In the early 17th century, Irish Bishop James Ussher, utilizing the genealogies mentioned in the Bible’s book of Genesis along with Middle Eastern histories and other works, concluded that God created the universe in 4004 B.C. He placed the first day of creation on Sunday, Oct. 23. Ussher’s dating first appeared as a biblical footnote in 1701 and came to be accepted by many as accurate. At the time he made his observations, few people in Europe would have questioned his reasoning. This merely confirmed “scientifically” what most believed by faith already: that God created the universe and everything in it “ex nihilo” less than 6,000 years before.

Ussher was not even the first biblical scholar to attempt such a chronology. The Jewish calendar dated the creation from 3760 B.C., while scientists such as Kepler and Newton also attempted biblical dating, arriving at figures not too different from Ussher’s. Although some Eastern societies saw history as cyclical, the Judeo-Christian view was a linear one with a beginning and an end. Few people in the West were willing to challenge the biblical view of creation as a specific event occurring at a specific time. Even so, a gradual undermining of the strict biblical view had gained strength since the Renaissance. Nicokai Kopernik (Copernicus) and Galileo Galilei restructured the solar system (universe) by placing the sun at the center, thus making humans a little less “central” to God’s creation. Although Galileo was a contemporary to Ussher, it would take a century or more before the heliocentric solar system was generally accepted.

Evidence was also mounting to challenge the idea of a 6,000-year-old Earth. Edmund Halley, a friend of Newton’s, used logic along with science to discredit the young-Earth view. For example, the oceans would not have had time to reach their level of salinity based on what we could measure of the run-off rate from rivers. Similarly, the Earth had to be of a finite age or the ocean would be so salty as to be “dead.” A French geologist Comte de Buffon arrived at the figure of 75,000 years based on his experiments with the cooling of iron spheres, imagining the Earth as a molten mass cooling over time.

A breakthrough of sorts came in the late 18th century. The political revolutions that had convulsed the British North American colonies and France, and the economic revolution brought about by the Industrial Revolution, were joined by a scientific revolution that had as much impact (if not more) on modern thinking. As canals crisscrossed England during industrial development, several individuals began to notice the unique patterns of layers appearing in the cuts. One of these, a man by the name of James Hutton, noticed repeated strata among the uplifts and exposed areas throughout the British Isles. He witnessed in the strata repeated periods of upheaval and erosion. In order for all those layers to be created, the Earth must be millions of years old, not just thousands. Hutton introduced the concept of “deep time” into the study of geology.

One of Hutton’s students was Charles Lyell, whose “Principles of Geology” went through 11 editions in the mid-19th century. Lyell was one of the first to observe that different strata held different types of fossils and that these, in turn, might be a way to determine relative age. Both Hutton and Lyell believed that forces active in their own day were the same during the past so that uniform processes over time could create the world as we know it. This idea challenged the more traditional catastrophic view that basic geological formations such as canyons and mountains were formed by world-shattering single events, such as the biblical flood mentioned in Genesis.

Just as Galileo had undermined a literal biblical view of the universe by placing the sun at the center with the Earth orbiting instead of the other way around (no more Joshua making the “sun” stand still), so these new ideas on the Earth’s ancient age threatened belief in a 24-hour, six-day creation. None of this made much difference at all to the vast majority of people, and most Christians continued to accept a literal reading of Genesis. For educated elites, however, the story was different.

By the mid-18th century, deism had become normative for many of these elites on both sides of the Atlantic. Deism was a religious view that accepted a creator God, but based on scientific findings found it hard to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. This ran counter to their understanding of “natural laws” that guided the way the universe operated. Oddly enough, a Christian cleric, William Paley, provided much of the intellectual foundation that allowed Deists to retain a belief in God. Paley believed that evidence for God could be seen by studying the natural creation. He is most famous for his “timepiece” analogy arguing that the finely tuned creation was evidence for a “divine watchmaker.” Paley’s illustration is still utilized by many today as evidence for a creator.

The deist perspective is evident in looking at the lives of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Franklin, who had no hostility to religion, answered an inquiry from the president of Yale as to his view of Christianity and Jesus Christ. He responded with a summary of his belief in a creator and in the importance of “doing good” so that one would be “rewarded” in the afterlife. Franklin went on to state that he had “serious doubts” as to the divinity of Jesus Christ, reluctant to make a definitive statement as he planned to “find out firsthand” shortly. This letter, written just a few months before his death, represents a typical deist viewpoint.

Franklin’s colleague and friend, Thomas Jefferson, went even further by stating that Jesus was a great moral teacher but that his ideas had been distorted over the centuries. Jefferson chose to create his own “Bible,” a work he continued to edit for a number of years. His edition excluded the Old Testament and much of the New, including all of the letters, Revelation and any reference to miracles performed by Jesus. The leftover words of Jesus were pasted in several languages in parallel columns. “Jefferson’s Bible,” as it came to be called, was given to all freshmen congressmen for a number of years after it was published in 1902.

Lesson of history: For both Franklin and Jefferson, the scientific worldview was superior to a revealed religion such as Christianity, and they were not alone. The comfortable faith-based perspective was giving way here and there. The result, for us today, was a crisis of faith that began to be manifest in many ways. Although most people failed at first to accept the new ideas on the Earth’s age, the scientific community was slowly coming on board. By the mid-19th century, the time was ripe for Wallace and Darwin and the direct challenge they made to a literal reading of the Bible. Many Christians and most organized Christian denominations found themselves at war with these new theories and hypotheses, a war that continues today.

Dr. Richard Elam has been a

history and government instructor for Hill College Johnson County Campus for the past two decades. He can be reached at His column appears bimonthly.

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