The first half of the 19th century was a significant era of geological discovery. Geologists, many from the British Isles, mapped out the rock layers showing distinct successions of life forms. Between 1820 and 1850 the geologic time scale still in use today was developed. In those days geologists began recognizing the enormous time represented by the thick succession of fossil-bearing layers stretching across water bodies and continents.
Two centuries ago considerable diversity of interpretation of evidence in the rocks was manifest, just as it is today among a large segment of believers in our churches. Back then there were Christians interested in geology who insisted on interpreting the message of the rocks only through the lens of their particular interpretations of scripture. In the early 19th century, scientists such as Granville Penn, William Kirby, and George Fairholme were attached to their own concepts of biblical literalism.
One of the best-known of these scientists was Adam Sedgewick (1785-1873), one of the founders of modern geology. He had been a catastrophist who believed in a recent worldwide deluge. In 1831, he renounced that view, adhering instead to many smaller floods extending over vast times. He remained opposed to evolution, however, chiding Darwin for his unproved ideas on natural selection. He pictured many successive divine creation acts stretching over vast time. Sedgewick became increasingly evangelical and claimed scientific and theological truth could never war against each other.
My personal favorite figure among the geologists of that time is Hugh Miller (1802-1856), an evangelical Christian. Originally a stonemason, he trekked 10,000 miles across Scotland in nine years, collecting 6000 fossils. He was also a prolific writer. According to Davis A. Young, emeritus professor of geology at Calvin College, “Miller gained a reputation as a zealous, eloquent, and trusted defender of Christian orthodoxy…His reputation for theological soundness…enabled him to reassure Christian believers that geology posed no threat to orthodoxy.”
Miller commented on three long-standing beliefs within the historic church: that the earth was flat “until corrected by the geographer,” that the sun moved around our earth at rest “until corrected by the astronomer,” and that the earth was about six thousands years old “until corrected by the geologist.” Man learns the way of salvation from the Bible, Miller penned, but every time they “sought to deduce from it what it was not intended to teach--the truths of physical science--they have fallen into extravagant error.”
In spite of his orthodox theology, Miller was subjected to intense scorn from theologians who adhered to traditional recent creation and global Noachian flood models. To understand this phenomenon, I encourage readers to research Miller’s discoveries of thick, diverse rock layers and fossil sequences within them, showing “at wide intervals the mere fragments of successive floras.” He wrote of species vanishing, yielding to the great law of death, and other species being “brought to birth and ushered upon the scene.” To Miller, it was obvious these changes occurred over vast ages. Modern Day-Age creationists cite the well-known evidence of many sudden appearances of new forms of life in the fossil record. They regard them as widely-spaced, divine interventional creation events. Hugh Miller earned credit for the idea over 150 years ago.
A “critical study” by W. A. Mackenzie in the early 20th century asserts “Very early in his inquiries, two facts, then startlingly novel, forced themselves upon Miller’s mind. One was that, far from being confined within six days, the processes of ‘creation’ had extended over an inconceivable passage of time; and the other that Death had ridden his pale horse over myriads of generations ere Adam crumbled to his genital earth.” Also with respect to Noah’s flood, Miller, familiar with theological scholarship even in that era, proposed that “expressions seeming to express universality are, in the frequent way of scripture, really metonymies--that is, ‘a part…is described as the whole.’” Expressed more clearly, ancient languages referring to the “world” often referred to the world known in that day. Theologians understood that the knowledge of civilized people of Old Testament times was extremely limited with respect to the size of the earth and its wide distribution and diversity of life.
In his day, Hugh Miller was attacked as an infidel, criticized for his “anti-biblical theology,” and vilified for yielding to “the geologists’ infidel fossil God.” After nearly 200 years, many Christians still find themselves polarized and segregated on the belief spectrum of the same issues. People outside the community of faith observe this internecine struggle with wonderment. The truth concerning these matters is not dependent on our lack of unity. For this, we are thankful.