William E. Ellis: Creationist fervor has a long history in Kentucky

February 17, 2014 

William E. Ellis is a professor emeritus in history at Eastern Kentucky University.

  • At issue: Feb. 3 commentary by David MacMillan, "From creationist to scientist; personal journey reflects debate hurdle for 'science guy'"

Congratulations to David MacMillan for his fine column. Being a bunch of years older than MacMillan, it is good to know that thoughts about religion and science are still evolving (pardon the pun) among young people.

I am a born-again evangelical Baptist who gave his heart to Jesus over 60 years ago at a revival at Clay Village Baptist Church in rural Shelby County. I, too, grew up with great doubts about evolution, but I don't recall being coerced by either teachers or ministers to sway me either way. I was left to make up my own mind.

The folks on either side of me, be they atheist-evolutionists or creationist Christians, don't really bother me much anymore. I am comfortable with what I believe. I once thought I would visit the Creation Museum. However, when I heard that a display showed a dinosaur and a human as sharing the Earth at the same time, I thought better of it. About the best I can say about this display is that it is silly, and does a disservice to Bible believers.

In my professional life as a teacher of history I have made an effort to study this age-old problem of reconciling science and faith. I studied the impact of the anti-evolution controversy in Kentucky in the early 1920s in my masters' thesis at Eastern Kentucky University, completed in 1967. The Kentucky General Assembly was the first state legislature in the nation to consider anti-evolution legislation.

President Frank L. McVey of the University of Kentucky found a somewhat unlikely ally in President E.Y. Mullins of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in opposing such legislation. Both believed in separation of church and state. They and other thinking Kentuckians helped end that legislative initiative.

Three years later, the Tennessee legislature passed the nation's first anti-evolution law and John Thomas Scopes, a UK graduate and Paducah native, became the focus of the famous trial in 1925. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on the life of Mullins, completed in 1974 at UK. I still consider him a great hero of the Baptist denomination.

Over my years of teaching, I often quizzed students about their thoughts on evolution and religion. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I studied what was then called the rise of creation science. I developed a questionnaire that was sent to all Kentucky high school teachers of biology, and also mailed to a random sample of biology teachers in Indiana and Tennessee for control purposes.

The outcome of that study was that teachers, with few exceptions, placed a "moderate" stress on the study of evolution in biology classes. They taught the chapter in the textbook that covered the subject, but also did not discourage a discussion of creationist views.

Moreover, I took part in a Fayette County school board meeting in August 1981, when one member encouraged his colleagues to "integrate creation science" into all levels of science teaching. I spoke against it. In the end, the board voted not to mandate equal time for the study of the biblical creation account.

About the time one thinks these battles are over, up pops another challenge. Creationists are, if nothing else, indefatigable. They just won't give up believing in a young Earth. They often fail to realize that there are two different contradictory creation versions in Genesis. Perhaps this is for the sake of convenience, because it only complicates their worldview.

I have to admit that the evolutionist views of Englishman Richard Dawkins and his ilk also leave me quite cold. But that is his and their privilege. One thing I do not doubt: This controversy will be simmering long after I am gone and forgotten.

To summarize, I believe that the Earth is much, much older than 6,000 years. I am an evangelical Baptist of the moderate variety. I am continually fascinated by the findings of modern science. However, there is much we do not know and will never know about the creation of our world. I will leave extremist evolutionists and equally extremist creationists to their devices. Both sides make some money out of this furor, I assume.

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