Thursday, September 28, 2006

DMI and the position of the Church on evolution in 2006

Dave, on his blog at Dave's Mormon Inquiry, is quoting the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on Evolution as "the most recent, and the most authoritative,... official LDS position on evolution." He claims it is the "best statement of the official LDS position in 2006."

Forgotten is the Encyclopedia preface which stresses that "the role of the Encyclopedia [should not] be given more weight than it deserves." In fact, the editors "make it clear that those who have written and edited have only tried to explain their understanding of Church history, doctrines, and procedures; their statements and opinions remain their own."

The preface clearly states that the joint efforts of BYU and Macmillan Publishing "do not necessarily represent the official position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Preface)

Therefore, the question might be asked whether the LDS Church in its own publications and on its own web site has set forth a position on evolution.

A published case study

In preparation for writing their 2001 book, Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding Trent D. Stephens and D. Jeffrey Meldrum asked the Church for its official position on evolution. They did this because they wanted to print the Church's position in their book.

One of them conferred with his local ward bishop, who contacted the stake president, who contacted the area president. Word came back that the bishop would be authorized to request a declaration of doctrine from the First Presidency.

The bishop made this request.

Subsequently, the bishop received a letter from the secretary to the First Presidency who attached the November 1909 First Presidency statement and warned that anything said about it in the book would be personal opinion. Here is how Stephens and Meldrum tell the story:

"We sought this clarification so that it would not be necessary for readers to do so individually. In response, the bishop received a letter ... and a copy of the complete text of the official statement issued in 1909 on ' The Origin of Man.' ... The secretary to the First Presidency concluded his letter to the bishop by emphasizing that any attempt to interpret or elaborate upon the 1909 statement must be considered personal opinion and not the position of the church." [1]

The position of the Church on evolution in 2001

Stephens and Meldrum were informed in 2001 that the Church's official position on evolution was to be found in the November 1909 First Presidency statement. Notice that this official statement of doctrine also forms the foundation of the BYU Evolution Packet, approved by the BYU Board of Trustees in 1992.

Has anything changed since 2001?

The official 1909 statement of doctrine has been reprinted by the Church twice during the past five years. The Church's 2000-2001 and 2002 reprints of the 1909 statement update its relevance and give it focus directly to the 21st century.

The formal 1909 First Presidency statement on "The Origin of Man" contains the Church's current and official doctrinal position on evolution. [2]  It is easily and usually interpreted as anti-evolutionary. In fact, Duane Jeffery himself has called it "anti-science" [3]  and "quite anti-evolutionary." [4]

Therefore, contrary to the claim made by Dave on his blog at Dave's Mormon Inquiry, the Church position on evolution is not neutral.


[1] Trent D. Stephens and D. Jeffrey Meldrum, Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001,p. 7.

[2] "In the early 1900s, questions concerning the Creation of the earth and the theories of evolution became the subject of much public discussion. In the midst of these controversies, the First Presidency issued the following in 1909, which expresses the Church’s doctrinal position on these matters." Ensign, Feb. 2002, p. 26; italics added.

[3] As quoted in William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), p. 30.

[4] As quoted in Deseret Morning News, March 1, 2006, p. B3.

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DMI and the position of the Church on evolution in 1992

Dave, on his blog at Dave's Mormon Inquiry, is quoting what he calls "the 1931 First Presidency statement on evolution." He claims it's "the most recent, and the most authoritative,... official LDS position on evolution."

The simple fact is, however, that there was no 1931 First Presidency statement on evolution.

In April 1931, the First Presidency wrote an internal memo (which, by the way, has never been published by the Church in any magazine or manual). This 1931 memo was distributed to the general authorities (there were only 26 of them at the time) in a private meeting. It was written in response to a proposed priesthood manual that had been submitted two and a half years earlier by one of those general authorities, Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy.

The 1931 memo doesn't even mention evolution because neither Elder Roberts nor his proposed priesthood manual were sympathetic to evolution.

