Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Harold B. Lee on pre-Adamites

Closely — but not directly — related to the question of evolution's place in LDS doctrine has been a limited but ongoing discussion about pre-Adamites. This discussion reached a high point between 1928 and 1931 when Church authorities considered the theory that human-like creatures may have lived and died on this earth for millions of years before the time of Adam.

The suggestion was that these pre-Adamites had all been destroyed by some cataclysmic event prior to the arrival of the first Genesis life forms. It was an attempt to reconcile scripture with pre-Adamic humanoid fossils.

The discussion resulted in an unpublished 1931 First Presidency memo stating that the Church had no doctrinal position on either side of the question.

Forty one years later — and six months after being ordained and set apart as the Church's eleventh Prophet — President Harold B. Lee made public his position on pre-Adamites:

I was somewhat sorrowed recently to hear someone, a sister who comes from a church family, ask, "What about the pre-Adamic people?" Here was someone who I thought was fully grounded in the faith.

I asked. "What about the pre-Adamic people?"

She replied, "Well, aren't there evidences that people preceded the Adamic period of the earth?"

I said, "Have you forgotten the scripture that says, 'And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also....' " (Moses 3:7.) I asked, "Do you believe that?"

She wondered about the creation because she had read the theories of the scientists, and the question that she was really asking was: How do you reconcile science with religion? The answer must be, If science is not true, you cannot reconcile truth with error. (Harold B. Lee, "First Presidency Message: Find the Answers in the Scriptures," Ensign, Dec. 1972, 2.)

A question about pre-Adamites is answered by saying, "If science is not true, you cannot reconcile truth with error." Of course this counsel is completely lost on LDS evolutionists who argue that the 1931 First Presidency said, in essence, "You are authorized to reconcile scripture with science by interpreting scripture according to science" when, in fact, the 1931 Presidency ruling was against just such an attempt. President Lee's 1972 remarks are more easily understood — he clearly disavows pre-Adamites while at the same time reaffirming the 1931 First Presidency counsel not to stretch the gospel to fit science.

A 1973 personal letter

"Letters [from Church leaders] to individuals are not the channel for announcing the policy of the Church." [1]  Having reemphasized that point, I reproduce below a letter written by Church President Harold B. Lee to a member in October 1973. [2] This letter gives valuable insight into several matters related to the above First Presidency Message excerpt.

I have a few moments to respond to your letter of recent date in which you express some concern about some contradictory information as to the position we should take with regard to the doctrine of evolution.

This, as you know, has been long a bone of contention so serious that in the earlier years when Darwin's theory first was enunciated, a number of professors at the Brigham Young University were released because of their unwillingness to teach the theory and then counter by delivering the true doctrines of the gospel.

Apparently the thing that confused you was that these who have contended have shown you a copy of a letter which was signed by President David O. McKay in which he disavowed the church having taken any official position on the subject of organic evolution. And, furthermore, that in that note to Professor William Lee Stokes, he declared that the book, Man, His Origin and Destiny was not published by the church and is not approved by the church.

There is a little bit of history that I should tell you about. One summer some years ago, I was assigned to deliver a day by day set of lessons to all the seminary students [teachers?] and some of the institute teachers of the church, which proved to be a very demanding assignment. I went down each morning and met with all of these teachers. President Joseph Fielding Smith's book had just come off the press and I assigned as a part of the course, the reading of this book and writing a dissertation not less than 2500 words on the subject "What Your Appraisal Is of the Value of This Book to a High School Senior or a College Student." This caused quite a consternation among the teachers, some of whom wanted to write a very critical analysis of the book and were fearful of doing so lest I would downgrade them in the course. This was not at all my intent, it was merely to have them respond critically if they wished, and I so told President Smith that I was inviting criticism and he said that was alright. [sic]

Some of these brethren who were critical of the book came directly to President McKay and represented to him that I had used President Joseph Fielding Smith's book as a text for my lectures at the BYU. He called President Ernest Wilkinson in to express his criticism that I had done so, and President Wilkinson told him that that was not true, that he, President Wilkinson, had sat in on most of the lectures that I had given and I did not use the book as a text, it was merely an assigned reading outside of the lessons.

It was undoubtedly the undue pressure of some of these dissidents, one of which was his own son, who was a professor at the University of Utah, that induced him to write this brief and to them a satisfying but to you a disturbing note, which poured water over their wheel and tended to lessen the influence of President Joseph Fielding Smith's book.

When your letter came to our attention, President Marion G. Romney told me of a conference address which he had delivered at the April conference in 1953, where he spoke directly to this subject of the fall of Adam, or the fall of man, as it is spoken of, and then brought forth scriptures to support the position of the church with respect to the advent of man upon the earth, etc.

At the conclusion of his talk, President Romney said that President David O. McKay had congratulated him and had written a brief note, a copy of which I am attaching hereto, in which he congratulated President Romney and then 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." President Romney thought if you had this statement from President David O. McKay, signed by himself, to counter this other statement which has been so confusing, that that should be sufficient for you to understand that President McKay had made this other statement probably because of a compromising position he had been in due to the circumstances as I have explained them.

