John Murray: A Misrepresentation of History

Copyright 2002 G.R. Morton. This can be freely distributed so long as no changes are made and no charges are made. (

An Answers in Genesis website talks about several 19th century ‘Scriptural Geologists’. The page is written by Terry Mortenson who has a Ph. D. in the history of geology. The site is (

I first became aware of Mortenson when I was forwarded a paper he gave at a Denver Theological Conference in November or December 2001. The conference was called ETS 2001. Since I was reading many 19th century creationist authors at the time, I was pleased to see the paper. But Mortenson didn't tell me anything about the BELIEFS of these supposedly great geologists who happened to believe in a global flood. Thus I decided to get the books I could. I was able to locate Murray's 1840 book and purchased it for a pretty penny. What I learned told me why Mortenson hadn't bothered to discuss the beliefs these guys whom he calls the ‘Four of the geologically most competent Scriptural geolgists’. In looking at Mortenson's site, Mortenson claims that one of the Scriptural Geologists, John Murray, “demonstrated an up-to-date knowledge of the writings of leading British and European geologists.”

This is a claim that can be examined in light of the knowledge of the day and in light of Murray's beliefs. The examination of those beliefs shows that Murray was using data at least 50 years out of date. He failed to use data from his day in the following areas:

  1. He failed to apply the known density of the earth to his flood model.
  2. He failed to apply the thermal observations of mines getting hotter the deeper one went to his flood theory.
  3. He failed to deal or accept the stratification of the fossils which had been proven by William Smith 35 years earlier.
  4. He failed to apply his knowledge of pressure to his model of the flood.
  5. He failed to inform his readers of Agassiz's claim that glaciers, not the flood formed the deposits which we now call the glacial till--a claim which modern young-earth creationists, like Michael Oard, fully support. Murray also failed to inform his readers that the best geological minds of the day had rejected what he was saying.

John Murray was a well respected scientist of the day doing most of his work in the area of chemistry and mining. He wrote a book, Truth of Revelation in 1831 which was expanded and republished in 1840. I own the 1840 edition. All of his quotes are from that book.

1. Density of the Earth

    Murray believed in a global flood, as did many in his day. But Murray's mechanism was somewhat similar to Walter Brown's in this day. Murray wrote:

     “There is a fact stated in Scripture of considerable importance when considered in this relation: ‘the fountains of the great deep were broken up:’—this unequivocally implies the issue of torrents from the bosom of the globe; and it seems to us, more likely that the nucleus of the earth is an abyss of water than a lake of fire, however, the latter view of it might coalesce with Buffon's notion, of which that of Hutton was a more elaborate transcript.” (Murray, p. 215)

Not only does he have the water of the flood coming out of the center of the earth, he has it disappear back into the center of the earth. This view was known to be false in 1840, indeed, it was known to be false in 1798. In that year, Cavendish measured the gravitational constant. It was this act which allowed us to know the mass of the earth. Scientists had long known the acceleration of gravity, but they had no idea how much mass it took to create that acceleration rate. Cavendish's measurement allow solving

g = Gm/r2 = 9.8 m/s, where g is the acceleration of earth's gravity, G is the gravitational constant measured by Cavendish and m is the mass of the earth. (for pedantic types, there is an implicit test mass of 1 in the numerator).

Prior to 1798, we knew the radius of the earth but didn't know either the mass of the earth or G, the gravitational constant. Once the mass of the earth was known, the earth's density was easily determined, mass divided by the volume of the sphere. This yielded a value of 5.5 gram/cubic centimeter. Water has a density of 1 gram/ cubic centimeter, so it was quite clear as early as 1798 that Murray couldn't get away with claiming a reservoir of water in the center of the earth. So, this is the first point at which Murray failed to display his acceptance of the science of the day.

As further evidence, even his contemporaries found such ideas absurd:

“Though the theory of the centre of the earth being an abyss of waters be rejected as absurd, it is quite supposable that, within a few miles of the earth's circumference, there might be fountains and depths of water sufficient for a universal Deluge. For, what is the distance of four or five miles in the crust of the earth?” (Burton 1845, p. 22-23)

2. Temperature inside the earth

It was quite well known, even from ancient times, that the deeper miners dug into the earth, the hotter the temperature inside the mine. It was also known that hot lava came out of the earth at certain places which were called volcanoes. Just a few years earlier, Charles Lyell had written of this well known fact when he wrote:

“Many observations and experiments appear to countenance the idea, that in descending from the surface to those slight depths to which man can penetrate, there is a progressive increase of heat;” (Lyell, p. 82)

Yet, by claiming that the earth's interior was water rather than fire, Murray failed to incorporate the observational data into his views, he failed to inform his readership of this fact, or to offer evidence for why he believed that the earth's interior was water other than that he needed that water for the Flood.

3. Stratification of the fossils

    Thirty-five years before Murray published, a mining consultant/canal builder, had noticed an interesting fact. As you descended the lift in a mine, you could see various rock layers, one on top of another. The order was always the same; Simon Winchester wrote of Smith's discovery,

“The pattern, Smith saw, was always the same, in mine after mine after mine: from top to bottom, Sandstone, Siltstone, Mudstone, Non-marine Band, Marine Band, Coal, Seat-earth, and then again Sandstone, Siltstone, Mudstone, on and on. on top of everything, placid and unconformable, the Red Marls, the flatly sloping beds of the startlingly red Red Earth.” (Winchester, 2001, p. 76-77)

Smith used this knowledge to help the Lords of England decide if they had coal underneath their lands. Smith was in high demand because he could predict coal and no other man could. But Smith didn't stop there. He noticed that if you examined the fossils found in those rocks, regardless of the mine you were in, regardless of how distant that other mine was, the fossils were found in the same order. Some fossils were only found high while other fossils were only found deep in the mine, or at least always found deeper than those which consistently where higher up. Smith found that he could use the fossils to help him find the coal and other minerals which the Lords were looking for.

