Is the Geological Column anti-christian?
Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, Green, Indigo, Violet
Many will know the colours of the rainbow/spectrum off by heart and won’t need an aid lie;
“Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain
There don’t seem to be many on the geological Column
(c) Ray Troll, @ratfishray
Camels Often Sit Down Carefully; Perhaps Their Joints Creak? Persistent Early Oiling Might Prevent Permanent Rheumatism.
One cannot even study Geology 001, yet alone 101, without needing to remember; “Cambrian, Ordovician………………..”
The Geological Column is as central to geology as the Periodic Table to chemistry, yet it is frequently dismissed by Young Earth Creationists and has been since McCready Price challenged it a century ago. Price wrote an apparently erudite book, replete with references The New Geology (1923). Here he claimed that the arguments geologists put forward for the order of strata is based on circular reasoning and that strata could occur in any order and thus you could find Cambrian lying on top of Jurassic. The leading geologist Schuchert called it a “geological nightmare”.
The accusation of a circular argument has stuck and was repeated by Morris in The Genesis Flood and many subsequent creationists.
Essentially it is that you date the fossils from evolution and use the fossils to prove evolution. Sometimes geologists almost speak like that!! And so the Geological Column is often called the “Uniformitarian Evolutionary Geological Column” to stress that the column is based on the Uniformitarian Geology of Lyell and the theory of evolution Thus in one go you can discredit Lyell and Darwin and all they stand for.
But is it actually true to say the Geological Column is Uniformitarian and Evolutionary and anti-Christian?
Uniformitarianism stems from James Hutton in the 1780s and most of all from Charles Lyell in 1831. Though evolution had been suggested, it was only widely accepted after Darwin published The Origin of species in 1859. You need to note the dates 1831 and 1859 as you read this.
The Geological Column is a way of putting the strata in order of deposition and was worked out in the early 19th century. Before that most “geologists” were convinced the earth was “tres vieux” (de Saussure) and there was an order which they couldn’t work out.
The first to give a kind of order was the Rev John Michell of Cambridge which was written down by a Mr Smeaton on the back of a letter!
Mr Michell’s Account of the south of England Strata
This gave a tolerably complete list of strata from the Chalk (Cretaceous) down to the Coal Measures (Carboniferous/Pennsylvanian) you would find travelling from London to Yorkshire. Michell probably produced his “column” while travelling by coach or horse back and doing a little fieldwork. Thirty years later William Smith produced a classic cross-section of the strata of England and Wales from Snowdon in Wales to London to accompany his map of england and Wales, but had worked much of it out before 1800, almost fleshing out the sketch of Michell.. This order was impressed on me at the age of 16 and 17 as on three occasions cycled from mid- or north Wales to our house south of London. My geology then was just about good enough to identify the basic geology. Not that I’d studied geology then, beyond high school geography, but my geography teacher was a geologists and mountaineer. I even got commended when I wrote an essay describing one of my trips with a bit of geology thrown in! I’d broken the journey into geological stages. The third time I did it, I cycled the 350 miles home from Capel Curig in Snowdonia. I started by climbing Snowdon by the Snowdon Horseshoe and then still had 340 miles to cycle. It took me six days but I had climbed Snowdon and Cadair Idris as well. I can assure you that the hill of yellow strata on the right of the diagram (the Jurassic scarp of the Cotswolds) – Birdlip Hill is a very steep climb on a heavily laden bike.
(Smith’s 1815 Cross-section annotated by Dr Callum Bentley)
The cross-section is slightly simplified, but it shows progressively younger rocks lying on top of the oldest around Snowdon, which are about550 my to those in the Vale of Thames (Tertiary) i.e. London at 50 my. It was another fifteen years before Sedgwick and Murchison began elucidating the Welsh rocks, first into the Cambrian and Silurian and later with Ordovician in between (the three names are based on ancient tribes in Wales.)
The usual (mythical?) history of geology puts the rise of geology down to two men, Hutton and Lyell. Lyell was a late comer in 1830 and Hutton,
though he grasped the concept of geological time due to the discovery of the unconformity at Siccar Point, he did not put the rocks of Scotland into a timeline. That was for reasons beyond his control in the actual geology as even the Southern Uplands were too complex as “starter” strata and as for the Highlands, which defied geologists for nearly a century. (Oldroyd) . To put it simply Hutton in Scotland and de Saussure around Chamonix had chosen the short straws as the strata were too folded and metamorphosed for straightforward elucidation in the early stages of geology. They could demonstrate that the strata were ancient but not put them in hisotorical order. What was needed was to be able to follow essentially almost flat lying strata over many miles. That is what Michell did in 1788 but never published.
