W. W. Phelps and his billions of years

Back in 1844, a few months after Joseph Smith’s death, W. W. Phelps published a curious statement about the age of the earth—well maybe it was about the age of the earth. We don’t know. It’s a bit confusing.

[E]ternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system, (not this world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years: and to know at the same time, that deists, geologists and others are trying to prove that matter must have existed hundreds of thousands of years;-it almost tempts the flesh to fly to God, or muster faith like Enoch to be translated and see and know as we are seen and known!

Times & Seasons 5 no. 24 (1 Jan. 1844), 758

Eternity, he says, has been going on for almost 2.555 billion years. And it’s not the eternity “in this world” that he’s talking about, but “in this system”, whatever that means.

Many have written on this subject. Go check out what they’ve said. But here’s my take on it.

Obviously, Phelps wasn’t trying to say that the world is 2.555 billion years old. He literally points out that distinction in the text. World is a confusing term because Joseph Smith himself defined the world to be “the human family”, not the planet on which we live. I don’t know if Phelps was going for this usage of the term, but if he was, that makes sense—the human family of Adam hasn’t been on this earth for 2.555 billion years, that’s probably true. (And if it wasn’t true, then that would make a pretty trippy sci-fi/religion movie.)

Phelps was talking about “this system”. It’s “this system” that’s almost 2.555 billion years old, or rather, “eternity” has been going on in this system for almost 2.555 billion years.

Now, what is “this system”? Is it planet earth? Is it our solar system? Is it the universe? According to science, all of those things have existed for much longer than 2.555 billion years.

The other question is what does he mean by “eternity”? To say that eternity has only been happening for a limited amount of time makes zero sense, because isn’t eternity forever? Didn’t forever start at negative infinity years and ends at positive infinity years? I’m just so confused at what Phelps was trying to say.

So because I don’t know what he was trying to get at, let’s just take a quick peek at natural history to see what was happening on earth 2.555 billion years ago. Maybe it can add to our understanding of what Phelps might have meant.

2.555 billion years ago, our earth was a much different place. Multicellular organisms did not exist, so I suppose you could have looked out over the rocks and the oceans but not seen any life—at least with the naked eye. And oxygen would’ve been an issue. There wasn’t as much of it in the atmosphere as there is now. You probably would’ve needed some breathing assistance in that place.

Here’s a list of some earth/life milestones according to Google (recall that ‘Ga’ means “billions of years ago”):

2.7 Ga: evolution of eukaryotes
2.555 Ga: beginning of eternity in this system
2.5 Ga: Great Oxygenation Event

This begs the question: Was the beginning of eternity here when eukaryotes evolved or when oxygen became plentiful?

Look at the graph above. Something significant happened around 2.5 billion years ago to start the rise in atmospheric oxygen. If “this system” is referring to the atmosphere, how we breathe, our respiratory systems, then perhaps this could explain Phelps’ statement.

I wonder if the “system” Phelps refers to has something to do with eukaryotes. We, as humans, are eukaryotes, as are all living things except for bacteria and archaea. Is there something special about a world once it reaches the stage where eukaryotes appear? Are bacteria and archaea so ubiquitous throughout the universe that they’re not even considered anything special UNTIL they evolve a nucleus?

I can see our youngish, eukaryote-less planet, teeming with invisible bacteria and archaea, gliding through space, not much more special than Mars or Venus or any other visibly-lifeless exoplanet out there. And then the processes the Gods have set in motion start taking into effect. Oxygen starts increasing in the atmosphere, lineages of these little bugs start to develop the characteristics of eukaryotes, and then… BAM! Eternity starts. This planet gets its Big Bang, so to speak. Its beginning. There will be important life here now. Eternity in the system has begun.

I think back to my old interpretations of Abraham 3 and intelligences. Maybe then, 2.555 billion years ago, our planet finally reached a stage where important, eternal intelligences were allowed to come here and possess the bodies of eukaryotes, and the process that would eventually create us began. Maybe “eternity” has been going on in this system since then.

It’s interesting to note that Phelps identifies the source of this crazy large number, 2.555 billion years, as being “the records found in the catacombs of Egypt”, which must be the Egyptian papyri from which came the Book of Abraham. I’ve already written about the Book of Abraham translation and its possible connection to many correct scientific principles that came from Joseph Smith. This 2.555 billion years figure is one of those. Even as Phelps says in his quote, it’s almost laughable that scientists of his day were trying to prove that matter was 100,000+ years old when those working on the papyri knew that it was at least in the billions. That’s pretty significant.

I think the Book of Abraham taught Joseph a lot about the true nature of the universe. I think it taught him that the earth was formed from other broken-up planets and that it was far older than 6,000 years. I even think the Book of Abraham hinted at natural selection before Darwin published his theory. I think the Book of Abraham was pretty darn awesome. Check out my other posts on that when you have the time.

Sources and Notes





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