Elder Packer’s article in this month’s Ensign closes with some thoughts on Evolution that have the potential to stir up a debate on the issue within the Church after several relatively quiet years. The money quote is:
We are taught in Genesis, in Moses, in Abraham, in the Book of Mormon, and in the endowment that man’s mortal body was made in the image of God in a separate creation. Had the Creation come in a different way, there could have been no Fall.
If men were merely animals, then logic favors freedom without accountability. How well I know that among learned men are those who look down at animals and stones to find the origin of man. They do not look inside themselves to find the spirit there. They train themselves to measure things by time, by thousands and by millions, and say these animals called men all came by chance. And this they are free to do, for agency is theirs.
The discussion on evolution within the Church has ebbed and flowed over the years, and has focused generally on two main issues, organic evolution and the origin of man. I’m curious as to how others see Elder Packer’s remarks fitting into that discussion. On the surface, they seem to echo Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s views on the implications of organic evolution on the creation. Elder McConkie viewed any theory which allowed for death on earth before the fall to be at odds with the very idea of the fall (see below for more detail on McConkie’s views).
I personally have tended to view evolution as a non-issue from a religious stand point. Henry Eyring pretty much sums up what has been my perspective over the years in Reflections of a Scientist:
Organic evolution is the honest result of capable people trying to explain the evidence to the best of their ability. From my limited study of the subject I would say that the physical evidence supporting the theory is considerable from a scientific viewpoint, [but] I’d be just as content to find out that God stirred up some dirt and water and out stepped Adam, ready to occupy the Garden of Eden. The only important thing is that God did it. I might say in that regard that in my mind the theory of evolution has to include a notion that the dice have been loaded from the beginning in favor of more complex life forms. In my mind, God is behind it all whether we evolved or not.
Elder Packer’s article, however, appears to frame evolution as diametrically opposed to the Fall of man, which calls into question the legitimacy of Eyring’s point of view and raises a series of questions in my mind. To begin with, I guess I’m still unclear on how views of the creation that incorporate evolution preclude the Fall of man. In my mind, the various accounts of the creation have always seemed vague enough to allow for some flexibility on this point. I also wonder whether this article signals some newfound unanimity among the Brethren on this issue, or whether it is simply an extension of the same discussion that has gone on for a century now. Henry Eyring believed divergent views on scientific issues like evolution were largely due to differences in background and training; is that still a sufficient explanation? President Gordon B. Hinckley didn’t seem very interested in perpetuating this debate, with his passing is this a sign that the debate is likely to be revived? Can Elder Packer’s comments on evolution here be distinguished from Elder McConkie’s? By that, I mean can they be seen as precluding the possibility of the evolution of man while remaining open to the evolution of plants and animals? If one believes Elder Packer’s comments can be distinguished, how exactly does evolution preclude the Fall if applied to man, but not preclude the Fall when applied to the plant and animal kingdoms (which are fallen as well)?
In considering Elder Packer’s remarks, I thought it might prove useful to review some of what has been said before about the issue. I tried to focus mostly on authoritative First Presidency sources (though I couldn’t help throwing in some goodies by the likes of Stephen L. Richards and Bruce R. McConkie for good measure). In retrospect, I went a little overboard, but when it came time to cut, I had a hard time pulling out the scissors (so feel free to read or just skip to the comments).
In the early twentieth century, the First Presidency waded into the evolution debate as a result of both external events (the centennial of Darwin’s birth and, later, the Scopes trial) and internal events (contention at BYU and disagreements among the Brethren). In 1909, the First Presidency under Joseph F. Smith released an official statement on evolution which reiterated the divine origin of man, man’s creation in God’s likeness and image, and Adam as the primal parent of our race. In 1910, the Improvement Era (edited by the First Presidency), in response to questions about how exactly the physical creation of Adam and Eve took place, published an answer which, in relevant part, said:
Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.
