Snippets from my Dissertation Proposal on the Roots of LDS Creation/Evolution Conflict in the 20th Century

I’ve gone through multiple refining drafts of my dissertation proposal. My main problem, said my advisor, is atypical; most people at this point have the bulk of their research ahead of them, but I already have enough for two books and half a dozen papers. The trick is filtering, narrowing, and tightening. A good amount of material will be saved for the future book(s) based thereon. So here are some snippets of thought, brain-storming, and writing from along the way.

Reading scripture in Hebrew

The crux in creationism/evolution debate is what scripture says and how we understand it to relate to believers; those are hermeneutical and exegetical questions.
If true that hermeneutics/exegesis are the crux, then how does this play out within a non-exegetical tradition like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
This isn’t a great analogy, but imagine a traffic light with only one light, that changes color for stop or go. Now imagine that you’re seriously colorblind, and have essentially lived your life unaware that color is a thing that exists. Your perception of the cause and nature of accidents at that traffic light is going to be severely skewed.
Latter-day Saints have effectively denied that hermeneutics exists, or plays a role in this issue; not out of any conscious decision, but out of inherited philosophies (e.g. 19th century anti-clerical populism) and revealed ecclesiology. 

(I attempted a very concise explanation of this for the non-LDS scholars participating in BYU’s Reconciling Evolution workshop last summer. I’m rewriting and expanding that paper for an LDS audience in our BYU Studies special issue on Evolution and LDS faith anticipated January 2021.)

Martin Luther naively thought he had discovered a panacea that could strip away the human accretions of the prior 1500 years and unify Christianity; similarly, early Latter-day Saints thought they had a simple key for bypassing all “doctrines and philosophies of men” for a divine purity and unity of knowledge. However, whereas the ad fontes (“back to the sources!”) of the Reformers was scripture —made universally available in vernacular German, from Greek and Hebrew— for Latter-day Saints the “font” to which they returned and placed their idealistic hopes was the source of scripture itself, i.e. divine revelation to prophets. Both Martin Luther and the Latter-day Saints failed to take into account 1) the nature of scripture, which was deeply human and diverse, and 2) the nature of interpretation, similarly bound up with human intellectual processes.

(See Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction)

In several ways, the LDS conflict over evolution and creationism reenacted the 19th century conflict between scripture and geology;⁠ the “scriptural geologists” arguing the loudest that geological interpretation should be subordinate to (“literalist”) understandings of scripture were neither geologists nor Biblical scholars. The “Christian geologists” on the other hand, had expertise in geology, and also tended to be devout Christians. Ultimately, as Stiling summarizes, the problem was not geology, but hermeneutics.

American Scriptural Geology of the last century proved to be less about geology than about Scripture, and less about the content of Scripture than about its interpretation. In the end, Scriptural Geology and its more modern version, flood geology, were and are really symbols of a different question: how is the Bible to be interpreted, and how is information from outside the Bible to be considered and incorporated—if at all—in the interpretation of Scripture? In short, Scriptural Geology was not about geology; it was all about hermeneutics.⁠

For Latter-day Saints, the biggest critics of evolution lacked training in both science and scripture, and operated on a certain set of unrecognized and inherited hermeneutical assumptions; at its root, the conflict was not really scientific, but over how scripture should be interpreted. However, because of the non-exegetical nature of the tradition, this central point on which all others turn is deeply obscured.


On geology and scripture, see

Bertrand Harrison taught Botany at BYU, and published the “most evolution-friendly article ever” in The Instructor, in July 1965, explicitly approved by President McKay. (See my post here.) This is from an interview with him in 1985.

We were going up to a meeting of the Utah Academy of Science, and we invited [Wyley Sessions, BYU head of Religion from 1939-47] to ride up with us, and this was a story that Wiley Sessions told us on the way up to the meetings. I was very much interested in the story, so I think I can remember it almost verbatim as he told us. But he said that at that time he had been the instructor in the institute at the University of Idaho in Moscow. One day a faculty member came across the campus carrying a relief society magazine, and he said to Wiley, “Is this the kind of stuff you’re teaching over there?” He said, “If it is, I’m not sure we want you on this campus.” So Wiley went down to see President Grant, and President Grant said, “Go on back up to Idaho and tend to your teaching.” He said, “For your information John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Merrill,” and I think the third one was Talmage, but I’m not positive–“have Joseph Fielding in session at this time, and they have accused him of teaching false doctrine.” And then he said, “As long as one of those three men remained alive, they kept Brother Smith from publishing this material.” And then, as he put it, “Before the flowers on the grave of the last one to die had wilted, Brother Smith rushed into print with his Man, His Origin and Destiny.”

I’m quite excited for my dissertation. I think, when eventually published, the information will help LDS understand our history and relationship to scripture, and struggle less with scientific conflict.

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8 thoughts on “Snippets from my Dissertation Proposal on the Roots of LDS Creation/Evolution Conflict in the 20th Century

  1. Congrats on your proposal! I’m working on mine at the moment, so I know the work involved. Also can’t wait to read more. It always fascinates me what history makes the common vernacular and what falls by the wayside. Our heritage as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is rich, but so much still needs to be expounded on.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Have you basically already concluded that scriptural literalism (I’m guessing re: creation process and age of earth) is the primary/sole source of the historical conflict for LDS specifically? More broadly, the origins of evolutionary biology in the US were very fused with eugenics, and some highly valid religious objection had a lot to do with that too. From my vantage point now, I’d say it’s a foundational assumption of “traditional” Westerner-American culture that “using” animals doesn’t require justification. We’re pretty exploitive and violent toward animals relative to many indigenous or eastern cultures. Given that, westerners seem to feel especially insulted/threatened by any ideology that removes distinctions between us and animals. That implication of evolutionary theory isn’t a threat to scriptural literalism in the Bible so much as it is to the idea that people and only people are Gods in embryo, or very literally “children” of God. Although the genesis creation account isn’t well compatible with a literal parent-child relationship either! Anyway, I’ll be interested in evidence that scriptural literalism is the most important objection relative to these others, especially since in some other cases the context for religious objections were eugenics-related even while the rhetoric used in the religious rebuttal included scriptural literalism too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LDS were generally favorable to eugenics (broadly understood).
      Although there are some individual outliers, as a whole throughout the 20th century, for LDS leadership, it’s an exegetical issue, i.e. “You can’t accept evolution without rejecting the revelations.”


  3. This is all wonderful stuff.

    I look forward to you hopefully presenting all this do a general LDS audience in the future.

    These are exactly the kinds of things I need to understand at this point in my faith journey.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m familiar with that syllabus, but now I will look specifically for those two videos.

        Thanks for all this. I’m always looking for brief explanations from you that I can post on reddit, etc. when I’m trying to explain things to people. Although, I realize you’ve said that many of these things can’t be explained briefly.


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