The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
Epilogue: An Official Position
William Lee Stokes
[p.291]Nothing has so baffled and frustrated people as the question of origin. It is doubly troublesome because both science and theology feel impelled to solve it by offering two totally opposed solutions. Believers in Judaeo-Christian scriptures find an answer in the first two chapters of Genesis which they interpret as a story of divine origin for the human family. Science has discovered another possibility in the form of the theory of organic evolution. Ordinary citizens, caught between two certified sources of truth, have trouble deciding what they can safely believe.
Latter-day Saints are caught in the evolution/anti-evolution conflict in much the same way as other Bible-based religions but to an intensified degree. The LDS doctrine of eternal progression is peculiarly body oriented. Before birth the spirit is said to be unembodied. It is embodied at birth, disembodied at death, and reembodied in resurrection. That every worthy spirit should receive a proper human body is such an important, fundamental necessity that the possibility of its coming by chance or by accident, without divine provision, is unthinkable.
In the minds of most Mormons, organic evolution leaves God out of the picture and reduces the human body to the level of a lower animal. And yet the arguments for evolution are so persuasive and voluminous that many waver in their opposition. In the face of conflicting evidence and in a state of painful indecision, many, if not most, members would welcome a decision from a credible authority wiser or better informed than they. Many therefore believe that such [p.292]a decision actually exists and that it is set down in the statements of general church authorities. The impression is widespread that organic evolution has been officially condemned by the church and that evolutionists are holding their views in opposition to duly constituted authority. But is this so?
In 1957 as head of the Department of Geology at the University of Utah, I became aware of the need to know the position of the church. This feeling was intensified by publication in 1954 of the book Man, His Origin and Destiny by Joseph Fielding Smith, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve and later president of the church. I decided to inquire of President David O. McKay, not only for my own personal satisfaction but on behalf of thousands of college students who are entitled to correct information. I asked President McKay if the church had taken a position and if Elder Smith’s book had the weight of an official pronouncement. He answered with the following letter:
THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
47 EAST SOUTH TEMPLE STREET
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH
DAVID O. McKAY, PRESIDENT
February 15, 1957
Professor William Lee Stokes
2970 South 15th East
Salt Lake City, Utah
Dear Brother Stokes:
Your letter of February 11, 1957, has been received.
On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position. The book “Man, His Origin and Destiny” was not published by the Church, and is not approved by the Church.
The book contains expressions of the author’s views for which he alone is responsible.
Sincerely your brother,
[Signed, “David O. McKay”]
[p.293]I believe President McKay answered with the intention that his statements would be used by me in connection with my official duties as a teacher in a public institution, but he did not specifically grant me permission to publish his response. Rightly or wrongly I forwarded copies of his letter to those interested enough to ask for them and the letter thus gained fairly wide distribution. At no time did I personally broadcast the letter or give it publicity even though I think I would have been justified in doing so.
Anti-evolution sentiment continued to grow in the 1950s and was strengthened by further publications by church authorities such as Doctrines of Salvation, a compilation of Elder Smith’s writings by his son-in-law, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, and by McConkie’s own book, Mormon Doctrine. In Mormon Doctrine (1958) after quoting from President John Taylor (Mediation and Atonement, 160-61), McConkie stated: “This aptly expressed and plainly worded statement from President John Taylor summarizes the official doctrine of the Church as to the falsity of the theory of organic evolution.”1
In the face of what appeared to me as a contradiction of authorities or at least a serious difference of opinion, I continued to feel a need to publish the McKay letter but was restrained by the idea that I had no clear permission to do so. On 13 October 1968, I again wrote to President McKay and asked for permission to publish the essential statements from his 1957 letter. At this time he was so ill (he would die on 18 January 1970) that I scarcely expected a reply. However, on 18 October I received a letter over the signature of Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, stating that he had been directed to tell me that there was no objection to my use of the quotation—”on the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position”—in a book I was then writing.
I have since been accused of taking unfair advantage of President McKay. Let readers judge. I am personally grateful that the church has not taken a stand that might prove to be wrong. This has already happened to fundamentalist churches among whose ranks I am happy not to be included. It is also faith promoting to me to know that God expects men and women to sift and study many subjects for truth and that he does not solve all our problems by official pronouncements.
[p.294]1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 230; the second edition of Mormon Doctrine (1966), 248, dropped the term “official” but conveyed virtually the same message: “This aptly expressed and plainly worded statement from President John Taylor expresses the same views and perspective found in the writings and sermons of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, Charles W. Penrose, and many of our early-day inspired writers.”