Edwin Poots's recent stint as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party will no doubt be remembered mostly for its brevity, but it also generated a significant amount of debate about his religious and scientific views. Of particular interest was that the leader of the North's largest political party, and potential first minister, was an outspoken Young Earth creationist.
A political party founded by Ian Paisley was always likely to become involved in debates about science and religion. Indeed, several leading DUP members have courted scientific controversy. Former environment minister Sammy Wilson tried to ban adverts for energy-reducing lightbulbs, which he described as "insidious New Labour propaganda". Nelson McCausland meanwhile used his position as culture minister to petition the Ulster Museum and Giant's Causeway to include creationist material alongside their geological explanations for rock formations.
Under Paisley's successors, Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, the DUP had tended to avoid directly engaging in such disputes. The election of Poots, generally regarded as a traditionalist, was heralded as a return to hardline rhetoric and conservative viewpoints. Yet a fraught relationship between science and religion, particularly over evolution, is not the historical position of Irish Protestants, but is in fact a fairly recent import from the United States.
One of the first attempts to establish a rigorous, scientific date of creation came in 1650 from the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher. Using genealogical details given in the Bible, Ussher had calculated that the world had been created on October 23rd, 4004 BC.
Although this date never became official doctrine, it could be found in many editions of the Bible as a marginal note to the first chapter and verse of Genesis. While Ussher's methodology might seem unsophisticated by contemporary standards, he used the best information available to him; his scientific contemporaries Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton produced similar estimates of their own.
By the 19th century, geologists such as James Hutton and Charles Lyell had suggested Earth was formed by slow, uniform processes, which would require millions of years rather than the thousands of the Ussher chronology. Because the Bible and the natural world were considered two "books" of divine authorship, it was popularly believed that the two could not contradict each other, and so several attempts were made to reconcile Genesis and the geological record.
A popular approach came in 1814 from the leading Scottish evangelical Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers argued that the wording of the first two verses of Genesis implied a gap "of many ages" between them. Later in the 19th century the Canadian geologist John William Dawson argued that the Hebrew word yom should be interpreted metaphorically as an age.
These two approaches – gap creationism and day-age creationism – are significant because they attempted to interpret the Bible alongside the evidence for an Old Earth. It was not until the 1920s that Young Earth viewpoints, which insisted upon six literal 24-hour days of creation, were widely advocated.
The most prominent example came from George McCready Price, a Canadian amateur who argued that geological formations were a result of the Biblical flood. Price was writing at the height of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in America, exemplified by the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial", which saw a Tennessee high school teacher charged with teaching evolution. Yet even the leader of the American anti-evolution crusade, William Jennings Bryan, admitted at the trial that he held to a day-age interpretation of creation.
Price's flood geology remained a fringe position until 1960, when Henry M Morris and John Whitcomb's The Genesis Flood repackaged his views for the evangelical mainstream. American evangelicalism is well-funded, culturally significant and politically influential, but it is also relatively insular.
It was an Australian, Ken Ham, whose organisation Answers in Genesis, founded in 1994, took American Young Earth creationism global. In the late 90s, Ham began annual tours of the UK and Ireland, always visiting Belfast, speaking to sold-out crowds in the Waterfront Hall and the city's largest churches, including Ian Paisley's Martyrs Memorial, and the 2,600 capacity Metropolitan Tabernacle.
It was only during this period, with the establishment of local groups such as the Caleb Foundation (1998) and Creation Outreach Ministries (2006), that Young Earth creationism became politically significant in the North; in that sense, it is not so much a traditional position as a recent innovation.
Dr Stuart Mathieson is is a postdoctoral fellow working in Dublin City University school of history and geography