That work was largely carried out in by English, and some French, geologists in the first half of the 19th century. Before that, following Werner, rocks were seen as Primary, Secondary or Tertiary. This could lead to confusion as Primary were meant to be “original” rocks and thus not sedimentary, and, of course, granites can be of any age.
Who invented the Geological column?
Below is a table of the Geological Column showing who had actually worked on it and named the systems
As we see from the diagram below, most of the names setting up the column were British (Lyell and Murchison were Scots, and Sedgwick, Phillips, Conybeare and Lapworth were English) And at the bottom is the great Christian geologist J.D. Dana of Yale.
As the whole development of the Geological Column was empirical, piecemeal and observational, the result is more coherent than its unfolding. It was not sorted out after a few weeks in the field, but after several years, an immense amount of fieldwork and argument, at times acrimonious, between the geologists. The work on the Devonian has been exhaustively expounded by Martin Rudwick and the Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian by Jim Secord. For myself, apart from reading the literature, I went on a field trip looking at Murchison (and Lewis) on the Silurian in South Wales and traced out much of Sedgwick’s ramblings from his notebooks in North Wales. I particularly walked, yes walked, most of his routes from august to October 1831. That covered most of the country between Shrewsbury and Holyhead. That included several long mountain hikes in Snowdonia following his routes. The longest was 18 miles and involved 6000ft of climbing. My dog and I were knackered!! At the end of 1831 Sedgwick hadn’t got and had to return for several years before working out the Cambrian.
Let’s look at the major workers and consider how godless or godly they were!
The 3-fold division – Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cainozoic.
As each of the Systems were being worked out, it became clear that they fell into three groups, and in 1841 the geologist John Phillips (1800-1874) named them Palaeozoic (Old Life Trilobites and fish) Mesozoic (Middle Life – dinosaurs) and Cainozoic (new life – rise of Mammals). Phillips was the orphaned nephew of the founding geologist William Smith, who trained him up as a geologist. He had no formal education and never went to university. He worked for the British Geological Survey and published many technical papers and semi-popular books on geology. In 1856 he succeeded Strickland as Professor of Geology in Oxford, after Strickland was killed by a train while looking at the geology in a railway cutting. I think he’s the only non-graduate professor at Oxford.
So how godless was Phillips? He wasn’t! He was a lay member of the Anglican Church in contrast to others mentioned here. In his many popular books on geology he discussed the relation of geology and genesis. In the 1820s he accepted a deluge but moved to a Day-Age understanding of Genesis, to the annoyance of young earthers of his day like Dean Cockburn of York. Cockburn attacked many geologists including Murchison, Buckland and Sedgwick, as described here;
In 1860 Essays and Reviews was published which took a very liberal view of the faith, including denying miracles. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce was furious so he organised and edited Replies to Essays and Reviews and asked Phillips to write a chapter of genesis and geology. Wilberforce and Phillips held similar views on the subject. Phillips’ biographer, Jack Morrell, portrays Phillips as a liberal Anglican, but as his views on geology was that of most Anglicans – liberal or evangelical – I feel he overstated the case.
After the 1840s when the order Cambrian to Pleistocene was elucidated , the non-fossiliferous strata older than the Cambrian were simply called Precambrian and then split into two by American Geologists. The newer was known as Proterzoic as life was suspected in it (and demonstrated in the last 70 years) and was named by Stuart Emmons of the USGS in 1888. I don’t know what his faith stance was.
The older Precambrian was termed Archaean by Prof James D Dana of Yale in 1872 (1813-95) .Dana wrote the standard textbook Manual of Mineralogy (1848) which went through 21 editions until 1999. Surely DeepTime for a book! Darwin sent him a copy of The Origin of species in 1860 but he did not read it for several years due to a breakdown. When he did he was largely convinced by Darwin. In 1872 he advised the Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, on creation for his Systematic Theology. So much so that several pages of Hodge’s Systematic Theology were written by Dana. It would be fair to say Dana was a convinced evangelical on good terms with the Princeton theologians.
And now to work our way religiously up the column!
These represent strata from 250 my to 560my and simply means Old Life
Except for the Carboniferous, the main players were Rev Adam Sedgwick and (Sir) Roderick Murchison
The main deviser of the Carboniferous
was the Rev William Conybeare, an Anglican priest, who was educated at Oxford and was then ordained. He belonged to the liberal wing of evangelicals and served in the parish of Axminster in Devon and then Dean of Llandaff Cathedral. During the 1820s he advised the editor of The Christian Observor, an evangelical paper founded by Wilberforce, to combat the views of Anti-geologists like George Bugg. In 1822 with William Phillips he wrote Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, an excellent (long) summary of geology at that time, where he put forward the Carboniferous (Mississippian and Pennsylvanian in the USA).
