Thursday, April 13, 2006

David O. McKay and pre-Adamites

It was Monday afternoon, April 6, 1953. Elder Marion G. Romney, of the Quorum of the Twelve, had just finished speaking in the seventh and final session of general conference. He was handed a note from Church President David O. McKay that said:

"I congratulate you for your excellent contribution during the conference and express gratitude for your remarks as well as your fine spirit, and I assure you that I agreed heartily in every instance." [1]

According to this note, President McKay "agreed heartily" with the following comments about Adam and pre-Adamites:

"There were no pre-Adamic men in the line of Adam. The Lord said that Adam was the first man. (Moses 1:34, 3:7; D. & C. 84:16.) It is hard for me to get the idea of a man ahead of Adam, before the first man. The Lord also said that Adam was the first flesh (Moses 3:7) which, as I understand it, means the first mortal on the earth. I understand from a statement in the book of Moses, which was made by Enoch, that there was no death in the world before Adam. (Moses 6:48; see also 2 Nephi 2:22.)...

"I am not a scientist. I do not profess to know anything but Jesus Christ, and him crucified, and the principles of his gospel. If, however, there are some things in the strata of the earth indicating there were men before Adam, they were not the ancestors of Adam.

"Adam was the son of God. He was our elder brother, not older than Jesus but he was our brother in the same sense that Jesus was our brother, and he ' fell ' to earth life. He did not come up through an unbroken line of organic evolution." [2]

President McKay's statement of agreement with the above is entirely consistent with what he and four of his associates had said on the same subject 23 years earlier. Five Apostles, including David O. McKay, had been assigned to review a 1928 manuscript written by B. H. Roberts. They reported to President Heber J. Grant in May 1930 as follows:

"We feel that the arguments as given contradict the accounts given in all our scriptures, and more especially in the temple ceremonies. As we understand it the term ' first flesh also,' does not have reference to Adam as being the first living creature of the creation on the earth, but that he, through the ' fall ' became the first ' flesh,' or mortal soul. The term ' flesh ' in reference to mortal existence is of common usage. We find it so used in the scriptures. Adam having partaken of the fruit became mortal and subject to death, which was not the condition until that time. We are taught in the Temple as well as in the scriptures that man was the last creation placed upon the earth, before death was introduced. Adam was the first to partake of the change and to become subject to the flesh....

"This entire chapter deals with the question of ' pre-Adamites.' This doctrine is not taught by the Church; it is not sustained in the scriptures. It can only be treated as an hypothesis, and the result will be uncertain, confusing, for after all is said it is speculation leading to endless controversy.... It appears to us that all which has been revealed is contrary to this teaching, especially that given in the Temple." [3]

David O. McKay believed, with the rest of the committee, that the book should not be published as written. In 1931, the First Presidency upheld the committee's decision (see here).

In a 1946 sermon, President McKay likened Darwin's theory of evolution to the concept of man's eventual resurrection from the dead.[4] It was a rhetorical comparison that President McKay used more than once during his ministry — in reality, of course, Darwin's theory is unrelated to the resurrection. Unfortunately, such remarks are sometimes cited as evidence that President McKay believed in biological evolution.[5]

Yet, President McKay never stated publicly that he believed in biological evolution.[6] On the contrary, as indicated by what he and four associates said in 1930, and by his April 1953 note to Elder Romney, David O. McKay did not believe in evolution as an explanation for the origin of Adam's physical body.

President McKay believed in the eternal progression of man. He believed, as does President Hinckley, in "a far more important and wonderful kind of evolution. It is the evolution of men and women as the sons and daughters of God, and of our marvelous potential for growth as children of our Creator." [7]


[1] As quoted in a letter written by Church President Harold B. Lee to a member in October 1973. This is actually an endorsement from two Prophets — David O. McKay was Church President when he wrote the note and Harold B. Lee was Church President when he quoted from the note in his letter.

[2] Marion G. Romney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1953, p. 123; see also The Improvement Era, June 1953, p. 442. Nearly thirty years later, similar comments were made by President Marion G. Romney (then serving as Second Counselor in the First Presidency) in his "First Presidency Message: Records of Great Worth," Ensign, Sept. 1980, p. 5.

[3] Review Committee to President Grant, in The Truth, The Way, The Life, 2nd edition (Provo: BYU Studies, 1996), pp. 292-293, 297. Elder George Albert Smith was chairman of the committee, and Elders David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Stephen L. Richards, and Melvin J. Ballard were committee members.

[4] David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, pp. 49-50.

[5] An example of this is found in Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements by William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), pp. 101-102.

[6] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, in David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2005), state that President McKay "never made a public statement affirming his acceptance of biological evolution.... The closest he came ... was his address in 1946 [wherein he used] evolution as an argument in favor of resurrection [and] went so far as to borrow from Charles Darwin to make his point." (p. 46).

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, "First Presidency Message: 'God Hath Not Given Us the Spirit of Fear'," Ensign, Oct. 1984, p. 5.


Anonymous J. Stapley said...

Hm. Well, as you state, I think it is evident, that he believed that Adam's body was not the product of evolution. It would seem, despite this they he likely believed in pre-adamic indaviduals and evolution. I can't imagine that an apostle would use an example of something that he believed to be false and apostate to teach something holy and true.

4/13/2006 10:54:00 AM  
Blogger jeff g said...


How is this off the record statement of McKay's any more official and therefore more worth our attention than the other statements by McKay which you so easily write off as irrelevant?

4/13/2006 01:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...


Which of McKay's statements were written off as irrelevant?

Neither of the two statements quoted above is "official" (so what?) but they both offer valuable insight into what he might have been thinking when he made other, more public comments. And is that so bad? Are you afraid to find out what President McKay really thought about evolution?

4/13/2006 05:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...

Points made by Elder Romney

1. There were no pre-Adamic men in the line of Adam.

2. Adam was the first man.

3. It is hard to get the idea of a man before the first man.

4. Adam was the first flesh, meaning the first mortal, on earth.

5. There was no death in the world before Adam.

6. Humanoid fossils were not the ancestors of Adam.

7. Adam was the son of God.

8. Adam "fell" to mortality.

9. Adam did not come up through an unbroken line of organic evolution.

4/13/2006 06:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...


I appreciate your comment, particularly your acknowledgement that President McKay did in fact agree with one of Elder Romney's points. But I hope it's okay to remind you that President McKay "agreed heartily in every instance." Furthermore, Elder McKay and four of his associates substantiated Elder Romney's first, fourth, and fifth points in their comments about the Roberts manuscript in 1930.

In his 1946 sermon, Elder McKay was discussing man's (or woman's) progression through the eternities and his (or her) eventual resurrection from the dead. You've conceded that McKay did not believe Adam's body (nor, therefore, any body of his descendants) was the product of evolution. Therefore, you've also conceded that he did in fact use an example he himself didn't believe to teach a true principle. As stated above, I believe it was merely a rhetorical comparison.

4/13/2006 06:02:00 PM  
Anonymous J. Stapley said...

Hm. I don't particularly accept any conclusion about McKay's feeling for Romney's talk. The provenance is a bit too sketchy for me to add any credence to it.

That said, McKay's commentary on Robert's book is solid. A reasonable interpretation of his comments suggests that he believed in some sort of transplantation of Adam to the planet Earth. It is certain that he did not believe that Adam was a product of evolution.

His comments do seem to leave the door open for pre-adamic life and evolution.

4/14/2006 10:44:00 AM  

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