The B.H. Roberts Episode

The circumstances surrounding the efforts of B.H. Roberts to publish his book, The Truth, The Way, The Life, are an interesting episode in Church history. Discussions of the relationship between science and the gospel frequently refer to the controversy and its outcome. It is beyond the scope of this post to recount all of the details of the episode; I only intend to highlight a few facts and what I consider to be reasonable conclusions. I recommend reading the resources I link to at the end of this post so that you can form your own opinion.

B.H. Roberts intended his book to represent the summation of his thinking on the gospel. It was anticipated that the book would form the basis for a priesthood study manual. A reading committee, consisting of members of the Quorum of the Twelve (including Joseph Fielding Smith), was assigned to preview the manuscript and determine its fitness for publication. The committee objected to a number of items in the book. Most prominently, they objected to Roberts' interpretation of the creation, especially his discussion of a pre-Adamite race. The committee asked Roberts to remove the offending passages, which he refused to do. President Heber J. Grant agreed with the decision of the reading committee that the Church could not publish the book without modification.

Roberts apparently had been teaching some of his views in public. In response, Joseph Fielding Smith gave a speech where he said that pre-Adamites and death of life forms before the Fall of Adam were contrary to the doctrine of the Church. This speech was later published. Roberts was upset that Smith's views had been published while his book had not. Roberts protested Smith's views and asked the First Presidency whether they constituted the position of the Church.

The Quorum of the Twelve heard Roberts' case and later heard Smith's response. They then refered the matter to the First Presidency. The First Presidency responded with a memo to the General Authorities (available below) indicating that the Church had no position on the existence of pre-Adamites, and a further admonition to avoid speculative topics.

Because Smith's views attacking science had been published, there was concern that some would think that the Church was opposed to science. James Talmage gave his speech, The Earth and Man to counter-balance some of Smith's views. The speech was published by the Church.

A number of interesting points should be made about this episode:

1. Roberts did not argue for evolution. In Roberts' view, the proposed pre-Adamites were not ancestors of humans, but life-forms that existed before the Adamic dispensation and that were eliminated by a cataclysm. Thus most concepts belonging to evolutionary theory were not discussed at all.

2. Although there is no mention of it in the First Presidency memo, Joseph Fielding Smith sought to support his views by arguments from The New Geology, by George McReady Price. This book contained creationist arguments that sought to support traditional Christian views by exposing weaknesses in scientific theory.

3. Talmage was not on the reading committee--he became involved during the hearings before the full Quorum. Talmage was trained as a geologist but had been out of the field for a while. He wrote his son, also a geologist, in order to better defend geology and to discredit George McReady Price. In a letter to his son, Talmage related that in a quorum meeting he defended geology and attacked Price. He also said that he had examined the stones that were identified as belonging to Adam's altar, and that the stones contained fossils--therefore, there must have been death before Adam.

4. The controversy was largely non-personal. Neither side expressed personal hostility, although discussion was apparently heated at times and Roberts was somewhat disrespectful toward Joseph Fielding Smith in his letter to the First Presidency.

5. Concerning whether there were pre-Adamites, the First Presidency said that neither the views of Roberts nor Smith were official doctrine. President Grant's journal shows that he thought Roberts and Smith were both dealing in mysteries.

6. The 1931 letter asked the general authorities to avoid mysteries and leave science to scientists.

7. Talmage understood this to mean he should not discuss speculative issues concerning the gospel and science anymore. The exception was the talk The Earth and Man, as explained above.

8. The 1931 letter is out of context as used in the article on evolution in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (although it still may be wise counsel).

9. In considering this episode, it is inappropriate to choose heroes and villians. The disagreements that were present were honest ones.

It is not clear how President Grant's admonition should be interpreted. Some have seen Joseph Fielding Smith's later book, Man, His Origin and Destiny, as a violation of President Grant's instructions. In fairness, however, it should be kept in mind that by this time John A. Widtsoe had published articles in the Improvement Era and his book, Evidences and Reconciliation, in which he gave some treatment to evolution and pre-Adamites. Given their extensive service in the Church, it is probably inappropriate to attribute impure motives or disobedience to either man.

In general Church discourse the views of Joseph Fielding Smith have been dominant, which some see as vindication of their correctness. Certainly they are more consistent with a straightforward reading of the scriptures. In contrast, mounting scientific evidence appears to contradict these views, which some may see as vindication of their view. One of the lessons that can be gleaned from this episode is that disagreement can be maintained without calling into question motives, intelligence, testimony, or commitment. President Grant's admonition is, at its roots, a call for patience.


The following sources are available on the internet (Note: Some of the articles erroneously place the Roberts episode in the context of evolution. However, they are still worthwhile and informative.):

1. The Story of the Truth, The Way, The Life, by James Allen.

The two following articles were published in Dialogue, then combined for printing in the book The Search for Harmony:

2. We Can See No Advantage to a Continuation of the Discussion: The Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair, by Richard Sherlock

3. Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair, by Jeffery Keller

4. First Presidency 1931 memo

5. An edited version of the memo is also available here.

6. The Earth and Man, by James Talmage

7. Seers, Savants and Evolution, by Duane Jeffery

8. The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution, by Michael Ash, as printed in Dialogue 35:4.

9. BYU Evolution Packet, including the evolution article from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

10. Can Science Be Faith-Promoting, by Sterling Talmage contains correspondence from Sterling Talmage, James Talmage, and Joseph Fielding Smith, including letters from Joseph Fielding Smith to George McReady Price.

11. This post is an outgrowth of comments to Gary's guest-post.

12. More of Gary's arguments are found here.


Jared, nice post. Thanks for pulling all this together.  

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

5/04/2005 03:58:00 AM  

Very nice post. One should also add that B. H. Roberts in his book also tended to downplay materialism quite a bit, adopting a largely Cartesian view of humanity.


Posted by clark

5/04/2005 09:54:00 AM  

Nice post. I don't worry overly much about the Creation and evolution and how everything happened ... but this was a very interesting read. Thank you. 

Posted by danithew

5/05/2005 10:44:00 AM  

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