Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What happened to confidentiality?

"SALT LAKE CITY -- A rare set of documents that are the basis for a new biography of David O. McKay, who led The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through the civil rights era, show that the LDS president studied the issue of elevating black men to leadership roles but ultimately balked at doing it.

"The never-before-seen pages are from the personal diaries, discourses and scrapbooks of McKay which were compiled by his secretary of 35 years, the late Clare Middlemiss.

"Middlemiss bequeathed the 130,000 pages to her nephew, Salt Lake City attorney William Robert Wright, who wrote 'David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism' (University of Utah Press) with Gregory A. Prince." ("Religion in the News," washingtonpost.com; see also related stories at msnbd.msn.com and radio.ksl.com.)

I've used the above three paragraphs to lead off this post for reasons that will become apparent near the end.

I wasn't going to buy this book

Three weeks ago, a very good and long-time friend sent me an email asking whether I was aware of a new book he had just purchased. He was in the process of reading David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and thought I might be interested in "the part where it talks about President McKay's belief in organic evolution and his quoting from Charles Darwin."

I had seen several pre-release book reviews and was uncomfortable with the way Church documents had become available to the authors (to be discussed more fully below).

I answered my friend thus: "Yes, I am aware of the book of which you speak. I am also aware that David O. McKay had every opportunity to state his position publicly and didn't. He can believe what he wishes privately and it doesn't concern me in the least."

Well, things change. And after a recent comment from Julie Smith here and a careful reading of her book review here, I decided that I couldn't ignore the book after all.

Heber J. Grant and Evolution

Unfortunately, what I've now discovered is that Prince and Wright made some foolish errors. For example, on page 45, under the heading "The Evolution Debate," they claim:

"In the first half of the twentieth century, the debate surrounding biological evolution was as heated within Mormonism as in other American Christian churches. It extended into the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with three scientists—James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, and Joseph F. Merrill—supporting evolution, and Joseph Fielding Smith vehemently opposing it. A moratorium that was initially imposed by Church President Heber J. Grant prevailed until the last of the three apostle-scientists died in 1952." (Italics added.)

Those familiar with my web site at ndbf.net (be sure to read both chapters) and my discussion about the BYU Evolution Packet here already know that neither biological evolution, nor organic evolution, nor any other form of evolution was involved in the discussions referred to in the above paragraph. I will state categorically that what Prince and Wright said about Heber J. Grant's so-called moratorium on discussing evolution is completely and utterly false.

The William Lee Stokes letter

I recently read an essay by William Lee Stokes titled "David O. McKay's Position on Evolution." In 1968, it became obvious to Stokes that in spite of what President McKay had said to him in a 1957 letter, other Church authorities were continuing to publish what Stokes thought were contrary views. Therefore, "on 13 October 1968, I again wrote to President McKay and asked for permission to publish the essential statements from his 1957 letter." (Sterling B. Talmage, Can Science Be Faith-Promoting?, ed. Stan Larson, Salt Lake City: Blue Ribbon Books, 2001, xliii).

Stokes relates that five days later, on 18 October, he received a reply "over the signature of Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, stating that he had been directed to tell me that there was no objection to my use of the quotation—'on the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position'—in a book I was then writing" (Ibid).

The Stokes essay quoted above was published four years ago. Yet Prince and Wright claim, based on incomplete research, that "in the late 1960s, he [McKay] authorized William Lee Stokes, a geologist on the faculty of the University of Utah, to publish a letter that he had written to Stokes in 1955 that stated,  ' The book, "Man, His Origin and Destiny" was not published by the Church, and is not approved by the Church." ' " (page 49; emphasis added.)

First of all, the letter in question was written in 1957, not 1955. More importantly, and according to Stokes himself, permission was granted to publish only one sentence from the letter, and not the one quoted by Prince and Wright.

But the book has bigger problems

In spite of these obvious errors, there are larger issues with this book. A fellow blogger, known to me only as Jed, has said this about the book David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism:

"The book raises important questions transcending Mormonism. The questions are legal and ethical questions about the nature of public and private history and the responsibilities of historians in using records intended for private use. This book would never have been written without a motherload of diaries and minutes falling into the hands of the authors, and there is some question—never confronted in the book—about whether they ever should have had them in the first place."

I think the legal and ethical questions raised by Jed deserve answers, and not merely in the form of blog comments. Furthermore, in my view there are religious and moral issues involved related to confidentiality.

So what did happen to confidentiality?

