The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Reactions to the Darwinist Legacy
In late 1930 B. H. Roberts of the First Council of Seventy wrote to Rudger Clawson, president of the Council of Twelve Apostles, protesting a speech given by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith published the previous October. Smith’s speech had attacked one of the pillars of evolutionary theory, the paleontological record of life and death stretching back hundreds of millions of years. In his letter Roberts wrote: “I call in question the accuracy of Elder Smith’s position in reference to the whole doctrine of his discourse, as being contrary to a great volume of well-developed and ascertained truth, established by the researches of scientists of highest character, of profoundest learning, and world wide research. I hold his doctrine contrary at least to the plain implications of scripture; as tending also to reduce the church of the New Dispensation to the character of a narrow, bigoted sect, forsaking the God-given world movement idea of it; and as injurious to the continued faith in the adherence to the teachings of the Church not by a ‘scattered few’ but by a very great number of its membership.”1
In a paper presented to the council on 14 January 1931 in defense of his position, Smith wrote, “Any doctrine whether it comes in the name of religion, science, philosophy or whatever it may be, that is in conflict with the revelations of the Lord will fail …. you will find that every doctrine, theory, principle no matter how great it may [p.68] appear, no matter how universally it may be believed, if it is not in accord with the word of the Lord it will perish.”2
Here were two pillars of twentieth-century Mormonism wrestling with the modern understanding of nature and history. Roberts had been a member of the First Council of Seventy for over forty years, a defender of the faith in innumerable situations, and a prolific author of works in explanation and defense of the church. Smith had been an apostle for twenty years, the son of a church president, and destined for that office. The issue on which these men collided was ostensibly the paleontological record of life and death that supported the evolutionary superstructure of modern biology. But there was a more profound issue at work. How far could one go in adopting the findings of modern intellectuals before compromising historic Mormonism out of existence? This was the real dilemma for these men. For Roberts, unless there was some accommodation, some reconciliation, many educated church members would drift away, unable to see how God could provide one record of his creation in nature and another in scripture. For Smith the issue was just as vital. Where do you stop once you have given up scriptural literalism? The faith of the Saints could easily be wrecked on the shoals of modernism.
The intense debate between Smith and Roberts ended inconclusively with the First Presidency declaring that neither side represented an official church position. However, the profound debate between these leaders is symbolic of a much wider spectrum of discussion over evolution that has gone on in Mormon society since the turn of the century.
Joseph Fielding Smith offered the most consistent opposition to evolutionary theory from Mormon sources. From his earliest published speeches to the publication of Man: His Origin and Destiny forty years later, the central theme of his position does not vary. Evolution is both untrue and destructive of faith. It is a Satan-inspired idea with which there can be no compromise. He was a Protestant fundamentalist in a Mormon setting.
Smith was not a scientist, and he would not have been prepared to argue against the theory on scientific grounds. Nor would he have wanted to. For him the word of God as revealed in the literal text of the scriptures was the only certain standard. Everything [p.69] else would be tested against it. If it conflicted with the scriptures, it was wrong. His earliest published attack on evolution is entitled “The Word of the Lord Superior to the Theories of Men.” This was the central concern of his attack thereafter. In an April 1930 address he spoke of his conviction: “The word of the Lord means more to me than anything else. I place it before the teachings of men. The truth is the thing which will last. All the theory, philosophy and wisdom of the wise that is not in harmony with revealed truth from God will perish. It must change and pass away and it is changing and passing away constantly, but when the Lord speaks that is eternal truth on which we may rely.”3
Smith’s concern for the literal accuracy of the scriptures was deeply related to a fundamental conviction that evolution would destroy orthodox Christian belief. In this he resembled one of his favorite sources, fundamentalist geologist George McReady Price, who once wrote, “No Adam, no fall; no fall, no atonement; no atonement, no savior.”4
Smith was also convinced that orthodoxy stood or fell with a literal Adam and a literal fall. For him evolution denied the story of Adam. According to Smith, “If you believe in the doctrine of the evolutionist, then you must accept the view that man has evolved through countless ages from the very lowest forms of life up through various stages of animal life, finally into human form. The first man, according to this hypothesis known as the cave man, was a creature absolutely ignorant and devoid of any marked intelligence over the beasts of the field. Then Adam, and by that I mean the first man, was not capable of sin. He could not transgress, and by doing so bring death into the world; for, according to this theory, death had always been in the world. If, therefore, there was no fall, there was no need of an atonement, hence the coming into the world of the Son of God as the Savior of the world is a contradiction, a thing impossible. Are you prepared to believe such a thing as that?”5
For Smith anyone who adopted evolutionary views would end up rejecting the “fundamental doctrines of Christianity.” The two were irreconcilable: “What I believe to be the most pernicious doctrine ever entering the mind of man [is] the theory that man evolved from lower forms of life. For its source we must go beyond the activities of men to the author of evil.” Within such a context the [p.70] next step was obvious. He wrote, “I do not believe that the falsely so-called scientific theory of man’s origin has any more right to a place in public schools than the principles of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ have—and not half as much.” He urged his audiences to protest the teaching of evolution in the schools, which, he believed, led people away from God.6
Smith denied that one could be a theistic evolutionist. He believed that there was only one true religion, one true theism, and that evolution was a naturalistic interpretation of the world with no need for God as creator and father of the human race. Furthermore, he believed that evolutionists wanted a completely rational, progressing world in which miracles could not be allowed.7
