Mormon Responses to Darwin, 1859-1933

By March 6, 2008

The First Presidency of the Latter-day Saint Church has never made a direct statement in response to Darwin, his book, or his theory of evolution. Yet, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the church did respond indirectly. Less formally, certain leaders openly attacked Darwin’s ideas, while other church officials and lay members disliked transmutation but contemplated other forms of evolution. Various personalities and their corresponding works exemplify these responses. For example, Joseph Fielding Smith adamantly opposed Darwin’s ideas most of his life, best evidenced in his Man, His Origin and Destiny (1954). Smith held that “one who follows the theories of Darwin, will eventually, like Darwin, lose all faith in God the Eternal Creator.”[1] Yet, in the late nineteenth century, James E. Talmage wrote in his journal that very few religious thinkers understood Darwin, and consequently misconstrued his ideas as an attack on religion and theology.[2] His son Sterling Talmage followed his father in seeking to understand Darwinian thought, and explain why it was not antithetical to Mormonism. Other examples exist, each providing differing perspectives and ways of either rejecting or assimilating Darwinian evolutionary thought with Mormon doctrine. Yet, the nature of the publications opposing Darwin led to a quasi-authoritative view which was perceived as mostly anti-Darwinian. As Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg have explained,

By the last decade of the twentieth century few members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would doubt the truth of the following statement: The ideas of organic evolution, particularly as they apply to the development of humankind, are false.[3]

If the foregoing statement is true, how is it explained? Is this simply a case of a specific voice (Joseph Fielding Smith) in a particular position (Apostle) outliving others who advocated different views? What other variables are at work in deciding the general memberships’ views on evolution? I find these questions intriguing because they certainly relate to other issues. For example, is their an officially held view regarding how the atonement works? Or, is there a quasi-authoritative atonement theory that certain individual leaders have promulgated which is generally accepted? This opens the door to many questions, but I like open doors.

________________________ 

The foregoing is a short summary of a paper I will present at MHA.

[1] Joseph Fielding Smith, Man, His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1954), 84-85.

[2] James P. Harris, The Essential James E. Talmage (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1997), 5

[3] Sessions and Oberg, “The Mormon Retreat from Science,” in The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism, edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993), v.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Interesting post, Jordan. I look forward to your MHA paper. I’m not convinced that Sessions and Oberg are accurate in their assessment of late 20th-century Mormon views of evolution.

    To me, more than anything else, this confirms the notion that Mormon theology and belief is quite flexible.

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 3:21 pm

  2. Gary, paging Gary. Your services are needed.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 6, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

  3. Lester Bush has oodles of FP letters on evolution in his papers at the UU. Bergara’s recent anthology cited a couple. These were, if I am not mistaken, all to individuals and not general circulars.

    In many ways, this phenomena is a microcosm of the grander absolutist arch of JFSII and BRM. Why was MoDoc so influential when it had been excoriated by the First Presidency?

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 6, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

  4. JS, I assume your question is rhetorical, but it seems like the question assumes knowledge on the part of church members that I’m not sure they had. The criticisms of MoDoc–the apostolic investigation, the (ignored) demand that it not be republished–were kept secret from the general membership in order not to embarass a prominent member of the Presidents of Seventy weren’t they?

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 6, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  5. Exactly.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 6, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

  6. …kept secret from the general membership…

    Thus begs the question: How then did you come by this special knowledge — of apostolic frowning and ignored commandments? Surely not by scurrilous rumors.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 6, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

  7. Jim, its right there in the David O. McKay volume by Prince and Wright, which comes from the notes of Pres. McKay’s own secretary. Almost everything to do with the publishing of Mormon Doctrine had some shady business to it.

    I think the rejection of evolution may not have so much to do with statements by the Church’s own leaders but the growing sense of accommodation with the rest of Protestant America, who picked up the anti-evolution banner early.

    Comment by AHLDuke — March 6, 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  8. The future of Mormonism depends on our continuing ability to identify and embrace truth from all sources, not all of which are ecclesiastical. To the extent that we do not make use of the knowledge and power with which God is inspiring and endowing us, we are damned.

    Comment by Lincoln Cannon — March 6, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  9. Surely not Jim.
    Please note the tense of the verb in the snippet you quoted, and then follow AHL’s advice and crack that Prince book.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 6, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

  10. Is this simply a case of a specific voice (Joseph Fielding Smith) in a particular position (Apostle) outliving others who advocated different views?

