David O. McKay on Evolution and Reading Genesis

One part of my book on Genesis 1 addresses the question “Why can’t we just believe what our Church leaders have said about Genesis 1?” Well, that presumes two things; first, that a unified interpretation of how to read Genesis has existed among them, and second, that such a unified interpretation (if it existed) had come about via revelation.

I examine three Church presidents to demonstrate the variety of views. On one extreme is Brigham Young, and on the other sits Joseph Fielding Smith. In the middle is David O. McKay. His position was that Genesis was indMckayeed revealed scripture but, contra Joseph Fielding Smith, that status did not mean it was historical/scientific in nature. Genesis was therefore not an obstacle to belief in evolution.

One piece of evidence for this is an article in The Instructor (July 1965, 272ff), written by BYU botany prof. Bertrand Harrison, “The Relatedness of Living Things.” Framed as a conversation between a biologist and his dairyman neighbor, the article addresses Genesis, special creation, natural selection, the fixity of the species, DNA, Charles Darwin, and the recentness of much of our scientific knowledge on these topics.

“What you say, and the way you put it, seems logical. It might even be true that plants and animals in general have come about through evolutionary processes, but I can’t accept the idea that man arose by such a process.”

“And why can’t you. Brother Scott?”

“Because I can’t understand how to reconcile an evolutionary origin of man and the Biblical story of Adam.” [We have a much better handle on this now, I think, though it’s not entirely solved. See below -Ben]

“I don’t understand it, either; neither do I really understand the hereafter nor the preexistence. But where knowledge ends, faith must take over. Still I see no great problem; there are so many explanations. For example, evolution might account only for man’s physical body; the addition of that ‘divine spark’ that sets man apart from the other animals might have been the final step that created the man, Adam. Whichever way it came about, I am willing to wait until some future time for the details.”….

“Well, Brother Nielsen, you have given me some interesting ideas to think about, but don’t think you’ve convinced me that evolution is true—I’m not ready to accept that!”

“Do you think I expected you to abandon the convictions of a lifetime as the result of an hour’s discussion? Each of us must interpret life in the light of his own information and background. One must have a broad understanding of biology to be competent to judge whether evolution is true or not. I have been studying biology for a quarter of a century—how could I expect you to see things as I see them, anymore than you could expect me now to be an expert in the dairy industry?” [ My italics.]

Now, how is this evidence for McKay’s view of reading Genesis? The beginning of the article includes a little box with the text,

This article by Brother Harrison has been read and approved for publication by the editor and associate editors of The Instructor. Like other articles in this series, it is presented not as Church doctrine but as a statement worthy of serious study, written by a faithful Latter-day Saint who is competent to speak as a scholar in his field.

Who was the editor of The Instructor? On the 6th page of the issue (p. 261), it says “Editor: President David O. McKay.”

This was not merely a rubber-stamp in McKay’s name, but an actual approval by McKay.
In 1985, Harrison was interviewed privately about this article (copy in my possession, thanks to Gregory Prince), partially reproduced below.

Harrison:  I was trying to diffuse the concept of evolution somewhat by pointing out that we had built up a great fear of the word and what we’re really talking about is change, and the change is perfectly evident around us in domestic animals.  So I thought that the best approach would be to start with something that everybody knew something about, and I thought that by using a conversational format I could introduce certain things that I wanted to introduce, particularly the right of a person who has a background in biological science to believe in evolution, and for the person who doesn’t have such a background not to believe in evolution, and that there is room for both of us in the Church.  This was kind of the purpose I had in mind.

Miller: Who authorized publications in The Instructor?

