When Clarence Darrow prepared his famous examination of William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial, he chose to focus primarily on a chronology of Biblical events prepared by a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, James Ussher. American fundamentalists in 1925 found—and generally accepted as accurate—Ussher’s careful calculation of dates, going all 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 Bible 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 tried to respond to Darrow’s questions.
The chronology first appeared in The Annals of the Old Testament, a monumental work first published in London in the summer of 1650. In 1654, Ussher added a part two which took his history through Rome’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The project, which produced 2,000 pages in Latin, occupied twenty years of Ussher’s life.
Ussher lived through momentous 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 twenty, and a professor at Trinity by twenty-seven. In 1625, Ussher became the head of the Anglo-Irish Church in Ireland.
As a Protestant bishop in a Catholic land, Ussher’s obsession with providing an accurate Biblical history stemmed from a desire to establish the superiority of the scholarship practiced by the clergy of his reformed faith over that of the Jesuits, the resolutely intellectual Roman Catholic order. (Ussher had absolutely nothing good to say about “papists” and their “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 in many different languages. By the time of his death, he had amassed a library of over 10,000 volumes.
The date forever 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 beginning of time, according to this chronology, occurred at the beginning of the night which preceded the 23rd of October in the year 710 of the Julian period.” In the right margin of the page, Ussher computes the date in “Christian” time as 4004 B.C.
Although Ussher brought stunning precision to his chronology, Christians for centuries had assumed a history roughly corresponding to his. The Bible itself provides all the information necessary to conclude that Creation 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 years 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.
As paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould points out in an essay on Ussher, the bishop’s calculation of the date of Creation fueled much ridicule from scientists who pointed to him as “a symbol of ancient and benighted authoritarianism.” Few geology textbook writers resisted taking a satirical swing at Ussher in their introductions. How foolish, the authors suggested, to believe that the earth’s geologic and fossil history could be crammed into 6,000 years. Gould, while not defending the bishop’s chronology, notes that judged by the research traditions and assumptions of his time, Ussher deserves not criticism, but praise for his meticulousness. The questionable premise underlying Ussher’s work, of course, is that the Bible is inerrant.
Ussher began his calculation by adding the ages of the twenty-one generations of people of the Hebrew-derived Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve. If the Bible is to be believed, they were an exceptionally long-lived lot. Genesis, for example, tells us that “Adam lived 930 years and he died.” Adam’s great-great-great-great-great-grandson, Methuselah, claimed the longevity record, coming in at 969 years. Healthier living conditions contributed, or so it was believed, to the 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 besides, God afforded them a longer lifespan on account of their virtue.”
To calculate the length of time since Creation, knowledge of more than the ages of death of the twenty-one generations was required; one also needed to know the ages of people of each 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, he had “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 mightier men” and that they reached puberty much later than did people of his own generation.
The Old Testament’s genealogy took Ussher up to the first destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 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 precise dates of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. He finally found the answer in a list of Babylonian kings produced by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the second century. By connecting Greek events to Roman history, Ussher tied the date of Nebuchanezzar’s death (562 B.C.) to the modern Julian calendar. Once the date of 562 B.C. was calculated, there remained only the simple matter of adding 562 years to the 3,442 years represented by the generations of the Old Testament up to that time: 4004.
Ussher next turned his 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 corresponded with the sun being at one of its four cardinal points—either the winter or 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 have observed that the Sunday, which in the year [4004 B.C.] aforesaid, came nearest the Autumnal Aequinox, by Astronomical Tables, happened upon the 23 day of the Julian October.”
A London 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 engravings of 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 appeared in Bibles that his dates “practically acquired the authority of the word of God.”
It is the seventh day of the Scopes trial, on the courthouse lawn in front of a crowd numbering about two thousand, Clarence Darrow questions William Jennings Bryan about Ussher’s date for Creation. Bryan at first deflects the question of whether he believes that human history began in 4004 B.C. He testifies, “That has been the estimate of a man that is accepted today,” then adds, “I would not say that it is accurate.” (Years later, in their play based on the Scopes trial, Inherit the Wind, Robert Lee and Jerome Lawrence misleadingly suggested Bryan endorsed Ussher’s pinpointing 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 don’t 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 chuckles.
