Encyclopedias are probably not the best barometers of social and intellectual change, but I thought it might be interesting to track how the Encyclopædia Britannica adapted over time in treating Biblical chronology and specifically, the date of the creation of the world. At one time, the Encyclopædia Britannica said that the world was created around 4000 B.C., and then it did not. When did this change occur?
This exploration was suggested by some research I was doing on Thomas Chalmers (1780 – 1847) for a book I'm working on. Chalmers was a towering figuring in the Church of Scotland and was instrumental in creating the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. He was also interested in mathematics, geology. and other sciences, which led him to get involved in the early 19th century debates over reconciling the findings of geology with the account of Creation in the book of Genesis. Chalmers also wrote one of the eight Bridgewater Treatises that chronicled state-of-the-art natural theology in the 1830s.
Thomas Chalmers and Gap Creationism
As early as 1803, the 23-year-old Chalmers recognized that recent geological findings might be thought to threaten the authority of the Biblical narrative. In a course he taught on chemistry, Chalmers included a discussion on geology and observed,
There is a prejudice against the speculations of the geologist which I am anxious to remove. It has been said that they nurture infidel propensities. By referring the origin of the globe to a higher antiquity than is assigned to it by the writings of Moses, it has been said that geology undermines our faith in the inspiration of the Bible, and in all the animating prospects of immortality which it unfolds. This is a false alarm. The writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe. If they fix anything at all, it is only the antiquity of the species. (William Hanna, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Thomas Chalmers, D.D. LL.D, Vol 1, Edinburgh: Sutherland and Knox, 1849, pages 80 to 81)
While Chalmers concedes that the Earth might be much older than the Mosaic chronology implies, the age of the human race remains about 6,000 years old. Chalmers does not at this time reveal how this discrepancy might be reconciled with Genesis.
About a decade later, Chalmers proposed a solution in a long article that he wrote on “Christianity” for Volume VI of the Edinburgh Encyclopædia, published in 18 volumes between 1808 and 1830. The article indicates at its outset that it deals not with history or theology but with the evidences of Christianity — why we accept “that the New Testament is the authentic record of an actual communication from God to man.”
Chalmers discusses geology beginning with paragraph 143 on page 382, and by page 383 asks if God ever really claims “what has been called the Mosaical antiquity of the world”:
It is true that he gives his distinct testimony to the divine legation of Moses; but does Moses ever say, that when God created the heavens and the earth, he did more at the time alluded to than transform them out of previously existing materials? Or does he ever say, that there was not an interval of many ages betwixt the first act of creation, described in the first verse of the book of Genesis, and said to have been performed at the beginning; and those more detail operations, the account of which commences at the second verse, and which are described to us as having been performed in so many days? Or finally, does he ever make us to understand, that the genealogies of man went any farther than to fix the antiquity of the species, and, in consequence, that they left the antiquity of the globe a free subject for the speculations of philosophers? — We do not pledge ourselves for the truth of one or all of these suppositions. Nor is it necessary that we should.
Through the use of questions rather than assertions, Chalmers is suggesting here the existence of a long period of time between the first verse of Genesis (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”) and the second verse, which begins “And the earth was without form, and void…” During this time, much geological activity might have occurred to contribute to the rich history of strata found when digging into the earth, and to account for the very many species of plants and animals that became extinct, as demonstrated by Georges Curvier in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
This concept is now known as “gap creationism.” Chalmers did not invent it, but he certainly popularized it. It is a very different concept from the solution proposed by the Reverend James Douglas in his 1785 book A Dissertation on the Antiquity of the Earth (pages 40-42), in which each of the days of Creation is understood metaphorically as an extended period of time, now known as “day-age creationism,” but these two terms apparently didn’t come into use until the 20th century.
Chalmers also published this article on “Christianity” as a separate book The Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation in 1814. (The earliest edition I could find online is the 4th Edition published in 1817.) The quotation above appears in the closing pages of the chapter entititled “Remarks on the Scepticism of Geologists.”
What's interesting about this article in the Edinburgh Encyclopædia is that not everyone got the memo. Several pages after Chalmer’s article on “Christianity” is an article that Chalmers didn't write on “Chronology”, which cites the date for the “Creation of the World” (page 413) as 4004 B.C. (according to the Hebrew text), 4700 B.C. (Samaritan text), and 5872 (according to the Septuagint). The 4004 date is mostly used subsequently in that article, including a table showing “the leading Epochs which are employed by the great Majority of Historians for determining the order of Facts.”
