An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Evolution was not a big deal in my Utah education of the 1950s. We studied the ancient geology of Utah in elementary school and learned about rocks and fossils millions of years old. The subject might have come up in seminary, but I spent class time passing notes to friends and pretty much ignored Brother Devowt’s instruction. Somewhere I heard the line, “Science tells you how, religion tells you who” about the creation of the earth and that satisfied me.

When I transferred to BYU from a state college, I noticed that on Day 1 of each science class, the prof gave a prepared spiel about evolution being a useful theory for the study of chemistry, bacteriology, or whatever—but that using the term in class did not mean the instructor lacked faith in God or accepted the theory of evolution as an absolute truth.

I began reading the Improvement Era in the ‘60s and noticed strong anti-evolutionary views. The Era ran articles “proving” the earth was created in 6000 years. It suggested that the deluge at approximately 1800 BC and earthquakes and volcanoes at the time of the crucifixion accounted for the changes that scientists attributed to eons of time. I bought a copy of Joseph Fielding Smith’s Man, His Origin and Destiny. My faith in an apostle of my church and my lack of sophistication at evaluating an author’s relevant credentials caused me to accept everything Smith wrote as truth from God.  I finished the book convinced that all skeletons of prehistoric man were potential Piltdown hoaxes.

Several years later, a recent BYU graduate was giving the obligatory “new move-in” speech in our ward in Renton, Washington and chose to speak on evolution—this was in the day before topics and resources were assigned to speakers. Brother Newcomer outlined the history of the LDS position on evolution—B.H. Roberts vs. Joseph Fielding Smith with David O. McKay in the middle. I was surprised to learn that the only official First Presidency statement on evolution was from Joseph F. Smith’s presidency, affirming Adam as the “primal parent of our race,” but leaving  the question of geological and non-human biological evolution open.

LDS official discourse has been relatively quiet about evolution for many years although that has not prevented members from expounding their own beliefs. A high school student in my Sunday School class once gave an unprompted testimony that even the thought of evolution—of humans descending from apes—made him sick to his stomach. Probably the kid was quoting a seminary teacher since neither parent exhibited much interest in either Church doctrine or science. I left class glad our own kids had skipped seminary frequently. At least their science grades didn’t suffer.

I suspect Church teachings on evolution in most wards have swung to the right in the past decade. The Ensign even reprinted the 1909 First Presidency Statement in 2002.  In science as well as on many social issues, Latter-day Saints seem hell bent on following the evangelical model. A couple of years ago, my visiting teacher informed me that carbon-dating was unreliable science.

The Roman Catholic Church survived Galileo’s discoveries. Latter-day Saints could take a lesson—focus on positives of LDS philosophy without denigrating modern science research that creates paradox. The leadership for this focus, of course, must come from the top. Hopefully, we’ll evolve in that direction.

 

 

 

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Comments on: "Evolving Mormon Thought on Evolution" (3)

  1. Hi, I just read your last two essays. With this last news story between Patrick Kennedy and his bishop, their political differences notwithstanding, I find myself drifting further from the Catholic Church. Doesn’t seem to be my church anymore. But maybe I never paid enough attention to what my church expected me to believe. Maybe I’ve always believed what I wanted to believe.

    Today is Cyber Monday. Good deals on Internet shopping. I haven’t bought a thing yet. As for gift giving, my husband and I quit a couple years ago; although I already gave the paperboy a nice tip. This year I wonder if we’ll even buy/send cards. Sad to see that custom go, but……..

    • I don’t think most of us “drift” away from the church of our birth. I think we outgrow it. In the best cases, we keep what is relevent and add to our personal belief system from other sources.

      I, too, hate to see the Christmas card tradition end, but with so many other ways to keep in touch these days, the annual Christmas letter seems redundant.

  2. Courtney Brown said:

    I’m in the “Science tells you how, religion tells you who” club. I’ve never been able to express it in one line before though. I like it.

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