The word confidentiality is a form of the word confidential which means "1. Done or communicated in confidence; secret. 2. Entrusted with the confidence of another: a confidential secretary. 3. Denoting confidence or intimacy: a confidential tone of voice." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000; italics in the original.) Note that the phrase "a confidential secretary" epitomizes the very meaning of the word confidential.

It has long been the policy of the Church that precautions be taken to ensure that confidential documents are not available to unauthorized persons. In the following paragraph, Elder Dallin H. Oaks—who is eminently qualified to speak on the legal aspect of this subject—addresses records privacy from an ethical, legal, and a moral perspective:

"The laws and ethics of privacy forbid custodians from revealing information that may invade the privacy of living individuals. Examples would include diaries or minutes that discuss the private affairs of living persons. In addition, our belief in life after death causes us to extend this principle to respect the privacy of persons who have left mortality but live beyond the veil. Descendants who expect future reunions with deceased ancestors have a continuing interest in their ancestors' privacy and good name. These same considerations apply to official Church documents, such as the minutes of confidential meetings." (Ensign, Oct. 1987, 65.)

Even at the ward and stake level, in "committee and council meetings, delicate matters often are discussed, requiring strict confidentiality." (M. Russell Ballard, Ensign, May 1994, 25; emphasis added.)

"The Lord’s church is organized with councils at every level, beginning with the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and extending to stake, ward, quorum, auxiliary, and family councils. [And at every level] confidentiality is critical. Council members must hold all matters discussed in council meetings in strict confidence." (M. Russell Ballard, Ensign, Nov. 1993, 78.)

Having served both as stake clerk and assistant ward clerk, and having been employed by the Church as a part-time research assistant, I know from personal experience that the matter of confidentiality extends to those who are assigned to take notes and keep records.

For the above reasons, reading David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism makes me feel like an intruder—an eavesdropper. Other than that, I'll agree with Dennis Lythgoe of the Deseret News, who said the book "often seems more like a doctoral dissertation than a conventional biography." (deseretnews.com.) Mr. Lythgoe is correct in more ways than one. Prince and Wright, both highly educated and experienced, should have been able to do better than college students.


Blogger Geoff J said...


I'm don't doubt you are sincere in your concerns about confidentiality. But posting your thoughts on confidentiality in the context of this post and on this blog makes it simply look like sour grapes to me.

If I ran a blog called "No Death Before the Fall" and I learned that several prophets and apostles believed in (or at least were very sympathetic to) the idea of evolution I would be pretty disappointed too...

6/07/2005 03:52:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...


I don't have the book, so I'm at a disadvantage. For the things that you say are false, which you know I tend to agree with you on that, do they provide any additional documentation? Is there any evidence that David O. McKay saw the 1931 statement as a moratorium? (Talmage seemed to.)

I don't know what details are discussed in the book. Does it discuss the private lives of living individuals? What about personal finances or spirituality/worthiness? It seems to me that these are the types of issues that are of most concern in keeping confidences.

6/07/2005 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Geoff: Welcome. I think you are my first visitor from Millennial Star. I'm glad you found me.

Your comment is understandable because there is no way you could have known that my interest in Joseph Fielding Smith and the doctrine of no death before the fall began during his administration as the Church's Tenth President back when I was a young father with only two small children.

First, as I've detailed above, Prince and Wright got it completely wrong in two of their 16 paragraphs about "The Evolution Debate" (pages 45-49).

Second, having followed both sides of this issue for more than thirty years, I can assure you—as the Dialogue/Sunstone folks full well know—that there isn't much of anything new on the subject of evolution in the Prince and Wright book beyond a few first-hand quotes to substantiate what has been circulating for decades from (sometimes) less direct sources.

Look at the 17 notes for the "Evolution" section of the book (Chapter 3, notes 17 through 33, on pages 417-418).

Six of these notes refer to previously published material—#17 (published in 1980), #21 (in 1986), #28 (in 1996), #30 (in 1969), #32 (in 1965), and #33 (in 1979). At least one of the remaining 11 notes also refers to material that has been published previously (see below).

In addition, there are a number of other published sources related to the Church and evolution which, though not cited by Prince and Wright, provide a foundation of understanding for those of us who have followed the issue over the years with more than just a casual interest.

Now let me give you just one example of material in the "Evolution" section of the book that appears to be original but in reality has been previously published.

Prince and Wright, on page 46, quote David O. McKay saying to Sterling McMurrin, "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."

The note (#20) says the above statement is from a tape recording made by Sterling McMurrin and "transcribed by and in the posession of the authors" (page 469). The casual reader will likely and understandably assume, because nothing else is indicated, that this is the first publication of the statement.

