Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Genesis and Geology: A Dialogue

Genesis and Geology: A Dialogue

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 18, 2009

This discussion between the viewpoint of Science and the viewpoint of Scripture was credited to “Beth” when it was published in 1874. “Beth” was really Joseph Lindsay Barfoot (1816-1882). His positions as curator of the Deseret Museum and menagerie and as territorial fish commissioner, together with his mentoring of the young scientist/apostle James E. Talmage, suggest his interest in natural history, while missionary service in his native England, his membership on the Salt Lake High Council, and the frequent references to him as “Elder Barfoot” in the writings of men like George Reynolds (Barfoot’s boyhood friend) speak for his faith loyalties.

It was inevitable that he consider the apparent conflicts between what he read in the Bible and what he read in the rocks. He reconciled those seeming conflicts to his own satisfaction, chiefly by assigning distinct purposes to the scriptural and scientific accounts. The cooperation between religion and science was so clear in his own mind that he could explain his ideas to children, for whom this dialogue was intended.


GENESIS. – “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. and –”

GEOLOGY. – I object to God being introduced as an operator in the works of creation; and as to the beginning, I know nothing about it; I recognize natural forces as the only factors in the formation of the earth that we can know anything about with certainty. In these days we must know! – scio.

GENESIS. – Well, then, “the earth was without form, and void.”

GEOLOGY. – “Void!” – empty. Yes; I can agree with you. Of course it was without form; it was, in fact, a shapeless, nebulous mass.

GENESIS. – Stop! That is mere conjecture. You said just now we must know.

GEOLOGY. – Well, I admit this is hypothesis. Go on.

GENESIS. – “And darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

GEOLOGY. – No doubt of it. You allude, of course, to our “azoic” period, during which the globe was probably surrounded with dense vapors, through which the sun’s rays could not penetrate, at which time the waters would be enshrouded in darkness.

GENESIS. – “And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

GEOLOGY. – What do you mean by this expression? I admit that light began to dawn upon the liquid mass as the vapors were gradually removed – light is a primary cause of activity in matter. But I do not admit the necessity of God having produced the phenomenon.

GENESIS. – “… Let there be light, and there was light.” This you admit. “… Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”

GEOLOGY. – By “firmament” I suppose you mean the atmosphere, of which, in your early times, little was known; no doubt this became distinct from the watery mass when the ocean-covered globe would certainly be “under the firmament,” or atmospheric fluids, But you have forgotten to say anything about your chronology.

GENESIS. – “The evening and the morning were the first day.” Again, “the evening and the morning were the second day.”

GEOLOGY. – If by this you mean that the events you describe occurred in periods of twenty-four hours, your knowledge of the structure of the rocks that compose the earth’s crust must be small indeed. Why, the azoic era, which you are describing must have been thousands of centuries!

GENESIS. – Mine is not a geological account; I have stated generally the order of the creation. The leading events I have grouped together. In one account I arrange them into a work of six days, and a cessation or Sabbath on the seventh day. In my second account I speak of “the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” You surely do not suppose that a working day of twenty-four hours is intended. You also divide the work of creation into periods.

GEOLOGY. – Yes; but I allow them to be of infinite duration.

GENESIS. – The periods I allude to are of indefinite duration, as they do not deal with time as mortals define it. My object was to show that God was the author of these visible creations and, so far as He revealed to me His methods, and so far as they could be comprehended in early times, I made them known.

GEOLOGY. – The earth itself proves its own history by its structure. It has been brought to its present condition through a series of changes or progressive formations, from a state as utterly featureless as a germ. Azoic seas existed, beneath which the earliest known rocks were formed; they were the floor of those primitive seas. Gradually lands were elevated, and –

GENESIS. – Here you agree with me: “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.”

GEOLOGY. – You speak of a very early geological epoch; from the shallow seas of the azoic time, lands were gradually elevated. Go on.

GENESIS. – “… Let the earth bring forth grass, the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself.”

GEOLOGY. – Life began at the bottom of the seas – life in its lowest forms.

GENESIS. – Of course you notice details. I was showing broadly that the vegetable kingdom existed before the animal, as a period, or day in the creation. I will continue the history: “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven.”

GEOLOGY. – You surely do not mean the sun! You are very unphilosophical, not to say absurd. You represent a period that culminated in fruit trees, and then another period in which the sun is created! The fact that the higher forms of vegetation existed proves that the sun existed also.

GENESIS – Had I represented the sun and other luminaries first in order, with their uses, one of my objects in explaining the creations, among other things “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years,” objections might also have been raised. You admit that cosmical light existed long before solar light shone upon the earth, for which you assign scientific reasons, viz. the density of the atmosphere; I advance theological reasons for the same phenomena.

GEOLOGY. – That which I ascribe to nature you ascribe to God!

GENESIS. – Precisely so. I was not a student in your school. I speak of the author, you of His works; I describe the finished work as seen naturally, you as you read the history of that work in the rocks.

GEOLOGY. – Consequently I must have the advantage in point of accuracy. I show that life existed on this planet long before you do, and prove it by the fossil remains of each period.

GENESIS. – Whence do you derive this life?

GEOLOGY. – That is not my province to investigate; from pre-existing types we have life from its lowest to its highest forms.

GENESIS. – I think it is now my turn to say “scio” (I know): I teach that God is the author of life – pardon my digression.

GEOLOGY. – Your ideas are very old-fashioned1 When does your animal life begin?

