BYU Evolution Packet Examined

[The following is a guest-post by Gary Shapiro.]

Two statements in the BYU Evolution Packet (as downloaded from the sidebar) are false. The first page (para. 5) says the 1931 First Presidency addressed "evolution and the origin of man," and the last page (para. 3) claims "in 1931 ... there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution." The discussions were not centered on theories of evolution or the origin of man.

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I will use the "pdf" page numbers because the pages in the document itself aren't numbered.

What is meant by "published by the Church"?

It's been suggested here that placing the Encyclopedia Evolution article in the BYU Evolution Packet might constitute being published by the Church. Three of the four items in the Packet were published by the Church—a long time ago.

The question is whether the 1931 excerpt has ever been issued by the Church to the general membership of the Church. And until it's been published in one of the Church's official magazines or in a Church published manual, the answer to this question will be "no."

The clout issue

It's also been suggested here that placing the Encyclopedia Evolution article in the BYU Evolution Packet gave "clout" to the article thereby undermining my thesis here that the article is fundamentally flawed.

I will discuss the clout question specifically, but I'll also address the relative position of the Encyclopedia Evolution article within the Packet in terms of its doctrinal authority.

The official introduction

We begin on pdf p.3, which is where the official Packet begins and is the official introduction to the Packet. This page describes the Packet's contents. There are three main paragraphs.

The first paragraph says the Packet contains all known statements issued by the First Presidency on science, evolution, and the origin of man. The known statements are listed. There are three:

1.   "The Origin of Man" was issued in November 1909. At 2,700 words, this is the predominant item in the Packet.

2.   "Words in Season" is a small 99 word excerpt from a First Presidency Christmas Message printed in the Deseret Evening News. It says the Church is not hostile to science.

3.   "Mormon View of Evolution" was issued in September 1925. This is a 560 word condensed version of the 1909 statement.

The fact that the Encyclopedia Evolution article was excluded from this list diminishes the "clout" supposedly conferred upon it by the Packet. We'll talk more about this later.

Evolution and the Origin of Man

Paragraph one affirms "there has never been a formal declaration from the First Presidency addressing ... organic evolution as a process for development of biological species" (para. 1, pdf p.3; emphasis added).

But at the same time, it affirms the opposite regarding organic evolution as it applies to the origin of man, concluding "these documents make clear the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man" (para.1, pdf p.3; emphasis added). Indeed, the page itself is titled "Evolution and the Origin of Man."

I've argued elsewhere on this site that the 1909 First Presidency statement gives clear counsel about the origin of man. See for example, here, here, and my discussion of its use in the 1980-81 Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide here.

Some commentators, on the other hand, argue that this statement does not "make clear" the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man. The Packet disagrees on that point.

An overview of Packet contents

Let's pause and review the contents of the ten official pages. There is the official introduction (a single page), the 1909 First Presidency statement (five pages), followed by the two paragraphs from the 1910 Christmas Message (part of a page).

Then there is the 1925 First Presidency statement (two pages quoted from the 1909 statement), and finally the Encyclopedia article (a single page).

In other words, all but three pages of the "official" BYU Evolution Packet either are the 1909 First Presidency statement, or are taken from it. Therefore, the 1909 First Presidency statement dominates the Packet and this adds meaning to its 2002 reprint.

A version for the general membership

Ten years after the Packet was created, the Church reprinted the entire 1909 First Presidency statement in its official magazine (see "The Origin of Man," Ensign, Feb. 2002, 26-30).

The Ensign magazine enjoys a much wider distribution among Church members than the BYU Evolution Packet. And the introductory paragraph in the Ensign says the statement "expresses the Church's doctrinal position on ... the Creation of the earth and the theories of evolution." (Ibid.; emphasis added).

This reprint is essentially a version of the Evolution Packet that has been issued to the general membership of the Church.

The Encyclopedia Evolution article

The second paragraph states the Packet contains the Encyclopedia Evolution article.

This paragraph also states the current First Presidency authorized using the 1931 excerpt in the Encyclopedia article.

When asked about First Presidency involvement, William Evenson explained the article was reviewed and edited by Gordon B. Hinckley, a member of the First Presidency at the time. He pointed out that he didn't have access to the First Presidency Minutes and said the excerpt was added by President Hinckley.

Is Gordon B. Hinckley coauthor of the article?

Macmillan Publishing Company does not wrongly identify its authors. Many articles in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism carry the names of multiple authors. When William Evenson put his name on the article as its sole author, he accepted full responsibility for its content.

And when President Gordon B. Hinckley desires the general membership of the Church to adopt his interpretation of something, he will put his name on an article and we will read it in a Church publication.

The issue of formality

Paragraph three emphasizes that "formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions" (emphasis added). This helps us understand why the Encyclopedia Evolution article is not listed in the first paragraph.

Because the 1931 First Presidency minutes have never been formally issued by any First Presidency to the general membership of the Church, the excerpt could not be included in the first paragraph as equal in authority to the three statements that have been so issued.

The non-official two page introduction

Now, let's look at the two page introduction placed in the front of the Packet but identified as NOT part of it (pdf, pp.1-2).

These pages are from a newspaper article that was written by William Evenson, compiler of the Packet and author of the Encyclopedia Evolution article. (See pdf p.2.)

Completely and utterly false statements

In paragraph five, Evenson says the 1931 First Presidency was talking "about the Church's stance toward scientific studies of evolution and the origin of man" (pdf p.1; emphasis added). This parallels and echos the claim made in the Encyclopedia Evolution article that "in 1931 ... there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution" (pdf p.12, para. 3).

Both of these statements are completely and utterly false. A complete explanation is given here. A short summary follows.

The topic of the 1931 discussion

The 1931 First Presidency memo from which the excerpt is taken quotes Elder B. H. Roberts saying that "the points questioned and the paper in defense of them [have] suspended the publication of my book — now in manuscript — 'The Truth, The Way, The Life'."

