Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation

Two simultaneous events occurred on October 1844 that shaped the future for the Adventist mind.  The first was the immediate and irrefutable prophetic failure of the expected second coming (the Great Disappointment).  The second was the provocative publication of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation by an anonymous Scottish author which carried a delayed and less spectacular impact on the theological and scientific worldview of future Adventism.  

Vestiges launched the modern public debate on evolutionary origins and historical geology, which on occasion today haunts the classrooms of Adventist science courses.[1]  It is certain from reading The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald during the Victorian era that early Sabbatarians had little interest in the debate over the nebular origin of the solar system or the “progressive natural history” found in this sensational book.  But it created an uproar on both sides of the Atlantic. [2]  When Samuel Richard Bosanquet, a wealthy lawyer in Wales and a cultivated man of learning, read Vestiges he decided it was a “sign that the world was coming to an end.”  Unlike William Miller, the prophecies in Daniel did not provoke God’s special warning of impending fire and brimstone about to destroy the wicked.  Rather as a premillennialist Bosanquet was a fervent evangelical in the Church of England who felt that the decade of the 1840s would witness the final days of apostasy and the exact time when Christ would return to set up his kingdom on earth.  He railed against Vestiges in a pamphlet published in 1845, noting that “the increasing class of female philosophers, were dangerously susceptible to the promise of a book of knowledge.” [3]

The Review and Herald did not discuss Vestiges until 1940.[4]  By then Vestiges, with its loose reasoning and vague analogies, had gone through many editions in America, but had long since lost its appeal.  One of its most arresting features was the lack of identity as to who was the author.  The author must have had something to hide or was worried about charges of heterodoxy.  Speculations about the author gave it a smile of persuasion and increased the penetration into everyday life.  At one time it was even rumored to have been written by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.  Other suspected authors included the novelist Catherine Crowe, the phrenologist George Combe, and the astronomer John Pringle Nichol.  The Reverend Adam Sedgwick privately speculated that Ada Lovelace had written the “beastly book.”  Charles Babbage, the inventor of a calculating machine, and the moral philosopher Alexander Bain also came under suspicion.  Finally, in 1884 the brother of the deceased Scottish publisher Robert Chambers (1802-71) confessed to the identity of the author:  it was his own brother.  Apparently, Chambers had hoped that his little book would lead readers, especially men of science, to advocate still bolder views of the development of life. 

An instant best seller, Vestiges attempted to explain the origin of life by natural laws arising from “chemico-electric” processes.  The author argued that “The deity originally gave certain properties to matter, and that all natural productions were the result of those properties.”  Progressive fossils, starting with simpler and moving to more complex organizations, fit within an development hypothesis (later called evolution). Vestiges attracted a wide range of readers and went through some twenty editions in the United States, where more copies were sold than in Great Britain.  The freethinker Abraham Lincoln read the book straight through (something he rarely did) when he got a copy and “became a warm advocate of the doctrine.” [5]

Charles Darwin (1809-82) first read an advertisement about Vestiges in the Times or Athenaeum.  He made a note to read it and copied the name of the publisher and the price in his notebook.  After reading the book in the British Museum library, Darwin realized he had been scooped. Vestiges advocated a natural order for the origin of species and a framework for natural causation and universal law.  Darwin began to distance himself from the book, a book he had intended to buy, but never did.  The reviews that followed in the press allowed Darwin to sharpen his own theory.  For instance, Vestiges used a simpler theory to explain how new organic life sprang from older ones (i.e., natural selection) but without intermediate stages.  Despite Darwin’s scientific prestige, his Origin of Species (1859) had a hard time keeping pace with the sales of Vestiges.  By all accounts Vestiges was a sensation because of the power of popular exposition.

By the time Darwin’s book appeared in 1859, Adventists, like other Christians, were prepared to reject anything that didn’t sound like the Scriptures pertaining to origins.  The majority of the public believed that the Creation, the Fall of Man, and the Flood were defining moments in the physical history of the world.  Earlier science and scripture seemed less in conflict.  The weekend band of amateur “geologists” was comprised mostly of clerics trying to find evidence of Noah’s Flood. 

The swirling disconfirmations from geology began to be heard in the Adventist community.  For reassurance that the Bible was rock solid, Ellen G. White was taken in vision back to the very beginning of creation week.  She reassured her followers that everything had happened just as described and that life on earth appeared about six thousand years ago.  From then on life was devolving—not evolving as claimed by some geologists.  Mankind and animals were supposedly pristine and much larger at creation.  Then, because of sin, man had steadily become more degenerate, smaller physically, and depleted of “vital force.”  Amalgamation of man and beast had occurred to the great disappointment of the Creator.  Somehow His creation had gotten out of hand.  Philosophically Ellen G. White was what we would today call a “degenerationist.”  Sin placed humankind squarely on the track to extinction and, therefore, if for no other reason Christ had to come soon.  

