Anyone who's anyone in the creation/evolution debate thinks they know where young-age creationism came from. Some think it originated very recently from the book The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb. Others (slightly better informed) place its origin in the context of the fundamentalist movement and especially the Scopes trial. Even better informed people (like Ron Numbers) blame George McCready Price and ultimately SDA prophetess Ellen G. White. All are proceeding under the assumption that creationism is a relatively recent aberration, properly understood in the context of religious reaction to Darwin's Origin of Species.
I think that's quite wrong. I strongly suspect (and have for some time) that the young-age creation position has sort of been the default for most Christians for a long, long time. By focusing on major headlines about national controversies or the popular ideas of academic or quasi-academic circles, scholars can lose sight of what "regular people" think. Today's "From the Library" selection reveals the opinion of one of those "regular people" from 1858.
Published anonymously, The Deluge Universal: or, Geology and Genesis Reconciled fully affirms the idea of a global flood and a 6000-year-old earth. Here's an excerpt:
And it is to meet these [imagined ages of earth history], that the chronology of six thousand years has been stretched to millions of ages. There is really nothing in the strata, to warrant a belief of any great age to the earth; but the time has been lengthened to meet the presumed antiquity. (p. 63)Later, the author gets remarkably specific about the impact of the Flood on living things:
Not that any new species were then created, or ever have been, at any other than the single epoch named in Genesis; but the means were then provided, to produce higher developments of existing species. (p. 58)
Remember that this book was published in 1858, the year before Origin. This is not a reactionary book, unless it's reacting to trends in geology. This is one person's view of creation and the Flood. The academics may have already abandoned reliance on the Bible for information about the history of creation, but most Christians had not. Deluge Universal is just one example of that.
It should also be noted that Deluge Universal is not a good book, even by the geological standards of the day. The author has weird ideas about chemistry, doesn't really understand how to state an argument, and is prone to wild speculation (like his idea that Africa was under water during the days of Solomon). I think the weirdness of the book helps us to understand why young-age creationism appears to have originated much later. Prior to Price, creationism lacked an eloquent spokesperson. Say what you will about Price's arguments, but at least he knew how to construct and state them.
Darwin comes into the picture by offering the general public a rallying point, a reason to care about origins. Before Darwin, there wasn't much reason for the average person to get passionate about the doctrine of creation. Darwin gave the Christian layperson an "enemy" or "villain," if you will. William Jennings Bryan egged them on, and George McCready Price gave them an alternative way to think about geology and the history of creation. Again, the quality of these "alternatives" doesn't really matter. My point is that folks like Bryan and Price did not invent something new. Rather, they tapped into something that was already there, a basic belief in creationism.