I might add one further thought. Just after this book of President Joseph Fielding Smith's was printed, I had a young student of science from the University of Utah who came from a family who lived in my stake, come in with several books and wanted to argue against statements made in President [Joseph] Fielding Smith's book. I said to him, "Now Brother ___." (his name was Dr. ___.) "I haven't had the opportunity of delving deeply into science, but I want to tell you an experience that Mark E. Petersen and I had when we organized the new Kansas City Stake. In our interview we had a man who was considered as a bishop of one of the wards who was a teacher of anatomy in the Kansas City University, which was a dental school. Of course this made it necessary for us to examine very carefully his faith as contrasted with his teaching of the evolutionary theory which of course would be taught in connection with the subject of anatomy. After we had discussed this, I asked him if he had read Brother Smith's book. He smiled and said, 'Yes, I have, and it was the most difficult book I have ever read. But,' he said, 'I want to tell you that in my opinion this is the finest book that the church has ever produced for men who were teachers in the field of science. And I endorse what President Smith has said entirely so.' "

I said to this young Dr. ____, "I wish you would write to this professor of science, who is much older and more experienced than you, in Kansas City, and have him respond to your questions."

A few weeks later this young man came back in a humble spirit and said, "Well I need nothing more to quiet my concerns, when a man of his experience can say what he said, that's enough for me."

Now if I were you, Brother ____, I would not be discouraged. This is a contention which has gone on and will continue to the end of time I suppose, and until the scientists get nearer and nearer to the doctrines of the Church, there will still be contention, but remember this, that truth can never be composed with the errors of men. Just know that the gospel is true and that these are the theories of men which you as a student must learn if you want to pass the courses you are taking.

With kindest personal regards and trusting this letter will be sufficient to set the matter right in your mind I am, Very sincerely yours, Harold B. Lee.

According to this 1973 letter, President Lee's position on issues related to evolution had remained constant since at least 1954.

This letter also provides some interesting background about the No Death Before the Fall instructions President Lee gave to Seminary and Institute teachers in 1954 — instructions that have since been distributed (in 2002) by the current First Presidency (Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and James E. Faust) to all adult members in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee.


[1] See Boyd K. Packer, "The Law and the Light," The Book of Mormon: Jacob through Words of Mormon, to Learn with Joy, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1990. 23; emphasis in original; also available online, pdf p. 13.

[2] See The Origin of Man & Organic Evolution, as downloaded 9/4/2004 from BYU-Idaho.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to Duane Jeffery (in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 2002, 12), when the first undergraduate class on evolution was approved by the BYU Board of Trustees, Harold B. Lee remarked, "Clearly this course is needed in the curriculum at BYU. Tell those brethren to teach the most demanding and rigorous course of which they are capable. Just don't get on any bandwagon and beat the church with it."

This charge from President Lee takes on new meaning in light of his comment (see above) about "professors at the Brigham Young University [who] were released because of their unwillingness to teach the theory and then counter by delivering the true doctrines of the gospel."

4/11/2006 04:20:00 AM  
Blogger Jared* said...

Of course we all (active LDS) look to the scriptures for answers, but Pres. Lee was well known for taking that approach to another level. Many missionaries (including my father) were instructed by him using that approach.

So his response to this particular issue is not really surprising. Of course much has been discovered since his time.

Of course I would never ask the prophet to take a position he did not feel comfortable taking. Other than the scriptures, I'm not aware of any revelation on this issue. Even the 1909 statement talks in terms of "duty" based on received scripture, and Joseph F. Smith's letters a year later make clear, I think, that his position was not based on any new revelation but on loyalty to the scriptures. The same approach seems apparent all the way down to Elder Packer who bore testimony--not of how man was created or how old the earth is--but of the scriptures.

I'm not trying to criticize the scriptures, only state that which we all believe at some level--that revelations given to past generations don't necessarily answer questions raised in today's (and therefore do not contain all truth). Until new revelation is received, I understand and respect that Church leaders base their answers on what we do have--and the traditional interpretation thereof.

4/11/2006 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Rob Osborn said...

Great post!

I find it interesting that there is such a great debate as there is within the LDS community on the subject. The scriptures are very clear that Adam was the first man of all men. If there were no pre-Adamites according to God, then why must man continue to question him?

It really seems to be a no-brainer to me that Man did not evolve from a lower animal form, otherwise God would have said so. Instead he firmly establishes over and over that not only is man the literal offspring of Heavenly parents, but that we are not animals at all.

As long as man has his understanding of science in his limited godless view, he will endlessly chase the missing link and discover that the mystery of mans evolution has an endless but empty plot in the grand scheme of truth.

4/11/2006 12:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for reminding me about the missionary instruction given by President Lee. I myself was instructed by him — in the assembly room on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake Temple. The question and answer period on that day was especially memorable. Because we were inside the Temple, he spoke freely about subjects that I've rarely heard discussed, especially by someone of his caliber.

I also appreciate your mention of the 1909 First Presidency statement on "The Origin of Man" and President Boyd K. Packer's testimony and analysis of it.

4/11/2006 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am slowly gaining an appreciation for those who immerse themselves in the study of science, especially evolutionary biology. There is obviously a strong pull toward the prevailing theories that are used as the basis for their research. I know it would be troubling for me if a doctrinal problem surfaced with one of the computer programming languages that I use every day.

On the other hand, personally I prefer the teachings — even theory (D&C 88:78) — of the Living Apostles over the theories of men when it comes to the study of things like the origin and fall of Adam and Eve.

4/11/2006 04:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sorry, the assembly room is on the fifth floor of the Salt Lake Temple, not the fourth. There were several dozen missionaries in that meeting which was held during the first few days of my mission. In those days, missionaries were instructed by General Authorities for the first week in Salt Lake City. I only remember one meeting in the Temple, however. President Lee was the instructor and he made a deep impression on me at the time.

4/11/2006 05:32:00 PM  
Blogger Jared* said...


Pres. Lee made an impression on my father as well. He (my father) was impressed with Pres. Lee's command of the scriptures.

I also appreciate your response to Rob. Like Henry Eyring, I think there is room in the Church for a diversity of views on these topics.

4/11/2006 09:04:00 PM  

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