The Search for Harmony
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg

Chapter 6.
The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair
Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey E. Keller

Few chapters in twentieth-century Mormon thought are more thought-provoking than the events following B. H. Roberts’s efforts to publish The Truth, The Way, The Life. The hottest issue addressed by Roberts’s manuscript was organic evolution.1 His assertion that the earth was much older than a few thousand years was hardly remarkable.2 But his assertion that countless plants and animals lived long before the biblical chronology was controversial. The problem was to account for this in terms of a scriptural framework. Roberts was never prepared to do away with a literal Adam, who he believed was a real person with a special divine mission. He was not, however, the earliest man on this planet. Before him a whole race of human beings lived and died on earth. These “pre-Adamites” were destroyed in a great cataclysm that “cleansed” the earth, leaving only fossilized remains as the meager evidence of their presence.3 Roberts also undertook a vaguely worded and somewhat contradictory account of the evolutionary development of life forms on earth—a “transmutation” of species.

With so many concessions to science, it is not surprising that Roberts’s manuscript received unfavorable criticism. What is surprising is how narrowly focused this criticism was at first. The manuscript was first reviewed by a reading committee of the Council of the Twelve who drew up a “list of points of doctrine in question.” There were thirty-seven items on the list, almost all minor. The committee [p.94] felt, for example, that Roberts overstated the evidence in saying that the tree from which Adam and Eve ate contained the seeds of life and death. The scriptures referred only to the seeds of death. Other similarly minor issues were raised.4

The real sticking point was the theory of pre-Adamites. In a cover letter to the council, the reading committee noted that there were “objectionable doctrines advanced which are of a speculative nature and appear to be out of harmony with the revelations of the Lord and the fundamental teachings of the Church. Among the outstanding doctrines to which objection is made are: The doctrine that Adam was a translated being who came to this earth subject to death, and therefore did not bring death upon himself and his posterity through the fall.”5 The committee further reported that they had met several times with Roberts to get him to delete offending chapters. He had refused and even added material referring to recent finds of pre-historic humans in China. At one point he threatened to publish the book on his own if he could not get church approval.

After the report of the reading committee, the full council reviewed the matter and reached virtually these same conclusions in its own report to the First Presidency. The council report, however, also stressed a more basic theme: “It is the duty of the General Authorities of the Church to safeguard and protect the membership of the Church from the introduction of controversial subjects and false doctrines which tend to create factions and otherwise disturb the faith of the Latter-Day Saints. There is so much of vital importance revealed and which we can present with clear and convincing presentation and which the world does not possess that we, the committee, see no reason for the introduction of questions which are speculative to say the least: more especially so when such teachings appear to be in conflict with the revelations of the Lord.”6

Even as this letter was being sent, Roberts’s position was attacked publicly by a member of the council (and of the reading committee). In an address to the April 1930 genealogical conference, Joseph Fielding Smith went beyond the questioning of the council. In his mind the issue was clear: Roberts was teaching false doctrine. While this is debatable, Roberts certainly was repudiating positions staked out earlier by Smith himself.7 In his speech Smith was characteristically blunt: “Even in the Church there are a scattered few who [p.95] are now advocating and contending that the earth was peopled with a race—perhaps many races—long before the days of Adam. These men desire, of course, to square the teachings in the Bible with the teachings of modern science and philosophy with regard to the age of the earth and life on it. If you hear anyone talking this way you may answer them by saying that the doctrine of pre-adamites is not a doctrine of the Church and is not advocated or countenanced in the Church. There is no warrant for it in scripture, not an authentic word to sustain it.”8

When this address was printed in the October issue of the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Roberts could not remain silent. In December he appealed directly to President Heber J. Grant. In a strongly worded letter, he objected to the “strictly dogmatical and pronounced finality of the discussion.” If Smith had been speaking for the church, this fact should have been stated clearly. In the likely event he was speaking only for himself, Roberts wrote: “If Elder Smith is merely putting forth his own position I call in question his competency to utter such dogmatism either as a scholar or as an apostle. I am sure he is not competent to speak in such a manner from general learning or special research work on the subject; nor as an Apostle as in that case he would be in conflict with the plain implication of the scriptures, both ancient and modern, and with the teaching of a more experienced and learned and earlier apostle, and a contemporary of the prophet Joseph Smith—whose public discourse on the subject appears in the Journal of Discourses and was publicly endorsed by president Brigham Young, all of which would have more weight in setting forth doctrine than this last dictum of Elder Smith. My question is important as affecting finally the faith and status of a very large portion of the priesthood and educated membership of the Church. I am sure and I trust this matter will receive early attention.”9

After receiving this letter, Grant referred the matter to the council for a discussion of the issues. The council resolved to hear both men in separate sessions. On 7 January 1931 Roberts made his presentation to the assembled apostles.10 While a copy of the lengthy paper has not been located, from his letters and manuscript he apparently repeated the arguments from science, scriptural authority, and apostolic teaching (primarily Elder Orson Hyde). Two weeks [p.96] later Smith appeared with his own lengthy paper. His was a defense of a scriptural literalism: “The Latter-day Saints are not bound to receive the theories of men when they do not accord with the word of the Lord to them.” What Roberts was preaching was not just erroneous, he was compromising with satanic forces: “The doctrine of organic evolution which pervades the modern day sciences proclaiming the edict that man has evolved from the lower forms of life through the Java skull, the Heidelberg jaw, the Piltdown man, the Neanderthal skull and last but not least the Peking man who lived millions of years ago is as false as their author who lives in hell.”11 To Smith, Roberts’s view was dangerous because he was willing to depart from the most literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis. Once started on this process, Smith argued, you cannot stop. Those who followed this course were bound to wander in a desert of their own creation, ultimately forsaking the historic faith of the church for their own theories.12

