Essays on Science and MormonismThe Search for Harmony
Essays on Science and Mormonism
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg

on the cover:
If life began at the molecular level and evolved, how do we account for Adam and Eve? While the LDS church avoids official pronouncements on science, Mormon leaders have periodically spoken on scientific theories, and their positions have run from implicit acceptance to outright rejection.
The theological implications of science range from probability of prophecy in quantum mechanics to determining parenthood for genetically engineered organisms. Mormonism teaches that God is subject to natural laws and that humans can similarly learn to create and nurture. In light of such an optimistic world view, LDS scientists attempt in this anthology to harmonize current research with church teachings.

Among the essays included are: “Scientific Foundations of Mormon Theology” by David H. Bailey; “The New Biology and Mormon Theology” by James L. Farmer, William S. Bradshaw, and F. Brent Johnson; “Seers, Savants, and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface” by Duane E. Jeffery; “The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair” by Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey E. Keller; and “Science: A Part of or Apart from Mormonism?” by Richard Pearson Smith.

“The notion,” write the editors, “that there is no room in the church for harmonizing and reconciling scientific and religious truths has slowly caused a retreat among many Mormons from a former reverence for science.” They cite Apostle James E. Talmagexs epitaph as “the most enduring advice” for those dealing with science and religion: “Within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known.”

about the editors: Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg are professors at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, in history and microbiology. Sessions is author of Mormon Thunder: A Documentary History of Jedediah Morgan Grant.

title page:
The Search for Harmony
Essays on Science and Mormonism
Edited by Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

copyright page:
Cover illustration: Royal Cubit by Doug Himes, 1989, oil on paper
Cover design: Julie Easton

Printed on acid free paper.
© 1993 by Signature Books, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Composed and printed in the United States of America.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Search for harmony: essays on science and Mormonism / edited by Gene A. Sessions, Craig J. Oberg.
p. cm. Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 1-56085-020-5
1. Religion and Science——1946-    2. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints——Doctrines.    3. Mormon Church —Doctrines.
I. Sessions, Gene Allred.    II. Oberg, Craig J.
BL241.S4257    1993
261.5’5—dc20    92-6811

Editors’ Introduction: The Mormon Retreat from Science [see below]

01 – Scientific Foundations of Mormon Theology, by David H. Bailey
02 – The New Biology and Mormon Theology, by James L. Farmer, William S. Bradshaw, and F. Brent Johnson
03 – The 1911 Evolution Controversy and Brigham Young University, by Gary James Bergera
04 – Inner Dialogue: James Talmage’s Choice of Science as a Career, 1876-84, by Dennis Rowley
05 – A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Reactions to the Darwinist Legacy, by Richard Sherlock
06 – The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair, Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey E. Keller
07 – Harvey Fletcher and Henry Eyring: Men of Faith and Science, by Edward L. Kimball
08 – Agreeing to Disagree: Henry Eyring and Joseph Fielding Smith, by Steven H. Heath
09 – Seers, Savants, and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface, by Duane E. Jeffery
10 – Organic Evolution and the Bible, by Eldon J. Gardner
11 – Fossils and the Scriptures, by Morris S. Petersen
12 – Adam’s Navel, by Keith E. Norman
13 – Astrophysics and Mormonism: Parallel Paths to Truth, by R. Grant Athay
14 – Science: A Part of or Apart from Mormonism?, by Richard Pearson Smith
15 – Eternal Progression: The Higher Destiny, L. Mikel Vause
16 – Science and Mormonism: A Review Essay, by Craig J. Oberg and Gene A. Sessions

Epilogue: An Official Position, by William Lee Stokes


Editors’ Introduction
The Mormon Retreat from Science

[p.v]By the last decade of the twentieth century, few members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would doubt the truth of the following statement: The ideas of organic evolution, particularly as they apply to the development of humankind, are false. In addition, “so-called intellectuals who rely upon the scientific method as an always valuable and legitimate way of searching for knowledge fail to realize that faith must take precedence over empiricism, no matter how voluminous or convincing supporting data may be.” Attempts to reconcile faith in God and the “evolution of man” are seen as a rejection of moral law.1

Moreover, such statements characterize the common perception among Mormons of the intellectual underpinnings of evolutionary biology and in the larger context the scientific method itself. In league with fundamentalist Christians, Mormons tend to accept the whole cloth of “creation science”—the notion that geologists, biologists, and others have participated in a gross misinterpretation of the geologic and fossil record and in so doing subvert the truth of a divine creation. Dwelling on semantical extrapolations of such terms as “law” and “theory,”2 these attacks on science comprise a central component of modern anti-intellectualism.

