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.”
It would be followed by
- Bertrand Harrison, “The Relatedness of Living Things”— about which I have written before because of President MCKay’s approval, the “most evolution-friendly article” ever in Church publication, Instructor July 1965.
- Henry Eyring Sr., “The Gospel and the Age of the Earth” The Improvement Era, July 1965 (More on Henry Eyring here and here; he was on the Sunday school board)
- Frank Salisbury, “Genetics and some Gospel Concepts” Instructor November 1965
- James E. Talmage “Earth and Man” (reprint) Instructor December 1965
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.
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.
As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through purchasing the books I link to on Amazon. *I am an Amazon Affiliate, and receive a small percentage of purchases made through these links. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box below). You can also follow Benjamin the Scribe on Facebook.