Darrow moves from Creation to the date of the Great Flood. “How long ago was the flood, Mr. Bryan?” Bryan replies, “Let me see Ussher’s calculation about it.” Darrow hands a Bible to his witness. Bryan 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 and the animals of the ark and the fishes?” Bryan finds no “reason 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 5,000 years?” Bryan refuses to concede the point. I will not accept, “against what I believe to be the inspired Word of God,” that any such ancient civilizations exist, he says. “I am not satisfied by any evidence that I have seen.”
For the next improbable several minutes the two elderly men add and subtract Bishop Ussher’s numbers in an effort to come up with a period of time during which all civilizations must 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 of flood, 2348. Bryan wants to give civilizations more time, 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. Bryan, correctly, responds that the number subtracted should be the time from creation to the flood, or “about 1700 years.” The debate drags on. A policeman announces to the increasingly restless crowd, “Let us have order.”
Finally, a number is suggested that Bryan will accept: 4,262 years is the maximum period of time a civilization could have 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.
Darrow confronts Bryan with a series of questions suggesting that Ussher’s and Bryan’s date for Creation could not be reconciled with archaeological knowledge. “Don’t you know that the ancient civilizations of China are 6,000 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? Zorosterism? “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 ignorance, 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 ignorant.”
Asked once again, whether he “ever tried to find out” an answer to one of Darrow’s many questions about the 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 laughter and applause. “Nor near anybody of learning?” Darrow rejoins. Bryan, having had enough, replies: “Oh, don’t assume you know it all.”
Turning from the ages of civilization to the ages of the earth, Darrow asks Bryan if he could tell him “how old the earth is.” Bryan, somewhat surprisingly, replies, “No sir, I couldn’t.” He adds that he “could possibly come as near as the scientists do” to guessing the date, but declines the attempt. Then he offers, helpfully, that a scientist at Oberlin College figured that “man has appeared since the last ice age.” Darrow asks Bryan, “When was the last ice age?” Bryan does not know, but guesses: “It was more than 6,000 years ago.” This remark prompts Darrow to return to Ussher’s date for Creation, 4004 B.C. But Bryan now distances himself from Ussher’s chronology. He insists that “the Bible itself” doesn’t say Creation occurred in 4004 B.C.—rather, “that is Bishop Ussher’s calculation.”
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 that is legal,” defense lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays argues that Bryan’s concession on the length of creation was vital to the defense: “Mr. Bryan has already stated that the world is not merely 6,000 years old and that is very helpful to us.”
Judge Raulston allows the examination to continue and Darrow quickly returns to the issue of the length of creation:
Darrow--Then, when the Bible said, for instance, "and God called the firmament heaven. 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.
Darrow--Do you think it does or does not?
Bryan--I know a great many think so.
Darrow--What do you think?
Bryan--I do not think it does.
Darrow--You think those were not literal days?
Bryan--I do not think they were twenty-four-hour days.
Darrow--What do you think about it?
Bryan--That is my opinion--I do not know that my opinion is better on that subject than those who think it does.
Darrow--You do not think that ?
Bryan--No. But I think it would be just as easy for the kind of God we believe in to make the earth in six days as in six years or in 6,000,000 years or in 600,000,000 years. I do not think it important whether we believe one or the other.
Darrow--Do you think those were literal days?
Bryan--My impression is they were periods, but I would not attempt to argue as against anybody who wanted to believe in literal days.
Bryan’s testimony that the earth might have 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 Fundamentalists when he subscribed to the idea of periods of time for creation rather than twenty-four hour days.” Today, there remains a split in the evangelical community between those whose literalist views compel them to accept Bishop Ussher’s chronology, or something close to it, (“the young earth creationists”) and those who accept fossil evidence and a more metaphorical interpretation of the “days” of Genesis, but who still insist that species were intelligently designed by God, and were not the products of evolution.
The date of creation clearly does matter. If Bishop Ussher figured correctly, and every living thing has appeared in only 6,000 years, there simply would have been no time for new species to evolve.