After hearing both men the council noncommittally referred the matter back to the First Presidency, noting only that they regarded Roberts’s language as “very offensive” and as “failing to show the deference due from one brother to another brother of higher rank in the priesthood.”13

Roberts continued to press his case. In early February he again wrote directly to Grant saying he would like an opportunity to point out the “weaknesses and inconsistencies” in Smith’s paper, which he characterized as “sleighter than a house of cards.” He also made pointed reference to his now overshadowed manuscript: “It was … such pablum as this that suspended the publication of my book—now in manuscript—The Truth, The Way, The Life. This book, from my judgment of it, is the most important work that I have yet contributed to the Church, the six volume comprehensive history of the Church not omitted. Life at my years and with an incurable ailment is very precarious and I should dislike very much to pass on without completing and publishing this work…. If the position he has taken can be met successfully, then I think that the principle cause suspending the publication of my work will be removed.”14

Roberts did not get his chance. Two months later the First Presidency replied in a memorandum circulated to the hierarchy. An entry from Grant’s journal makes the attitude of the presidency clear: [p.97] “After reading the articles by Brothers Roberts and Smith, I feel that sermons such as Brother Joseph preached and criticisms such as Brother Roberts makes of the sermon are the finest kind of things to be left alone entirely. I think no good can be accomplished by dealing in mysteries, and that is what I feel in my heart of hearts these brethren are both doing.”15

The memorandum from the First Presidency made several specific points. First, it called attention to the care which must be exercised by any of the authorities when they speak publicly on controversial topics: “We call attention to the fact that when one of the General Authorities of the Church makes a definite statement in regard to any doctrine, particularly when the statement is made in a dogmatic declaration of finality, whether he expresses it as his opinion or not he is regarded as voicing the Church [position] and his statements are accepted as the approved doctrines of the Church, which they should be.”16

Second, it noted that both Smith and Roberts had produced scientific evidence, scriptural texts, and quotations from previous church authorities to bolster their respective arguments. As far as the First Presidency was concerned, however, neither side was able to carry the day. In this crucial section they wrote: “The statement made by Elder Smith that the existence of pre-adamites is not a doctrine of the Church is true. It is just as true that the statement ‘there were not pre-adamites upon the earth’ is not a doctrine of the church. Neither side of the controversy has been accepted as a doctrine at all.”17

Given this conclusion on the doctrinal issues, the instruction to church authorities was obvious: cease public discussion of the controversial topics. Concern yourselves instead with the simple truths of the gospel: “Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored Gospel to the people of the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.

“We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion to which reference is here made, but on the contrary are certain that it would lead to confusion, division and misunderstanding if carried further. Upon one thing we should be able to [p.98] agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John Winder, and Anthon Lund, were right when they said: ‘Adam is the primal parent of our race.’”18

When the Roberts-Smith controversy first arose, Apostle James Talmage was not appreciably involved. Although he was a trained geologist and regular speaker on the science/religion theme, he had not been part of the reading committee that reviewed Roberts’s book and so had little contact with the discussion. This changed in 1931 when the entire Quorum of the Twelve was required to hear the protest that Roberts made against Smith.

Talmage’s views were already well known, both within the church hierarchy and among the membership at large. Much of his adult life had been devoted to harmonizing science and religion. As early as 1881, as a twenty-year-old teacher at Brigham Young Academy, he had resolved “to do good among the young—probably lecture … on the subject of harmony between Geology and the Bible—a subject upon which so many of our people have mistaken ideas.”19 Talmage unquestionably accepted as established fact the great age of the earth as well as the existence and death of life forms before the time of Adam. Although these views were not always presented conspicuously in his talks, he was consistent in affirming these ideas whenever he addressed them publicly. On the question of pre-Adamic people, however, he created uncertainty as to his personal views by avoiding public comment. Partly because of this ambiguity in the public record, some have concluded that Talmage may have rejected both the theory of evolution and the existence of pre-Adamites. But to the contrary Talmage was described by his geologist son, Sterling, as having expressed in 1920 a concept of pre-Adamites which “went beyond anything that I had dared to think.”20 Talmage thus appears to have been confident of the validity of notions demonstrated by his field of study, geology, but less so of ideas derived from related fields such as biology, with which he was less familiar.

Talmage’s views during the 1931 discussions in the quorum were presumably sympathetic to much of the spirit of Roberts’s efforts. Unfortunately, not a great deal is known about the views he expressed during these discussions. What is known, however, is revealing. Talmage was particularly upset by Smith’s use of George [p.99] McCready Price as an authority in geology. Price was professor of geology at a small parochial college in the midwest and author of many books purporting to vindicate orthodox Christian belief by exposing the weaknesses of scientific theory.21 After a quorum meeting in which Smith quoted extensively from Price’s The New Geology, Talmage decided to prepare himself more fully for a debate on the merits of this type of evidence. He wrote to his eldest son, Sterling, for an opinion of the book. Sterling was a professor of geology at the New Mexico School of Mines.

