Warren H. Johns is an instructor in religion at Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.


ABRAHAM GOTTLOB WERNER, a most influential and persuasive geologist at the end of the eighteenth century, postulated that volcanic activity was the result of the burning of coal beds and melting of the nearby rocks. This conclusion was reached after a visit to a burned-out coal seam in Bohemia, and was afterwards taught as doctrine at the mining school of Freiberg, Ger many, where Werner was head. 1

Beginning in 1864, and over a period of some forty years, Ellen White has written several intriguing passages that trace volcanic activity to subterranean fires that have been fueled by burning coal beds. The unanswered question has been whether these passages have scientific confirmation. Since the time of their writing, oil wells have punctured the skin of the earth, both on land and at sea, like hypodermic needles. Many have penetrated coal seams. Why do we not have evidence for burning coal beds producing volcanoes? Why is there evidence of volcanic activity at Mount Fuji and Mount Pelee and not at Pittsburgh? Why have there been volcanic explosions at Krakatoa and Crater Lake and not in the mining district of Ruhr?

The amount of volcanic activity in the historical past is staggering. The basalt flows of the Columbia River plateau of the northwest United States have buried 130,000 square kilometers, and the total volume is an amazing 100,000 cubic kilometers (25,000 cubic miles). The basalt flows of the Deccan of India cover 500,000 square miles and of the Parana of Brazil and Paraguay an in credible 750,000 square kilometers. One shield volcano alone, Mauna Loa, rises higher than Mount Everest when computed from its base on the ocean floor (10 kilometers in height) and has a basal diameter of 100 kilometers (60 miles).2 To suggest that all such volcanic activity is the result of burning coal beds is obviously unreasonable.

With nearly all coal reserves around the world mapped for future energy needs, and with a large share of them located by underground drilling, it would seem that there should be some correlation between coal beds and volcanism. To suggest that the only burning coal beds are those that have been plunged deep within the earth's crust beyond the reach of the driller's bit simply postpones indefinitely the answering of this major challenge. Is there any scientific corroboration for these interesting Ellen White quotations (see the footnotes for a summary),3 or are they a product of her age?

As these questions were tugging at my mind, I was browsing through the science library of a large university campus and encountered two shelves of books dealing with coal. I pulled a 461- page book off the shelf and turned to a three-page section that amazingly provided the long-awaited answer. It was the Geology of Coal, by Otto Stutzer, of the School of Mines at Freiburg, Ger many, the same place where Werner once taught. It was revised and translated into English in 1940 by Adolph Noe, the well-known paleobotanist of the University of Chicago.

It is a well-documented fact that subterranean fires in coal beds are ignited through spontaneous combustion, resulting in the melting of nearby rocks that are classed as pseudovolcanic deposits. Among many examples that could be cited is the following: "The burning mountain near Dudweiler, in the Sarre basin, has often been described. The fire was in the Blucher coal bed along an outcrop 400 meters long. It lasted over 150 years, and the adjacent shale has been baked to a blue and red porcelain jasper and to a solid red slate." 4 Other examples are found in Zwickau and Upper Silesia, in the brown coals of Zittau and several fires in the Serbia district, where the surrounding clay has been baked to the hardness of brick. In the Zwickau district, fires have lasted for several years, and the heat from one burning coal bed was used for heating greenhouses in that area from 1837 to 1868. 5

Note how the specifics of Ellen White's handling of subterranean fires are validated by this discovery. The spontaneous combustion of coal can be inferred from one of her statements: "The coal and oil frequently ignite and burn beneath the surface of the earth." 6 The mechanism for such combustion is now understood. Pyrite absorbs oxygen, liberates heat, and thus spontaneously ignites. "This heat may lead to the ignition of coal. There are cases known where ship cargoes of pyrite have taken fire." 7 One of the main constituents of pyrite is sulphur, and it is sulphur that is often seen around the eruptions of hot springs, geysers, and volcanic fumaroles.

