Darrow prepared his famous
examination of William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial, he chose to
primarily on a chronology of Biblical events prepared by a
Irish bishop, James Ussher. American fundamentalists in 1925 found—and
generally accepted as accurate—Ussher’s careful calculation of dates,
the way back to Creation, in the margins of their family Bibles. (In fact, until the 1970s, the Bibles placed
in nearly every hotel room by the Gideon Society carried his
chronology.) The King James Version of the
introduced into evidence by the prosecution in Dayton
contained Ussher’s famous chronology, and Bryan
more than once would be forced to resort to the bishop’s dates as he
respond to Darrow’s questions.
in The Annals of the Old Testament, a monumental work first
summer of 1650. In 1654, Ussher added a part two which took his history
Rome’s destruction of the Temple
70 A.D. The project, which produced
2,000 pages in Latin, occupied twenty years of Ussher’s life.
times, having been born during the reign of Elizabeth and dying, in 1656, under
Cromwell. He was a talented fast-track
scholar who entered Trinity College in Dublin
at the early age of thirteen, became an ordained priest by the age of
and a professor at Trinity by twenty-seven.
In 1625, Ussher became the head of the Anglo-Irish
Church in Ireland.
bishop in a
Catholic land, Ussher’s obsession with providing an accurate Biblical
stemmed from a desire to establish the superiority of the scholarship
by the clergy of his reformed faith over that of the Jesuits, the
intellectual Roman Catholic order.
(Ussher had absolutely nothing good to say about “papists”
“superstitious” faith and “erroneous” doctrine.) Ussher
committed himself to establishing a date
for Creation that
could withstand any challenge. He
located and studied thousands of ancient books and manuscripts, written
different languages. By the time of his
death, he had amassed a library of over 10,000 volumes.
tied to Bishop
Ussher appears in the first paragraph of the first page of The
Annals. Ussher wrote:
“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth, which
time, according to this chronology, occurred at the beginning of the
which preceded the 23rd of October in the year 710 of the
period.” In the right margin of the
page, Ussher computes the date in “Christian” time as 4004 B.C.
stunning precision to his chronology, Christians for centuries had
history roughly corresponding to his. The
Bible itself provides all the information necessary to conclude that
occurred less than 5,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Shakespeare, in As You Like It, has
his character Rosalind say, “The poor world is almost six thousand
old.” Martin Luther, the great reformer,
favored (liking the round number) 4000 B.C. as a date for creation. Astronomer Johannes Kepler concluded that
3992 B.C. was the probable date.
Gould points out in an essay on Ussher, the bishop’s calculation of the
Creation fueled much ridicule from scientists who pointed to him as “a
of ancient and benighted authoritarianism.”
Few geology textbook writers resisted taking a satirical
in their introductions. How foolish, the
authors suggested, to believe that the earth’s geologic and fossil
could be crammed into 6,000 years.
Gould, while not defending the bishop’s chronology, notes
the research traditions and assumptions of his time, Ussher deserves
criticism, but praise for his meticulousness.
The questionable premise underlying Ussher’s work, of
the Bible is inerrant.
adding the ages of the twenty-one generations of people of the
Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve.
If the Bible is to be believed, they were an exceptionally
lot. Genesis, for example, tells us that
“Adam lived 930 years and he died.”
Adam’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Methuselah,
longevity record, coming in at 969 years.
Healthier living conditions contributed, or so it was
long life spans of the early generations of the Bible.
Josephus, a Jewish theologian writing in the
first century, explained it this way:
“Their food was fitter for the prolongation of life…and
afforded them a longer lifespan on account of their virtue.”
length of time
since Creation, knowledge of more than the ages of death of the
generations was required; one also needed to know the ages of people of
generation at the time the next generation began. Fortunately,
the Bible provided that
information as well. For example,
Genesis says that at the time Adam gave birth to his first son, Seth,
“lived 130 years.” Augustine (as might a
lot of people) wondered how a 130-year-old man could sire a child. He concluded that “the earth then produced
men” and that they reached puberty much later than did people of his
took Ussher up to the first destruction of the Temple
during the reign of Persian king Nebuchadnezzar. Ussher’s
key to precisely dating Creation
came from pinning down, by references in non-Christian sources, the
dates of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. He
finally found the answer in a list of Babylonian kings produced by the
astronomer Ptolemy in the second century.
