Ellen White's Own Geoscience Tour

Ellen White's Own Geoscience Tour

Written by: 
Published:
May 28, 2022

Below us lay the town of Green River, Wyoming. Some one hundred feet above Mike’s head towered the many layers of Giant’s Club, a rock described in 1890 as “impossible to climb.”1

Giant’s Club: The left-hand picture above was taken by the USGS in 1869. The right-hand picture was taken in 2015 with the kind assistance of Mike Mandujano.

And no, we were not about to climb it. I gave up that sport many years ago. The rock is rotten; whole pieces fell off in my hands. But we can no longer call it “impossible to climb.” To Mike’s left, a line of bolts revealed a route of modern climbers.

My camera is here because of a train trip taken by Ellen White.

At least to my memory, 60 years of Adventist sermons have informed us that when Ellen White used the phrase, “I was told,” the words that follow must bear special authority.In 2014, I searched the White Estate online materials for such examples. One of them concerned this landmark of Wyoming’s Green River geologic formation:

There is a rock called Giant’s Club, and in proportion it is a giant. It rises almost perpendicularly and it is impossible to climb up its steep sides. This is one of nature’s curiosities. I was told that its composition bears evidence of its once having been located in the bottom of a lake.4

Dated Friday, February 27, 1880, this “I was told” phrase was part of a letter that Ellen White wrote to her twin sister, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bangs.

A Google search led me to Ron Graybill, who in the Summer, 1990 issue of Adventist Heritage first commented upon this letter and identified its principal source.

While always honoring God as creator, Ellen White showed little personal interest in geology. But during this train trip from Michigan to California, she described several geological formations in detail.

Might I see the rocks as Ellen White had seen them? Perhaps. Between 1862 and 1879 the US Geological Survey (USGS) took detailed photographs of some of the rock formations upon which Ellen White chose to comment. These pictures have now been scanned and released online to the public domain.

Some names of these formations have changed. Some have gone by more than one name. Some names have been applied to different sites.

But in the summer of 2015, it was my pleasure to identify, locate, and photograph four formations upon which Ellen White commented and for which early photos are available.

“Giant’s Club”, “Giant’s Thumb” or “The Sugar Bowl” [Green River, Wyoming]

“Devil’s Gate,” Sweetwater River, Wyoming. The left-hand pictures were taken by the USGS in 1870. The right-hand pictures were taken in 2015.


“We passed on quite rapidly to Devil’s Gate, a canyon worn through the granite by the action of water. The walls of the canyon are about three hundred feet high, and at its bottom a beautiful stream flows slowly and pleasantly, murmuring over the rocks.” (8MR 246.2; 10MR 375.2; variations: 20MR 304.5, 20MR 295)4

At Devil’s Gate, the Sweetwater River has worn its way through granite rocks, apparently attacking a section of intrusive granite less resistant to erosion than the rock to either side.

Still occupied by the stream, this gap has never been wide enough to admit a train, Mormon handcarts, or even a decent trail. Travel routes have always gone around the rock to the south. From her distant train window, Ellen White could not obtain a personal view. But I found it a beautiful and peaceful place to enjoy some Sabbath hours. White’s accounts of this, and other geological features, were based closely upon a popular tourist guidebook: Pacific Tourist by Henry Williams.Ron Graybill was the first to point out this association.


“Sentinel Rock” or “Monument Rock” [Echo Canyon, Utah]. The left-hand picture was taken by the USGS in 1868. The right-hand picture was taken in 2015.

“Devil’s Slide” [immediately south of I-84 near Croydon, Utah]. The left-hand picture was taken by the USGS in 1862. The right-hand picture was taken in 2015.


