John Ray on Flood Geology in 1695: Words that Still Apply Today

Illustration of the building of Noah’s Ark from The Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514)

Modern young-earth creationism has deep roots.  The essential elements of flood geology were established in the 17th century though much of what passed as flood geology at that time might be difficult to recognize today.  One thing that hasn’t changed is the style of rhetoric frequently used to promote flood geology to the general public.

To illustrate I am going to share a quote by my favorite natural historian/theologian, John Ray, from his correspondence with Mr. Edward Lhwyd on April 8 1695.   The quote is from a publication of Ray’s letters called the Further Correspondence of John Ray Edited by Robert W. T. Gunther and printed for the Ray Society in 1928.

I need to set the scene for this quote for its impact to be understood.   Ray is a typically mild-mannered and gracious in his letters even to those for which he strongly disagrees.   That makes this quote really stand out.   The subject of Ray’s rare display of ire is Dr. John Woodward who had just published a treatise: An Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth and Terrestrial Bodies (1695).  Woodward accepted the radical idea that Ray had espoused: that fossils represented the remains of past living things.  But this new way of understanding what fossils really were presented a new set of problems.  If fossils really represented formerly living things then how could the presence of fossils in so many rock strata and especially the curious observation of fossil sea shells on the tops of mountains be explained?  Woodward proposed that the Noahic Flood was the origin of these and other fossils.  Woodward is one of the important fathers of modern flood geology.

Dr. Woodward, an English naturalist, became well-known for his unflinching defense of a Noahic global flood from scientific evidences along with Scripture.  Woodward was the Ken Ham of his day though with more geological expertise.   What is remarkable is how  stylistically similar his writing on the topic of the Flood is to that of Ken Ham. As I read this letter by Ray it was as if Ray were commenting about Ken Ham, albeit in antiquated English.

Woodward was absolutely sure that his understanding of the Earth’s history was what the Bible demanded.  Ray, himself a believer in a global flood as were nearly all natural historians/theologians of his time, was concerned to see so little care taken with the actual evidence from nature.   John Ray did not stand alone among natural theologians who thought Woodward’s ideas far-fetched. However, Woodward’s dynamic personality and easily understood evidence meant that his ideas caught on quickly among the public.  Numerous adaptions of his theories were made including those of the current resurgence of flood geology starting in the early 1900s by Seventh Day Adventist George McCready Price, and popularized through the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961.

Dr . John Woodward (1665-1728)

With this background I bring you this quote a letter to Lhwyd  of April 8 1695 in which Ray shares some of his reactions to Woodward’s ideas and personal character:

“As for Dr. Woodward’s Hypothesis, if he had modestly propounded it as a plausible conjecture, it might have passed for such; but to goe about so magisterially to impose it upon our belief, is too arrogant & usurping.  I cannot but wonder to find such a strain of confidence & presumption running through his whole book that he should be so highly conceited of an Hypothesis for wch he hath no other proof but a negative one, I mean, that those bodies must by this means be thus lodged & disposed, because they could not possibly be so otherwise.   But first we are to examine ye Phaenomena upon wch he ground this Hypothesis.  I suspect they will all answer.  You have proposed one strong objection about ye Echini, wch I doe not see how he can remove, & for my part, I have gathered cockle shells wch are of the heaviest, upon ye surface of the Earth both in England & beyond ye Seas in great plenty.  I shall not further censure it, only give you my very good friend Dr. Robinson’s opinion of the Author & his Work.  He writes (saith he) with a high hand, unbecoming his station & character, & sows too much ostentation.  He has taken part out of Steno’s Prodromus, & your Works, in ye rest he is singular vain and impetuous.  He pretends to have compared ye Old &New World in every particular, but in discoursing with him I discover his ignorance in ye History of both, especially Asia & America, where he affirms ye Animals are ye same, & ye migration out of the first into ye latter demonstrable, though he knows not when nor wch way.  His motion of Gravity is ridiculous (though he tells me he hath written 40 sheets upon it) as also that of Spring &c from  ye Abysse, the heat or fire being between.  I wonder how his shells should sink lower than metals in ye great Fluid, or how  the whole Fossil part of ye Globe should be dissolved in ye Deluge when as the Animal & Vegatable remained entire & untouched.  But the revealing of these secrets he reserves for his greater Work, to set us alonging for the publication of it.

                In another letter he tells me that his [several worlds are scores through and overwritten] an Argument of their skill in Natural Philosophy.  Indolent men that have not been conversant in these studies & enquiries, nor taken any paines to search out & examine these bodies, & observe their places & beds, cannot be [compe]tent Judges of these things.  The Dr. proceeds. “I take Mr. Lhwyd of Oxford [to be a] man of another temper, & greater both skill & discretion, & wonder his friends to not presse him to publish his Lithology , wherein I expect to find matter of sense and soundness of Judgement without any Chimerical whimsies or Castles in ye Air.” 

In this quote we find several concerns raised by Ray that could readily be applied to some advocates for flood geology today.

1) The proof is a negative one.  We see this frequently in YEC literature today and it goes something like this. You can’t explain X in your old-earth theory so therefore the earth is young.

2) Woodward claims to have great knowledge of the old and new world and yet believes the animals in both to be the same.  But others already knew that the animals in the new world were very different than the old world.  These differences raised difficult questions—migration from Noah’s ark—that Woodward was unwilling to confront.

3) Woodward proposed that shells sorted themselves out when the great flood dissolved the ground and then settled out into the layers of rock we see today.  This sorting of fossils by gravity is still seen today in some flood geology models. Here Ray shows that even in the 17th century there were obvious problems with this model.

4) Ray notes that Woodward mostly works with rhetorical bluster (he writes with ahigh hand, unbecoming his station & character, & sows too much ostentation) than actual evidence.  Woodward casts doubt on those that have personally studied the matters including those that have made actual observations of fossils.

Snail shell in San Diego CA. Photo: Joel Duff
Snail shell in San Diego CA. Photo: Joel Duff

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