who ignored Genesis), as is documented in the first three chapters of Coming to Grips with Genesis. In the early 19th century, most of the church quickly compromised with millions of years, but the young-earth “scriptural geologists” at that time raised biblical, geological, and philosophical arguments against those old-earth ideas and reinterpretations of Scripture, as The Great Turning Point documents.

Ham is partly correct: the Adventists certainly didn’t invent the idea of a young earth. Nearly all Christians prior to the late eighteenth century believed that God created the world just a few thousand years ago, even though some of the most important theologians in church history—including Augustine, one of the greatest of all—did not believe that the creation “days” were meant to be understood literally as ordinary days. They interpreted Genesis straightforwardly, and in the near total absence of scientific evidence to the contrary it made sense to do so. Nor did they know very much about the history, culture, and literature of the ancient Near East—knowledge that many Christians today find crucially important for understanding what the Genesis creation stories are really about.

By the early nineteenth century, however, the situation was rapidly changing, as virtually all geologists agreed that the earth had existed for a very long time before the first appearance of humans (an idea now known as “deep time”). Contrary to what Ham says, however, those “professing Christian geologists” who helped to create modern geology (of whom there were a large number) did not “ignore Genesis.” Just the opposite. They devoted much careful thought to relating the new scientific information to the biblical text, finding multiple ways to do so, while giving highly visible public witness to their Christian faith: they were very serious Christians, not merely (as Ham seems to imply) nominal believers who caved in to their “atheist and deist” professional colleagues.

For example, let’s consider two really prominent American scientists from this period. Benjamin Silliman, a pious, Bible-believing evangelical and the most influential American scientist before the Civil War, was fully convinced that geology actually confirmed the truth of Genesis—provided only that the creation “days” were interpreted as long periods of time, a position he labeled “progressive creation.” His former student Edward Hitchcock, a major American geologist and a devout Christian, was a beacon of faith amidst profound personal loss. He found Silliman’s day-age view an acceptable option, but he preferred to put geological time prior to the start of the six days, endorsing what was later called the “gap theory” while staunchly opposing evolution. I could easily offer many more examples, but these should suffice to show that Ham used the verb “compromised” to deflect attention away from people that many evangelicals today might rather admire, if they actually knew more about them than Ham wants you to know.

In the wake of figures like Silliman and Hitchcock, from the mid-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century (roughly 1860 to 1960), most conservative Protestant writers in the United States accepted the validity of an old earth and universe. This is obvious from the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), which was very widely used by conservative Protestants in North America and England for decades. Scofield officially endorsed the two views I just told you about, leaving the possibility of a young earth unmentioned. Indeed, hardly any leader of the first generation of Christian “fundamentalists” believed in a recent creation, a fact that AiG reluctantly admits.

During that same period, the Adventists were almost alone in holding and aggressively promoting the YEC view. That part of the story begins with Ellen White. Born in Maine in 1827, she was a major prophet who helped found the Seventh-day Adventist Church. White’s ideas—including her “visions” of what happened during the creation week in Genesis (which essentially match the ideas of Ham’s organization)—were not widely read outside of Adventist circles. However, in the early twentieth century a former schoolteacher, a Canadian Adventist named George McCready Price, wrote dozens of books and articles that made White’s ideas very familiar to millions of conservative Protestants with no Adventist connections. For the most part, those readers did not embrace a young earth or “flood geology,” but they loved Price’s defense of a global flood and his wholesale assault on evolution. After discovering Price and other Adventist authors for themselves, the founders of modern creationism, Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb, Jr., borrowed heavily from them—especially the young earth and flood geology, as Ronald Numbers has shown (not to mention several other historians, including me).

