People are multi-faceted and complex. It’s very easy to develop an attitude of putting either a halo or a black hat on someone from one incident, one aspect of them, particularly when it’s a historical figure. It can be hard to get a full picture of someone. Elder Maxwell once said that the tragedy of Elder McConkie was that he had the most fantastic sense of humor, and no one in the Church knew it. (See my old post here.)
It’s well known that Joseph Fielding Smith was strongly opposed to evolution, embraced a young earth creationist view, and consequently had arguments with other General Authorities for much of his life. I’ve tried to read a lot about him, understand his arguments, and where he’s coming from. There’s not much in the way of biography beyond the Gibbons volume (left), which is basic and leans towards hagiography. Ditto this one from 1972. (Perhaps I need to add a “Joseph Fielding Smith biography” to the list of books to write…)
In the last week, I’ve acquired two sources which I’m not at liberty to share publicly at this point in time. One comes from earlier in Smith’s Church life, the other near the end. In the first, Smith expresses some doubt to a fellow Apostle, some epistemic humility, about how he’s interpreting scripture for his young earth views. He doesn’t think he’s wrong, but realizes that he is offering a particular reading. Second, it’s notable that when Smith was President of the Church, he did not push his views about creationism, evolution, and the age of the earth. I think he became aware that although that was how he read the scriptures, and he was confident of his reading, it was still just his reading. In this second source, Smith approves several things that go directly against his reading.
He had his opinions, and held them strongly, but when he had the ecclesiastical power to enforce them on others, he refrained from doing so, and I respect him for that.
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