Elder Roberts wrote this book in 1927-1928 as a Melchizedek Priesthood study guide. Five members of the Quorum of the Twelve were assigned to review the manuscript. They found problems. But Elder Roberts was unwilling to make certain requested changes. Hence the increasing intensity of the discussions which continued for three and a half years until the First Presidency said on April 7, 1931:

"We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion to which reference is here made, but on the contrary are certain that it would lead to confusion, division, and misunderstanding if carried further."

Evenson reversed his position

Both the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and the BYU Evolution Packet were published in 1992. Two years later, in 1994, the Roberts manuscript was published by BYU Studies. Thirteen BYU scholars were invited to prepare critical essays discussing and analyzing various aspects of the book.

One of those essays was written by William Evenson. And it appears he has now recognized that the opinions of B. H. Roberts were "not those of an evolutionist" and the discussions "were not centered on the scientific theories of origins of life forms." (William E. Evenson, "Science: The Universe, Creation, and Evolution," in The Truth, The Way, The Life [2nd edition, Provo: BYU Studies, 1996], p. 645; emphasis added.)

Let's just repeat that for emphasis: The opinions of B. H. Roberts were "not those of an evolutionist" and the discussions "were not centered on the scientific theories of origins of life forms." (Ibid.) This could appropriately be considered the major point of the present article.

This is a complete turn around from what he said two years earlier, both in the Encyclopedia Evolution article and in the BYU Evolution Packet.

In his 1994 essay, Evenson further acknowledges that the Roberts book "addresses three forms of evolutionary theory [and] finds all three ... to be inadequate." (Ibid.) Evenson now concedes that B. H. Roberts "rejects all [1930s evolutionary] theories as he understands them [and] puts forward his own theory" to reconcile the scriptures with the fossil record. (Ibid.)

Salvaging the Encyclopedia Evolution article

Earlier, Jared asked two questions here about salvaging the Encyclopedia Evolution article.

Question: "If you are correct, that the reference to evolution in the context of the 1931 statement was an error, would changing the text to read something like, 'when there was intense discussion on the issue of the history of life on earth...' satisfy you as accurate?"

Answer: No. The intense nature of the discussion began and ended with the question of whether or not the Church would or could publish The Truth, The Way, The Life, written by Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy.

Question: "How would such a correction change the meaning of the EM article?"

Answer: Doctrinally, The Truth, The Way, The Life by Elder B. H. Roberts remains where the First Presidency left it in 1931. Subsequent Church Presidents have not publicly addressed that issue. When applied to other subjects, however, the 1931 decision is of little value.

Quotation error not yet corrected

One last minor thing. Let's clear up what was mistakenly said here about the BYU Evolution Packet correcting the word "proclaims" to "declares."

Actually, "declares" is the wrong word and "proclaims" is the right word. The word is quoted wrong in the Encyclopedia article and the BYU Evolution Packet didn't fix it (pdf p.12).

Summary and review

1.   Neither the Encyclopedia Evolution article nor the BYU Evolution Packet has been issued by the Church to its general membership. In this sense, neither of these documents has been "published" by the Church.

The BYU Evolution Packet is an internal document and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism is privately published.

2.   The BYU Evolution Packet does not confer the same clout on the Encyclopedia Evolution article that it does on the other three items.

The Encyclopedia Evolution article is not a formal Church declaration of anything. It lacks formality and presents an inaccurate view of what the 1931 excerpt is all about.

3.   While avoiding the issue of organic evolution as a process for development of biological species, the BYU Evolution Packet makes clear the official position of the Church regarding the origin of man.

4.   The 1909 First Presidency statement, "The Origin of Man," is the predominant item in the BYU Evolution Packet. In 2002, the Church essentially issued a version of the Evolution Packet to the general membership of the Church by reprinting the 1909 statement in the Ensign.

5.   When William Evenson allowed Macmillan Publishing Company to identify him as the sole author of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article about Evolution, he accepted full responsibility for its content.

6.   Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions. The BYU Evolution Packet acknowledges that neither the 1931 First Presidency excerpt nor the Encyclopedia Evolution article fall into this category.

7.   In 1994, William Evenson reversed his position regarding the 1931 topic of discussion. This could appropriately be considered the major point of the present article.

Thank you for allowing me to present my views on this subject.

[This has been a guest-post by Gary Shapiro]


Gary, thanks for your thoughts. I agree that perhaps too much has been made of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article.

I have one question about the following statement: Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions.  What is your basis for this statement?

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/25/2005 01:36:00 PM  

Why do you think that the only discussion in 1931 were about Roberts book? My understanding is that there was considerable discussion about evolution in general and not just discussion of Robert's book. For instance Talmage and Widstoe's views. Talmage gave his sermon "The Earth and Man" in the tabernacle in the summer of 31 and I believe it was published by the church sometime thereafter. It seems to me that you may be comparing apples and oranges here. From my admitted limited knowledge, there was a lot of discussion on the issue independent of the technical arguments on Roberts (although it seems clear he threw his weight in on certain issues).

With regards to the issue about whether the 1831 issue was only about pre-adamites or evolution in general, I see your point. I'd just mention that the 1831 FP statement Evenson apparently was using does mention the broader issue in the section Evenson quoted, even if the statement wasn't primarily concerned about it. I just think we ought be careful assuming that the statement was the only basis for Evenson's comments.

(And yes I know the statement was in April and Talmage's speech in August)


Posted by clark

4/25/2005 01:48:00 PM  

Just to add - I think that Church doctrine is always a bit muddled and fuzzy. LDS apologists in particular realize this as they deal with all sorts of statements by members of the first presidency which anti-Mormons bring up. But even beyond that we have changing doctrine - often with practice outstripping what was published. (19th century polygamy being an obvious example - even after it was made public in the 1850's the official statement against it was still in scripture and published)

4/25/2005 01:50:00 PM  

I apologize for having mis-identified the EofM article as having corrected the proclaim/declare error.

The meanings are equivalent to me, ie. I would not try to wring any special meaning out of one or the other. Nevertheless, I'm glad Gary called it to my attention.