“In Echo Canyon are rocks curiously representing works of art, [for example] the Sentinel Rock. The average height of all the rocks of Echo Canyon, is from 600 to 800 feet." (10MR 375; 20MR 296.5; variant: 20MR 295)6

And a little further on we passed the wonderful rocks called the Devil’s Slide. This is composed of two parallel walls of granite standing upon their edges with about fourteen feet of space between. They form a wall about eight hundred feet long running up the side of the mountain. This is a wonderful sight; but we reached Ogden, and the night drew on. (Letter 6a, 1880, pp. 8, 9, to Elizabeth Bangs, February 26, 1880; 8MR 247.2; variants 10MR 376.2, 20MR 305.2)

We come to Devil’s Slide. Here are flat rocks set up like gravestones of nearly equal depth, running from the river up the mountainside a quarter of a mile above us. The stones are from fifty to one hundred feet high. (Letter 20, 1873, pp. 1, 2, to Edson and Emma White, December 27, 1873; 10MR 378.3 variant 11MR 129.1)

Ellen White’s description of Devil’s Slide as granite also follows Williams.This formation is in fact composed not of granite but of Cretaceous limestone. These once-horizontal layers have been tilted up on edge. They are now prominent because over time, they have proved more resistant to erosion than their surrounding strata.

Yes, extrapolation of scientific information is weak and prone to error, but please bear with me briefly:

On several occasions, Ellen White stated her opinion that the earth was only about 6,000 years old.

Above is an annotated scan from of the Harmon family Bible, kindly shared by William Fagal of the Ellen G. White Estate.


Her lifelong opinion could have sprung from the chronological information printed in the family Bible of her childhood. Although stated somewhat differently, these numbers closely match the dates calculated by Archbishop Ussher and long supplied in English Bibles.

We have closely examined four named rock formations that caught the interest of Ellen White more than 100 years ago. We can observe that since she wrote her descriptions, these rock formations have hardly changed.

Suppose we were to multiply 100 years by 60, what would we get? (6,000 years)

If we now multiply “hardly changed” by 60, what would we get?

I worship God as the creator of all that is. And I honor Ellen White, who has been my lifelong spiritual guide.

Let us suppose that there is someone who knew everything about everything, who was always right and never wrong. Who could that someone be? I believe that would have to be God himself.

When God inspires a human to become his messenger, does he also endow that human with divine infallibility and inerrancy? If we claim that a human being possesses these divine attributes, could we be risking blasphemy?

Weathered rocks above Green River, Wyoming.

In the lower photo from Fossil Butte/Fossil Lake, Wyoming, the smoothed strata are much less than 1 mm. in thickness.


Counts of the Green River strata vary between 5 million and more than 10 million layers. Although some of these strata are thick, many are extremely thin.

The first students of the Green River Formation assumed that these thin layers were deposited in lakes annually (varves). Thus, a minimum of five million such layers would represent at least five million years.

But if these five million events were not years, what might they be?

During the past forty-five years, notable among investigators of the Green River Formation have been Lance Grande8(University of Chicago and Field Museum of Natural History), and Paul Buchheim(Loma Linda University).

Grande and Buchheim found more sedimentary layers around the shores of Fossil Lake than toward its center. They suggest that in addition to seasonal markers, other layers probably represent occasional storms or floods, which added turbidite deposits near the shore. Perhaps these occurred many times per year, (reducing the calculated five million years to thousands of years?).10

Can we imagine these events occurring extremely often? Yes. But formation of each layer required time for the particles to settle out of still water, before the next precipitation or storm could add another layer without disturbing the first. Such settling times have been tested by many laboratories, are different in saltwater vs. freshwater, and are related to the size of the particles. To complete this process in one day would seem unrealistically optimistic.11

But for the moment let us play with the idea of one event per day:

If we divide 5 million [assumed daily] layers by 365 days, we arrive at something more than 13,000 years. We are here estimating the lifespans of several large but shallow lakes, recorded in a tiny portion of the Eocene rocks. And of course, the Eocene era comprises a very small portion of the entire geologic column.