Yet in spite of the above, the Mormon church has demonstrated repeatedly a deep affection for and strong bond with science. Part of that fondness developed from a sense that the doctrines of Mormonism dovetail with the findings of science, even the notions of evolutionary biology, as Mikel Vause argues in “Eternal Progress: []The Higher Destiny” and as David Bailey suggests further in “Scientific Foundations of Mormon Theology.” Perhaps as a result, Mormon theology has refused to box itself into a strict anti-scientific stance in order to defend its basic premises. In addition, numerous Mormon leaders, many of them accomplished scientists, have expressed confidence in the unfettered pursuit of the scientific method. Spencer W. Kimball, a Mormon prophet, extolled often the virtues of “modern scientific findings,” which “harmonize with revelation through the ages.”3 His successor, Ezra Taft Benson, once stated that Mormons “have no fear that any discovery of new truths will ever be in conflict with … any fundamental basic principle which we advocate in the Gospel.” Affirming his comfort with “any new truths, whether discovered in the laboratory, through the research of the scientist, or whether revealed from heaven through prophets of God,”4 Benson’s remarks reflect accurately the historical position of the leadership of the Mormon church relative to science.

Unfortunately, this intellectual enlightenment has evaporated from the common discourse of the church as creationist notions have crept into its sermons and classrooms. Among Mormon scholars confronting this situation, three professors of biology at church-owned Brigham Young University published in 1979 a commentary titled “The New Biology and Mormon Theology.” They noted that such early leaders as Orson Pratt were “willing and able to combine empirical and theological insights,” but that such high-ranking Mormon officials “have all but disappeared from the Mormon scene.”5 The truth of their observation suggests an interesting set of questions: What has led Mormons to a marriage with Christian fundamentalism relative to organic evolution? How does this affect the attitudes of the common membership of the church, not only toward science and the scientific method but with respect to traditional Mormon virtues of education, the pursuit of knowledge, and the embrace of all truth? What is the overall effect of an all-or-nothing attitude of rejection when doctrinal issues appear to collide with scientific observations?

Even passive observers cannot fail to notice a recent bombardment from the ramparts. In written and oratorical form this warfare has operated on two levels. Visible and vocal general leaders have in recent decades assaulted evolution in particular and science in general. The founding father of this movement was Joseph Fielding [p.vii]Smith, prolific writer and church historian during his years as apostle and prophet.

Smith published perhaps the most complete compendium of his attitudes about science in 1954 under the title, Man, His Origin and Destiny.6 After stating that there exists no “conflict between truth revealed from heaven and truth revealed through the research of man,” he launched into a nearly 300-page diatribe against organic evolution and the scientific method. Characterizing “the doctrine of organic evolution [as] only an hypothesis—a guess … and a bad guess at that,”7 he argued that it is surely “Satan’s chief weapon in this dispensation to destroy the divine mission of Jesus Christ.”8 A most telling remark came on page 138 where he asked, “Why is it that thousands of intelligent looking human beings are willing to accept these stupid teachings? Frankly it is because Satan has deceived them and they love darkness rather than life.”

Smith’s son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie followed closely this line of thinking for what he called “weak and puerile intellectuality.”9 As church apostle and semi-official theologian, McConkie called organic evolution one of the “seven deadly heresies” of the modern age.10 Relentlessly damning the science that supported “the theoretical guesses and postulates of some organic evolutionists,” he bemoaned those who “reject the revealed truth that there was no death either for man or animal or plants or any form of life until 6,000 years ago when Adam fell.”11 His harmonizing with Bishop Usher’s biblical chronology stamped McConkie’s stand as extreme among creationists.

At the base of the problem for Mormons are notions about the order of the universe. Church founder Joseph Smith stated it as “a decree of the Lord that every tree, plant, and herb bearing seed should bring forth of its kind, and cannot come forth after any other law or principle.”12 Four decades later, church president John Taylor restated the same position in light of Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle: “These principles do not change, as represented by evolutionists of the Darwinian school, but the primitive organisms of all living beings exist in the same form as when they first received their impress from their Maker.”13 Also operating against acceptance of evolution for many Mormons is the doctrine of the fall of Adam and the atonement of Christ. But even with these accoutrements, only [p.viii]recently has the general tenor of church pronouncements joined in the marginalization of science and scientists.

