Joseph F. Smith on Evolution and Teaching in Church Schools

Joseph F. Smith, public domain

Joseph F. Smith, public domain

The general thrust of my research over the next few years will be science, religion, and history, centered around evolution and scriptural interpretation. I’ll post various things from time to time. The following comes from The Juvenile Instructor, Vol XLVI No. 4 (April 1911): 208-9. BYU had just undergone a controversy of sorts about evolution, the nature of the Bible, and some other intertwined issues. See my post here. Writing in the Church’s magazine, President Joseph F. Smith, in the 10th year  of his presidency, penned the following. I have broken up some of the paragraphing for readability, and bolded some interesting bits, commentary at the end.

SALT LAKE CITY
APRIL, 1911

Philosophy and the Church Schools.

Some questions have arisen about the attitude of the Church on certain discussions of philosophy in the Church schools. Philosophical discussions, as we understand them, are open questions about which men of science are very greatly at variance. As a rule we do not think it advisable to dwell on questions that are in controversy, and especially questions of a certain character, in the courses of instruction given by our institutions. In the first place it is the mission of our institutions of learning to qualify our young people for the practical duties of life. It is much to be preferred that they emphasize the industrial and practical side of education. Students are very apt to draw the conclusion that whichever side of a controversial question they adopt is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ; and it is very doubtful, therefore, whether the great mass of our students have sufficient discriminating judgment to understand very much about some of the advanced theories of philosophy or science.

Some subjects are in themselves, perhaps, perfectly harmless, and any amount of discussion over them would not be injurious to the faith of our young people. We are told, for example, that the theory of gravitation is at best a hypothesis and that such is the atomic theory. These theories help to explain certain things about nature. Whether they are ultimately true can not make much difference to the religious convictions of our young people. On the other hand there are speculations which touch the origin of life and the relationship of God to his children. In a very limited degree that relationship has been defined by revelation, and until we receive more light upon the subject we deem it best to refrain from the discussion of certain philosophical theories which rather destroy than build up the faith of our young people.

One thing about this so-called philosophy of religion that is very undesirable, lies in the fact that as soon as we convert our religion into a system of philosophy none but philosophers can understand, appreciate, or enjoy it. God, in his revelation to man, has made His word so simple that the humblest of men, without especial training, may enjoy great faith, comprehend the teachings of the Gospel, and enjoy undisturbed their religious convictions. For that reason we are averse to the discussion of certain philosophical theories in our religious instructions. If our Church schools would confine their so-called course of study in biology to that knowledge of the insect world which would help us to eradicate the pests that threaten the destruction of our crops and our fruit, such instruction would answer much better the aims of the Church school, than theories which deal with the origin of life.

These theories may have a fascination for our teachers and they may find interest in the study of them, but they are not properly within the scope of the purpose for which these schools were organized.

Some of our teachers are anxious to explain how much of the theory of evolution, in their judgment, is true, and what is false, but that only leaves their students in an unsettled frame of mind. They are not old enough and learned enough to discriminate, or put proper limitations upon a theory which we believe is more or less a fallacy. In reaching the conclusion that evolution would be best left out of discussions in our Church schools we are deciding a question of propriety and are not undertaking to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false. We think that while it is a hypothesis, on both sides of which the most eminent scientific men of the world are arrayed, that it is folly to take up its discussion in our institutions of learning; and we can not see wherein such discussions are likely to promote the faith of our young people.

On the other hand we have abundant evidence that many of those who have adopted in its fulness the theory of evolution have discarded the Bible, or at least refused to accept it as the inspired word of God. It is not, then, the question of the liberty of any teacher to entertain whatever views he may have upon this hypothesis of evolution, but rather the right of the Church to say that it does not think it profitable or wise to introduce controversies relative to evolution in its schools. Even if it were harmless from the stand-point of our faith, we think there are things more important to the daily affairs of life and the practical welfare of our young people. The Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world, and much of the talk therefore about the philosophy of Mormonism is altogether misleading. God has revealed to us a simple and effectual way of serving Him, and we should regret very much to see the simplicity of those revelations involved in all sorts of philosophical speculations. If we encouraged them it would not be long before we should have a theological scholastic aristocracy in the Church, and we should therefore not enjoy the brotherhood that now is, or should be common to rich and poor, learned and unlearned among the Saints.