AiG’s alternative history of creationism

Ronald Numbers is the widely respected historian who wrote The Creationists (1992, revised edition 2006), a meticulously researched work that is almost universally seen as the definitive history of the movement. Among many other things in this comprehensive book, Numbers traces the historical connections between Adventist authors and the rise of modern creationism with great care: no one who reads his work can fairly say that it’s spare on details, or that he invents things that aren’t clearly documented by the sources he quotes and cites. Therefore, Joel Duff isn’t flying blind; unlike those scientists who put self-serving junk history into their popular writings, he’s getting his material from the leading historian of creationism. Nevertheless, Ham concludes that Duff “needs to do some careful research,” rather than “just following the distorted historical analysis of the openly agnostic, apostate Seventh Day Adventist historian, Ronald Numbers.” This somewhat ad hominem attack on Numbers and the blanket dismissal of his extraordinarily careful work is very troubling. The strategy of “debunking” Numbers’ careful conclusions is gaining in popularity, and it bodes badly for the future of the body of Christ, since it constitutes a set of “alternative facts” rather than the truth and unfairly maligns a scholar who always seeks to be fair to people whose views he doesn’t share. (Having known Numbers for thirty-five years, I speak from extensive personal experience and knowledge of his professional activities.)

Let me remind Mr. Ham of what Whitcomb said about Numbers’ book. Whitcomb and his close friend Morris both feature prominently in that book, and Whitcomb provided Numbers with some of the correspondence that Numbers used in writing it. In a talk from 2005 published by Ham’s organization, Whitcomb says, “Dr. Morris agrees with me that this is an objective study by one who claims to be an agnostic on the subject of ultimate origins.” The tone and content of this comment—written by someone who is even closer to this subject than Ken Ham—undermine what Ham recently told his readers. Whitcomb said that it presents the historical details without bias, whereas Ham describes it as a “distorted historical analysis.” They cannot both be correct.

While conducting research for this column, I searched for Price’s full name on the AiG website, as well as a separate search without using his middle name (which found just one more article along with nearly 100 false positives). The result was unexpected, but revealing. AiG is a massive site devoted to almost every imaginable aspect of creationism, including a very large number of articles partly or entirely devoted to the history of the ideas and the movement. Yet my search for Price produced only nine articles—a remarkably small number, given the enormous role that he actually played in the history of creationism. Henry Morris’ name appears in more than 500 articles, with Whitcomb’s close behind. And, searching for Ellen White yields only three articles. Many other historical figures who didn’t really contribute to creationism come up far more often. Dozens of articles mention Robert Boyle, nearly 200 mention Johannes Kepler, and even more mention Isaac Newton. Now, there’s nothing odd about AiG showing much interest in great scientists from the seventeenth century, even someone like Newton who denied the divinity of Jesus, but the near absence of Price (and White) is passing strange.

It’s one thing simply to ignore Price; it’s another thing entirely to construct a false history that denies him his rightful place in the pantheon of creationism—and that’s exactly what AiG has done. Furthermore, they offer a version of the history of creationism that Morris would not have recognized. Of the nine articles in which Price appears, just one gives him his due. Another mentions him twice in a favorable way and a third mentions him once favorably. A fourth (by historian Terry Mortenson) uses Price’s name only incidentally, as does a short sequel to it by Ham. However, the other four (including the recent one by Ham) try with varying degrees of effort to minimize or obscure Price’s central role. The most pointed of these is an article from 2011 by Mark Looy and Georgia Purdom. They flatly deny any significant influence of Price on Morris, calling it an “exaggerated misrepresentation” that “is simply incorrect and was most likely regurgitated from the book The Creationists by historian Dr. Ronald Numbers.” This directly contradicts what Morris himself said about Price on multiple occasions. Let me show you chapter and verse.

What Ken Ham doesn’t know about creationism

Ken Ham undoubtedly knows all about White and Price. What he doesn’t seem to know—or is unwilling to acknowledge—is the deep connection that really existed between White’s ideas and the founders of the modern creationist movement, Morris and Whitcomb. Although I’ve used Numbers’ work often for many years, what I say next is based on my own research, not his; Ham can’t claim that I’ve simply relied on someone else’s “distorted historical analysis.”