Although David O. McKay, prophet during the 1950s and 1960s, expressed negative feelings about evolution in his books,14 his now-classic letter to William L. Stokes made plain the church’s refusal to join fundamentalist sects in disavowing organic evolution altogether.15 The resulting historical schizophrenia manifests itself in an ongoing fashion as outspoken Mormons discredit Darwinism and its derivatives yet praise open-minded, scholarly pursuit of truth.

A second tier of Mormons has written a plethora of science-bashing works. Such authors as Melvin and Garfield Cook,16 Dean R. Zimmerman,17 Ernst Eberhard, Jr.,18 and Reid Bankhead19 deny that the church “has taken no stand; the scriptures themselves are the ‘stand’ taken by the Church.”20 They reject not only organic evolution but also the scientific age of earth prehistory. Bankhead refers to such ideas as “most pernicious” and “a trick of the devil.”21 Characterizing Darwin and Lyell as anti-Christs,22 the Cooks and others argue the familiar creationist line about “the slow but persistent penetration of false theories and doctrines into science”23 and suggest that those who accept evolution are deceived by Satan and are co-conspirators.

According to the typical lay church author, reliance on science for knowledge is fine unless it involves “special theoretical models of science which have been devised to eliminate the need for a God and thus promote deception.”24 Their usual conclusion is that it is impossible to “embrace Lyellian prehistory without utterly repudiating the teachings of the scriptures”25 and the divinity of Christ. Along with their creationist-fundamentalist fellow travelers across the Christian world, they readily accept the benefits of scientific discovery that promise to improve their lives. But when the same methods yield findings that conflict with their views of the universe, such techniques are the machinations of evil people.

Mormon leaders, scholars, and theologians have not always shared with other biblical literalists this degree of hostility to Lyell, Russell, Darwin, and their successors. Their uneasiness about what seemed to be unequivocal scientific revelations from taxonomic, fossil, and geologic records rarely lead them into outright rejection of science. Early Mormon leaders felt that science would vindicate Mormonism. Joseph Smith himself repeatedly stressed that [p.ix]Mormonism would always accept truth from whatever source. His nephew and early twentieth-century successor Joseph F. Smith reiterated this long-standing attitude when he said, “We are willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come; for truth will stand, truth will endure. … True science is that system of reasoning which brings to the fore the simple, plain truth.”26

It is also apparent that many of the most influential nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mormon leaders, many of whom were prolific writers, were independent-minded—Orson and Parley Pratt, Orson Hyde, Lorenzo Snow, John Taylor. Church president Brigham Young found little difficulty harmonizing Mormonism and evolution: “God brought forth material out of which he formed this little terra firma upon which we roam. How long had this material been in existence? Forever and forever, in some shape, in some condition. We need not refer to all of those who were with God, and who assisted him in this work. The elements form and develop, and continue to do so until they mature, and then they commence to decay and become disorganized. The mountains around us were formed in this way. By and by, when they shall have reached their maturity, the work of disintegration and decay will commence. It has been so from all eternity, and will continue to be so until they are made celestial.”27

Young also had little problem with accepting a Lyellian earth millions or perhaps billions of years old, and even less respect for the literalness of the Genesis account: “How long it [the earth] has been organized is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from them picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty or void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he gives revelation on the subject.”28 Add to this his general encouragement of the study of science: “Every accomplishment, every polished grace, every useful attainment in mathematics, music, and in all science and art belongs to the Saints, and [p.x]they should avail themselves as expeditiously as possible of the wealth of knowledge the sciences offer to every diligent and persevering scholar.”29

Mormon sympathy with science derives mostly from the writings of three early twentieth-century members of the hierarchy. The first of these emigrated from England as a teenager. Shortly after his arrival in Utah, James E. Talmage enrolled at Brigham Young Academy where he came under the tutelage of Karl Maeser, who comfortably elevated science to the same level of reverence as religion. After extensive graduate training in chemistry and geology at Lehigh and Johns Hopkins universities, Talmage returned to Utah to occupy the Deseret Chair of Geology at the University of Utah, serving as president of the university, and become a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. The LDS church published his doctrinal expositions on Jesus, the Christ and the basic tenets of the Mormon faith. A fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society of London and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Talmage had no tolerance for anti-scientific prejudice and argued consistently for a rational and open-minded pursuit of knowledge about the nature of the cosmos: “Discrepancies that trouble us now will diminish as our knowledge of pertinent facts is extended. The Creator has made a record in the rocks for man to decipher; but He has also spoken directly regarding main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts cannot be fundamentally opposed; one cannot contradict the other; though man’s interpretation of either may be seriously at fault.”30

