Joseph F. Smith: A Tale of Two Letters Pt. 1

The first public controversy over organic evolution at Brigham Young University occured in 1910-1911 when three professors were fired, or forced to resign, because they would not refrain from teaching evolution and higher criticism.

This episode has been detailed by Gary Bergera in Brigham Young University: A House of Faith and The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism, both unfortunately now out of print. However, the chapter from The Search for Harmony, "The 1911 Evolution Controversy," is available online.

In order to explain the action that had been taken, Joseph F. Smith published two letters in April of 1911. The first one we will look at was published under the "Editor's Table" in the April 1911 edition of the Improvement Era and is reproduced below. This editorial was heavily excerpted in the recent Priesthood/Relief Society manual, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (Chapter 35 p. 315-316) (which takes its text from Gospel Doctrine: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Joseph F. Smith), and lays out the basic facts of the situation.

The letter contains plenty of ammunition for critics of evolution, as it asserts the dominance of revelation and the interpretation of the scriptures by the leaders of the Church over the "theories of men." However, it does contain some conciliatory elements; President Smith recognized that the paradigm of evolution could serve as a "scaffolding" for discovering truth. Interestingly, the 1909 First Presidency statement on the origin of man, issued only a year and a half earlier, was not mentioned. (It is also interesting to note that Heber J. Grant, who would later issue a statement regarding evolution and serve as the final judge in the dispute between B.H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith, was a member of the committee that investigated the 1911 controversy.)

The letter follows:


Theory and Divine Revelation.

Our young people are diligent students. They reach out after truth and knowledge with commendable zeal, and in so doing they must necessarily adopt for temporary use many theories of men. As long, however, as they recognize them as scaffolding useful for research purposes, there can be no special harm in them. It is when these theories are settled upon as basic truth that trouble appears, and the searcher then stands in grave danger of being led hopelessly from the right way.

Recently there was some trouble of this kind in one of the leading Church schools—the training college of the Brigham Young University—where three of the professors advanced certain theories on evolution as applied to the origin of man, and certain opinions on "higher criticism," as conclusive and demonstrated truths. This was done although it is well known that evolution and the "higher criticism"—though perhaps containing many truths—are in conflict on some matters with the scriptures, including some modern revelation.

An investigation was instituted, founded on the charges of Superintendent H. H. Cummings of the Church schools, based on complaints from patrons of the school; and the General Church Board of Education appointed a committee to ascertain to what extent the teaching of unorthodox doctrines in the school by these instructors was based upon fact. The personnel of the committee was: Francis M. Lyman, Heber J. Grant, Hyrum M. Smith, Charles W. Penrose, George F. Richards, Anthony W. Ivins, Horace H. Cummings, and Dr. George H. Brimhall.

The committee met with Professors Henry Peterson, Joseph Peterson and Ralph V. Chamberlain—all three eminent scholars, able instructors, and men of excellent character—and the investigation was held. The meeting and examination were characterized by the utmost cordiality and freedom on both sides. The professors frankly admitted that they held to and taught the theories of evolution as at present set forth in the text books, and also theories relating to the Bible known as "higher criticism," which they appeared to view as conclusive and demonstrated; so that when these ideas and enunciations were in conflict with the scripture, ancient and modern, it required the modification of the latter to come into harmony with the former, carrying the impression that all revelation combines a human element with the divine impression and should be subject to such modification.

The Church, on the contrary, holds to the definite authority of divine revelation which must be the standard; and that, as so-called "science" has changed from age to age in its deductions, and as divine revelation is truth, and must abide forever, views as to the lesser should conform to the positive statements of the greater; and, further, that in institutions founded by the Church for the teaching of theology, as well as other branches of education, its instructors must be in harmony in their teachings with its principles and doctrines.

There was no inclination to interfere with the freedom of thought and expression of the opinion of the professors, but the committee, after carefully weighing the matter, concluded that as teachers in a Church school they could not be given opportunity to inculcate theories that were out of harmony with the recognized doctrines of the Church, and hence that they be required to refrain from so doing.

The committe so reported to the trustees of the Brigham Young University. This body later held a meeting at which they unanimously resolved, "that no doctrine should be taught in the Brigham Young University not in harmony with the revealed word of God as interpreted and construed by the Presidency and Apostles of the Church; and that the power and authority of determining whether any professor or other instructor of the institution is out of harmony with the doctrines and attitude of the Church, be delegated to the presidency of the university."

The wisdom of the committee and board of trustees in their actions, as well as the justice and consistency thereof, will be conceded by every right thinking man. The standard of faith and belief for all Latter-day Saints must be the word of the Lord as set forth in the holy scriptures. Undeviatingly should this be the case in Church institutions of learning, founded and sustained—one may say expressly—for the purpose of creating faith in the minds of the young people.

There are so many demonstrated practical material truths, so many spiritual certainties, with which the youth of Zion should become familiar, that it appears a waste of time and means, and detrimental to faith and religion to enter too extensively into the undemonstrated theories of men on philosophies relating to the origin of life, or the methods adopted by an Alwise Creator in peopling the earth with the bodies of men, birds and beasts. Let us rather turn our abilities to the practical analysis of the soil, the study of the elements, the productions of the earth, the invention of useful machinery, the social welfare of the race, and its material amelioration; and for the rest cultivate an abiding faith in the revealed word of God and the saving principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which give joy in this world and in the world to come eternal life and salvation.

Philosophic theories of life have their place and use, but it is not in the classes of the Church schools, and particularly are they out of place here or anywhere else when they seek to supplant the revelations of God. The ordinary student cannot delve into these subjects deep enough to make them of any practical use to him, and a smattering of knowledge in this line only tends to upset his simple faith in the gospel, which is of more value to him in life than all the learning of the world without it.

The religion of the Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth, nor to scientific search for truth. "That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy," said the First Presidency in their Christmas greeting to the Saints, "but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept, nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good, common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us, no matter where it may be found."

A good motto for young people to adopt, who are determined to delve into philosophic theories, is to search all things, but be careful to hold on only to that which is true. The truth persists, but the theories of philosophers change and are overthrown. What men use today as a scaffolding for scientific purposes from which to reach out into the unknown for truth, may be torn down tomorrow, having served its purpose; but faith is an eternal principle through which the humble believer may secure everlasting solace. It is the only way to find God.





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