A major contribution was his delineation of the Carboniferous (300-355my). These strata are particularly well- formed in northern England. At the base are massive limestones, best seen at Malham Cove. Above are a mixture of sandstones and shales, notably the Millstone or Pendle Grit. Above again are the Coal Measures, which both outcrop on either side of the Pennines and below surface resulting in deep mines.
So the Carboniferous was hardly atheistic but Christian!!
From 1831 Sedgwick and Murchison tried to sort out the geology of Wales, working in what we now call the Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian strata.
story of the geological challenges and relationship breakdowns are related in Jim Secord Controversy in Victorian Geology. (1986). Their work started amicably in 1831 with Sedgwick (and Darwin for a few weeks) going to North Wales and Murchison to the south. Their aim was to find a place where the Old Red Sandstone (Devonian) could be followed conformably down into the older rocks Sedgwick drew the short straw as the geology was against him as there was no ORS from Llangollen to Snowdonia. Murchison soon struck gold as Rev Thomas Lewis, curate of Aymestry in Shropshire, and former student of Sedgwick, had already worked out the succession down from (what would be) Devonian to (what would be) Silurian. This effectively handed everything on a plate to Murchison, while Sedgwick was floundering in North Wales “climbing every mountain”. One may say Sedgwick worked up from the “Cambrian” and Murchison worked down from the Devonian to the “Silurian”. Let’s say there was conflict, geological and personal, when their geology met up. On top of that Murchison did not give enough recognition to Lewis.
There was no resolution in their lifetimes and in 1879 Charles Lapwoth, termed many of the middle strata of the then Silurian and Cambrian, Ordovician. This resolved nearly half a century of controversy. In fact the three systems are subtly different. The Cambrian contains more sandstones, the Ordovician lavas and the Silurian slates. (A gross over-simplication, but whenever I am in Wales or Northwest England, climbing or geologising, the differences are manifest.)
Towards the end of the 1830s a number of geologists carried of fieldwork in Devon and Cornwall trying to make sense of the confusing strata commonly called Culm. The comlex story has been unravelled by Martin Rudwick (a Christian) in The Great Devonian Controversy. The main players were Murchison and Sedgwick, with a fair number of clergy as part players eg Buckland, Conybeare and Williams and, more topically, the former slave-owner de la Beche.
And then to finish it off in 1841 Murchison went off on a campaign in Russia getting as far as the Urals in the Great Perm east of Moscow. As a result he termed the strata above the Carboniferous as Permian (250-295my)
Thus 300 my of strata were classified in 20 years. A fantastic achievement – by British geologists.
But what of their religious beliefs?
Charles Lapworth. I know little about him, but he did go to a church teachers training college. From the silence we can say he was no active atheist, but little more.
Sir Roderick Murchison. He seems to have made no public comment about his faith. However he opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution and supported a successive or progressive creation of species. He never fully subscribed to Lyell’s Uniformitarianism. I suggest he was like John Phillips.
Adam Sedgwick, William Conybeare, Thomas Lewis. All three were Anglican priests and devout. They were evangelically inclined, Sedgwick more so. Sedgwick was the only one to see Darwin’s Origin of Species published– which he opposed strongly, even though Darwin was his pupil. Conybeare opposed Lyell’s Uniformitarianism and argued vociferously against him! Sedgwick was more sympathetic. If they were alive today they’d be seen as conservative Christians in the Church of England and very conservative in the American Episcopal Church and untouched by “liberalism”
Mesozoic (strata from 65 to 250 my)
I am afraid I know nothing about the religious views of the three mentioned
That is not to say there was no British involvement. In 1780 the Rev John Michell had worked out an outline of Mesozoic strata and then from 1790 William Smith worked out the strata in detail giving them delightful local names, some of which are still used for stages today. Michell was for many years vicar of a parish and quite diligent. There is no evidence that he was evangelical, but no reasonable question would doubt he was a Christian.
William Smith was a canal engineer working near Bath (near Bristol) in the 1790s
involved in the digging of two parallel canals. He observed the same succession of strata and the same succession of fossils, some of which he used as markers elsewhere. As he travelled the country he could observe the geology either where he was working on looking out from a coach. From this he produced the first geological map of England and Wales in 1815, giving the strata in order (see the cross-section above) but not our familiar names. The map is remarkably accurate even by today’s standards. Smith did much to clarify and understand what came to be called Jurassic strata.
What about Smith’s faith? The evidence is extremely poor. The little I can say is that before 1800 he thought the earth was only 6,000 years old. He then changed his mind because of his advisers! These were three local vicars the Revs Richard Warner, Benjamin Richardson and Joseph Townsend. Townsend was fiery evangelical preacher, who in 1813 wrote The Character of Moses established for Veracity as a Historian. Though it contained some material of Genesis and adopted the old Chaos-Restitution interpretation, recently popularised by Thomas Chalmers, allowing for considerable geological time. It was also a good summary of the state of geology in 1810, though it looked more to the Christian Swiss geologist Jean Andre de Luc, rather than William Hutton.
