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Friday, April 28, 2006

Joseph F. Smith on Theory and Divine Revelation

[Note: The following editorial by Church President Joseph F. Smith was originally published in the April 1911 Improvement Era. The reader will note that this editorial is not even mentioned by William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery in their book Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), which claims to include "in full all known" authoritative LDS statements on evolution and the origin of man. — (This note was updated on 04/29/2006.)]




Our young people are diligent students. They reach out after truth and knowledge with commendable zeal, and in so doing they must necessarily adopt for temporary use many theories of men. As long, however, as they recognize them as scaffolding useful for research purposes, there can be no special harm in them. It is when these theories are settled upon as basic truth that trouble appears, and the searcher then stands in grave danger of being led hopelessly from the right way.

Recently there was some trouble of this kind in one of the leading Church schools — the training college of the Brigham Young University — where three of the professors advanced certain theories on evolution as applied to the origin of man, and certain opinions on "higher criticism," as conclusive and demonstrated truths. This was done although it is well known that evolution and the "higher criticism" — though perhaps containing many truths — are in conflict on some matters with the scriptures, including some modern revelation.

An investigation was instituted, founded on the charges of Superintendent H. H. Cummings of the Church schools, based on complaints from patrons of the school; and the General Church Board of Education appointed a committee to ascertain to what extent the teaching of unorthodox doctrines in the school by these instructors was based upon fact. The personnel of the committee was: Francis M. Lyman, Heber J. Grant, Hyrum M. Smith, Charles W. Penrose, George F. Richards, Anthony W. Ivins, Horace H. Cummings, and Dr. George H. Brimhall.

The committee met with Professors Henry Peterson, Joseph Peterson and Ralph V. Chamberlain — all three eminent scholars, able instructors, and men of excellent character — and the investigation was held. The meeting and examination were characterized by the utmost cordiality and freedom on both sides. The professors frankly admitted that they held to and taught the theories of evolution as at present set forth in the text books, and also theories relating to the Bible known as "higher criticism," which they appeared to view as conclusive and demonstrated; so that when these ideas and enunciations were in conflict with the scripture, ancient and modern, it required the modification of the latter to come into harmony with the former, carrying the impression that all revelation combines a human element with the divine impression and should be subject to such modification.

The Church, on the contrary, holds to the definite authority of divine revelation which must be the standard; and that, as so-called "science" has changed from age to age in its deductions, and as divine revelation is truth, and must abide forever, views as to the lesser should conform to the positive statements of the greater; and, further, that in institutions founded by the Church for the teaching of theology, as well as other branches of education, its instructors must be in harmony in their teachings with its principles and doctrines.

There was no inclination to interfere with the freedom of thought and expression of the opinion of the professors, but the committee, after carefully weighing the matter, concluded that as teachers in a Church school they could not be given opportunity to inculcate theories that were out of harmony with the recognized doctrines of the Church, and hence that they be required to refrain from so doing.

The committe so reported to the trustees of the Brigham Young University. This body later held a meeting at which they unanimously resolved, "that no doctrine should be taught in the Brigham Young University not in harmony with the revealed word of God as interpreted and construed by the Presidency and Apostles of the Church; and that the power and authority of determining whether any professor or other instructor of the institution is out of harmony with the doctrines and attitude of the Church, be delegated to the presidency of the university."

The wisdom of the committee and board of trustees in their actions, as well as the justice and consistency thereof, will be conceded by every right thinking man. The standard of faith and belief for all Latter-day Saints must be the word of the Lord as set forth in the holy scriptures. Undeviatingly should this be the case in Church institutions of learning, founded and sustained — one may say expressly — for the purpose of creating faith in the minds of the young people.

There are so many demonstrated practical material truths, so many spiritual certainties, with which the youth of Zion should become familiar, that it appears a waste of time and means, and detrimental to faith and religion to enter too extensively into the undemonstrated theories of men on philosophies relating to the origin of life, or the methods adopted by an Alwise Creator in peopling the earth with the bodies of men, birds and beasts. Let us rather turn our abilities to the practical analysis of the soil, the study of the elements, the productions of the earth, the invention of useful machinery, the social welfare of the race, and its material amelioration; and for the rest cultivate an abiding faith in the revealed word of God and the saving principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which give joy in this world and in the world to come eternal life and salvation.

