The Fall of the House of Ussher

In the middle of the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher completed the publication of The Annals of the World, the result of 20 years of scholarly analysis of the records in the Christian Bible. This monumental work was a history of the world as advanced by Biblical Scripture. It is most remembered for one very specific finding: the earth was created on Saturday, October 22, 4004 B.C. at 6:00 PM. Once this date was revealed by Ussher, it was widely promoted throughout the teachings of the Christian church to the point that parishioners made handwritten note of it in the margins of their own Bibles. Once officially accepted by the church in 1701, the famous date was actually printed in the margins alongside Genesis and remained there even into the early 20th century.

While some to this day continue to covet this date for creation, the sciences have moved forward as has much of Christianity in accepting a much earlier date for the creation of the earth and the universe. Ussher’s story is the first among many in Measuring Eternity: The Search for the Beginning of Time by Martin Gorst. This 338 page 2001 work was published by Broadway Books. It retails for $23.95 in hard cover. From the dust jacket, the author is a writer and director for science documentaries including some seen on the Discovery Channel.

Measuring Eternity jumped ahead in my queue for books to review despite the fact that I had read five other books that I have yet to review. There are important lessons to learn from historical accounts such as this and these lessons are not being taught to nor are they understood by far too many people. What lesson is that? It is the lesson that all views presented as fact are always subject to future question. People who use and understand what is commonly called “the scientific method” are well aware of this. In Ussher’s time, the religions of the world not only taught their followers moral lessons but also explained the why’s of human existence and the natural world. Most of the early western scientists were clergy. Since Ussher’s time, as the workings of the natural world were revealed by inquisitive and questioning clergy, the sciences gradually removed themselves from religion.

Gorst’s book recounts the questioning, analysis and amazing story of the quest for an accurate measure of eternity. As I mentioned earlier, Measuring Eternity begins with Ussher’s story. I had heard of “the date” many times but this is the first time I have read an accounting of the time and effort involved. This is a presentation of a phenomenal and concentrated effort by a dedicated man over a twenty year span to accurately establish the day of creation. Even prior to Ussher, other Christian scholars had worked on this problem as they felt it was a way to quell criticism of the church as “new” and therefor not the True Word. According to Gorst, showing history back to the Creation was a way of validating Christianity.

While a recounting of the Biblical generations since Adam outwardly seems straightforward it was far from it. There was the problem of which Christian Bible had the true accounting. Different versions had vastly different projected dates for the Creation. Without recounting the details as described by Gorst, let me say that Ussher had to choose the verison that most closely fit with both historical accounts of specific events and people as well as with failed predictions for the apocalypse in some versions. Besides these difficulties, any accountings of creation myths by other religions were discounted as well.

And that’s just the first chapter!

Through the pages of Measuring Eternity you will meet some familiar (I hope) people. The seventeenth century was not a good time to question the church. People like Descartes and Galileo barely escaped with their lives.

Thomas Burnet published The Sacred Theory of the Earth in 1681. While presenting his proposed version of the Creation, Burnet reconciled with his religious beliefs as Gorst relates: “Nature, he argued, was the work of God – ’God’s great book of the world’ – and as such could not lie. ‘We are not to suppose that any Truth concerning the Natural World can be an Enemy to Religion; for Truth cannot be an Enemy to Truth, God is not divided against himself.’ . . . ‘those Pieces of ancient History, which have been chiefly preserved in Scripture’ could be ‘ confirmed anew, and by another Light, that of Nature and Philosophy’” (Gorst, p.63). While Burnet was willing to define the duration of each of the days of Creation in rather loose terms (perhaps God’s Creation days were equal to thousands of our present years, for example) since his theory required considerably more time for the natural earth processes to work, his contemporary Isaac Newton was a literalist on the matter.

Gorst tells us of another famous effort to determine the age of the earth by the French scholar Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. Buffon developed his hypothesis that the earth had been formed from molten material cast off from the sun by the impact of a comet. Calculating the time for the earth to cool enough to solidify would then give the date for the event. Having done the necessary calculations, Buffon published Histoire Naturelle in 1749 including a derived age for the earth of 50,000 years. Fortunately for Buffon, he was a man of position and the irrate church had to be very careful in handling this blasphemous information. Ultimately, Buffon had to recant the statements he had made in Histoire Naturelle thus: “I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and generally all which may be contradictory to the narrative of Moses” (Gorst, p. 105) thereby saving both his life and his career. This was a tough time to be a rational thinker.

Measuring Eternity moves through history telling the stories of other famous thinkers and some that you may not have heard of. Ussher’s house began its fall during the Enlightenment when natural philosophy took hold along with rational thinking. Geological evidence became important in refuting “young earth” arguments. Many of these early efforts still attempted to make the evidence fit with the Biblical accounts by liberally reinterpreting the creation stories. The number of people trying to make the science fit with the Bible decreased over the years to the point that by the mid 1800's the effort was futile. One popular method to make things fit was to acknowledge multiple creations - Ussher’s chronology then only pertained to the final creation. Some liked this as a convenient fit to the fossil evidence that clearly showed many previous ages of the earth with decidedly different plants and animals.

Charles Lyell had finally shown the earth to be extremely old through geological evidence and his principal of Uniformitarianism wherein earthly processes of today operated the same way in the past and, given enough time, were sufficient to produce the features of the earth that we see today. Uniformitarianism is a favorite point of attack for creationists since it supports an old earth in contradiction to literal interpretations of Scripture.

Charles Darwin joins the story in 1859 with his theory of Natural Selection - a process for evolution that required vast amounts of time. Lord Kelvin joined the fray for determining the age of the earth primarily to discredit Darwin. He hoped to show that while the earth was ancient it was not ancient enough to allow for Darwin’s processes of evolution. Kelvin’s best efforts indicated a 100 million year age - long, but not long enough for Darwin in his view.

The discovery and application of radioactive methods in the early 20th century was the death knell for “young earthers”. Gorst presents the efforts of Ernest Rutherford and his contemporaries. Arthur Holmes is credited with refining the radioactive dating methods using lead so that by 1927 the age of the earth was determined to be between 1.6 and 3 billion years old. A side trip to the moon, and many advances in methods since, now show the earth to be 4.6 billion years old.

Measuring Eternity goes beyond the age of the earth in Gorst’s treatment of the subject to include the quest to determine the age of the universe as well. In these final chapters you will meet the likes of Hubble and Einstein and many other notable scientists. This is quite a fascinating story as you will see science at work as it self corrects with new discoveries. So how old is the universe? By the latest findings - about 12 to 13 billion years old.

I can highly recommend Measuring Eternity. Gorst has documented important historical information on the search for deep time in very readable form. I found the events and people to be fascinating and frankly, I found Measuring Eternity hard to put down.

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