The 1909 First Presidency Statement in Its Historical Context

Some Latter-day Saints have touted the 1909 First Presidency statement as the definitive doctrinal repudiation of evolution for all time; Elder McConkie wanted it canonized and added to the 1978/82 scripture revisions, for example.

However, whether ancient scripture or 20th century history, context matters for interpretation and understanding. If one reads the public sources carefully, has access to certain documents and sources, and reads between the lines, a very interesting trend appears which undermines the typical view. I outline this trend very briefly below.

  1. Elder Orson F. Whitney authored the 1909 First Presidency statement. Earlier in his life, he had written in clear opposition to evolution, at least as he misunderstood it, e.g.

    “True science never taught any man to look for his progenitor in an ape”

    Note his title, “MAN’S ORIGIN AND DESTINY,” Contributor, Vol 3:9 (June 1882), 268-70. Joseph Fielding Smith preached a General Conference sermon by the same title in 1920, and his 1954 magnum opus bore a similar title (see here, here, and here for more on Smith and his views.)

    Whitney’s draft of the 1909 statement included very strong, definitive, and normative statements, e.g.

    Some Christian ministers have felt impelled to make… concessions to Darwinism…. The Latter-day Saint makes no such concession. According to the word of the Lord, Adam was the original man “the first man of all men” (Moses 1:34) – and the Lord is referring to Adam, and to no one else, when he speaks of “the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also” (Moses 3:7). This shuts out the evolutionary process completely.

    and

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the fixity of species as against the evolution that disregards that doctrine.”

    If you don’t remember reading those italicized lines in the 1909 statement, it’s because they appear only in Whitney’s draft, not the published First Presidency version. In some cases, the differences between the draft and the published version exist on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Presumably, the First Presidency and/or other Apostles disagreed or were sufficiently uncomfortable with Whitney’s absolutist interpretations and declarations, and excised them. These changes demonstrate a discomfort with making an absolute doctrinal stand against evolution.

  2. On at least two occasions after 1909, Church leaders requested information on evolution from LDS scientists.
    1. For the first occasion, James Talmage records in his journal (thanks to Hannah J!), Sep 28, 1914, that he

      was called to an important interview at the office of the First President at which Dr. [Frederick] J. Pack, my successor… at the University of Utah, was present. We listened to Dr. Pack’s statement of his views concerning the evolutionary hypothesis.

      Pack was a pro-evolution geologist who also dabbled in biology. In 1924 he authored Science and Belief in God: A Discussion of Certain Phases of Science and Their Bearing upon Belief in the Supreme Being, which Erich Robert Paul characterized as a “strong defense of evolution and impressive attempt to reconcile evolution with religion.”

      You might recall President Hinckley’s statement,

      I remember when I was a college student there were great discussions on the question of organic evolution. I took classes in geology and biology and heard the whole story of Darwinism as it was then taught.

      One author who interviewed him recounted Hinckley

      recalling his own study of anthropology and geology: “Studied all about it. Didn’t worry me then. Doesn’t worry me now.”

      What’s the relevance? Well, President Hinckley studied these topics under Frederick Pack, who was well-informed on the science, spoke to the First Presidency on the topic, and was pro-evolution.

    2. The second occasion was sometime in 1920. According to the Church History archive, BYU professor Martin

      From 1916 to his death in 1923, Henderson lived in the campus house now known as the Former Presidents’ Home.

      Henderson, a PhD from the University of Wisconsin and the head of the BYU Botany depart (and sole faculty member with a PhD at the time) gave “a course… to members of the Quorum of the Twelve on the theory of evolution.” The outline of this course is twenty-five detailed and technical pages about the state of evolutionary science at the time. In my view, it would be impossible to come away from this “course” with the impression that evolution did not have strong evidence for it. Henderson does not appear to offer any scriptural interpretation.

