The Quest for Historical Accuracy: Ronald Numbers Replies to William VanDoodewaard

| By (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Ronald L. Numbers (now retired) taught the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin for 38 years. Widely regarded as the leading expert on the history of American science, including science & religion, he has served as president of the History of Science Society and the American Society of Church History. His best-known book, The Creationists, is based on decades of research with primary sources, including unpublished letters to or from major creationists. (image source).

 Introduction by Ted Davis

 I’ve already introduced a new book by William VanDoodeward, The Quest for the Historical Adam (2015), with comments on its scope, focus, and accuracy. Seeing that VanDoodewaard depicts Ronald Numbers’ scholarship as less than “thorough,” insufficiently “nuanced,” and even “weak,” it’s important to give Numbers a chance to defend himself. The rest of this column was written by Ronald Numbers, not by me, except for the embedded links and the [bracketed insertions], which I added to remove any possible ambiguity. All references to Numbers’ book, The Creationists, are to the revised edition of 2006.

Ronald Numbers Replies to William VanDoodewaard

Recently it has come to my attention that certain authors have been accusing me of sloppy scholarship. In his Quest for the Historical Adam (2015) William VanDoodewaard, a self-described biblical literalist on the faculty of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, describes me as someone “sympathetic to old-earth geological and evolutionary models,” which is true. But he goes on to claim that I and historians like me

“feel adherents of a literal Genesis interpretation simply could not answer the intellectual challenges of the old earth and evolutionary theories of Lyell and Darwin. According to Numbers, a literal hermeneutic for interpreting early Genesis would effectively be recovered only in a new fundamentalist form in twentieth-century America. This recovery, he posits, occurred primarily through the influence of the Canadian Sixth Day [sic] Adventist George McCready Price and led to the popular ‘indigenous American bizarrity’ of creationism.” (pp. 156-157) 

It’s hard to trust someone who cannot distinguish between an imaginary “Sixth Day Adventist” denomination and the Seventh-day Adventists and who attributes a phrase to me [‘indigenous American bizarrity’] that I clearly identify [in context] as Stephen Jay Gould’s. According to VanDoodewaard,

“More thorough scholarship reveals significant evidence of a strong stream of both nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources that remained firmly in the millennia old tradition of a literal Genesis hermeneutic. Ample evidence exists to indicate significant numbers of theologians, churches, natural philosophers, and scientists who continued to cultivate a literal interpretation of early Genesis.” (p. 157) 

To document this claim [in a single footnote placed immediately after these two sentences], he cites one authority, the widely respected historian James R. Moore, mistitling his book The Darwinian Controversies. VanDoodewaard refers readers specifically to the chapter on “Christian Anti-Darwinism,” in which Moore looks closely at the views of six North American opponents of Darwinism (in addition to three Brits): the Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz, the Montreal geologist John William Dawson, the Princeton theologian Charles Hodge, the Congregational minister and sometime lecturer on science and religion Enoch Fitch Burr, the Methodist pastor and academic Luther Tracy Townsend, and the lawyer George Ticknor Curtis. (He could have found a longer list in the first chapter of my despised book, The Creationists.)

The two distinguished scientists in this list, Agassiz and Dawson, lend absolutely no support to VanDoodewaard’s imagined past. Agassiz, the descendent of a long line of Huguenot ministers, abandoned whatever early Christian convictions he may have once had for a nominal Unitarianism in the United States. His objections to Darwinism were scientific and philosophical, not in the least biblical. Indeed, he attached no geological significance to Noah’s flood and he controversially espoused the plural origin of the human races in opposition to the biblical account of Adam and Eve. Dawson, though one of the most prominent scientific opponents of Darwin, was a protégé of Lyell’s. Never a biblical literalist, he readily granted that the days of creation represented long periods of time, that the Noachian deluge was universal only in the sense that it encompassed the narrator’s experience, and that the earth—but not humans—was of great antiquity (Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 19-23).

Moore’s clerical (and one legal) authorities also undermine VanDoodewaard’s claim. The immensely influential Hodge famously/notoriously concluded that Darwinism was “atheism,” because Darwin’s theory banished God from the world and enabled one “to account for design without referring it to the purpose or agency of God.” Nevertheless, he embraced Laplace’s nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system, conceded the great antiquity of life on earth, and interpreted the “days” of Genesis as vast cosmic epochs. Burr likewise accepted the evidence of past geological ages, which he never tried to squeeze into six literal days. Townsend defended the first chapters of Genesis as “a simple, straightforward narrative of the facts as they actually occurred.” His interpretation, however, was anything but straightforward. In order to accommodate the findings of geologists to a literal reading of the word “day,” he argued that “the six vast geological epochs which science describes are types and prophecies of the six ordinary days of which Moses writes, a thousand years being as one day and one day as a thousand years.” (Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 19-23) Curtis is described by Moore as declining “to discuss Genesis and its interpretations, claiming in fact to be unconscious that his work had been influenced by his belief in revealed religion” (pp. 202-203). His task, as a lawyer, was to apply the rules of evidence to the theories of Darwin and Herbert Spencer.