Talmage expressed an unwavering confidence in the scientific method and chided sectarians for their lack of understanding of Darwinism. His voice spoke eloquently for the possibility of “races of the human sort” before Adam.31 His major caveat to the Saints related not to science but to scripture: “The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science, or man-science. Holy scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.”32

Mirroring Talmage’s story, a second scholar emigrated from Norway to Utah and then eagerly received advanced training in [p.xi]chemistry at Harvard where he was president of the chemistry club. John A. Widstoe subsequently studied at the University of Goettingen in Germany from which he graduated magna cum laude with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. After working with several prominent European chemists, he returned to Utah as director of the Agricultural Experiment Station and on to service as president of the Utah State Agricultural College and then of the University of Utah. After his appointment as an apostle, Widstoe expended a great deal of effort on questions surrounding the interface of religion and reason.33 Following those of Talmage, Widstoe’s general conclusions encircled the notion that “there can be no conflict between true religion and correct science.”34 “In summary: The Church supports and welcomes the growth of science. It asks only that the facts of science be as accurately determined as human powers permit, and that confusion between facts of science and inferences of science be earnestly avoided. The religion of Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth, nor to scientific search for the truth.”35

While he expressed nagging doubts about the complete veracity of evolution,36 he steadfastly supported a happy marriage between Mormonism and science, believing in an easy reconciliation between them, “since all proper human activities aim to secure truth. Every person of honest mind loves truth above all else …. Truth is truth, whether labeled science or religion.”37 Consistent with the teachings of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, Widstoe argued eloquently for an open mind. “A man who loves truth, and seeks it,” he wrote, “frequently finds that the new truth is in opposition to his former, cherished beliefs. Then if this love of truth be genuine, he must replace the traditions of his life with the new-won knowledge.”38 After traversing Richard Sherlock’s “Turbulent Spectrum,” we know that Widtsoe’s belief in such a courageous pursuit of truth led him to form to his own satisfaction a simple reconciliation between ideas of creation and organic evolution: “The law of evolution … does not require that all things, all life, shall have a common origin. It merely declares that everything in the universe is moving onward.”39 By the end of his career, Widtsoe had also accepted the existence of “human like beings before the coming of Adam.”40

The third member of this intellectual triumvirate also immigrated to Utah as a youngster. While not trained as a scientist like [p.xii]Talmage and Widstoe, B. H. Roberts was a consummate scholar who spent his career as a church leader investigating the realities of his faith, both past and present, particularly as it crossed paths with the world of secular knowledge. Early on, Roberts seemed unwilling to accept Darwinism, discounting the theory of evolution as “contrary to all experiences so far as man’s knowledge extends. The great law of nature is that every plant, herb, fish, fowl, beast and man produces its kind.”41 He was willing to allow the “claim that the fossilized remains in the different strata of the earth’s crust reveal that in the earlier periods of the earth’s existence only the simpler forms of vegetation and animal life are to be found, both forms of life becoming more complex and of a higher type as the earth becomes older, until it is crowned with the presence of man.”42 He also confirmed the incontrovertability of geologic evidence for an ancient earth and explained the fossil evidence of “lower forms” by arguing for extra-terrestrial transfers of species to the earth that could inhabit it successfully during its various stages of development. As changes in the earth came, so did mass extinctions.43 Roberts obviously found himself trapped and attempted to force two positions into what would seem today to be a bizarre amalgamation.

In 1929, suffering from “an incurable ailment,” Roberts presented to the church hierarchy for approval a 700-page manuscript entitled The Truth, The Way, The Life. This monumental work attempted in one grand sweep a complete doctrinal reconciliation of theology and science, a total analysis of a theistic cosmos. By this time Roberts had come to the conclusion that organic evolution had to take its place as a certain truth among the countless others his faith and reason had affirmed. The full extent of his logic on the matter took him right to the brink of accepting evolutionary theory as the basic explanation to all life, but he paused there to cling to the idea of special creation for Adam and his descendants, while accepting without reservation the existence of humans prior to a cleansing of the planet to make way for the Adamic dispensation. Several of the apostles, led by Joseph Fielding Smith, responded to the manuscript with an attack on the whole idea of evolution and a general debunking of the scientific method. Talmage, an apostle with seniority, jumped into the fray on the side of Roberts. While the manuscript never saw publication, Talmage managed to convince the First Presidency to [p.xiii]take a neutral stand on the issue, which it did in April 1931: “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.”44 Talmage and Roberts died just weeks apart in 1933 while Smith lived another four decades, long enough to serve briefly as president of the church.