4/25/2005 02:29:00 PM  

I guess things like this only matter if you are concerned with maintaining the church "official" position on things. As I'm sure most of you have seen, I don't pay much attention to how "official" various doctrines are. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/25/2005 02:56:00 PM  

Question: Christian asks here, what my basis is for saying "Formal statements by the First Presidency are the definitive source of official Church positions."

Answer: I was quoting the BYU Evolution Packet (see para. 3, pdf p.3).

Question: clark asks here why I am so convinced that evolution wasn't part of the 1931 discussion.

Answer: From beginning to end, the discussions were about The Truth, The Way, The Life, by Elder B. H. Roberts. This was stated by Elder Roberts himself on several occasions and the 1931 First Presidency quoted him saying so in their now famous memo.

Elder Roberts was not an evolutionist and his book does not promote evolution. On the contrary, his book plainly teaches that each "subdivision of life ... produces after its kind, whereas evolution in all its forms destroys that thought" (The Truth, The Way, The Life, 2nd edition, Provo: BYU Studies, 1996, hereinafter "TWL", p. 239). In the book, Roberts twice (TWL, pp. 236, 245) refers the reader to his own previous discussion of the theory of evolution in "Man's Relationship to Deity":

"The theory of evolution as advocated by many modern scientists lies stranded upon the shore of idle speculation.... If the hypothesis of evolution be true,... then it is evident that there has been no "fall,"... and if there was no fall,... then the mission of Jesus Christ was a myth, the coinage of idle brains, and Jesus himself was either mistaken, or one of the many impostors that have arisen to mock mankind with the hope of eternal life. Such is the inevitable result of accepting the philosophy of evolution, after which all the world is now running—it is destructive of the grand, central truth of all revelation." (B. H. Roberts, The Gospel and Man's Relationship to Deity, 7th edition, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1928, pp. 265-267).

This is B. H. Roberts, not Joseph Fielding Smith. This is the same B. H. Roberts with whom Joseph Fielding Smith is supposed to have debated before the Twelve about evolution. But it wasn't about evolution. In his appearance before the Twelve Roberts was armed with chapter 31 of his book. Now reread what I quoted above under the title, "Evenson reversed his position." The book wasn't about evolution.

Next click here and tell me where the 1931 First Presidency said anything about evolution. And by the way, the 1931 First Presidency memo uses the word "fall" only twice, both times quoting Joseph Fielding Smith saying there was no death before the "fall." There is no other mention of that doctrine in the memo.

And while you're looking at the 1931 memo, don't forget to read the part where B. H. Roberts says its all about his book.

If this still doesn't answer your question, click here for more information.

Question: clark asks here about a speech given by James E. Talmage on August 9, 1931. The speech was printed in The Deseret News, November 21st and the Church produced pamphlet is a reprint of the newspaper article.

clark thinks the Talmage speech shows there was a lot of discussion about evolution. I will take a break now and reread the Talmage talk.

Answer: Okay, I'm back now. Not that I haven't read the Talmage talk before. I have a hard copy that I've had since the 1970s. It's from "Church Archives." The call letters are: P M233.4 T151e 1931.

This talk has something for everybody. The only constant is the fact that Talmage was a geologist. He uses phrases like "according to the conception of geologists" and talks about what "geologists say" (The Earth and Man, Published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1931, p. 4.)

Regarding Adam, Talmage says "the geologist does not know Adam by name" (Ibid., p. 5). But right here the point of view changes. Talmage is no longer talking in the third person about "the geologist," but now speaks in the first person, "We believe that Adam was a real personage, who stands at the head of his race chronologically. To my mind Adam is a historic personage, not a prehistoric being, unidentified and uncertain." (Ibid., p. 5.)

In this talk, Talmage calls evolution "a theory, an unproved hypothesis." He acknowledges that science just doesn't know. After quoting Gen. 1:26-28, he says, "Such is the declaration of scripture regarding Adam's advent upon earth; and such is a fair summary of our knowledge upon the subject" (Ibid., p. 13).

He goes on under the heading, "Evolution, True and False":

"Evolution is true so far as it means development, and progress, and advancement in all the works of God; but many of the vagaries that have been made to do duty under that name are so vague as to be unacceptable to the scientific mind. At best, the conception of the development of man's body from the lower forms through evolutionary processes has been but a theory, an unproved hypothesis. Theories may be regarded as the scaffolding upon which the builder stands while placing the blocks of truth in position. It is a grave error to mistake the scaffolding for the wall, the flimsy and temporary structure for the stable and permanent. The scaffolding serves but a passing purpose, important though it be, and is removed as soon as the walls of that part of the edifice of knowledge have been constructed. Theories have their purpose and are indispensable, but they must never be mistaken for demonstrated facts. The Holy Scriptures should not be discredited by theories of men; they can not be discredited by fact and truth....

"Man is the child of God, he is born heir to boundless possibilities, the inheritor of the eternities to come. Among mortal beings, the law holds true that the posterity of each shall be after his kind. The child therefore may become like unto the parent; and man may yet attain the rank of godship. He is born in the lineage of Deity, not in the posterity of the brute creation." (Ibid., pp. 13-14.)

Personally, I like his closing paragraph the best: "It is decreed that this earth shall become a celestialized, glorified sphere; such is the revealed word. Science has nothing to say on the matter; it can neither refute nor prove. But the Lord, even God, hath spoken it—and so shall it be! Amen." (Ibid., p. 16.)

Question: Clark Goble adds here "that Church doctrine is always a bit muddled and fuzzy." Jeffrey Giliam agrees with Clark here saying he doesn't "pay much attention to how 'official' various doctrines are."

Answer: Does that mean the rest of us are just wasting our time discussing doctrine? Or is that only a problem when we discuss Church doctrine instead of your doctrine?

Question: Jared points out here that the meanings of declares and proclaims are equivalent.

Answer: Good point. As I've previously said here, neither the 1909 nor the 1925 First Presidency would likely care. But that isn't why I brought it up. The issue is accuracy. There is a small inaccuracy on this point and a large one regarding "intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution."