However, the statement has actually been in print since at least April 1995 when it was published as follows: "What is it that a man is not allowed to believe or be asked out of this church? Is it evolution? ... I hope not, because I believe in evolution" (Sterling M. McMurrin, "McMurrin's Heresies, History, and Humor," Sunstone 18, April 1995, 60; as quoted by Stan Larson, "Editor's Introduction," in Sterling B. Talmage, Can Science Be Faith-Promoting?, ed. Stan Larson, [Salt Lake City: Blue Ribbon Books, 2001], note 56, page lx).

Geoff, you might be correct. There might be some sour grapes involved here. I can live with that indictment. I've been accused of worse during the past thirty years.

But you simply must understand that Prince and Wright did not teach me "that several prophets and apostles believed in (or at least were very sympathetic to) the idea of evolution." Sour grapes or not, I've known that for years!

And finally, may I ask you this: Are you saying that because my blog is named "No Death Before the Fall," that the issue of confidentiality simply disappears until someone else brings it up?

6/07/2005 11:42:00 PM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Jared: I've quoted above what appears to be the only reference to the 1931 statement found in the Prince and Wright book (see the second paragraph under the above heading "Heber J. Grant and Evolution").

There is no evidence presented by Prince and Wright that David O. McKay saw the 1931 statement being in any way related to the subject of evolution. As a fellow member with Joseph Fielding Smith on the committee assigned to review The Truth, The Way, The Life, all of the evidence indicates that David O. McKay and Joseph Fielding Smith had the same understanding of the 1931 statement. And nothing has been presented by Prince and Wright to suggest David O. McKay felt any differently about the 1931 statement during his Presidency (1951-1970).

For the benefit of those interested in some background on Jared's question here, see my web site at ndbf.net (be sure to read both chapters) and my discussion about the BYU Evolution Packet here.

How Talmage viewed the 1931 statement has also been thoroughly discussed earlier in the comments found here.

Regarding "the types of issues that are of most concern in keeping confidences," I refer you again to the paragraph I quoted above, from Elder Dallin H. Oaks. One sentence in that paragraph says: "Our belief in life after death causes us to extend this principle to respect the privacy of persons who have left mortality but live beyond the veil."

When discussing the moral aspect of the confidentiality issue, therefore, "living idividuals" would include those "who have left mortality but live beyond the veil."

6/08/2005 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Do you have the same confidentiality concerns about current projects to collect and publish everything Joseph Smith ever wrote, dictated, or otherwise had a hand in? What if the same was done for Brigham Young or John Taylor? What about pioneer diaries, or other such, that are available for examination--including at BYU? (The diary of one of my ancestors is available for examination.)

Is there anything in the book that is qualitatively different from these examples? If the book were published by Deseret Book would you still feel like an intruder?

6/08/2005 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff G said...

I think you are right in saying that the debate between Roberts and Smith was not as much about evolution as it was about death before the fall. However, the issue was clearly about evolution for Talmage.

BTW, Geoff Johnston isn't the Geoff B from the M*. He's from Cool New Thang.

6/08/2005 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger R. Gary said...

Jeffery said: "the issue was clearly about evolution for Talmage."

On April 25th, you wrote somewhat differently regarding Talmage: "we must address his use of the term 'evolution' to describe 'development, and progress, and advancement.' While I'm not sure what the understanding back then was, but this is completely unscientific now. Not because such a statement says anything at all about God, but because there is no such thing as 'progress' in evolution. While there might be intelligent beings which direct certain things within the context of evolution, evolution itself is a completely mindless algorithm. There is no such thing as 'getting better' only surviving to reproduce, period."

I agree with your April 25th evaluation. USU professor of philosophy Richard Sherlock seems to agree also. He has said of Talmage: "Though he was sympathetic to science, his religious convictions prevented him from becoming an unqualified supporter of evolution" ("A Turbulent Spectrum," in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1993, 71).

Talmage was not among those who were assigned to review the Roberts manuscript. His only public statement that would be related was, The Earth and Man, and it came four months after the First Presidency had ruled against Roberts. If he was balancing the public record, then his speech should be viewed as a defense of Roberts' theories and not a defense of evolution (see my discussion here regarding the First Presidency's ruling against B.H. Roberts).

6/16/2005 02:55:00 AM  
Blogger Jeff G said...

While Talmage's understanding of evolution as described in that talk I was quoting would not be endorsed by evolutionists today, he did, nonetheless, believe in a form of evolution (a rather Spencerian form it would seem). Thus I stand by both statements.

6/16/2005 10:01:00 AM  

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