In 1911, after these statements had failed to resolve bitter disputes at BYU, President Smith penned an article in the Juvenile Instructor asking that biology teachers steer clear of the contentious issue, saying in part:
In reaching the conclusion that evolution would be best left out of discussions in our Church schools we are deciding a question of propriety and are not undertaking to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false. The Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world, and much of the talk therefore, about the philosophy of Mormonism is altogether misleading.
Fourteen years later, however, after the highly publicized Scopes Trial provoked more discussion within the Church, the First Presidency under Heber J. Grant published another statement within the Improvement Era, which said in part:
Adam, our great progenitor, “the first man,” was, like Christ, a pre-existent spirit, and, like Christ, he took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a “living soul.” The doctrine of pre-existence pours wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality.
In 1931, the First Presidency arbitrated a fairly sharp disagreement over evolution between Elder B.H. Roberts and Elder Joseph Fielding Smith. The dispute arose after Elder Roberts had completed a Priesthood manual for Seventies that embraced organic evolution, death on earth before the fall, and pre-Adamites (human-like beings who lived before Adam). Elder Roberts made a presentation of his views and the manual to the Quorum of the Twelve, and Elder Smith, an adamant opponent of evolution and pre-Adamic theories, made a vigorous rebuttal. The Twelve wrote a memo detailing the dispute and handed it over to the First Presidency. In considering the matter, the First Presidency under Heber J. Grant took no position on the issue, saying neither Elder Smith nor Elder Roberts views constituted Church “doctrine”:
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 all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: “Adam is the primal parent of our race.”
After these deliberations, the Presidency made the decision not to publish Elder Roberts’ manual (it was eventually was in 1994) and imposed a moratorium on the debate. In order to balance Elder Smith’s public-stated views on the matter, however, the First Presidency allowed Elder James E. Talmage to make a speech in the Tabernacle where he forcefully argued that there was death before the fall for millions of years and that pre-Adamites had existed. Over Elder Smith’s objections, Elder Talmage’s speech was published in the Church News and, later, in a separate pamphlet carrying the Church’s imprimatur. Elder Talmage’s speech embraced organic evolution, but rejected the evolution of man, seemingly based on his scientific consideration of the evidence. Regarding the origin of man, he said:
At best, the conception of the development of man’s body from the lower forms through evolutionary processes has been but a theory, an unproved hypothesis. Theories may be regarded as the scaffolding upon which the builder stands while placing the blocks of truth in position. It is a grave error to mistake the scaffolding for the wall, the flimsy and temporary structure for the stable and permanent. The scaffolding serves but a passing purpose, important though it be, and is removed as soon as the walls of that part of the edifice of knowledge have been constructed. Theories have their purpose and are indispensable, but they must never be mistaken for demonstrated facts. The Holy Scriptures should not be discredited by theories of men; they can not be discredited by fact and truth. Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known. The Gospel is not behind the times, on the contrary it is up-to-date and ever shall be.
Shortly after this, in 1933, Elder Stephen L. Richards penned an “Open Letter To College Students” in the Improvement Era, in which he discussed, among other things, religion, science, and evolution. Regarding evolution and the origin of man, he said:
If the evolutionary hypothesis of the creation of life and matter in the universe is ultimately found to be correct, and I shall neither be disappointed nor displeased if it shall turn out so to be, in my humble opinion the Biblical account is sufficiently comprehensive to include the whole of the process…. If you will take the counsel of one who loves science and reveres religion, permit me to admonish you: Never close your mind or your heart; ever keep them open to the reception of both knowledge and spiritual impressions. Both true science and true religion are the exponents of truth.
In a speech at BYU in 1952, President David O. McKay discussed evolution and religion, saying:
[S]cience dominated by the spirit of religion is the key to progress and the hope of the future. For example, evolution’s beautiful theory of the creation of the world offers many perplexing problems to the inquiring mind. Inevitably, a teacher who denies divine agency in creation, who insists there is no intelligent purpose in it, will [infect] the student with the thought that all may be chance. In the Church school the teacher is unhampered. In Brigham Young University and every other Church school the teacher can say God is at the helm.” (“A Message for LDS College Youth,” BYU Speeches of the Year, pgs.5-6 (Oct. 8, 1952)).