Smith has a copy of George Faber’s A Dissertation on the Prophecies relative to the Great Period of 1,200 Years, the Papal and Mahomedan Apostasies, the Reign of Antichrist, and the Restoration of the Jews,’ 2 vols. 1807 in his small library. Faber, an evangelical was fascinated and supportive of geology and friendly with Rev William Buckland of Oxford. In his A Treatise on the Genius and Object of the Patriarchal, the Levitical, and the Christian Dispensations,’ 2 vols. 1823, he devoted one chapter to Genesis and geology and had learnt his geology from Buckland.
Cainozoic – strata from 65 my to now
The crucial person here is Charles Lyell who put forward a threefold division – Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene in 1833, working out the boundaries from the fossil content.
Lyell extended Hutton’s Uniformitarianism – though he did allow some catastrophe.
Relgiously he was Unitarian and thus no atheist. Like Sedgwwick , Buckland and others he objected to trying to argue that all strata were laid down in the Deluge and sometimes made scathing comments on that. They are often quoted in a way to make Lyell seem atheistic.
Further in his Principles of Geology he rejected any kind of evolution and did not accept evolution until the 1860s, several years after The Origin.
The names Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene were coined by Rev William Whewell of Cambridge, a man in the religious mould of Sedgwick and Conybeare.
To include the Ice Ages Lyell proposed the Pleistocene in 1839, after Agassiz (a Unitarian) and Charpentier discovered an ice age some years before. The idea was brought to Britain the year before by the Rev William Buckland of Oxford. In 1840 Lyell, Buckland and Agassiz travelled from the south of England to Scotland to find evidence of glaciation. That they did, but the first evidence were the drumlins near Lancaster a few miles from my home. In 1841 Buckland worked out that Snowdonia had been glaciated, a fact which Darwin confirmed in 1842.
Religiously Buckland was devout and very similar to Whewell, Conybeare and Sedgwick, except that he was a total eccentric. He became Dean of Westminster in 1846 at the height of cholera outbreaks. As an elite scientist (as were the other three) he became a scientific adviser. Part of this was descending into the sewers of London. In a sermon at Westminster Abbey he later expounded the Christian duty of providing decent sewerage and for illustration graphically described what he saw and smelt in the sewers. Queen Victoria was in the congregation.
Is the Geological Column ungodly?
As a scientific concept it makes no judgement on what is godly and what is not.
However it is a historical fact that a high proportion of those developing the Geological Column were Christian – and not those only in name. Having read many of the writings of Sedgwick, Buckland, Whewell, Conybeare and Townsend, I found they were not time-serving clerics and their aim may be summed up in the memorial to Sedgwick at Dent Church in the Yorkshire Dales.
Further there is no evidence that there was any atheistic and antichristian purpose behind the development of geology. Even Hutton, who is often accused of this, was not anti-Christian but deist and had good relations with many Christian clergy like Playfair and Robertson, a Moderator of the Kirk.
On this score the Geological Column is no more godly or ungodly than the Periodic Table, Newton’s Laws of motion or the structure of DNA. It is simply good science, which in the execution included the work of many Christians.
As for the Geological Column being evolutionary, that can be swiftly dealt with. Darwin only began to develop his evolutionary ideas in 1838, by which time the Geological Column was well and truly sorted. I’m quite sure Darwin who was born in 1809 did not influence the Rev John Michell in 1788, or Smith in the 1790s, or Conybeare in 1822.
To say the Geological Column is based on evolution is just plain silly, as much was worked out before Darwin was out of diapers..
As for it being Uniformitarian the case is nearly as feeble, as none of the British geologists, bar Lyell of course, were Uniformitarian. They were either Catastrophists or partial converts to Uniformitarianism as was Sedgwick. However though until the 1840s they reckoned the Deluge could have deposited the top 30 ft of strata, all rejected any idea that all the strata were laid down while Noah was on a cruise.
Perhaps the watercolour of de la Beche (and a recent re-enactment) sums up their views.
The sooner the popular idea that the Geological Column is based on a circular argument from evolution and a result of godless Uniformitarianism is ditched the better.
It would help if devout Christians could also accept that many early geologists and workers of the geological column were devout Christians – even if some weren’t.
2 Corinthians 11 vs1
J. Secord Controversy in Victorian Geology 1986
M Rudwick The Great Devonian contoversy 1985
M Rudwick Bursting the Limits of Time 2005
M. Roberts Evangelicals and Science 2008