4/25/2005 08:13:00 PM  

I don't think that you are wasting your time at all. I just feel that you are going much further than I am into things which don't really occupy my mind too much. I can completely understand a person's wanting to "cling to the trunk of the tree" as opposed to venturing out on a limb like I tend to. That is simply not the way I am. I wasn't trying to make any point other than that we are different in this aspect. Sorry if I sounded less friendly than I intended. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/25/2005 10:46:00 PM  


Thanks for your comment. I probably should have read what follows a few hours ago:

"President Brigham Young once said that he who takes offense when no offense was intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense was intended is usually a fool" (Marion D. Hanks, Ensign, Jan. 1974, 21; italics in original).

I will repent. Again.

4/25/2005 11:11:00 PM  

Regarding Talmages use of the term evolution a few things simply cannot pass without being pointed out:

1) He was well aware of the meaning of the term "theory" in science. As can be seen by his letter to and from his son, he was well aware that evolution was far more than just a guess. And since science is all theory, what do the scientists know by this definition? I think Gary was speaking more in that quote than was Elder Talmage.

2) Second, and most often confused, we must address his use of the term "evolution" to describe "development, and progress, and advancement." While I'm not sure what the understanding back then was, but this is completely unscientific now. Not because such a statement says anything at all about God, but because there is no such thing as "progress" in evolution. While there might be intelligent beings which direct certain things within the context of evolution, evolution itself is a completely mindless algorithm. There is no such thing as "getting better" only surviving to reproduce, period.

3) Related to this, though not specifically addressed by Talmage, is the idea of "spiritual evolution." Some authorities have said that we believe in the "true" form of evolution, namely that we can "evolve" into God's. This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what evolution is as well, and seems to be, in my opinion, trying to cash in on a scientific name to make the gospel sound more acceptable to intellectuals. Evolution does not mean mere change. It means that a species will change over time by there always being more entities than could ever possibly survive long enough to reproduce so as to create a struggle for survival, allowing for the completely random features which will allow for some entities to survive better than the other will eventually reproduce thus passing on said random features. "Spiritual Evolution" has no resemblances with this process whatsoever.

4) Unfortunately the scriptures can and have been discredited by cold hard facts in times past. Even more so, our interpretations of scripture is quite frequently proven wrong by cold hard facts. Elder Talmage is placing an unwarranted stamp of infallibility on the scriptures, a stamp which even the authors themselves would not bestow.

While the talk was a great one, especially for evolutionists like myself, there are numerous errors in it. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/25/2005 11:17:00 PM  

Gary,  you'll excuse me for finding it a bit ironic that you appeal to the evolution packet to tell you what the definition of official Church doctrine is! In my limited knowledge this is the only place I know of that defines it as formal statements of the First Presidency. Do you know of any more "official" source for this idea? 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall (TSM)

4/26/2005 03:44:00 AM  

Jeffrey: Thank you for your thoughts here about the Talmage talk. I especially agree with this part of your assessment: "The talk was a great one,... [but] there are numerous errors in it."

And I'll repeat what I said here: "This talk has something for everybody."

Christian: What you've said here suggests you don't understand my original comment. I apologize for not being clear on this point.

I was attempting to explain the relative position of the Encyclopedia Evolution article within the BYU Evolution Packet in terms of doctrinal authority. My approach was to allow the Packet itself to define doctrinal authority. My own opinions about doctrinal authority were not involved. Therefore, I fail to see any irony.

But lets go ahead and discuss the issue briefly.

What if the Counselors in the First Presidency were to disagree with the President? Would it be a simple matter of "It's two against one?" Could the Counselors "take over" so to speak, and issue a formal statement without involvement of the President? The answer of course is "no".

On the other hand, whether the Counselors agree or not, the President of the Church can and does establish official doctrine. For example:

Why is the Manifestor published in the Doctrine and Covenants? There are two reasons. First, Lorenzo Snow presented this statement in general conference:

"I move that, recognizing Wilford Woodruff as ... the only man on the earth at the present time who holds the keys ... we consider him fully authorized by virtue of his position to issue the Manifesto ... and that as a Church in General Conference assembled, we accept his declaration concerning plural marriages as authoritative and binding." (OD—1; emphasis added).

And second, "The vote to sustain the foregoing motion was unanimous." (Ibid.)

Twenty four years ago, excerpts from three addresses by President Wilford Woodruff regarding the Manifesto were added. But the Manifesto stands today, a formal declaration by the President of the Church, of the official position of the Church on plural marriage.

Nevertheless, and because the President of the Church is always involved, formal statements by the First Presidency are a definitive source of official Church doctrine (see D&C 107:27, 29; 112:20; 124:84).

4/26/2005 07:02:00 AM  


Having re-read the 1931 FP memo, I don't see how you can reject my suggested change to the EofM article, "when there was intense discussion on the issue of the history of life on earth..."

As he states in one of the included letters, Roberts did have a stake in the outcome of the discussion because it related to the publication of his manuscript (this is the only mention of Robert's book in the whole document). But the letter is clear that the issues of pre-Adamites, and by implication death before Adam's fall, were the primary issues under consideration before the First Presidency.

In spite of the 1909 statement, which is excerpted in the letter, the Grant administration still deemed the issue of pre-Adamites as speculative, either way. The letter draws attention to the fact that statements by general authorities are regarded as the position of the church, hence the advice to avoid speculative issues.

I agree that the discussion was not about evolution per se, but it was about issues that are closely tied to evolution.

Maybe it would be more technically accurate to say, "when there was intense discussion on the issues of pre-Adamites and death before the fall," but I don't see how it could be accurate to say, "when there was intense discussion about publishing Robert's book." I don't see how the letter supports such a conclusion.

Thanks for your patience, Gary. 

Posted by Jared

4/26/2005 08:30:00 AM  


Based on your most recent comments, two things are clear. (1) You are giving the question much more than just a passing, idle thought; and (2) The overwhelming evidence that supports my conclusions cannot be conveyed in a few sentences or paragraphs.