The younger Talmage responded by pointing out a number of technical errors in the specific passages quoted by Smith and then added: “You ask ‘how Price is held in the opinion of geologists in general.’ As far as I can tell (and it seems to be the unanimous opinion of those who know his book, at least as far as I have talked with them), he is considered as a theological fanatic, who has gone off on a tangent that most geologists seem to find funny. I never heard his book discussed … without the element of comedy being dragged in. All of Price’s arguments, in principle at least, were advanced and refuted from fifty to a hundred years ago. They are not ‘new.’ His ideas certainly are not ‘Geology.’ With these two corrections, the title remains the best part of the book.”22

Armed with this response Elder Talmage brought up the subject of Smith’s paper in the April 1931 meeting called to bring the issue to a final solution. In this heated meeting, as he later wrote to his son, Talmage used Sterling’s evidence to “show up James McCready Price in all his unenviable colors.” Moreover, he “was bold enough to point out that according to a tradition in the Church based on good authority as having risen from a declaration made by the Prophet Joseph Smith, a certain pile of stones at Adam-ondi-Ahman, Spring Hill, Mo., is really part of the altar on which Adam offered sacrifices, and that I had personally examined those stones and found them to be fossiliferous, so that if those stones be part of the first altar, Adam built it of stones containing corpses, and therefore death must have prevailed in the earth before Adam’s times.”23 Finally, Talmage made it clear to his assembled brethren that all reputable geologists recognized the existence both of death and “pre-Adamites” prior to 6,000 years ago, the presumed date of the fall of Adam.

This view, of course, was vigorously denied by Smith, and “a [p.100] serious disruption between and among certain brethren” was in the offing.24 It was at least partly to avoid such disruption that the First Presidency sought to settle the dispute quickly without committing themselves to one side or the other with their memo of 7 April. That same day Talmage wrote in his journal: “As to whether pre-Adamite races existed upon the earth there has been much discussion among some of our people of late. The decision reached by the First Presidency and announced to this morning’s assembly … is a wise one on the premises. This is one of the many things upon which we cannot speak with assurance and dogmatic assertions on either side are likely to do harm rather than good.”

Three days after the decision was issued, council president Rudger Clawson wrote to George Albert Smith, chair of the first reading committee, asking him to “make an earnest effort to compose matters” with Roberts and get him to drop the affected material from his manuscript so that “an excellent work may not go unpublished and be lost to the Church.” If Roberts refused he was to be told that the book definitely would not be published without the needed changes.25 The committee did not succeed in this mission; for better than a year later Roberts was still trying to have the book published “as is.” His last letter on the subject reveals a sadness and bitterness over the fate of what to him was the culmination of his ministry on behalf of the church: “It had been my hope that the volume still in manuscript, unpublished, which would make a work of about 700 pages—The Truth, The Way, The Life—would be the climax in the doctrinal department of my work …. [T]he matter of this book grew up during more than fifty years of my ministry crystallizing practically all my thought, research, and studies in the doctrinal line of the Church. It was not the hasty product of the paltry six months at the close of my eastern states mission administration—as some have supposed …. [T]hat manuscript may not likely be printed in my lifetime, comment of course will not be necessary.”26

The First Presidency’s council in April 1831 to discontinue discussion was designed to maintain a neutral position. But in practice, their injunction did not have this effect. Only one side of the argument had been given any publicity—Joseph Fielding Smith’s “Faith Leads to a Fullness of Truth and Righteousness.” Many students, Talmage later recounted, “inferred from Elder Smith’s address [p.101] that the Church refuses to recognize the findings of science if there be a word in scriptural record in…seeming conflict with scientific discoveries or deduction, and that therefore the ‘policy’ of the Church is in effect opposed to scientific research.”27 Nor was Talmage alone in this concern, for he recalled on observation by an unnamed member of the First Presidency early in the discussions that “sometime, somewhere, something should be said by one or more of us to make plain that the Church does not refuse to recognize the discoveries and demonstrations of science, especially in relation to the subject at issue.”28

Sterling Talmage in particular had been upset by arguments set forth in Smith’s genealogy society talk, a copy of which had been forwarded to him by his father. Writing to Apostle Talmage in June, just a few weeks after the apparent resolution of the Roberts-Smith confrontation, Sterling recounted how “For several years I have been annoyed and irritated,—those terms are too mild, ‘affronted’ and ‘challenged’ would be better—by the type of thing you mention regarding no death on the earth, etc.” While he had refrained in the past from branding such doctrine as “ignorant dogmatism,” he felt motivated to protest now.29

Rather than involve himself in the already sensitive pre-Adamite debate, Sterling felt he could make his point just as well by dealing with another aspect of Smith’s remarks. In the genealogy society address under the sub-heading “Miracles Not Inconsistent with Reasons,” Smith had discussed Joshua’s command to the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:12-14). He explained this miracle by asserting that the Lord had stopped the earth’s rotation. The chaotic centrifugal effects science would expect from such a phenomenon, Smith asserted, were avoided by slowing the earth down gradually. To Sterling this was “so absurd that it will not stand the test of fifth grade arithmetic.”30 He prepared what was to become an “Open Letter to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith.” He forwarded the letter to his father for critique.

Sterling affirmed that there were two basic reasons why Smith’s hypothesis was unreasonable. First, he observed, a point on the surface of the earth in Palestine is moving at the rate of almost a thousand miles per hour. To bring that spot to a halt without causing inertial effects would take days or weeks instead of hours. Second, [p.102] even were the earth to slow down gradually, winds would be generated “fully six times as great as in the most violent recorded hurricane.” Of course, Sterling conceded, the Lord could have accomplished all of this by fiat, but he felt that neither he nor Smith was willing to accept that explanation because both conceived of a God who operated within a framework of natural law. To the younger Talmage, it seemed reasonable that the stopping of the sun was in reality an optical illusion caused by unusual atmospheric conditions which could bend the rays of sunlight over the horizon. He cited recorded examples of similar phenomena.

