Mormonism and Evolution

Mormonism and Evolution 

By Bill McKeever

On May 22, 2000, a reader in the Salt Lake Tribune took BYU assistant professor Randy Bennett to task for insisting that all modern creatures had a common ancestor. The reader claimed that this was inconsistent since the LDS Church, with its doctrine of the pre-existence, has traditionally taught that man was created and did not evolve. In response, professor Wilford Hess, a botany professor from BYU, wrote a letter signed by 19 others rejecting the notion that Mormonism and creationism are compatible.

The letter, printed in the June 8, 2000 edition, reads as follows:

We should like to respond to the comments by Robert Baczuk (Forum, May 22), in which he asserts that Mormons are creationists and then faults Brigham Young University for teaching evolution.

Mormonism emphatically does not fit into the theological mold of modern creationism. The creationists' concept of a single triune and sovereign deity who spoke all time, energy, matter and space into existence from nothing (i.e. ex nihilo) is flatly rejected in LDS doctrine. While some LDS writers have indeed opted for a relatively short age for the Earth, none has ever accepted creationism's insistence that the creation periods were six literal 24-hour days. Other prominent Mormons have interpreted the creation periods as embodying millions of years of life and death. Creationism and Mormonism are vastly different philosophies.

Mormon literature has long taught that God works through natural laws, and that the study of those laws is the study of divine handiwork. To clarify the church's views on evolution, the First Presidency and a number of apostles formally approved in 1992 a packet of materials for use at BYU. The packet includes First Presidency statements of 1909, 1910, 1925, and the Evolution entry in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism. This latter statement, formally approved by the current First Presidency, includes data from the presidency's private files. The upshot of these statements is that "The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how ..." Of interest to this latter question is an editorial to priesthood leaders in the April 1910 Improvement Era expanding on the earlier 1909 First Presidency statement. It lists three possibilities for the creation of the original humans' bodies. Though evolution "in natural processes ... through the direction and power of God ..." is given as one of the apparently acceptable options, the so-called literal reading of Genesis (breath of life into a body molded form dust) is significantly not included. Rejection of this latter scriptural interpretation offers yet another significant difference from creationism, which insists adamantly on the literal interpretation.

Mormonism further teaches that humans are responsible for divinely mandated stewardship of the Earth and its organisms. Evolution beautifully synthesizes the masses of demonstrable scientific data as no other concept ever has.

But more important, it is the only concept that provides management principles for effective stewardship. Clearly it is a science critical to Latter-day Saints.

WILFORD M. HESS
Professor of Botany, BYU
and 19 others
Provo

The Origin of Man as taught in 1909

The possibility that mankind evolved from a lower life form has not always been taught in the LDS Church. In his book entitled Man: His Origin and Destiny, Joseph Fielding Smith cites a statement issued by the First Presidency in 1909 that he said "should be heeded by members of the LDS Church." Signed by Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, the statement read in part:

Inquiries arise from time to time respecting the attitude of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints upon questions which, though not vital from a doctrinal standpoint, are closely connected with the fundamental principles of salvation. The latest inquiry of this kind that has reached us is in relation to the origin of man. It is believed that statement of the position held by the Church upon this important subject will be timely and productive of good...

Adam, our great progenitor, 'the first man,' was, like Christ, a pre-existent spirit, and like Christ, he took upon him an appropriate body, the body of a man, and so became a 'living soul.' The doctrine of the pre-existence, revealed so plainly, particularly in latter-days, pours a wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man's origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality. It teaches that all men existed in the spirit before any man existed in the flesh, and that all who have inhabited the earth since Adam have taken bodies and become souls in like manner.

It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth, and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declares that Adam was 'the first man of all men' (Moses 1:34), and we are therefore in duty bound to regard him as the primal parent of the race. It was shown to the brother of Jared that all men were created in the beginning after the image of God; and whether we take this to mean the spirit or the body, or both, it commits us to the same conclusion: Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our heavenly Father.

True it is that the body of man enters upon its career as a tiny germ or embryo, which becomes an infant, quickened at a certain stage by the spirit whose tabernacle it is, and the child, after being born, develops into a man. There is nothing in this, however, to indicate that the original man the first of our race, began life as anything less than a man, or less than the human germ or embryo that becomes a man.

Man, by searching, cannot find out God. Never, unaided, will he discover the truth about the beginning of human life. The Lord must reveal himself or remain unrevealed; and the same is true of the facts relating to the origin of Adam's race -- God alone can reveal them. Some of these facts, however, are already known, and what has been made known it is our duty to receive and retain.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, proclaims man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. God himself is an exalted man, perfected, enthroned, and supreme. By his almighty power he organized the earth, and all that it contains, from spirit and element, which exist co-eternally with himself. He formed every plant that grows, and every animal that breathes, each after its own kind, spiritually and temporally -- 'that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal, and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual.' He made the tadpole and the ape, the lion and the elephant; but he did not make them in his own image, nor endow them with Godlike reason and intelligence. Nevertheless, the whole animal creation will be perfected and perpetuated in the hereafter, each class in its 'destined order or sphere.' and will enjoy 'eternal felicity.' That fact has been made plain in this dispensation. (D. & C. 77:3.)

Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God. (Man: His Origin and Destiny, pp. 354-355.)

Under the heading "ORIGIN OF MAN" in the third volume of Encyclopedia of Mormonism, BYU Professor Emeritus John Sorenson wrote,

Since the rise of Darwinism in 1860, individual Latter-day Saints, both leaders and members, have occasionally participated in public discussion about evolution, since the official position of the Church on man's origin is not definitive in all respects. Mormons have expressed a wide range of views that are reminiscent of the well-known debates among Christians. Since a large number of Latter-day Saints entered careers in science early in this century, some have attempted to reconcile scientific facts and ideas with statements from the scriptures and prophetic leaders that are emphasized in the LDS tradition. Others have argued that in this area science merely offers "theories of men" and should therefore be discounted.

Many sympathetic to science interpret certain statements in LDS scripture to mean that God used a version of evolution to prepare bodies and environmental surroundings suitable for the premortal spirits. For example, one scriptural description of creation says, "the Gods organized the earth to bring forth…every thing that creepeth upon the earth after its kind" (Abr. 4:25 [emphasis added]). Certain statements of various General Authorities are also used by proponents of this idea to justify their opinions.

Some might insist that pointing out this inconsistency is a bit hypocritical given the fact that the Christian community is also divided when it comes to the subject of origins. Many sincere Bible-believing Christians adamantly believe in a young earth that was created in six literal days. Others hold to a position that allows for a much older earth. Both sides feel their perception does not conflict with Scripture. While I certainly recognize this disparity, it does not discount the fact that the LDS general authorities, men who allegedly speak for God Himself, have made conflicting pronouncements on this matter. Mormons are told that they are to trust their leaders, but the question is, which one should they trust?