    I’d say that although the JFS and BRM voices weren’t the only voices on the subject they were the loudest, and most authoritative, for many decades. Importantly, (for application to Mormon thought) they held these thoughts because rejecting evolution made their interpretations of scripture more straightforward, which resonates with the rank-and-file. How is one to view the idea of “no death before the fall” if species have been evolving and going extinct for millions of years prior?.

    Although some have successfully waded those waters, for the vast majority – without a loud, authoritative voice stating otherwise – it makes more sense to reject evolution. Like Talmage points out, most don’t understand it anyway. It may also be worth noting that positions like that of Talmage, were more about showing that one *can* reconcile Mormonism and evolution, and less so that evolution *should* be embraced.

    Comment by NorthboundZax — March 6, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  11. Jordan W. said:

    “The First Presidency of the Latter-day Saint Church has never made a direct statement in response to Darwin, his book, or his theory of evolution.”

    Wrong!

    The First Presidency, at least twice in the years 1859-1933, responded to Darwin, his book, and his theory of evolution.

    “Mormon View of Evolution” was issued in 1925 by Heber J. Grant’s First Presidency.  It is an abbreviated copy of “The Origin of Man,” issued in 1909 by Joseph F. Smith’s First Presidency.  The position of the LDS Church on evolution is set forth in these two formal declarations of doctrine.

    The first of the two, the 1909 First Presidency statement on “The Origin of Man” (1) is about evolution, (2) is official, (3) is doctrinal, and (4) is definitive.

    The 1909 statement (1) is about evolution.

         1-a.  The 1925 statement clearly establishes that the 1909 statement is about evolution.  Because the 1925 statement is actually an abridged version of the 1909 statement, it firmly establishes by its title, “Mormon View of Evolution,” that both statements do in fact express the Church’s view on evolution.  Because the 1909 statement is titled “The Origin of Man,” it is also clear that the subject is human evolution.

         1-b.  This was confirmed in 1992 by the First Presidency and several members of the Quorum of the Twelve when, as members of the BYU Board of Trustees, they approved the BYU Evolution Packet in these words:

    “This packet contains, as far as could be found, all statements issued by the First Presidency … on the subject of evolution and the origin of man….  The earliest … was issued during the administration of President Joseph F. Smith in 1909….  The second … was issued during the administration of President Heber J. Grant in 1925.  Although there has never been a formal declaration from the First Presidency addressing the general matter of organic evolution as a process for development of [other] biological species, these documents make clear the official position of the Church regarding the [evolution of, or] origin of man….

    “Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions.”

         1-c.  The 1909 First Presidency statement was reprinted by the Church in its February 2002 Ensign magazine as the Church’s doctrinal position on evolution:

    “In the early 1900s, questions concerning the Creation of the earth and the theories of evolution became the subject of much public discussion.  In the midst of these controversies, the First Presidency issued the following in 1909, which expresses the Church’s doctrinal position on these matters.”  (Ensign, Feb. 2002, p. 26.)

    A note elsewhere in the same magazine says:

    “Find … the Church’s official teachings on the creation of mankind and evolution … on p. 26.”  (Ensign, Feb. 2002, p. 80.)

         1-d.  The Church’s Gospel Topic web page about “Creation” again says the 1909 statement contains the Church’s doctrinal position on evolution:

    “In 1909, amid controversy and questions about the Creation and the theory of evolution, the First Presidency issued this article, which expresses the Church’s doctrinal position.”

    The 1909 statement (2) is official.

         2-a.  The 1992 First Presidency said the 1909 statement is official.  In 1992, the First Presidency and several members of the Quorum of the Twelve, as members of the BYU Board of Trustees, said “Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions.”

    Specifically, they said the 1909 and 1925 statements “make clear the official position of the Church regarding the [evolution of, or] origin of man”  (see 1-b, above).

         2-b.  The February 2002 Ensign says the 1909 statement is official (see the note at the back of the Ensign as quoted in 1-c, above).

    The 1909 statement (3) is doctrinal.

         3-a.  In its introduction to the February 2002 reprint of the 1909 statement, the Ensign says it “expresses the Church’s doctrinal position [on] evolution” (see 1-c, above).

         3-b.  In its introduction to the 1909 statement, the Church’s Gospel Topic web page on “Creation” also says it “expresses the Church’s doctrinal position [on] evolution” (see 1-d, above).

         3-c.  Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith says the 1909 statement was a “doctrinal exposition” (see p. ix).

         3-d.  The Church’s history page for President Joseph F. Smith also says the 1909 statement was a “doctrinal exposition.”

    The 1909 statement (4) is definitive.

