THE GENESIS OF RAY AND HIS SUCESSORS
or The Fall of the House of Ussher.
Evangelical Quarterly, Vol LXXIV no 2 p143–65, April 2002 (given as Conference paper for The John Ray Society Conference, Braintree, March 1999.,(also in the proceedings for the conference).
Most writers assume that, until geological findings forced them to modify their beliefs in the 19th Century, all Christians believed that the earth was created in 4004 BC as a result of Ussher’s chronological calculations. By considering first John Ray and his contemporary theologians, poets and naturalists, it is clear that few followed Ussher even in the 17th Century. They favoured a Chaos-Restitution interpretation of Genesis One allowing a longer time. Most held this in the 18th Century but after the awareness of vast geological time the duration of Chaos was vastly extended to include all geological time. This preceded the Gap Theory of Chalmers in 1802. Until the 1850s this was the dominant interpretation, when Hugh Miller and Rorison rejected it. After that most conservative Christians rejected it, but it found new life in the Schofield Bible only to be rejected after the rise of Creationism in 1961.
To read the article with references please click on here
Dinosaurs have always captivated the younger generation and the recent television series Walking with Dinosaurs has attracted an older audience. In her recent book The Dinosaur Hunters Deborah Cadbury sought to tell the story of their discovery and related the work of Mary Anning, William Buckland, Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen. Her scientific account was good, but she sought to present the Revd William Buckland, as someone who was deeply disturbed that his geology was demonstrating the earth was far older than 6000 years. At Oxford, Buckland was supposedly met with hostility as she wrote, ‘All this made little impression on the canons and bishops at Oxford. Scholars and religious leaders were alarmed that the sacred evidence of the word of God should be muddied with bits of rock and dirt.’ Cadbury had repeated the “old, old story” that in the early 19th Century the discoveries of geology upset the Church and its leaders. However, apart from citing a few of the literalist “anti-geologists”, she provided no hard evidence for this and gave no instance of any canon or bishop who objected to Buckland. Neither can I – except for Nares, the regius professor of history. No mention was made of bishops and canons, such as Bishop Barrington of Durham, and G.S.Faber, an evangelical Prebendary of Durham, who supported Buckland. She even put down his later mental illness to his striving ‘to bridge the ever-widening gulf between religion and geology.’ Cadbury also alleged that ‘during his career, geologists had shown that the earth was not six thousand years old’, whereas the vast age of the earth was known decades before Buckland began geological research in 1810.
Among the educated relatively few in the two centuries before Buckland had actually held to a literal interpretation of Genesis One, insisting on creation in 144 hours. This becomes clear when the interpretation of Genesis by exegetes, theologians and “scientists” from 1650 is considered, beginning with John Ray and his contemporaries in the late 17th century and tracing out interpretations to the eve of the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859.
John Ray and his contemporaries.
John Ray (1627-1705) was the greatest British naturalist of the seventeenth century and was one of the early members of the Royal Society and has been well served by Charles Raven’s biography , which details his chequered career inside and outside the Church of England. Conformist and non-conformist lay claim to him, as he was ordained deacon and priest on 23 December 1660, and refused to conform in 1662. He spent the rest of his life on the fringes of the Established Church. His botanical and zoological work was prodigious and is often regarded as the British Linnaeus. His many works included the three volumes of Historia Plantarum published between 1686 and 1704. He also considered the nature of species.
Ray also took an interest in Geology. At that time naturalists were beginning to recognise the organic origin of fossils and generally presupposed that all strata were deposited during the Noachian Deluge. Despite their diversity, they had a common outlook; strata were deposited in the Flood, and, as is usually portrayed, believed in a six-day creation because they lived ‘in an uncritical age.’ Whereas there is no question that the Flood was the most important cause of deposition for these Theorists, none believed in a literal six day creation and nor did most of their successors. This is despite Dawkins’ widely held contention that even in the 1860s most of the church accepted ‘the 4004 BC date for the creation then favoured by churchmen.’ With the demise of the conflict thesis of science and theology, no historian of science doubts that by 1820 most Christians accepted geological ages. However it is still assumed that before 1800 most adopted an Ussher chronology. If that were so then it is necessary to explain why in about 1810 Christians should suddenly adopt a non-literal interpretation of Genesis when the churches were moving in a conservative direction due to the rise of Evangelicalism combined with the reaction to the French Revolution . Yet, the leading protagonists of this “new” interpretation were two Evangelicals: Thomas Chalmers and John Sumner. In fact, Chalmers and Sumner were as traditionalist as Evangelicals ought to be! They were only tweaking a traditional theological idea. This idea is the Chaos-Restitution interpretation of Genesis One, which was widely held in the 17th Century as Burnet wrote, ‘so it is understood by the general consent of interpreters, both Hebrew and Christian.’ It was also the theology of John Ray.
John Ray wrote two works of natural theology; The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation and the Three Physico-Theologicial Discourses of which the latter was dedicated to John Tillotson, the Latitudinarian Archbishop. The Three Discourses are built round the standard 17th century themes of Creation, Deluge and the Dissolution of the World, with little reference to the redemptive work of Christ, indicating its Latitudinarian theology. The full sub-title indicates both the theological and scientific concerns of the author:
I. The Primitive CHAOS, and Creation of the World.
II. The General DELUGE, its Causes and Effects.
III. The Dissolution of the WORLD, and Future Conflagration.
Are largely Discussed the Production and Use of Mountains; The Original of Fountains, of Formed Stones, and Sea-Fishes, Bones and Shells found in the Earth; the Effect of particular Floods and Inundations of the Sea; the Eruptions of Vulcano’s; the Nature and Causes of Earthquakes:
With an Historical Account of those Two late Remarkable Ones in Jamaica and England.
With PRACTICAL INFERENCES.
A superficial reader will simply take this as meaning a Six-day Creation, a geologically efficacious Flood and then a pyrotechnic end of the world within the space of 6,000 years. Mingled in with this are a whole series of geological and biological observations of limited scientific value.
