Tales from the Archives 2: Wait, what?

In 2007 General Conference, President Monson told the story of an unusual convert to Christianity.

Robert Blatchford, in his [1904] book God and My Neighbor, attacked with vigor accepted Christian beliefs, such as God, Christ, prayer, and immortality. He boldly asserted, “I claim to have proved everything I set out to prove so fully and decisively that no Christian, however great or able he may be, can answer my arguments or shake my case.” He surrounded himself with a wall of skepticism. Then a surprising thing happened. His wall suddenly crumbled to dust. He was left exposed and undefended. Slowly he began to feel his way back to the faith he had scorned and ridiculed. What had caused this profound change in his outlook? His wife died. With a broken heart, he went into the room where lay all that was mortal of her. He looked again at the face he loved so well. Coming out, he said to a friend: “It is she, and yet it is not she. Everything is changed. Something that was there before is taken away. She is not the same. What can be gone if it be not the soul?”

Later he wrote: “Death is not what some people imagine. It is only like going into another room. In that other room we shall find … the dear women and men and the sweet children we have loved and lost.”

All of this is accurate enough, but it’s not the whole story. Robert Blatchford appears in another significant area of LDS literature.

Robert Blatchford, public domain

Blatchford, a British socialist and atheist, edited a newspaper called Clarion. He published God and My Neighbor in 1904, wherein he used science and evolution as a club against Christianity and religion in general. His arguments were not the most nuanced, holding scripture to absolutist standards and twisting history to elevate science and undermine religion. In doing so, he reflected perfectly the popular falsehoods of the “Conflict model,” which held that science and religion were eternally and inevitably in conflict. (This is flatly rejected by historians with some exasperation, since it has become the default mode of public thought.)

Said Blatchford,

“the difficulty of the unbeliever lies in the fact that he cannot believe the Scriptures to be the actual words of God…. the word of God would be above criticism and disproof, and the Bible is not above criticism and disproof…. A revealed religion would be perfect…. if God made man, then God is responsible for all man’s acts and thoughts, and therefore man cannot sin against God…. I do not believe God would condemn the human race to eternal torment for being no better than He had mad them…. if the Bible is the word of God— the all-wise and perfect God‚ the Bible will be perfect. If the Bible is not perfect, it cannot be the word of a God who is perfect.”

Blatchford wrestles a bit with the problem of evil, and asserts rationality over credulous mysticism.

And then he says this.

First, to Adam and the Fall and inherited sin. Evolution, historical research, and scientific criticism have disposed of Adam. Adam was a myth. Hardly any educated Christians now regard him as a historic person.

But— no Adam, no Fall; no Fall, no Atonement; no Atonement, no Saviour.

Thus if evolution is true, Christians must discard Jesus. Does that rhetoric sound vaguely familiar? It was picked up in the United States by Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, who bought into Blatchford’s fundamentalist-atheist logic from the fundamentalist-believer end of things. Price put it in his books, which we know Joseph Fielding Smith was reading as early as 1926. It made its way into Smith’s Doctrine’s of Salvation and Man, His Origin and Destiny, where he actually cites Blatchford. Smith carried on this kind of flawed logic, making statements such as “If evolution is true, the Church is false, the doctrines of the Church are false” and “If I am wrong, then the revelations are wrong.”

Writing to Henry Eyring Sr. in the early 1950s, he said

I, as a fallible man, do not claim to be able to give the answers to all the questions propounded by science; but I am convinced that if there arises any theory which is in conflict with the revelations given by the Lord, they will perish. It is a great regret to me that our scientific brethren at times take a contrary view which is, if the theories of science appear to be definite and possibly true and are in conflict with the revelations in these Standard Works, then science is right and the revelations are wrong! This attitude certainly gets some of our brethren in trouble. This is placing the judgment of man superior to God!…. I backed what [previous Church Presidents] had to say by the revelations in the Standard Works of the Church which we have received as the word of the Lord. Beyond such eminent testimony there was no need for me to go.

Blatchford’s syllogism then carried on into Mormon Doctrine and elsewhere. Blatchford himself may have converted and changed his mind before dying, but his 1904 syllogism lived on.

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