Roberts, like Talmage and Widstoe, testified to the worthiness of scientific investigation as a desirable pursuit. Such support for science among outspoken leaders of the church helped to encourage the development of a tradition at mid-century for Mormons to respect the scientific endeavor. It also created an atmosphere in which Mormon thinkers of the stripe of BYU religion professor Hugh Nibley,45 Apostle Joseph Merrill,46 and Frederick Pack47 rose to state their devotion to reason and their rejection of any exclusivity between religion and science.

Merrill’s attitude toward science, for example, stands in contrast to many current pronouncements that it is opposed to religious progress: “Assuredly there can be no conflict between two truths. But certainly there have been severe conflicts between interpretations of facts of science and some teachings of religionists. … I think no truth-seeker, no Mormon, need be seriously disturbed by these conflicts. They are usually due to misinterpretations and intolerance. Scientists and religionists of the present generation have found that there were faults on both sides among their predecessors. Yes, I believe the facts of science, rightly looked at and understood, are helpful to the development of a sound religious faith.”48

As Steven Heath and Edward Kimball illustrate, the example of renowned scientist and believing Mormon Henry Eyring provided further inspiration to Latter-day Saints, who Pack asserted have “no part in the controversy concerning the origin of the earth.”49 The thinking Mormon, Pack continued, “knows that God is omnipotent, that he works by natural principles, and, therefore, that the truths of science are equally as sacred as those of the Written Word, for both proceed from the same source.”50 For Eyring, contradictions between science and religion resulted from “provisional and fragmentary” understanding that would disappear only as one “approaches the [p.xiv]Divine.” Until then, he wrote, “we can only continue our quest for the balanced view that comes from weighing all evidence carefully in the search for enduring values.”51

On one point, all of these Mormon thinkers, from Widtsoe and Roberts to Nibley and Pack, agree completely. Mainstream Christianity misinterpreted biblical ideas of the origin of the earth and life thereon. Roberts suggested that insufficient understanding of creation among theologians was responsible for the theory of evolution in the first place. “Finding so much that was contrary to well-known facts,” he wrote, “induced men of intelligence to look for some other explanation of the genesis of things.”52

One of the major complaints of mainstream Christianity is that Latter-day Saints have other scriptures in addition to the Bible. Nibley studied these other scriptures as possible keys to untying the Gordian Knot of science and religion. Using the books of Abraham and Moses, he concluded that there were “people that lived thousands of years before Adam.”53 He also tried to distinguish between Mormons and other Bible-oriented people on such matters. “Latter-day Saints … have always been taught that things were happening long, long before Adam appeared on the scene.”54 He affirmed his belief on anthropoid forerunners of modern humans and pointed to Mormon scriptures as a support. “The creation process as described in the Pearl of Great Price,” he said, “is open ended and ongoing, entailing careful planning based on vast experience, long consultations, models, tests, and even trial runs for a complicated system requiring a vast scale of participation by the creatures concerned.”55

Many essays have been written to bring some sense to the paradoxical problem of Mormonism’s shifting attitude toward science. David Rees outlines that historical drift, and Duane Jeffery documents clearly the conflict among church leaders on organic evolution.56 A few Mormon scientists, such as Frank Salisbury,57 Eldon Gardner,58 and William Harris59 have written books designed to ease the tension, while Mormon theologian Keith Norman contemplated “Adam’s Navel” to surmise that the whole controversy stems from misunderstanding the role of myth.60

Others lament the growing sense that science simply cannot coexist peacefully with religion in the minds of Latter-day Saints. Most notable among the latter are personal essays by Cedric Davern61 [p.xv]and Richard P. Smith.62 Davern accurately describes the dichotomy between evolution and creation as conflicting world views for Mormons. “The big question for me in this controversy,” wrote Davern, “is whether freedom of inquiry, with the agonizing ambiguity that accompanies it, will be sacrificed to the interest of those who demand certainty on the hope of salvation.”63

Some comfort for these troubled souls appeared in an article in the September 1987 issue of the official church magazine The Ensign. Morris Petersen, professor of geology at BYU, produced a brief essay in the “I Have a Question” section in which he took essentially the same position relative to the fossil record that Nibley took but without the specificity.64 He also echoed Widtsoe in requesting patience as science and religion both take their separate paths to the same ultimate truths. A similarly conciliatory article appeared in the January 1970 Improvement Era, predecessor to The Ensign. Titled “In the Beginning,” it consisted of a collection of statements by Mormon scholars affirming their testimonies in light of scientific finding in their fields.65

