Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The isolation of a Creationist

The Creationist W Welch believed that many planets throughout the Universe are colonised by intelligent beings and that they lived on cool parts of our sun [1]. Philip Henry Gosse, also a Creationist, thought differently [2]:

I venture to suggest that not only the Planets and Satellites of this system, but the Sun itself,- nay, the millions of Suns, that, to our eyes are but specks in space,- (yet each one, perhaps, with its system of planets and satellites) are none of them habitable as yet, but are being prepared by God for habitation; each in succession to be got ready for Colonization from Earth by Adam’s race. That God is, we may say, furnishing his great House of many mansions, of which one small apartment alone is occupied.

If I be asked how living, breathing human bodies can possibly be transferred from world to world, I reply, I have no conception, how. But if man himself has invented means of travelling across oceans; of floating in the air; of living for hours under water; of conversing audibly across hundreds of miles; of conveying written messages thousands of miles in a minute,- I am quite sure the Omnipotent God will find no difficulty in conveying men through stellar space, when He pleases.

Certainly a contrast in views, with one writer letting his imagination run wild and the other taking a much more measured approach, believing colonisation would be from the Earth, the site of God’s initial Creation.

In addition to their consideration of the colonisation of planets, Welch and Gosse both published theories about the origin of the Earth: Welch in his book Religiosa Philosophia [3] and Gosse in Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot [4]. Both men felt that their theories did not contradict the account in Genesis in the Bible, that they held to be sacrosanct. 

Welch suggested that some part of the water from the firmament formed a large globular mass from which particles condensed and then sedimented to form a solid core [3]. Over thirty years later, Gosse also tackled the conflict between the then contemporary knowledge of geology and the Biblical account of Creation with his theory of prochronism: the act of Creation included rock strata, and their associated fossils, that thus bore evidence of “life before time”.

Little is known about Welch, but Henry Gosse was a very well-known figure in the world of Natural History and I have a great admiration for his descriptive and observational powers, his industry and his skills as an illustrator. Until recently, I have steered away from his religious books, as I feel little empathy with his rigid beliefs.

Given the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species two years after Omphalos, and the extraordinary effect that Darwin’s book had, it is remarkable that Gosse held so firmly to his theory. This is what he wrote in The Mysteries of God about scientific thought in the Nineteenth Century:

The vast accession made to the knowledge of natural things, during the past century, by the observations of innumerable students, and by the conclusions deduced therefrom, has been, by the Arch Enemy, turned into a most potent weapon against the faith, used with marvellous skill for insidiously discrediting, first, and then arrogantly denying, the teachings of Holy Scripture.

It is startling to mark how fatally successful have been his tactics. A very large number of professed Christians,- perhaps even the majority of such as are competent to think about the matter,- are, more or less, tainted with the prevalent unbelief; conscious of, at least, a lurking suspicion that some of the Bible statements are not absolutely trustworthy; but must be, if not rejected, explained away, in some non-natural exegesis. Even in those who read Papers, or deliver Lectures, professedly to defend Revelation against sceptical Science, this unworthy trimming is sometimes painfully manifest.. .. Various subterfuges and shifts are used to evade the verbal accuracy of the Sacred Word; needless concessions here, and admissions there, allow the truth of God to pass by default. One makes a distinction between the veracity of different parts, ignoring, or denying its integral unity. There is often an underlying assumption that, at whatever cost, the teachings of the Bible must be subject to the accepted conclusions of Science: and, in general, the tone of the Lecturer is one of frowning severity toward the simple believer, and of tolerant sympathy toward the scientific infidel.

I sympathise with Gosse’s position on deciding what is, and what is not, factual in accounts in the Bible and it is something that must be difficult for many contemporary Christians. Not for Gosse though. He was unbending in his belief in the literal truth of the Bible and preached this to the small group of fellow believers he led in St Marychurch in Torquay. The Mysteries of God is based on his sermons, but it was not well received, even by fellow members of the Brethren and it had few reviews [5]. In the book, Gosse again propounds the theory of prochronism, stating that it had not been refuted in the 27 years since the publication of Omphalos. Unfortunately, this was probably because no-one bothered much about Gosse’s ideas, especially as he rarely ventured far in the later part of his life (he died in 1888). He spent much time at “Sandhurst”, his home in St Marychurch (see below – picture from [6]), save for many visits to the shore, the local countryside, and to the Brethren chapel he founded.

Another characteristic shared by Gosse and some contemporary Christian Creationists, is their ability to see Satan (the “Arch Enemy”) everywhere – as is so clear in the passage quoted above. Henry’s son, Edmund, found this, and the religious fervour that drove it, unbearable, as we know from his well-known book Father and Son. In it, Edmund wrote [7]:

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain and distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension. My Father’s inconsistencies of perception seem to me to have been the result of a curious irregularity of equipment. Taking for granted, as he did, the absolute integrity of the Scriptures, and applying to them his trained scientific spirit, he contrived to stifle, with a deplorable success, alike the function of the imagination, the sense of moral justice, and his own deep and instinctive tenderness of heart.

Isn’t that sad?

[2] Philip Henry Gosse (1884) The Mysteries of God: A series of expositions of Holy Scripture. London, Hodder and Stoughton.

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

[4] Philip Henry Gosse (1857) Omphalos: an attempt to untie the geological knot. London, John Van Voorst.

[5] Ann Thwaite (2002) Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1888. London, Faber and Faber.

[6] R.B.Freeman and Douglas Wertheimer (1980) Philip Henry Gosse: A Bibliography. Folkestone, Wm Dawson & Sons.

[7] Edmund Gosse (1907) Father and Son: A study of two temperaments. London, William Heinemann.

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