Did the Edinburgh Encyclopædia eventually change its “Chronology” article in later editions to reflect the evolving view of the early history of the world? Alas, no further editions of the Edinburgh Encyclopædia were ever published.
The Long History of the Encyclopædia Britannica
The Encyclopædia Britannica, however, has a history of 15 editions beginning in the 18th century. I thought it might be fun looking at the articles on “Chronology” in various editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica, with the understanding that encyclopedias are usually somewhat conservative in noting changes in social or intellectual history until those changes are well established. Successive editions also tend to repeat themselves: If nobody notices that an article in the current edition has become a little musty, it won’t be updated for the next edition.
All of the editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica up through the famous 11th are available online, allowing a survey from the late 18th century to the early 20th. They reside in various places, but beginning with the 4th edition, I've used Google Books despite the chaos of its collections, primarily because of the simplicity of its URL query strings, and the ease of its on-screen viewer. In transcribing passages, I've attempted to maintain typography and spelling (such as the ash, or æ) but not the long s's common in the 18th century. My proof-reading is undoubtedly faulty in spots.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, encyclopedias weren't published all at once. The individual volumes came out as they were ready, and often pieces of the volumes were published monthly or even weekly. This means that each edition has a range of publication dates, but often each volume has a specific publication date within that range. For information about these editions, I've used The Great EB: The Story of the Encyclopædia Britannica by Herman Kogan (University of Chicago Press, 1958) and Wikipedia articles.
In the Beginning ...
The 1st Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was founded by a “Society of Gentlemen in Scotland,” and the encyclopedia remained associated with Edinburgh until the early 20th century. The 1st Edition consists of three volumes published between 1768 and 1771. The National Library of Scotland maintains a collection of three volumes from 1771 and three volumes from 1773, representing a later printing. Many of the articles were written by the encyclopedia's editor, William Smellie, who later said “I wrote most of it, my lad, and snipped out from books enough material for the printer. With pastepot and scissors I composed it!” (The Great EB, page 14)
A short article on “Chronology” appears in Volume II, page 195:
CHRONOLOGY, the science or doctrine of time, in so far as it regards history, whether civil or ecclesiastical.
The business of chronology, is to ascertain and adjust the various epochas, æras, and other periods mentioned in history; so that the revolutions of empires and kingdoms, and other remarkable events, may be truly stated. For the principles of chronology, see Astronomy, Of the division of time.
The long article on “Astronomy” is in Volume I beginning on page 434, and the section "Chap. XVIII. On the Division of Time. A perpetual Table of New Moons. The Times of the Birth and Death of Christ. A Table of remarkable Æras or Events." doesn't begin until page 489. On page 493 is the paragraph:
As there are certain fixed points in the heavens from which astronomers begin their computations, so there are certain points of time from which historians begin to reckon; and these points or roots of time are called æras or epochs. The most remarkable æras are, those of the Creation, the Greek Olympiads, the building of Rome, the æra of Nabonassar, the death of Alexander, the birth of Christ, the Arabian Hegira, and the Persian Jesdegird [later in the article spelled Yesdegird, which is more common, although Yazdegerd is fairly standard today]: All which, together with several others of less note, have their beginnings to the following table fixed to the years of the Julian period, to the age of the world at those times, and to the years before and after the year of Christ's birth.
There follows "A Table of remarkable Æras and Events,” beginning with "The creation of the world" which has a Julian Period of 706, a Year of the World of 0, and Before Christ of 4007. The following paragraph on page 495 explains:
In fixing the year of the creation to the 706th year of the Julian period, which was the 4007th year before the year of Christ's birth, we have followed Mr Bedford in his scripture chronology, printed A.D. 1730, and Mr Kennedy in a work of the same kind, printed A.D. 1762. — Mr Bedford takes it only for granted that the world was created at the time of the autumnal equinox: But Mr Kennedy affirms, that the said equinox was at the noon of the fourth day of the creation-week, and that the moon was then 24 hours past her opposition to the sun. — If Moses had told us the same things, we should have had sufficient data for fixing the æra of the creation: But, as he has been silent on these points, we must consider the best accounts of chronologers as entirely hypothetical and uncertain.
The word “data” is in italics because it was still considered a Latin rather than an English word.
One of the many beautiful plates in the 1st Edition shows Noah's ark, “floating on the waters of the Deluge.”