In a footnote (on p. 157) VanDoodewaard inexplicably observes that “Numbers’s thesis is significantly weakened through his scant attention to what he terms ‘clerical creationists’.” I’m pretty confident that no historian of the creation-evolution controversies has paid more attention to this group than I have (which makes me wonder if VanDoodewaard has actually read my book). Moore, who allegedly “presents a more accurately nuanced historical account,” describes three Americans who fit this category (quoting another note on p. 157). In the section of The Creationists devoted to “Clerical Creationists” in nineteenth-century America, I discuss T. De Witt Talmage, Charles Hodge, Robert Lewis Dabney, Joseph Cook, H. L. Hastings, Luther T. Townsend, and Alexander Patterson; elsewhere in the book I write about the American clerical creationists Edward Hitchcock, Enoch Fitch Burr, George D. Armstrong, and Herbert W. Morris—to say nothing of later fundamentalists. Fatally undermining VanDoodewaard’s tendentious argument is the fact that none of these anti-Darwinists insisted on a young earth or attributed the fossils to Noah’s flood. (Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 24-30. Moore looks at Burr, Hodge, and Townsend; he also mentions Talmadge in passing.)

In a review (cited below) of William VanDoodewaard’s book in Christian Scholar’s Review Hans Madueme, a theologian at Covenant College, praises the author for his “bracing frontal assault on the mainstream position within evangelical institutions. ... Few theological traditions come away unscathed in his analysis.” Madueme goes on to report—erroneously—that “Polls indicate that most lay believers are young-earth creationists. On the other hand, most evangelical scholars are committed either to an old-earth or some version of theistic evolution.” He then congratulates VanDoodewaard for his “fascinating critique” of my history of creationism, which offers “a welcome counterweight to Numbers’ account” (p. 172). Whether VanDoodewaard is right or wrong seems not to matter.

Ronald Numbers’ magisterial study, The Creationists, was originally published (left) in 1992, all but predating the Intelligent Design movement, which doesn’t have an entry in the index. The second edition (right) of 2006 includes two more chapters, one devoted to ID and the other to worldwide creationism today, including Islamic and Orthodox Jewish forms. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.


But exactly what is my “account”? “By the late nineteenth century,” I write in The Creationists, “evolutionary notions were infiltrating even the ranks of evangelical Christians ... but contrary to the hopes of liberals and the fear of conservatives, creationism did not become extinct. Many English-speaking Christians, particularly in North America, remained true to a traditional reading of Genesis.”   However, I go on, “To find a creationist who insisted on the recent appearance of all living things in six literal days, who doubted the evidence of progression in the fossil record, and who attributed geological significance to the biblical deluge, one has to look far beyond the mainstream of scientific thought. Even at the margins of the scientific enterprise occupied by clerical professors of science who rejected evolution, there were few advocates of a young earth.” (pp. 6 and 24)

My survey of post-Darwinian creationist opinion was, I wrote, “based in large part on the views of the antievolutionists most frequently cited and quoted by their contemporaries.” My search of this literature “failed to turn up a single scientist or cleric who rejected the antiquity of the earth, denied the progressive nature of the fossil record, or attached geological significance to the Noachian flood. ... No doubt many Christians, perhaps most, remained unpersuaded by the geological evidence of the earth’s great age and continued to believe in a recent creation in six literal days, but these people rarely expressed their views in books and journals. Of those who did, only a tiny minority invoked the deluge to explain the fossil record, the most compelling evidence of an ancient earth” (p. 30). Could I have been more nuanced?

