If you've been following along at home, you know that Ben Carson's comments about creation and evolution have reinvigorated my interest in understanding how the history of ideas about giants articulates with religion. Right now, I'm trying to trace what I call the "degeneracy doctrine:" the idea that (1) the first humans in the biblical creation account (i.e., Adam and Eve) were significantly taller than us and (2) that the narrative arc of the human past has been characterized by a "degeneration" from those "bigger, smarter, stronger" humans to the "smaller, dumber, weaker" humans of today (to paraphrase Young Earth Creationist Kent Hovind).
The "doctrine of degeneracy" can be seen clearly in the writings of Ellen G. White (1827-1915), founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. White's extensive writings, based on a series of prophetic visions she reportedly received beginning in the mid-1800s, specify that Adam was about twice as tall as modern people, and that "the inhabitants of earth had been degenerating, losing their strength and comeliness" through a process of Satanic deterioration that was initiated in the Garden of Eden (Spiritual Gifts, Vol. 1, 69.2). In addition to a decrease in height, strength, and physical beauty, White's post-Fall degradation of humans included shortening of lifespans and greater susceptibility to disease.
Where did Ellen White's ideas about the height of Adam originate? The Old Testament says nothing directly about the height of Adam or the other patriarchs, placing all ideas about the stature of the first humans into the realm of extra-biblical speculation.
To the archives!
A Google Ngram of "Bible Dictionary" suggests temporal trends in the publication of works meant to thoroughly augment the Bible. These works begin appearing in relatively small numbers in the late 1700s and early 1800s, increasing in popularity from perhaps the 1830s through the 1870s. The relative popularity of Bible dictionaries appears to decline during the first half of the twentieth century. The Ngram shows a sharp increase in the representation of Bible dictionaries in 1980s and 1990s. I wasn't expecting the late twentieth century rise, but I'll have to investigate that later.
Unfortunately, I haven't yet been able to locate a copy of the first (1732) English translation of Calmet's dictionary or the first edition (1797) of Taylor's version. The earliest Taylor version of Calmet that I have been able to find so far (and therefore the earliest example I can find of what would have been available to English-speaking audiences in Britain and the United States) is the second edition (1812) titled Calmet's Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible.
"It is probable, that the first men were of a strength and stature superior to those of mankind at present, since they lived a much longer time; long life being commonly the effect of a strong constitution. Scripture says, that there were many of these mighty tall men of the earth, in the days of Noah; and that there had been some before, particularly after the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of men."
The connection between the extraordinarily long lifespans of the Old Testament patriarchs and their health, strength, and stature is a fundamental component of the "degeneracy doctrine" seen in Ellen G. White's writings 50 years later. If Taylor's dictionary is faithful to Calmet's original, we can directly trace the idea that the first humans were "bigger, smarter, stronger" then the humans of today at least as far back in time as the early 1700s. Other authors of that time discuss the idea of human degenerating from Adam (e.g., Henrion in 1718), but it may be that copying of Calmet's work is largely responsible for inserting the idea into popular American discourse at a time when several indigenous religious sects were emerging. I have not searched systematically, but I suspect that the "degeneration" idea will be present in many of the other Bible dictionaries produced in America during the course of nineteenth century.
The 1812 entry for giants in Taylor's dictionary also contains (in addition to a section discussing Nephilim, Anakim, Rephaim, etc.) a section warranting the existence of giants through reference to the words of ancient writers and the discovery of giant skeletons:
"As to the existence of giants, several writers, both ancient and modern, have imagined, that the giants of Scripture were indeed men of extraordinary stature; but not so much as those have fancied, who describe them as three or four times larger than men are at present. They were, say they, men famous for their violences and crimes, rather than for their strength, or stature.
But it cannot be denied, that there have been men, of a stature much above that common at present. Moses, Deut. iii. 11. speaks of the beil of 0g, king of Basan, as nine cubits long, and four wide, fifteen feet four inches long. Goliath was six cubits and a span in height, ten feet seven inches, 1 Sam. xvii. 4. Giants were still common in the times of Joshua, and of David, when the life of man was already shortened, and, as may be presumed, the size and strength of human bodies was proportionably diminished.
Homer, Odyss. xi. ver. 306. speaks of the giants Otus and Ephialtes, who were nine cubits about, and thirty-six in height.
The body of Orestes being dug up, by order of an oracle, was found to be seven cubits, or ten feet and a half. One Gabbarus, at Rome, in the reign of Claudius, was nine feet nine inches high. Delrio, in 1572, saw, at Rohan, a native of Piedmont, above nine feet high.
In the year 1719, at Stonehenge, near Salisbury, in England, a human skeleton was found, which was nine feet four inches long. Gazette of October, 1719; under the date of 21st September."
In addition to repeating the idea that great height is connected to long life, this passage lists two of the "giants" (Orestes and Gabbarus aka Galbara) that end up in the "Giants of Olden Times" stories that were reprinted frequently in late nineteenth and early twentieth century American newspapers. The alert reader will have also noticed the similarity in the temporal distributions of reports of "giant" skeletons in nineteenth century American newspapers and the publication of Bible dictionaries. One can't help but wonder about what appears to be a correlation between the currently increasing popularity of Bible dictionaries and the re-emergence of interest (and apparently also belief) in giants.