A Statement of Orthodoxy
In its history of the Encyclopædia Britannica, The Great EB notes that the ten volumes of the 2nd Edition (published between 1777 and 1784) included many new articles including the one that we're interested in:
In “Chronology,” the date of the world's creation — based on Archbishop Ussher's reckoning, first added to the English Bible in 1701 — was given with firm decisiveness as 4004 b.c. Cain's birth, appropriately enough, was set at 4003, and in 2348 b.c., read the article, “The old world is destroyed by a deluge which continued 777 days.” (The Great EB, page 19)
As far as I can tell, the 2nd Edition is only available through the Gale Eighteenth Century Collections Online, which seems to require that you log in through a library. I got access through the New York Public Libary card catalog entry, clicking the "E-book" link, and entering my NYPL pin number. The page arrived at on the Gale site lists all 10 volumes.
The “Chronology” article is in Volume III, beginning on page 1952. (The 2nd Edition is unique in numbering pages continuously across volumes.) It begins with the description that chronology is “the science that teaches the method of measuring time and distinguishing its parts.” Page 1953 begins a section on Historic Chronology and a discussion of "the testimony of authors" and continues on page 1954 with a justification for the use of scripture:
The most pure and most fruitful source of ancient history is doubtless to be found in the Holy Bible. Let us here for a moment cease to regard it as divine, and let us presume to consider it as a common history. Now, when we regard the writers of the books of the Old Testament, and consider them sometimes as authors, sometimes as ocular witnesses, and sometimes as respectable historians; whether we reflect on the simplicity of the narration, and the air of truth that is there constantly visible; or, when we consider the care that the people, the governments, and the learned men of all ages have taken to preserve the true text of the Bible; or that we have regard to the happy conformity of the chronology of the holy scriptures with that of prophane history; or, if we observe the admirable harmony that is between these books and the most respectable historians, as Josephus and others; and lastly, when we consider that the books of the holy scripture furnish us alone with an accurate history of the world from the creation, through the line of patriarchs, judges, kings and princes of the Hebrews; and that we may, by its aid, form an almost entire series of events down to the birth of Christ, or the time of Augustus, which comprehends a space of about 4000 years, some small interruptions excepted, and which are easily supplied by profane history: when all these reflections are justly made, we must constantly allow that the scriptures form a book which merits the first rank among all the sources of ancient history.
The paragraph continues by answering some objections regarding inconsistencies among the various versions of the Bible:
It has been objected, that this book contains contradictions; but the most able interpreters have reconciled these seeming contradictions. It has been said, that the chronology of the Hebrew text and the Vulgate, do not agree with the chronology of the version of the Septuagint; but the soundest critics have shown that they may be made to agree. It has been observed, moreover, that the scriptures abound with miracles and prodigies; but they are miracles that have really happened: and what ancient history is there that is not filled with miracles and other marvellous events? And do we for that reject their authority? Cannot the true God be supposed to have performed those miracles which Pagan historians have attributed to their false divinities? Must we pay no regard to the writings of Livy, because his history contains many fabulous revelations?
This paragraph is important because it survived with only minor editing for several editions. Also in the “Chronology” article in the 2nd Edition beginning on page 1955 is "A Chronological Table of Remarkable Events, Discoveries, and Inventions, from the Creation of to the present Time." The first entry is "4004 The creation of the world, and Adam and Eve" and the final entry (on page 1964) is "1776 The congress declare the United States of America independent of the crown and parliament of Great Britain." This Chronological Table was also to have a long life in the “Chronology” article.
The 3rd Edition was published between 1788 and 1797, and is available through the Internet Archive. The “Chronology” article is in Volume IV beginning on page 746. It has been restructured somewhat and partially rewritten from the version in the 2nd Edition. It begins with a historical view of time, days, months, and then years and epochs, but when it comes to a section of Historic Chronology, the same paragraph (with a few minor edits) begins at the bottom of page 755, followed by a deeper discussion of Biblical Chronology.
The updated “A Chronological Table of Remarkable Events, Discoveries, and Inventions, from the Creation to the Year 1783” begins with 4008 b.c., "The creation of the world, and Adam and Eve.”
The 4008 B.C. date is a real puzzler. Very often the English used Bishop Ussher's date of 4004 B.C., so I don't know where this 4008 date comes from.
The 4th Edition was published between 1801 and 1810. The “Chronology” article appears in Volume VI beginning on page 99, and the paragraph justifying the use of the Bible begins on page 109. The Chronological Table begins on page 110 and goes to the year 1804 (suggesting that Volume VI was published about that time).
The 5th Edition was published between 1815 and 1817, and was essentially a reprint of the 4th. The “Chronology” article has the same page numbers as the 4th Edition, beginning on page 99. The discussion of the historical veracity of the Bible appears on page 109. Despite the later publication date, the Chronological Table still goes only to 1804.
