History of the LDS Church's view on the age of the earth and evolution

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

The leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), compared to many other faiths (particularly in the 19th century), have generally been somewhat cautious regarding topics such as the age of the earth and evolution. As a result, there is disagreement as to what constitutes the Church's "official" position or even if there is a clear-cut position. To better clarify the issue, here is an overview of this history, concluding with the current picture. Some additional historical details may be found in [Jeffery1974].

It should be noted that "evolution" has been used in several senses in these discussions, ranging from the simple assertion that the earth is many millions of years old, instead of just a few thousand years old, to the full-fledged "modern synthesis" of Darwinian evolution that is accepted at the present time by most scientists as the explanation for the proliferation and adaptation of biological species. In the following, we will attempt to distinguish which specific senses are intended at each juncture.

19th Century

During the 19th century, LDS leaders and theologians tended to mostly avoid questions of the creation in general, and anything to do with evolution in particular. The few exceptions are remarkably "progressive," particularly in comparison to the combative rhetoric that one finds in the discourse of many other Christian denominations at the time. For example, in 1844, W. W. Phelps published the following intriguing comment [Phelps1844]:
Well, now, Brother William, when the house of Israel begin to come into the glorious mysteries of the kingdom, and find that Jesus Christ, whose goings forth, as the prophets said, have been from of old, from eternity; and that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system, (not this world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years: and to know at the same time, that deists, geologists and others are trying to prove that matter must have existed hundreds of thousands of years; -- it almost tempts the flesh to fly to God, or muster faith like Enoch to be translated and see and know as we are seen and known!

In other words, Phelps (or whomever he was quoting -- some say Joseph Smith, Jr.) suggested that "eternity" has been going on "in this system" for 2,555,000,000 years. Note that one can obtain this figure by regarding the 7000 years traditionally assumed as the creation time to consist of "days" each of which has length 1000 years in our current reckoning: 7000 x 365 x 1000 = 2,555,000,000. However, the passage is muddied by the parenthetical "(not this world)," so it is not entirely clear what to make of it. At the least, it suggests that early leaders of the Church were thinking in rather expansive terms with regards to issues such as the age of the earth and of the universe.

One of the first explicit declarations that the earth may be many millions of years old was in this passage from an 1871 discourse given by church president Brigham Young [Young1871]:

In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is a true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts--they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways, we would say that he took of this matter and organized this earth from it. How long it has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant.

1900-1935

In 1909, as part of an effort to establish more clearly its fundamental doctrines, the First Presidency released a statement entitled "The Origin of Man." This touched on numerous themes and included, for instance, the first explicit acknowledgement in "official" LDS literature of the existence of a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. The statement also included the following passage [FP1909]:
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 our race.

Evidently this passage raised a bit of a stir, because a few months later, an editorial in the Improvement Era addressed the following question "from several High Priest quorums": "In just what manner did the mortal bodies of Adam and Eve come into existence on this earth?" The editorial responded [IE1910]:

Of course, all are familiar with the statements in Genesis 1: 26-27; 2: 7; also in the Book of Moses, Pearl of Great Price, 2: 27; and in the Book of Abraham 5: 7. The latter statement reads: "And the Gods formed man from the dust of the ground, and took his spirit (that is, the man's spirit) and put it into him; and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul."
These are the authentic statements of the scriptures, ancient and modern, and it is best to rest with these, until the Lord shall see fit to give more light on the subject. Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.

Sixteen years later, in the wake of the Scopes Trial of 1925, the First Presidency released a statement entitled "Mormon View of Evolution" [FP1925]. This statement was essentially a shortened and edited version of the 1909 statement. Interestingly, the "anti-evolution" material of the 1909 statement was conspicuously absent.

In 1930, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith delivered a general conference talk declaring that there was no death of any animal before the fall of Adam, and specifically rejecting the notion of "pre-Adamites." Elder Brigham H. Roberts raised concerns, and the two of them were invited to present their differing views to the LDS First Presidency. Elder Smith cited scriptures and the 1909 statement, whereas Elder Roberts relied more on findings of science. The First Presidency subsequently concluded that additional debate would be fruitless, and so released a letter to all general authorities that concluded with this instruction [FP1931]:

Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the people of the world. Leave Geology, Biology, Archaeology and Anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.
We can see no advantage to be gained by a continuation of the discussion to which reference is here made, but on the contrary are certain that it would lead to confusion, division and misunderstanding if carried further. Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: "Adam is the primal parent of our race."

