The 1950s: A Fundamentalist Shift

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

From 1954 to 1967, either Smith or McConkie had a book out virtually every year, and there was no longer any Widtsoe, Roberts, Talmage, etc. to provide counterbalance. (See here.) Their implicit and dominating assumptions were quickly absorbed as “orthodoxy.”

Each of these books assumed—but did not actually present arguments for— the idea that the genre of ancient scripture consisted primarily of journalistic history and scientific facts; that this history and science was accurate because scripture is divinely inspired; and all scripture is 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 argue at length, 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.

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11 thoughts on “The 1950s: A Fundamentalist Shift

  1. Ben, thanks so much. This history really helps put things in perspective–the 50s had a lot going on, apparently.

    I’m curious, does all of this have anything to do with the (Protestant) idea of “the perspicuity of scripture”? I was reading about this in an old column by Alan Jacobs (https://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/08/robert-alters-fidelity), and I wonder if our insistence that scriptures “generally say what they mean and mean what they say”–without any recourse beyond the KJV–is founded in an idea like that, that you don’t need experts to interpret scripture, that it can be read (and understood) by anyone? I don’t know “the clarity of scripture” is doctrine, but it seems assumed in a lot of different contexts–or, at perhaps, if we need clarity, prophets can and will provide it, and that’s all you need.

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    1. Bryan, I think it’s perspicuity-adjacent. That is, I haven’t really come across anyone advocating this kind of reading from a doctrinal perspective; no one actually says, “you don’t need any of that stuff.”
      I think it’s a continuation of our 19th-century mixed inheritance of Scottish common-sense realism, populism, and anti-clericalism. As Philip Barlow puts it in his book,

      Mormonism had been a radical part of the antebellum movement to reduce the role of a learned clergy, which was perceived to have come between the common folk and the direct word of God in scripture. The Saints were not anxious to replace a professional clergy, which they had earlier banished, with bookish academics.

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  2. While I agree with your basic premiss, I think that there were a few other factors influencing this:

    1) Post WWII opposition to communism was based in religious rhetoric. Believing in God was very much an american thing, and lead to more fundamentalism in general.
    2) BH Roberts died about 1936. After that, the church started moving away from the seer stone narrative to a purely Urim and Thummim narrative. They historically emphasize this narrative when they are more fundamentalist – such as in the 1870s. So I would argue that they had already started this shift in the 1940s.
    3) In 1946 after Brodie published her biography of Joseph Smith, there was a strong denial of many of her claims in the Improvement Era. This lead to a further closing of access to all church history materials and increased fundamentalism.
    4) I think that David O. McKay wasn’t inherently fundamentalist, but that as he got older, his influence waned and that of J. Fielding Smith, Bruce R. McConkie and others increased which pushed the church in the direction of fundimentalism.

    The 1950s shift was divergent from the period of 1910-1935, but not more conservative than early fundamentalist drives/periods of the 1830s, 1850s, or 1870s.

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  3. Is the First 2000 Years still being recommended in seminary?? I mean, that’s a lot of volunteer teachers, many of whom were probably taught it themselves, but…is it even on the Deseret Book shelves any more? (OK, I went and checked. It’s available online and claims that the store nearest here, which is still 90 miles away, has 3 copies, but I was there yesterday and didn’t see any. In fact I was appalled that there weren’t as many books as I expect to see in a bookstore.)

    My seminary teacher recommended that book, and years later I read it and noticed that it is…kinda goofy. All my seminary teachers were fairly loopy, especially that one, so I hoped it was an anomaly.

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    1. By “recommended,” I mean that on the 12k member FB page for volunteer seminary teachers, when the question was asked, “What should I read to help me teach OT?” an awful lot of people recommended Skousen’s series. I was flabbergasted. (I think second, or maybe tied, would be the David Ridges “Made Easy” series, which has its own problems.)

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