In a previously published work, Roberts had said, "the claims of evolution ... are contrary to all experience so far as man's knowledge extends." This was not contradicted in his proposed manual, which affirmed that "each subdivision of life ... produces after its kind, whereas evolution in all its forms destroys that thought."

Problems arose for the proposed manual, however, because it attempted to reconcile fossils with scripture using a bizarre personal theory that was both unscientific and doctrinally unsupportable.

When asked by the Twelve to remove references to his theory, Roberts became uncooperative and the matter was referred to the First Presidency who ruled in April 1931 that further discussion of the Roberts manual with its unorthodox interpretations of "geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology" would lead only to "confusion, division, and misunderstanding." Accordingly, the manual was rejected and remained unpublished.

In 1992, permission was given by the First Presidency to use 60 of the 1931 memo's 3239 words in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism's article on Evolution. This should not be taken as an endorsement of the article's utterly false and misleading statement that "in 1931 ... there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution."

A letter (quoted at Eyring-L) that has been sent out by the First Presidency seems to suggest an awareness of the major flaw in the Encyclopedia Evolution article. The letter quotes the EOM article, but it doesn't acknowledge the EOM as its source. More importantly, the letter deletes the language I've identified as being flawed.

Furthermore, I believe the intent of this letter is the opposite of what evolutionists ascribe to it. Evolutionists read "You may interpret scripture using your science," but I think the First Presidency is actually saying "Don't stretch the gospel to fit your scientific views."

Let me repeat for emphasis, the 1931 First Presidency memo was not about evolution — it doesn't even mention evolution. The memo was an internal announcement that discussions about the merits of the B. H. Roberts manuscript were closed — the manual would not be published.

The position of the Church on evolution in 1992

The LDS Church does not rely on physics professors (such as William Evenson who wrote the Encyclopedia Evolution article) and/or New York publishers (such as Macmillan Publishing who published the Encyclopedia) to announce its official position on anything. This fact was made clear in another internal document produced in 1992 by the BYU Board of Trustees.

Members of the BYU Board of Trustees in 1997 included the First Presidency, six members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and three additional General Officers of the Church. It seems safe to assume that the Board membership was similar five years earlier when the 1992 BYU Evolution Packet was approved.

The BYU Evolution Packet is not itself a source document for the official position on evolution, but it does identify the sources and reprints them.

In its Packet cover letter, the 1992 BYU Board of Trustees clearly state that the Packet contains all known statements issued by the First Presidency on science, evolution, and the origin of man. The Board then names all of them. There are three:

1. "The Origin of Man" was issued in November 1909. At 2,700 words, this is the predominant item in the Packet.

2. "Words in Season" is a small 99 word excerpt from a First Presidency Christmas Message printed in the Deseret Evening News. It says the Church is not hostile to "real science." Sometimes overlooked is the fact that it also says we do not accept "human theory and mere speculations of men."

3. "Mormon View of Evolution" was issued in September 1925. This is a 560 word condensed version of the 1909 "Origin of Man" statement. In 1909, the First Presidency spoke to the Church membership. In 1925, the First Presidency spoke to the national media. It is inappropriate, therefore, to read hidden doctrinal meaning into the editing that was done by the 1925 First Presidency.

Since 1909, Church Presidents and members of the Quorum of the Twelve have corroborated these official declarations by the First Presidency.

Note that the Encyclopedia of Mormonism Evolution article is not listed in the Packet cover letter as one of the statements "issued by the First Presidency" on science, evolution, and the origin of man. Because the 1931 First Presidency memo has never been formally issued by any First Presidency, neither the 1931 excerpt nor the Encyclopedia article is a difinitive source of official Church position.

The Packet cover letter emphasizes that "formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions." As such, the three statements listed above were identified by the 1992 BYU Board of Trustees as the documents that outline the official position of the LDS Church on science, evolution, and the origin of man.

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