         4-a.  One meaning of definitive is “precisely defined or explicit.”  In this sense, some claim the 1909 statement may not be definitive.  Even so, the statement is sufficiently clear.  Here’s why:

    The apostles have the keys as prophets, seers, and revelators.  With the senior apostle at their head, they are charged with making the Church’s doctrine understandable to all (see 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20, 4:12-14; D&C 1:14, 52:9, 36).

    A living apostle, President Boyd K. Packer, has stated explicitly and with precision that the 1909 statement constitutes an authoritative pronouncement against human evolution (see here) and he continues to denounce “those who equate humankind with animals” (address given at the BYU Women’s Conference, May 5, 2006, p. 5).

    Equally as important is the fact that no apostle has ever disagreed with President Packer’s conclusion.

         4-b.  Another meaning of definitive is “authoritative.”  In this sense, the 1909 statement is clearly definitive because, as the First Presidency and several Apostles said in 1992, “Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions” and the 1909 and 1925 statements “make clear” position of the Church regarding man’s origin (see 1-b, above).

    The 1909 First Presidency statement on “The Origin of Man” is about evolution.  It is official.  It is doctrinal.  And it is definitive.  It clearly constitutes a Mormon Response to Darwin, 1859-1933.

    Comment by R. Gary — March 6, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

  12. R. Gary.,

    Thank you for your long (and I mean, long) response. But thank you even more for so emphatically explaining that Jordan is “wrong!” Without that exclamation point, your comment wouldn’t have been nearly as humorous to read.

    Comment by Christopher — March 6, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

  13. I think that the importation of anti-evolution views from the surrounding American religious culture probably plays an important role in shaping the views of both leaders and regular members.

    Comment by Jared* — March 6, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  14. R. Gary and I have gone the rounds on this topic elsewhere, so let me simply offer the following:

    “The Origin of Man” does not rule out the creation of the human body of Adam through evolution, as it explicitly states that Adam’s body might have originated as an embryo. It denounces any attempt to classify man as nothing more than a smart ape by focusing on the origin of the *spirit* of man and what made Adam the first *man* – a distinctly different species than the animals – namely, his spirit.

    Granted, the possibility of evolutionary development for the physical body is contained in one phrase within one sentence (and it might have been included only to placate the apostles who held that view), but it is there nonetheless. Therefore, the Church’s only official statement regarding evolution is that the physical body might have been created through an evolutionary process, but *mankind* is a different species than any other and did not evolve “naturally” (through just a natural, scientific process) from any other species – since the spirit that made it uniquely *human* was inserted directly by divine action.

    Comment by Ray — March 6, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

  15. I agree with Ray. When I read the two documents that R. Gary references, the only two doctrinal teachings are
    1. Adam and Eve were the first humans
    2. We are spiritual children of God
    Both of these beliefs could be interpreted many different ways, including both pro- and anti- evolutionary theories. So I could even concede several of R. Gary’s points, because they do not support the views he is hoping they do. But, his comment did bring a smile after a long night of studying.

    Comment by Ben — March 7, 2008 @ 12:26 am

  16. Perhaps I should have written, “The First Presidency of the Latter-day Saint Church has never made a direct response to Darwin, his book, or his theory of evolution.” I do agree that the church issued the statements you [R. Gary] point out in the context of increased discussion of evolutionary theories broadly speaking. Yet, I still hold that they [The First Presidency] never explicitly responded to Darwin, his book, or his theory. In other words, without Darwin they probably would not have made the statements when they did, but this does not mean they specifically addressed Darwin’s theories.

    Comment by Jordan W. — March 7, 2008 @ 1:53 am

  17. By the way, as I am sure most of you are aware, in 1957 President David O. McKay wrote to William Lee Stokes: “On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position.” See Sessions and Oberg, The Search for Harmony, 292-293.

    Comment by Jordan W. — March 7, 2008 @ 2:05 am

  18. I’m with Ray and Ben. The First Presidency statement is about as vague as it could possibly be about organic evolution. As far as I can tell, the only position it really takes is that God was in charge, that somehow he made man in his own image, and that he created man spiritually before he created him temporally. What it doesn’t say is how it was done or accomplished–thus the ambiguity. I think either creationists or evolutionists could probably find room in this statement for their beliefs.

    Comment by Joel — March 7, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  19. Wasn’t there a big controversy about this at BYU about the time that the statement was released?

    Comment by Joel — March 7, 2008 @ 9:42 am

  20. While participating in my ward’s celebration of Evolution Weekend last month, a thought occurred to me: has anyone created a complete annotated version of the 1909 statement?

    For example, Jared* has suggested here that part of the statement may be a response to ideas put forth by Ernst Haeckel.