4/26/2005 08:33:00 PM  

I'll reserve further comment on the issue until I've done some reading. It will likely be a few days.

4/26/2005 08:48:00 PM  

For those following the discussion, I want to provide resources available on the internet.

Some of Gary's arguments are based on the BYU Studies printing of B.H. Roberts' book. While this book is not available online, the key essay by James Allen is available from BYU Studies here.

These two articles concerning this episode were published in Dialogue, then combined for printing in the book The Search for Harmony.

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

Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair, by Jeffery Keller. (This issue also contains Buerger's Adam-God article, by the way.)

Gary made the 1931 memo available here.

An edited version of the memo is also available here.

Also, of course, is Duane Jeffery's article here.

And finally, more of Gary's arguments are found here.

4/27/2005 05:43:00 PM  


I have reviewed the items available to me. I'm not sure how to best proceed, so I will list points that seem evident to me based on my reading.

1. Roberts did not argue for evolution, nor was the discussion about evolution. It was about whether there was a race of pre-Adamites, as well as other animal and vegetable life before the Fall of Adam, as argued in Roberts' book. The proposed pre-Adamites were not genetically related to humans, but life-forms that existed before the Adamic dispensation.
2. Talmage did not argue for evolution. He did defend geology in general and enlisted his son in discrediting George McReady Price, Joseph Fielding Smith's source for some of his (JFS) anti-science arguments. His defense also included death of life-forms before the Fall and pointed out that the stones identified as belonging to Adam's altar contained fossils.
3. The controversy was largely non-personal. Neither side expressed personal hostility, though Roberts was impatient and at one point expressed some disrespect toward Joseph Fielding Smith. There are also hints of some heated discussion.
4. The conversation leading to the 1931 letter would probably never have occured if it were not for publication of Roberts' book being blocked. However, the immediate catalyst for the letter was Roberts' challenge of Joseph Fielding Smith's public response to the arguments in his (Roberts) book and some public statements.
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 issues to scientists.
7. At the very least, 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," he gave to help balance Joseph Fielding Smith's talk.

The value of this episode to the critic of evolution is that it shows that none of the Brethren at the time publicly, if at all, accepted evolution as applying to man.

The value to the supporter of evolution is that it shows that the issue of death before the Fall was not settled, that in spite of the 1909 statement one could legitimately believe in a pre-Adamite race, and that the Church is not anti-science and the general authorities were advised to stick to the basics of the gospel and avoid making speculative statements about the gospel and science.

In light of this, I agree that the statement in the EofM article is not accurate. However, I still believe my revision is not inconsistent with the facts. Regardless, it seems clear to me that Pres. Grant thought general authorities (and by extension, church members) should not entangle themselves in gospel-scientific arguments and that this was the point intented in the EofM article. (Then why this blog? That's an issue for another time.)

Thanks for helping me out. What do we disagree on here? Have I overlooked anything?

4/27/2005 08:04:00 PM  

Gary, others made some of my points.

My only concern was that you were claiming that in 1931 only pre-Adamites unrelated to humans were discussed. That just seems going beyond the evidence. You can say that was the primary discussion at times. You can say that was the primary discussion behind the 1931 statement. I don't think you can say evolution was not a topic. It's the argument from silence.

Regarding Talmage, I don't think you can say he was as neutral on evolution as some suggest. He's certainly right talking about the theoretical basis of science and caution one ought exercise. Given that many LDS were at the time adopting scientism, that is a proper caution to emphasize. Evolution certainly has changed since 1931.

Having said that though Talmage seemed to offer up a quite favorable view of evolution, even if he was cautious. Consider this from the "Coming of Man" (1911) "It has been said that the body of man is the result of evolutionary development from a lower order of beings. Be that as it may, the body of man today is the very form and fashion of the spirit of man except indeed for disfigurement and deformities."

With respect to the difference between evolution and pre-Adamites, I think we're hair splitting again and need to take a step back. When we say evolution, exactly what are we saying? It seems to me that when people have problems with evolution it's usually one subset of what goes under the rubric. My view is that it is impossible to separate out pre-Adamites from evolution, despite Robert's view on evolution. Why? Because of the pre-existing disputes going back to the issue of evolution at BYU.

It seems though, at least to me, that even those positive towards evolution were at best troubled by the notion of speciation by chance. Thus they'd probably at best be more in line with modern ID proponents.

Having said all this I'm still a tad confused about what is in controversy. i.e. what exactly is the issue? It seems a complaint about the context of the 1931 message. That's fair. Then one word being replaced by a synonym in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. That's fine too. But so what?

Was the 1931 excerpt been issued by the church to the general membership? I'm willing to say no, but they certainly refer to it a lot.

So what is the ultimate point though? Are you saying, Gary, that the church doesn't have a neutrality position on evolution? It certainly acts like it does. There is also the issue of the 1957 letter by David O McKay who stated, as President, that the church had no official position on evolution. However was that publicized in the fashion Gary seems to suggest is necessary to be official? That is, does even a President publicly saying it is official make it official?

At a certain point it is moot. As others have said, the weight of science for evolution at this point is overwhelming. Some complain about speciation, and frankly even the figures some look to in the early 20th century were skeptical of speciation. And I think it fair to critique the loose use of those figures with their positions often divorced from their actual positions. That's dishonest and evolution proponents ought not do it. Having said that that, I think it undeniable that the church has no formal position on evolution.

4/28/2005 12:38:00 AM  

Jared: I will comment on your points as you've numbered them.

1.   I completely agree with you. The creatures that were being discussed as having lived and died for millions of years before the fall were not the evolutionary forefathers of any creatures that inhabit the earth today.

For clarification, I would add that they were not the products of evolution at all. Rather, according to Roberts, they were placed on earth in an earlier (doctrinally unsupportable) creation that was supposed to have happened prior to the one that involved Adam.