  3. Following the famed and misunderstood Scopes Trial in 1925, William Jennings Bryan dies almost immediately. (Sidebar— Bryan has been unfairly caricatured as the epitome of unthinking “literalist” fundamentalism and/or a young-earth creationist, but this is anachronistic. Those views didn’t become popular or widespread until the early 1960s; Bryan strongly opposed human evolution for moral reasons and privately held to an old earth and didn’t have issues with plant or animal evolution.) After his death, the Church lionizes Bryan in the September Improvement Era, and runs his “Undelivered Argument on the Anti-Evolution Law” in the October New Era as the lead article.  Bryan had spoken in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on at least one occasion, and Church leaders knew him personally and felt strong affiliation with his views as they were known. (Our upcoming BYU Studies special issue is likely to have some great information on this.) Two significant things happen here in 1925.
    1. First, the First Presidency did not condemn the teaching of evolution in schools as Fundamentalists did elsewhere, nor did Utah pass any evolution-restrictive legislation, as was debated elsewhere. Given their deep agreement with Bryan’s views, and the 1911 issues with evolution and  BYU, the lack of any clear religious condemnation or any legislation against evolution cuts against what one might have expected of Church and political leadership in Utah.
    2. Second, in that same September Improvement Era lauding Bryan, the Church “republishes” the 1909 First Presidency statement. However, it is not presented as a republication, but as the

      ‘Mormon’ View of Evolution. A statement by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

      The text is presented as a new First Presidency statement on evolution, which would therefore supersede the 1909 statement. On what grounds? No reference is made to 1909 or “reprinting,” and the First Presidency signatures are not those of 1909 First Presidency—Smith, Winder, and Lund— but the 1925 First Presidency: Grant, Ivins, and Nibley.

      Moreover, after 1925, when asked for a statement on evolution, the Church would respond by providing a copy of the 1925 statement, NOT 1909. It thus seems clear that 1925 was to supersede 1909.
      The significance of this new statement is what it doesn’t say. The word count drops from 2707 words in 1909 to only 533 words in 1925. Just as the 1909 statement had stripped out Whitney’s draft absolutist anti-evolutionary doctrinal statements, the 1925 statement— which effectively treats the 1909 as an early draft— excises most (but not all) of the language perceived as anti-evolution.

  4. In my view, these events and publications, taken as a whole, demonstrate a trajectory away from flat and unambiguous rejection of evolution, towards… well, hard to say. Not acceptance per se, but a willingness to recognize the reliability of the science, and to avoid interpretive/doctrinal overreach in making declarations, as Whitney had in his draft. This data (and other data I do not include here) should show Latter-day Saints today that the 1909 statement was not the last word by the First Presidency, nor an eternal doctrinal declaration against evolution. Already in 1909, there was enough discomfort with Whitney’s absolute declarations to edit them out before publication. Church leaders sought good information in 1914 and 1920 from two LDS scientists, and then in 1925, offered a new revised statement.

To summarize, then, my argument is that the historical context of the 1909 First Presidency statement and the trajectory from Whitney’s draft to the 1909 Statement to the superseding 1925 First Presidency Statement demonstrate a clear decreasing hostility to evolution. Individual apostles, of course, held their individual views, which manifest themselves in 1931 and 1934.

For further reading, check out my syllabus on scripture, history, science, and creation, or my posts on evolution.

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7 thoughts on “The 1909 First Presidency Statement in Its Historical Context

  1. Ben, this is interesting. My one thought here is about Aim and Audience. It feels as though your Aim is to show the position of the church, despite it’s historical statements is and has always been leading towards a pro-evolution stance, and your audience is a person who says the church is anti-evolution due to the 1909 statement.

    If that is your audience, would it not be easier to say those church leaders were wrong about evolution, much the same way they were wrong about Africans and women. Is it not better to eliminate the false concept of prophetic infallibility rather that try to maintain it?

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    1. As the title makes clear, this post is oriented towards the history and context, not the theology of prophethood.

      I don’t know how much of the blog you’ve read in recent years, as it’s hard to do so and suggest I’m trying to “maintain the false concept of prophetic infallibility.” Moreover, it is insufficient to simply write off anything we don’t like in history with simplistic hand-waving around “they were wrong” without trying to understand both the context of the issue in question AND the nature of prophethood. I’ve written plenty elsewhere on this blog about the nature of prophetic knowledge and also the serious problems with popular conceptions of prophethood with their de facto infallibility, such as here, here, and here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey Ben, sorry for the delay in response. I definitely don’t think from the greater body of your work that you are trying to maintain prophetic infallibility. I was speaking more to this individual piece. Anyway, it is interesting history. Keep up the good work. I am rooting for you. I think this is an important space.

        I have a hard time dividing theology from history and vice versa.

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    1. That part’s from memory, and there’s not a publicly available source on that. However, iirc, the items he *wanted* canonized are named in his famous “The Bible: a Sealed Book.” They included the Lectures on Faith, Wentworth Letter, the “Father and the Son” statement from 1916, 1909 “Origin of Man” statement, and two Joseph Smith sermons. He fought pretty hard for Lectures on Faith.

      Liked by 1 person

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