In 1954, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith broke the moratorium on discussing evolution imposed by Heber J. Grant back in 1931 and published a book attacking the theory of evolution called Man, His Origin and Destiny. Shortly thereafter, in 1958, Elder Bruce R. McConkie published Mormon Doctrine, which likewise included portions critical of the theory of evolution. As a result, President McKay received inquiries about evolution from both Church educators and members. Several of these letters (or portions thereof) are available online (see here and here). In the letter to Professor William Lee Stokes linked to above, President McKay said:
On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position. The book Man, His Origin and Destiny was not published by the Church, and is not approved by the Church. The book contains expressions of the author’s views for which he alone is responsible.
President McKay also broached the subject in a speech at BYU in 1956, saying:
“Whatever the subject may be, the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ may be elaborated upon without fear of anyone’s objecting, and the teacher [at BYU] can be free to express his honest conviction regarding it, whether that subject be in geology, the history of the world, the millions of years that it took to prepare the physical world, whether it be in engineering, literature, art, any principles of the gospel may be briefly or extensively touched upon for the anchoring of the student who is seeking to know the truth.” (“Gospel Ideals: Life’s Surest Anchor,” BYU Speeches of the Year, pg. 6 (Oct. 30, 1956)).
Additionally, President McKay and the First Presidency decided that Elder Smith’s book had not been published with Church approval and should not be used as the basis for an institute or seminary course. (Gregory A. Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, pgs. 45-49 (U. of U. Press 2005)).
In private, President McKay expressed a belief in evolution on at least a few occasions and intervened on behalf of professors and instructors whose views clashed with Elder Smiths on several occasions, even authorizing a BYU scientist to write a pro-evolution article in a Church instructional magazine in 1965. In 1954, in a meeting with Professor Sterling McMurrin, President McKay said:
I would like to know just what it is that a man must be required to believe to be a member of this church. Or, what it is that he is not permitted to believe, and remain a member of this Church. I would like to know just what that is. Is it evolution? I hope not, because I believe in evolution. (Id.)
In that same conversation, President McKay offered to stand as a witness for McMurrin in the event that a Church court was held on him for holding these and other views. In another private conversation on evolution, President McKay said:
The thing you need to remember about evolution is that the Lord has never revealed anything about the matter. People have their opinions but the Lord has not revealed the details of how He created the earth. (Id.)
In 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball addressed the creation of man in Women’s Conference, saying:
The Creators breathed into their nostrils the breath of life and man and woman became living souls. We don’t know exactly how their coming into this world happened, and when we’re able to understand it the Lord will tell us.
Four years later, President Kimball met with Elder Bruce R. McConkie to discuss a proposed official statement on creation and evolution to coincide with the Church’s sesquicentennial, but it was decided that no statement should be issued. Regarding the proposed statement, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who himself held strong anti-evolution views, reportedly “acknowledged that the Lord may not have revealed enough [on the issue] to create unanimity among the Brethren” and that “any statement would be ‘unwise’ and serve only to ‘widen differences.’” President Kimball said nothing, however, when Elder McConkie denounced belief in organic evolution as a heresy in a speech at BYU in June 1980. During the speech, he concluded his discussion in terms similar to those used by Elder Packer in this month’s Ensign:
My reasoning causes me to conclude that if death has always prevailed in the world, then there was no fall of Adam that brought death to all forms of life; that if Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement; that if there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, and no eternal life; and that if there was no atonement, there is nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. I believe that the Fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself, and that the Atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.
In General Conference in October 1984, Elder McConkie again criticized evolutionary theory:
There is no salvation in a system of religion that assumes man is the end product of evolution and so was not subject to a fall. True believers know that this earth and man and all forms of life were created in an Edenic, or paradisiacal, state in which there was no mortality, no procreation, no death.