That the coal fires are sufficiently hot to melt surrounding rocks is well-established. Studies from the same part of Germany (Bohemia) where Werner reached his conclusions indicate this: "Evidences of old ground fires are numerous in the brown-coal district of Bohemia, especially along the east and south margins of the basis. Rocks which overlie the coal have suffered consider able alteration because of the fires, being sintered and partly melted." 8 This correlates amazingly with the Ellen G. White statement: "Rocks are heated, limestone is burned, and iron ore melted." 9

A more difficult statement to explain is the one on the same page, "The air is heated and suffocating," because of its superficial resemblances to medieval speculation about underground air pas sageways, which was derived from Greek philosophers and passed on to seventeenth-century cosmologists. Coal is known to be permeable to air, as evidenced by the movement of shrubs at the natural exits of such currents and by the measurement of downdrafts and updrafts in mine openings when barometric pressure is stable. Besides air, noxious gases commonly collect in coal beds—methane, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and even helium. 10 No wonder she describes the air as "suffocating."

Such gases can easily result in explosions, which Ellen White describes as sounding like "muffled thunder." "Ac cording to experiments, fresh coal fragments of the size of walnuts when pulverized may release methane up to four times their own volume. Since in gas explosions great quantities of fine coal are suddenly thrown into the mine workings, large quantities of gas may be liberated from this single source. . . . Violent outbursts of gas are common in coal beds which are rich in fusain [mineral charcoal]." 11 Thus, such explosions can result in earth tremors.

It is well to take note of what Ellen White is not saying. For example, she does not state that all volcanoes are the product of burning coal beds. Ellen White does link earthquake and volcanic action together, which is now well-substantiated from the "ring of fire" around the edges of the Pacific Ocean, which is a high-level earth quake, as well as volcanic, zone. Nor does she state that all earthquakes are the result of subterranean fires in coal. Otherwise, Germany would have more earthquakes because of its higher concentration of burning coal fields. Thus we can conclude that what she is describing is a much more limited and localized phenomena than what first meets the eye, yet its accuracy is amazing.

Evidence in United States

Several months after my "rediscovery" of the long-forgotten burning coal beds from Bohemia, I was con fronted with even greater and more re cent evidence for burning coal beds, this time in the western United States. While doing research on the Powder River and Williston basins, I was surprised to find numerous references in several U.S. Geological Survey papers to a phenomenon called "clinker" in the rocks above the lignite (soft coal) beds. Clinker, or "baked slag," is the result of the partial melting or baking of the sandstone and shale beds above the coal. What is the source for such intense heat so as to melt rocks? Geologists are unanimous in agreeing that the heat comes from the burning of the coal bed below, for invariably clinker occurs above a burned-out coal seam. The coal is useless because all the volatiles and other combustibles have been burned out of it.

The earliest geological evaluation of the burned-out coal beds of the western United States was by Bastin in 1905, although it was briefly reported earlier in a very cursory way in the 1869 geological survey of Hayden, who opened up the Yellowstone area to exploration. The most thorough discussion was in 1918 by Rogers (and perhaps today still stands as the most comprehensive).

Rogers opens his U.S. Geological Survey report with these words: "The baking and reddening of large masses of strata by the burning of coal beds is a striking feature of the landscape in most of the great western coal-bearing areas." 12 Several theories are advanced as to what exactly ignited the fires: lightning, prairie fires, campfires left by Indians, or spontaneous combustion. The latter is favored by Rogers, as well as by recent authors. A problem of freshly mined coal is that if it is left exposed to air for a week or two, it can absorb oxygen and spontaneously ignite. This is why coal must be covered with plastic if it is to be left stockpiled in the open or kept covered with water.

Recognition of burned-out beds of coal in the States of Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming is not too difficult. Clinker resembles the slag from smelting processes and is usually baked to a distinctive reddish-brown color that contrasts with the paler colors of the surrounding sandstone.

The question can be raised about the propriety of applying volcanic terminology to the simple burning of coal beds. One encounters expressions such as, "volcanoes, and fiery issues," "streams of lava," "melted ore," and "volcanic eruption," in the Ellen White accounts of burning coal beds. The burned-out beds of Bohemia have not resulted in lava flows, although one finds baked rocks and fumaroles (steam vents) reminiscent of volcanic activity. Is it advisable to use volcanic terms in describing this phenomenon?

The fact is that geologists have done so with the western United States beds. Thurlow strikes a note much in tune with what Ellen White wrote more than a century earlier: "The melted rock resembles common furnace clinker or volcanic lava." 13 Rogers, writing about a half century after the original Ellen White description, states: "In some places the material has been rendered sufficiently fluid to develop a ropy surface on cooling, closely resembling the characteristic of certain lavas."14 How can it be said that she relied upon con temporary geological accounts when the pen of the inspired writer came to rest three years before the definite Rogers report?

