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The Meaning of Genesis 1

Advocates of special creation have long disagreed about the meaning of the creation story found in Genesis 1. By the middle of the nineteenth century an estimated fifty percent of Christian Americans, including many evangelicals, had stretched the Mosaic account to accommodate geological discoveries indicating the antiquity of life on earth. In 1814 the Scottish divine Thomas Chalmers attempted to harmonize the evidence of vast geological ages with the Genesis story by inserting an indefinite period of time between the initial creation "in the beginning" and the much later creation in the Garden of Eden. This so-call gap theory enjoyed great popularity among Christians eager to harmonize science and religion. The American geologist and minister Edward Hitchcock, for example, endorsed this scheme in his influential textbook Elementary Geology. As he explained it, the gap theory "supposed that Moses merely states that God created the world in the beginning, without fixing the date of that beginning; and that passing in silence an unknown period of its history, during which the extinct animals and plants found in the rocks might have lived and died, he describes only the present creation, which took place in six literal days, less than 6000 years ago."

In 1910 the Scofield Reference Bible, an immensely influential annotated edition of the King James Version, presented the gap theory as Christian orthodoxy, influencing millions of Fundamentalists and Pentecostals until late in the century. Harry Rimmer, perhaps the best known American antievolutionist during the second quarter of the century, and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, one of the most successful televangelists during the last quarter of the century, both endorsed the gap theory.

Numerous other Christians chose to harmonize Genesis and geology by interpreting the "days" of Genesis 1 as vast geological ages rather than twenty-four-hour periods. According to the nineteenth-century American naturalist Benjamin Silliman, a man widely known for his Christian piety, God in the beginning had instantaneously "created the heavens and the earth, and established the physical laws, the ordinances of heaven, by which the material world was to be governed." Subsequent to this act, our planet "was subjected to a long course of formation and arrangement, the object of which evidently was, to fit it for the reception, first of plants and animals, and finally of the human race." 

In the early twentieth century this interpretation of the Genesis "days" enjoyed great popularity among conservative Christians, receiving the enthusiastic endorsement of such high-profile Fundamentalists as George Frederick Wright, author of the essay on evolution in The Fundamentals; William Bell Riley, founder of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association; and William Jennings Bryan, who led the crusade against evolution in the early 1920s.Ronald L. Numbers, Creation by Natural Law: Laplace’s Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1978), pp. 88-104; Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists (New York:...

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