(Deposits of volcanic tuff above and below the layers of our interest have yielded 40Ar/39Ar dates of about 50 million years.)12

My Tentative Conclusions

An earth history span of 6,000 years is a tradition favored by most nineteenth-century Christians, including Ellen White. It may have first appeared in a Jewish book written about the time of Jesus, variously called The Secrets of Enoch, Slavonic Enoch, or sometimes 2 Enoch.13 The concept was popularized by Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, Ireland (1581–1656), whose calculated dates were long included in English Bibles.

But this time span is not stated in the Bible. And a 6,000-year period would seem not nearly long enough to produce 9 million thin lakebed layers, let alone the whole geologic column. We need much more time.

Although at times large, Fossil Lake was never very deep. It was sometimes relatively fresh, sometimes very salty, but not stormy. Among these many layers, none records the exciting events that must have accompanied a global flood. Should we choose to blame Noah’s flood for many thousands of lower layers, the Green River Formation would have to be deposited long after the flood.

To transform thin layers of muddy silt into rock would have required the pressure of still higher and more recent rocks, and yes, more time. Finally, the uneven erosion of all these rocks, “worn by storm and wind,” is a process that, as Ellen White understood, still goes on.14

Of course, God could have created the whole world only last week, complete with misleading rock formations. Last week he could also have created us, complete with a set of false memories. But as I try to understand God’s ancient creations, I cannot ignore the physical evidence of his more recent creations.

Here are my tentative conclusions:

1) Maybe Ellen White’s geological opinions were revealed to her directly by God. If so, we can choose to ignore any physical evidence to the contrary.

2) Or perhaps White’s views of geology reflected those of her contemporaries and of 1,900 years of Christian tradition. She had no opportunity to study rates of past or present erosion, of seafloor spreading, magnetic reversals, ice cores, or radiometric decay. But if we study such evidence, we may need much more time than did she.

3) When Ellen White wrote “I was told,” these words did not necessarily identify information supplied directly from the throne of God. In this case, her “I was told” seems to refer to information that Ellen White obtained from a book before her, Williams's Pacific Tourist (1878), written for passengers of the Union Pacific railroad.

 

Notes & References:

1. White: “There is a rock called Giant’s Club, and in proportion it is a giant. It rises almost perpendicularly and it is impossible to climb up its steep sides. This is one of nature’s curiosities. I was told that its composition bears evidence of its once having been located in the bottom of a lake.” 8MR 246.2; 10MR 375.1; 20MR 304.2.

Williams:“Giant’s Club. —This is fairly a giant in dimensions, and its proportions are really colossal. It rises with almost perpendicular sides, and is really impossible to scale by ascent. The rock is valuable for its curious composition as it bears evidences of having once existed at the bottom of a lake.” Henry T. Williams, Editor, The Pacific Tourist. Williams’ Illustrated Trans-Continental Guide of Travel (New York: Henry T. Williams, Publisher, 1878), pp 102-103.

White: “This rock has regular strata, all horizontal, containing fossils of plants and of fish and curiously shaped specimens of sea animals. The plants appear like our fruit and forest trees. There are ferns and palms. The fishes seem to be of a species now extinct.” —8MR 246.2; 10MR 375.1.

Williams: “The rock lies in regular strata, all horizontal, and most of these contain fossils of plants and fishes. The plants are all extinct species, and closely allied to our fruit and forest trees; among them, however, are some palms, which indicate this to be, in original times, when the deposit was formed, a very warm climate.” Williams, Pacific Tourist, pp 102, 103.

2. For example, Aug. 24, 2014, at a 10-day International Conference on the Bible and Science in St. George, Utah.

3. 8MR 246.2; 10MR 375.1; 20MR 304.2; [variant 20MR 296.1].

4. White: “We passed on quite rapidly to Devil’s Gate, a canyon worn through the granite by the action of water. The walls of the canyon are about three hundred feet high, and at its bottom a beautiful stream flows slowly and pleasantly, murmuring over the rocks.” —8MR 246.2; 10MR 375.2.

