Joseph Fielding Smith’s Assumptions

The future is difficult to plan right now, but I’m happy to report my proposal for the American Academy of Religion (AAR) national conference has been accepted. It traditionally meets with the Society of Biblical Literature in a massive multi-day conference attended by thousands. This year it’s in Boston, mid/late November. I pray by then we’ll be back to some kind of normalcy.

Smith in 1910 after Apostolic ordination.

My paper— “But I have Better Grounds”: Joseph Fielding Smith’s Hermeneutic in Early 20th Century Context— does a few things. I identify some of President Smith’s primary interpretive assumptions about scripture, contextualize them against his early 20th century contemporaries, and conclude that the views produced by Smith’s assumptions rendered him a distinct outlier. For example, whereas Smith held strongly to a young earth, no death before c.6000 years ago, and the special creation of everything, William Jennings Bryan (the “traditionalist” in the 1925 Scopes Trial) thought an old earth and even the evolution of plants and non-human animals were entirely compatible with the Bible.

I draw the title from a 1931 letter written by Smith, wherein he says

I have my own views as to the age of this earth. They do not by any means agree with the teachings of geology, and I do not say that I am right; but I have based my conclusions on the scriptures…. My personal view is that the scientist is wrong in his deductions regarding the age of this earth, and life upon it. This is a matter however I shall not discuss. They have a right to their opinions and I suppose I have a right to mine, but I think I have better grounds for mine.

This paragraph represents Smith’s assumption that revelation and scripture consisted of divinely-revealed facts about science and history. He says so explicitly elsewhere:

These theories [of evolution, old earth, etc.] are man-made deductions but the testimony of the prophets are actual facts.

-Man, His Origin and Destiny, my emphasis

Moreover, Smith thought that

men are infallible… when they, as prophets, reveal to us the word of the Lord.

-Joseph Fielding Smith letter to Henry Eyring Sr.

Since infallible facts from God were far more reliable than “facts” from human “science falsely so called,” (1 Timothy 6:20), Smith thought he had “better grounds” for his views than the scientists did. Smith was an Apostle and a prophet, but that does not mean God removed him— or Joseph Smith, or Paul, or Moses— from human reasoning based on “knowledge,”cultural assumptions, and worldview of the time. (See my example with Smith here.)

Are prophets infallible? Is the “word of the Lord” inherently factual and absolute? Unchanging and static? I’ve argued pretty strongly that revelation is progressive, that it requires interpretation, and that we need to be aware of our assumptions which drive our interpretations.

Moreover, an Apostolic calling does not entail that every word spoken comes by divine revelation.

There is nothing in the doctrines of the Church which makes it necessary to believe that [men are constantly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit] even…men who are high officials of the Church. When we consider the imperfections of men, their passions and prejudices, that mar the Spirit of God in them, happy is the man who can occasionally ascend to the spiritual heights of inspiration and commune with God!…

We should recognize the fact that we do many things by our own uninspired intelligence for the issues of which we are ourselves responsible….He will help men at need, but I think it improper to assign every word and every act of a man to an inspiration from the Lord….Hence, I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the Church; not even good men, no, not even though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.

That there have been unwise things done in the Church by good men, men susceptible at time to the inspiration of the Spirit of God, we may not question. – BH Roberts, Improvement Era, March 1905, 365-6.

I am not the only one who did not share Smith’s assumptions; his fellows Apostles did not share some of Smith’s basic assumptions or positions, and argued vehemently with him. President McKay, although he had opposed evolution as a young man, later in life came to declare “I believe in evolution” and introduced it into General Conference and Church magazines. However, it was Joseph Fielding Smith’s views that came to dominate the Church Education System, manuals, etc..

I hope to have up two podcasts soon getting into this more.

In the meantime, as always, you can support my research by making Amazon purchases through the links I post, or donate directly here.


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