Elders Maxwell and Richards on the Compatibility of Scripture and Evolution

In 1984, Neal A. Maxwell was interviewed privately. At that point, he had served as Apostle for three years, as Seventy for five, Commissioner of Church Education, etc.

From the interview transcript (private source)

Interviewer: “We could say, perhaps, that issues such as evolution, or the age of the earth, or pre-Adamites (and that doesn’t necessarily mean ancestors of Adam; it could mean other kinds of races); or even the relationship between the death and the fall, are non-scriptural rather than unscriptural.”

Elder Maxwell replies,

“I don’t know enough about science to speak of science, but it seems to me abundantly clear that one can believe in the fall and in the atonement, the plan of salvation, and still be open for whatever turn out to be the truths”

Elder Maxwell’s interpretation and understanding of scripture was such that if evolution, an old earth, etc. turned out to be the case (as the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests), those would not undermine the fall, atonement, etc.

This is interesting, because several decades earlier, Maxwell had been at least somewhat sympathetic to UofU chemist and young-earth creationist Melvin Cook, speaking positively of Cook and disparagingly of the “billion-year boys,” presumably old-earthers. Maxwell, of course, did not draw a hard line between academic study (like science) and more devotional or spiritual pursuits.

For a disciple of Jesus Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship.

Notably,  Elder Stephen L. Richards had written something similar in the Improvement Era way back in June 1933. I’ve highlighted one important part of that article before, about the nature of revelation and how a prophet will have to understand from within his own frame of reference, put it in his own words and cultural ideas.

On evolution, Elders Richards and Maxwell are right in line; they’re not taking a stand on evolution per se, but scripture as they interpret it is not incompatible with the “evolutionary hypothesis.” Elder Richards wrote in the Improvement Era

If the evolutionary hypothesis of the creation of life and matter in the universe is ultimately found to be correct, and I shall neither be disappointed nor displeased if it shall turn out so to be, in my humble opinion the Biblical account is sufficiently comprehensive to include the whole of the process. (p. 484.)

Whether scripture is compatible depends on who’s doing the interpreting, their hermeneutical assumptions, and how that interpretation is produced. I believe a literal interpretation of scripture offers far less opposition to an old earth and evolution than many have supposed.

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2 thoughts on “Elders Maxwell and Richards on the Compatibility of Scripture and Evolution

    1. Cook’s autobiography and the word-for-word identical sections between MHOD and Smith’s earlier writings would seem to point in the direction of, none except the introduction he was asked to write.
      Is there any reason to suspect otherwise?


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