The 6th Edition was published between 1820 and 1823, and was another reprint. The “Chronology” article is therefore unrevised and has the same page numbers as the 4th and 5th Editions, beginning on page 99, with the discussion of the historical veracity of the Bible on page 109. The Chronological Table now goes to 1820.
Perhaps it was time for a revision.
A Slippage of Confidence
The 7th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published between 1830 and 1842, but as you'll see, the revised “Chronology” article probably dates from 1833 or so. The “Chronology” article is in Volume VI again but begins on page 652. Page 656 contains the heading “Era of the Creation of the World” that begins with some new text:
As the Greek and Roman methods of computing time were connected with certain Pagan rites and observances, which the Christians held in abhorrence, these began at an early period to imitate the Jews in reckoning their years from the creation of the world. The chronological elements on which both Jews and Christians founded their computations for determining the epoch of that event were derived from the Old Testament narrative, which, though sufficiently circumstantial to enable us to determine the lapse of time during the first two ages of the world with considerable precision, has been transmitted to us through three distinct channels, not only differing greatly in respect to chronology, but totally irreconcilable with each other. These are, first, the Hebrew text of the Scriptures; second, the Samaritan text; and third, the Greek version of the Septuagint. Unfortunately no very conclusive reason can be given for preferring any one of these accounts to another. We have no concurrent testimony with which to compare them: it is not even known which of them was regarded as the most probable by the Jews themselves, when the books of the Old Testament were revised and transcribed by Ezra; and the ordinary rules of probability cannot be applied to a state of things in which the duration of human life extended to nearly a thousand years.
This is followed by two columns of a discussion of Biblical chronology that now seems more of an academic exercise than any attempt to establish an authentic dating of events. The article finds that setting a date of Creation from the Biblical evidence to be extremely problematic, as the author reports on page 657:
Desvignoles, in the preface to his Chronology of Sacred History, asserts that he has collected upwards of two hundred different calculations, the shortest of which reckons only 3483 years between the creation of the world and the commencement of the vulgar era, and the longest 6984. The difference amounts to thirty-five centuries.
The cited book was published in 1738 and is accessible on Google Books as Chronologie de l’histoire sainte by Alphonse Des Vignoles. Even for readers who don't know French (including me), the range of dates in page 3 of the Preface agrees with the summary in the “Chronology” article, as well as the difference between the earliest and latest: “C’est une difference de XXXV. Siécles.”
Page 657 of the “Chronology” article also contains a table of over 30 different calculations of the “Years elapsed between Adam and the Birth of Christ, according to the computation of the principle Chronologers” and concludes:
All that can be gathered from these conflicting statements amounts to this, that the true epoch of the creation of the world is utterly unknown. British chronologers in general prefer the computation of Archbishop Usher, who places the creation of the world, or rather of Adam, 4004 years before the vulgar era.
The phrase “or rather of Adam” is interesting, because traditionally, the difference between the creation of the world and of the first parents was only a matter of days. The phrasing suggests that by this time, the consensus was that the world was much older than our species.
The Chronological Table in the 7th Edition is now preceded by the disclaimer “in the early period, the dates are taken from Usher and Blair, as being those followed by the majority of chronologers.” The table now begins with Ussher's year of 4004, which is labeled as "Creation of the World, according to the Hebrew text of the Scriptures," which is a new qualification. The table ends at 1832, likely indicating that the article was revised around that time or the following year.
In the earlier “Chronology” articles, the discrepancy between different versions of the Bible and differences in calculations was not considered to be very important, but in the 7th Edition they are portrayed as insurmountable.
The 8th Edition (published between 1853 and 1860) reprinted many articles from the 7th, and the “Chronology” article has the same layout. It's in Volume VI and begins on page 664 with the discussion of the “Era of the Creation of the World” on page 668. The Chronological Table is extended to 1854.
Biblical Chronology Nearly Abandoned
By the time the 8th Edition was completed, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species had been published, and over the next decade or so, “massive changes in thinking and philosophies and meanings ... had developed.” (The Great EB, page 52) It was thought that the next edition should capture that.
The result was the 9th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, often called the “Scholar's Edition,” and widely considered to be (as the original review in Nature said), “the highest tidemark of the science, literature, and arts of the time.” (The Great EB, page 58) Many experts were recruited to write articles — T.H. Huxley on “Evolution,” William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) on “Heat,” and Peter Kropotkin on “Anarchism.” One problem, however, is that the encyclopedia took such a long time to be completely published (between 1875 and 1889) that by the time of the later volumes, some material in the earlier volumes had already become outdated.