The origin of life and the subsequent destruction of mankind was caused by this “base crime of amalgamation” to provoke God’s wrath and bring on Noah’s Flood, claimed White. “Every species of animal which God had created were preserved in the ark.  The confused species which God did not create … were destroyed by the flood.” [6]  In a vision she had seen that:

“As Adam came forth from the hand of his Creator, he was of noble hight [sic], and of beautiful symmetry.  He was more than twice as tall as men now living upon the earth, and was well proportioned.  His features were perfect and beautiful.  His complexion was neither white, nor sallow, but ruddy, glowing with the rich tint of health.  Eve was not quite as tall as Adam.  Her head reached a little above his shoulders.  She, too, was noble — perfect in symmetry, and very beautiful.” [7]

Using this account a physiologist can estimate the weight and surface area for Adam.  A twelve-foot man would be eight times as massive as a six-foot man and have four times the surface area of skin.  Adam and his immediate offspring were thus in the neighborhood of weighing almost a ton (1,650 lbs).  Also, according to the young-earth creationists John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry M. Morris, the population of the earth at the time of the Flood (1,656 years after creation) was probably over a billion.  The antediluvians also lived to great ages. [8]

Ellen G. White predicted that specimens of these huge individuals would eventually be found.  “God so ordered that men, beasts, and trees, many times larger than those now upon the earth, and other things [such as instruments of warfare], should be buried in the earth at the time of the flood, and there be preserved to evidence to man that the inhabitants of the old world perished by a flood.  God designed that the discovery of these things in the earth should establish the faith of men in inspired history.” [9]

At the time geologists and paleontologists were unearthing unfamiliar giant reptilian monsters in great abundance and variety.  The term “dinosaur” was coined in 1842 by Richard Owen (1804-92) for fossils of large extinct reptiles.  With these discoveries Ellen G. White believed that these larger animals included human fossils, writing that “Because the bones of human beings and of animals found in the earth, are much larger than those of men and animals now living, or that have existed for many generations past, some conclude that the world is older than we have any scriptural record of, and was populated long before the record of creation, by a race of beings vastly superior in size to men now upon the earth.” [10]  Accordingly to flood geologists the many varieties of strange fossils in the earth indicates that the “confused species” outnumbered by far God’s original creatures that were saved in the ark.

On occasion you may stumble into an Adventist creationist who believes that dinosaurs represent White’s “confused species,” which lived contemporaneously with humans before Noah’s flood.  Trying to reconcile this speculation some claim to have seen human tracks occurring alongside dinosaur tracks in the Paluxy River bed in Texas.  Unfortunately, these supposed tracks with humans striding alongside three-toed dinosaurs have not stood up to scientific scrutiny — and in recent years have been largely abandoned by better informed creationists.

In general terms Adventism from its earliest year, starting with Vestiges, has continued to resist evolution with dogmatic certainty in the face of growing knowledge based on biological and geological evidence.  The church stands steadfast against the scientific evidence of at least five major extinctions in the “apparent long history of life” owing to changes in climate and sea level.  Each time there was a burst of new species.  Paleontological theory correctly predicted that evolution from fish to amphibian would be found in Devonian strata.  Mammal fossils are not found in earlier Paleozoic strata with trilobites, crinoids, and extinct corals.  Dinosaurs first appeared in the fossil record “millions of years ago” and disappeared abruptly, as determined by a number of dating methods.  Dinosaur bones are not mixed in geological strata with those of humans or for that matter with any large extinct mammals such as three-toed horses, short-necked giraffes, and mammoths. 

While the mind is not a perfect instrument of logic and reasoning educated Adventists who have tried to understand the fossil record are able to identify the difference between truth and belief.  Beginning with Vestiges it is possible to see this difference between radical science and the metaphysical in Vestiges.  Many are willing to take a wait and see attitude as knowledge continues to accumulate. The doubts we face, as Stephen Pinker warns is “The question is not whether human nature will increasingly be explained by the sciences of mind, brain, genes, and evolution, but what we are going to do with the knowledge.  What in fact are the implications for our ideals of equality, progress, responsibility, and the worth of the person?” [11] The extreme oppositional voices that cast aspersion on science who attempt to discredit the fossils, or even the individuals who continue to insist that there is not a shred of evidence to support evolution will eventually arrive at the point of the argument where: “If one had no [verifiable] evidence, he might still have a right to speak but no longer a right to be heard.” [12]

[1]  Both issues have been in the public mind for centuries.  See Jonathan Kirsch.  A History of the End of Time.  (San Francisco, CA:  Harper.  2006.), and Lynn Barber.  The Heyday of Natural History 1820- 1870.  (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1980.)  John Wesley, founder of Methodism with influence into Adventism believed that the natural world could be arranged in a gradation of different organisms. His Chain of Being concept that he preached was held by a long line of thinkers from Aristotle to John Locke.  Ellen White also believed in The Chain of Being.  Historically the Chain of Being may be viewed as a precursor to the concept of evolution.  See J. W. Hass, Jr.  John Wesley’s Vision of Science in the Service of Christ.  Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation.  December, 1995. p. 234.

[2] Ronald L. Numbers. Aggressors, Victims, and Peacemaker.  In Harold W. Attridge.  The Religion and Science Debate:  Why Does it Continue.  (New Haven, CN:  Yale University Press.  2009),  p. 27.

[3]  James A. Secord, Victorian Sensation; The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of Natural History of Creation(Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000), p.13.

[4]  William A. Spicer,  No. 1.  New Issues in the Great Controversy. Advent Review and Sabbath Herald.  February 1, 1940. Vol. 117(5):7.

[5] Secord, Victorian Sensation, p. 38.

[6]  Ellen G, White, Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 3 (Battle Creek, MI:  Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assn., 1864), p. 75. 

[7] Ibid., 3:34.

[8]John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood:  The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications(Philadelphia, PA:  Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1965), p. 27.

[9]  White, Spiritual Gifts, 3:95.

[10]  Ibid., 3:92-93.

[11] Steven Pinker.  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 2002), p. 135.

[12] Mott T. Greene.  “Genesis and Geology Revisited:  The Order of Nature and the Nature of Order in Nineteenth-Century Britain.”  In David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers. (eds.).  When Science and Christianity Meet.  (Chicago, IL:  The University of Chicago Press.  2003), p. 149.

Title Image: Robert Chambers, the anonymous author of Vestiges, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


T. Joe Willey, received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda Medical School, Walla Walla and La Sierra University.  He was a fellow with Nobel Laureate Sir John Eccles at the University of New York, Buffalo, and research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.

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