Science as a Legitimate Contributor to our Knowledge of Creation and Earth History

As noted in a prior post, Orson F. Whitney authored the 1909 First Presidency statement on “The Origin of Man.” He sent a letter to John Widtsoe with that draft, along with some notes. Although Whitney was strongly opposed to evolution, he acknowledge that science could play a role in clarifying earth history.  
Edit 03-21-2021 I have a post coming about this, but the comments I attribute to Whitney here are actually Widtsoe’s comments and feedback to Whitney, not Whitney’s words! 

the Church accepts all truth revealed to man, whether by the direct voice of God, by inspiration from God, or by the patient toil of intelligent searchers for truth in the laboratories, or the earth, the air, the ocean or in space. Prophets, poets and scientists, speaking with the love of truth in their hearts, give to the world a measure of God’s truth. The Church encourages the spirit of scientific discovery in any realm of nature.

The idea that clarity about creation and earth history could come through further scientific work, and not merely revelation, has been echoed in other places. Indeed, Whitney’s notes to Widtsoe indicated that the 1909 statement was NOT intended “to use the authority of the church in settling one of the scientific issues of the day.”  Whitney based the 1909 statement explicitly on interpretation of scripture, which means it was not representing any special revelation to him or the Quorum on the topic.

Frederick J. Pack, James E. Talmage’s successor at the University of Utah’s Deseret Chair of Geology in 1907, wrote a pro-evolution book in 1924, published through Deseret News Press.

If God were to repeat the story of man’s origin He would probably clear away many of the obscurities surrounding the account contained in Jewish scriptures. Doubtless, however, as people become more and more anxious to know the truth, He will supply means for  their enlightenment, but no one would care to say whether this enlightenment will come as direct revelation from God or through the researches of science.
Science and Belief in God: A Discussion of Certain Phases of Science and Their Bearing upon Belief in the Supreme Being, 179-80

Elder Stephen L. Richards’ 1936 Improvement Era article spoke about science and scripture, quoting extensively from a British authority, Ambrose Fleming.  Richards’ article was accompanied by an (editorial?) sidebar which included the line,

In the progress of time, through advancing science or direct revelation, further light may be shed on the many problems that arise when the origin of life on earth is discussed.

It appears that these LDS authors did not understand the 1909 statement to stake out a final, ultimate position on the science of evolution, creation, and earth history, and left the field open (potentially) to science to bring further knowledge and clarification.

Later authors also spoke of divine knowledge coming through scientific discovery, and not limited to LDS scientists, either.

Elder Joseph Fielding Smith— though his understanding of “science” skewed his evaluation of “good” and “bad” science— taught repeatedly what he saw as the implications of Joel 2:28; all scientific discoveries were inspired by God.

Now, my brethren and sisters, I am not going to confine this prophecy to the members of the Church. The Lord said he would pour out his Spirit upon all….There has never been a step taken from that day to this, in discovery or invention, where the Spirit of the Lord … was not the prevailing force, rest­ing upon the individual, which caused him to make the discovery or the in­vention … nor did the Lord always use those who have faith, nor does he al­ways do so today. He uses such minds as are pliable and can be turned in certain directions to accomplish his work, whether they believe in him or not.- Source

And Hugh B. Brown said this quite bluntly.

We should all be interested in academic research. We must go out on the research front and continue to explore the vast unknown. We should be in the forefront of learning in all fields, for revelation does not come only through the prophet of God nor only directly from heaven in visions or dreams. Revelation may come in the laboratory, out of the test tube, out of the thinking mind and the inquiring soul, out of search and research and prayer and inspiration.
– “A Final Testimony” Reprinted by David Bailey, here.


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4 thoughts on “Science as a Legitimate Contributor to our Knowledge of Creation and Earth History

  1. Love this! So many good quotes, thank you. He’s not a church authority, but I’ve always loved how Adam Miller starts the “Science” section of his good book Letters to a Young Mormon:

    The world is big and it’s hard to find a handle. Problems of scale abound. On a human scale, the world looks flat, a hundred years seems like a long time, and the sun pretty obviously circles the earth. Just look up in the sky. Every morning you can watch with your own eyes as the sun circles back above us, and every evening you can watch it circle back below. But the world is much rounder, time much deeper, and the earth more eccentric than this. We see the world through only the narrowest of keyholes. Given these limits, we can depend on getting things wrong, and we should welcome God’s rolling revelation that the world is much, much stranger than it seems.

    God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. God used to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.

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  2. I think it fascinating that we are attempting to validate evolution and the neo Darwinian processes and theories while archeologists, paleontologists, mathematician’s and others are now fleeing Darwinian Evolution like the animals from the ark.

    The findings from the Cambrian Explosion have created a serious schism between scientists who have held Natural Selection and Evolutionary Biology as sacred.

    Even the most ardent are now recognizing that the evidence of evolution as ‘top down’, meaning that the large Phylo branches seem to come BEFORE individual beaks, feathers and fur thickness. There are no ‘missing links’ between even the most primitive evolutionary trees.

    The ‘gaps’ which Darwin recognized existed, and which he expected to be filled with later scientific discoveries are actually proving just the opposite.

    So I guess my question is whether you believe Darwinian Evolution (Neo Darwinism) is the process which God uses to create, or whether your believe in some spiritual/physical hybrid?

    If the purpose is to show that the creation account as shown in Genesis, Abraham/Moses and the Temple is more allegorical than historical then there is ample evidence to support that; but if you are attempting to propose that Neo Darwinism is the creative process used for the origin of life and the progress of species from simple to complex organisms, then a large body of scientific thought has refuted that hypothesis.

    In fact, current scientific discovery has done more to upend that apple cart than Agassiz himself.

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