However, a careful reading gives a different picture. Instead of fundamentalist Biblicism there is an intermingling of Biblical narrative, Classical ideas, Renaissance thought and scientific observation. Ray began with the creation of Chaos supported by citations from Hesiod and Ovid. He quoted Lactantius, ‘Hesiod not taking his beginning from God the Creator of all things, but from the Chaos, which is a rude and inordinate heap of confused matter.’ and that ‘Moses in the History and Description of the Creation in the first Chapter of Genesis, saith not that God had created all things in an instant in their full state and perfection, but that he proceeded gradually and in order.’ Only after the end of Chaos did God “create” in Six Days. Like many of his contemporaries, Ray argued in chapter Two ‘That the creation of the World out of a Chaos is not repugnant to the Holy Scripture.’ The section on the Deluge contained some scientific observation and that on the Dissolution of the World even more.
It is not possible to say that Ray confined the creation of the Earth to about 4000 BC, in conformity with Ussher’s chronology. He did not mention the extent of the duration of Chaos and though he seemed to imply that the Six Days were solar days. In his Of the Specifick Differences of Plants in 1674 he concluded, ‘God having finished his works of Creation, that is consummated the number of Species, in six dayes’ , which seems to imply solar days. However he rejected contemporary notions that the earth would last only six millennia from the initial creation. Yet, in dealing with Lhwyd’s suggestion that the earth must be older he was very guarded. After reading the first edition of Ray’s Miscellaneous Discourses concerning the dissolution of the world, Lhwyd wrote to Ray on 30 February 1691, ‘Upon the reading on your discourse of the rains continually washing away and carrying down earth from the mountains, it puts me in mind…which I observed’, and then described what he had observed in Snowdonia. He described innumerable boulders, which had “fallen” into Nant Peris, above Llanberis and Nant Ffrancon. As ‘there are but two or three that have fallen in the memory of any man now living, in the ordinary course of nature we shall be compelled to allow the rest many thousands of years more than the age of the world.’ Lhwyd was reluctant to ascribe them to the Deluge and in the second edition Ray commented on Lhwyd’s findings in a very evasive manner and avoided facing the logic of Lhwyd’s comments. On geological time Ray did not explicitly reject an Ussher chronology. However from his discussion of Chaos and other comments, he probably accepted that the earth was considerably more than five-and-a-half thousand years old, but left the reader to decide.
The photos below are in Nant Peris where Ray and Lhwyd saw the boulders
Many of Ray’s scientifically inclined colleagues followed a similar pattern of Chaos, Restitution in Six Days, Deluge and the ultimate dissolution of the earth and wrote innumerable Theories of the Earth. These include Boyle, Halley, Burnet, Whiston, Woodward and the unknown Hobbes, rescued from oblivion by Roy Porter. These writers argued far more naturalistically than biblically as Gould argued in respect of Burnet and Whiston. Whiston, a friend of Halley, considered the earth to have begun as a comet at the end of the duration of Chaos and reckoned that the ordering of comet to a planet required more time than a creative week and thus each day of Genesis was a year. This, according to Gould, ‘was a big step in the right direction’. It also sought to explain by secondary causes, rather than invoking the direct hand of God.
These writers refuted each other interminably, but their common ground is belief in the creation of an initial Chaos of undefined duration, followed by a reordering Creation in Six Days, and much later followed by a Deluge. This is what Burnet meant by, ‘so it is understood by the general consent of Interpreters.’ This indicates that this slightly extended timescale for the earth was common parlance in the late 17th century. Burnet’s statement is not only substantiated by fellow “scientists”, including Keill in An Examination of Dr Burnet’s Theory of the Earth (1698) who wrote, ‘That the Earth was formed from a Chaos, must be unquestionably own’d by, who acknowledge the Holy Scripture…’ , but also by many theologians and contemporary poets. Patrick, Willoughby and Lowth published the main Anglican Bible Commentary in 1694. Bishop Patrick described Chaos as ‘a confused, indigested heap, without any order or shape.’(Verse 1) On the reordering of Chaos he wrote of the First Day ‘How long all things continued in mere confusion, after the chaos was created, before this light was extracted out of it, we are not told. It might be … a great while…’ (on verse 5) Patrick gave no clue as to the duration, but his reference ‘by long fermentation’ calls to mind Traherne’s The Salutation, where he wrote;
When silent I,
So many thousand thousand years,
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
Traherne probably wrote this in about 1670 and its resonance with Patrick’s Commentary indicates a common tradition. However the chart in the commentary’s frontispiece on the Chronology of the Patriarchs from Adam to Jacob describes Adam as created in 4004BC. This indicates that most thought that humanity had existed only since then, but the earth was somewhat older. This limited antiquity of Man was unquestioned until the 19th Century. The Dissenting commentator Matthew Poole wrote in a similar vein in 1700 , though his fellow Dissenter Matthew Henry seemed to consider Chaos of limited duration in his commentary of 1708-10, which had the date of 4004 BC in the margin .
As Arnold Williams made clear in the Common Expositor the Chaos-restitution interpretation with the interweaving of Biblical and Classical literature was common during the Renaissance among both Roman and Protestant exegetes. Poets also shared in the Chaos-Restitution most notably Milton in Paradise Lost, although he inclined to a shorter time-scale, Spenser, Thomas Traherne, Dryden and Alexander Pope to name a few .
Archbishop Ussher stands in contrast to all of these, except Matthew Henry. His Chaos lasted only twelve hours, so that the Six Days began with the creation of Chaos, rather than the re-ordering of it. Further he considered that the duration of the earth was to be Six Millennia corresponding to the Six Creative Days, and it is that, and not calculations from biblical chronologies that gave the date 4004 BC for creation. The extra four years came from his sound historical argument that Herod had died by 4 BC. In historical retrospect Ussher has acquired a significance he did not have in the 17th Century. The 4004 BC date seems to have first appeared in the margins of Bibles in 1701 in editions published by the Clarendon Press under the direction of Archbishop Tenison and the Bishop of Worcester. This practice continued well into last century, and even Darwin thought it part of Holy Writ.