The implications of all this and the real reason for writing the letter were made quite explicit: “some of the authorities have made statements that are not worthy of belief.” Smith’s hypothesis for Joshua’s miracle was one example. The danger in this was that if a young person correctly disbelieves such a statement, “it is only a short step to doubting” all the authorities of the church. In sum Smith was out of place in referring to scientists as “Miserable Fools” as he had once in the past and should not discourse in areas in which he was “not informed.”31

Apostle Talmage received his son’s proposed letter enthusiastically. He strongly recommended sending the letter with a few revisions and suggested that Sterling give it wider distribution than originally planned: “I think it should be put into final shape and sent to its intended addressee without delay …. The conditions are peculiar but in my judgment and in that of certain others it is well to follow the course intended. I wish I could write in fuller measure of the conditions that have called forth your letter. But you have done … a good work. Finish it up.”32 After incorporating the changes suggested by his father, Sterling sent a copy in late June both to Smith and the First Presidency.

Apostle Talmage seems to have felt that he should play a more active role himself in correcting some lingering misconceptions among the membership. In July, just four months after the 7 April decision, Talmage chose to make a passing reference to the subject of pre-Adamites in one of his weekly radio addresses—in order, as he wrote Sterling, to “test the sensitiveness of at least some of our people on the subject.” The response he received led him to conclude that the time was right to make clear at least by inference what was [p.103] and was not the official position of the church.33

Elder Talmage undertook this task in a speech in the tabernacle on 9 August 1931 entitled “The Earth and Man.” In this he affirmed that plants and animals “lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation.” Perhaps because of the injunction against further discussion of the issue, he did not explicitly include pre-Adamites in his discourse. However, in comments on evolution reminiscent of his earlier talks, he stated that he did not regard “Adam as related to—certainly not as descended from—the Neanderthal, the Cro-Magnon, the Peking or the Piltdown man.”34

Not surprisingly the controversy that apparently had ended four months earlier was reopened. Should “The Earth and Man” be published? Several meetings of the quorum were devoted to the talk. The deliberations, Talmage later wrote to Apostle John Widtsoe, who was in Europe, “revealed a very strong feeling on the part of a minority of the Brethren against giving public sanction to the views of geologists as set forth in the address.” In particular, “The insistence on the part of three of our brethren—really to the effect that all geologists and all geology are wrong in matters relating to the sequence of life on earth—has been surprising. The author of the genealogical society address holds tenaciously to his view that prior to the fall of Adam there was no death of plants and animals upon the earth.”35

Smith, according to his own account to Susa Young Gates, was supported within the quorum by Rudger Clawson, David O. McKay, and George Albert Smith.36 The official report by Clawson to the First Presidency noted that “again the scientific theory, or claim, is set forth in the sermon to the effect that man finally emerged, or was developed from and through a line of animal life reaching back, into numberless ages of the past, to the protoplasm.”37

Those members of the quorum who supported publication included in addition to Talmage himself Reed Smoot,38 Joseph F. Merrill,39 John A. Widtsoe (whose opinion was solicited by mail),40 and Richard R. Lyman and George F. Richards, who were present when Talmage delivered his address and expressed their “tentative approval” to him at the time, as well as Anthony W. Ivins who was similarly supportive.41 There apparently was additional support within the quorum, for both Talmage and Smoot speak in their [p.104] journals of a “majority” favoring publication.42

Despite this reported distribution of opinion, Clawson’s official report states that “a motion was made and seconded to the effect that in the opinion of the Twelve, the sermon should not be published. This motion, after some further discussion, was followed by a substitute motion to the effect that the sermon be returned to Brother Talmage and that he be requested to remodel it if possible by cutting out the objectionable features. Brother Talmage consented to do this. The substitute motion was adopted.”43

The quorum ultimately was unable to come to the requisite unanimity concerning publication despite Talmage’s willingness to state explicitly that opinions expressed were those held by himself or by contemporary geologists. (This of course would still accomplish the desired goal of showing the acceptability of the views cited; it was not Talmage’s intent to assert them as the church position on the subject.)

As with the Roberts-Smith case, the First Presidency again was called on to settle the controversy. This time they ruled in Talmage’s favor. President Heber J. Grant made note of the decision in his journal, 17 November 1931: “At 11:30 Brother James E. Talmage called, and we went over his address delivered in the Tabernacle a number of weeks ago, and authorized its publication and also gave authorization for it to be printed in the same form as the radio addresses, for distribution.”44 Four days later the Deseret News “Church Section” carried the text of Talmage’s remarks. It also was issued in pamphlet form.

Publication of “The Earth and Man” marked the final chapter of James Talmage’s involvement with questions of science and religion. He died less than two years later, just before his seventy-first birthday. Coincidentally, the seventy-seven-year-old B. H. Roberts died exactly two months later. The third principal, Joseph Fielding Smith, only fifty-seven at the time, continued as an influential presence for four more decades.