It should be pointed out that the Smith-Roberts "debate" in general, and the 1931 First Presidency letter in particular, did not address the theory of Darwinian evolution in the specific sense that we use the term today. But it did deal with evolution in the more general sense of life, death and "pre-Adamites" on earth eons before historic times. Elder Roberts' view, for instance, is indicated from the following passage, taken from his 1931 manuscript The Truth, the Way, the Life [Roberts1931, pg. 364]:

On the other hand, to limit and insist upon the whole of life and death to this side of Adam's advent to the earth, some six or eight thousand years ago, as proposed by some, is to fly in the face of the facts so indisputably brought to light by the researcher of science in modern times, and this as set forth by men of the highest type in the intellectual and moral world; not inferior men, or men of sensual and devilish temperament, but men who must be accounted as among the noblest and most self-sacrificing of the sons of men -- of the type whence must come the noblest sons of God, since "the glory of God is intelligence" (D&C 93:36); and that too the glory of man. These researchers after truth are of that class. To pay attention to and give reasonable credence to their research and findings is to link the church of God with the highest increase of human thought and effort. On that side lies development, on the other lies contraction. It is on the former side that research work is going on and will continue to go on, future investigation and discoveries will continue on that side, nothing will retard them, and nothing will develop on the other side. One leads to narrow sectarianism, the other keeps the open spirit of a world movement with which our New Dispensation began. As between them which is to be our choice?

Later in 1931, Elder James E. Talmage gave a talk "The Earth and Man," which was later published by the First Presidency. In this talk, Talmage openly acknowledged the great antiquity of the earth, the reality of life and death, and even the progression of living organisms through the eons [Talmage1931]:

According to the conception of geologists the earth passed through ages of preparation, to us unmeasured and immeasurable, during which countless generations of plants and animals existed in great variety and profusion and gave in part the very substance of their bodies to help form certain strata which are still existent as such. ...
Geologists say that these very simple forms of plant and animal bodies were succeeded by others more complicated; and in the indestructible record of the rocks they read the story of advancing life from the simple to the more complex, from the single-celled protozoan to the highest animals, from the marine algae to the advanced types of flowering plant -- to the apple-tree, the rose, and the oak.
What a fascinating story is inscribed upon the stony pages of the earth's crust! ...
This record of Adam and his posterity is the only scriptural account we have of the appearance of man upon this earth. But we have also a vast and ever-increasing volume of knowledge concerning man, his early habits and customs, his industries and works of art, his tools and implements, about which such scriptures as we have thus far received are entirely silent. Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we cannot explain.

1950-1970

In 1954, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith published his book Man His Origin and Destiny [Smith1954]. This work took a very literal view of the creation, and strongly rejected the theory of evolution. Although the book had not been officially approved by the Church's reading committee, it nonetheless was widely read and thought by many to represent the Church's "official" view. In a letter responding to one person who wrote to the First Presidency expressing concern, President David O. Mckay wrote "On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position. The book 'Man, His Origin and Destiny' was not published by the Church, and is not approved by the Church. The book contains expressions of the author's views for which he alone is responsible." [McKay1957] (see photocopy at McKay evolution). Transcripts of several other letters from President McKay expressing a similar position, some with significantly more detail, are available in [Bergera2007, pg. 132-135].

By the way, President McKay personally accepted evolution [Prince2005, pg. 46], although he never officially declared this view. He did, however, mention the "millions of years of the earth's existence" in at least two talks to the BYU studentbody [McKay1956; McKay1967], and he commented positively on evolution both in a 1952 BYU talk [McKay1952] and later, using virtually the same language, in a 1968 general conference talk [McKay1968] (this text is from the 1952 talk):

But science, dominated by the spirit of religion is the key to progress and the hope of the future. For example, evolution's beautiful theory of the creation of the world offers many perplexing problems to the inquiring mind. Inevitably, a teacher who denies divine agency in creation, who insists there is no intelligent purpose in it, will infest the student with the thought that all may be chance. I say, that no youth should be so led without a counter balancing though. Even the skeptic teacher should be fair enough to see that even Charles Darwin, when he faced this great question of annihilation, that the creation is dominated only by chance wrote: "It is an intolerable thought than man and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long, continued slow progress." And another good authority, Raymond West, said, "Why this vast [expenditure] of time and pain and blood?" Why should man come so far if he's destined to go no farther? A creature that travels such distances and fought such battles and won such victories deserves what we are compelled to say, "To conquer death and rob the grave of its victory."

