Evangelicals after the Monkey trial and before Ken Ham

Caution Creationists3

Several years ago we went to Dayton, Tennessee to see where the Scopes trial of 1925 took place . It was fascinating and I stood in the dock where Scopes stood and looked round the courtroom.

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Many aspects of the Scopes trial are almost farcical and it would be difficult to make it up! As I wrote it up for my book Evangelicals and Science I was frequently chuckling and regretted having to omit so many funnies. Sadly the film version Inherit the Wind spoils the story with its historical inaccuracies and loses the tragi-comedy features. That film makes one think that the Scopes Trial was defending a literal Genesis with creation some few thousand years old. It was not. At that time most American fundamentalists were old earth creationists accepting geological time and rejecting evolution. This comes out clearly in Numbers’ book The Creationists. In America only a minority of evangelicals/fundamentalists were Young Earth Creationists until the ideas of The Genesis Flood took root in the 1960s.

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Having said that Americans were far more anti-evolutionary than British Evangelicals, most of whom accepted a form of evolution and almost all the rest were Old Earth Creationists. It’s a struggle to find any Young Earthers from 1900 until about 1970.

Over the years I have got to know (of) most evangelicals involved with geology and evolution from about 1750 and wrote a brief account of them in my book and other writings. Now here is a useful book on the period 1940 to 1985, which charts the evangelicals who were not creationist.

After the Monkey Trial. Christopher M. Rios. Fordham University Press, 2014, 260pp 

One of the major problems of dealing with evolution and creationism is the poor understanding of the wider relationship of Christianity and science. On Evangelicals and Evolution the understanding gets worse! Face-palming inaccuracies and misunderstandings abound.

Hence this book on how both British and American Evangelical scientists, who are not Young Earthers dealt with evolution is most useful in the era before Creationism took centre-stage. The author focuses on two groups founded in the 1940s , the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and the Research Scientists Christian Fellowship (RSCF) dealt with the broader issues of science as well as evolution and deals with the period up to 1985 (shortly before the RSCF mutated into Christians in Science (CIS) First, the author has succeeded in giving a very accurate portrayal of the way Evangelicals on both sides of the pond developed both in their understanding of Christianity in relation to science and also the rumbling problem of creationism, and secondly assessed their strengths and weaknesses.

When I was asked to review this book, I stressed my unsuitability to write an unbiased review as I have been involved with both British and American evangelicals on Creationism for over four decades. Some of those mentioned have been my mentors, and others, dare I say, anti-mentors. Thus this review is not dispassionate by an outside observer, but by a participant, who has had an uneasy relationship with evangelicalism during those decades, and not only over creationism. Rather than a strict review this is partly a reflection both on this book and my own involvement going back to 1968.

The book deals with the period from 1940 to 1985 and considers Evangelical alternatives to YEC by considering two similar non-YEC groups. These both started as tiny groups the ASA in 1941 and the RSCF in 1944. Initially, the ASA was old-earth and non-evolutionary whereas the RSCF was almost entirely pro-evolution, reflecting the different histories of evangelicals in the two countries. To put it simplistically, the ASA sought to correlate the Bible with science and the RSCF/CIS aimed to justify Evangelicalism with an evolutionary perspective. Over time the two approaches coalesced and acquired the thorn of creationism.

It is a tricky task to present 30 years of historical development of two Evangelical science organisations, which began so differently both in locality, and belief and culture, and trace out the internal controversies and on how they ultimately converged, losing some members en route.

Rightfully the author dealt with the groups separately, noting how the ASA was originally a group “breaking out of fundamentalism” and somewhat negative to evolution, whereas the British were pro-evolution from day one. As it turned out by the 70s both had confronted YEC, with creationists tending to leave.

I shall pick two themes.

The first is how both the ASA and RSCF dealt with the issue of YEC.  The focus of the ASA was how to accept old earth geology, and here the geochronologist J L Kulp was invaluable. Quite possibly this emphasis gave rise to The Genesis Flood (1961), and some see that book as a reaction to the ASA and Bernard Ramm. No such discussion took place in the RSCF until the 70s. Since then it has been rumbling with both, resulting in loss of YEC members and distancing from YEC groups.

Part of the narrative relates how the issue was dealt with by leaders in both organisations. If anything the principle was softly, softly catchee monkee and avoiding confrontation. Some of this comes out in the book, but my observation is that both organisations have been rather equivocal and please no one. This can be seen very clearly in the British Oliver Barclay, who may be seen as Mr RSCF. (I personally owe a lot to him as he re-vitalised me as my initial enthusiasm waned.) In a sense he was too much of a gentleman to deal with Creationism, which requires not impeccable manners but a left-hook.  This has been a weakness both with CIS and ASA as Rios often points out. In fact, much of the story is how to placate YECs. If you adopt a totally antagonistic (and perhaps atheistic) approach to Creationism, you will not understand why evolutionist Evangelicals do not resort to such pugnacity. Those like Barclay, and probably most mentioned in this book have friends and church connections with Creationists, which makes pugnacity most painful. These means that Creationism is rarely faced head-on.