In the course of his writings, he criticized every part of the evolutionary corpus. He denied that the earth was old. The scriptures implied that a day, according to God, was 1,000 years, so the computation of a 13,000-year-old-earth easily followed. He denied the specific thesis of organic mutability of species in uncompromising terms. There was an “eternal decree that animals of different families or species shall remain separate from other species and there are bounds they cannot cross.” He took satisfaction in pointing out the hoax of the Piltdown man as an example of the willingness of science to be deceived.8
Smith often lumped several different views together and condemned them all. He attacked the idea of spontaneous generation, a naturalistic interpretation of the coming of life on earth, and said that the consistent evolutionist believed in this, which was not true. He also held that evolution demanded a belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was not the case. Finally he identified believers in evolution with students of “higher criticism” as “two groups of the same general class … each … bent on the destruction of the story of creation and the development of humanity as this story is told in the Bible.”9
Though his lack of scientific learning led him into errors, he did see the difficulties of reconciliation between Mormon theology and evolutionary thought. The fundamental intuition of the evolutionist was gradual change from simple to complex, from primitive to sophisticated in nature and society. But the Mormon restorationist impulse made the present a copy of the past and had the effect of [p.71] shortening the historical perspective. If present and past could be brought together in this way, the possibility of the kind of elaborate systems of social and cosmic evolution as that envisioned by Spencer would certainly be questioned. Furthermore Mormon anthropomorphism made God the prototype of man; Adam was literally his offspring. To think of a being made in the literal image of God as the result of descent from other forms of life was a difficult move indeed.10
Mormon thought, however, is a diverse complex of elements, and other thinkers found themes compatible with evolutionary speculations. One of the most fundamental of these was the conviction that truth was indivisible, and Mormonism encompasses all truth. There is not one set of truths in religion and another set of truths in science. All truths are part of one whole, one set of truths that do not conflict. This conviction led several important church authorities to attempt to account in some way for the mass of evidence that conflicted with the traditional views of the Creation and the coming of Adam.
The first church leader to attempt a reconciliation of sorts was Apostle James E. Talmage, a trained geologist, president of two universities, and a man who believed that modern scientific discoveries were important and could not be denied outright. But though he was sympathetic to science, his religious convictions prevented him from becoming an unqualified supporter of evolution. Ultimately he retreated into the world view of Bishop Ussher and the coming of Adam in 4004 B.C.E.
Talmage did not write or publish a great deal on evolution. His first discussion of the matter came in 1890 before he became an apostle. At the time he was president of LDS College in Salt Lake City and taught geology and natural science at the school. In an address to teachers in Utah County, he discussed evolution at some length. This speech set a pattern for Talmage’s later discussions of evolutionary theory and the ideas surrounding it.11
In the speech Talmage distinguished between a general idea of evolution as a theory of development or change and the specific hypothesis of natural selection and organic mutability advanced by Darwin and his followers. Demonstrating a wide acquaintance with the history of evolutionary thought, he discussed the background of [p.72] the Darwinian synthesis in Buffon, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather.
Talmage criticized the evolutionary ideas of Darwin’s most prominent supporter, Thomas Huxley. He dismissed the idea that life originated in some primordial protoplasm as the result of chance occurrence. Any such generation had not been demonstrated, he argued, and all attempts to find or create such matter had failed. Hence on this point the theistic conclusion was obvious: “Without spontaneous generation ‘miracle’ in the words of Strauss was and is still necessary to explain the advent even of the hypothetical primordial germ.”12
Then he proceeded to argue against the central thesis of Darwinian synthesis, the organic mutability of species. The fixity of species was a hallmark of Talmage’s thinking. Variations do occur, he admitted, but he called his audience’s attention to the sterility of hybrids as a classic example of the “law” that species reproduce only “after their own kind.” Each creation was a special work of the Creator adapted to its specific environment: “The insect is fitted for its abode on the leaf; the fish for the water; the bird for the air; each beast for its allotted life; and so man for his. No one form can be transmuted into another. The thought that it could be otherwise is far more wild than the alchemist’s dream of transmuting base lead into royal gold. In the fable of old the frog burst when it tried to appear as an ox. Each after its kind—each to its sphere—this is the song of nature; and all praise to nature’s God.”13
This hostility to the idea of mutability of species did not prevent Talmage from adopting the language of evolution. There was, he said, a “true evolution” that was not subject to the attacks that he launched. This true evolution was signified by the idea of development and growth. “Is evolution true?” he asked. “Aye: true evolution is true. The evolution that means advancement, progress, growth to a full realization of the intended measure of all things, that is true.”14
In line with many others, Talmage regarded Mormonism as the best expression of this true evolution. What more lavish evolutionary thought was there than that people could progressively develop into gods? The evolutionist who failed to see the cosmic evolution of the spirit in humankind was truly blind. Men were not [p.73] the offspring of other animals; they were the offspring of God. They were evolving, developing, and progressing into divine beings themselves.15
Talmage recognized that certain hard facts from geological and paleontological studies could not be ignored. He seems to have been convinced of the necessity to account in some fashion for these well established facts. The most important statement from him in this regard was his 1931 address, “The Earth and Man,” but during the same time period Talmage answered many letters on topics surrounding evolutionary theory. With these sources it is not difficult to reconstruct the main contours of his thinking.