Philosophic theories of life have their place and use, but it is not in the classes of the Church schools, and particularly are they out of place here or anywhere else when they seek to supplant the revelations of God. The ordinary student cannot delve into these subjects deep enough to make them of any practical use to him, and a smattering of knowledge in this line only tends to upset his simple faith in the gospel, which is of more value to him in life than all the learning of the world without it.

The religion of the Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth, nor to scientific search for truth. "That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy," said the First Presidency in their Christmas greeting to the Saints, "but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept, nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good, common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us, no matter where it may be found."

A good motto for young people to adopt, who are determined to delve into philosophic theories, is to search all things, but be careful to hold on only to that which is true. The truth persists, but the theories of philosophers change and are overthrown. What men use today as a scaffolding for scientific purposes from which to reach out into the unknown for truth, may be torn down tomorrow, having served its purpose; but faith is an eternal principle through which the humble believer may secure everlasting solace. It is the only way to find God.

JOSEPH F. SMITH.




[Note: The above editorial by Church President Joseph F. Smith was originally published in the April 1911 Improvement Era. The reader will note that this editorial is not even mentioned by William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery in their book Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), which claims to include "in full all known" authoritative LDS statements on evolution and the origin of man. — (This note was updated on 04/29/2006.)]

8 Comments:

Anonymous Gary said...

In this editorial, President Joseph F. Smith provides some important context for the First Presidency's 1910 Christmas greeting given only a few months earlier: "That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy," they had said, "but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept, nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good, common sense."

It seems that three BYU professors had been teaching higher criticism,[*] including evolution as an explanation for the origin of man, "as conclusive and demonstrated truths."

Church leaders felt these teachings were in conflict with scripture. The question was whether science should be used to interpret scripture. The decision was that "the standard of faith and belief for all Latter-day Saints must be the word of the Lord as set forth in the holy scriptures."

In other words, the decision was that the authority of divine revelation must be the standard, not science.

Because the theories were deemed to be not only "undemonstrated," but also "out of harmony with the recognized doctrines of the Church," the professors were asked to refrain from such teaching in the future.

President Harold B. Lee once suggested there might have been a compromise, namely "teach the theory and then counter by delivering the true doctrines of the gospel." Apparently, this was unacceptable to the professors.

Note:

[*] Higher criticism in this context refers to "a nineteenth-century school of biblical studies that found naturalistic explanations for the scriptures."

4/28/2006 05:29:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Gary,

I hope you plan on following up with the Juvenille Instructor letter.

You may remember that I've also posted these letters. (Here and here.) My posts contain some addition information not covered here, that some may find of interest.

4/28/2006 08:17:00 AM  
Blogger RoastedTomatoes said...

Gary: this is a very useful statement for you; it demonstrates that you are in harmony with a portion of the church leadership as of 1911. Not the entire church leadership, by the way; in the wake of the same "scandal" at BYU mentioned in your post, B.H. Roberts stated that:

I am willing to repeat my statement that the Book of Mormon must submit to every test, literary criticism with the rest. Indeed, it must submit to every analysis and examination. It must submit to historical tests, to the tests of archaeological research and also to the higher criticism.

Clearly, this quotation is far less rejecting of academic theories and research than the Smith quote you provided. The church leadership has always been of many minds on these themes.

4/28/2006 08:23:00 AM  
Blogger jeff g said...

I've come to the conclusion that Gary's most basic point is, for the most part, largely true.

I interpret his basic point as being that the church leadership overwhelmingly rejects the theory of evolution (no big surprise here). Furthermore, that the church leadership over the years has encouraged a disbelief in evolution (again, no big surprise). Nevertheless, I think that any point beyond this is wrong.

I think that the "official" position of the church is largely, but not unequivocally neutral. Whenever somebody asks for the official position, they are simply referred to various sources which are either neutral or at least moderately suspicious or hostile.

I interpret this as a refusal to give a position. I see this as a largely political move in which members are encouraged to reject evolution without the leadership actually having to be responsible for such a move.

Of course this strategy isn't at all limited to the treatment of evolution.

4/28/2006 01:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...