2.   I agree, as does USU professor of philosophy Richard Sherlock who has said of Talmage: "Though he was sympathetic to science, his religious convictions prevented him from becoming an unqualified supporter of evolution" ("A Turbulent Spectrum," in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake: Signature Books, 1993, 71). I'm familiar with the other items listed in this paragraph, but haven't researched Talmage a great deal.

Talmage was not among those who were assigned to review the Roberts manuscript. His only public statement that would be related was, The Earth and Man, and it came four months after the First Presidency had ruled against Roberts. If he was balancing the public record, then his speech should be viewed as a defense of Roberts' theories and not a defense of evolution.

3.   I agree that the discussions proceeded for the most part in a professional manner. However, it is misleading to suggest that the discussions involved only Roberts and Smith. The review committee consisted of five Apostles, in addition to the Quorum President, Rudger Clawson, who acted as liaison between the review committee and the First Presidency. Items presented by the committee to the First Presidency cannot be attributed solely to Joseph Fielding Smith.

Roberts perceived Smith's public speech as the main obstacle to publication of his manuscript (that much is clear just by reading the 1931 First Presidency memo). But Joseph Fielding Smith was only one member of the review committee and on the question of death before the fall, they were united.

The committee as a group submitted this paragraph to the First Presidency regarding Roberts' chapter 30: "We feel that the arguments as given contradict the accounts given in all our scriptures, and more especially in the temple ceremonies. As we understand it the term 'first flesh also,' does not have reference to Adam as being the first living creature of the creation on the earth, but that he, through the 'fall' became the first 'flesh,' or mortal soul. The term 'flesh' in reference to mortal existence is of common usage. We find it so used in the scriptures. Adam having partaken of the fruit became mortal and subject to death, which was not the condition until that time. We are taught in the Temple as well as in the scriptures that man was the last creation placed upon the earth, before death was introduced. Adam was the first to ... become subject to the flesh." (TWL, pp. 292-293.)

4.   The attitude of B. H. Roberts toward the committee in general and Joseph Fielding Smith in particular was, as you say, related directly to publication of his book being blocked. But are you suggesting that if the Joseph Fielding Smith speech had not been given, Roberts would have allowed publication of his book to be blocked?

Somewhere along the way, someone would have taken the brunt of Elder Roberts' frustration and eventually, one way or another, the First Presidency would have stepped in. I think it is myopic to blame Joseph Fielding Smith just because he was the de facto spokesman for the committee.

5.   True, but one result of this, if accepted with the finality of a formal First Presidency statement, which it is not (see the entire guest-post above), would be the conclusion that President Joseph Fielding Smith, in Man: His Origin and Destiny said some things that had been declared by the Church to be "not doctrine."

How the 1954 Church leadership felt about the publication of Man: His Origin and Destiny has been questioned. Please read carefully what I've said here because it addresses that very question at great length.

In addition, you will be interested in this letter written by President Harold B. Lee a few weeks before his death. I found it last fall on the BYU-Idaho web site. In the letter, President Lee discusses President McKay's feelings about President Smith's book. There is some important insight here into what was going on.

6. Where did the words Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology come from? They came from Roberts' book! The First Presidency said: "Elder Roberts quotes from the scripture and extensively from the conclusions reached by the leading scientists of the world, to show that the earth is older than the time given to its creation in Genesis indicates."

In his manuscript, and in his presentation before the Twelve (which was taken from Chapter 31 of the manuscript) Roberts used the conclusions of scientists in the fields of Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology to support his theory. The scientists he was quoting had not themselves even dreamed of such a theory, much less attempted to support it. And the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve found it to be doctrinally unsupportable.

The admonition applied specifically to The Truth, The Way, The Life because that is where the words Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology originated.

And this brings up a question that I've had. If we take the "leave science issues to scientists" excerpt and apply it to ourselves, doesn't that mean that books like Stephens and Meldrum Evolution and Mormonism would be banned? And I think you raised a similar question when you asked, "Then why this blog?"

7. I believe you are correct. But again, if he was balancing the public record, then his speech should be viewed as a defense of Roberts' theories and not a defense of evolution.

Now, you have three more paragraphs that aren't numbered. I agree fully with the first one.

Regarding the second paragraph which begins, "The value to the supporter of evolution is that it shows that the issue of death before the Fall was not settled." This sentence is also correct, but I must stress (as I've demonstrated here), that the issue of death before the Fall has since been settled.

Believing in a pre-Adamite race in 1931 was one thing, but if the issue of death before the Fall has been settled (which it has), believing in a pre-Adamite race today is another story. I've recently added a page to my web site here that offers what I think is an acceptable explanation for the pre-Adamite evidence. It is linked from my original page in this paragraph.

Third and last paragraph: With everything else you've said, I think you and I now can agree that your revision might work if it weren't in an article titled "Evolution." But I still think the clarification regarding evolved pre-Adamic life on earth versus created pre-Adamiic life on earth would also be important.

Clark Goble: I don't have to say evolution was not a topic, I've quoted William Evenson himself saying it.

Regarding Talmage, see above and add, "Ultimately he retreated" (Sherlock, The Search for Harmony, 71).

Clark, the difference between pre-Adamites who evolved (as you speculate) and pre-Adamites who were created (as Roberts speculated) is not "splitting hairs"!!

The ultimate point is, "The Church's official position on the theory of evolution was set forth by the First Presidency in statements issued in 1909 and 1925." (William E. Evenson, "LDS Doctrine and The Theory of Evolution," Sacrament Meeting talk, April 10, 1994, published in Can Science Be Faith-Promoting?, Sterling B. Talmage, Salt Lake City, Utah: Blue Ribbon Books, 2001, xxxii.) And "The position of the Church on evolution was set forth by the First Presidency in two statements to the Church, one in 1909 entitled 'The Origin of Man' and a second in 1925 entitled '"Mormon" View of Evolution'." (Ibid., xxxvi.)

Notice this is the author of the Encyclopedia article on Evolution who is speaking. Notice that he names only two statements as setting forth the position of the Church on evolution. And finally, notice that this was in 1994, two years after publication of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism and compilation of the BYU Evolution Packet.