The general consensus of scientists, theologians and poets, was that Chaos was created first and then re-ordered in Six Days. Man was created in about 4000 B. C. and that opinion persisted well into the 19th Century, even when most accepted that the earth was millions of years old. Just how old the Earth is alluded to so imprecisely, except by Whiston, that their estimate on the age of the earth cannot even be guessed at. Traherne’s ‘thousand thousand’ is probably poetic licence (like Burgon’s ‘half as old as time’ for the age of Petra). Whether Patrick’s ‘long Fermentation’ was a few years or a few millennia is not clear. Going beyond the evidence and tentatively arguing retrospectively from the extension of the Chaos-Restitution theory a century later to incorporate all geology I am inclined to suggest tens of millennia.
The Chaos-Restitution was no new concept and had roots in both earlier biblical commentators and poets, both in the Renaissance and the Early Fathers. As Williams wrote, ‘The commentators thus provide considerable support for the poetic descriptions of chaos which abound in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature. Dubartas, Spenser, Phineas Fletcher, Milton, … Beaumont, all sing the original state of the universe, rude and unformed…’ Poetic descriptions of the chaos are common throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the writings of Pope, Blake Byron, and the forgotten Erasmus Darwin.
The most important conclusion is that in the period 1660 to 1700 most educated Christians thought and argued that the “events” of Genesis One took place in a time period longer than 144 hours. They did not hold to a literal Six-Day Creation. The majority held that the Six Days work was a final re-ordering of a much older previously created Chaos. However Man remained a recent creation.
The Eighteenth Century
The Eighteenth Century was more of the same on the interpretation of Genesis. Though there was much geological work the significant breakthroughs took place at the end of the century with the awareness of the vast antiquity of the earth coming as a result of the work of de Saussure, Hutton, Smith, de Brogniart and Cuvier among others, in a Europe-wide development.
The dissemination of the slightly extended timescale of the Theorists of the Earth is evidenced by Buffon’s discussion of Whiston, Burnet and Woodward in the first volume of his Natural History, as well as those of Liebnitz and Scheutzer. He had little time for the Theories of the Earth and said, ‘I reject these vain speculations.’ However Buffon was vague about the age of the earth, presumably out of deference to the Sorbonne theologians, who even in 1850 were still propounding a six-day creation. Buffon (1707-1788) also carried out experiments on the cooling of red-hot globes of iron and then applied his findings to the cooling of a globe the size of the earth and estimated that the age of the earth must be in the order of 75,000 years. If this is contrasted to notions that the earth was only created in 4000 BC, then this is a radical age and was liable to offend the “theologians”. However it was not drastically different to suggestions made by British writers in the previous century and simply gave some experimental data to support them.
If Buffon is a forerunner of Darwin, Erasmus Darwin is doubly so. In his Preliminary Notice to Kraus’s Erasmus Darwin, Charles wrote, ‘he fully believed in God as Creator of the universe.’ Erasmus’s fin de siecle works on evolution were written in verse and in The Botanic Garden, reflect current understandings of Creation and Chaos,
‘—- Let there be light!’ proclaimed the Almighty Lord.
Astonished Chaos heard the potent word:-
Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,
And the mass starts into a million suns;’
Charles wrote that Horace Walpole admired Darwin’s poetry as ‘sublime’. Perhaps not sublime, but these verses show the prevalence of the understanding of Creation and Chaos at the end of the 18th century. The immediate source of Darwin’s Chaos may be John Whitehurst the geologist . Darwin repeated his reference to Chaos in The Temple of Nature of 1802.
Taking a very different attitude to science were Hutchinson and his disciple Catcott. In 1748 Hutchinson wrote Moses’ Principia to oppose Newton. Both lay great store on Genesis and attempt to correct the “errors” of Newton and other 17th Century scientists. Many of the themes of Genesis One are similar to those in the Theorists but far less is made of the Chaos and Hutchinson seems not to hold that the period of chaos or tohu va bohu was of any significant duration. Some years later his disciple Catcott wrote his Treatise on the Deluge (1768). Catcott did discuss Chaos briefly but again there is no suggestion of anything but a short duration. The Hutchinsonian ideas were held by some until the early 19th century and the last Hutchinsonian scientist seems to have been William Kirkby, who argued for a Six-Day creation in his Bridgewater Treatise.
More amenable to longer ages was the Welsh Evangelical hymnwriter William Williams or Pantycelyn (1717- 1791), who was perhaps the best theologian of the Welsh Revival. He originally studied medicine, made deacon in 1740, but was never priested. He wrote prolifically in Welsh, and translations are rare. In 1756 he wrote Golwg ar Deyrnas Crist (A View of Christ’s Kingdom) which is an epic poem answering the Deists. Pantycelyn’s understanding of creation is discussed by Derec Llwyd Morgan, who contrasts him to John Owen, who affirmed Creation in one line, ‘From nothing was created all ‘neath the glorious skies’. Pantycelyn is anything but brief. In Notes at the end of the work he gives a long summary of the contemporary state of science, mostly based on Derham’s Astro-theology and Physico-theology indicating his scientific competence. Chapter II of his epic poem is a long poetic account of Creation amplifying Genesis One. Llwyd Morgan points out that ‘Williams, perhaps taking his cue from Milton, … Maintains that the ordered creation was fashioned out of chaos, but that God was also the Creator “Of Chaos vast and all its turbulence”.’ Williams maintains there were two creations: the creation of the basic materials and the creation of the universe with those materials, all of which God accomplished ‘in one hundred and forty four hours’, as it is in Genesis. Though the Recreation took 144 hours, Pantycelyn gives no indication how long Chaos had existed.
