Tales from the Archives 4: Science, Interpretation, and Bad Feeling in 1965

In June 1965, the LDS Sunday School presidency informally began a new series on science and religion, written by LDS scientists.The first article was by University of Utah geologist William Lee Stokes, called “In the Beginning.

William Lee Stokes

It would be followed by

Some Latter-day Saints did not appreciate this series. University of Utah chemist and young-earth creationist Melvin Cook wrote that

a few, including myself, were appalled that anyone would use a respected Church periodical to support opposition to fundamental LDS doctrines.

Cook himself did not write any letters of protest, because some of his students wrote what he would have, i.e. arguing for catastrophism and saying things like “we find your interpretation of II Peter 3:8 to be academically dishonest.” They copied the letter to various Church employees and General Authorities, including Elder Joseph Fielding Smith.

Smith wrote the students back a letter which was both populist in its rhetorical elevation of “simplicity” and very dismissive of Stokes and education.

Dear Brethren
Thank you for sending me a copy of your letter to Professor Lee Stokes, Professor of Geology, University of Utah.

I am reminded of this expression, the author of which I do not remember, but to this effect: “Some men are educated beyond their intelligence.” I prefer to believe the simple statements that have come to us by revelation than the abundance of statements by so-called professors of geology.

I am just simple enough to believe the statement of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith as stated in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 77, particularly verse 12.

Sincerely your brother,
Joseph Fielding Smith

Stokes can hardly have been surprised.  He had had numerous prior interactions with Smith. Stokes wrote of Smith,

We corresponded maybe three letters each or so, and finally I could see that he’d never convince me, and I’d never convince him, but the big lesson for me was that science didn’t mean a thing to him. It wouldn’t matter if he read in the scripture that the moon was made of green cheese, it wouldn’t matter if you went up there and walked on it, it wouldn’t change his belief that it was green cheese. And so I gave up, and I figured that you could write science ’til the cows came home, and back it up with the best research and the most authoritative statements you could find, and it wouldn’t influence him at all.

For Smith, scripture was science; divine science and facts revealed by God. Therefore, human interpretation of nature (i.e. “science”)— which could thus be filled with human error— had to be subordinated to actual divine revelation of facts in the word of God. You could recognize “good” science by whether it agreed with scripture (or, more accurately, Smith’s interpretation of scripture, though he did not see it that way.) Hence, geology with its old earth, and biology with evolution were only “science falsely so-called” per 1 Timothy 6:20.

As an aside, this rhetoric depended on the changing meaning of “science” between 1611 (when it simply meant “knowledge”, translating Greek gnosis) and technical, specialized, professionalized “science” in the 20th century. Thus, per Smith and others, the Bible predicted modern anti-Biblical scoffers preaching evolution and an old earth, “science falsely so-called.”

In essence, Smith argued this; whereas the Book of Nature required human interpretation, the Book of Scripture was plain and obvious, and needed no such human intermediary to explain its meaning.

Smith, however, was quite wrong about this, as demonstrated by his own debates with other Apostles (as well as other things).

In reality, human interpretation is just as necessary for deriving meaning from the Book of Scripture as it is from the Book of Nature; both are human processes which can entail misinterpretation, as has been recognized by other Apostles in Church history.

If these ideas or history are new to you, I suggest checking out my syllabus on science, scripture, and creation. It walks you through things from the beginning, basic ideas.

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2 thoughts on “Tales from the Archives 4: Science, Interpretation, and Bad Feeling in 1965

  1. Assuming Moses was the actual author of the books traditionally called after his name, what good would it have done God to explain to him:

    “Moses, there are tiny, invisible things inside your body – in fact, your whole body is made of them – called cells, and within each of these cells are even tinier things called mitochondria, ribosomes and DNA, and within each of these tiny things are others even tinier still called molecules, which in turn are made of even smaller ‘atoms’ of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, and these are elements (not, as you thought, earth, air, fire and water), and these elements, along with over a hundred others like gold, silver, helium and copper, make up all that you see, smell and touch. Now that we have biology out of the way, let’s talk about how planets orbit their stars…”

    How would Moses then convey such a concept to Israel? Better to reveal the Plan through the cosmology he and his contemporaries understood, as the mechanics of creation are irrelevant to the Plan itself, and let His children sort out the details of nature on their own time. If the Bible is a book of scientific and historic facts (so-called), why doesn’t it discuss cellular biology and and heliocentrism? Why doesn’t it correct the factual errors of Moses’ day? It of course would necessarily have to be 18 times longer than it is now, in order to account for things as cells and even atomic physics – both of which were well understood in the 60s – and the history of Greece, China and Gaul.

    It’s no wonder Moses 1 got the axe – it didn’t conform to known ‘science.’

    I’ve come to think though, that since an Apostle wrote it (e.g. Man, His Origin and Destiny), and it is so ingrained in the collective culture and conscience, it will take another Apostle to unwrite the bad science, and that’s not going to happen, precisely because it’s irrelevant to the Plan (some tried in the past, to little effect; it would also have to fight the emotion v intellect battle). We’ve passed the point where Apostles take on that kind of advocacy, never mind the hints they drop in General Conference. Elder Ballard said as much to CES instructors when he he clarified what the apostolic calling is (and is not), and that as he consults with subject matter experts when what he needs to know exceeds the limitations of his calling, so should the rest of us.


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