The “Chronology” article is in Volume V (which has an 1878 copyright). It retains much of the text of the previous “Chronology” article, but the Era of the Creation of the World on page 713 now contains just two paragraphs. The first is a revised version of the paragraph in the previous two editions, but with the added word “supposed” in the phrase “supposed period of the creation of the world” in the first sentence:
As the Greek and Roman methods of computing time were connected with certain pagan rites and observances, which the Christians held in abhorrence, the latter began at an early period to imitate the Jews in reckoning their years from the supposed period of the creation of the world. The chronological elements on which both Jews and Christians founded their computations for determining this period were derived from the Old Testament narratives, which have been transmitted to us through three distinct channels. These are the Hebrew text of the Scriptures, the Samaritan text, and the Greek version known as the Septuagint. In respect of chronology, the three accounts are totally irreconciliable with each other; and no conclusive reason can be given for preferring any one of them to another. We have no concurrent testimony with which to compare them; nor is it even known which of them was regarded as the most probable by the Jews themselves, when the books of the Old Testament were revised and transcribed by Ezra. The ordinary rules of probability cannot be applied to a state of things in which the duration of human life is represented as extending to nearly a thousand years.
The second paragraph is new:
From computations founded on loose and conflicting data it would be vain to look for knowledge or even for concord of opinion. From the very nature of the case discussion is hopeless labour. The subject is one to which the saying Quot homines tot sententiæ [“everybody has their own opinion”] applies with almost literal truth. Des Vignoles, in the preface to his Chronology of Sacred History, asserts that he collected upwards of two hundred different calculations, the shortest of which reckons only 3483 years between the creation of the world and the commencement of the vulgar era, and the longest 6984. The difference amounts to thirty-five centuries. It suffices, therefore, to point out that the so-called era of the creation of the world is a purely conventional and arbitrary epoch; that practically, it means the year 4004 b.c., — this being the date which, under the sanction of Archbishop Ussher’s opinion, has won its way, among its hundreds of competitors, into most general acceptance. The reader who is desirous of more detailed information on this subject may consult the first volume of the Universal History, or L’Art de Vérifier les Dates, avant J.C., pg. 9.
And there ends the discussion of Biblical chronology. The book referred to in the last sentence appears in a bibliography on page 719:
1750. The first edition in one vol. 4to of L’Art de Vérifier les Dates, which in its third edition (1818–1831) appeared in 38 vols. 8vo., a colossal monument of the learning and labours of various members of the Benedictine Congregation of Saint-Maur.
I have no inclination in tracking down this book.
The Chronological Table on page 720 goes to 1875, but for the first time it begins with a non-Biblical date: 2234 b.c.: “Alleged beginning of Chaldæan astronomical observations sent by Callisthenes to Aristotle; the earliest extant is of 720 b.c.” This table seems to contain nothing from the Old Testament that can’t be independently verified.
A Complete Reversal
The 10th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published in 1902 and 1903 and consisted of 11 volumes that were intended to supplement the 24 volumes of the 9th Edition. These volumes contained new articles, and many of the volumes contained Prefatory Essays: Volume II on “A General Survey of Recent Political Progress”; Volume IV on “The Growth of Toleration” by Leslie Stephen, which celebrates the opening of the 20th century as an age when “orthodox divines could regard evolution as an established principle, and were no longer alarmed by the critical results which seemed at first sight so destructive”; Volume V on “The Application of the Doctrine of Evolution to Sociological Theory and Problems”; and Volume III, which features an essay by Henry Smith Williams, M.D., B.Sc. on “The Influence of Modern Research on the Scope of World-History” that demolishes all previous discussion of Biblical chronology. It begins:
When Queen Victoria came to the English throne, 4004 b.c. was still accepted, in all sobriety, as the date of the creation of the world. Perhaps no single statement could more vividly emphasize the change in the point of view from which scholars regard the chronology of ancient history than the citation of this indisputable fact.
Except that it’s not “indisputable.” When Victoria came to the throne in 1837, it is probably true that much of the general population adhered to Mosaic chronology (if they considered the matter at all), but the reference to “scholars” involves a subset of the general population, and much of the literate class in Great Britain (including many clerics) had already abandoned strict Biblical chronology by this time. As we've seen, Thomas Chalmers had already denied a recent creation of the world in 1803.
