Creating “Progressive Creationism” in America

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

Benjamin Silliman in 1824, five years before his geology lectures were published for the first time. Silliman considered this likeness “generally unsatisfactory,” even though it was painted by his former student Samuel F. B. Morse, a highly accomplished artist who went on to become famous for advances in telegraphy. This painting, owned by Yale College, is in the public domain (image source).

Last time, I told you about the first professor of natural history at Yale, Benjamin Silliman, focusing on how he prepared himself to assume the role that Timothy Dwight created for him. Today we see how he introduced Americans to “progressive creation,” a concept that continues to influence Christian thinking about origins today.

Silliman’s Concept of “Progressive Creation”

The term “progressive creation” entered the American lexicon in 1829, when Benjamin Silliman’s geology lectures were published in New Haven. Silliman had just edited the first American edition of An Introduction to Geology, by Robert Bakewell, and his lectures constituted a 126-page appendix to Bakewell’s textbook. To the best of my knowledge, Silliman was the first American author to use the exact term “progressive creation,” although it had been used for nearly a century by a few English authors, including the painter Jonathan Richardson and his son (of the same name) and the Roman Catholic priest Alban Butler—though it did not always mean what Silliman meant.

What did it mean for Silliman? In speaking about the “universal primitive ocean” that once covered the whole Earth, he noted that “its retreat was gradual, and proceeded in such a manner as to be consistent with the due arrangement of the earth’s crust and surface, and with the progressive creation, life, death, and sepulture [fossilization], of animals and plants.” Spelling it out more fully elsewhere, he said, “The creation of the vegetable and animal races [species] appears to have gone on progressively with the deposition of the mineral strata and masses. It is impossible to form any other inference, if we examine the contents of the terrene [Earth’s] crust. The only point that admits of discussion is, as to the amount of time employed.” (Outline of the Course of Geological Lectures Given in Yale College, pp. 121 and 50)

In other words, Silliman placed the creation of plants and animals episodically throughout the deep time of Earth history that a previous generation of geologists had established. He summed up his old-earth creationist position by calling it “progressive creation,” just as some influential OECs in modern times have done.

While some copies of Silliman’s lectures were sold separately, the others were bound at the back of the first American edition of Robert Bakewell’s An Introduction to Geology (1829). The exact term “progressive creation” is found just once (on p. 121), but there is also an index entry devoted to “Creation/progressive.” In a short preface, Silliman confessed his admiration for Bakewell’s text, saying that “The editor, believes that he is performing a service to his country, by encouraging the republication of a work, conspicuous for attractiveness—for perspicuity—for a style generally vigorous and correct—often eloquent and beautiful…” Furthermore, in his role as “a public instructor of youth, … my immediate motive for recommending this republication, was, that I might place in the hands of my own classes, a comprehensive treatise on geology, which they would be willing to read, and able to understand” (pp. xi-xii). Photographs by Edward B. Davis.

To see more fully where Silliman was coming from, let’s take a look at the introductory “Remarks” he wrote for the first American edition of The Wonders of Geology (1839), by the English geologist Gideon Algernon Mantell. (Remember that Antebellum Americans imported a lot of scientific knowledge from Europe.) There he spoke again of “the progressive creation of animals and plants, that have inhabited our world—have become extinct, and are, in countless myriads, entombed in the rocky strata, and in the solid mountains.” As he went on to say,

“it is a matter of physical demonstration, that the earth existed for many ages before man was called into being. The whole course of geological investigation proves this view to be the only one that is consistent with the facts. To be convinced of its truth, it is only necessary to become thoroughly acquainted with the records of a progressive creation and destruction which the earth contains, inscribed on medals [a reference to another book by Mantell], more replete with historical truth, and more worthy of confidence, than those that have been formed by man; as much more as nature exceeds in veracity the erring or mendacious records of the human race.” (The Wonders of Geology, 1839 American edition, vol. 1, p. 30)

