Mormon History Association Conference 2020: Scripture, Science, Interpretation, and Fundamentalism

Notices are going out for the MHA Conference this year, to be held in Rochester NY, June 4-7. The schedule is not up yet, but a panel I organized has been accepted, entitled “Developing LDS Exegesis, Hermeneutics, and Epistemology from 1876-1980: Trends and Influences.”

For those unfamiliar, “exegesis” is the process of interpretation, Greek for “drawing out. “Hermeneutics” is the study, philosophy, and science of interpretation. We might think of “exegesis” as producing a result, and hermeneutics as more to do with studying the process itself, being aware of what’s in our mental Black Box. “Epistemology” is the study of knowledge, what it is, and how we know something. (I first encountered epistemology in this Ensign article on my mission, where I crammed in a lot of reading.)

The unifying theme of this session is the interpretation of scripture, the lenses and influences involved, and the way these combined to produce particular understandings of scripture which in turn generated particular doctrinal expressions and positions.

One presenter is speaking on interpretations of Biblical women in the Relief Society Magazine from 1915-1970. The second (with a forthcoming biography on Joseph F. Smith) is speaking on Smith’s Hermeneutic of Doctrine and Scripture, 1875-1916.

I’ll reproduce my proposal below. You can see how it dovetails somewhat with my dissertation topic and recent posts about the fundamentalist shift in the 1950s, and the way lesson manuals were written in the 1960s, as well as Seventh-day Adventists and creationism, here and here.

The Fundamentalist Enthronement of Science: Seventh-day Adventist Influence on LDS Creationism, from Joseph Fielding Smith to Ezra Taft Benson

During a century which saw massive scientific progress substantiating biological evolution, rejection of evolution among BYU students increased from 36% to 81%. The percentage affirming a short creation period also increased from 5% to 27%. The obvious drivers of this shift are various General Authorities who, however, did not operate in a vacuum. The significant influence of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) creationism on them has long gone unrecognized.

I first present a brief history of modern creationism, from 1906 SDA author George McCready Price to his intellectual offspring, the 1961 blockbuster by Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood. This little-known and counter-intuitive history provides an essential backdrop to understanding the marked increase in LDS creationist anti-evolutionary views.

I trace Price’s direct and indirect influence on LDS thought through the 1980s by presenting various general authorities (e.g. Joseph Fielding Smith’s public and private recommendations of Price and letters they exchanged); influential LDS intellectuals (e.g. Yale chemistry PhD Melvin A. Cook), and influential BYU professors, LDS Curriculum writers, and Correlation members (e.g. Ernest Eberhard, Jr., Reid Bankhead, and Glenn Pearson.) This culminates in the (still current) 1980 Old Testament Institute manual, wherein a 2000-word quotation from a SDA creationism pamphlet [Harold Coffin, Creation: The Evidence from Science] passed all levels of Church review without any issues.

I intersperse brief observations framing this influence within broader American intellectual trends: the interplay of different kinds of authority, asymmetrical and pseudo-expertise, the developing hegemony of science during the 20th century, and the ways science came to be deployed in sanctifying religious belief.

Hope to see you at the conference.

 

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