____________________________________

RoastedTomatoes,

I really don't see your Roberts quote as being any "less rejecting of academic theories and research" than the Joseph F. Smith editorial. It seems self-evident from the quotation itself that Elder Roberts was not advocating the teaching of "higher criticism," This is corroborated by the following (similar) statement published by Elder Roberts in 1907:

-------------------- quote --------------------
"The fact should be recognized by the Latter-day Saints that the Book of Mormon of necessity must submit to every test, to literary criticism, as well as to every other class of criticism; for our age is above all things critical, and especially critical of sacred literature, and we may not hope that the Book of Mormon will escape closest scrutiny; neither, indeed, is it desirable that it should escape. It is given to the world as a revelation from God. It is a volume of American scripture. Men have a right to test it by the keenest criticism, and to pass severest judgment upon it, and we who accept it as a revelation from God have every reason to believe that it will endure every test; and the more thoroughly it is investigated, the greater shall be its ultimate triumph. (Defense of the Faith and the Saints, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), p. 287.)
------------------ end quote ------------------

Elder Roberts was willing to submit the Book of Mormon to "higher criticism" precisely because he firmly believed such criticism would fail. The Book of Mormon, he said, "will endure every test; and the more thoroughly it is investigated, the greater shall be its ultimate triumph."

____________________________________

Jared,

The April 1911 Instructor editorial you mention is quoted in full by William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery in their book Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005, pp. 47-50).

Your comment actually implies the very point I'm trying to make, namely that President Smith's two 1911 editorials should be considered together (not one without the other).

According to the publisher, Mormonism and Evolution "compiles in full all known authoritative statements (either authored or formally approved for publication) by the Churchs highest leaders on the topics of evolution and the origin of human beings." (Greg Kofford Books web site, 04/28/2006.)

I posted the April 1911 Improvement Era editorial because it was not even mentioned by Evenson and Jeffery in Mormonism and Evolution.

Earlier this month, I posted other articles for the same reason: They are conspicuously absent from a book that claims to present "in full all known authoritative statements."

1. Harold B. Lee on pre-Adamites,

2. David O. McKay and pre-Adamites, and

3. Spencer W. Kimball and the watchmaker analogy.

These items (including President Lee's unpublished letter and President McKay's handwritten note) have as much right to be included as do the following Mormonism and Evolution Appendix Documents:

E. The Talmage journal excerpt,

F. The Grant journal excerpt, and

L. Letters from the Church Public Relations department not identified by date or addressee.

____________________________________

jeff g,

Based on your comments, I'm sure you and I don't agree on evolution. But thank you for your present attempt to understand the point of my blog.

____________________________________

.

4/29/2006 03:58:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Gary,

I see. I don't have a copy of Evenson and Jeffery's book. I agree that both letters should be considered together.

As a matter of fact, as I mentioned in my post linked above, the letter you posted here was heavily excerpted in the Joseph F. Smith P/RS manual. But the manual did not quote from the Juvenille Instructor article. This is particularly ironic since the intoduction of the chapter (35) highlights his editorial position at the JI. I suppose it could be argued that it was left out because it specifically addresses evolution (and higher criticism) whereas the manual does not directly mention evolution, even in the chapter excerpting the "Origin of Man." Nevertheless, I think it is an unfortunate omission.

4/29/2006 01:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...

Jared,

When I found out that you don't have a copy of Evenson and Jeffery's book, I suddenly realized the confusion that I must have caused by not explaining more fully why I posted this April 1911 Improvement Era editorial. In an effort to rectify the situation, I've updated the note that is found at the beginning and end of the post.

4/29/2006 05:08:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Gary,

I have the book now and have skimmed through it. It's a handy little book, if incomplete as you have discussed. I am a little surprised that they left out the Improvement Era 1911 editorial. It looks like they at least considered it because in "Document B Context" it says,

"President Joseph F. Smith felt it necessary to explain his views to the Church at large. He published a signed editorial in the Instructor, the latter being the official magazine of the Church's Sunday School organization."

Why make reference to a "latter" if there is no "former"? I wonder if the sentence originally mentioned the IE editorial but the reference was removed and the rest of the sentence escaped editing.

5/09/2006 07:03:00 PM  

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