Talmage began by admitting that the earth was considerably older than humanity. How old he did not know, but the church made no pronouncement on such matters and if geologists said that it was very old then that was probably true. Such a concession as this would not produce shock waves anywhere. American theologians had been saying it since the 1830s without great difficulty, and inside the LDS church many were prepared to accept it. His next move was more challenging. Plants and animals had existed for ages before the coming of man. Furthermore they had lived and died during these countless ages. This was the major concession in the 1931 address: “According to the conception of geologists the earth passed through ages of preparation during which countless generations of plants and animals existed in great variety and profusion and gave in part the very substance of their bodies to help form certain strata which are still in existence as such.”
As it stands this statement could be interpreted as merely a report of what geologists believe about earth history. But in a letter a few months later he was explicit about his own belief: “I cannot agree with your conception that there was no death of plants and animals anywhere upon this earth prior to the transgression of Adam, unless we assume that the history of Adam and Eve dates back many hundreds of thousands of years. The trouble with some theologians—even including many of our own good people—is that they undertake to fix the date of Adam’s transgression as being approximately 4,000 years before Christ and therefore about 5,932 years ago. If Adam was placed upon the earth only that comparatively short time ago the rocks clearly demonstrated that life and [p.74] death have been in existence and operative in this earth for ages prior to that time.”16 Talmage admitted life and death of animals for those countless ages but still believed in the biblical chronology for the coming of Adam.17
If Adam only came 4,000 years before Jesus Christ, then Talmage was clearly headed for difficulty. In the 1931 speech, he tentatively suggested that there might have been men on earth before Adam—”pre-Adamic men.” He suggested that whatever came before the “Adamic race” (his term) was a completely different dispensation with which we are not to be concerned. Talmage realized that dogmatic assertions were not helpful. In his journal on the day the First Presidency gave its decision in the controversy between Smith and Roberts, he wrote, “This is one of the many things on which we cannot preach with assurance, and dogmatic assertions on either side are likely to do harm rather than good.”18
In a letter written a few months before his death, Talmage articulated his fundamental scheme of reference which had varied little in forty years: “Undoubtedly true evolution is true, meaning progress from the lower to the higher, from the simple to the more complex. We cannot sweep aside all the accumulated knowledge in geology, archeology, or any other branch of science simply because our interpretation of some isolated passage of scripture may seem to be opposed thereto. I do not believe that Adam derived his mortal body by evolutionary processes from the lower animals. The Adamic race of men are of an entirely different order.”19 In the end Talmage’s thinking on evolution is an amalgam of diverse impulses, the mark of a man with divided loyalties. As a scientist he knew that the evidence could not be denied. But the safe harbor of special creationism was appealing to him.
Talmage’s attempt at some reconciliation between scientific facts and received faith was greatly amplified by B. H. Roberts. Late in his life Roberts attempted to understand evolution and paleontology in a monumental manuscript that has remained unpublished. Through this manuscript it is possible to look at some of the ways Roberts dealt with central questions of evolutionary theory.20
Roberts believed the evidence for the antiquity of the earth and its life forms could not be denied. There were millions and billions of years of earth history, stretching back to the beginning [p.75] when God created the world. Roberts included in the manuscript citations claiming that the world was at least two billion years old. The clear implication of the text is that he was prepared to accept any such figure that science could demonstrate as accurate.21
More importantly Roberts was prepared to accept the established fossil records of life and death stretching back hundreds of millions of years. Of these records the most important were those relating to the antiquity of humankind. This was clearly an important question for Roberts. The manuscript is filled with pages of evidence concerning the discoveries of the fossil remains of prehistoric people. He quoted extensively from experts concerning the evidence of the antiquity of the human species all over the earth. The evidence, he said, was so extensive that he could not present nearly all of it.22
If the human race was this ancient, then Genesis was clearly in for difficulties. But Roberts did not tamper with the Genesis history in any fundamental way. Rather he turned to the Mormon idea of a physical and a spiritual creation. If this were true, then the first chapter of Genesis might be a record of the spiritual creation and the second might be the record of the material or physical creation. But the second chapter implies that man appeared on a barren world before anything else. Hence Roberts seemed to find some scriptural warrant for the idea of some great cataclysm that destroyed all life on earth before the coming of Adam.23
Like Talmage, Roberts addressed the dilemma of the antiquity of human beings by positing a race of pre-Adamite humans. The antiquity of the present human race stretched back about 4,000 years, but before this the earth existed for ages: plants and animals, men and women had lived and died for millions of years. Then some great cataclysm destroyed all other beings on the earth. “Why not recognize that truth and see that which is inevitable,” Roberts wrote, “that in the advent of Adam the time had come for the achievement of some special purpose in relation to man—some spiritual relationship that brought about the introduction of the Adamic dispensation? Otherwise the whole volume of facts as they are disclosed are thrown into confusion; and the revealed truths themselves for most men rendered doubtful, being out of harmony with the facts ascertained as to man’s antiquity.”24
[p.76] Roberts relied not only on scientific sources but also Mormon ones for his theory of pre-Adamite people. Among other support was an 1854 address by Apostle Orson Hyde. Hyde had argued that if Adam had been commanded to “re-plenish the earth,” how could this have been unless the earth had already been populated. To a scriptural literalist the argument seemed sensible. Furthermore Roberts said that Brigham Young had agreed with Hyde’s speech, and thus the argument seemed to have prophetic approval. Whether this was actually the case is questionable. Hyde’s talk was primarily on marriage. Brigham Young began his own talk by saying, “I do not wish to eradicate any items from the lecture Elder Hyde has given us this evening.” It seems more plausible that Young was referring to the discourse as a whole rather than to any particular point.25