Now ask yourself this: Why didn't Evenson include the 1931 excerpt as a third statement setting forth the position of the Church on evolution? Perhaps it was because by 1994, he had written or was writing an essay for BYU Studies in the process of which he had discovered that the 1931 affair had nothing to do with evolution.

For you, the Church has no position on evolution. The BYU Evolution Packet, the Feb 2002 issue of the Ensign, and a host of respected gospel scholars beg to differ.

4/28/2005 03:09:00 AM  

Jared, you should flesh out your comment above with links and summary the 1931 controversy into a stand-alone post, where it will be more permanently accessible.

Jared:  His defense also included death of life-forms before the Fall and pointed out that the stones identified as belonging to Adam's altar contained fossils. 


Jared: Regardless, it seems clear to me that Pres. Grant thought general authorities (and by extension, church members) should not entangle themselves in gospel-scientific arguments and that this was the point intented in the EofM article.

Gary rightly points out that the 1931 statement was privately to and for the General Authorities in their public statements, not by extension to church members. As I argued in "On Doctrine," in unofficial discourse, have at it!

I somewhat agree with Gary, that the Church arguably has a more-or-less official position. I also think it's wrong, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. I also think that that in and of itself does not mean the Church is not true. 

Posted by Christian Y. Cardall

4/28/2005 05:12:00 AM  

Regarding Pres. Grant's admonition, I think I'm in more agreement with Gary and Christian than I appear. It was a private memo, but I think it is wisely applied to general church discourse (including local leadership and missionaries).

Stephens and Meldrum's book, this blog, and other such private enterprises are not published or supported by the Church. As such, the Church has no need to account for the arguments and conclusions reached. Nor does the Church have to account for the arguments and conclusions of BYU professors, or FARMS (with perhaps some very limited exceptions where the Board of Trustees is directly involved.)

I think we've all learned some things here, which I like to think helps justify the existence of this blog.


I agree with some of your additional points and I am not as convinced of others. Regarding your clarification of point #1, Roberts development theory of animals, it seems to me, is a modified version of evolution. That is, Roberts postulates that a fewer number of undefined "kinds" resulted in the present diversity of life. This partially hinges on how many "kinds" we're talking about. Some have suggested such a scenario for post-flood diversity--that Noah saved enough "kinds". This of course does not involve abiogenesis, but it does take on a certain amount of common descent and speciation by natural means.

Explaining the fossil record by using parts of other worlds is another ball of wax. If we are to discuss it, it should probably be at another time.

You ought to have a site index--you have all kinds of things tucked away here and there that a person could easily miss if they don't see the link.

4/28/2005 08:35:00 AM  

Christian: Regarding the issue of the 1957 letter by David O McKay, see the footnote in my April 20th comment here. The letter spoken of in the footnote is the letter you've mentioned.

4/28/2005 08:59:00 AM  

Jared: Roberts apparently thought there were two physical creations of life on this earth, each starting with approximately the same number of "kinds" as survived the flood. The first (pre-Adamic) creation was entirely a B. H. Roberts theory. I haven't seen anyone else speculate in that direction. Most see only one (Adamic) creation.

Equating Roberts' theory with what's happened since the flood is acceptable to me. How that relates to common descent and evolution is another question. Roberts maintained that each "subdivision of life ... produces after its kind, whereas evolution in all its forms destroys that thought" (TWL, 239; emphasis added).

The site index is a good idea. I'll likely implement it!

4/28/2005 09:31:00 AM  

Actually it was for Pres. McKay that the church had no official position on evolution. (Meaning whether it was true or false) Thus my quotation.

Regarding creation and evolution, the reason I think it is hair splitting is over the issue of how they were created. Thus my original point about the many senses of evolution which typically gets neglected in these discussions. (And which still is)

4/28/2005 01:48:00 PM  

Regarding this link you gave, are you seriously arguing that all fossils on this earth come from a different planet?

Isn't the far more reconcilable position merely that Adam came from an other world? That seems to fit the scriptures and temple ceremony better. Further we can then see the controversies in the late 19th and early 20th century as mere confusions over the identity of the world.

4/28/2005 01:50:00 PM  

I especially liked what Pres. McKay told Sterling McMurrin as related in his interview with Jack Newell:

President McKay started by saying, "What is it that a man is not ... " (Sterling interrupts his own story to say to Jack), "These are his exact words." "...What is it that a man is not allowed to believe? or be asked out of this church? Is it evolution?" Now nothing had been said in connection with my case about evolution, but he brought it up. (Jack murmurs with an understanding nod of the head to Sterling.) He said, "Is it evolution? I hope not, because I believe in evolution." 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/28/2005 02:05:00 PM  

Jeffrey: In reading your comment here about what Pres. McKay told Sterling McMurrin, the first paragraph in a comment by Christian Y. Cardall here comes forcefully to mind.

To paraphrase Christian, Pres. McKay did not say why he believed what you claim he believed. Since he did not claim direct revelation on this point, we need not be bound by what he said. We are free to interpret his comment as his personal understanding—which understanding may or may not be correct.

Personally, I usually give the Prophet's words a lot more weight than that, but what's good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say!

4/29/2005 07:32:00 AM  

Clark Goble: Regarding your comment here, the page is not about what I believe.

References cited on that one short page are these: Abraham 3:24; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 350-352; Joseph Smith Jr., "The King Follett Sermon," Ensign, Apr. 1971, 17; Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, and John W. Welch, "The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith: The Godhead, Mankind, and the Creation," Ensign, Jan. 1989, 32; Elders Franklin D. Richards and James A Little, A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, 287; Elder B. H. Roberts, The Seventy's Course in Theology: Second Year, 31; Joseph B. Keeler, "Foundation Stones of the Earth," The Contributor, Vol. XI, Feb. 1890; Wilford Woodruff, "We Are Led by Revelation," Remarks made November 1, 1891, Tambuli, Dec. 1978, 17; and The Truth, The Way, The Life, xiii-xiv; italics in the original.

