Joseph Smith and Recycled Planets

As discussed in my last post, B.H. Roberts sought to account for the age of the earth and the fossils therein by invoking a statement by Joseph Smith that "our planet was made up of the fragments of a planet which previously existed; some mighty convulsions disrupted that creation and made it desolate. Both its animal and vegetable life forms were destroyed" (Gospel and Man's Relationship to Diety). In his later work, The Truth, The Way, The Life, Roberts apparently abandoned this line of reasoning, which was part of the reason the Church refused to publish it--he was asserting that life and death had occured on this earth before Adam and Eve.

Given his importance to Latter-day Saints, we are desirious to know everything Joseph Smith had to say on any topic and slow to discount his words. The first step in investigating this topic is to determine exactly what was said. The statement comes from notes taken by William Clayton of a speech by Joseph on January 5, 1841 and is published in The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook. (I am unaware of any other sources; please provide others if you know of them.) Here is the relevant passage:
The world and earth are not synonymous terms. The world is the human family. This earth was organized or formed out of other planets which were broke up and remodelled and made into the one on which we live. The elements are eternal. That which has a begining will surely have an end. Take a ring, it is without beginning or end; cut it for a beginning place, and at the same time you have an ending place.

A key, every principle proceeding from God is eternal, and any principle which is not eternal is of the Devil. The sun [the context suggests that this should be "Son."] has no beginning or end, the rays which proceed from himself have no bounds, consequently are eternal. So it is with God. If the soul of man had a beginning it will surely have an end. In the translation, "without form and void" it should read "empty and desolate." The word "created" should be formed or organized.

It is apparent from the surrounding sentences that Joseph's main point concerns the eternal nature of element. In fact a footnote says that "the William P. McIntire account of this discourse indicates that the subject of ex nihilo creation was one of the major topics of discussion during this inaugural lyceum meeting."

So we have a single, non-canonical statement taken from notes by William Clayton, that was not the main topic of Joseph's speech. This seems to me, poor material with which to build arguments against modern science. James E. Talmage apparently thought so too:
The statement by Joseph Smith, quoted at the beginning of this article, has been amplified and applied by some of our people in a way unwarranted by the prophet's utterance. This is no unusual incident in connection with the announcement of a great truth bearing the stamp of newness. Thus, the words of the prophet have been construed as meaning that great masses of material have come together in space to form this planet, and that the broken and disturbed state of the earth's crust is an immediate result of these masses falling together in a disorderly way...

Whatever may have been the character of the planetesimal bodies, the existing structure of the earth's crust is the result of causes less remote than the original accretion of these bodies,-causes of a kind yet operating,-disintegration, removal, and re-deposition in the case of these dimentaries, volcanism and metamorphism in the case of crystalline rocks. (Improvement Era, Vol. VII. MAY, 1904. No. 7.)
I have no training in geology, but I think it is a safe bet that the progress in geology over the 100 years that have passed since Talmage's writing have only compounded the difficulties in maintaining the interpretation that he argues against.

The scientist Henry Eyring (father of Elder Henry B. Eyring) is reported to have said that "it would take a very fancy shovel to put the earth together in such an organized fashion so that the fossils and ages of rocks are arranged in such an orderly manner with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top."

In his Sunstone article, Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions, Duane Jeffery gives some treatment to this topic:
Some Latter-day Saints have tried to explain the fossil record with an uncanonized statement reportedly made by Joseph Smith that this earth was created from fragments of other earths. This sentiment is then extended to propose that dinosaurs, mammoths, and Australopithecines all come from other planets that have been destroyed, broken up, and recycled.

What size were the fragments? I have encountered claims all the way from continent-sized portions, to tectonic plates, to specific geological formations complete with living bristlecone pines on them, to mere atoms. Suffice it to say that no scientific evidence whatever exists to support such a model, and massive amounts of data indicate that our planet has, from its beginning, been a single dynamic but integrated entity--with continued accretions of space dust and meteorites of course.
Jeffery goes on to discuss theological questions such a scenario also raises.

Notice that none of this has anything to do with whether Joseph Smith was right or wrong. Like the quote commonly attributed to him concerning the Constitution hanging by a thread, the statement of interest here is rather vague and any interpretation of it says more about what the interpreter thinks than what Joseph thought. It gives no information as to how we could verify the statement, where we should look to do so, or what we should find. Even an interpretation of his statement regarding the eternal nature of elements is questionable, given our knowledge of nuclear physics and relativity. (Physicists could probably make an even stronger point here.)

What if Joseph really intended his audience to think that fossils came from recycled planets? Could it not be it a personal opinion, assumption, or speculation? Similar questions are currently in play regarding Joseph's views on the geography of the Book of Mormon or the identity of the Lamanites. However, I do not think we need to argue over whether it was personal opinion or not because the statement is sufficiently vague that no specific meaning can be reliably attached to it. (I wonder if the word "fossil" was part of Joseph's working vocabulary. My quick search on Gospelink 2001 did not return any usage of the word by Joseph. If anybody finds otherwise, please provide a reference in the comments.)

Finally, I think it would be useful to have a list of specific evidences that the scenario Roberts put forth would have to overcome or explain in order to be plausible. I invite readers to leave such in the comments--with references if possible. (Don't worry about the age of the post, comment anyway.)