This elaborate dispensationalist argument was most clearly not a theory of evolution. It did not deal at all with the central thesis of evolution—the mutability of species and descent with modification. Roberts’s discussion of this issue in the manuscript is ambiguous. He was greatly influenced by the biblical argument that species reproduce only “after their own kind.” He refers to this several times as the “great law of life.” But he also was greatly impressed with the variation among offspring in nature. He wanted some way to balance these two perspectives of stability and change in nature.26
Roberts called his answer to this problem “the development theory.” He thought this theory would preserve the “great law” of reproduction and yet leave room for wide variation within certain bounds. It recognized “the eternity of some life forms, and the possibilities of these forms—perhaps in embryonic status, or in their simplest forms (same as to man) are transplanted to newly created worlds there to be developed each to its highest possibilities, …”27
This view evades the central issue. What are these primeval life forms out of which other forms develop? There is no logical reason why all species could not have developed from one primeval life form if the immutability of species is broached. In a later passage he was even more unclear but intriguing: “And from a few other forms of life transported to earth there could be development of varied kinds of life yet adhering closely to the great law of life so constantly repeated—’each after its own kind.’ Not necessarily [p.77] limited to stereotyped individual forms, but developing the kinds from the subdivisions of vegetable and animal kingdoms into various species through development from primeval forms.”28 Clearly Roberts’s “development view” led him to the edge of evolutionary descent.
To handle the problem of human antiquity, Roberts has adopted a dispensationalist framework and the idea of a cataclysm destroying all life on the earth prior to the coming of Adam. Here he clearly argued for an orderly unfolding of life forms. Humankind in this scheme comes not on a barren world but a world already populated with an infinite variety of plants and animals.29 It is doubtful that any workable reconciliation between these two perspectives could be maintained. Roberts saw clearly that there was a great deal of evidence that could not be squared with the traditional interpretation of Genesis. But he was unwilling to attempt a reconciliation grounded in a firm commitment to evolution. Later, others would make the attempt.
Few Latter-day Saints have been more open about their acceptance of organic mutability than Fredrick Pack. Pack was James Talmage’s assistant at the University of Utah, and when Talmage resigned to become an apostle, Pack was appointed his successor as Deseret Professor of Geology. Pack had impressive credentials both for a churchman and a scientist. He was a member of the church Sunday school board and wrote many books for the church. He was a prominent foe to tobacco and a leader in the 1920s church-organized campaign to prohibit smoking in public. He was also a 1904 graduate of the University of Utah and a Ph.D. graduate from Columbia University in 1906 with a string of scientific treatises on the geologic structures of Utah and the Wasatch Fault.30
In 1924 Pack published his major discussion of evolution in Science and Belief in God. Here he was forthright and uncompromising in his defense of organic evolution. Evolution was as true as Mormonism for him, and two truths could not conflict. Pack began by arguing that nothing in nature was immutable, including species. Change, not stability, was the hallmark of the natural world: “The essence of evolution is the essence of continuous change …. evolution is essentially a series of changes brought about by the laws of nature.” Pack claimed that the notion of the change in species is supported by [p.78] an “almost unlimited array of evidence in favor of the doctrine of organic evolution.” Pack dismissed the characteristic line of reasoning about horses only birthing horses. “Such a statement scarcely merits serious consideration,” he wrote, “since no form of the doctrine contemplates the likelihood of a change of that character.” The time span envisioned for the development of new species made this argument ridiculous as an attempted disproof of evolution.31
Although the fact that evolution had occurred was irrefutable, Pack admitted the mechanism that had produced this change was open to question. “The fact that scientists do not agree as to the manner in which evolution operates is often interpreted to mean that they disagree in the matter of the validity of the principle itself. This is of course all wrong.” Pack emphasized that the “doctrine of organic evolution is at present more widely accepted than ever before.”32
Pack himself saw natural selection as an insufficient explanation of the process and recognized that Darwinism with its ultimate reliance on chance had no place for the operation of an overarching purpose in nature. The idea of organic evolution, including the mutability of species, posed no threat to Pack’s faith. Darwinism as an explication of the evolutionary process did.33
Contrary to orthodox Darwinists, Pack argued that the record does not indicate a random development devoid of plan or purpose but rather shows that life developed along “well directed lines.” By adding a concept of plan and purpose, Pack thought the requirements of theism could be satisfied. Further, this purposeful law of evolution did not require “the immediate interposition of Deity.” For him it was a nobler view of God to think that he could set up a process requiring little supervision. A builder whose machine requires constant repair is not a great craftsman.34
Pack was more cautious in discussing the place of humans in this scheme, but he remained an evolutionist. He suggested that the evidence was not conclusive in proving that present people had descended from more primitive people and thence from lower primate forms. But it was very persuasive. “To assert as some theologians do that science has failed utterly in its search for evidence connecting man with lower forms of life could only be done by ignoring very pertinent discoveries.” Do all animal forms represent one continuous [p.79] line of descent down to and including humanity? he asked. “Speaking for the great mass of scientists the reply would be an emphatic ‘yes.’”35
Pack thought that none of this upset belief in God or faith in the Genesis account. “The search for the origin of man is not a question as to whether or not Deity is the author of his existence. On the other hand the question is merely one of how man reached his present state of development. … the doctrine of anthropoid origin of man is not opposed to belief in the Fatherhood of God; it simply attempts to explain the way in which nature operates.” If God was “the greatest teacher in the universe,” then it seemed reasonable that he would teach his children in accord with their ability to understand. “It should not be a source of surprise therefore that many of the scriptural narratives intended for ancient Israel appear to us at least in places to be primitive and even crude.”