The most interesting one for me is the last one. This is the paragraph that precedes it:

John W. Welch believes "Roberts pushed too far when he postulated that a great pre-Adamic cataclysm had occurred on this earth." Welch then points out that "Nineteenth-century LDS writers (including Roberts himself) had commonly suggested before 1929 that this earth was created from pieces of other worlds recycled by God in organizing this planet. Under that theory, evidence in the rock record of prehistoric life did not imply that death had occurred on this sphere before the fall of Adam and Eve."

What I am seriously arguing is that a lot of people have believed (and some do now believe) that this earth was organized the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship, and not a ship made of particle board.

What I am seriously arguing is that a lot of people have believed (and some do now believe) that worlds can be re-organized, but not destroyed.

What I am seriously arguing is that a lot of people have believed (and some do now believe) that this earth was organized or formed out of other planets which were broken up and remodeled and made into the one on which we live. And you can argue with the Prophet Joseph Smith if you like. I choose not to.

To which I'll just add one thought: "It is one of the hallmarks of human vanity that we assume, because we cannot do something, that God cannot do it either." (Neal A. Maxwell, Even As I Am, SLC: Deseret Book, 1982, p. 63.)

4/29/2005 08:13:00 AM  

I am uncomfortable with the implications brought about by the use of President Lee's letter; that only if you believe the party line on certain issues will you be called. Personally I know of stake presidents and mission presidents who expressed stong opinions in favor of evolution prior to there calls. I think that things have changed in the last 40 years and that the letter has an inaccurate and unfortunate implication. I realize the letter was referred to to demonstrate Pres. McKay's opinion and the subsequent quote from Jeffrey by Pres. McKay bring about a form of what one professor of mine termed "General Authority Poker" seeing if our three of a kind (of Apostles) beat two pair (of First Presidency addresses).

This comes back to Christian's question about what defines doctrine in the chruch. Can any one tell me where it says that the Ensign is a source of doctrine? That seems to come up in my informal polling of others with the question "What constitutes church doctrine?" 

Posted by Mike Wilson

4/29/2005 09:37:00 AM  

I don't find discussions of what constitutes official doctrine (which really means official teaching) to be particularly fruitful. For just about any assertion, a counter-example can be found.

Rather than focus on what should be catagorized as official or not, I look for broad, sustained support from multiple sources, combined with Church policies and practices. Does the teaching span multiple personalities and eras? 

Posted by Jared

4/29/2005 10:00:00 AM  

Just for the record, I wasn't trying to use McKay's quote as any kind of official pronouncement at all. In fact his official pronouncement was that the church has no position whatsoever so we can believe whatever we want. I was merely trying to show how he personally put that policy into play, and how I feel no problems whatsoever doing the same.

Am I picking and choosing statements? Well, yes. We all know that most G.A.'s don't like evolution so its only natural to show that at least some believe in these things if only to show that we can too while remaining in good company. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/29/2005 10:15:00 AM  


I agree that we can believe these things and be in good company. And I appreciated the quote.It just seems that we are left arguing point-counterpoint until the fulfillment of D&C 101:32-34 when the Lord will reveal all things even how the world was made (and even who Adam really is).

4/29/2005 10:48:00 AM  


How can I send you information about a possible link to add to the links?


Posted by Mike Wilson

4/29/2005 11:13:00 AM  

Mike, if you want you can go ahead and add the link in yourself under the "links" section in the template. It should be kind of close to the bottom. If you are not comfortable doing this then you can email it to Jared, Christian or myself. To get our email addressed you can look under the settings in the dash board, or you can simply hold your mouse arrow over the name under a comment and the address will appear. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

4/29/2005 12:11:00 PM  

Two weeks after Elder Roberts had submitted his paper Elder Smith appeared before the Council of Twelve and submitted a paper consisting of fifty-eight pages, in which he answers the arguments advanced by Elder Roberts, his contention being that Adam was the first man to come to this earth, and that consequently it could not have been previously inhabited by man; that there was no death upon the earth prior to the fall, neither vegetable, insect, or animal, which of course includes man 


After receipt of this latter communication the Presidency carefully reviewed the papers which had been submitted to the Council of Twelve, and after prayerful consideration decided that nothing would be gained by a continuation of the discussion of the subject under consideration.

The statement made by Elder Smith that the existence of pre-Adamites is not a doctrine of the Church is true. It is just as true that the statement: "There were not pre-Adamites upon the earth" is not a doctrine of the Church. Neither side of the controversy has been accepted as a doctrine at all.

Hmm, seems to pretty much contradict the conclusion that:

Completely and utterly false statements

In paragraph five, Evenson says the 1931 First Presidency was talking "about the Church's stance toward scientific studies of evolution and the origin of man" (pdf p.1; emphasis added). This parallels and echos the claim made in the Encyclopedia Evolution article that "in 1931 ... there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution" (pdf p.12, para. 3).

Both of these statements are completely and utterly false. A complete explanation is given here. A short summary follows.

can possibly be correct.

Though, the conclusion is pretty solid:

Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the people of the world. Leave Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.

We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion to which reference is here made, but on the contrary are certain that it would lead to confusion, division, and misunderstanding if carried further. Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: "Adam is the primal parent of our race."

Heber J. Grant
Anthony W. Ivins
Charles W. Nibley,
First Presidency


Posted by Stephen M (Ethesis)

5/02/2005 01:16:00 PM  

Stephen M (Ethesis): I'm sorry, I can't find the word "evolution" in the memo anywhere. It was William Evenson who claimed in 1992 that the discussion was about evolution. William Evenson himself now admits it wasn't about evolution (see the above article section titled, "Evenson reversed his position").

It almost looks like you've missed some of the above dialogue. Please take another look at the exchange Jared and I had regarding this here and here (his and my point number one).

I think what confuses some people is that the pre-Adamites being discussed in 1931 had nothing to with evolution.

5/02/2005 04:26:00 PM  



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