Remaining in Wales we turn to the anti-Evangelical Bishop Samuel Horsley (1734-1807) of St Asaph, a conservative old High Churchman . He had little sympathy for the Evangelicals, and must take some of the discredit for many “Calvinistic Methodists” leaving the Anglican Church . Horsley, who had considerable mathematical ability, held to a semi-literalistic stance, holding that there were neither sun nor stars until day four and that the earth was not a lump of the sun and four days older. These were first published the British Critic in 1802 in response to Geddes’ biblical Criticism, where Horsley argued that God created Chaos first and later re-ordered the Creation in the Six Days. As Horsley expressed it ‘The interval between the production of the matter of the chaos, and the formation of light (i.e. the first day) is undescribed and unknown.’ Haydn’s Creation contains similar ideas, with the orchestral introduction on The Chaos and the aria ‘And a new created world sprung up at God’s command’. Horsley is cited by the geologist Edward Hitchcock in answer to the biblical literalists of the 1830s and 1840s .
Following suit was Charles Simeon in Horae Homileticae and wrote (possibly long before 1832), ‘Five days had been occupied in reducing to order the confused chaos…. On the sixth, God formed man…’. Like Isaac Watts in his Scriptural History, which was one of Darwin’s school textbooks, and almost quoting him, he continued, ‘It is not for us to inquire why God chose this space of time for the completion of his work, when he could as easily have formed it all in an instant’. Watts omitted any reference to Chaos and wrote ‘God, who could have made all Things at once…’ Simeon made no reference to geology but was not convinced of geology in the 1820s. Carus reported that Simeon said, ‘Geologists take too much upon them…It is the fashion to ridicule Mr Bugg’s book: but it is much easier to ridicule than to answer many of its facts…. Faber’s idea of each day of creation being a 1000 years seems a little better than nonsense.’ Taking both together creates a problem as in Horae Homileticae Simeon supports Chaos then Creation, and, if Abner Brown and Carus were right, also supported the Anti-geologists. But then in the 1820s geology was still a young science, and non-acceptance of geology should not be seen as “fundamentalist” hostility.
This wide cross-section of Anglican clerics is chosen because most had some skills scientifically. Many more examples could be given . They reflect the dominant understanding of Genesis, which as argued above goes back beyond the Theories of the Earth to the commentaries and poetry of the Renaissance. Whether Evangelical or reactionary High Church they adopted the “non-literalism” of Chaos-Restitution.
Many poets incorporated Chaos when versifying on Creation or related matters. The ubiquity of Chaos is evidenced by Phillis Wheatley’s Thoughts on the Works of Providence;
That called creation from eternal night.
‘Let there be light,’ He said: and from his profound
Old Chaos heard
Wheatley was a slave born in Africa who was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston and also wrote a poem on the death of George Whitfield. In a letter to Samson Occom, a Mohegan Presbyterian minister in 1774, she wrote:
‘The divine Light is chasing away the thick darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign’d so long, is converting into beautiful Order.’
The Wheatleys, slave-owners and slave, moved in Evangelical circles and are more properly considered in respect of abolitionism, but this sheds light on the whole concept of Chaos. Sadly Phillis died in poverty at the age of 31 in 1784, after the death of the Wheatleys.
And so from an unknown slave-girl we move to a leading composer. Haydn’s Creation expresses the variety and ambiguity of the 18th century interpretation of the Creation Story in musical form, though it apparently gives a musical rendering of Genesis Chapter One in a literalistic manner. A closer examination belies this and indicates that the libretto allows a measure of “ruin-and-restitution” and has probable close links with contemporary sciences, especially the Nebular Hypothesis of Laplace. The Creation was one of Haydn’s last works and he began composing the score in 1796 after visiting London in 1791-2 and 1793-4. In 1795 Salomon gave the original English text of The Creation to Haydn. Gottfried van Swieten, who translated the text into German wrote about its origins in 1798; ‘Neither is it by Dryden, but by an unnamed author who had compiled it largely from Milton’s Paradise Lost and had intended it for Handel…’. The author is not known, but many have assumed that it was Thomas Linley (1733-95). However, it dates from about 1750, and is thus evidence for mid-century understandings of Genesis One. It closely follows Milton and other poets, as well as many exegetes, as described above. Consideration of the Aria with Chorus, ‘Now vanish before the holy beams’ indicates that the librettist follows a form of “ruin-and-restoration” with a destruction of gloomy chaos by the Light. The aria moves from Chaos to a new creation:
‘Now vanish before the holy beams / The gloomy shades of ancient days’
‘Affrighted fly hell’s spirits black in throng; / Down they sink in the deep abyss / To endless night’)
‘Despairing rage attends their rapid fall’
and the formation of ‘a new-created world’ which ‘springs up at God’s command.’ The libretto for the first Day points to the first Act of Creation being the Chaos “without form and void” and then after an unspecified time was recreated or reconstituted in Six Days. Thus from the chronological sense of the libretto the orchestral Representation of Chaos should between Raphael’s first recitative and the first chorus, though not on musical grounds! Further, the libretto for Day One precludes the possibility of taking the Chaos as the pre-existing material which God moulded into shape over six days
However in the 18th Century there were relatively few “literalists”. These were mostly from the more biblicist wing of the Evangelical Revival and included the Baptist Andrew Fuller and the poets William Cowper, who valued Erasmus Darwin’s poetry, and James Montgomery. However John Wesley concurred with the majority.
To focus on these literalists, or the literalists noises made by Horsley, obscures the fact that the majority of Christian writers had accepted an “elastic” Genesis long before the abyss of time opened up at the end of the 18th century by geologists throughout Europe. Their diverse understandings of geology are not relevant, as the issue is the vastness of time demonstrated by their geology. There were clearly implications for Christian theology and Christians needed some “scheme of reconciliation”.