But let's continue:
To-day, though Bibles are still printed with the year 4004 b.c. in the margin of the first chapter of Genesis, no scholar would pretend to regard this reference seriously. On the contrary, the scholarship of to-day regards the fifth millennium b.c. as well within the historical period for such nations as the Egyptians and the Babylonians. It has come to be fully accepted that when we use such a phrase as ‘the age of the world’ we are dealing with a period that must be measured not in thousands but in millions of years; and that to the age of man must be allotted a period some hundreds of times as great as the five thousand and odd years allowed by the old chronologists. This changed point of view, needless to say, has not been reached without ardent and even bitter controversy…. But it should not be forgotten that to many generations of close scholarship these genealogical lists seemed to convey such knowledge in the most precise terms, and that at so recent a date as, for example, the year in which Queen Victoria came to the throne, it was nothing less than a rank heresy to question the historical accuracy and finality of chronologies which had no other source or foundation.
Except that it wasn't a “rank heresy.” It was fairly normal. But let's jump down a little:
A start was made through the efforts of the palaeontologists and geologists, with only indirect or incidental aid from the archaeologists. The new movement began actively with James Hutton in the later years of the 18th century, and was forwarded by the studies of William Smith in England and of Curvier in France; but the really efficient champion of the conception that the earth is very old was Sir Charles Lyell, who published the first edition of his epoch-making Principles of Geology only a few years before Queen Victoria came to the throne.
Exactly. The three volumes of Lyell's Principles of Geology were published in 1830, 1832, and 1833. They were quite popular, and were instrumental in weaning Victorians off Biblical chronology, but they were a summary of decades of geological findings. All the Bridgewater Treatises were published before Victoria became queen, and with one exception, whenever the age of the earth came into discussion, it was acknowledged to be very old. The one exception was a 75-year-old Tory who obstinately adhered to strict Biblical literalism but also admitted that “My own knowledge of Geology and its principles, as now laid down, is too slight to qualify me to compare them with what has been delivered in Scripture on the subjects here alluded to.” (William Kirby, On the History, Habits, and Instincts of Animals, Vol. 1, London: William Pickering, 1835, page 377) Without this acceptance of a long history of the earth, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) would never have been as popular as it was, and that book was read by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert themselves.
Volume III of the 10th Edition also contains a new article on “Chronology, Biblical” so that the topic can be discussed solely in the context of the Bible without pretending it has anything to do with the real world. A Chronological Table on page 77 begins with a Biblical Event of “Creation of man” (not the world). The “Chronology of Ussher” column gives the date as 4004 but the “Probable Real Dates” column indicates “Indeterminate, but much before 7000 b.c.”
The 11th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published between 1910 and 1911 and is considered another high point in the encyclopedia's history. It was published in affiliation with Cambridge University Press and printed on thin but tough India paper to greatly reduce the shelf space and total weight. (The Great EB, pages 145, 162) The material in the “Chronology, Biblical” article in the 10th Edition supplement was moved into the “Bible” article. The “Chronology” article is in Volume VI and begins on page 305. The text under the heading “Modern Result of Archacological Research” (page 307) incorporates the opening of the Prefatory Essay in Volume III from the previous edition:
When Queen Victoria came to the English throne, 4004 b.c. was still accepted, in all sobriety, as the date of the creation of the world. Perhaps no single statement could more vividly emphasize the change in the point of view from which scholars regard the chronology of ancient history than the citation of this indisputable fact....
Disputing the Indisputable Fact
This “indisputable fact” is easily disputed, but it's not surprising to discover such a shortsighted view of the influence of geology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There seems to be a universal tendency for people to believe that not only do we know much more than people in the past, but that people in the past didn't know much at all. Our parents were stupid, and our grandparents were drooling morons.
The pages of the Encyclopædia Britannica itself often dispute this “indisputable fact”: Beginning as early as the 2nd Edition (1777–1784), the Encyclopædia Britannica contained an article on “Creation” in Volume III, page 2297. This article states:
There is no subject concerning which there have been more disputes than this of creation. It is certain that none of the ancient philosophers had the smallest idea of its being possible to produce a substance out of nothing, or that even the power of the deity himself could work without any materials to work upon. Hence some of them, among whom was Aristotle, asserted that the world was eternal, both as to its matter and form. Others, though they believed that the gods had given the world its form, yet imagined the material whereof it is composed to have been eternal. Indeed, the opinions of the ancients, who had not the benefit of revelation, were on this head so confused and contradictory, that nothing of any consequence can be deduced from them. The free-thinkers of our own and of former ages have denied the possibility of creation, as being a contradiction to reason, and of consequence have taken the opportunity from thence to discredit revelation. On the other hand, many defenders of the sacred writings have asserted, that creation out of nothing is so far from being a contradiction to reason, that it is not only probable but demonstrably certain....