Several reasons for this Mormon retreat from science parallel the current literalist/fundamentalist antagonism toward science: (1) paranoia over the implications of organic evolution, paleogeology, and astrophysics; (2) misunderstanding the nature of scientific inquiry and scientific terminology; (3) a general retrenchment against secularization and the apparent erosion of traditional values;(4) comfort in scriptural authority as a panacea for the turmoils of living in a complex world; and (5) the inability of science to satisfy emotional needs. (Non-scientists expect science to provide “exact” answers, and when those tentative answers are emotionally unappealing or contradict personal beliefs, they become targets for rejection as suddenly “unproven” or “mere theory,” which is really what all scientific conclusions are in the first place.)

Persuasive commentaries exist that present detailed discussions of the forces behind the anti-scientific, and hence anti-intellectual, propensities of many of today’s religious thinkers.66 The present concern, however, is to come to a few conclusions about the Mormon struggle and its peculiarities. Among the first of these is parallelism. During the 1970s, a renaissance promised to usher in a Golden Age of Mormon studies. The truth of the Restoration would come forth [p.xvi]through the labors of church historian Leonard J. Arrington, his staff, and countless others who would flock to the church historical department to write a new and open history of Mormonism. But gradually, as the first works came forth, certain leaders decided that such an open-minded pursuit and the scholarly interpretation of it could damage faith. Too many questions might create too much discomfort. After all, they argued, the church is in the business of saving souls and should sponsor only activities that lead directly to that end. On that occasion the point man in the attack was Elder Boyd K. Packer, whose condemnation of non-faith-promoting history and resulting debate among Mormon intelligentsia made national news.67 Vocal elements of current Mormon leadership apparently view scientific endeavors in the same light. In other words, anything that does not promote faith is counterproductive.

In the Mormon situation, there exists a strong personality factor. Differences between the perspectives of apostles like Widstoe and McConkie need no analysis. Plainly, their contrasting views and styles and resulting effects on the general population of the church have manifest themselves in the dramatic change we have seen. The degree of respect for science that comes across in common discourse both from the high pulpit of the tabernacle and in the lowliest Sunday school class in the church is eroding.

Part of these differences relate to historical changes in the church itself and the institution’s view of its place in the world. In the nineteenth century, isolationist church leaders thumbed their noses, so to speak, at the sectarian world. With statehood and the end of polygamy, the new century brought the need for respectability and a desire on the part of church leaders to move Mormonism into the mainstream of placid American Christianity. As it steadily backed away from overt doctrinal and social radicalism, it absorbed other aspects of the conservative church at the very time when Darwinism and Freudianism were taking a toll on traditional notions of religious truth. American church membership and attendance went into a slide, and although Mormonism with its own growth dynamic did not share that fate, it naturally moved with the current into the fundamentalist reaction to the forces of dysfunction. By the post-war period, Mormon expansion into a national and then international arena demanded a conservative demeanor. It would not do to [p.xvii]emphasize a formerly radical set of ideas and practices. Literalist interpretations of the Bible fit naturally into such a scheme.

Another reason for the Mormon retreat from science is particularly curious. LDS dogma, the same beliefs that inspired the liberal ideas of Nibley, have in other hands added more justification for the fundamentalist retrenchment. Literal interpretations of the books of Moses and Abraham, filled as they are with more detail about the Creation, provide even heavier cannon fodder for the fundamentalist than does the Bible.

Some suggest that anti-intellectualism in the Mormon church is cyclical, that the archives and minds of the church will reopen. Unfortunately, a multi-generational mindset now seems in place that retracts fetally to intellectual challenge. Contrary to bygone eras of Mormonism when support for science was intrinsic, Saints need no longer seek God’s truth in the best books and through science and scholarship. Such pursuits become too confusing and challenge simple tenants of faith. If a literal interpretation of the scriptures suggests it, then so be it. In such a view, there can be no room for debate, a distinct departure from Henry Eyring’s philosophy allowing “room in the Church for people who think that the periods of creation were twenty-four hours, one thousand years, or millions of years. I think it is fine to discuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert others to what he thinks is right.”68

The building notion that there is no room in the church for harmonizing and reconciling scientific and religious truths has slowly caused a retreat among many Mormons from a former reverence for science. Perhaps James E. Talmage left the most enduring advice inscribed on his tombstone: “Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is room for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known.”69