In 1934, just a year after Talmage’s death, battle was again joined, but this time between Joseph Fielding Smith and Sterling Talmage. This episode began when Smith approved for publication in the Deseret News “Church Section” an article by Major Howard O. Bennion entitled “Is the Earth Millions of Years Old?” Bennion, at [p.105] the time a retired civil engineer, had served in several army and government engineering posts and had studied geology as a hobby. He answered the earth question negatively, stating that scriptural and scientific accounts of the earth’s creation were mutually exclusive, that the theory of evolution (including theistic evolution) was scripturally absurd, and that the principle of uniformitarianism upon which much of science depended was demonstrably false.45

Sterling Talmage immediately responded with a lengthy rebuttal to Bennion’s article, which he sent to Apostle John A. Widtsoe (a close friend to both Sterling and his father) and to the Deseret News. Widtsoe, now back from Europe, responded favorably to Sterling’s article. He wrote Sterling that he had “expressed myself as forcefully as I knew how to the brethren when the [Bennion] article was being discussed” but felt he could not formulate a direct reply himself because of the guidance against further discussion by ranking church authorities. He could, however, make sure that Talmage’s article was published. The matter was discussed with Elder Smith, who, according to Widtsoe, agreed that both sides of the argument should be aired.46 Talmage’s “Can We Dictate God’s Times and Methods?” was printed one month later.47

Sterling thus began to function for Widtsoe much as he had once served his father, as surrogate spokesperson for the ideas these brethren were constrained from discussing in print. (Howard Bennion served the same function for Smith.) Widtsoe went so far as to offer to act as Talmage’s “unofficial agent in bringing matters before the public at home.”48 This was clearly set forth in his published essay: “As a geologist, I object to erroneous explanations of geological theories offered by one, who according to his own admission, had only a smattering acquaintance with geology …. As an upholder of the authority of the Church, I object to any statements from a non-authoritative source, of what constitutes ‘the doctrines of the Church,’ especially when some of these statements are in direct contradiction of the latest authoritative statements that have come to my attention.”49

The “latest authoritative statement” referred to was of course “The Earth and Man” address by his father. As to the “authority” of the address, Anthony W. Ivins, first counselor to the president at the time of the speech, had reportedly informed Sterling that the talk did [p.106] have approval of the presiding quorums.50 Significantly, however, Widtsoe counseled Sterling immediately before publication of the rebuttal that “there appears to be no evidence on file that your father’s splendid article, ‘The Earth and Man,’ went out with what is held to be full authoritative approval, that is, the vote of approval of the Presidency and the Twelve.”51

Both Bennion and Talmage wrote follow-up articles. Bennion’s, entitled “Further Observations on the Age of the Earth,” did not address the issues raised by Talmage but simply reiterated much of the same material from his first article.52 In the “Church News” that contained Talmage’s second article, Sidney Sperry, a well-known Mormon Bible scholar, published an article supporting Bennion’s position on scriptural grounds and attempting a specific reply to Talmage’s charges. In this Sperry maintained that “The Earth and Man” address, so heavily relied upon by Sterling Talmage, was an inappropriate airing of James Talmage’s own views “for which the Church should not be held responsible.”53

Agitated by Sperry’s criticism of his father, Sterling drafted a scathing rebuttal, but there is no evidence in his correspondence that it was ever sent to the Deseret News. A partial explanation may be found in the fact that he also addressed a letter to President Anthony W. Ivins: “I do not like to come out in print, and brand another member of the Church as a plain liar, even though under the circumstances the designation seems strictly accurate. Dr. Sperry’s accusation that my father assumed personal responsibility for portions of ‘The Earth and Man’ that were not in accordance with the doctrines of the Church is utterly and unqualifiedly false.” Talmage requested the First Presidency to officially correct this “misstatement … with reference to my father’s sermon.”54 Although a copy of the First Presidency’s reply to Talmage is unavailable, it is apparent that they declined to comply with his request.

In the summer following, Joseph Fielding Smith discovered an article by Dudley J. Whitney, introduced as “Esq., B.S. of Exeter, California,” in the Journal of the Transactions of the Victorian Institute, purporting to prove that the earth was 6,000 years old.55 Smith, impressed by the article, wrote to Whitney asking him to respond to the Bennion-Talmage debate.56 Whitney subsequently drafted a series of articles, the first of which, “The Flat Creation of the Earth,” [p.107] was published in the Deseret News but not in the “Church Section.”57

Since the Whitney article was neither written by a Mormon nor published in a church periodical, Talmage paid little attention to it. W. W. Henderson, professor of zoology at Utah State University, wrote to the News stating that since “people generally take seriously whatever articles of this kind they find published in the News, it is unfortunate to publish such a paper.”58 As a result of this and other protests, the Deseret News decided against printing the last three or four articles in the Whitney series. In writing to Whitney of their decision, they suggested he take up the matter personally with Talmage or Henderson if he wished. Talmage subsequently received an angry letter from Whitney offering Sterling $100 to participate in a debate on the merits of the case for the flat creation.59

Talmage was astonished by Whitney’s letter, especially since he had had nothing to do with discontinuing the series. In his letter Whitney mentioned that “our mutual friend, Mr. Joseph Fielding Smith, the Church Historian,” had been responsible for publication of Whitney’s articles at the Deseret News. Talmage therefore wrote to Smith for an explanation.60

Smith replied that he had indeed favored publication of the Whitney articles: “As you know I am not in accord with many of the theories of the present day, including organic evolution and other theories taught by geologists, biologists, and others. For this reason I thought articles might be of interest showing there is another side to the questions …. While scientists are not atheists and are led to believe in some kind of a God, yet the tendency of the times is to destroy the Son of God and the plan of redemption.”61 Talmage expressed appreciation of Smith’s reply in a return letter, although noting that Smith had merely re-emphasized the points of basic disagreement between them.62