One was that adopted by the “naturaliste et voyager genevois” Deluc or de Luc, who regarded the days of Genesis as representing very long periods of time. He wrote his Treatise on Geology 1809 and his Letters to Blumenbach were published in the British Critic in the 1790s, He allowed a Day to be a few thousand years and thus limited the age of the earth to some tens of thousands. It was probably due to this relatively limited age that Edward Nares, Thomas Arnold’s predecessor as Professor of History at Oxford, was able to accept geological finding in his Bampton Lectures of 1805. Yet three decades later he rejected the findings of geology as undemonstrable and infidel, as it became clear that geologists were demanding many millions of years . This “Day-Age” interpretation, as it came to be called, was a significant but minority understanding by Christians until the mid-nineteenth century.
Chalmers, Sumner and the Gap Theory
By the beginning of the 19th Century the majority of Christian or nominally Christian, writers had modified the consensus of the Theorists. The sequence based on Genesis One to Eleven of Chaos, re-ordering Creation with man being created in about 4000BC and then the Deluge evolved into a vastly extended Chaos, which encompassed a multiplicity of Deluges. One might say that the theologians quietly slipped geology into the Chaos. The first theologian who is known to have done this was Thomas Chalmers at St Andrews in the winter of 1802 . At this time Chalmers was a Moderate and a colleague of Playfair. He had become an Evangelical by1811 and despite his far more biblicist theology his understanding of geology and Genesis remained unchanged. Many writers, notably Henri Blocher and Weston Fields credit Chalmers with a novel interpretation. Blocher wrote positively that Chalmers ‘was seeking to reconcile Genesis with the new discoveries about the age of the earth’ , but Fields reckoned that ‘Chalmers deemed it necessary to harmonise the Scriptures and science in order to save Christianity from the onslaught of atheism!’ Several years earlier, the Irish chemist and opponent of James Hutton, Richard Kirwan wrote vehemently against such an interpretation and wrote, ‘the earth at the time of its creation was without form, &c. therefore another terraqueous did not previously exist in a complete state out of the ruins of which the present earth was formed, as some have lately imagined;’ . Kirwan wrote this before June 1798 and implied this was a widely held opinion, thus pointing to its existence some years previously.
South of the border Joseph Townsend (1739-1816) published The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as a Historian, Recording events from the Creation to the Deluge in 1812. Its apologetic tone is apparent from its title and is a cautious acceptance of geology by an Evangelical who was a colleague of the Countess of Huntingdon in his earlier years. Townsend was instrumental in disseminating William Smith’s geological ideas at the turn of the century while he was living in Bath. His work gave a survey of contemporary geology and followed the Chaos-restitution interpretation, though tending to have a fairly limited view of the earth’s antiquity. Townsend seemed reluctant to accept millions of years for the age of the earth, but even so his “middle-aged” earth is a far cry from a few thousand years.
A few years later in 1816 the future Archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner (1780-1862) published A Treatise on the Records of Creation. Much of this was related to political economy but part of the appendix was on the relationship of Christianity and Geology, following the chaos-restitution interpretation.
Chalmers and Sumner were largely responsible for forging a new geologico-theological consensus by modifying older interpretations, though there have been no detailed studies of their work. Both, and especially Chalmers, are often regarded as making a radical change. Hugh Miller in The Testimony of the Rocks credited Chalmers with an original interpretation, whereas Chalmers did no more than popularise a modification of a traditional view, which was already widely held. This is not to denigrate Chalmers and Sumner, but puts their work in perspective.
Most Anglicans and Presbyterians accepted this reconciliation of Genesis and geology in the 1810s and 1820s. On the Anglican front this is clearly seen by an extended study of their journals, notably the Christian Observer, the British Critic and the Quarterly Review. Their attitude may be summed up as positive to ambivalent to geology and apart from the first none contain no hostility to geology.
As well as being the most common interpretation by theologians and popular religious writers, the Gap Theory was widely adopted by clerical geologists. The most widely read work was Conybeare and Phillips’ Outline of the Geology of England and Wales (1822). The introductory chapter, presumably by Conybeare (1787-1857), later Dean of Llandaff, contains a long section on the theological implications of geology. In the late 1820s he was advising S.C.Wilks, the editor of the Christian Observer, who was trying to head off evangelical anti-geologists. Conybeare wrote that ‘Two only points can be in any manner implicated in the discussions of Geology.
I. The Noachian Deluge
II. The Antiquity of the Earth.’
As a Diluvialist the former was no problem to Conybeare. On the latter, Conybeare followed Sumner. Human antiquity was the Six Thousand Years indicated by a strict reading of the Bible – something which was not questioned for a decade. He gave three hypotheses ‘With regard to the time requisite for the formation of the secondary strata’. The first is a literal six days which he does not expressly exclude, the second the Long Day, which was forcibly expounded by the evangelical G.S.Faber (1773-1854), and the third Chaos-Restitution. Conybeare avoided recommending any of the three, but his preference is implicit in a long footnote citing Sumner on the Records of Creation. (lxi) Ecclesiastically Conybeare was an orthodox Anglican, with evangelical leanings. Conybeare and Phillips was the main geological text in the 1820s; Darwin owned a copy, which he took on the Beagle, as did Samuel Wilberforce. .
William Buckland (1784-1856) devoted part of his Inaugural Lecture Vindiciae Geologicae at Oxford in 1819 to the relationship of geology and “the Mosaic Records”, adopting the Chaos-Restitution hypothesis citing Sumner, Horsely and Buffon for support. Buckland returned to this in his Bridgewater Treatise where the second chapter considered the Consistency of Geological discoveries with sacred History. That chapter offended anti-geologists for its espousal of an ancient earth, and thus Buckland’s Bridgewater was followed by a spate of anti-geologies condemning “infidel” geology in the late 1830s. Buckland rejected any notion of ‘a detailed account of geological phenomena in the bible’. To put it briefly, Buckland roundly rejected any idea that all strata were laid down in the Flood and had reservations over a “Long Day”. He returned to his inaugural lecture where he claimed, ‘the word ‘beginning’ as applied to Moses … to express an undefined period of time, which was antecedent to the last great change…’ (p19). To support his case Buckland referred to Chalmers, Pusey, Burton, Horsely, Sumner and others. He also cited Adam Sedgwick’s (1785- 1873) Discourse on the Studies at the University of Cambridge and the long discussion on geology in the Christian Observer in 1834.