Pack suggested that scientific research might be God’s way of giving us new information on the creative process: “If God were to repeat the story of man’s origin He would probably clear away many of the obscurities surrounding the account contained in the Jewish scriptures. Doubtless, however, as people become more and more anxious to know the truth, He will supply means for their enlightenment, but no one would care to say whether this enlightenment will come as a direct revelation from God or through the searchers of science.”36
Pack attempted to turn the tables on critics by using evolutionary progression to prove the inspired character of Genesis. He thought that Genesis represented the successive stages of the creation process and that the geological record told exactly the same story. Moses must have received his information from elsewhere since no one except God could have told him such truths. Pack’s biblical defenses of evolution were published in no other than the official church periodical, The Improvement Era.37
As Thomas Kuhn has argued, scientific departures from orthodoxy can be tolerated as long as the exponent of the new is viewed as a defender of orthodoxy. On the important question for Mormon society during the period, the moral purity of its members as distinct from the Babylon around them, Pack was a staunch defender of the faith. He published tracts against smoking, he exposed the evils of caffeine in talks and forums. As a defender of [p.80] orthodoxy in areas of great concern, he could be permitted his own ideas in other areas without harm to his standing in the community.38
Though Pack published the most rigorous defense of evolution, others engaged in elaborate speculations. One of the boldest attempts to expound an elaborate system of cosmic evolution was that of Nels Nelson. Nelson taught English at Brigham Young University from 1883 until 1920 with some time out for a mission and study in the East. He also taught philosophy, religion, and public speaking during his varied career at the university.39
The most important of Nelson’s discussions is contained in his Scientific Aspects of Mormonism. This book was first published in 1904 with the financial and moral support of the LDS church. In a circular sent around to advertise the book, Nelson quoted from Anthon Lund of the First Presidency praising the book. The First Presidency was so interested in having the book published that they loaned Nelson $800 to pay the publisher. Church president Joseph F. Smith thought so highly of Nelson that he sent him manuscripts to review before deciding whether they should be published by the church. From the mass of letters between Nelson and church leaders, it is clear that he was on close terms with Smith and others.40
The intention of Nelson’s work was to demonstrate that Mormonism was compatible with the best scientific thought of the era. He claimed that Mormonism would be shown to be a scientific religion. Moreover, he thought that any religion that “is not scientific is scarcely worthy of the credence of our enlightened age.” Unless religion agreed with “the Book of Nature,” it would fail the test of believability.41 With this belief Nelson set out to demonstrate that Mormonism is uniquely in agreement with the best “scientific” thought of the age.
