Americans Discover Deep Time

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

A Westerly View of The Colledges in Cambridge New England, The President and Fellows of Harvard College. When the famous patriot Paul Revere made this engraving in 1767, there were only seven colleges in North America and Massachusetts was still a British colony, but Harvard College (chartered in 1636) was already more than a century old.

 In the first two parts of this series, I introduced readers to the “Baconian” approach to reading the two divine “books” in colonial America, with special attention to Increase and Cotton Mather. Both men were alumni of Harvard College, the first college in North America, where Increase took the B.A. in 1656 and his son in 1678. Although they both knew something about astronomy, natural history had not yet arrived in American colleges—that would happen in the latter part of the eighteenth century, a few decades after their deaths. This column focuses on the place of science, especially natural history, in the Antebellum college curriculum.

Science in the Early American Colleges

Various scientific subjects had been taught at Harvard since at least 1640 and at several other American colleges for much of the eighteenth century, especially mathematics and “natural philosophy”–a very old term with a broad meaning that by 1700 was often used more narrowly to mean Newtonian physics. The whole curriculum was designed to promote reflection on morality and the human condition, with the sciences also serving this purpose. For example, the first president of King’s College (now known as Columbia University) announced that the ultimate goal of his college was “to lead [students] from the Study of Nature to the Knowledge of themselves, and of the God of Nature, and their Duty to him, themselves, and one another, and every Thing that can contribute to their true Happiness, both here and hereafter” (quote by Hornberger, cited below, p. 30). At Yale, students not only attended daily chapel services and Sunday public worship, they were “not considered as regular members of the College, till, after a residence of at least six months, they have been admitted to matriculation, on satisfactory evidence of an unblemished moral character” (Catalogue of the Officers and Students in Yale College, 1838-39, p. 26). The situation today, of course, is completely different.

Seniors at Yale in the 1830s had tutorials spread over three terms, as shown in the Catalogue of the Officers and Students in Yale College, 1838-39. Note the presence of the Scottish mathematician and philosopher Dugald Stewart and three books by the great English natural theologian William Paley, including A View of the Evidences of Christianity, which Charles Darwin had studied at Cambridge just a few years earlier. Yale president Jeremiah Day, a Congregationalist minister and mathematician, taught moral philosophy himself—that’s how important it was. In addition to these tutorials, seniors heard lectures on various subjects, including chemistry, mineralogy, and geology from Benjamin Silliman and natural philosophy and astronomy from Denison Olmsted. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


The Discovery of Deep Time

Chemistry, natural history, botany, and even agriculture began to draw attention at several colleges toward the close of the eighteenth century. That’s precisely when geologists discovered “deep time,” the idea of “a prehuman earth history of inconceivable duration,” to borrow the words of historian Martin Rudwick (“The Shape and Meaning of Earth History,” cited below, p. 308). Increasingly, it became clear that the various strata, linked with specific types of fossils all over the world, could not have been produced in a single flood but must have formed over long periods of time by diverse geological agents.

This stood in stark contrast to the traditional biblical idea that the Earth is only five days older than Adam and Eve. Mainly for this reason, the early history of geology was traditionally interpreted as a purely secular story, in which deep time overturned the Bible. According to Rudwick, however, the biblical view of history with a beginning, followed by a contingent development, heading toward an end, influenced the strongly empirical picture of geohistory held by one of the founders of modern geology, Jean-André de Luc. Rudwick says, “It is no coincidence that de Luc’s system was the most strongly geohistorical, because of all these savants he was the one most explicitly committed to the historical perspective of biblical religion, a perspective he aspired to extend to the whole of geohistory. In effect, his belief in God’s sovereignty translated into a sense of the sheer contingency of geohistory—the sense that at any point events might have taken a different path—which doomed any attempt to deduce geohistory from first principles” (Bursting the Limits of Time, p. 643). In other words, de Luc’s geological philosophy arose from the same “voluntarist” theological attitude that lay behind Robert Boyle’s experimental philosophy.