A survey of contemporary theological writings show that this was the most widespread “reconciliation” of geology and Genesis in the period 1810 to 1850 and that the biblically literalist Anti-geologies, such as Cockburn, Fairholme, Fitzroy and others were minority concerns despite the noise they made.
It is easy to regard the Chaos-Restitution interpretation of Genesis as special pleading and a forced exegesis. However even such a commentator as S.R.Driver in 1902 still contains echoes of it as did more recently Claus Westermann . By the end of the 19th century it was been given a Dispensationalist twist as the “Gap Theory” and was enshrined in the Schofield Reference Bible. This allowed the early “Fundamentalists” to accept geological science, if not evolution. However following the rise of Creationism after 1961, the Gap Theory has now been almost completely discarded . From a later vantagepoint, whether the late 19th or even early 21st century, it is difficult to conceive that this interpretation MADE SENSE AT THE TIME whether for theological or scientific reasons. It was considered to be a careful well-thought theological understanding and biblical interpretation, which both took earlier understandings into account (Tradition) and modern understandings of science especially Geology (Reason). Thus, ignoring the Kirk for a moment, it epitomised the classic intellectual Anglican approach of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, which found expression in Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. It is probably due to its Godly rationalism that it was not accepted by the more extreme and often dissenting Evangelicals, who accepted Scripture in an extreme sola Scriptura sense as opposed to Tradition and Reason.
The Slow Demise of the Chaos-Restitution Theory
The Chaos-Restitution Theory was the most widely held reconciliation of Genesis and geology until mid-century. Hugh Miller (1802-1856) questioned it in a footnote in Footprints of the Creator , his anti-evolutionary critique of the Vestiges in 1847. This he expanded in his posthumous The Testimony of the Rocks (1858), both in the Preface and in two chapters on Genesis and geology. He explained why he felt it necessary to reject Chalmers’ Gap Theory, which had been widely held for 50 years in favour of his concept of The Mosaic Vision of Creation. In the preface, Miller spelled out the geological reasoning behind this change. He wrote, ‘I certainly did once believe with Chalmers and with Buckland that the six days were simply natural days of twenty-four hours each … and that the latest of the geologic ages were separated by a great chaotic gap from our own.’ This was reasonable to Catastrophists, who reckoned that each geological era was closed off by a catastrophe. Miller explained that this was no problem with ‘the Palaeozoic and Secondary rocks’, but was with recent strata. He continued, ‘During the last nine years (written in c1856), however I have spent a few weeks every autumn in exploring the later formations.’ From his study of the Pleistocene, he concluded that many of our ‘humbler contemporaries’ especially molluscs existed long before man. Thus ‘No blank chaotic gap of death and darkness separated the creation from which man belongs from that of the old extinct elephant … and hyaena, or for familiar animals … lived throughout the period which connected their times with our own.’ As a result Miller rejected the whole idea of Chaos then Restitution and adopted the view of six prophetic days of creation. Chalmers’ ideas were more congenial to a Catastrophist than to a Uniformitarian geology, with its seamless geological development throughout time. Within a few decades became Miller’s ideas became the commonest understanding of Genesis by conservative Christians.
An early example was Dean Francis Close (1797-1882) who gave a lecture for the YMCA in 1858 and made extensive use of both Miller. Close was a leading Evangelical and the Pope of Cheltenham. Despite his rigorous Evangelicalism, he took a very “liberal” view on Genesis. In the 1820s while at Cheltenham, he preached on early Genesis, but took Genesis very literally and mentioned neither Chaos nor geology . Within thirty years he moved from literalism to a scientifically informed non-literalism.
Close was criticised from a most unlikely source for being too free and easy with Holy Writ, as his friend Sedgwick wrote a long letter discussing the shortcomings of Miller. Sedgwick had long rejected Chalmers’ views on Genesis in that he regarded the Days as indefinite periods. His biography by Clark and Hughes sheds little light beyond his non-literalism and the most detailed comment is his letter to Close. Sedgwick thought Miller might do some harm as his over-schematic approach was geologically wrong, and concluded ‘Hugh Miller was a man of great natural genius, +in some parts of geology, admirably well informed, but it is not always safe to follow him, when he travels beyond his own beat – His “Testimony of the Rocks” is in its way a noble work – it may do much good, but it may do some harm – for when men connect certain difficult passages of the bible with any scheme of interpretation which has gained their confidence, they are almost certain to look with suspicion, + ill will, on any man, who does not accept this interpretation + to suspect them of infidelity –.’
‘I make no difficulty in the words Morning + Evening, they are only I think meant to mark the beginning + end of periods or days, – the Mosaic day is assuredly not 24 hours, + if we once admit a prophetic extended meaning of day, our souls are then free, + we are permitted to give any indefinite period, + the word day.’
‘I do not like the scheme of stretching the Bible, like an elastic band, till we can wrap up our hypotheses in its sacred leaves.’
This letter is of great significance as the leading Evangelical geologist wrote it to another Evangelical. Both had a high view of scripture and both were more than convinced by geological findings. Both took Genesis “non-literally” yet Sedgwick, cautious as usual, was reluctant ‘of stretching the Bible, like an elastic band’ and preferred to wait as this ‘will end in harmony, + true accordance with the word of God’. Undoubtedly Darwin and Goodwin in Essays and Reviews would dismiss this stance as both had a mythological view of Genesis, but it demonstrates the shift away from the “Chaos-Restitution” interpretation.