The article does not come to any conclusion except that "creation is utterly beyond the comprehension of man." Yet, it's admitting that there are problems and doubts.
In the 3rd Edition (1788–1797), the “Creation” article reveals more uncertainty:
Concerning the periods of time at which the Deity executed his several works of creation, it cannot be pretended that mankind have had opportunities of receiving any particular information. From viewing the phenomena of nature, and considering the general laws by which they are regulated, we cannot draw any conclusive or even plausible inference with respect to the precise period at which the universe must have begun to exist.
The article then discusses some findings in geological research that cast doubt on the familiar Biblical chronology. The reference to “philosophers” in the first sentence here means “natural philosophers,” or what we would call “scientists”:
Philosophers have, indeed, formed some curious conjectures concerning the antiquity of the earth, from the appearances of its surface, and from the nature and disposition of its interior strata. The beds of lava in the neighbourhood of volcanoes have afforded ground for some calculations, which, though they do not fix the period of the earth's origin, are yet thought to prove that period to have been much more remote than the earliest age of sacred or profane history.
In other words, older that Moses reported. At this point in the text an asterisk references the margin note: "Brydone's Tour thro' Sicily and Malta," which requires some background: The book A Tour through Sicily and Malta in a series of letters to William Beckford is a travelogue by Patrick Brydone published in 1773. The author describes a meeting with a Canon Giuseppe Recupero, who had been studying Mount Etna and was rather startled by what he found. The article in the Encyclopædia Britannica continues with this summary:
In the neighborhood of mount Ætna, or on the sides of that extensive mountain, there are beds of lava covered over with a considerable thickness of earth; and at least another, again, which, though known from ancient monuments and historical records to have issued from the volcano at least 2000 years ago, is still amost entirely destitute of soil and vegetation: in one place a pit has been cut through seven different strata of lava; and there have been found separated from each other by almost as many thick beds of rich earth. Now, from the fact, that a stratum of lava 2000 years old is yet scantily covered with earth, it has been inferred by the ingenious canon Recupero, who has laboured 30 years on the natural history of mount Ætna, that the lowest of these strata which have been found divided by so many beds of earth, must have been emitted from the volcanic crater at least 14000 years ago; and consequently that the age of the earth, whatever it may exceed this term of years, cannot possibly be less. Other facts of a similar nature likewise concur to justify this conjecture.
But all these facts are as nothing in comparison with the long series which would be requisite to establish such a conjecture as an incontrovertible truth....
And the article goes on to describe evidence that contradicts these conclusions.
A review of Brydone's book was published in the June 1773 issue of the popular Monthly Review, which also reports that Recupero's "strenuously orthodox" Bishop "has already warned the Canon to be upon his guard; and not pretend to be a better historian that Moses," with the result that Recupero's book on Etna was not published until 1815, long after his death. It was probably this book review (not the book itself) that inspired evangelical poet William Cowper to include these panicked but witty lines in his 1785 epic poem The Task (Book III, lines 150-154):
Some drill and bore
The solid earth, and from the strata there
Extract a register, by which we learn
That he who made it and reveal’d its date
To Moses, was mistaken in its age.
But I digress. The point is that Biblical chronology was already collapsing under the weight of geology some 50 years before Queen Victoria's reign, and the tap-tap-tap of the geologist's hammers were so loud that even a magazine-reading English evangelical poet could hear them.
The 3rd Edition also includes an extensive article on “Earth” which addresses various theories of the formation of the Earth, including those of the Comte de Button and James Hutton, who famously said in 1785 of the past and future of the earth: “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.” And while the article argues against any theory that conflicts with scripture, the fact that the author thought it necessary to contradict these theories proves that they were quite prevalent at the time.
I haven't tracked the changes in the articles on “Creation” or “Earth” through subsequent editions. Doubtless some interestings patterns would be revealed. But my curiosity was piqued when the Preface to Volume I of the 7th Edition (1830 – 1842) revealed on page xxxv the addition of a new article: “The treatise on Geology, by Mr Phillips, presents one of the most comprehensive summaries yet given to the world of that favorite science.” That would be Mr. John Phillips, professor of geology at King's College London and later coiner of the word Mesozoic. This Preface was probably written before the 1830 publication of the first volume of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology or the term “most comprehensive” might have been avoided. Lyell is a major figure in the history of geology; Phillips a relatively minor one.
