Righting America

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Ronald Numbers (1942-2023): Rest in Peace | Righting America

by William Trollinger

A picture of Ronald Numbers, a bald, middle-aged man with glasses, mustache and goatee, and a kind smile.
Ronald Numbers (1942-2023). Image via YouTube.

On June 02 Ron Numbers sent Sue and myself a goodbye email, letting us know that “I am now receiving hospice care, waiting for ‘The End.’” 

Then, last Monday (July 24), he passed.

One of those people whom the world really cannot do without.

I realize – my daughters, who followed me into Ph.D. programs in the humanities, have told me this again and again – that I had and still have an idyllic view of my time in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I have this idyllic view not just because the campus is beautiful, or that some of my peers became lifetime friends (two of whom visited us this summer). I also had a host of professors who patiently taught me (and I had so very much to learn) what it means to be a historian, what it means to see and interpret the American past. Professors such as Al Bogue, Ed Coffman, Paul Conkin, John DeNovo, Diane Lindstrom, Tom McCormick, and Daniel Rodgers.

But my idyllic view of UW-Madison owes even more to my mentors. Most Ph.Ds in the humanities consider themselves fortunate to have one mentor, one faculty member who sticks with them after graduation, who looks for ways to promote their career, who provides advice on navigating the ofttimes challenging academic world. 

But I had the ridiculous good fortune to have had three mentors: Paul Boyer, Carl Kaestle, and Ron Numbers. All three of these world-class scholars took me under their wing at Madison – Carl directed my dissertation, and Paul and Ron were on my dissertation committee – and then stayed with me for the decades after I received my Ph.D. I have no idea what my career would have become without their active interventions. For example, I have had:

  • 1 book in a university press series edited by Paul, 1 article in a book co-edited by Paul, and 4 articles in an encyclopedia edited by Paul.
  • 1 short book co-authored with Carl, 1 book co-edited with Carl and others (in which I also have an article), and 1 article in a book co-edited by Carl.
  • 1 co-authored (with Sue) book in a university press series edited by Ron, 1 edited volume in a series edited by Ron (in which I also have an article), and 1 article in a book co-edited by Ron.

And all three of these great scholars and mentors were also humble, gracious, and kind – traits often in short supply in the academy.

Humble, gracious, and kind certainly described Ron Numbers. And what an outstanding and prolific scholar. To mention just a few of his most important publications: Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White (Eerdmans, 2008, 3rd edition – first published in 1976);  The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, ed. with Jonathan Butler (Tennessee, 1993, reprint – first published in 1987); The Creationists (Harvard, 2006, 2nd edition – first published in 1992); Darwinism Comes to America (Harvard, 1998); Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. (Harvard, 2009); Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States, ed. with Charles Cohen (Oxford, 2014).

Add to this a host of honors and prizes, including the History of Science Society’s George Sarton Medal “in recognition of a lifetime of exceptional scholarly achievement by a distinguished scholar, selected from the international community.”

Ron’s scholarly achievements are even more remarkable when one takes into account his personal story. Raised in a strict Seventh-day Adventist family (his father and other members of his extended family were Adventist ministers), Ron – armed with a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley – wrote an academically acclaimed study (Prophetess of Health) of the church’s founder, in which he noted that, among other things, there were striking similarities between the transcriptions of White’s visions and the writings of well-known health reformers. The resultant controversy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church led to his being pushed out of his teaching position at Loma Linda University (an Adventist school).

Of course, Ron (to understate the case) landed on his feet. He was hired at the UW-Madison, where he remained for four decades. And it was at Wisconsin where he began his scholarly work on creationism. One of his most important interventions was to trace the tight connection between Ellen White’s 1864 vision of a six-day creation and the young Earth creationism of contemporary fundamentalism. Not surprisingly, Ken Ham and the folks at Answers in Genesis go to great – and absurd – lengths to reject this connection, in the process attacking (in Ham’s words) “the openly agnostic, apostate Seventh Day [sic] Adventist historian, Ronald Numbers.” 

While Ron’s work on creationism undergirded my dissertation and first book – and much, much more – it turns out that his work was also very important to my father. As we note in the “Acknowledgments” for Righting America at the Creation Museum, my father was a geologist and an old Earth creationist (as well as a failed fundamentalist wannabe), holding to the notion that each of the Genesis 1 days corresponded with a geologic age. When young Earth creationism began sweeping through evangelical churches in the Denver area (where I grew up) in the 1960s and 1970s, Dad went ballistic (I can still remember him throwing Whitcomb and Morris’ Genesis Flood against the wall of his study). 

So he went on a campaign against young Earth creationism, giving presentations in local evangelical churches in which – with charts and slides and transparencies – he patiently explained the geologic timetable and the law of stratigraphic succession, in the process arguing that an ancient Earth could be squared with Genesis. And in the bulging file folders containing the materials for these presentations – thanks to my brother Paul for sending all of this to me – I found a copy of Ron’s 1982 Science article, “Creationism in 20th-century America,” in which Ron discussed the emergence of “scientific creationism.” I can’t recall if I referred Dad to this article or Dad referred it to me, but I know that Ron’s point that creationism has a history, that it has changed over time (a point so clearly discussed in The Creationists), was crucial to my father’s efforts to persuade evangelicals to eschew young Earth creationism.  

Perhaps my favorite memory of Ron Numbers is the February 2013 conference in Tallahassee: “Science without God: Religion, Naturalism, and Sciences, A Conference to Honour Ronald L. Numbers” (a.k.a. “Ronfest”). For two days the sixty or so of us in attendance discussed “the growth of so-called ‘methodological naturalism’ in science, which prohibits any appeal to supernatural explanations but leaves scientists free to believe whatever they want about the reality of God.” (Out of this conference came the 2019 book, Science Without God?) These conversations were fascinating, but for me the highlight was the evening dinner, in which person after person stood up to praise, thank, and tease Ron. So much affection for this great scholar and person.

And for good reason. Besides everything else, Ron was remarkably generous with his time, and not just with his former students. All sorts of folks – including a few I sent his way – benefitted from the Ron Numbers treatment. 

And this includes Sue. As we were writing what became Righting America at the Creation Museum  we each took the lead on certain chapters that best fit our training and expertise. And given Sue’s work in visual rhetoric, it made sense for her to tackle the Museum and Science chapters. But while the former was obviously in Sue’s wheelhouse, the latter involved both analysis of the visual presentation of the exhibits and, related, description and summary of the scientific “arguments” that were being made by the museum. It was a challenging intellectual task.

So it was with trepidation that Sue sent Ron the draft of her chapter on “Science.” We were at the Netherland Plaza in Cincinnati for a writing weekend when his detailed response arrived in Sue’s inbox. At the beginning his comments were rather skeptical. By the middle of the chapter, however, his tone changed, as he realized what Sue was trying to do (i.e., judge the Creation Museum by Answer in Genesis’ very own definition as to what counts as legitimate science). By the end of the chapter he was fully onboard, enthusiastically praising Sue for the critical assessment she had pulled off. 

That night we celebrated. And not only because Ron’s affirmation was a great endorsement of our project, but also because Sue had now joined the ranks of Ron Numbers mentees/friends (which including our meeting in Milwaukee for a Brewers game).

When we heard from our friend Adam Laats last Tuesday morning that Ron had passed, we both cried. 

Rest in peace, my friend.