    Comment by Justin — March 7, 2008 @ 9:58 am

  21. Joel–there was. This is a pretty good, if long, summary of what happened and who the major characters were.

    The First Presidency of the Latter-day Saint Church has never made a direct statement in response to Darwin, his book, or his theory of evolution.

    You’re right–they’ve responded to the popular, and incorrect, version of evolution, but never to the actual theory. Ray–we’ve had this discussion before, and I’m just going to reiterate that I very much disagree with your theory the Adam was a true human while his parents and siblings, and aunts and uncles and cousins were somehow not. That’s just not how evolution works.

    Comment by kristine N — March 7, 2008 @ 11:21 am

  22. by Prince and Wright, which comes from the notes of Pres. McKay’s own secretary

    I can see how such ideas get spread and popularized. It yet remains that there is no good reason to patronize third-hand scurrilous rumors. Even when they come presented as revisionist history packaged in an attractive binding.

    Another good case in point — this more direct statement of Pres. McKay:

    On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position

    Little doubt in my mind that something similar would have been said about Mormon Doctrine, if the issue had merited that kind of attention. I satisfied that silence on the matter represented exactly what was intended.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 7, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  23. I can see how such ideas get spread and popularized. It yet remains that there is no good reason to patronize third-hand scurrilous rumors. Even when they come presented as revisionist history packaged in an attractive binding.

    Um, Jim … what “third-hand scurrilous rumors”? The information comes from President McKay’s personal secretary’s notes. Hardly seems third-hand and scurrilous. If you’re looking for a venue to bash historians and the work they do, you might want to look elsewhere.

    Comment by Christopher — March 7, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  24. McKay ideas -> private Secretary notes -> Prince and Wright redact

    This chain appears to satisfy the “third-hand” criteria.

    As to the “scurrilous rumors” part, I am simply judging based on the arguments being presented. Even if the assertions about bits and fragments of discussions are true, there is a reason these matters were not made public at the time. Perhaps you could say I am naive, because I am assuming that private matters were kept private because they were intended to be private.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 7, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  25. Jim, I already told you: If you’re looking for a venue to bash historians and the work they do, please look elsewhere.

    Comment by Christopher — March 7, 2008 @ 12:59 pm

  26. Jim, while I agree that notes are secondary and sometimes are problematic, I don’t think one can discount them to quite the same degree you are doing.

    Comment by Clark — March 7, 2008 @ 2:44 pm

  27. Fwiw, private notes and conversations sometimes are the only time that public figures really express their unabridged feelings and beliefs. I do NOT believe that is true of prophets and apostles to a degree that would imply “lying” or “hedging” or “concealing” or any other negative connotation, but there are plenty of times I have heard a talk in General Conference, for example, and thought, “I would love to hear the unabridged version of that talk – what that apostle would say in a private meeting with just other apostles.” There is a degree of “watering down” in these instances simply because of the broad differences in understanding represented among the audience – much like what happens with SS manuals.

    Be careful about discounting this type of source, especially when it comes from someone as fanatically meticulous as Pres. McKay’s personal secretary. The woman was extraordinary in that regard.

    Comment by Ray — March 7, 2008 @ 3:10 pm

  28. […] here at JI as a permablogger.  Jordan’s posts as a guest blogger were well received (well, mostly well received), and we look forward to his future contributions. Please help us welcome Jordan as the newest […]

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  29. I don’t think one can discount them to quite the same degree you are doing

    No discounting is necessary. I am sure you realize there are many legitimate reasons for qualifying secretarial notes as a source.

    I recorded minutes for stake presidency meetings myself, for quite some time. The notes were intended for a specific purpose. I would never promote them as an accurate reflection of what was going on in the stake president’s thoughts, especially not without his permission and approval.

    Unless the secretary was recording specific directives dictated by President McKay intended for the purpose of conveying public comment, I’m not much interested in what proof-texts might be derived from them.

    Especially if there seems a ikelihood that the redacting serves an agenda not obviously shared by those who were the sources.

    I find no particular motive evident in President McKay’s silence. It should suffice to assert that he kept silent.

    I apologize if you take this as “bashing historians”. To me it seems reasonable and prudent.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 7, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  30. Jim, you know not of which you speak, in this particular case. I’ll leave others to comment more.

    When you use the phrase

    likelihood that the redacting serves an agenda not obviously shared by those who were the sources.

    one could almost say the same for your interpretation. IE, your review of the evidence is used to support a conclusion it appears that you already have.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been guilty of that sort of thing myself on many occasions, but here, it runs up against some pretty rigorous review, and probably won’t stand up.

