Geology and Genesis Unearthed; or Why there was no punch up between geology and Genesis

Recently, I found my first paper on Genesis and Geology is now on-line as most of the volumes of The Churchman have been digitised. I wrote this back in 1997, but apart from a few minor errors I still regard it as giving a good account of the early 19th century.

My main thesis stands; that most educated Christians had no issue with geology AND, most importantly, Christians- and particularly Anglican clergy – were often at the forefront of geological advances

Many focus too much on the controversy between Uniformitarians (Lyell) and Catastrophists, with the latter often being presented as biblical literalists. They were not.

That would give another paper in itself but was summed up by de la Beche’s watercolour skit. This could be the Nant Francon and the little boy is being a little boy – Frank Buckland – and nanny comments “Bless the baby. What a walley he have a made.”  This goes to the heart of the matter  – and Buckland Sr was a catastrophist par excellence.


This is myself and ANO doing a (photo-shopped) re-enactment. Perhaps I’ve also done that on the Genesis vs geology myth!




Have fun with this mosaic and identify the following; John Henslow, William Hutton; Adam Sedgwick, William Buckland, Samuel Wilberforce, Charles Lyell,Arthur Holmes, William Smith


Michael B. Roberts, “Geology and Genesis,” Churchman 112.3 (Autumn 1998): 225-255

The challenge of geology to Genesis is often perceived to be one of the
issues of the ‘Victorian Crisis of Faith’. Geologists had, since Charles Lyell
published his Principles of Geology in 1831, been demonstrating that the
earth was somewhat older than Archbishop Ussher’s 6,000 years. Thus
Richard Dawkins wrote: ‘in 1862 the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin
greatly worried Darwin by “proving” that the sun and therefore the earth,
could not possibly be more than 24 million years. Although this estimate
was considerably better than the 4004 BC date for the creation then
favoured by churchmen .. .’ 1 The historian Josef Altholz argued in 1976:
‘The great majority of religious spokesmen condemned the doctrine of
evolution, without regard to its scientific merits, on the ground of its
repugnance to the text of the Bible and its tendency to degrade man to the
level of beasts … Both sides (ie clergy and scientists) seemed to identify
the substance of Christianity with the text of Genesis.’2 Both assume that
most clergy in mid-century were biblical literalists.
Neither Dawkins nor Altholz identified any of these literalists. Most
would assume that Samuel Wilberforce would have been a leading
literalist, as someone who damned doubters and attacked Huxley at the
British Association in Oxford. However Wilberforce was no literalist, and
had been on the committees of the Geological and Linnaean Societies, and
had attended Buckland’s lectures in geology at Oxford in the 1820s.3 In
fact, very few churchmen in the 1860s were biblical literalists.

carry on reading;

I hope you enjoyed the paper


Buckland in the hyena’s den at Kirkland, Yorkshire

4 thoughts on “Geology and Genesis Unearthed; or Why there was no punch up between geology and Genesis

  1. Paul Braterman

    I did indeed enjoy the paper, enough to take issue with it. You say “Professor Ward of Oxford wrote: ‘they [theologians of the 1860s] thought it [The Origin of Species] conflicted with the account of creation in the Book ofGenesis’.” with the implication that Keith Ward is here falling into a version of the same error as to my surprise (I would have thought better of him) Steve Jones made; that opposition to evolution was related to literal acceptance of the biblical timeline. But you do not need to be a literalist to see Genesis as bearing witness to separate creation, and specifically to the separate creation of humans.

    As I think you now know, your account of the Huxley-Wilberforce encounter has been overtaken by the discovery of a contemporary account in the Oxford Gazette, showing that the “near mythical form” is essentially correct; I wrote about this in .

    I have read that Hutton’s Theory of the Earth was informed by his belief in a Providence that ensured that the Earth would be fit for long-term human habitation, implying that erosion must be balanced in the long term by other processes .I have always assumed he was a Deist rather than a Christian, but would like to know more about his beliefs.

    I see the Conflict Hypothesis regarding the relationship between religion and science, or at least between established religion and rational thought, as complex and deep-seated. When Thomas Aikenhead referred the old Testament as “Ezra’s Fables”, as part of the descent from orthodoxy that lead to his hanging in Edinburgh in 1697, he was echoing the ideas of Hobbes and Spinoza.

    Finally, I wonder whether the discovery of Assyrian literature from the 1780s onwards, giving Genesis a context within Ancient Near East literature, helped in the abandonment of Young Earth literalism, although as you show the biblical timeline had been questioned even by the most devout long before that (I could mention Maimonides).


    1. Paul Braterman

      I am not challenging your quotation from Ward, but your interpretation. I am saying that I understand “conflicted with the account of creation in the Book of Genesis” as referring to separate creation of species and in particular of humans. I expect that Ward would probably deny that there really is a conflict, but he is saying that the theologians of the 1860s thought there was.

      I interpreted your own article as saying that Ward was among those mistakenly attributing belief in a young earth to the 1860s theologians. If I misunderstood you, my apologies. If that *was* what you meant in your article, then for the reasons given, I am not convinced.

      But I am much more interested in whether you now think ANE archaeology played a role in the abandonment of the Young Earth interpretation of Genesis, than in what Ward thought nore than 20 years ago!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s