My dissertation involves a lot of President Joseph Fielding Smith, particularly the way he interpreted scripture, his influential assumptions, and conclusions.
Most readers of this blog are likely to know of his positions; Evolution was a satanic heresy, the earth was young, no death of any kind anywhere before 6000 years ago. Smith did not hold these opinions lightly. He could understand no way to read scripture other than his own.
As part of the 1931 debate over pre-adamites and B.H. Roberts book, he wrote this in a 56-page position paper for the Quorum of the Twelve.
If I am wrong, then the revelations are wrong— I have not placed private interpretation upon them—but the same interpretation that the leading elders of this Church have placed upon them including the Prophet Joseph Smith. If I am wrong, then these intellectual giants who have gone before… are also wrong. There is no alternative. If what I have said gives offense to a group of ‘intellectuals’ within the Church who think more of the philosophy of men than they do of the revelations of God, then I might, if not considered presuming, say to them, they ought to humble themselves, get the Spirit of the Lord and have more faith in his proclamation. [My italics]
Nine years later, he laid out all the interpretive options as he saw them. In light of the apparent conflict with geology and biology over the age of the earth, death, “preadamites” etc., he wrote
We, as members of the Church, are left then, to reach one of the following conclusions:
1. The overwhelming voice of scientifically trained men is true and the revelations of the Lord are false dealing with the origin of things including man.
2. The overwhelming conclusion of scientifically trained men is wrong because it is in conflict with the revealed word of God in relation to the origin of things, including man.
3. That the Lord in his limited wisdom has not caught up with the knowledge possessed by scientific men, and must modify His views as science reveals to him its revelations, and as progression among mankind is made. In other words belief in God is a progressive process which changes and is modified as man advances.
4. There might be this other ground, but it is not in any sense consistent: That the Prophets misunderstood the word of the Lord and their revelations are only partly true and contain matters expressing the prophets’ opinions and we are to judge whether the matter is a revelation or an opinion merely by our reason and scientific conclusions. I think you must agree with me that such a thought as this is out of the picture. We must confine our views to one of the first two.
If a person has a convincing testimony that the Lord did actually speak to Joseph Smith and call him to be His prophet, then he must, it seems to me, accept the revelations which have come through that prophet. Therefore, whatever is taught in the world, no matter how universally, that is in conflict with those revelations, must be erroneous.
Even though he had seen counter-arguments and other models from other Apostles for at least 15 years before this statement, he apparently dismissed them or else thought those Apostles were falling into option #1. (He would later accuse President J. Reuben Clark of “rejecting scripture.”)
Regardless, I hope readers of this blog have some ideas on how reading scripture literally gives us some interpretive options Smith didn’t recognize, indeed highly faithful ones. If this is news to you, I highly recommend working through my syllabus on scripture, science, and creation.
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