Tales from the Archives 3: The 1934-5 Newspaper Proxy Wars and Writing Hot

From 1934-5, the age of the earth, evolution, and scripture was hotly debated in the Deseret News. (See here for a little history and context.) Elders John Widtsoe and Joseph Fielding Smith wrote nothing themselves, but encouraged, solicited, and pushed articles reflecting their own views. On Widtsoe’s side was James E. Talmage’s son Sterling, who had received a PhD in geology. (JET had died the year before.) On Smith’s side, were several people, including Sidney Sperry, Major Howard S. Bennion, and Dudley J. Whitney, a Pentecostal farmer.

Smith in 1910

Joseph Fielding Smith had read one of Whitney’s papers claiming he could prove a 6000-yr old earth and reached out to invite him to write up his young-earth creationist views— which Smith shared— for the Latter-day Saint audience. Although he was a Pentecostal, Whitney was closely connected to Seventh-day Adventists George McCready Price (whom Smith had read approvingly and corresponded with) and Harold W. Clark, and was part of the leadership of their newly formed creationist society, dedicated to “a hyperliteral reading of Scripture” (in the words of eminent chronicler Ronald Numbers.) There would be a falling out, however, and Whitney would not be part of the 1939 Society for the Study of Deluge Geology and Related Sciences started by Price. Joseph Fielding Smith was invited to join this creationist society and appears to have done so.

John Widtsoe

All this as background to the various Deseret News articles arguing for a young earth and so on, which had Talmage and Widtsoe sharing private fits over the misrepresentations of science and scripture, as they saw it. There is correspondence between many of these participants; some of it in archives (I’ve been in the George McCready Price archive), and some published. This volume includes correspondence between Talmage-Smith, Talmage-Widtsoe, and Smith-Price, as well as some useful essays, and a manuscript of Sterling Talmage’s, including some of the Deseret News articles he wrote.

Now, the bit that caught my attention for this post. Talmage writes to Widtsoe on April 17, 1934 about his published article and writing process.

I was surprised that you [Widtsoe] altered my article so little. Ordinarily, I like to write an article “hot,” and then let it cool off for a couple of weeks at least, before undertaking a cold and calculating editing of it. But this one was written at white heat and mailed within half an hour after completion; I fully anticipated that you might find it advisable to amputate whole sections, and I would have been perfectly content to see it trimmed ruthlessly, if in your opinion it contained matter that should not be published at present.

The Simpsons, via GIFER

One reason I enjoy archival research is that you often end up seeing yourself reflected in people from the past. Like Talmage, I write ‘hot,’ sometimes at ‘white heat.’ Or flamethrower.

It’s great for productivity of initial drafts. However, I allow few of my hotly written posts to go out as such, because “hot” writing rarely convinces people who don’t already agree with you. “Hotness” also generated this article which was almost published in the Ensign, but I doubt you can detect any of that in it now. Occasionally, such “hot” writing can serve a purpose, like this one on Church employees pushing inerrancy, one of my most-read posts. Since my finished products are rarely so flaming, it increases the rhetorical power of a piece when I choose to be so, as one of the commenters remarked. Point is, if you’re always yelling “fire,” what happens when there’s an actual fire? I think a similar thing is seen in the way media treated Mitt Romney in 2012, only to realize in 2016 what they’d done, relatively speaking, e.g. here and here. (Note, any remotely political comments will be deleted.)

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