In 1958, Elder Bruce R. McConkie published the first edition of his book Mormon Doctrine. The book caught senior LDS authorities by surprise. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, who was Elder McConkie's father-in-law, said that he "did not know anything about it until it was published" [Prince2005, pg. 49]. Among the entries was a lengthy article on evolution that concluded, "There is no harmony between the truths of revealed religion and the theories of organic evolution." [McConkie1958, pg. 256]. President McKay asked a committee consisting of Elders Mark E. Petersen and Marion G. Romney to review the book. Elder Petersen reported finding 1067 difficulties, which "affected most of the 776 pages of the book," while Elder Romney listed 40 areas of concern, including the treatment of "evolution and evolutionists" [McKay1960; Prince2005, pg. 50]. The consensus at the time was that Elder McConkie was not to publish a second edition, although subsequently a second edition appeared in 1966.

1980-2005

On 1 June 1980, Elder McConkie gave a speech at BYU entitled "The Seven Deadly Heresies." One of the heresies he highlighted was "organic evolution." Interestingly, the version of the talk that McConkie delivered differed from the subsequent published copy. For instance, the evolution section in the published copy included the admonition (absent in the verbal version), "These are questions to which all of us should find answers. Every person must choose for himself what he will believe." [McConkie1980].

In September 1987, the Ensign (the LDS Church's official monthly magazine) published an article by Morris Petersen (a BYU professor of geology and President of the Provo Utah East Stake) entitled "Do we know how the earth's history as indicated from fossils fits with the earth's history as the scriptures present it?", as part of its regular "I Have a Question" series. This article gave a brief but straightforward exposition of the scientific evidence for an old earth and fossil layers. Petersen declared [Petersen1987]:

The existence of these animals is indisputable, for their remains have been found in rocks all over the earth. What eternal purpose they played in the creation and early history of the earth is unknown. The scriptures do not address the question, and it is not the realm of science to explore the issue of why they were here. We can only conclude, as Elder Talmage did, that "the whole series of chalk deposits and many of our deep-sea limestones contain the skeletal remains of animals. These lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation."

On 30 October 1988, Elder Boyd K. Packer delivered an address to students at BYU entitled "The Law and the Light." In this speech Elder Packer declared, "It is my conviction that to the degree the theory of evolution asserts that man is the product of an evolutionary process, the offspring of animals -- it is false!" However, in the published copy, which did not appear until 1990, the talk was immediately preceded by a sharply worded disclaimer: "The author alone is responsible for the views set forth therein. They do not necessarily represent the Church." [Packer1988]. The present author is not aware of any other instance of a BYU speech by an LDS leader that is prefaced by such a disclaimer.

In 1991, as part of the compilation of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, two lengthy manuscripts were prepared on the topic of evolution -- one generally "pro-evolution" and one generally "anti-evolution." These were reviewed by the Church's editorial committee for the project, consisting of two senior general authorities, who rejected both articles. The matter was referred to President Gordon B. Hinckley, who was effectively acting as the President of the Church at the time. In response, President Hinckley forwarded to the Encyclopedia editors a copy of the 1931 First Presidency letter mentioned above, together with a draft of a short article. The text of the resulting article is almost word-for-word what President Hinckley provided [Evenson1991]:

The position of the Church on the origin of man was published by the First Presidency in 1909 and stated again by a different First Presidency in 1925:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, basing its belief on divine revelation, ancient and modern, declares man to be the direct and lineal offspring of Deity. ... Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes (see Appendix, "Doctrinal Expositions of the First Presidency").
The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again (D&C 101:32-33). In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency of the Church, then consisting of Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley, addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter, and concluded,
Upon the fundamental doctrines of the Church we are all agreed. Our mission is to bear the message of the restored gospel to the world. Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church. ...
Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely, that Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund were right when they said: "Adam is the primal parent of our race." [First Presidency Minutes, Apr. 7, 1931].