As Rodney L. Stiling (cited below) has demonstrated in his thorough examination of American attitudes toward Noah’s flood, by about 1840 even many evangelical clerics and men of science had embraced the fossil evidence for the antiquity of the earth, and most of these conservative Christians no longer appealed to the biblical deluge as a geological event. Two of the last nineteenth-century advocates of flood geology were Eleazar Lord and David Lord, well-educated, successful businessman who rose to prominence in mid-century conservative religious circles for their passionate advocacy of a premillennial eschatology. In Eleazar’s major contribution to the literature of creationism, The Epoch of Creation (1851), he affirmed his belief that “the inspired account literally and unequivocally asserts that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is”—and his rejection of the “gratuitous assumptions of the geologists” and their efforts to make the language of Genesis accommodate the findings of so-called science. Instead he resurrected the now-largely-abandoned notion, seldom encountered during the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century, that the fossil-bearing strata, which gave the earth the appearance of great age, had been deposited during the Noachian deluge. David concurred with his older brother on the need to limit earth history to about six thousand years and on the gravity of the threat to Christianity posed by modern geology, but he parted with his sibling over the geological role played by Noah’s flood. In a book titled Geognosy (1855) he attributed the fossil-bearing strata not primarily to the deluge but largely to events before and after the time of Noah. Many strata, he thought, had been “thrown up from the depths of the earth” during the interval between the creation and the flood; others had been formed after the deluge, when God had miraculously restocked the remote and inaccessible regions of the globe. Lord, like Agassiz, adopted the extra-biblical supposition that animals had been created “not in single pairs, like the progenitors of the human race, but in crowds.” For decades to come the Lords stood virtually alone among creationist writers in limiting the history of the earth to a mere six thousand years and offering alternative explanation of the fossil record. (Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 30-31. For a recent study of the Lords, based in part on previously unused personal papers, see Richard Perry Tison, II, cited below.)

Over the years some creationist critics, rebelling at the thought that anything good could come out of Adventism, have complained that I not only overemphasized the decline of scriptural geology in the second half of the nineteenth century but exaggerated the importance of the Seventh-day Adventist flood geologist George McCready Price in bringing about its revival. For example, in his book, The Great Turning Point: The Church’s Catastrophic Mistake on Geology—Before Darwin (2004), Terry Mortenson criticizes Mark Noll, because he “mistakenly follows the agnostic Ronald Numbers who in his book The Creationists (1992) attempts to root young-earth creationism in the teachings of Seventh Day Adventism” (note 31 on p. 15). As Price and his followers used the term, flood geology attributed virtually all of the fossil record to the one year of Noah’s flood, thus at one stroke stripping away the evidence for geological ages and organic evolution. Twentieth-century young-earthers might have gone back to the scriptural geologists of the early nineteenth century—or interpreted Genesis independently—but the historical trail repeatedly leads back to Price. The most striking examples of this are Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, Jr., authors of The Genesis Flood (1961), both of whom readily admitted their intellectual indebtedness to Price (Numbers, The Creationists, pp. 211-225).

Looking Ahead 

Ted Davis’ series on Antebellum science and religion concludes next time.




Numbers, Ron. "The Quest for Historical Accuracy: Ronald Numbers Replies to William VanDoodewaard" N.p., 15 Apr. 2016. Web. 19 March 2018.


Numbers, R. (2016, April 15). The Quest for Historical Accuracy: Ronald Numbers Replies to William VanDoodewaard
Retrieved March 19, 2018, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-quest-for-historical-accuracy-ronald-numbers-replies-to-william-vandoodewaard

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading 

Numbers cites Hans Madueme, “Adam and Eve: An Evangelical Impasse?—A Review Essay,” Christian Scholar’s Review 45 (2016): 165-83; Rodney L. Stiling, “The Diminishing Deluge: Noah's Flood in Nineteenth-Century American Thought,” doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1991; and Richard Perry Tison, II, “Lords of Creation: American Scriptural Geology and the Lord Brothers’ Assault on ‘Intellectual Atheism’,” doctoral dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 2008), now under contract to the University of Alabama Press. See also Rodney L. Stiling, "Scriptural Geology in America," in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, ed. David N. Livingstone, D. G. Hart, and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 177–92.

For another sophisticated review of opposition to Darwinism in the United States, supplementing the book by James Moore (cited above), Numbers recommends Jon H. Roberts, “‘Get Thee Hence, Satan’: Continued Opposition to the Theory of Organic Evolution,” in Darwinism and the Divine in America: Protestant Intellectuals and Organic Evolution, 1858-1900 (1988), pp. 209-31. For more on Hodge, see Ronald L. Numbers, “Charles Hodge and the Beauties and Deformities of Science,” in Numbers Science and Christianity in Pulpit and Pew (2007), pp. 93-112. 

About the Author

Ronald L. Numbers (now retired) taught the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin for 38 years.  Widely regarded as the leading expert on the history of American science, including science & religion, he has served as president of the History of Science Society and the American Society of Church History.  His best-known book, The Creationists, is based on decades of research with primary sources, including unpublished letters to or from major creationists.

More posts by Ron Numbers