Williams: “Following upon the valley from Independence Rock, and five miles north, is another celebrated natural curiosity. The Devil’s Gate, a canyon which the Sweetwater River has worn through the Granite Ridge cutting it at right-angles. The walls are vertical, being about 350 feet high,.. The current of the stream through the gate is slow, finding its way among the fallen masses of rock, with gentle, easy motion, and pleasant murmur.” —Williams, Pacific Tourist, 110.

Ellen White’s account of her journey is neither geographic nor chronological, but follows the sequence presented in Williams’ guidebook, in which Devil’s Gate is also described out of geographical order. Devil’s Gate is some 130 miles east and north of the town of Green River. Thus, Ellen White’s westbound train would have passed this formation several hours before her arrival in Green River.

5. White: Friday, February 27, 1880: “At Green River is the place where specimens of fossils, petrifications and general natural curiosities are seen. Shells and wood in a petrified state can be purchased for a trifle.” —8MR 246.1; 10MR 375.1; 20MR 304.1.

Williams: “Here [at Green River] is the head center for Rocky Mountain specimens, fossils, petrifactions, etc…. Mr. Kitchen… has on exhibition and for sale the specimens alluded to—such as beautiful fossil fish, petrified shells and wood…” Williams, Pacific Tourist, 101.

White: “There is a high projecting rock, in appearance like a tower, and there are twin rocks of gigantic proportions. The appearance of these rocks is as though some great temple once stood there and their massive pillars were left standing as witnesses of their former greatness.” —8MR 246.1.

Williams: “It seems as though some great temple once stood here, or several of them, and in the wrecks of time, left their gigantic pillars standing, as a reminder of their former greatness.” —Williams, Pacific Tourist, 101.

6. White: “In Echo Canyon are rocks curiously representing works of art, [for example] the Sentinel Rock. The average height of all the rocks of Echo Canyon, is from 600 to 800 feet. —10MR 375; 20MR 296.5.

Williams: “The massive rocks which form Echo Canyon are of red sandstone,… Their shapes are exceeding curious, and their average height 500 to 800 feet.” —Williams, Pacific Tourist, 122.

On page 117 of the 1878 edition of Williams’ Pacific Tourist is a drawing labeled “Sentinel Rock, Echo Canyon.” But this does not closely resemble either the USGS photograph or my own. I could not obtain a classic photograph to identify “Eagle Nest Rock.”

White: “The scenery here is grand and beautiful. We see holes or caves worn by storm and wind, where the eagles build their nests. This is called Eagle Nest Rock. Here the king of birds finds a safe habitation to rear its young. The ruthless hand of man cannot disturb them.” —10MR 375.

Williams: “High up on the face of a bluff to the left, as you pass through the gorge, see the little holes or caves worn by the winds, in which the eagles build their nests. This bluff is called ‘Eagle Nest Rock.’ Every year the proud monarch of the air finds here a safe habitation in which to raise its young. It is beyond the reach of men,…” —Williams, Pacific Tourist, 124.

7. White: “… and a little further on we passed the wonderful rocks called the Devil’s Slide. This is composed of two parallel walls of granite standing upon their edges with about fourteen feet of space between. They form a wall about eight hundred feet long running up the side of the mountain. This is a wonderful sight; but we reached Ogden, and the night drew on.” —Letter 6a, 1880, pp. 8, 9 (To Elizabeth Bangs, February 26, 1880.); 8MR 247.2.

Williams: But right here on the left side of the road, pushing out from the side of the mountain, is the “Devil’s Slide” —one of the most singular formations to be seen on the entire route from ocean to ocean. It is composed of two parallel ledges of granite, turned upon their edges, serrated and jutting out in places fifty feet from the mountain side, and about 14 feet apart. It is a rough place for any one; height about 800 feet. The gorge still continues, and devils’ slides on a smaller scale than the one noticed, are visible on both sides of the road. —Williams, Pacific Tourist, 125.