By connecting Greek events to Roman history, Ussher tied
date of Nebuchanezzar’s
death (562 B.C.) to the modern Julian calendar.
Once the date of 562 B.C. was calculated, there remained
matter of adding 562 years to the 3,442 years represented by the
the Old Testament up to that time: 4004.
attention to identifying the precise date of Creation.
Like many of his contemporary scholars, he
assumed that God would choose to create the world on a date that
with the sun being at one of its four cardinal points—either the winter
summer solstice or the vernal or autumnal equinox.
This view sprang from the belief that God had
a special interest in mathematical and astronomical harmony. The deciding factor for Ussher came from
Genesis. When Adam and Eve found
themselves in the Garden of Eden, the fruit was invitingly ripe. Ussher reasoned, therefore, that it must have
been harvest time, which corresponded with the autumnal equinox: “I
observed that the Sunday, which in the year [4004 B.C.] aforesaid, came
the Autumnal Aequinox, by Astronomical Tables, happened upon the 23 day
bookseller named Thomas Guy in 1675
began printing Bibles with Ussher’s dates printed in the margin of the
work. Guy’s Bible’s became very
popular—though their success might be as much attributed to the
bare-breasted biblical women as to the inclusion of Ussher’s chronology. In 1701, the Church of England adopted
Ussher’s dates for use in its official Bible.
For the next two centuries, Ussher’s dates so commonly
Bibles that his dates “practically acquired the authority of the word
the seventh day of the
Scopes trial, on the courthouse lawn in front of a crowd numbering
thousand, Clarence Darrow questions William Jennings Bryan about
for Creation. Bryan at first deflects the question
whether he believes that human history began in 4004 B.C. He testifies,
has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today,” then adds, “I
say that it is accurate.” (Years later,
in their play based on the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind,
and Jerome Lawrence misleadingly suggested Bryan endorsed Ussher’s
of not only the date—but also the hour—of creation.
They gave Darrow the laugh line: “That
Eastern standard time? Or Rocky Mountain
time?”) “Everybody knows or, at least,
most of the
people know” Ussher’s estimate, Bryan
says. Darrow presses Bryan
on whether he thinks the estimate was based on a calculation “from the
generations of man.” Surprisingly, Bryan does not
know. “I do not think about the things I
think about,” he announces. Darrow
rejoins, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” “Well, sometimes,” Bryan answers. Spectators
erupt in laughter. Even Judge Raulston
Creation to the
date of the Great Flood. “How long ago
was the flood, Mr. Bryan?” Bryan replies,
see Ussher’s calculation about it.”
Darrow hands a Bible to his witness.
begins searching for the date. At first,
he cannot find it. “I think this does
not give it.” Darrow assures him that
Ussher’s date for the disaster is indeed in his Bible, and Bryan finally
locates it. “It is given here as 2348
years B.C.,” Bryan
says finally. “You believe that all the
living things not
contained in the ark were destroyed?” Darrow asks.
“I think the fish may have lived,” Bryan answers. “Outside
of the fish?” “I do,” Bryan
replies. “So that 4,200 years ago there
was not a living thing on the earth, excepting the people of the ark
animals of the ark and the fishes?” Bryan finds no
for denying, disputing, or rejecting” that assertion.
Darrow asks, rhetorically: “Don’t you know
there are any number of civilizations that are traced back to more than
years?” Bryan refuses to concede the point. I
not accept, “against what I believe to be the inspired Word of God,”
such ancient civilizations exist, he says. “I am not satisfied by any
that I have seen.”
For the next
minutes the two elderly men add and subtract Bishop Ussher’s numbers in
effort to come up with a period of time during which all civilizations
have emerged. A member of the defense
team, sensing that the great men are having difficulties with their
calculations, hands Darrow a pencil.
Darrow proposes adding the current year, 1925, to the date
2348. Bryan wants to give civilizations
and suggests instead adding 1925 to 4004 to get 5,929.
