Wednesday, 14 December 2016

A foretaste of Christadelphian fundamentalism in 1948

Today, I ran across a 1948 article in The Christadelphian lamenting "the influence of weekday school instruction upon children’s attitude to the Bible", which specifically named higher criticism and evolution as "the two most potent influences in undermining faith of today." The anonymous author's assertion that "both are being discarded increasingly by thinkers today" struck me as being more a case of wishful thinking than an accurate summary of the state of scholarly play at the time. In referring to higher criticism, the author was most likely referring to either historical criticism or more narrowly source criticism, which at the time of writing was hardly being 'discarded increasingly by thinkers'. [1] As for evolution, while the theoretical mechanism was still being hammered out (though George Simpson's Tempo and Mode of Evolution published four years before this article in The Christadelphian had shown the fossil evidence was congruent with the synthetic theory of evolution), there was no doubt that an evolutionary process had occurred. Implicit in the author's criticism of evolution and the historical-critical method is a fundamentalist approach to both the Bible and the natural world, one that without doubt is vulnerable to these methods. The tragedy of course is that the author had conflated a fundamentalist interpretation of nature and Bible with these books of revelation, ensuring that anyone reared on such views would be at risk of losing faith.

The author related two slightly disguised vignettes in which senior Sunday School class scholars outlined problems they had encountered in higher education. Of the evolution-related story, the author notes
Another scene, but again a Senior Class; and the subject of discussion—creation. The teacher was not well equipped on this subject and perhaps was unaware of his lack. The scholars, full of instruction given in biology lessons at school, ply questions in terms of genes and chromosomes and other modern words which manifestly baffled the teacher. The result—the problems raised by evolutionary teaching during the week were not met in a way to satisfy eager questing of young minds. [2]
As long ago as 1948, we can see that there was a dangerous gap emerging between what elders in our community knew about contemporary science and what the young generation were learning at university. The author acknowledged that our community was poorly equipped to "supply the need of teachers on the question of evolution", weakly defended this by asserting this subject was "in large measure extrabiblical", and referred to a contemporary book by old earth creationist and chemist Robert Clark to remedy that in-house deficit. [3] Although our community's spiral into fundamentalism was apparent in the early 1960s, this article shows that the roots of this collapse stretch back into the late 1940s.

One would have thought that an episode in which a Sunday School teacher was left completely unable to offer a substantive response to the scientific evidence that Christadelphian young people were encountering in their formal studies, one which was considered worrying enough to be the basis of an article in the flagship magazine of our community would have been a wake-up call to our community to ensure that the "truth’s literature" would be able to "adequately supply the need of teachers on the question of evolution." Needless to say, nearly seventy years later, the closest our community has come to producing such material was Alan Hayward's 1985 Creation and Evolution: The Facts and Fallacies which worryingly was criticised by many for its robust criticism of young earth creationism and flood geology. As regular readers of this website will be aware, anti-evolution material produced by our community is poorly researched, highly derivative of YEC arguments from evangelical Christian sources, and a major step backwards from the sort of creationist of which Robert Clark was representative. [4] Over three generations later, "eager questing of young minds" is still being poorly served by our community at an official level.


1. The latter third of the 20th century saw a move away from the classical documentary hypothesis, but not back towards a fundamentalist view of the origins of the Pentateuch. Whether fragmentary, supplementary, or documentary models, mainstream scholars regard the Pentateuch as a composite document. 
2. Anon. "Our Schools: Higher Criticism and Evolution" The Christadelphian (1948) 85:118
3. Clark R. E. D. Darwin, Before and After: the Story of Evolution (1948: Pasternoster Press). Clark's main argument against evolution - entropy - is of course deeply flawed: "Yes, an evolution of increasing biological complexity can occur while total entropy (of the universe) increases. Is the Second Law violated by either mutation or natural selection, which are the major actions in neo-Darwinian evolution? No. And if an overall process of evolution is split into many small steps involving mutation followed by selection, each step is permitted by the Second Law, and so is the overall process." Craig Rusbult "An Introduction to Entropy and Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics". 
4. "Clark, perhaps the most visible and articulate creationist of his generation, tended to keep his distance from other antievolutionists. Though he labored for years as an officer of the Victoria Institute and edited its journal, he refused until shortly before his death even to join the EPM, much less to to serve as its president, which he was requested to do. He had joined the institute in his youth because of family connections and a shared commitment to Christian evidences, and throughout his life he preferred the company of the relatively open-minded theistic evolutionists in the Victoria Institute to that of the more dogmatic creationists in the Evolution Protest Movement. Even at the institute he was frequently embarrassed by the “very strange” and sometimes nonsensical utterances of the creationist president, Fleming. Clark, who believed in special creation primarily for religious, not scientific, reasons, functioned for decades as the conscience of modern creationism." Ronald Numbers The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992: University of California Press)  p 157