In Britian evolution was largely unquestioned until the 70s, and when I was at Oxford in the mid-60s the subject was never raised in evangelical groups. I often wonder how I would have reacted if a YEC told me that my geology was all wrong J. What I had not realised was that the problem of natural evil had been rumbling for years, which underlies issues today with YECs. This began to surface in the RSCF conference in 1956 on “The Problem of Pain, Suffering and Evil”, and more so in two articles in 1958 which accepted that animals died millions of years ago. This was countered by some “comments” accusing these of “endorsing 19th century liberalism…”  The main author was J I Packer (b 1926) (one of my theological mentors), who in 1955 claimed that “disease and much else… would never have appeared but for Adam’s sin.” I was unaware of this before reading this book.  Barclay smoothed this over, but I think his niceness actually swept it under the carpet, only to pop out in the 1970s. To me this apparently insignificant episode shows how fertile soil for YEC was developing below surface. In 1971 Packer interviewed me at a seminary where he was principal, I turned my place down as I had got caught in an argument with several YEC students and thought no more of it until I read this account! Packer has always seemed to be old earth, but now I am not so sure, especially with his involvement in the Chicago Declaration if 1979, which I consider to be the theological cause of ID, when historically considered.

In fact, I would argue that both RSCF/CIS and ASA allowed YEC to fester and were too kind and overly Christian towards it, and unwilling to tackle it head on and hope a gentle academic discussion would sort it. (The day before writing this I preached on Jesus throwing the money-lenders out of the temple!).

The ASA had different roots. Instead of largely Anglican Oxbridge graduates, the founders of the ASA were most from Inter-War Fundamentalism, shakily old-earth and anti-evolution, yet seeking to break out of that straight-jacket. It is easy for an American liberal or a typical Brit to smile at them, but the account of their first 20 years shows much intellectual and spiritual rigour combined with guts and a willingness to take risks. Initially the task was to make the vast age of the earth acceptable to evangelicals and here J L Kulp did stirling work.   From the late 50s there was a growing openness to evolution which created further tensions.

The chapter on Creationism in the 1980s is perceptive as in the USA that was the decade of new monkey trials beginning with Arkansas. Also in Britain the wider society AND churches suddenly became aware of Creationism in their midst. Before that they were not taken seriously. By then both the ASA and RSCF/CIS had parted from creationism and had little contact. However from the 60s the two societies grew together with an ever-increasing interchange both formal and informal.

In a sense it is galling that the book stopped in 1985, just as ID was coming to prominence, and the aggressive creationism associated with Ken Ham became the dominant force in WORLDWIDE creationism, but that is another story.

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This book gives an excellent historical perspective on evangelicals who were not creationists from 1940 to 1985 and will enable a better understanding and thus engagement on issues of creationism and evolution whatever one’s perspective. Too often “critiques” on Creationism are marred by a total ignorance of the diversity of Evangelicals and the setting up of a series of straw men. This book should counter some of that ignorance.

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This book is useful in giving some of the background where evangelicals are coming from and why many are not YEC. It should stop people assuming that all Evangelicals have always been by nature literalist. In a  sense this book deals with the easy part and that is understanding evangelicals. The hard part is actually dealing with YECs and making headway against them and convincing them that YEC is wrong.

Hard it is, as YEC is more prevalent throughout the whole world today than at any other time In history. When Morris and Whitcomb published The Genesis Flood in 1961 it made no impact on the world at large. It only was noticed in Britain at the end of the 60s but then YEC grew, even  producing the odd bishop. Most people when they come across YEC believe that that a simple explanation of the bad science and poor theology should see it off, but they were wrong. In fact, it seems, the more you criticise YEC the more it thrives. Here, perhaps, negative criticism simply reinforces those beliefs. Hence a direct attack really works.

Yet the softly softly approach does not either as YECs have simply taken advantage of the space and are quick to play the martyr card or the orthodoxy card when challenged. Thus anyone who does not accept YEC is challenged for “not believing the Bible”.

Any discussions on YEC are liable to be fraught as very quickly you come to one of the many instances that YEC arguments are either false or based on misrepresentation. It is very difficult to say that the arguments are wrong without also saying that it is misrepresentation. That soon leads to a charge of lying and then all relationships have broken down. I have found that any concerted discussion on YEC inevitably leads to a charge, actual or perceived, of lying.

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I have found the most fruitful encounters have been when there has not been time for discussion  in depth, as you can only make one comment before moving on to something else, whether the next course at a meal or anything else.

There is no easy answer, but a good understanding of how today’s situation has developed (as this book lays out) along with an understanding of the science and the theology does help. As I have said before within the churches, church leaders need to give a clearer lead on Creationism and not smile benignly at it.

The support for Creationism is like the support of many other anti-scientific issues as there are great similarities in which other “scientific causes” are believed and presented; e.g. anti-GMOs, anti-vaxxers, Global Warming denial,(and converse of Global warming hysteria!),  anti-fracking, “food babe” style diets. All of these are put forward with great evangelistic fervour, a dismissal of most of the science on the topic, cherry-picking of favourable papers, misrepresentation and, not least, demonization of anyone poor soul who disagrees. This two images sum up the problem!

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