Although Talmage declined Whitney’s offer to debate publicly, he did attempt to spell out his objections to Whitney’s articles in private correspondence. To this Whitney replied, “I confess with deepest penitence that in discussing the essentials of my case I hurried over one part of the subject with some generalizations that were not strictly correct.” He still felt, however, that his basic thesis was “unanswerable.” As a matter of fact, “I figure that if about seven or eight of [my] series had been published, the teachings of evolution would have been pretty badly demoralized in the Inter Mountain [p.108] States.”63 With this the Whitney-Talmage exchange seems to have ended.64

Scarcely one year later Elder Smith approved an article similar to those of Whitney and Bennion for publication in the “Church News.” This one was by Floyd Day, unintroduced in the article, and was entitled “Can the Scriptures Be Relied On?” If so, according to Day, the earth was only 13,000 years old, there was no death before the fall of Adam 6,000 years ago, and the principles of organic evolution were blasphemous.65 Talmage once again protested strongly to the First Presidency that “the scriptural quotations are strained and misapplied.” He pointed out again that the article was in direct contradiction to his father’s “Earth and Man” address, which “is to be considered an apostolic utterance.” Perhaps wearied by the persistent appearance of such articles, he also informed the presidency that he did not intend to draft a direct rebuttal, commenting only that “the present article … is so puerile that it carries its own refutation.”66

Smith, shown a copy of Talmage’s letter, was upset that “The Earth and Man” should be considered “an apostolic utterance delivered by appointment.” He wrote Sterling that he knew personally that the talk had been issued “arbitrarily, in the absence of the President of the Church, and over the protest of the majority of the Council of the Apostles.”67 To Sterling, Smith’s statement was tantamount to a charge that James Talmage in publishing his talk was guilty of unethical, clandestine behavior. He responded to Smith that “I knew my father better than that; and so did you. I must admit that the paragraph carries a note of personal resentment against what appears to me to be an utterly unfair aspersion relative to my father’s methods and motives.”68

At this point Talmage again sought confirmation of the status of his father’s talk in a letter to “President Heber J. Grant and Counselors.” The First Presidency replied with a letter outlining a history of publication of “The Earth and Man.” Contrary to Sterling’s belief that the sermon was authoritative, they asserted that it was twice “the unanimous view of the Twelve minus one, that the sermon not be published.” It was their memory that “President Ivins withdrew the sermon from the consideration of the Council and [p.109] himself decided that it should be published. It was printed within two or three days thereafter.” According to the letter, President Grant had been away at the time and was apparently not consulted. The presidency continued, “You can see from the foregoing that the sermon ‘The Earth and Man’ cannot be regarded as an official expression of the Church.” However, “we make this foregoing statement without making any comment at all upon the matters discussed in the sermon.” Whether the sermon was prepared “by appointment,” the presidency stressed that “These ‘appointments’ are made merely in order that certain work shall be done … but that does not mean that the Church must approve everything” that is said or done “by appointment.”69

This account of events surrounding publication of “The Earth and Man” is remarkable in that it disagrees with almost every other account available, including Heber J. Grant’s journal and Rudger Clawson’s official report. One wonders what sources the 1935 presidency consulted. A satisfactory explanation for this discrepancy is unavailable, because of the inaccessibility of critical historical records. It is probably relevant to note that when this explanation was sent to Sterling Talmage, only President Grant remained of those who were in the First Presidency in 1931. Second counselor Charles W. Nibley had died in December 1931 and first counselor Ivins in 1934. J. Reuben Clark, the new first counselor and a frequent official respondent to inquiries to the First Presidency during the later Grant years, had not been a church authority in 1931 and was not party to the earlier discussions. The new second counselor, David O. McKay, was formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve.

Whatever the explanation for the letter, its effect on Sterling was profound. He replied to the presidency and to Smith in a highly conciliatory manner: “I am very grateful to you for clarifying my mind in this respect. I shall not again, either in publication or in private correspondence, place undue stress on the authoritativeness of this document, or any statements contained in it.”70 Thereafter he was never again so willing to commit himself publicly in disagreement with the conservative elements of the church, although he had several opportunities to do so.71 Three years later when Apostle Widtsoe decided to involve himself in the public defense of science against scriptural traditionalism, Talmage published one last article on the [p.110] age of the earth in the Improvement Era in support of Widtsoe.72 He did not, however, follow through with plans to publish a series of articles written with Widtsoe’s approval defending the theory of evolution.73 Although he completed a book-length manuscript called Can Science Be Faith Promoting? he was unable to publish this work before his death in 1956.74

The extended debate generated by Roberts’s manuscript ended inconclusively. Church leaders did not want to encourage the theological speculation which it would have engendered. But if they discouraged speculative discussion, they at the same time refused authoritative pronouncement. John Widtsoe amidst the controversies of the early thirties expressed his frustration at having been “afflicted with these questions [of science] for a generation of time.” It seemed to him that it was “high time that the Church answer them definitely or declare that it does not know, so that more important questions may engage the minds of young and old.”75 But despite decades-old infighting for authority to speak in the name of the church about science, neither the issues of science nor those associated with doctrinal authority have yet been resolved. [p.117]


1. Roberts’s views are also discussed in Richard Sherlock, “A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Reactions to the Darwinist Legacy,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 33-59.

2. Many church leaders otherwise hostile to evolution, such as Charles Penrose, were prepared to admit that the earth was very old. American religious leaders in general had been doing it since the 1830s. See Charles Penrose, “The Age and Destiny of the Earth,” Improvement Era 12 (May 1909): 506-9; Conrad Wright, “The Religion of Geology,” New England Quarterly 14 (1941): 335-58.