In the course of this demonstration, Nelson developed a vast system of biological, spiritual, and intellectual evolution, including an unfortunate theory of racial evolution.42 In fact evolution and progress are the key words of his work. What he did was to link the notions of evolution and progress that were popular at the time with Mormon ideas of eternal progression. Like his mentors Fiske and Spencer, Nelson saw the whole universe moving toward increasing vistas of intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. In the end he interpreted the most miraculous of Christian events, the resurrection [p.81] of the dead, in terms of gradual evolution.43
For Nelson the world was neither the product of chance nor was it the outcome of some instantaneous event. It was the product of gradual growth and development overseen by God. “If to the idea of evolution there be added the idea of constant oversight, that things happen not by drifting but by direction, then we have fairly the Mormon idea of evolution.” This evolution was taking place in all spheres of human life. In the intellectual sphere, Nelson argued that humankind’s ideas of God were developing as their environment and their ideals were changing: “The honest man’s conception of God is a progressively growing ideal.” People project onto God their ideals. Any attempt to prevent men and women from developing even more noble ideas of God should be rejected: “Let no council of ecclesiastics presume to lay an embargo on his soul by pronouncing once and for all what God is or is not.” This would only be another form of “priestcraft.”44
Nelson carried his system of spiritual evolution to the conclusion that heaven was evolving with the race. Heaven is described as “that state which is the sum total at any moment of what God has achieved.” Heaven is thus not so much a place as a state of the soul, and of course states of the soul are always changing: “That is to say heaven is always a present, not a future state of the soul; and if any being would know the extent, the heighth, the depth and the breadth, of bliss which the universe has in store for him at any time, let him take stock of how much heavenly beauty he sees and feels and [that] lives in the creations immediately around him…. He is in the highest heaven who sees most beauty, feels most harmony in the creations immediately around him.” The evolution of the whole universe was Nelson’s theme, and in this vista even the most central themes of Christianity were changing as they were given new meaning by developing beings.45
Nelson had a place for almost everything, including Darwin: “It must by this time have dawned on the reader that Mormonism is a transcendent system of evolution—a system so vast and far reaching that by comparison the researches of Darwin and his collaborators important though they have been are but links in an endless chain.” Darwinism was true, but it was an insignificant part of the vast evolutionary system under the control of God. Nelson was prepared [p.82] to adopt anything that science might discover about the process of creation: “Science has traced better than theology can the history of creation since the beginning of the operation of this law; and with the facts of science Mormonism has no controversy. Ask me how God created the world and I shall answer: ‘In the way it could be created and not in the way it couldn’t.’ Ask me how long it took Him and I shall say: ‘As long as it needed to take.’ That is the only commentary of Mormonism on the first chapter of Genesis.” The only thing that Mormonism would add to science was the provision that all processes were under the control of God not chance.46
Nelson’s system could thus accommodate the mutability of species. On this he is open and direct: “Surely it is a sensible, an economical, a beautiful way of introducing variety into the flora and fauna of the earth; and if it is God’s way—and it surely is if it is the way at all—let us accept it as a truth with all reverence and humility.” Nelson extended his acceptance of the mutability of species into the spiritual realm. He believed in Mormonism’s dual creation, the spiritual and the temporal. For him this becomes a “dual evolution.” Even “spirit species” evolved: “Now whether God created but one such spiritual germ and produced all the other forms by modification afterwards or whether He created, let us say, many such original organisms, who shall tell: In any event why should there be bitterness about it? Whichever plan we assume one thing is fixed: it is God’s way of transmitting the formless and limitless into the formed and the limited.”47
An equally important part of Nelson’s system was an all-encompassing theory of racial and social evolution. Nelson believed that the world’s population could be divided into races and each race would have a role to play in the progressive evolution of humankind. As human society progressed each race came to the fore as leaders for a season, soon to be followed by the next race in the developmental scheme, until the Mormons would appear: “Tall and straight and comely, gifted with intellectual vigor and spiritual insight they are among the flower of Shem reserved for this conflict with falsehood and artificiality.” At Nelson’s hand, Mormonism became a sub-race destined to rule the world at the final stage of social progress and racial development.48
In a letter written to President Joseph F. Smith after [p.83] publication of his book, Nelson proclaimed that his only purpose in writing was “to make men and women think not of what the principles of Mormonism are merely but of what they mean in our lives.”49 These were the words of a modernist intellectual. The separation of eternal truth from changing and growing meaning was central to reinterpreting the theological framework in light of late nineteenth-century evolutionary understanding.
Though his system was vast, Nelson did not deal with the story of Adam. He seemed to claim at one point that Adam came as a divinely directed being and that his physical body was the product of descent. But he hedged by saying that however it was, it was God’s way. After Nelson’s death, his son brought out a collection of his writings that discuss the Eden story in some detail. There Nelson argued that the garden story was “manifestly divine camouflage to satisfy the questioning spirit of man till his intellect should be ripe enough for the real story,” which was being discovered by science. He argued at some length that the garden could not have been real but that the essential element, the idea of a fall, really did happen to a real Adam in a spiritual domain prior to his coming to earth.50
One may not think a great deal of Nelson’s system of evolutionary theism—in some cases it was only a mass of bizarre, racist, apologetic speculations—but the attempt to deal with evolutionary thought in an all-encompassing framework is important. Nelson’s relationship to President Smith suggests some support for the speculative intellectual option he represented.
A more impressive example of Nelson’s open and speculative approach is represented by the writings of William H. Chamberlin. He was one of the guiding spirits for a whole generation of young Mormon intellectuals who came of age after the turn of the century.
Chamberlin had an impressive background. In 1891 he obtained his B.S. from the University of Utah and began teaching science and math at LDS College in Salt Lake City. Following a three-year proselyting mission to Tahiti, he returned to a temporary teaching position at Brigham Young College (BYC) in Logan, teaching geology and then math. He spent two summer terms studying ancient languages and biblical studies at the University of Chicago, and was made a professor of theology at BYC. In 1906 he obtained [p.84] an M.A. in philosophy from the University of California under George Howison, and in the school year 1907-1908 he studied at Harvard with Josiah Royce, spending a summer studying psychology back at the University of Chicago. From 1910 to 1916 he was professor of philosophy and ancient languages at Brigham Young University in Provo. He also taught psychology. In 1916 he resigned from BYU and spent the next year studying at Harvard. He returned to Utah and first taught at the University of Utah and then finally spent his last year, 1920-21, as director of theology at BYC. He died in 1921 at the age of 50.51
Chamberlin’s system was clearly modeled after that of his teachers Howison and Royce. He was fond of Howison, Royce, Bowne, and A. K. Rogers and quoted from them in his work. At a later time he studied writings of Henri Bergson, the French vitalist. In the spring term of 1916, he gave a seminar at BYU on Bergson.52 Chamberlin was an evolutionist who thought he could work out a systematic reconciliation of evolutionary thought and revealed religion on the foundation of personalistic idealism and its related cousin, the vitalism of Bergson.
