Adventists and creation go together like jam and bread, but things were not always this way.
The story of how we became a Bible-believing movement dedicated to worship of our Creator and Redeemer1 has some surprising twists. Let’s start by addressing a four-part simplistic and false myth: (1) Christians had a primitive understanding of origins before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859; (2) in the face of Darwin’s irrefutable scientific arguments, almost all Christians embraced evolution and everyone believed evolution until (3) Ellen G. White had some visions that caused Adventists to reject science for the Genesis account of Creation, and (4) this misconception spread to other faiths through an amateur Adventist scientist named George McCready Price.
Like so many other things associated with Darwin’s theory of evolution, this particular myth is in tension with recorded history and reality. First, it is important to remember that since the time of Christ, believers dealt with theories of evolution. In fact, before there were Christians, sophisticated theories of evolution were widespread, such as the one advocated by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus.2 Second, Darwin’s theory of evolution was published in the midst of debate over multiple theories of evolution. Around this time Christians were particularly concerned because of the inherent racism in essentially all theories of human evolution. For example, Frederick Douglass, the great campaigner for racial equality, pointed this out when he denounced evolution five years before Darwin published his flavor of evolutionary theory:
“Away, therefore, with all the scientific moonshine that would connect men with monkeys; that would have the world believe that humanity, instead of resting on its own characteristic pedestal—gloriously independent—is a sort of sliding scale, making one extreme brother to the ourang-ou-tang, and the other to angels, and all the rest intermediates!”3
Where did Adventists come into all this? Remember that those who looked forward to Christ’s second advent were a diverse group; there does not appear to have been unanimity on Creation. William Miller, whose prophecy interpretation sparked the Advent movement, favored a day-age theory in which each literal 24-hour Creation day pre-figured 1,000 years of human history. He believed that this understanding supported his prophecy interpretation that outlined Jesus’ return in 1844.4
After the Great Disappointment of 1844, those who would later be called Seventh-day Adventists continued concentrating on prophecy and the Second Coming, particularly on how to prepare. The Ten Commandments occupied a central place in thinking about preparing, with the fourth commandment quite central to Adventist thinking. This is reflected in the very first Seventh-day Adventist periodical, The Present Truth (now Adventist Review): its first issue featured an article entitled “The Weekly Sabbath Instituted at Creation, and Not at Sinai.” Emphasis on the commandments logically connected with Creation.
By 1872 the fledgling Seventh-day Adventist denomination would publish a “Declaration of Fundamental Principles”5 that contained no specific item dealing with creation, but did acknowledge that God “created all things” through Jesus. The biblical Creation was more or less assumed, but it was not spelled out. Other denominations, particularly Catholics, were making much more direct statements in support of Creation, especially the biblical record of human creation given in Genesis.6
During the first 50 years of the church there were a number of publications that reflect the very evolutionary understanding of human nature that Frederick Douglass spoke against. A shocking example appeared during 1866 in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald. Uriah Smith, the editor, declared that “the line of demarcation between the human and animal races is lost in confusion,” and offered up certain races as irrefutable proof of this.7 Smith wrote this during a spirited but misguided defense of Ellen White’s prophetic ministry, not as an advocate of evolution, though he still drew on the “evidence” that was being produced by “science” at the time. To support his argument, he was quick to grab and urge acceptance of a view rooted in evolutionary thought rather than the distinct creation of humans found in the biblical record. His error is clear, but we need to keep in mind that we may well be as vulnerable to this kind of mistake today as were Adventist pioneers.
The distinction of bringing biblical creationism into sharper focus within Adventism is commonly given to George McCready Price, although Ellen White was very clear about this long before him. Price was an Adventist author who wrote extensively on many topics and championed the ideas of earlier geologists who believed that the geologic column was produced by the flood recorded in Genesis 6-8. He also added ideas of his own. Price’s arguments were replaced by more current understandings today, but still influenced other Christian leaders, including Henry Morris and John Whitcomb. These fellow Christians brought original ideas and professional expertise to the table, influencing a wide group of believers who worship the Creator God.8
Neither the idea that Price was simply promoting what Ellen White wrote, or that he stood alone, is supported by contemporary literature. The Fundamentals—famous essays that established the term “fundamentalism” as descriptive of authentic conservative Christianity—were being written at the very time that Price was most active, during the first half of the twentieth century. The authors of those essays held diverse views on Creation, but among them were firm believers in the biblical record of Creation. One of these, Philip Mauro, authored a creationist book9 and participated in the Scopes “monkey” trial. Mauro contributed three influential essays to The Fundamentals and noted: “If the Bible does not give us a truthful account of the events of the six days recorded in its first chapter, it is not to be trusted as to any of its statements.”10
In the 1930s a list of Adventist fundamental beliefs began to appear in Adventist yearbooks. These did not contain any specific fundamental belief about Creation, although belief in a recent literal six-day creation, as recorded in Scripture, is clearly assumed, if unstated.11
A denominational commitment to Creation was evident among church leaders and members, as demonstrated by formation of the Geoscience Research Institute in 1958 and numerous publications. It was not until the 1980 General Conference Session’s voted Statement of Fundamental Beliefs12 that the biblical creation was explicitly included as an Adventist doctrine. Wording of this fundamental belief was refined in 2015.13
As our church has grown, levels of education have increased and tension has bubbled up on occasion about our faith in the words God wrote with His own finger in stone about His creation of the world and life on it in six days (Ex. 31:18). This is to be expected, even though, in the mid
st of ever-changing and diverse scientific understandings, data continue to accrue in tension with Darwinism. While science changes and many acknowledge the inadequacy of evolution as a scientific theory, the biblical record of history remains the same and eternally true.
I am proud to belong to a community of faith that embraces this eternal truth. If we truly live the Bible’s teaching about Creation, it entirely changes our view of the world, our fellow humans, and our God. It steers us away from dehumanizing ideas that may have a blinding gloss of attraction to them, and serves as a guiding principle that draws us together as a community of faith, while connecting us with fellow believers in other denominations. By revealing the truth that our Creator made all things “very good” and is coming again to perform a new creation, we fulfill our mission to share Christ with the world and draw all people to Him.
Timothy G. Standish is a senior scientist at the Geoscience Research Institute in Loma Linda, California, United States.