Within a few years Gilbert Rorison was arguing for a totally pictorial exegesis of Genesis in Wilberforce’s Answers to Essays and Reviews and the Chaos-Restitution interpretation rapidly went out of fashion. Archdeacon Josiah Pratt of Calcutta was one of the last serious writers to expound it. After that it was taken up by nascent Fundamentalists in the late 19th century, and was enshrined in the Schofield Reference Bible, while the Day-Age interpretation gained ground among the more “intellectual” conservatives, most notably by J.W.Dawson .
To understand and empathise with the long story of the interaction of geology and Genesis from the 17th century until today requires some imagination and ability to transport oneself back in time as the whole storyline is frequently lost in the tendency to polarise interpretations of Genesis into either literal or mythical. This does not permit a fine-grained understanding and seduces one into overlooking the acceptance of vast tracts of time behind a claim to take Genesis literally. As a result it is all too easily assumed that all Christians took Genesis literally, with Creation in c4004 BC. This fails to see both the continuity from Ray and his contemporaries to the late 19th century coupled with the constant interaction of “Genesis” and “Geology” throughout these long centuries. This continuity from the 17th Century shows that the exegesis of Genesis adopted in the early 19th Century was not a last ditch defence against the rising tide of science, but a conservative development of an older exegesis. However few doubted that man had been formed some six thousand years ago until the 1840s.
It cannot be stressed strongly enough that there was undoubtedly a vast difference between the beliefs of educated and uneducated Christians. The majority of the latter probably simply accepted creation in 4004 BC, though this may do them a disservice. The case of Phillis Wheatley should warn against too easy an ascription of “literalism” to the mass of Christians. The table in Figure 1 attempts to contrast the received perception of Christian understanding of Genesis and time and my revisionist proposal.
A historical view of science and religion which reckons accept that a “literal Genesis” was the norm in the Western world will give a distorted understanding of both the Theories of the Earth and the early development of Geology in the 1790s when considered in a religious context. Instead of a revolutionary change from Literalism to Liberalism , there was an evolutionary change from the commentators of the Renaissance, through the Theorists, the development of the “Gap Theory” by Chalmers and his unknown predecessors, its rejection by Hugh Miller so that there was scarcely a literalist when Darwin published in 1859. This has particular relevance to the problems of Victorian religious doubt. Two recent writers who re-iterate the received version that literalism was the norm are A.N.Wilson and Paul Badham , both of whom have a polemical purpose.
The limitation of this paper is that only one aspect of the relationship of the implications of the vast age of the earth and the Christian Faith has been considered, that of Genesis One and Geological Time. I make no apology for that.
There are several other issues of great importance, the first is the relationship of sin, suffering and death as portrayed in the Bible and Christian theology in relation to the changing understandings of geology and biology, and the second is the relationship of Anthropological Time in relationship to Genesis and Theology. Both have been largely ignored, and a strong view of the Fall is one of the attractions of creationism to Evangelicals today. A historical study of the Fall from 1600 to 1860 is necessary here, as by no means all theologians of this period groaned under the burden of a Miltonic Fall. The influence of Noah’s Flood in the history of geology has been given a comprehensive treatment by Davis Young in The Biblical Flood.
I rest my case, as Richard Dawkins would, on the evidence.
It is difficult to acknowledge all who have helped me, but particular mention must be made of Stella Brecknell at the Oxford Museum for giving me free access to Buckland papers and other material. The letter from Sedgwick to Close is quoted by permission of Dean Close School. I have benefited from discussions with David Livingstone, Paul Marston, Jim Moore, Jim Secord, Hugh Torrens, and John Wolffe among others, none of whom are responsible for what I write. I also acknowledge grants from the Church in Wales. This paper was presented to the John Ray Society Conference at Braintree in March 1999.Genesis of Ray
D. Cadbury, The Dinosaur Hunters (London, 2000), 21.
D. Cadbury, The Dinosaur Hunters (London, 2000), 284.
M.B. Roberts, ‘Geology and Genesis Unearthed’, Churchman 112 (1998), 225 –255.
C.E. Raven, John Ray, Naturalist, (Cambridge, 1942, 1986 2nd ed).
A.J. Cain., ‘Thomas Sydenham, John Ray, and some contemporaries on species’, Archives of Natural History 26 (1999), 55-83.
From the Memorial to Edward Lhwyd in Jesus College, Oxford erected in 1905 at the height of the warfare of science and religion era.
D. McFarland (ed), The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour, (Oxford, 1981), 155.
R. Porter, Enlightenment Britain and the creation of the modern world, (Harmondsworth, 2000) p467-70.
M.B. Roberts, Geology and Genesis Unearthed, Churchman, 112, (1998), 225 –255.
Thomas Burnet, The Sacred Theory of the Earth,(London, 1681), Chapter IV, p30.
J. Ray, The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of Creation, (London, 1691).
J. Ray, Three Physico-Theologicial Discourses, (London, 1693), 3.
J. Ray, Three Physico-Theologicial Discourses, (London, 1693), 5.
Cited in ref 2 p83.
E. Lhwyd to John Ray (30 February 1691), cited in Ray op.cit 12, 285.
J. Ray, op. cit. ref 7, 285-289. These and other valleys are littered with rocks, most of which are erratics deposited by glaciers. In Nant Peris there are many thousands, and if, according to Lhwyd, one fell every twenty five years that would make the earth over 100,000 years old.
S.J. Gould, Ever since Darwin, (Harmondsworth, 1980), 141-146, Bully for Brontosaurus, (Harmondsworth, 1991), 368-381.
W. Whiston, A new theory of the earth, (London, 1696), 1 – 69, especially 51.
J. Keill, An Examination of Dr Burnet’s Theory of the Earth, (Oxford, 1698), 29-39.
Patrick, Lowth, Arnold, Whitby and Lowman, Critical Commentary and Paraphrase of the Old and New Testament and the Apocrypha, (London, 1764 -1st edit 1694), vol I, 1 –3.