Joseph F. Smith.

A few observations, then.

  • Smith does not pass judgment on evolution directly, but observes that it is an open and disputed theory which does not lend itself to practical, daily needs, and therefore doesn’t belong in Church schools.
  • However, he states that many who adopt evolution refuse to accept the Bible as the word of God. This can be read several ways, and I don’t think this is accurate today, even if it was then. However, since Smith also asserts that the Church has very little revelation about the nature of creation or the relationship of God to his children, it does not seem that he reads Genesis/Moses/Abraham as strongly controlling scientific/historical accounts. (Which raises the question, where does his son Joseph Fielding Smith get that from?)
  • Smith is pessimistic about the the ability of students to wrestle with ambiguous questions and theory without doing harm to faith.
  • Smith is wary of any kind of de facto intellectual class distinctions being established among LDS. This, I think, was inherited from Joseph Smith, and was anti-intellectual in a way. Joseph Smith had bad experiences with trained pastors and preachers, and taught fairly strongly that you did not need training for the ministry.On the other hand, he also engaged in “academic” pursuits like studying Hebrew and German, reading Josephus, etc. (On Josephus, see here, a good LDS lecture here, and the expanded publication of that and similar lectures.) The Church seemed to inherit the suspicion of a trained, quasi-priestly class, as reflected above. This suspicion, I think, is still around today, but has also partially been overcome (see Elder Ballard’s important comments about consulting scholars) and partially been realized in an academic and practical sense by BYU’s RelEd department and CES, respectively.

An interesting document from 1911.

12 thoughts on “Joseph F. Smith on Evolution and Teaching in Church Schools

  1. It’s interesting that Smith lumps the theory of evolution with philosophy rather than science. A lot of modern evangelicals do the same when they say that intelligent design ought to be taught, at the very least, side by side with evolution.

    All scientific theories share certain basic features (read Imre Lakatos for good analysis here). For a scientist, the theory of evolution is equivalent to, say, the kinetic theory of matter. And from a certain point of view, they are correct. But I admit that I sympathize with Smith and others who *feel* that evolution is more philosophy than other theories. Is it because it appears to touch the rift that divides science from theology (a rift that was created only in modern times)? It makes the mind wonder.

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  2. Ben, you say, “Smith does not pass judgment on evolution directly,” but in his article he specifically referred to evolution as “a theory which we believe is more or less a fallacy.” I’m pretty sure JFS and his son were on the same page here, believing that evolution was a fallacy.

    JFS’s First Presidency issued the exposition “The Origin of Man,” which was a strong reaction to Darwinism (and BYU’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth). Obviously, the Church has softened its stance on evolution since the days of JFS and JFS Junior.,

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    1. Right, but you must balance “more or less a fallacy” with other language like “[we] are not undertaking to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false.” It’s clear what his opinion is, but also that that opinion is not strongly founded. By comparison, he uses much more measured language than Joseph Fielding Smith would just a few years later, and seems to read scripture differently.
      Assuming that the unsigned 1910 statement here was authored by him, he doesn’t read LDS scripture as ruling out the idea that “the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power fo God.”

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  3. “Smith is pessimistic about the the ability of students to wrestle with ambiguous questions and theory without doing harm to faith.”

    Regrettably, this infantilization of church members has been a defining characteristic of the institution for most of its history. “We must shield these weak souls from inconvenient truths about science, our history, the past actions and behavior of our leaders, and the evolution of our doctrines.” And what’s worse is that many members seem to like it!

    Yes, this is beginning to change, primarily because the Internet has forced the church’s hand on the issue. And I am aware that BYU now offers robust courses in evolutionary science and cosmology. But the condescending attitudes are still quite prevalent.