Fully aware of the challenge posed by geology to the customary interpretation of Genesis, Silliman drew a deliberate comparison to the reception of Copernican astronomy. “Hardly two centuries have passed since the astronomy of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, was regarded as inconsistent with the Scriptures, and therefore heretical,” he noted.  “[T]he discrepancy of the literal meaning of the Bible with the real truths of astronomy, is still as great as ever,” he added, but “no one any longer hesitates to regard astronomy as giving a just view of the stupendous mechanism of the heavens.” Indeed, “all agree in understanding the language of the Scriptures as being adapted to the appearances of the heavens,” which is all that humans can know and “with which alone the Scriptures are concerned.” The Bible was “designed as a code of moral instruction” and to reveal a future life, but it contained “no systems of science,” only “incidental” references to physical matters. Although “God is declared to be the Creator of the heavens and the earth,” the Bible does not have “even the most general outline of any physical science; the creation of the heavens and the earth, of the sun and the moon, being disposed of with extreme brevity, while the allusions to the geological arrangements of this planet are only such as are connected with the first appearance of its organized beings, and the emergence of the land from the original ocean.” In brief, “Instruction in the sciences was not the object of the Scriptures,” although on the other hand “the physical creation was left [given to us] by the Divine Author” for several purposes, including “the additional illustration of the character of God and also for an exhaustless fountain, whose streams mingle harmoniously with those of divine revelation” (pp. 31-32). Silliman’s concordism comes through loud and clear.

Clearly, Silliman had read his Galileo, and he did not hesitate to invite the great Italian scientist into the Garden of Eden. In a much longer exposition of his views written around the same time, he expressed an uncompromising concordist vision of natural history:

“The order of the physical events, discovered by geology, is substantially the same as that recorded by the sacred historian; that is, as far as the latter has gone, for it was evidently no part of his object to enter any farther into details than to state that the world was the work of God, and thus he was led to mention the principal divisions of natural things, as they were successively created. It is sufficient therefore that there is a general correspondence, which is indeed, in the great features, exceedingly striking, and deficient only in less important particulars not to be expected in so general a narrative, written chiefly for moral purposes; but it is in no respect contradictory to facts.” (“Suggestions Relative to the Philosophy of Geology as Deduced from the Facts and to the Consistency of Both the Facts and Theory of This Science with Sacred History,” from the 1839 American edition of Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology, p. 538)

The Implications of “Progressive Creation”

Among the dozens of future scientists who passed through his classroom, Silliman counted many disciples of his progressive creationist approach—including Edward Hitchcock and James Dwight Dana, both of whom influenced evangelical thinking right down into our own time. Between them, they explored four big theological or biblical issues arising from their shared commitment to concordism: how to understand the age of the earth, relative to biblical chronology; the historicity of Noah’s flood and its significance for geology and fossil formation; the existence of animal suffering and death prior to the fall of Adam and Eve; and the special creation of human beings and many other organisms. In subsequent columns (and in a future series on American science and religion after the Civil War), I’ll introduce you to their views on such things—which bear a striking resemblance to the views of contemporary concordists.

This violent scene, “The Country of the Iguanodon,” engraved by the English Romantic artist John Martin, served as the frontispiece for Gideon Mantell, The Wonders of Geology (1838). An English physician and paleontologist, Mantell discovered the animal shown here and named it Iguanodon. Authors who accepted an ancient creation, like Mantell and Silliman, were obliged also to accept what Silliman’s student Edward Hitchcock later called “death before the fall”. When the first American edition of Mantell’s 2-volume book was published at New Haven the following year, it bore the same frontispiece. Mantell dedicated that edition to Silliman, who was identified as the editor only on a narrow slip of paper inserted before the title page, but some copies lack it. Silliman’s 40-page introduction was likewise identified as his in the same way. Image courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.

The Situation Today

The book by Jonathan Sarfati, Refuting Compromise (2004), has a very revealing subtitle: A Biblical and Scientific Refutation of “Progressive Creationism” (Billions of Years), As Popularized by Astronomer Hugh Ross. Founder of the apologetics ministry Reasons to Believe, Ross promotes a form of old-earth creationism that Silliman would probably have embraced. His ministry rejects evolution, yet his ideas still represent a dangerous “compromise,” in the opinion of Sarfati and many other creationist leaders.