3. The idea of pre-Adamite races goes back to the seventeenth century. It had its most complete statement in Isaac de la Peyrere’s two works, Men before Adam (1656) and Prae-Adamitae (1655); on this, see especially Richard Popkin, “The Pre-Adamite Theory in the Renaissance,” in Philosophy and Humanism, ed. E. P. Mahoney (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 50-69; and his more encyclopedic treatment in The History of Skepticism from Erasmus to Spinoza (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979). While the theory was not new, Roberts seems to have been the first to place it in a dispensationalist framework.

4. George Albert Smith, chair of the reading committee, to Rudger Clawson, council president, 10 Oct. 1929, Clawson Papers, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives). The other members of the committee were Joseph Fielding Smith, Melvin Ballard, Stephen L Richards, and David O. McKay.

5. Ibid.

6. Council of the Twelve to Heber J. Grant, 15 May 1930, Clawson Papers.

7. Joseph Fielding Smith, “The Word of the Lord Superior to Theories of Men,” Liahona 15 (Apr. 1918): 641-44; “The Origin and Destiny of Man,” Improvement Era 23 (Mar. 1920): 376-93.

8. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Faith Leads to a Fullness of Truth and Righteousness,” Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 21 (Oct. 1930): 145-58.

9. Roberts to Heber J. Grant, 15 Dec. 1930, B. H. Roberts Papers, LDS archives; Roberts to Rudger Clawson, 31 Dec. 1930, Roberts Papers.

10. Roberts met with the council on 2 January at which time he outlined orally the charges he was making. James E. Talmage journal, 2 Jan. 1931, James E. Talmage Collection, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

11. Manuscript on file at LDS archives, 2-3.

12. This outlook pervades the manuscript presented to the council. Richard Sherlock has discussed another example of it in “Faith and History: The Snell Controversy,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Spring 1979): 27-41.

13. Council of the Twelve to the First Presidency, 21 Jan. 1931, Clawson Papers.

14. Roberts to Heber J. Grant, 9 Feb. 1931, Roberts Papers. Talmage indicates in his journal that he was called in for a private conference with the First Presidency on these matters on 14 January. This was after Roberts had made his presentation but before Smith had made his, indicating that even then they were preparing to make a final decision by getting some geological advice from a knowledgeable source.

15. Heber J. Grant diary, 25 Jan. 1931, Heber J. Grant collection, LDS archives.

16. Copy in our possession, 7.

17. Ibid., 6.

18. Ibid., 7.

19. Talmage journal, 12 Dec. 1881.

20. Sterling Talmage to John A. Widtsoe, 17 Apr. 1934, Sterling Talmage Papers, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah.

21. George McCready Price, The New Geology (Mt. View, CA: Pacific Press, 1923). For example, Price writes of geology: “In geology, facts and theories are still in-extricably comingled, and in the ordinary college textbook of the science, the most absurd and fantastic speculations are still taught to the students with all the solemnity and pompous importance which might be allowable in speaking of the facts of chemistry or physics.”

22. Sterling Talmage to James Talmage, 9 Feb. 1931, S. Talmage Papers; italics Talmage’s.

23. James Talmage to Sterling Talmage, 21 May 1931, S. Talmage Papers.

24. Ibid.

25. Rudger Clawson to George Albert Smith, 10 Apr. 1931, Clawson Papers.

26. Roberts to Heber J. Grant, 30 Aug. 1932; see also Roberts to E. H. Lund, Roberts Papers.

27. Talmage Journal, 21 Nov. 1931.

28. Ibid.

29. Sterling Talmage to James Talmage, 15 June 1931, S. Talmage Papers.

30. Ibid.

31. Sterling Talmage, “Open Letter to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith,” 28 June 1931, S. Talmage Papers. The reference to geologists as “miserable fools” had evidently been made by Smith at a stake conference attended by Sterling Talmage.

32. James Talmage to Sterling Talmage, 23 June 1931, S. Talmage Papers; italics Talmage’s.

33. Ibid.

34. James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” Deseret News, 21 Nov. 1931.

35. James Talmage to John Widtsoe, 18 Nov. 1931, Talmage Papers.

36. Susa Y. Gates to John A. Widtsoe, undated, Widtsoe Collection, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City.

37. When Clawson’s report was read to the Council of the Twelve, the only objection voiced was that “some of the brethren took exception to the expression, ‘reaching back, into numberless ages of the past, to the protoplasm.’ I presume I should have said, ‘reaching back, into numberless ages of the past, to the singlewelled protozoan‘” (see Report of Rudger Clawson to the First Presidency, Clawson Papers).

38. Smoot wrote Talmage that he hadn’t “a word of complaint to offer against” the address (24 Nov. 1931, Talmage Collection).

39. Merrill was reported to have “upon hearing the sermon expressed a great pleasure and satisfaction and asked for a thousand copies of the sermon to distribute among his seminary teachers” (Report of Rudger Clawson).

40. Widtsoe wrote, “I am pleased, indeed, that the address was delivered publicly and hope it may soon be published” (Widtsoe to Rudger Clawson, 9 Sept. 1931, Widtsoe Collection).

41. Talmage wrote in his journal that “the other brethren named [Richards and Lyman], including President Ivins, expressed their tentative approval of what I had said” (21 Nov. 1931). Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in his small journals, “(attended) Tabernacle in the afternoon. Dr. J. E. T. spoke not edifying but questionable” (copy in Eugene Thompson Collection, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library).

