Friday, July 22, 2005

The B. H. Roberts Double Creation Theory

[Richard Sherlock is a Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. What follows is excerpted from his 1978 article, "A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Responses to the Darwinist Legacy," Journal of Mormon History 4, 45-69; as reprinted in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1993, 67-91. The note numbers appear in square brackets and the parenthesized numbers at the end of each paragraph are page numbers in The Search for Harmony. The Roberts manuscript was published in 1994, sixteen years after this article was written.]

Roberts had been a member of the First Council of Seventy for over forty years, a defender of the faith in innumerable situations, and a prolific author of works in explanation and defense of the church.... (68)

Late in his life Roberts attempted to understand evolution and paleontology in a monumental manuscript that has remained unpublished. Through this manuscript it is possible to look at some of the ways Roberts dealt with central questions of evolutionary theory.[20] (74)

Roberts believed the evidence for the antiquity of the earth and its life forms could not be denied. There were millions and billions of years of earth history, stretching back to the beginning when God created the world. Roberts included in the manuscript citations claiming that the world was at least two billion years old. The clear implication of the text is that he was prepared to accept any such figure that science could demonstrate as accurate.[21] (74-75)

More importantly Roberts was prepared to accept the established fossil records of life and death stretching back hundreds of millions of years. Of these records the most important were those relating to the antiquity of humankind. This was clearly an important question for Roberts. The manuscript is filled with pages of evidence concerning the discoveries of the fossil remains of prehistoric people. He quoted extensively from experts concerning the evidence of the antiquity of the human species all over the earth. The evidence, he said, was so extensive that he could not present nearly all of it.[22] (75)

If the human race was this ancient, then Genesis was clearly in for difficulties. But Roberts did not tamper with the Genesis history in any fundamental way. Rather he turned to the Mormon idea of a physical and a spiritual creation. If this were true, then the first chapter of Genesis might be a record of the spiritual creation and the second might be the record of the material or physical creation. But the second chapter implies that man appeared on a barren world before anything else. Hence Roberts seemed to find some scriptural warrant for the idea of some great cataclysm that destroyed all life on earth before the coming of Adam.[23] (75)

... Roberts addressed the dilemma of the antiquity of human beings by positing a race of pre-Adamite humans. The antiquity of the present human race stretched back about 4,000 years, but before this the earth existed for ages: plants and animals, men and women had lived and died for millions of years. Then some great cataclysm destroyed all other beings on the earth. "Why not recognize that truth and see that which is inevitable," Roberts wrote, "that in the advent of Adam the time had come for the achievement of some special purpose in relation to man—some spiritual relationship that brought about the introduction of the adamic dispensation? Otherwise the whole volume of facts as they are disclosed are thrown into confusion; and the revealed truths themselves for most men rendered doubtful, being out of harmony with the facts ascertained as to man's antiquity."[24] (75)

Roberts relied not only on scientific sources but also Mormon ones for his theory of pre-Adamite people. Among other support was an 1854 address by Apostle Orson Hyde. Hyde had argued that if Adam had been commanded to "re-plenish the earth," how could this have been unless the earth had already been populated. To a scriptural literalist the argument seemed sensible. Furthermore Roberts said that Brigham Young had agreed with Hyde's speech, and thus the argument seemed to have prophetic approval. Whether this was actually the case is questionable. Hyde's talk was primarily on marriage. Brigham Young began his own talk by saying, "I do not wish to eradicate any items from the lecture Elder Hyde has given us this evening." It seems more plausible that Young was referring to the discourse as a whole rather than to any particular point. [25] (76)

This elaborate dispensationalist argument was most clearly not a theory of evolution. It did not deal at all with the central thesis of evolution—the mutability of species and descent with modification. Roberts's discussion of this issue in the manuscript is ambiguous. He was greatly influenced by the biblical argument that species reproduce only "after their own kind." He refers to this several times as the "great law of life." But he also was greatly impressed with the variation among offspring in nature. He wanted some way to balance these two perspectives of stability and change in nature.[26] (76)

Roberts called his answer to this problem "the development theory." He thought this theory would preserve the "great law" of reproduction and yet leave room for wide variation within certain bounds. It recognized "the eternity of some life forms, and the possibilities of these forms—perhaps in embryonic status, or in their simplest forms (same as to man) are transplanted to newly created worlds there to be developed each to its highest possibilities,..."[27] (76)

This view evades the central issue. What are these primeval life forms out of which other forms develop? There is no logical reason why all species could not have developed from one primeval life form if the immutability of species is broached. In a later passage he was even more unclear but intriguing: "And from a few other forms of life transported to earth there could be development of varied kinds of life yet adhering closely to the great law of life so constantly repeated—'each after its own kind.' Not necessarily limited to stereotyped individual forms, but developing the kinds from the subdivisions of vegetable and animal kingdoms into various species through development from primeval forms."[28] Clearly Roberts's "development view" led him to the edge of evolutionary descent. (76-77)

To handle the problem of human antiquity, Roberts has adopted a dispensationalist framework and the idea of a cataclysm destroying all life on the earth prior to the coming of Adam. Here he clearly argued for an orderly unfolding of life forms. Humankind in this scheme comes not on a barren world but a world already populated with an infinite variety of plants and animals.[29] It is doubtful that any workable reconciliation between these two perspectives could be maintained. Roberts saw clearly that there was a great deal of evidence that could not be squared with the traditional interpretation of Genesis. But he was unwilling to attempt a reconciliation grounded in a firm commitment to evolution.


[20] B. H. Roberts, "The Truth, The Way, The Life," manuscript, LDS archives. Truman G. Madsen has argued that Roberts's discussion of evolutionary thought and his speculations about a pre-Adamite race are not integral to the manuscript and could easily have been left out. I believe that this interpretation ignores two very crucial points that suggest the importance of this section in the manuscript. First, Roberts himself obviously felt that it was so important that he would not cut it out even when that was the only way to get the book published. In fact he added material on discoveries of prehistoric men after the reading committee of church authorities told him to remove the section. Second, it is clear from the discussion surrounding the manuscript that he felt keenly the need to effect a reconciliation between the indisputable facts of science and the received Mormon tradition. Without this he was concerned that many educated individuals would desert the church. Given the times the single most explosive area of confrontation was clearly the theory of evolution and the record of prehistoric humans discovered by paleontology. It thus seems that to be consistent with one of Roberts's great concerns, the manuscript would have to attempt some such reconciliation. See Truman Madsen, "The Meaning of Christ—The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Analysis of B. H. Roberts's Masterwork," Brigham Young University Studies 15 (Spring 1975): 259-92. (88-89)

[21] Roberts, "The Truth, The Way, the Life," chap. 24; chap. 31, pp. 3-4. (89)

[22] Ibid., chap. 31. (89)

[23] His discussion of the idea of two creations is in chap. 30, while references to the great cataclysm are in chap. 32, pp. 1-3. (89)

[24] Ibid., chap. 31, pp. 29. (89)

[25] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool and London, 1854-86), 2:79-88. (89)

[26] Roberts, "The Truth, The Way, The Life," chap. 25, pp. 3-4, 8. (89)

[27] Ibid., 5-6. (89)

[28] Ibid., 10-11. (89)

[29] Ibid., 8. (89)

[The above is excerpted from Richard Sherlock, "A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Responses to the Darwinist Legacy," Journal of Mormon History 4, 45-69; as reprinted in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1993, 67-91.]

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