Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Evolution of Creationism in American Higher Education: Part 2 | Righting America

by Adam Laats

Today, our colleague Adam Laats continues his exploration of the history of young earth creationism as a doctrine of evangelical colleges and universities. As he demonstrates below, in the last century creationist colleges have wrestled with many iterations of creationist science and mainstream scientific thought, each with unique consequences for students and believers. Yet radical creationist orthodoxy is different, a special kind of relationship to mainstream science.

Adam Laats is Professor of Education and History (by courtesy) at Binghamton University (State University of New York). His new book, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education, is due out in early 2018 from Oxford University Press. His earlier books include The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education (Harvard UP, 2015) and, with co-author Harvey Siegel, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Adam blogs at the wonderfully named I Love You But You Are Going to Hell.

The Evolution of Creationism in American Higher Education: Part 2

Adam Laats

Before World War II, the biggest creationist battle was between the “day-age” camp and the “gap theorists.” They didn’t agree on the details, but they all agreed that the earth must be ancient. Back then, very few creationists held young-earth beliefs. Only in the 1950s—when mainstream evolutionary science had figured out the big problems with Darwin’s ideas—did young-earth beliefs gain any real popularity. And a big part of the reason they did so was because so many creationist colleges were pulling away more and more distinctly from radical young-earth thinking.

By the late 1950s, for example, Russell Mixter at Wheaton College in Illinois had become what one historian called “the evangelical oracle on evolution.” There was a lot to learn from mainstream evolutionary science, Professor Mixter argued. Real creationism, Mixter thought, meant accepting the contributions of mainstream science, but insisting always that those contributions must always illustrate the ways God created.

Fundamentalists quaked. Outside of a few smallish groups such as Seventh-day Adventists and Missouri Synod Lutherans, most conservative Christians in the United States had never insisted on the notions of a young earth, a literal worldwide flood, or a literal six-day creation not so very long ago.

Book cover for the book "The Genesis Flood" by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris.

Opening the floodgates, 1961.

The evolution of creationism at leading creationist colleges changed all that. Fundamentalists faced a new dilemma. They had either to accept something like Mixter’s “progressive creationism” or reject utterly the basic concepts at the heart of mainstream science. Beginning in the early 1960s, more and more chose the latter.

Inspired by the work of John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris, huge numbers of conservative Christians in the United States embraced a new, innovative orthodoxy, one that insisted on the radical notions of a young earth and a young humanity directly created by God. Fundamentalist colleges such as Morris’s Christian Heritage College in California, Bob Jones University in Greenville, and Liberty Baptist College in Virginia (it became Liberty University only in 1985) latched on to the new radical creationist orthodoxy as yet another way to prove their faith.

By the 1970s, creationist schools of thought had been incarnated as literal brick-and-mortar creationist schools as well. Institutions such as Wheaton College taught a broad array of creationisms, especially including Mixter’s vision of progressive creationism. Colleges such as the fledgling Liberty and Christian Heritage insisted on only one idea: young-earth/flood-geology thinking.

As a result, these days, in addition to ziplines and a bookstore, the Creation Museum offers young-earth creationists a college guide as well. Families choosing any of the schools on that list can feel confident that their kids will learn only radical young-earth ideas. When I asked a few years back why Ken Ham cared so much about college, he offered a clear and succinct answer:

when professors at these Christian colleges teach that millions of years and evolution can be mixed with Scripture, they open a door to put man in authority over God’s Word, thus undermining the authority of Scripture.  And if as a result of this someone begins to doubt the Bible’s authority in regard to its history, then this can lead to (and has done so with numerous people) the rejection of the gospel based in that history.

The answer, for Ken Ham at least, is a new type of creationist college that insists only on the Creation Museum’s new type of creationist orthodoxy.

Did it work? Is the reason so many college graduates embrace young-earth creationist ideas because they attended one of these innovative radical-creationist colleges? We can’t know from the Gallup results. If we want to understand creationism, though, we need to know the history of creationist colleges.