Joseph Fielding Smith on Scriptural interpretation and Scientific Conflict

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.

Smith in 1910 after Apostolic ordination. LDS.org

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]

The only way one could possibly disagree was by setting the “philosophies of men” above revelation, which Smith took as scientific and absolute facts.

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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6 thoughts on “Joseph Fielding Smith on Scriptural interpretation and Scientific Conflict

  1. When I was a young teen my parents gave me a copy of “Man, His Origen and Destiny”. I read it cover to cover and got a stupor of thought. And Melvin Cook was an expert on explosives, not biology.

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    1. Melvin Cook was a chemistry professor (whose work happened to deal with explosives), just as Henry Eyring Sr. And there are certainly some chemistry aspects of evolution.

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  2. P.S. The Restoration is ongoing. Evolution will be standard teachings in seminary and Institute some day.

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  3. A new Spackman post is always a highlight of any day.

    “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.” — Carl Sagan

    Sagan may have been an outspoken atheist, but I feel that Smith didn’t give God enough credit in his role of master of the universe.

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  4. Meaning no disrespect to JFS, it is difficult to engage with this type of narrative. And his approach has cast a long shadow on church dialogue and still perpetuates. But it seems to me it can’t be dug in to because the argument fails pray to a few logistical glitches. At various points in the quotes these appear.
    1. Contradictory premises – example – if God can do everything, he can make a rock so heavy he can’t pick it up.
    2. False alternatives are almost impossible to broach. When the reasoning is laid out such that all other possibilities, explanations, or solutions are ignored, there is no conversation to be had. Some have called this either/or syndrome.

    Love the blog! Always fun to read.

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