At any rate, readers who were anxiously anticipating the article on “Geology” when Volume X was issued were undoubtedly disappointed by the entry on page 421:
GEOLOGY. The rapidly progressive state of this science has induced us to defer the consideration of it till we reach the head of Mineralogy; under which it will be fully treated.
Or, Phillips blew his deadline. This happened. Lord Rayleigh was supposed to write an article on “Light” for the 9th Edition, but then it was bumped to “Optics” and then “Undulating Theory of Light” and finally “Wave Theory of Light.” (The Great EB, page 54)
The article on “Mineralogy” in Volume XV of the 7th Edition did not disappoint: 130 pages beginning on the page after page 111. But let's skip to the section “Geological Time” near the end on page 240, in which John Phillips discusses the problems in assigning durations in years to geological events:
At present the chronology of the globe, starting from the origin of the stratified rocks, and including the whole series of successions of organic beings, and all the convulsive disturbances of the cooled and consolidated crust, recognizes many successive periods of unknown duration. Neither does it appear possible to know their duration, or even the limits of error within which they fall. How, then, it may be asked, do geologists justify their confident assertions of the very great antiquity of particular rocks as compared with the few thousand years of history?
Notice that he's assuming the reader is already familiar with the conclusions of geologists that the world is perhaps millions of years old. He continues:
To this the reply is simple. Many of the ancient stratified rocks were formed in the sea by processes perfectly similar to those which go on at this day; and, in some cases, we may believe not at all more rapid in their effects.
This assumption was later to be known as uniformitarianism, or as Lyell describes it in the subtitle to his book, “An attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation.”
The laminated sandstones often mark what appears to be the ripple of a gentle tide, and the successive desposits of agitated water; the shelly limestones sometimes prove very slow deposition of even a single layer of calcareous rock; the alternation of igneous and sedimentary rocks gives us the similitude of vocanic submarine eruptions. Now, if we compare with the sedimentary strata of any particular period the most similar products of the present day, — the new land on the Adriatic, — the filling up of the Nile Valley, — the shallowing of the Bay of Bengal, — we shall be impressed with the necessity of allowing a long period for the production of a single stratified formation.
By this time, the work of Cuvier has long and well established that successive populations of different species had come about and were deposited as fossils in the strata but had also become extinct. The prevalent theory was that this was the result of a series of separate creations and not transmutation of species as Jean-Baptiste Larmarck had asserted. During Napoleon's campaign in Egypt (1798 – 1801), mummified people and animals were retrieved and examined, and shown to be the same as modern species, thus (in Cuvier's view) refuting transmutation. To John Phillips, this fact also suggests the passage of long periods of time:
Again, if we recollect, that during these periods many creations of new and destructions of old races of animals and plants happened, — and that, ever since the records of human art, the embalmed body or sculptured effigies, have given the means of judgment, no change has happened to modern races; that two or three thousand years have not changed the forms of animals known to the early Egyptians; we shall see the impropriety of imagining such changes to have been of quick succession in the earlier eras of nature.
In other words, these extinct species lived for many thousands of years. He's in the home stretch now:
And when we behold comglomerate rocks which hold fragments of other earlier deposits, and, in these fragments, the organic remains of still earlier periods which had already undergone their pecular mineral changes; when we collect the history of such an organic form, — its existence in the sea, — its sepulture in a vast oceanic deposit of limestone, or in a littoral aggregation of sandstone, — the induration of this rock, — its uplifting by subterranean forces, — the rolling of it to pebbles, — the reunion of them in a totally different kind of substance, — it is evident that no greater folly can be committed than to think to serve the cause of truth by contracting the long periods of geology into the compass of a few thousand years.
There is no greater folly, he says, than to contract the earth's history to a few thousand years. No greater folly.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the 7th Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published between 1830 and 1842, a span of years that encompasses the year that Queen Victoria came to the throne. The big question is: Was this article written before or after that date in 1837? If before that date, then it contradicts the “indisputable fact” that at this time “4004 b.c. was still accepted, in all sobriety, as the date of the creation of the world.”
The authors of articles in the Encyclopædia Britannica retained their copyrights and were allowed to publish them separately as books. John Phillips did precisely this. The book A Treatise on Geology, forming the Article under that Head in the Seventh Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, was published in 1837. Moreover, the Preface — which is typically the last thing in a book that is written — is dated 1st May 1837, fifty days before King William IV died and his niece became queen.
I rest my case.