The heart of his position was in the emphasis he placed on divine immanence. For Chamberlin a basic belief was that nature is a living whole. For example, he began an important defense of evolution by exclaiming, “The world not only moves but it lives! It is involved in and is a part of a vast dynamic purposive process.” The natural world around humanity was, for Chamberlin, a living whole, almost a living being itself, permeated with the spirit of God. He was fond of Doctrine and Covenants 88, which speaks of “the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things.”53
This passage is almost a summary of Chamberlin’s thought. For Chamberlin the living whole of nature was, in a real sense, the body of God. God is not nature itself as a strict pantheist would hold. God is rather “in the midst of all things.” God is at work in and through nature, but God is not nature. This distinction is important for understanding Chamberlin. It allows for organic change in nature but not change in the purposes of God. The natural world evolved [p.85] under the control of the Divine Immanence who was working out his purposes in and through nature.54
Chamberlin thought that nature manifested personality, with distinctive “attitudes” far beyond such routines as photosynthesis.55 “Whenever or wherever physical changes of note have taken place in the history of the world,” he wrote, “then and there, there has been as it were a struggle on the part of the Life of extra human nature to modify its adjustments so that externally viewed, new forms or species such as could live on in the changed and new stable environment have been produced.”56 Nature is constantly creating new physical forms in response to new and more complex situations.
Chamberlin argued nature manifested all of the personal qualities which have traditionally been attributed to Deity, and it is the source of individual human lives in much the same manner in which God is said to be the creator of humankind. Chamberlin said it was upon this God that we depend for our physical bodies created by him through millions of years of activity. God furthermore was constantly at work calling forth more noble qualities from us. God had engaged in numberless activities on our behalf such that “without much apparent effort on our part a large number of powerful and valuable habits have been formed in us.” This activity was the measure of God’s love for us: “Through the development of such attitudes, God has shown his love for man, an eagerness to have him develop in more of his unique life, and reverence for his individuality, a desire to cultivate it.”57
Chamberlin thought that evolution would provide a firmer support for belief in the resurrection and for theism in general. First, evolution supported belief in the immanence of God in nature. Second, the millions of years required to create the human body imply “a measureless interest in our welfare.” Hence there is a strong prima-facie reason to expect a resurrection: “In conclusion then let us repeat that if a Divine purpose is immanent in nature, nature’s forms must be thought of as evolving in a way parallel to the unfolding of the Divine purpose. The use of the theory is a most important means of advancing to a realization of God’s immanence in nature and life and a great remover of intellectual difficulties that hamper faith in so many. And finally the theory awakens within us from the above point of view an expectation of the resurrection, or a renewal [p.86] of God’s reactions to our lives, the restoration of the spirit to the body without which there can be little or no life or happiness. That God can do this seems certain and that he will do it is at least as certain as that the uniformity of nature that all science presupposes shall continue. Both the uniformities in nature and the resurrection depend upon the Father’s love.”58
Nature is the tabernacle of God through which he works to bring to pass his ends. The year before his death Chamberlin wrote: “The material elements, as they seem to hide their cause from our view, can be said to be the covering or tabernacle of God and vanishing human forms are elements of that tabernacle …. God is the fixed or eternal cause of most things visible or changing in material nature. And so anyone who has seen nature has in a sense seen God.”59
To some the immanent personalism of Chamberlin may not sound like Mormon orthodoxy. But the latter is notoriously difficult to define. If anything the preceding discussion should have suggested the impossibility of defining a consistent standard of orthodoxy on the issues discussed. Chamberlin himself drew on Mormon scripture and the writings of church leaders for support. He was particularly fond of Doctrine and Covenants 93 and 88. He was conversant with Apostle Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology, which contains a discussion of the Holy Spirit not unlike his own theological system. Though Chamberlin never seemed to have quoted him, Parley’s brother Apostle Orson Pratt discussed the idea of God in terms that could have been easily adopted by Chamberlin.60
Chamberlin’s Mormon commitment was deep and genuine. No one who reads his mission journals, his early article in praise of Joseph F. Smith, or some of the letters he wrote in 1917 after his last year at Harvard could say otherwise. But his work was threatening on several fronts. The philosophical acumen was threatening to a religious leadership that wanted practical men, not speculative theologians. Mormonism was a religious system that had a unique impact on the lives of many common people. Mormon theological simplicity and scriptural literalism brought the central theological symbols and beliefs into the world of common people.
But Chamberlin was thinking of another audience, the sons and daughters of the church who were studying secular ideas and [p.87] naturalistic sciences. Unless the great features of the Mormon theological system could be expressed in ways at least compatible with modern knowledge, would they be any match in the marketplace of ideas? This was a threat to the community of faith, which Chamberlin could address.