42. Smoot wrote, “I voted that the article with a few slight changes be published and a majority voted that way” (Reed Smoot journal, 29 Sept. 1931, Smoot Papers, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library). Talmage wrote, “The majority of the Twelve have been in favor of the publication of the address from the time they first took it under consideration” (Talmage journal, 21 Nov. 1931).

43. Clawson Papers.

44. Grant Journal, 17 Nov. 1931.

45. Howard S. Bennion, “Is the Earth Millions of Years Old?” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 17 Mar. 1934, 6, and 24 Mar., 4, 7.

46. John A. Widtsoe to Sterling Talmage, 11 Apr. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

47. Sterling Talmage, “Can We Dictate God’s Times and Methods?” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 14 Apr. 1934, 3, 5, and 21 Apr., 3, 6.

48. John A. Widtsoe to Sterling Talmage, 11 Apr. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

49. Sterling Talmage, “Can We Dictate?” 3, 6.

50. Sterling Talmage to President Heber J. Grant and Counselors, 30 Dec. 1935, S. Talmage Papers.

51. John A. Widtsoe to Sterling Talmage, 11 Apr. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

52. Howard S. Bennion, “Further Observations on the Age of the Earth,” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 19 May 1934, 4; Sterling Talmage, “Some Lessons Involved in the Age of the Earth,” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 16 June 1934, 2.

53. Sidney Sperry, “What Shall We Then Believe?” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 16 June 1934, 3.

54. Sterling Talmage to President Anthony W. Ivins, 1 July 1934, S. Talmage Papers. The health of the 81-year-old Ivins at this time is unclear. He died just two months later.

55. Dudley Joseph Whitney, “The Age of the Earth as Deduced from the Salinity of the Ocean,” Journal of the Transactions of the Victorian Institute 65 (1933): 26-34. The Victorian Institute was a society established in 1867 in London, England, that had as its goal: “To investigate fully and impartially the most important questions of Philosophy and Science, but more especially those that bear upon the great truths revealed in Holy Scriptures, with the view of defending these truths against the oppositions of Science, falsely so-called” (ibid., 1 [May 1867]: vi). While the society defended many scriptural “truths” such as creation ex nihilo that were not compatible with Mormon thought, Smith was impressed with their treatment of evolution. Most of the society’s articles on this subject, which invariably denounced evolution as being incredibly unscientific as well as unscriptural, were written by recognized scientists. Almost all of the post-1930 references in Smith’s Man: His Origin and Destiny are to the Victorian Institute’s Journal.

56. Dudley J. Whitney to Sterling Talmage, 29 Sept. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

57. Dudley J. Whitney, “The Flat Creation of the Earth,” Deseret News, 16 June 1934, 6.

58. W. W. Henderson to editor, Deseret News, 26 June 1934.

59. Dudley J. Whitney to Sterling Talmage, 22 Aug. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

60. Sterling Talmage to Joseph Fielding Smith, 16 Sept. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

61. Joseph Fielding Smith to Sterling Talmage, 29 Sept. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

62. Sterling Talmage to Joseph Fielding Smith, 16 Sept. 1934.

63. Dudley J. Whitney to Sterling Talmage, 29 Sept. 1934, S. Talmage Papers.

64. John A. Widtsoe remarked concerning Whitney’s articles. “Life within the Church does not hinge upon the age of the earth, nor does any vital principle within the Church body of doctrine” (John A. Widtsoe to Sterling Talmage, 27 Sept. 1934, S. Talmage Papers).

65. Floyd Day, “Can Scripture Be Relied On?” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 16 Nov. 1935, 7.

66. Sterling Talmage to President Heber J. Grant and Counselors, 24 Nov. 1935, S. Talmage Papers.

67. Joseph Fielding Smith to Sterling Talmage, 4 Dec. 1935, S. Talmage Papers.

68. Sterling Talmage to Joseph Fielding Smith, 7 Dec. 1935, S. Talmage Papers. This letter contains a hint of the intense feelings that ran between the Talmage and Smith families after 1931. Sterling’s sister Elsie referred to a “Smith-Talmage family feud” and quit her job with the Improvement Era to escape Elder Smith’s influence (Elsie Talmage to Sterling Talmage, 11 Jan. 1935 and 12 Apr. 1935, George Albert Smith Collection, Marriott Library).

69. Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay to Sterling Talmage, 19 Dec. 1935, S. Talmage Papers.

70. Sterling Talmage to President Heber J. Grant and Counselors, 30 Dec. 1935, S. Talmage Papers.

71. See, for example, Sidney Sperry, “Challenge to Scientists in the Church: Harmonize Learning, Faith,” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 4 Apr. 1936, 3; and Joseph Fielding Smith’s eulogy to William Jennings Bryan, “Was the Hero’s Death So Bad?” Deseret News, “Church Section,” 31 Oct. 1936, 1.

72. Sterling B. Talmage, “Genesis and Geology,” Improvement Era 42 (Mar. 1939): 143-44.

73. Widtsoe encouraged Talmage in this endeavor: “it is very likely that the time is ripe for someone to begin right now to prepare a wise, temperate, scientific statement of the doctrine of evolution … Evolution, as a law, seems to me to have been demonstrated” (Widtsoe to Sterling Talmage, 20 Apr. 1934, S. Talmage Papers). It is not clear whether this series was not published because it could not receive the approval of the brethren or if Talmage voluntarily withdrew the manuscript.

74. The manuscript is currently being edited by Stan Larson for publication.

75. Widtsoe to Susa Y. Gates, 30 Oct. 1931, Widtsoe Collection.