    Comment by kevinf — March 7, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  31. Jim: Don’t you think it’s a bit presumptuous of you to compare your notetaking skills and duties as a volunteer stake clerk to those of a professional secretary?

    Look, this isn’t the FAIRblog. Around here we don’t cavalierly dismiss plausible explanations just because they don’t fit neatly into our preconceived notions.

    (Clark, don’t bother getting offended by my attack on FAIR. This is not an attack on you.)

    Comment by David G. — March 7, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  32. I apologize if you take this as “bashing historians”. To me it seems reasonable and prudent.

    You dismissed Prince’s fine biography as “third-hand scurrilous rumors” and called it “revisionist history packaged in an attractive binding.” How is that not bashing Prince’s work?

    Because this blog is dedicated to approaching Mormon history on scholarly terms, and because each blogger is a historian, I’m particularly sensitive to glib dismissals of professional historical work as “third-hand scurrilous rumors.” And to me, it is neither “reasonable” nor “prudent” of you to make such accusations on this blog.

    Comment by Christopher — March 7, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

  33. I know that this doesn’t exactly address the question, but why not post it anyways?

    Why can’t we take the same position which people now take to Brigham’s Adam/God theory and apply it to any and all anti-evolution statements? For instance, we can say the following of Joseph Fielding Smith:

    -He was speculating.
    -He was misunderstood.
    -His views were never presented for a vote by the church membership. (What doctrines have been voted on?)
    -He misunderstood Darwin.

    And so on.

    Comment by Jeff G — March 7, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  34. Jeff: I dont know about you, but that is how a lot of us already feel.

    Comment by Ben — March 7, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  35. I’ve shared this on another blog while discussing another topic, but it’s more relevant here:

    My mother was a secretary in Pres. McKay’s office. She reported directly to Claire Middlemiss. The woman was the perfect secretary in about every imaginable measure – and was absolutely devoted to Pres. McKay. Her notes and minutes were as close to a taped record as is possible. From a historian’s perspective, they were the gold standard of documentation.

    Comment by Ray — March 7, 2008 @ 6:17 pm

  36. Please, settle this controversy to my satisfaction by simply explaining:

    President McKay made public statements about evolution.

    President McKay did not make public statements about McConkie or Mormon Doctrine.

    Why?

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — March 7, 2008 @ 7:34 pm

  37. Simply explaining? How’s this:

    The apostles almost never air their differences publicly, no matter how deep those differences. They used to address controversial issues publicly, but they didn’t challenge each other publicly – at least at the time of DOM. There’s no mystery there; they simply made a conscious decision to change the previous public wrangling and settle things privately – even in instances like Mormon Doctrine where there was real and deep sentiment against the work – and, especially, the title.

    The best example of this is the debate over the Priesthood ban – where the avoidance of public dispute while disagreeing privately was intense.

    Comment by Ray — March 7, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

  38. Re indirect responses to Darwin and/or his theories:

    After reading Orson F. Whitney’s 1882 article on evolution, which the 1909 statement drew upon for its content, I noticed that the 1909 statement’s point that “[i]t is held by some…that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation” draws upon Whitney’s description of “[t]he Darwinian theory.”

    Whitney writes:”THE recent death of Professor Charles Darwin, the famous author of the ‘Origin of Species,’ and one of the ablest enunciators of the theory and doctrine of evolution, brings vividly to mind the lamentable condition of the modern world, with its scientific vagaries and religious absurdities, and the many unscriptural and unreasonable ideas so widely prevalent concerning man’s origin and eternal destiny. The Darwinian theory, which is but one phase of the philosophy of evolution, might briefly be presented as follows: Man is a development from the lowest orders of the animal creation” (emphasis added).

    Comment by Justin — March 8, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  39. That is interesting, Justin. I thought I remembered a Darwin reference in Charles Card’s Utah Diaries and also saw in my notes this nugget from one of O. F. Whitney’s sermons:

    Bp. O. F. Whitney Spoke of Temple & Spiritual Salvation which is one one with the Lord every relijous Scientific truth is a religious truth. Science is another name for Knowledge. Faith is the Motive power of all action. (Sept. 9, 1883, pg. 485)

    The Darwin reference was from a Jan 16, 1882 sermon by Elder L. R. Martineau, where he “Refered to the nonsensical Ideas of the Darwin theory” (pg. 316).

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 8, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  40. Very nice post, Jordan W. Three cheers for Sterling Talmage.

    Comment by Dave — March 9, 2008 @ 6:42 am

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