Appreciation is extended to the following authors, publications, and publishers for permission to reproduce, sometimes under a different title, many of the essays appearing in this collection: to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought for essays by David H. Bailey, James L. Farmer, William S. Bradshaw, F. Brent Johnson, Dennis Rowley, Richard Sherlock, Jeffrey E. Keller, Edward L. Kimball, Steven H. Heath, Duane E. Jeffery, William Lee Stokes, Keith E. Norman, and Richard Pearson Smith; to the Ensign for the essay by [p.xviii]Morris S. Petersen; to the Journal of Mormon History for the essay by Richard Sherlock; to Utah State University Press for the essay by Eldon J. Gardner; and to Signature Books for the essay by Gary James Bergera. The essays by L. Mikel Vause, Gene A. Sessions, and Craig J. Oberg are published here for the first time. [p.1]


[p.xviii]1. Boyd K. Packer, unpublished discourse, 30 Oct. 1988, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. See also his October 1984 conference address, “A Pattern of Our Parentage,” Ensign 18 (Nov. 1984): 66-69.

2. See Gale Rhodes and Robert Schaible, “Fact, Law, and Theory: Ways of Thinking in Science and Literature,” JCST, Feb. 1989, 228-32, 288. For a good indictment of scientists’ failure to communicate more effectively with the public and hence to avoid some of these problems, see Manfred Kroger, “The Why and How of Communicating Science,” Food Technology, Jan. 1987, 93-99.

3. Spencer W. Kimball, Modern Scientific Findings Harmonize with Revelation through the Ages (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1962). Kimball typically praised science, while urging followers to remember to accumulate spiritual knowledge along with the secular: “No conflict exists between the gospel and any truth … All true principles are a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no principle that we need to fear” (Edward L. Kimball, ed., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], 391).

4. Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, Apr. 1958, 60.

5. J. L. Farmer, W. S. Bradshaw, and F. B. Johnson, “The New Biology and Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Winter 1979): 71. See also sermon by Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86), 21:197-206; also, E. Robert Paul, “Early Mormon Intellectuals: Parley P. and Orson Pratt, a Response,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Autumn 1982): 42-48.

6. Joseph Fielding Smith, Man … His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954), 1.

7. Ibid., 160.

8. Ibid., 184.

9. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 256.

10. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” BYU Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1980), 74-80.

11. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 681.

12. Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1959), 198.

[p.xix]13. John Taylor, Mediation and Atonement (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Co., 1882), 164.

14. “Now, evolution leads men away from God. Men who have had faith in God, when they have become converted to that theory, forsake him” (David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953], 283).

15. William Lee Stokes, “An Official Position,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Winter 1979): 90-92.

16. See Melvin A. and M. Garfield Cook, Science and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973); and Melvin A. Cook, Creation and Eternalism (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1970).

17. Dean R. Zimmerman, Evolution: A Golden Calf (Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publishing, 1976).

18.Ernst Eberhard, The Origin: A Mormon’s View on Evolution (Salt Lake City: Ernst Eberhard, Jr., 1981).

19. Reid E. Bankhead, The Fall of Adam, the Atonement of Christ, and Organic Evolution (Levan, UT: RAM Books, 1978).

20. Cook and Cook, Science and Mormonism, 162.

21. Bankhead, Fall of Adam, 14. Contrast this attitude with the position of George Q. Cannon, a late nineteenth-century Mormon leader: “Joseph Smith taught that a day with God was not the twenty-four hours of our day; but that the six days of the creation were six periods of the Lord’s time. This he taught half a century ago; it is now generally recognized as a great truth connected with the creation of the world. Geologists have declared it, and religious people are adopting it; and so the world is progressing” (in Cook and Cook, Science and Mormonism, 126).

22. Cook and Cook, Science and Mormonism, 390-91.

23. Ibid., 386.

24. Ibid., 385.

25. Ibid., 391.

26. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939), 1, 6.

27. Sermon by Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 18:231.

28. Ibid., 14:115-6.

29. Ibid., 10:224.

30. John R. Talmage, The Talmage Story: Life of James E. Talmage, Educator, Scientist, Apostle (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1972), 232.

31. Jeffrey E. Keller, “Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Spring 1982): 79-98.

32. Talmage, Talmage Story, 232.

33. Widstoe was particularly interested in Joseph Smith’s insights into scientific discoveries of later years as well as the prophet’s curiosity about the nature of things. See John A. Widstoe, Joseph Smith as Scientist (Salt Lake [p.xx]City: YMMIA General Board, 1909).