T. Traherne, Selected poems and prose, (Harmondsworth, 1991), 3.
Poole, like Bishop Stillingfleet, accepted that the Deluge was local rather than universal, and would presumably agree theologically with Ballard’s search for the Ark in the Black Sea!
The inclusion of the date 4004 B.C. in many commentaries may well indicate the age of humanity and not the age of the earth.
A. Williams, The Common Expositor, (Chapel Hill, 1948).
S. Spenser, Poetical Works, (Oxford, 1912), 545, (Colin Clouts come home again, lines 847 –860.)
J.Dryden, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day,1687.
A. Pope, Dunciad Variorum, book 1, line10, Windsor Forest, lines 12-15.
This section is over-brief and only hints at the way in which poets use Chaos.
Williams, ref 24, 49.
Blake’s The Book of Urizen has roots in Genesis and ideas of Chaos, see P. Ackroyd, Blake, (London, 1995), 170ff.
G. Gohau, Les sciences de la Terre aux XVII et XVIII siecles, (Paris, 1990), 237-315.
D. Dean, James Hutton and the history of geology, (Cornell University Press, 1992).
Buffon, Natural History (trans by Wm Smellie),(London, 1781, ed of 1812), vol 1, 35
Maupied, Dieu, l’homme et le monde connus par le trois premiers chapitres de la Genese, (Paris, 1851).
P. Barrett &R. Freeman (eds), Works of Charles Darwin, (New York, 1989) vol 29, 41.
D. King-Hele, Erasmus Darwin, (London, 1999), 346-9.
J. Hutchinson, Moses’ Principia, (London, 1749), 4-5.
A Catcott, A Treatise on the Deluge, (London, 1768), 51-54.
W. Williams, Golwg ar Deymas Crist (1764, Translated as A View of Christ’s Kingdom trans R.Jones (London 1878), 231-44.
D. Llwyd Morgan, The Great Awakening in Wales, (London, 1988), 224-5.
Horsley was not above nepotism as he appointed his son to the parish of Chirk, which was my previous living. Some years later he fled to Scotland leaving large debts.
F. Mather, High Church Prophet, (Oxford, 1992).
S. Horsley, British Critic, xix, (1802), 6ff.
E. Hitchcock, The Religion of Geology, (Glasgow and London, n.d.), 51.
C. Simeon, Horae Homileticae, (London, 1832), 2.
I. Watts, A short view of the whole Scripture History, (London, 1781), 4.
A. Brown, Recollections of the Conversation Parties of Rev Charles Simeon, (London, 1863), 325.
I have studied a very large number of commentators and theologians of the 18th century and found that the vast majority of all denominations adopted “chaos-restitution”. Many were vague about the duration of the Chaos. Those who held to a strict Six Days were very rare, and those who allowed the Genesis Days to be “long” were almost as rare.
The Norton Anthology of American Literature, (New York, 1994), 819.
Norton Anthology, 826.
Cited in N. Timperley, Haydn: The Creation, (Cambridge, 1991), 19.
G. Gohau, Les Sciences de la Terre, (Paris, 1990), 237ff.
E. Nares, Man as known to us theologically and geologically,(London, 1834), 22.
There is no detailed study of either Chalmers’ Gap Theory or subsequent developments. My suspicion is that others anticipated Chalmers and the documentary evidence is somewhere in Scotland. See Hanna, W., Memoirs of the life and writings of Thomas Chalmers, (Edinburgh, 1852), vol 1, 79-80.
H. Blocher, In the Beginning, (Leicester, 1984), 41.
W. Fields, Unformed and Unfilled, (Nutley, N.J.), 1976, 40.
R. Kirwan, Geological Essays, (London, 1799), 47.
J. B. Sumner, A Treatise on the Records of Creation, (London, 1816), Vol II, Appendix, No 1, 339-359.
Roberts, op cit., 234-236, 243-244.
W.D.Conybeare. & W. Phillips, Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales, (London, 1822), lvi.
G. Faber, A Treatise of the Three Dispensations (London, 1823), 111-65.
Wilberforce’s copy is owned by Prof D.R. Oldroyd of Sydney.
W. Buckland, Vindiciae Geologica, (Oxford, 1820), 25-28.
W. Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy, Considered with reference to Natural Theology, (London, 1836).
Roberts, op cit, 247-250.
S. Driver,The Book of Genesis, (London, 1904), 4.
C. Westermann, Genesis 1 –11: a Commentary, (London, 1984), 104f.
See Weston Fields, Unformed and Unfilled, (New Jersey, 1976).
H. Miller, Footprints of the Creator, (1881, 1st edn 1847), 332.
H. Miller, The Testimony of the Rocks, (Edinburgh, 1858), x – xi.
F.J. Close, “Hugh Miller’s “Testimony of the Rocks” – God in his Word and in his works”, in Lectures delivered before the YMCA, Nov 1857 to Feb 1858, (London, 1859), 239 –272.
F. Close, The Book of Genesis considered and illustrated (London 1826, 6th edn 1841).
Adam Sedgwick to Dean F. Close, 27 March 1857, hand-written copy in archives of Dean Close School, Cheltenham.
G. Rorison, Replies to Essays and Reviews (ed S.Wilberforce) (London, 1861), 281-6.
J. Pratt, Scripture and Science not at variance, (London, 1871).
J. Dawson, the Origin of the World according to revelation and Science, (London, 1880)
Note that literalism and liberalism are used in their incorrect popular usage.
A.N.Wilson, God’s Funeral, (London, 1999). Badham, P, The contemporary challenge of Modernist theology, (Cardiff, 1998).
M.B. Roberts, “The History of the Fall” given at the Christians in Science Conference in September 1990.
D. Young, The Biblical Flood, (Exeter, 1994).