Perhaps Joseph was absolutely right in what he said. But until we know what he meant, or we uncover meanings consistent with available evidence, it seems best to put his statement aside for now. I think it unwise to use the statement as a weapon until we know which way it cuts.

[This is a cross-post at LDS Science Review.]


Joseph Smith may have been wrong about the creation of the earth. But without any evidence to the contrary, we ought to assume that he knew what he was talking about. After all, he actually met the man who created this planet. And he conversed with him and was taught by him. To the best of my knowledge, that is something that no professional geologist can claim. Therefore, it is more reasonable to believe in the fallibility of the geologists, than to believe in the fallibility of Joseph Smith. And we are more likely to err by siding with the scientists than by siding with the Prophet. If prophets have personal opinions that are false, even more so do scientists. 

Posted by John W. Redelfs

7/02/2005 06:54:00 PM  

without any evidence to the contrary, we ought to assume that he knew what he was talking about 

Hi John,

Your point is taken, but what was Joseph talking about? Is there even a need to pick sides on this issue? The moment someone uses the word "geology" or "fossils," they've gone beyond what Joseph said.

And what evidence to the contrary should be convincing if there were a side to choose? I suppose you don't mean scientific evidence. 

Posted by Jared

7/02/2005 08:00:00 PM  

Nice post Jared. The actual quote by Joseph is an interesteing one but it does NOT say that this earth was cobbled together from huge chucks of previous planets.

This earth was organized or formed out of other planets which were broke up and remodelled and made into the one on which we live. The elements are eternal. That which has a begining will surely have an end. 

The huge leap in interpretation has to do with what "broken up" means. Why must we assume that it was broken up into gigantic chunks instead of broken up into tiny particals?

(I assume this is the issue... right?) 

Posted by Geoff J

7/03/2005 08:57:00 AM  

One might argue that if Joseph had seen how the earth was formed from the sun during the formation of the solar system that what he said was entirely accurate. The error is in assuming that what we see is all there was. i.e. that the earth as formed from element was element as we see it now. Clearly those who know of the early days of solar formation know that element was most explicitly not in big complete chunks. I think those who assert that this is the way to think about it twist Joseph's comments.


Posted by Clark

7/08/2005 10:37:00 AM  

What happened? No more posts?

7/18/2005 11:49:00 AM  

They're percolating. 

Posted by Jared

7/18/2005 11:55:00 AM  

A lot of my posts over at my site have had quite a bit to do with evolution, but they could hardly be considered "reconciliatory" in nature. I just didn't think they were "evolution-ish" to bring over here. What do you think?

I am thinking of maybe reposting what I have done so far and updating it to how much I have learned over the course of the discussion, which has been quite a bit.

Greg also reminded me that I still need to address the issues brought up in my "Creationists Sound Off!" post. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

7/18/2005 04:48:00 PM  

Thought I would cross post a related comment:

"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 which I commented: not to mention, in the listings of the children of Noah is the one who divided the earth with the Gentiles.

What!? There were other people out there, after the flood, that they had to divide the earth with? At least if you read the Bible literally there were. Makes sense with Adam as well.

There is a textually supported reading that would support both and Adam and Noah as living in a world with other humans, much like Abraham did.

7/23/2005 09:47:00 AM  

I think there is a *lot* of evidence that pre-Adamites were seriously entertained early in the church. However I also think that the basic model was akin to Noah. That is they saw things in cycles of *total* destruction and replenishing. The clearest example of this was the old naive Book of Mormon interpretations. But the obvious comment is that now we've taken the more nuanced view of the Book of Mormon mainstream, shouldn't we do so with the other equivalent versions of the story with the Jaredites, the Noahites, and the Adamites? 

Posted by Clark

8/16/2005 02:52:00 PM  

shouldn't we do so with the other equivalent versions of the story with the Jaredites, the Noahites, and the Adamites?  

Yes, we should. 

Posted by Geoff J

9/01/2005 08:05:00 PM  

Interesting site. The CURRENTLY prevailing impact theory of Earth's moon formation (as well as the increase in Earth's mass and influence of its current inclination and axial rotation) seems to agree with what has been attributed to Joseph Smith. According to the theory, one protoplanet collided with another. The collision added core mass to the larger body (now called Earth) and ejected mass from both bodies which eventually formed the Moon. This "breaking up and remodeling" of these worlds and the creation of a stabilizing moon seems to have been a precurser to the establishment of life on earth.

As for how God created life here; it "is wisdom and it remaineth in Him." 

Posted by Dispatcher

12/26/2005 11:26:00 AM  

Something interesting to think about in relation to the foregoing: have you ever read the account of the Jaredite migration as being parallel to the creation story? There are some major points of contact as I recall.

The one that springs particularly to mind at this time is the list of what they took with them (see Ether 2:1-3 ): flocks (beasts), fowl, fishes, bees (insects), and seeds of every kind. I smell a pattern here.

How deep it goes, I don't know and wouldn't dare speculate. I'll leave that to individual readers...if any still read this string.  

Posted by Michael C

2/27/2007 10:46:00 AM  



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