34. John A. Widstoe, Evidence and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1943), 125. “The Church, the custodian of the gospel on earth,” he continued, “looks with full favor upon attempts of men to search out the facts and laws of nature. It believes that men of science, seekers after truth, are often assisted by the Spirit of the Lord in such researches. It holds further that every scientific discovery may be incorporated into the gospel” (ibid.).

35. Ibid., 129.

36. Ibid., 149-56.

37. John A. Widstoe, In Search of Truth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1963), 16.

38. Ibid., 21. “The open mind is the sign of growth and progress,” he said. “To stand before the unknown and undiscovered universe, in full desire for truth, and ready to accept it, insistent only that it must be the truth and nothing else, that has been and ever will be the attitude of those who have done most for the human race. The open mind is ready to accept truth; but more ready to reject error. It tests and tries; it philosophizes and prays; then it goes on its way rejoicing, ready for more truth at the next turn of the road” (ibid., 104).

39. Ibid., 71. “The Church, which comprehends all truth, accepts all the reliably determined facts used in building the hypothesis of organic evolution. It does not question the observed order of advancement or progression in nature, whether called the law of evolution or by any other name. In every field, the Church encourages the search for knowledge and welcomes each new fact as it appears” (ibid., 77).

40. Quoted in Keller, “Discussion Continued.”

41. B. H. Roberts, The Gospel and Man’s Relationship to Deity (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1961), 282.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid., 280-81.

44. Quoted in Richard Sherlock, “We Can See No Advantage to a Continuation of the Discussion: The Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Fall 1980): 63-78.

45. Among Nibley’s publications, perhaps the most cogent to the present discussion is “Before Adam” (preliminary report, FARMS, Provo, UT, 1980). Nibley’s advice on human evolution is not to “begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation—for our scriptures allow them such. Nor am I overly concerned as to just when they might have lived, for their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared” (Hugh Nibley, Old Testament and Related Studies [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986], 82).

[p.xxi]46. See Joseph F. Merrill, The Truth Seeker and Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Radio Station KSL, 1945).

47. “Religion, when properly understood,” said Pack, “comprehends the entire system of universal truth; it encompasses everything worthy of acceptance. Hence, the religious man who professes the proper conception of his own faith should be able to go into the field of learning and accept everything that is true. Any religion which does not possess this high standard can hardly hope to retain a membership of thinking people” (in Paul R. Green, Science and Your Faith in God [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958], 168).

48. Ibid., 102.

49. Ibid., 191.

50. Ibid.

51. Henry Eyring, The Faith of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967), 99. “All of these wonderful findings in nature should increase our reverence for the omniscient wisdom of the Creator in fashioning this exquisitely complex universe as a school for His children. Since the Gospel embraces all truth, there can never be any genuine contradictions between true science and true religion” (ibid., 41).

52. Roberts, Gospel, 254-55.

53. Nibley, Old Testament, 49.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid., 69.

56. Duane E. Jeffrey, “Seers, Savants and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (Autumn/Winter, 1973): 41-75. See also, Stephen and Kathy Snow, Dow Woodward, Norman Eatough, and Duane E. Jeffrey, “Seers, Savants and Evolution: A Continuing Dialogue,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Autumn 1974): 21-38.

57. Frank B. Salisbury, The Creation (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976).

58. Eldon J. Gardner, Organic Evolution and the Bible (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1960).

59. William E. Harris, From Man to God: An LDS Scientist Views Creation, Progression, and Exaltation (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1989).

60. Keith E. Norman, “Adam’s Navel,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Summer 1988): 81-97.

61. Cedric I. Davern, “Evolution and Creation: Two World Views,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Spring 1984): 44-50. The late Professor Davern, a renowned scientist, spent most of his career as a non-Mormon scholar teaching at the University of Utah.

62. Richard P. Smith, “Science: A Part or Apart from Mormonism?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 106-22.

[p.xxii]63. Davern, “Evolution and Creation,” 50.

64. Morris S. Peterson, “I Have a Question,” Ensign 17 (Sept. 1987): 78-79.

65. Jay M. Todd, “In the Beginning,” The Improvement Era, Jan. 1970, 33-48.

66. See Douglas J. Futuyma, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982).

67. Kenneth L. Woodward, “Apostles vs. Historians,” Newsweek, 15 Feb. 1982, 77.

68. Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1983), 57.

69. Talmage, Talmage Story, 240.