LDS church historian Leonard Arrington once argued that a bias in writing Mormon history has been a perception of unity.61 Frequently the desire to see unity on important intellectual or theological issues has led to ignoring or distorting the evidence. The response of Mormons to the challenge of evolutionary thought has been as diverse as anything found outside of Mormondom. The spectrum of opinion in Zion has been a microcosm of the spectrum of opinion in other religious communities. To a large measure diversity is healthy, for it prevents people from absolutizing their own private perspectives. But groups also require some set of beliefs, values, or loyalties common to all members. The profound diversity of Mormon reactions to evolutionary thought suggests an even deeper struggle with the increasing pluralism of the twentieth century. The conservatives want a firm standard, the literal word of scripture, as a guide and test of loyalty and orthodoxy. Their critics see too much truth in modern thought to accept simple denial. The struggle of these two outlooks has been the agony of every major religious system in the modern west. In Mormonism the discussion is currently muted but no less real. [p.93]
3. Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Word of the Lord Superior to the Theories of Men,” Liahona 15 (Apr. 1918): 641-44. The quotation is from Smith’s “Faith Leads to a Fullness of Truth and Righteousness,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 21 (Oct. 1930): 148.
4. On Price, see Norman Furness, The Fundamentalist Controversy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), 16. For other examples of this general argument, see Willard Gatewood, ed., Controversy in the Twenties: Fundamentalism, Modernism, and Evolution (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1969).
7. See Smith, Origin and Destiny, 16, 79; also “Church News Section” of Deseret News, 15 Apr. 1939: “The theistic evolutionist is a weak-kneed unbelieving religionist who is always constantly apologizing for the miracles of the Scriptures and who does not believe in the Divine mission of Jesus Christ”; Smith, “The Origin and Destiny of Man,” 386; and Origin and Destiny, 213.
9. Ibid., 137-38; Smith, “The Origin and Destiny of Man,” 374-82; Smith, Origin and Destiny, 179; Loren Eisely, Darwin’s Century (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday and Co., 1958), 205-31; Smith, Origin and Destiny, 33.
16. James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” Deseret News, 21 Nov. 1931; also Talmage to Bee Gaddie, 28 Mar. 1930, Talmage Papers, LDS archives; Conrad Wright, “The Religion of Geology,” New England Quarterly 14 (Fall 1941): 335-58; Talmage, “The Earth and Man”; Talmage to Heber Timothy, 28 Jan. 1932, Talmage Papers.
20. B. H. Roberts, “The Truth, The Way, The Life,” manuscript, LDS archives. Truman G. Madsen has argued that Roberts’s discussion of evolutionary thought and his speculations about a pre-Adamite race are not integral to the manuscript and could easily have been left out. I believe that this interpretation ignores two very crucial points that suggest the importance of this section in the manuscript. First, Roberts himself obviously felt that it was so important that he would not cut it out even when that was the only way to get the book published. In fact he added material on discoveries of prehistoric men after the reading committee of church authorities told him to remove the section. Second, it is clear from the discussion surrounding the manuscript that he felt keenly the need to effect a reconciliation between the indisputable facts of science and the received Mormon tradition. Without this he was concerned that many educated individuals would desert the church. Given the times the single most explosive area of confrontation was clearly the theory of evolution and the record of prehistoric humans discovered by paleontology. It thus seems that to be consistent with one of Roberts’s great concerns, the manuscript would have to attempt some such reconciliation. See Truman Madsen, “The Meaning of Christ—The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Analysis of B. H. Roberts’s Masterwork,” Brigham Young University Studies 15 (Spring 1975): 259-92.
38. Fredrick Pack, Tobacco and Human Efficiency (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1918); Pack, “How the Impending Tobacco Crusade Can be Avoided,” Improvement Era 24 (Jan. 1921): 218-28; Pack, “Should Latter-day Saints Drink Coca-Cola?” Improvement Era 21 (Mar. 1918): 431-35.
39. The basic biographical information is contained in T. Earl Pardoe, The Sons of Brigham (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Alumni Association, 1969). Also important on another phase of Nelson’s work is Davis Bitton, “N. L. Nelson and ‘The Mormon Point of View,’” Brigham Young University Studies 13 (Winter 1973): 157-71.
40. A copy of this notice is in the LDS archives. See letters of Joseph F. Smith to N. L. Nelson, 11 May and 9 July 1904, and N. L. Nelson to Joseph F. Smith, 9 May, 12 May, and 8 June 1904, Smith Papers, LDS archives; a letter from Joseph F. Smith transmitting a manuscript for Nelson to review: the date cannot be made out clearly but it is probably October 1904. Nelson’s reply, obviously on the same manuscript, is dated 8 November 1904.
53. W. H. Chamberlin, “The Theory of Evolution as an Aid to Faith in God and Belief in the Resurrection,” White and Blue 14 (14 Feb. 1911); D&C 18:13. White and Blue was the BYU student publication at the time.
58. W. H. Chamberlin, “The Significance of the Resurrection,” White and Blue 16 (11 Mar. 1913): 295. Also see The Parables of Jesus, Brigham Young College Bulletin, no. 2 (Jan. 1904): 3; “A Christmas Message,” White and Blue 16 (10 Dec. 1912): 7; and An Essay on Nature, 41-44; “The Theory of Evolution,” 4.