Several scholars have identified a LDS shift in the mid-20th-century towards a kind of fundamentalism. In 1980, for example, Leonard Arrington reflected in his journal on the
[emergence] at BYU in the 1950s…. particularly in the College of Religion [of] A sort of Mormon Fundamentalism like Protestant Fundamentalism [which] Emphasizes Biblical literalism, rejects the Higher Criticism [in biblical studies, and] the law of evolution…
To be clear, many of these ideas or tendencies were present earlier in LDS history; what happens in the 1950s is a narrowing of the general discourse, a solidification of these fundamentalist tendencies.
I find making timelines very useful for sorting through large amounts of information. I consulted my publication timeline, and lo, what appears?
- 1952 Death of John A. Widtsoe, an Apostle and PhD in science who had argued with Joseph Fielding Smith about science, scripture, and evolution for decades. He was the last scientific pushback within the hierarchy itself.
- 1953 Cleon Skousen, The First 2000 Years (Strangely, this appears to remain very popular among volunteer seminary teachers.)
- 1954 Joseph Fielding Smith, Man, His Origin and Destiny. This was Smith’s masterwork against evolution, some of which had been written as early as 1920.
- 1954-56 Joseph Fielding Smith (compiled by Bruce R. McConkie) Doctrines of Salvation
- 1957 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine
- 1957-66 Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions
Each of these works tacitly assumed (but did not really present arguments for the idea) that the genre of ancient scripture consisted primarily of modern history and scientific facts; that this history and science was accurate because scripture is divinely inspired; all scripture was entirely harmonious and internally consistent in every detail and degree.
And, therefore, evolution was obviously false.
These are difficult assumptions to defend, to say nothing of the therefore about evolution, which supposedly follows. These assumptions do not emerge naturally from the text itself, but are deeply modern assumptions influenced by culture and intellectual trends.
There is another significant book from this period, although not LDS and moving in the opposite direction. In 1954, Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm wrote The Christian View of Science and Scripture. Therein Ramm coined the term concordism (the assumption that science and scripture must be in concord, because scripture inherently speaks in scientific/factual terms). Ramm argued that the doctrine of inerrancy did not entail concordism. That is, believing that scripture was free of all error did not require believing that scripture was scientifically accurate or that it was scientific at all.
Ramm marked a turning point in certain Protestant interpretations of Genesis; combined with maturing knowledge of contextual discoveries of the Bible— particularly the Ugaritic (also here for some LDS thoughts) and Babylonian material— Ramm’s decoupling of inerrancy from concordist assumptions really paved the way for today’s Peter Ennses, John Waltons, and Tremper Longmanns. Protestant scholars today are entirely able to accept evolution and Biblical inerrancy, because these contextual materials have allowed them to see that concordism is not a valid assumption about ancient texts, even inspired ones.
For Latter-day Saints, however, concordism has been a universal and dominating assumption in our interpretations of creation, from Widtsoe, Roberts, Joseph Fielding Smith, on down to virtually every LDS commentary, book, and paper I have read on the subject. For example, LDS creationist Melvin Cook (PhD in Chemistry, Yale, award-winning UofU professor) wrote that
‘yonder’ [in “yonder is matter unorganized”] refers to the region in our galaxy which we may call the solar cell…
Although the concordist assumption is never acknowledged, this kind of reading is often justified with a second non-specialist error; the assumption that a “literal” interpretation is a concordist interpretation.
My analysis is intended to be strictly literalistic; in my view, intellectual honesty requires literalism in the interpretation of the scriptures.
But Cook offers no definition of “literal” and so the errors are compounded. As I presented at Education Week (and the Sperry Symposium the year before that), a “literal” interpretation is not a simple context-free surface reading, nor is it synonymous with a “historical” reading; rather, to read literally is to read how the author intended, understanding history as history, parable as parable, etc. And THAT requires knowledge of context, culture, history, language. A literal interpretation must acknowledge these things, not discard them or blithely assume they aren’t necessary. One LDS creation book by a CPA sets out that he
take[s] a rather literal approach to the scriptures, supposing that they generally say what they mean and mean what they say.
So apparently, that’s all you need, really. The KJV alone is sufficient to understand Ezekiel, Paul, Genesis, etc.
And that’s the kind of LDS fundamentalism that really took root in the 1950s, found its way into LDS manuals (see here and here) and the LDS edition of the Bible, and today we are reaping what was sown.
Related Posts and links:
- An essay the nature of prophetic knowledge (and evolution)
- All my posts on evolution and Genesis
- I spoke at UVU on concordism in 2018. Video, post with slides.
- A guest lecture at BYU in which I talked about a number of assumptions like concordism.
- A contrast between the way we approach Church history, and the way we approach ancient scripture. The former requires knowledge, history, experts. The latter?… not so much, and that’s a problem for faith.
- My FAIR talks on fundamentalist assumptions and interpreting Genesis.
- Expertise, interpretation, and ancient scripture
- Elder Ballard’s talk on expertise (among other things)
- Biologos has a number of posts on concordism
- Assuming it gets accepted, I’ll present a paper at the Mormon History Association in June on “The Fundamentalist Enthronement of Science: Seventh Day Adventist Influence on LDS Creationism.” That influence ran deep and high.
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