 After establishing a reputation as a first-rate geologist, Martin Rudwick turned himself mid-career into perhaps the greatest historian of geology who has ever lived. A devout Anglican, Rudwick’s Christian faith is not immediately apparent in most of his books, but discerning readers will find evidence of it from time to time.

 Prior to the 1850s, when Lord Kelvin began to develop detailed quantitative methods for estimating the ages of the Sun and the Earth, it was impossible to defend any specific numerical value for the Earth’s age, which geologists typically described only as “indefinite” or “vast.” The methods Kelvin developed relied on thermodynamics—brand new, state of the art science at the time—and yielded ages for the Earth up to about 100 million years—the number that many scientists were still giving at the end of the nineteenth century. That’s far too short by modern reckoning, but radioactivity had not yet been discovered, so the effects of the heat it generates in the Earth’s interior could not be considered. Nevertheless, even before Kelvin’s work, by the early nineteenth century it was clear to virtually all geologists and many theologians that a 6,000-year-old Earth was flatly contradicted by abundant evidence.

Perhaps surprisingly, natural history was not yet being taught at Yale in 1800. Yale’s president, the evangelical theologian Timothy Dwight, clearly recognized the importance the subject and recommended that the establishment of a faculty chair for that purpose. At the same time, owing to the challenge it posed to the Bible, he sought to fill the position with a person of solid Christian character, who would view science as an ally of faith, in the Baconian tradition of reading the two books—someone he could trust. We’ll start to unpack that story next time.

Visual illustrations may have been particularly effective at conveying deep time to non-specialists. A pertinent example is the frontispiece to the third American edition of Robert Bakewell, An Introduction to Geology (1839). Drawn by the author’s son, it depicts the Niagara gorge. Referring readers to this image, Bakewell quoted a topographical sketch by Joseph Henry: “it is impossible not to be impressed with the idea, that this great natural raceway has been formed by the continued action of the irresistible current of the Niagara, and that the falls, beginning at Lewiston, have, in the course of ages, worn back the rocky strata to their present site. The deep chasm through which the Niagara passes, below the falls, is nearly a mile wide, with almost perfect mural sides” (p. 260). Subtly, readers would get the same powerful impression of an ancient Earth that the newly emerging community of professional geologists shared. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

Looking Ahead

Next month, we’ll narrow the focus sharply to Yale College, where Dwight appointed Benjamin Silliman as the first professor of natural history. We’ll take a peek at Bakewell’s textbook, which Silliman literally brought to American readers, and hear the concerns of theologian Samuel Miller, who labelled geology “science falsely so-called,” because (in his opinion) it contradicted the Bible. Silliman was the single most influential science teacher of his era, and his influence continues down to our own day, so I’ll devote quite a bit of attention to him in coming weeks. 




Davis, Ted. "Americans Discover Deep Time" N.p., 29 May. 2015. Web. 19 February 2019.


Davis, T. (2015, May 29). Americans Discover Deep Time
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/americans-discover-deep-time

References & Credits

The exact number of colleges operating in the colonial period is a matter of some debate, because some institutions that later qualified fully as colleges did not really offer college-level courses when they first came into existence. I accept the conclusions of Theodore Hornberger, Scientific Thought in the American Colleges, 1638-1800 (1945), and leave the arguments for others. Timothy Dwight’s attitude toward education at Yale is nicely portrayed by the late John C. Greene, “Protestantism, Science, and American Enterprise: Benjamin Silliman’s Moral Universe,” in Benjamin Silliman and His Circle: Studies in the Influence of Benjamin Silliman on Science in America, edited by Leonard G. Wilson (1979), pp. 11-27. On Christianity and the discovery of deep time, see Martin J.S. Rudwick, “The Shape and Meaning of Earth History,” in God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (1986), pp. 296-321. Kelvin’s ideas are extensively treated in Joe D. Burchfield, Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth (1975).

About the Author

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.

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