I happen to own my late mother’s copy of the first edition of Henry Morris’ first book, That You Might Believe (1946), written while he was still teaching at Rice Institute (now Rice University), long before he became famous. Three of the eight chapters focus on science and the Bible, and the crucial one for our purposes is devoted to “Modern Science and the Flood.” Despite presenting the gap view as one possibility, Morris argued against an old earth, endorsed the traditional biblical age of a few thousand years, embraced flood geology, and praised Price to the hilt:

There are a few geologists, even today, who hold to some form of the flood theory. Probably the outstanding example is George M. Price, who is probably as conversant with the whole subject of historical geology as any man living. Because of his views, he has been subjected to a great deal of criticism and ridicule by orthodox geologists, but his wealth of accumulated facts and his incontrovertible logic have never been answered. Much of the material in this chapter is taken from his works. (pp. 60-61)

In the bibliography at the end of that chapter, Morris listed four books and four articles by Price—far more than anyone else cited there. He also listed three articles by Adventist author Benjamin Franklin Allen and a very rare item by another Adventist (though not apparently of the Seventh-day variety), namely, The Flood: The Fact of History (1890), by Charles Totten, a military officer and Anglo-Israelite who probably originated the modern urban legend that astronomers have confirmed Joshua’s missing day. More than half of the twenty-three works, including eight by the man he identified as most important, were written by Adventists.

Nearly forty years later, Morris confirmed the impression one gets from this book, saying that Price was “the most important creationist writer of the first half-century,” adding that “many Christians today would take exception to this evaluation,” partly because Price was an Adventist, which many Christians “regard as an eccentric cult” (A History of Modern Creationism, pp. 79-80). Perhaps that what’s going on now at AiG, or perhaps not. Either way, Morris would obviously not approve of their version of the history of creationism. His own account of things didn’t leave Price out in the cold.

Whitcomb was likewise heavily indebted to Price. He’d read about Price in Morris’ book, and he was impressed when Morris presented Price’s ideas at a conference at Grace Theological Seminary in 1953, leading him to abandon the gap theory in favor of a young earth. His decision to write his doctoral dissertation on “The Genesis Flood” followed shortly thereafter (A History of Modern Creationism, pp. 146-7). Around the time he completed it, Whitcomb told Dudley Joseph Whitney (a non-Adventist author referenced by Morris) that he wrote it in order to defend “the position of George M. Price” (cited below).

None of this means that today’s creationists could not, or did not, obtain their views from non-Adventist sources. Like Ken Ham, they might have heard about creationism entirely independently of White and Price, or even Whitcomb and Morris who were directly inspired by them. Nor does it mean that similar views were unknown prior to White. But to claim that modern creationism did not arise from the influence of Adventist authors is to create “alternative facts” that distort and hide the real story. Whitcomb and Morris launched the modern creationist movement: that’s a fact fully acknowledged by AiG. They were both deeply influenced by Price, who was self-consciously popularizing the ideas of Ellen White, a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: that’s also a fact.

Why do Ham and company go to such lengths to create an alternative history of creationism in which Price and the Adventists don’t receive proper credit? Is it because (like those Christians mentioned by Morris) they don’t want their movement associated with a Christian sect that is sometimes viewed with suspicion? Perhaps that is part of the picture, but I think there’s a much bigger reason behind it. The tangled history of modern creationism threatens the simplistic, highly inaccurate narrative AiG hammers into their followers: that Young-Earth Creationism is, and always has been, the “zero-compromise” option for all devout believers in the authority of the Bible. The real story, as we have seen, is much more complicated than AiG’s rhetoric indicates. The fact that Ham and AiG are so blatantly twisting the facts here, and are so critical of those like Duff (and Numbers) who are trying to set the record straight, does not reflect well on the credibility of their organization.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is 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.