Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation

The rapid development of geology in the first part of the Nineteenth Century brought challenges to those who believed in the literal truth of The Holy Bible. Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in three volumes from 1830-1833 [1] synthesised contemporary views on the accumulation of different strata over very long time periods, with the strata containing the fossilised remains of plants and animals. Clearly, the Earth was more than 6000 years old, as maintained by Christian Creationists, and believers were thus faced with a conflict that they needed to resolve.

In 1821, ten years before Lyell’s synthesis, W Welch of Plymouth produced his Reliogiosa Philosophia [2] and I am grateful to Dr Patrick Armitage of the Freshwater Biological Association for suggesting that I would be interested in Welch’s work. I had no knowledge of it before Patrick contacted me, although a copy is available as an e-book. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out anything about Welch except that he lived in Stonehouse in Plymouth and believed in the truth of everything written in The Holy Bible.

Reliogiosa Philosophia, subtitled A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation (thus the title of this blog post), opens with its dedication to Sir Humphry Davy, the President of The Royal Society (PRS):

Presuming on your well known regard for, and patronage of, the Arts and Sciences, I have taken the liberty to dedicate to you this first production of my pen, on a subject which has long engaged the attention of Geologists.

Should the present work meet your approval, it will afford me gratification, from a conviction that you would not bestow your approbation, unless you conceived the conclusions I have drawn to be founded on truth; and if my attempt to reconcile recorded facts in the book of Nature with the history of Creation, as given by Moses, in the Sacred Volume, prove successful, true religion and philosophy will be benefited; and as they are derived from the same source, they should be united to promote the same end.

I do not know how Davy responded to the book but, although Welch’s thoughts on the formation of the Earth are imaginative, they are also eccentric and it is unlikely that the PRS took them seriously.

Welch’s theory is this: the power and word of the Almighty, by the agency of fire, a union of the gases was effected, and which, in a state of Nebula, uniting, formed a globe of water, of much larger dimensions than the present earth, with its seas, now only encompassing our shores. These gases contained and combined all the principles of future matter.. ..a globe of water thus formed, became the emporium, or grand magazine; a union of stony particles probably then took place, which, when they became specifically heavier than the water, descended from every part towards the centre, and formed a nucleus, whilst the stony particles, in their descent, obtained from the diurnal motion, the form of a spheroid..

..The nucleus being of a nature suited to marine vegetation, plants were, by the creative power of the Deity, first produced, suited to the wants of testaceous and crustaceous animals. From these sources, I presume, the earth received its gradual increase:- that, in proportion as vegetables and animals have been produced, the layers or strata have been formed, and the waters lessened; and that, in the process of time, the earth approached towards the surface of the waters, when the long confined volcanic matter acquired a force superior to the resisting external pressure, burst the hitherto unbroken globe, raised the Continents with the Mountains, producing various phenomena..
Welch’s ideas on the formation of the Earth are summarised by an illustration in his book (see above). In propounding these views, he provides an explanation, albeit an extremely unlikely one, for the origin of the huge volume of water in the oceans covering so much of the Earth's surface: contemporary theories proposing that this water comes from comets, or from the release of water from crystalline rocks. Like Welch, we don’t know.

The development of rock strata described by Welch must have taken a lot longer than the few days demanded by the account in Genesis. He addresses this point [2]:

It may.. asserted by some persons, that the Almighty could as easily have constructed our Globe at once, and that the means here laid down are inadequate to the end. To the former I reply, that it would be a species of blasphemy to doubt his power; but that the point is, not what he could do, but what the book of Nature shews he has done; and to the latter position, it will appear obvious.. .. that the production of marine animals is incalculable, and that the myriads of millions in a globe of water, and which the Creator abundantly filled, to produce and execute his designs, by the shells cemented with decomposed plants making layers, and constantly forming into rock, tending in every part to raise the bed of the Ocean.

This is confusing, as Welch is a believer in Creation, yet appears to accept the idea of change over long periods of time – not of evolution, but of the formation of rock strata with their associated fossils. It certainly requires a lot of faith to accept the description given in Genesis.

Much of the rest of the book elaborates on Welch’s theory, but he also gives us an Appendix that shows us the power of his imagination [2]:

..we may safely infer, that the Deity would not have provided the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and the Herschel, or Georgium Sidus, with moons, (of no sort of utility to us,) unless he had intended to have placed beings on those globes, possessed with the faculty of vision, and capable of receiving and enjoying light, in a manner similar to ourselves; and it is more than probable, nay, it amounts almost to a demonstration, that not only the planets in our system are inhabited, but those in every other throughout the universe..

What is the basis for these assumptions? Is there any statement in The Holy Bible to support this extraordinary view? Did each of these myriads of planets, which had the same Creator, also have the same Jesus Christ?

Welch’s views on planets are fantastic, but nothing compared to what he has to say about the sun:

The Sun, which is evidently the most glorious orb in our system, has been very generally supposed to be a globe of fire; I shall, however, on this subject offer a few observations, and conclude the present essay by endeavouring to illustrate that not only the planets, but that our sun also, is probably the abode of intelligent and more exalted beings.. may.. reasonably inferred, that the source of our day is surrounded with a luminous atmosphere, suited by the Creator to his all-wise and beneficent purposes; and, that owing to a break or opening, which at times occur, we are enabled to perceive a part of his orb, and which, contrasted with the brilliancy of his luminous part, appears black, demonstrating that it is not a body of fire; it is, therefore, more than probable, that the sun is a suited habitation to superior and exalted beings.

I had never considered “sun spots” in this way and I wonder what Davy, and other readers grounded in science, made of Welch’s extraordinary theories. How did he develop them? Did they stem from a threat to his religious beliefs? I cannot answer these questions. However, it is worth pointing out that currently accepted theories on the origin of the Universe may seem equally preposterous in two hundred years’ time and we may have to accept that we will never explain what we observe. That acceptance provides a niche that religions exploit, yet it can be argued that religious explanations may be as valid as “scientific” ones when dealing with the unknown. Welch, however, seems just a tad wild in his metaphysical imaginings…

[1] Charles Lyell (1830 – 1833) Principles of Geology (three volumes). London, John Murray.

[2] W Welch (1821) Religiosa Philosophia. Plymouth, W. Byers.

Many thanks to Patrick Armitage for suggesting that I would be fascinated by Welch’s book – I certainly was, but probably not in the way that Welch intended.

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