In 1991, at the request of BYU President Rex E. Lee and Provost Bruce C. Hafen, Professors Duane E. Jeffery and William E. Evenson compiled a packet of “authoritative” statements by the First Presidency on Evolution for circulation to students. The packet eventually included many of the preceding statements as well as Professor Evenson’s 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry (items in this post not included were the statements from Elder McConkie, Elder Richards, and Henry Eyring, as well as a couple of the President McKay excerpts). The packet was reviewed by the Dean of the Religion and the Dean of Biology at BYU as well as BYU’s Board of Trustees, including the First Presidency, seven members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and several other General Authorities. In June 1992, the Board of Trustees approved the packet for distribution and requested that it be distributed along with any other items a Professor chose whenever the relevant subjects were addressed in classes. The intent in creating and distributing the packet was to “avoid the implication that a greater sense of unanimity or resolution of this topic exists than is actually the case.” William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, pgs. 2-5 (Kofford Books 2005)).
Professor Evenson’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on Evolution had input from the First Presidency, and, as such, holds some authority on the issue. Professor Evenson’s original submission was quite long and had incorporated explicit feedback from Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Ultimately, however, the First Presidency opted for using only a brief excerpt of Evenson’s article (and, notably, it rejected a significantly more anti-evolution submission written by another member of the Encyclopedia team). To be published alongside the entry, the Church also released the 1931 minutes from the Elder Roberts and Elder Smith debate cited to above. Professor Evenson said the reason for this was made clear to him:
[T]he Brethren did not want to imply either greater resolution on this issue than exists or serious active disagreement among the Brethren themselves on this subject. Their position is still that which was expressed by the 1931 First Presidency, namely that this issues is not central to their calling and mission. (Evenson, Mormonism and Evolution, pgs. 34-36).
Professor Evenson’s Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on Evolution reconfirms the 1909 First Presidency Statement:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity…. Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes….
The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again (D&C 101:32-33). In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, then consisting of Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter, and concluded, “Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to 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. . .”
Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: “Adam is the primal parent of our race.”
Professor Evenson’s companion Encyclopedia of Mormonism entry on the Origin of Man reviews the divide on evolution within the Church:
Many sympathetic to science interpret certain statements in LDS scripture to mean that God used a version of evolution to prepare bodies and environmental surrounding suitable for the premortal spiritsâ€¦. Certain statements of various General Authorities are also used by proponents of this idea to justify their opinions. Other Latter-day Saints accept a more literal reading of scriptural passages that suggest to them an abrupt creation. Proponents of this view also support their positions with statements from scripture and General Authorities.
While the current state of revealed truth on the LDS doctrine of man’s origin may permit some differences of opinion concerning the relationship of science and religion, it clearly affirms that God created man, that the fall of Adam was foreknown of God and was real and significant, ant that the atonement of Christ was foreordained and necessary to reverse the effects of the Fall. Perhaps because these claims embrace the main doctrinal issues relevant to the condition of man, the description of the actual creation process does not receive much attention from the general membership of the Church or from the authorities.
President Gordon B. Hinckley addressed the issue on a few occasions as well. In a 1997 speech he said:
People ask me every now and again if I believe in evolution. I tell them I am not concerned with organic evolution. I do not worry about it. I passed through that argument long ago.” (Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Commemorative Edition, pg. 463 (Deseret Book)).
President Hinckley was also interviewed for a 2002 book by Larry Witham on evolution and religion. The book quotes Hinckley for the Mormon position on evolution and the origin of man:
What the Church requires is only belief ‘that Adam was the first man of what we would call the human race,’ says Gordon Hinckley, the Church’s living prophet. Scientists can speculate on the rest, he says, recalling his own study of anthropology and geology: “Studied all about it. Didn’t worry me then. Doesn’t worry me now.” (Larry A. Witham, Where Darwin Meets the Bible: Creationists and Evolutionists in America, pg. 117 (Oxford 2002)).