8. See Lance Grande, The Lost World of Fossil Lake, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013.

9. “A greater number of laminae and thicker laminae towards the lake’s margin reflect the dominance of inflow processes on deposition in the lake. Most of the near-shore laminae were deposited in response to periodic non-annual processes, and thus are not true varves or annual deposits. Mid-lake laminae may be annual or a mixture of annual and non-annual laminae.” —Paleoenvironments, lithofacies and varves of the Fossil Butte Member of the Eocene Green River Formation, Southwestern Wyoming, H. Paul Buchheim, Department of Natural Sciences, Section of Paleontology, Lorna Linda University, Loma Linda, CA 92350

10. “The couplets of light and dark laminations were previously though to represent annual cycles of Fossil Lake called varves by some geologists, resulting from annual (i.e., seasonal) water turnover in the lake (e.g., Grande 1984, 183, 184). If the couplets had been annual markers, they would indicate that the 18-inch layer was deposited over a period of several thousand years. But more recently, work by Buchheim (1994b) has shown that the frequency of lamination couplets within equivalent stratigraphic levels varies significantly between the mid-lake and the nearshore deposits of the FBM; so at least some of them cannot possibly be varves. In addition, the remarkable preservation of large skeletons with all bones in normal position suggests a much more rapid burial process. The couplets may actually represent more frequent events such as periodic storms, major variations in lake inflow, periodic die-offs of microorganisms, or other common environmental events that happened more than once per year. We will probably never know for sure what the exact duration was for the deposition of all the 18-inch layer sediments, but the 18-inch and underlying sandwich layers (fig. 4) together likely represent a period lasting as long as several thousand years or as short as a few hundred.” —Grande, Fossil Lake, pp. 11-12.

11. In Fossil Lake the calcite particles are extremely small, 0.5 to 8 microns. Grande and Buchheim, Paleontological and sedimentological variation in early Eocene Fossil Lake; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290437990_Paleontological_and_s...

12. “Within the Green River formation, only a few absolute dates (based on radiometric data) have been determined, but one that is well established is for the K-spar tuff bed near the top of the FBM [Fossil Butte Member} (fig. 4) dated at about 52 million years before present (data repository of Smith, et al. 2010).” —Grande, Fossil Lake, pp. 4-5.

The FBM is only a tiny slice of the Green River Formation. To put it in perspective, the Green River Lake System lasted at least 12 million years, and Fossil Lake appears to have lasted for less than 2 million of those years. And of that 1 to 2 million years, the FBM represents less than 9 percent of Fossil Lake’s stratigraphic record (Buchheim, Cushman, and Biaggi 2012, fig. 2). Thus the FBM probably represents only a few tens of thousands of years at the most, which in the context of geologic time is a blink of an eye. —Grande, Fossil Lake, p. 8.

13. “And I appointed the eighth day also, that the eighth day should be the first-created after my work, and that (the first seven) revolve in the form of the seventh thousand, and that at the beginning of the eighth thousand there should be a time of not-counting, endless, with neither years nor months nor weeks nor days nor hours.” —2 Enoch 33:1

14. Williams: “High up on the face of a bluff to the left, as you pass through the gorge, see the little holes or caves worn by the winds, in which the eagles build their nests.” —Williams, Pacific Tourist, 124.

White: “We saw great caves worn by storm and wind where the eagles build their nests.” —8MR 247.1; 10MR 375; 20MR 305.1.

 


Robert R. Wresch, MD, is an ophthalmologist at Guam Seventh-day Adventist Clinic. He has been interested in questions of Christianity and geology since age 17, when he enjoyed discussions by initial GRI scholars Frank Marsh and Richard Ritland at the Atlantic City Youth Congress.

Title image: Giant’s Club: The left-hand picture above was taken by the USGS in 1869. The right-hand picture was taken in 2015 with the kind assistance of Mike Mandujano.

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