    Thanks for sharing this, Ben. I’m actually a huge fan of Joseph F. Smith, who I believe was the most transformative church president of the 20th Century. Look forward to your future posts on this subject.

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    1. Amen. Parts of the excerpt were written as if we weren’t ALL students … And somehow a class of scholars have come to grips with these inconvenient truths, but don’t want students to talk about it.

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  4. It was good to read this — thank you! I appreciate Bro. Smith’s perspective. Others may find things to mock in what he wrote, and think of him as backward, but I think he displays a very mature sensibility. Of most interest to me is his fear of a theological caste within the Church — I share his concern. He is right that the simplest man can fully understand the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that philosophical or academic journeys are not necessary to spiritual understanding; indeed, they can distract and be harmful. Count me among the “anti-intellectuals,” if a label is needed — but that is a good crowd to be in!

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  5. Working, as I do, as a substitute teacher, I can agree that many middle school to high school students are simply not ready to grasp weighty issues. I find myself critical of some of the literature our kids are asked to read, because for many, the subject matter is beyond them. Thus, to an extent, I understand President Smith’s concerns.

    Now, lest anyone here think that education of any kind should be dumbed down, there are certainly those students who CAN grasp the nuances. Those students are also those who are willing to do a bit of outside research, who read avidly, and because of this are able to entertain ideas without accepting them. While Pres. Smith’s remarks may have been more at home in 1911, there is still some application of this in our day. Teachers should make it clear that even if they believe a particular theory, it is just that, a theory, and not cut in stone fact. This allows the students who have the desire to dig a little deeper, and for those not inclined to deeper study to receive the information at face value, and not at the inflated value a teacher might place on it.

    And yes, I’m looking at things a bit more broadly than Joseph F. Smith’s article.

    This particular quote strikes home (and Ben, I may post it on one or three of my FaceBook pages) because to me it’s something of a commentary on the history of Christianity thus far:

    “One thing about this so-called philosophy of religion that is very undesirable, lies in the fact that as soon as we convert our religion into a system of philosophy none but philosophers can understand, appreciate, or enjoy it.
    God, in his revelation to man, has made His word so simple that the
    humblest of men, without especial training, may enjoy great faith,
    comprehend the teachings of the Gospel, and enjoy undisturbed their
    religious convictions. For that reason we are averse to the discussion
    of certain philosophical theories in our religious instructions”

    He’s right, of course. If we begin to entertain philosophical ideas that really have no place in our religion, we’ll be making the same mistakes that have already been made in Christianity.

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    1. Huh?! Evolution is not to be believed, rather it is as you say a “cut in stone fact”. The theory part of it means only that our understanding of how it works may change with new data. It does not mean that results to date are incorrect or inaccurate.

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  6. You write: “…many who adopt evolution refuse to accept it as the word of God.” It seems President Smith was referring to people who adopt evolution and do not accept the bible as the word of God.

    “…we have abundant evidence that many of those who have adopted in its fullness the theory of evolution have discarded the Bible, or at least refused to accept it as the inspired word of God.”

    Otherwise, I liked what you had to say.

    Thank you.

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  7. As a scientist, of sorts, I have to ask myself, of what utility is the theory of evolution (or any theory) to the scientist? Theories, I believe, are meant to explain observed facts, often stated as laws. For example, the law of gravity is currently explained by theories involving the Higgs boson. The law of chemical periodicity (as embodied in the periodic table) is currently explained by quantum theories of electrons in atoms. The theory of evolution explains the law of natural selection. It is very useful to explain things like antibiotic resistance. It is useful to synthesize facts about the similarities between different organisms. When the theory of evolution gets used in ways that have little to do with explaining and synthesizing observations, it becomes less useful. To paraphrase an old saying, [theories] are to be used, not believed.

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  8. The theory of evolution, basically as Darwin described it, is the foundation for all modern biology, molecular to taxonomic. It is as basic to medicine and genetics as the venturi effect is to wing lift, and without understanding how mutation occurs over time modern medicine and genetics are impossible. “Theory” does not mean that the jury is still out in the sense that the general precepts are still in dispute. They are not.

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