Modifying Moses: The Demise of 19th Century Attempts to Harmonise the Genesis Creation Narrative with Geological Time and Chronology

By about 1830, the belief that even the youngest deposits in the succession of sedimentary rock strata could be explained by reference to the flood described in Genesis had been discarded by almost all British geologists of note. Even those who were scripturally inclined had been converted by the counter evidence mounting in their emerging science. However, the expectation that the geological record would accord with the Genesis creation narrative, at least in outline, was still widely held. Attempts to harmonise Genesis Chapter 1 with the greatly expanded timescale that geology seemed to require basically took two forms. The “chaos-restitution” theory assumed that an indefinitely long period “without form and void” was followed by the six literal days of creation. This interpretation was effectively superseded by the “day-age” theory, in which each of the days described in the Genesis narrative was regarded as a long period of time of unspecified duration. By 1860 however, such accommodationist schemes were being undermined in Britain both by science, not least in the form of Darwin’s Origin (1859), and also by a theology that was becoming more liberal and in which Genesis 1 was seen as a sort of poetic psalm of creation rather than as an historical narrative. On the other side of the Atlantic however, the day-age theory survived through the 19th and 20th centuries and still has its followers today. The presentation will consider the chronological details of the accommodationist narratives and will discuss why they failed to endure, at least in Britain and in Europe. It will also reflect on why the day-age version of the creation narrative has enjoyed a very different life in the USA.