What is the nature of this “compromise”? The abandonment of a literal creation week of 24-hour days. Sarfati finds it “striking that the first hints of long-age views of Genesis came only when conservative exegetes became intimidated by long-age teachings of geology. This was the origin of the common compromise views such as the day-age, gap theory, and framework hypothesis. The absence of these views for most of church history is strong indication that they are not derived from the Hebrew text, but from outside sources.” (Refuting Compromise, p. 390)

Setting aside the salient fact that there are no hints of being “intimidated” by geology (or astronomy) in either Silliman or Ross, Sarfati’s analysis is partly right—the specific “compromise” views he lists appeared only in the past few centuries, at least in the specific forms in which we now find them. However, Sarfati is far too quick to dismiss the skepticism shown by some patristic authors toward literal “days,” for reasons having nothing to do with geology or other “outside sources.” And, he’s wrong to imply that analysis of the Hebrew text had nothing to do with (for example) the framework view, which relies heavily on the literary structure of the hexameron itself. To develop my objections properly would take many columns, but readers who want more can study the historical portions of my series on Science and the Bible.

Above all, Sarfati is wrong simply to dismiss the relevance—nay, the great importance—of using information from “outside sources” for interpreting the Bible. In fact, creationists use information from archaeology, natural science, and secular history all the time, but highly selectively, in order to authenticate their own “literal” interpretations of various texts, which are in many cases not the only interpretations that the Hebrew text allows. A recent exchange between two biblical scholars, YEC proponent William D. Barrick and OEC proponent C. John Collins, captures the gulf between Sarfati’s attitude and that of the concordists as well as anything I’ve seen. Barrick’s view is as follows:

“When the reader of the Bible accepts extrabiblical evidence (whether from ancient Near Eastern documentation or from modern scientists’ interpretation of circumstantial evidence) over the biblical record, that denigrates the biblical record and treats it with skepticism rather than as prima facie evidence. In other words, we err when we assume that any major interpretive problem is due to lack of accuracy within the text itself. We should assume that the Scriptures are accurate until proven otherwise by equally accurate, equally authentic, and equally ancient evidence.” (Four Views on the Historical Adam, p. 226)

I have to wonder whether the collection of evidence meeting the criteria spelled out in that last sentence is an empty set, but I’ll let Collins speak to this. Replying directly to the passage just quoted, Collins says,

“This is astonishing. When it comes to whether we should compare the material we find in the Bible to the materials we find from the surrounding cultures, it seems almost obvious that of course we should. The biblical writers spoke into a specific context and regularly had to warn their audiences against the blandishments of competing worldviews. Whether it be an Old Testament prophet inveighing against idolatry and syncretism, or a New Testament apostle reminding people about Greco-Roman depravity, these warnings are common stuff. Surely a sane interpreter will do what he or she can to discover what these dangers were. The right stance, as I have already argued, is that we must make every effort to make a good and wise use of this extra material.” (Ibid., p. 250)

That’s exactly what Benjamin Silliman was trying to do.

The cover of Sarfati’s book depicts Hugh Ross as rewriting the text of Genesis chapter one to accommodate an ancient Earth and universe that were created “progressively,” just as Silliman had taught. (Image source)

Looking Ahead

Having seen Silliman’s general scheme, next time we’ll dive into some specific ways in which he put Genesis and geology together.




Davis, Ted. "Creating “Progressive Creationism” in America" N.p., 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 February 2019.


Davis, T. (2015, October 1). Creating “Progressive Creationism” in America
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/creating-progressive-creationism-in-america

References & Credits

For more information about creationist objections to concordist interpretations of Genesis, there’s no better place to go than Sarfati’s book. Hugh Ross has written extensively about science and the Bible, but perhaps the best source for his views on Genesis and science is his book, A Matter of Days (2004). Sarfati’s book is specifically directed against Ross’ earlier book, Creation and Time (1994).

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.

More posts by Ted Davis