Another Point Challenged

The accuracy of the Ellen White statements can be challenged on one final crucial point. She states: "Rocks are heated, limestone is burned, and iron ore melted." Iron ore is not generally found in the immediate vicinity of coal beds. What a great boon it would be to the modern-day steel mills if this were so! It is very true, however, that limestone occurs in company with coal, and limestone is a chief component of the sequence of coal, shales, limestone, and sandstones called cyclothems. A limestone bed can rest just a few inches above a coal bed, and sometimes lime stone nodules are formed in the upper part of the coal itself in what are known as coal balls. Yet do we have evidence for iron ore accompanying coal, or must that matter be taken by faith?

The Bohemian beds do not provide the answer, so we must look to the West. Rogers reports uncovering an anomaly in the form of a mass of hematite about one foot in diameter, situated in the partly baked shale next to a chimney. He admits that "the origin of this mass of hematite is not easy to understand." Before offering three hypothetical explanations, the suggestion is that "the specimen described must therefore have been formed in some way through the agency of the burning coal." 15 There it is—the melting of iron ore, for hematite is one of the ores of iron.

All this leads to a whole list of unanswered questions: How did Ellen White know about subterranean explosions, the melting of associated rocks to resemble lava, the deposition of volcanic-type rocks at the surface and the circulation of subterranean air, water, and poisonous gases, having never visited the burned-out coal beds of Bohemia or of the western United States? It is not likely that she read the scientific descriptions of such, as they appeared so infrequently since first re ported by Werner. It is much more unlikely that she resorted to the published ideas of contemporary Creationists on the subject, since their views were relics of wild cosmological speculations going back to Burnet (1691) and even earlier.

Who told Ellen White, then? What is her source? She could have read the accounts of John Wesley, the most likely candidate, but if her ideas are a whole sale borrowing from him, why are there not relics of eighteenth-century thinking, such as the supposed existence of hollow underground passageways with subterranean windstorms, in her writings? Our fruitless search to find a human source for Ellen White's descriptions of subterranean fires prompts us to look toward the divine source.

Just as the mystery of spontaneous combustion in the dark bosom of the earth is now coming to light, so the mysterious presence of the Eternal One is being made visible behind the pen of these Ellen White statements. They must have been inspired. If these declarations dealing with the origin of coal and subsequent phenomena are indeed the product of inspiration and are trust worthy, then her companion statements on a vast array of scientific topics are inspired and thus trustworthy. Their accuracy is not just theological but also scientific. The coal mines of Germany have become a veritable gold mine in a study of Ellen White's scientific declarations, indicating the intermingling of the divine and human in a unique way.


1 Archibald Geikie, The Founders of Geology (New York: Maemillan and Co., 1905, 2d ed.), pp. 222, 225.

2 Frank Press and Raymond Siever, Earth (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1974), pp. 567, 570.

3 Eight salient points summarizing Ellen White's views on subterranean fires were listed in part one of this article. They are as follows: (1) the formation of coal beds is linked to the Noachian Flood; (2) a byproduct of coal formation is oil; (3) subterranean fires are fueled by the burning; (4) ground water is added to the subterranean fires, producing explosions, and thus earthquakes; (5) earthquake and volcanic activity are linked together as products of these fires; (6) both limestone and iron ore are connected with the burning coal beds and oil deposits; (7) the circulation of air is also involved; (8) deposits of coal and oil are usually found where there are no subterranean fires.

4 Otto Stutzer, Geology of Coal, translated by Adolph Noe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), pp. 309, 310.

5 Ibid.

6 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Assn., 1913, reprint of 1890 ed.), p. 108.

7 Stutzer, op. cit., p. 309.

8 Ibid., p. 310.

9 Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 108.

10 Stutzer, op. cit., pp. 219, 220.

11 Ibid., pp. 260, 261.

12 G. Sherburne Rogers, "Baked Shale and Slag Formed by the Burning of Coal Beds," U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 108-A (1918), 10 pages.

13 E. E. Thurlow, Western Coal, Mining Engineering, 26 (1974): 30-33. (Italics supplied.)

14 Rogers, op. cit. (Italics supplied.)

15 Ibid., pp. 9, 10.

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Warren H. Johns is an instructor in religion at Columbia Union College, Takoma Park, Maryland.

October 1977

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