GENESIS. – Immediately after the organization of the solar system: “Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth.” I show that “great whales,” among other creatures, were created. I mention no other mammals during this period.

GEOLOGY. – You pass over the most interesting events in the progress of life. I would show you that your system is correct as far as it goes; but it is imperfect. You appear to leap from the Azoic period to the Carboniferous, leaving out the Silurian, the age of algae or sea-weed, the earliest vegetable, and radiates and mollusks the first animal life, and the Devonian, the age of fishes. I admit that your age of vegetables is philosophically placed in relation to your first animal creation, and that it is certainly sublime in its conception, considering your limited knowledge. What is your next period?

GENESIS. – “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind.”

GEOLOGY. – This is decidedly the age of mammals; you have passed into the period I call “cenozoic,” or recent time. Does your period end with the creation of mammals?

GENESIS. – By no means. Man is created. “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” Here I allude to the origin of man as made in the image of his Creator.

GEOLOGY. – There is not time now to tell of the ages that have passed as I teach: of the azoic time, lifeless and desolate; the palaeozoic or ancient-life time; silurian, devonian and carboniferous; the mesozoic, or middle-life time, the age of reptiles; of the cenozoic, or recent-life time, the age of mammals; and of the age which may be pre-eminently termed the age of man.

GENESIS. – I have sketched the outlines, you are filling in the figures; I have given the key to the harmonies that you cannot but see and admire, and without which you cannot enter into the secret recesses of the rocks and unfold the mysteries of their creations. You may read the book of Nature, but you cannot unriddle it; every character when rightly interpreted, every chapter when understood, bears witness to my testimony: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”



  1. Ah, the days before no-death-before-the-fall young earth creationism. Good times (grin).

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 18, 2009 @ 11:20 am

  2. Was the use of “Beth” intended so that readers would assume a woman was the author?

    Comment by jeans — February 18, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  3. Good times indeed, J.! This is as close as I’ve been able to come as a Mormon historical salute to Darwin’s 200th. I’m not sure when so many Mormons came to think that “young earth” belief was a facet of Mormonism, but that strain wasn’t with us in the beginning.

    I have no idea why he would use that pseudonym, jeans. Barfoot is a man of interest to me for other reasons, so maybe I’ll eventually run across something explaining his choice.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 18, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

  4. Classic Mormon Theology! I love it!

    Interesting to note that as we have gotten more understanding and knowledge of geology and evolution, that the pop theology of creationism has taken root in a greater number of our members.

    It seems the more we know, the less we want to know. Ardis, history like this is great! It reminds us of who we really are.

    Comment by kevinf — February 18, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  5. I’ve read that he also used “Beta.” Perhaps it was simply an abbreviation of Barfoot.

    Comment by Justin — February 18, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  6. Wow this is a treasure! Thanks for bringing this out.

    Comment by SteveP — February 18, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  7. Now THAT’s enthusiasm, kevin! Thanks.

    Good idea, Justin. Kind of like my mother was nicknamed “Bee” because as a secretary she included her typist’s “signature” as “/b”. Barfoot had the kind of education that could very well have brought to mind his initial as said in other languages/alphabets.

    Steve, I was hoping you’d see this title on the aggregator and visit. I’ve certainly enjoyed the way you make science ideas comprehensible for me. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 18, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  8. Fascinating and fun stuff. Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by Christopher — February 18, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

  9. This is fun stuff. I enjoyed the dialogue. I especially liked the last summary of Genesis, “I have sketched the outlines, you are filling in the figures . . .”

    Comment by Maurine — February 18, 2009 @ 10:58 pm

  10. Speaking of pen names, Ardis, have you ever come across Davis Bitton’s key to Mormon pen names? I’ve seen it cited in a few sources, but I don’t know if it ever made its way into a library or the church archives. Sounds like a valuable source.

    Comment by Justin — February 21, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

  11. I didn’t know Davis had done one, Justin. Mel Bashore at the Church History Library made a very helpful one, but it’s available only in unpublished photocopy form at the library, so far as I know — it’s the one that identified for me “Beth” as Barfoot.

    I’ll check for Davis’s list, and also see whether Mel has published his somewhere that I don’t know of.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 21, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

  12. Wonderful post, Ardis. What J said in #1.

    Comment by Ray — February 21, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

  13. FWIW, the citations I ran across:

    1. “Historian Davis Bitton has recorded 175 pseudonyms, initials, or pen names used to veil the identities of nineteenth-century Mormon writes. 12”

    [12 From an untitled list provided by Davis Bitton, Department of History, University of Utah.]

    T. Edgar Lyon, John Lyon: The Life of a Pioneer Poet (SLC: Deseret Book, 1989), 323.

    2. “The use of pen names on some contributions and no names on others makes it difficult to state with certainty just how much of the content of the Exponent Lula [Greene Richards] actually wrote, but it is probably safe to assume that most of the unsigned material–at least in the early issues–came from her pen. It can also be established, through the Exponent and other sources, that the pen names ‘Geranium,’ ‘Mary Grace,’ and ‘Mignona’ were hers. 16”

    [16 From list of pen names compiled by Davis Bitton, professor of history, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.]

    Sherilyn Cox Bennion, “Lula Greene Richards: Utah’s First Woman Editor,” BYU Studies 21.2 (Spring 1981): 161-62.

    Comment by Justin — February 23, 2009 @ 8:34 am