Darrow, not satisfied, counters that Bryan’s concession on the
flood date means 2,348 should be subtracted from 5,929.
correctly, responds that the number subtracted should be the time from
to the flood, or “about 1700 years.” The
debate drags on. A policeman
to the increasingly restless crowd, “Let us have order.”
accept: 4,262 years is the maximum period of time a civilization could
existed—although he insists pre-flood artifacts might be somewhat older. Darrow pounces: “Do
you know a scientific man on the face of
the earth that believe any such thing?”
“I don’t think I ever asked one the question,” Bryan states.
Darrow continues, “Quite
important, isn’t it?” “Well, I don’t know as it is,” Bryan replies.
questions suggesting that Ussher’s and Bryan’s date for Creation could
reconciled with archaeological knowledge.
“Don’t you know that the ancient civilizations of China
or 7,000 years old, at the very least?” Darrow asks.
“No, but they would not run back beyond the
creation, according to the Bible, 6,000 years,” Bryan insists. “Have
you any idea how old the Egyptian
civilization is?” Darrow asks. “No,” the exasperated witness replies. Darrow continues, asking questions he knows Bryan could not
answer. How old is Buddhism?
“How many people were on this earth 3,000 years ago?” Bryan fumbles
his answers. Darrow scolds: “Did you ever
try to find
out?” Bryan begs, “When you display my
could you give the fact so I would not be ignorant any longer? Can you tell me how many people there were
when Christ was born?” Darrow replies,
meanly, “You know, some of us might get the facts and still be
“ever tried to find out” an answer to one of Darrow’s many questions
ancient world, Bryan
tries a different tact: humor. “You are
the first person I ever heard of who has been interested in it.” Darrow snaps back, “Where have you lived all
your life?” “Not near you,” replies Bryan, to
applause. “Nor near anybody of
learning?” Darrow rejoins. Bryan,
having had enough, replies: “Oh, don’t assume you know it all.”
civilization to the ages of the earth, Darrow asks Bryan if he could tell him “how old
is.” Bryan, somewhat surprisingly,
sir, I couldn’t.” He adds that he “could
possibly come as near as the scientists do” to guessing the date, but
the attempt. Then he offers, helpfully,
that a scientist at Oberlin
has appeared since the last ice age.”
Darrow asks Bryan,
“When was the last ice age?” Bryan does not
guesses: “It was more than 6,000 years ago.”
This remark prompts Darrow to return to Ussher’s date for
B.C. But Bryan now distances himself from
chronology. He insists that “the Bible
itself” doesn’t say Creation occurred in 4004 B.C.—rather, “that is
Then Bryan makes a
concession that delights the
defense and would trouble many of his fundamentalist supporters. Darrow asks, “Do you think the earth was made
in six days?” “Not six days of
twenty-four hours,” answers Bryan. When fellow prosecutor Thomas Stewart rises
and demands that the judge stop this examination “in the name of all
legal,” defense lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays argues that Bryan’s
the length of creation was vital to the defense: “Mr. Bryan has already
that the world is not merely 6,000 years old and that is very helpful
examination to continue and Darrow quickly returns to the issue of the
when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament
And the evening and the morning were the second day," that does not
necessarily mean twenty-four hours?
Bryan--I do not think it necessarily does.
you think it does or does not?
Bryan--I know a great many think so.
do you think?
Bryan--I do not think it does.
think those were not literal days?
Bryan--I do not think they were twenty-four-hour
do you think about it?
Bryan--That is my opinion--I do not know that my
better on that subject than those who think it does.
do not think that ?
But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in
the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in
years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.
you think those were literal days?
Bryan--My impression is they were periods, but I
attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal
testimony that the earth
been created over thousands of years shocked many of the faithful. Decades later, evangelist Jerry Falwell spoke
for many young-earth Fundamentalists when he said, Bryan “lost the respect of
when he subscribed to the idea of periods of time for creation rather
twenty-four hour days.” Today, there
remains a split in the evangelical community between those whose
views compel them to accept Bishop Ussher’s chronology, or something
it, (“the young earth creationists”) and those who accept fossil
evidence and a
more metaphorical interpretation of the “days” of Genesis, but who
that species were intelligently designed by God, and were not the
The date of
does matter. If Bishop Ussher figured
correctly, and every living thing has appeared in only 6,000 years,
simply would have been no time for new species to evolve.