Harrison:  When I completed the article, I took it over to President Crockett and told him about the situation.  President Ernest Wilkinson was ill with a heart attack at home and Earl Crockett was the acting president, and he said, “Well, for your own protection, I think you should insist that this be read by one of the General Authorities.”  So I handed it in to The Instructor Committee, that is to Lorin, and I said, “I’m submitting this for publication only if it is approved by a responsible member of the General Authorities.”  And Lorin just kidded me and laughed about it ever since, “Who did I think was not a responsible member of the General Authorities?”  But he says, “I think I know who you’re talking about.”  Lorin submitted this to the superintendency of the Sunday School which was Brother [George] Hill, Lynn S. Richards, and David Lawrence McKay and they approved it.  But then Lawrence McKay took it to his father President McKay and read it to him, and President McKay suggested that I delete one example which I had included, and other than that approved publication for it verbatim as I had written it.

Miller: That is implied in the—when your article was printed, there was an insert.

Harrison:  There was a footnote there that it was approved by the Editor of The Instructor.  [Vol. 100:272-276, 1965]

Miller: That would have been President McKay.

Harrison: And then it specified that the Editor is President McKay.  Lorin Wheelwright was the Managing Editor.

While I read this episode for President McKay’s views on how to read Genesis (my book is about Genesis 1, after all, not evolution), it demonstrates pretty clearly that President McKay’s understanding of Genesis did not in any way preclude evolution. However, he was characteristically reluctant to impose those views on the Church as a whole. He was similarly reluctant to allow Joseph Fielding Smith to impose his even stronger anti-evolution views upon the Church as a whole. (If you haven’t read it, Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of the Modern Mormonism is excellent, and has a short section on McKay and evolution.) Nevertheless, Smith’s views generally prevailed in popular Mormon understanding and among CES teachers, in spite of official statements that the Church had no formal position on evolution.

Of note, then, are two recent articles. First, The New Era recently proclaimed that dinosaurs lived and died on the earth long before humans were on it. And just this month The Liahona ran an article which, although I would quibble with some of its phrasing and framing, is also very pro-science, and explicitly undermines the God-of-the-gaps idea.

It pays to read the Church magazines, current and past.

*I noted that we now have a much better handle on how to read the early chapters. I’ve written about that fairly extensively, and of course, it’s my book topic, but see here for some other reading suggestions.

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7 thoughts on “David O. McKay on Evolution and Reading Genesis

  1. I presume that the statement from Harrison was a transcript of an oral interview. In the first line of the portion you quoted, did he mean “diffuse” or “defuse”? The former doesn’t make sense to me in the context, but maybe there’s no way to tell if all that exists is a transcript.

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    1. All I have is a text file, so there’s no way for me to tell. I’m not sure what Prince has. The reference is (Bertrand Harrison, interviewed by Robert Miller, 29 Nov., 1985. University of Utah Library, Acc. 814, interview #97.)

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  2. Thank you for sharing this. I think that a “let’s wait and see what science and God reveal” may be the best way to approach this issue. What leaves me dissatisfied is that some apparent contradictions are often papered over or hand-waived with vague statements lilke “God ‘used’ evolution.” I’ve never felt comfortable with that. I have preferred the approach by some scientists that try to give full respect to both science and religion and see if God’s handiwork can actually be detected. I think that Hugh Ross and Michael Behe try to do that. And I appreciate that they see what is good and true in evolution, but they are not afraid to point out some potential weaknesses.

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    1. I’m generally not a fan of ID. Among other things, it has a tainted history, and strikes me as too much of a God-of-the-gaps argument. . I’m all for criticising holes in theories (that’s just the scientific process), but it’s not like “if evolution has holes, ID is true.”

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  3. Of course now one has to wonder about the example they were not permitted to print (“President McKay suggested that I delete one example which I had included”). I’m sure we will never know, and it’s not important.

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  4. That Liahona article “Science and Our Search for Truth” is also in this month’s New Era (which explains why it is in the Liahona but not the Ensign).

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  5. It seems that many evangelical scientists over on biologos.org have no problem with evolution and a old age earth.The other challenge comes from near eastern archaeology where scholars like William Dever and Israel Finkelstein argue that the Exodus and Conquest did not happen as described in the Bible. Read The Bible Unearthed and watch Dever’s videos on Youtube.

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