Smith had no axe to grind about the Flood, indeed, he most assuredly believed in Noah's Flood, but he couldn't deny what he had observed, the fossils had a pattern.

But John Murray could deny it and did, thus denying what is clear fact and was clearly among the knowledge of his day. He wrote:

     “Let it be remembered that there is no absolute CHRONOMETER in geology and I very much doubt whether there yet be a fixed relative one among fossiliferous rocks, because there are FOSSIL REMAINS COMMON TO THEM ALL; and again, fossils innumerable are common both to tertiary and secondary strata; a fact that repudiates the assumed distinction. The statics of a sound chronology being absent, prudence would require us to be cautious and less dogmatical in a science confessedly of intense interest, but comparatively young in age. Besides, fossiliferous rocks are local, not circumambient.” (Murray, p. 141-142)

By misrepresenting the observational fossil record, a record that even modern young-earth creationists acknowledge, Murray shows that he was not using the knowledge of his day.

4. Pressure

Being involved in the mining industry, which requires pumping vast quantities of water out of the mines, Murray should have known the practical aspects of pressure. One can't push water into a high pressure area without higher pressure. Murray had written:

“It may be asked, and the question has certainly been often put, What has become of the surplus water of the deluge? Questions are easily put; but a fact once established cannot be doubted or denied, because there may be a difficulty in accounting for the phenomenon. For any thing we know to the contrary, the diluvial waters may have retreated into the profound abysses of the earth; besides, much would disappear as water of crystallization, in crystalline rocks, and much, also, as water of composition, in sedimentary rocks.” (Murray,p. 216-217)

Murray would have known that the deeper a column of water is, the greater is the pressure at the bottom of the column. Thus, water at the bottom of a pool has higher pressure. This is actually due to the weight of the overlying water which is pulled down by gravity. The density of the overlying material determines how rapidly pressure builds up. For rock, the pressure builds up around 2.4 times more rapidly than for water. What Murray was forgetting in his suggestion that the waters of the flood could drain back into the earth was that the weight of the rocks would create higher pressure (lithostatic pressure) than that possessed by a column of water (hydrostatic pressure). Thus, to force the water back into the earth would require a high pressure pump, yet Murray conveniently ignored that detail in the above explanation.

5. Glaciers

In 1837 Louis Agassiz proposed that the diluvium, which many diluvial advocates had claimed as the remnants and evidence of the Flood, were actually produced by glaciers. The diluvium, as evidence of Noah's Flood, had been rejected over the previous 10 years, by Christian geologist after Christian geologist. Sedgwick had written in 1831:

“Having been myself a believer, and, to the best of my power, a propagator of what I now regard as a philosophic heresy, and having more than once been quoted for opinions I do not now maintain, I think it right, as one of my last acts before I quit this Chair, thus publicly to read my recantation. . .

     “There is, I think, one great negative conclusion now incontestably established - that the vast masses of deluvial gravel, scattered almost over the surface of the earth, do not belong to one violent and transitory period. . .”

     “We ought, indeed, to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory, and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic Flood. . . . In classing together distant unknown formations under one name; in giving them a simultaneous origin, and in determining their date, not by the organic remains we had discovered, but by those we expected hypothetically hereafter to discover, in them; we have given one more example of the passion with which the mind fastens upon general conclusions and of the readiness with which it leaves the consideration of unconnected truths.” (Gould, p. 125)

Buckland gave up the idea that the diluvium was due to the flood in 1836, 4 years before Murray published his expanded book. Rupke notes:

“When Buckland publicly withdrew his support for the diluvial theory in 1836 his retraction was no more caused by Lyell's attack on diluvialism than Sedgwick's had been. To Buckland and Sedgwick alike the abandonment of diluvial geology Buckland and Sedgwick alike the abandonment of diluvial geology was not a rejection of cataclysmal debacles, but of the Mosaic deluge as an example of these. The date of the last geological deluge was put at shortly before the creation of man, and the biblical flood was reinterpreted as a quiet event.” (Rupke, p. 89)

Given these recantations, Murray should have informed his readers, and dealt with them, in an open and honest way. As it was, he hid them from his readers, and hid the threat that glaciers, rather than floods might have caused the diluvium.

Murray fails on these five points to be up to date and honest with his readers about the issues of geology as it related to the Scripture. And if Murray was not using the knowledge of his day, then Mortenson is profoundly misrepresenting the Murray's place in history, and misrepresenting Murray's knowledge of 19th century geology. Mortenson also misleads his readers by NOT mentioning ANY of Murray's beliefs, which if read by modern people will surely seem a bit bizarre, even to young-earth creationists. Once again, this is a case of Christian apologists citing only data they think will philosophically support their previously held conclusion. If Mortenson admits that the Scriptural geologists were really not dealing with the data of their day, then he must admit that they lost out, not because of some perceived bias, but because they didn't explain things very well.


  • Rev. Charles Burton, Lectures on the Deluge and the World After the Flood, (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., Hatchard & Son, Piccadilly, 1845)
  • Stephen J. Gould, The Flamingos Smile, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985)
  • Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology edited by James Secord, (New York: Penguin Books, 1997)
  • John Murray, Truth of Revelation, (London: William Smith, 1840)
  • Nicolaas Rupke, The Great Chain of History, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983)
  • Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World, (London: Viking Books, 2001).

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