In 1992, in an effort to quell continuing disputes on the BYU campus as to the Church's views on evolution, a group of faculty assembled what is now called the "BYU Packet" on evolution. The packet consisted of four items: the 1909 First Presidency statement, the 1910 Improvement Era article, the 1925 First Presidency statement, and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on evolution. The Encyclopedia article was selected both because of its quotation from the 1931 First Presidency letter and also because of President Hinckley's role in drafting it. The packet was subsequently approved by the BYU Board of Trustees, which included senior general authorities and members of the First Presidency.

In 2002, the Ensign reprinted the 1909 statement "The Origin of Man" as "the Church's doctrinal position on these matters" [Gospel2002]. None of the more recent statements were mentioned. Evidently quite a few persons sent letters to the Editor of the Ensign inquiring about the piece. These letters were forwarded to the First Presidency, who replied (in at least one case personally known to the present author) by sending the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on evolution via the writer's local bishop. BYU faculty who inquired to Church offices about the Ensign article were instructed (in at least one case personally known to the present author) by senior BYU administrators, conveying a message from the First Presidency, that the BYU Packet remained the Church's official position.

In 2005, with the news of the impending Dover, Pennsylvania intelligent design case, the Deseret News ran an article on evolution and the teaching of evolution in Utah [Jarvik2005]. The reporter inquired to the Church on the issue and was given the following information:

According to Randy Hall, assistant superintendent of the LDS Church Educational System, seminary teachers are told to refer to church statements included in what is known as the "BYU packet," a collection of four official statements on evolution made between 1909 and 1992. The statements are somewhat vague but do include sentences such as "Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes," and "Adam is the primal parent of our race." The packet does not include more clearly anti-evolution -- and oft-quoted -- unofficial statements such as those made by Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1988.

This statement makes it clear that the BYU Packet (which includes the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on evolution) continues to be considered as the most authoritative source as to the Church's position on the issue of evolution. For the full text of the BYU Packet, see BYU packet or [Evenson2006].

Present situation

At the present time, although there have been no further formal announcements, most available evidence indicates that the LDS Church fully intends to pursue the direction given in the 1931 First Presidency statement, namely to leave questions regarding evolution (in a broad sense encompassing the age of the earth, the proliferation of species and the causes of speciation and adaptations) to the world of scientific research, and not become embroiled in scientific or technical controversies.

For example, as of the current date the LDS Church's website lds.org, under Study by Topics lists a total of 232 separate topics discussing LDS Church beliefs and practices. Yet in all of this material, only one of the 232 topics ("Creation") is in any way related to evolution. Further, the brief statement of belief given on this page completely avoids technical issues. This also applies to the eight articles linked to on this webpage, except that two articles note that the "days" of creation are periods of an indefinite length of time. Prior to about 2009, the Church provided, under the topic "Origin of Man," a link to the 1909 statement mentioned above, but as of the present date both this topic and the material it linked to have been removed from the website.

It is also very interesting that a pro-science interview (by John Lewis, formerly of the University of Arizona and MIT) is included on the lds.org website in very prominent spot on a page that sketches seven of the LDS Church's fundamental beliefs: Lewis interview. Lewis explains that, "As scientists, we can understand a great deal about when things happened, where they happened, how long they took, but science is completely silent on the subject of the who and the why of creation." He compares science and religion to the differing images seen by the left and right eyes, yet when they are combined they result in three-dimensional vision.

In a similar way, lesson material that has been written by the Church in the past several years generally avoids evolution and other scientific questions, except to note that the days of Creation are indefinite periods of time. For example, the latest edition (2001) of the Sunday School Old Testament manual emphasizes that "The length of time required for the Creation is not known. The term day in the scriptural account of the Creation does not represent a 24-hour period." [LDS-GD-OT, pg. 11]. One exception to the general "hands-off" approach in teaching manuals is the Old Testament manual provided for Institutes of Religion by the Church Education System. This manual includes, in its chapter on the Creation, material that is rather critical of evolution, even going to far as to include material from a Seventh-day Adventist creationist and to quote Joseph Fielding Smith saying, "you cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God" [LDS-Inst-OT, pg. 27-36]. However, this particular chapter was written at least 30 years ago and, according to CES personnel, is slated to be revised. In any event, according to several BYU faculty and Institute personnel interviewed by the present author, this material is widely ignored, in part because it is in conflict with the BYU Packet on evolution.

Along this line, mainstream scientific theories of evolutionary biology, old-earth geology and paleontology are openly taught at BYU and BYU-Idaho, without apology, and have been for at least five decades, will full approval of BYU's Board of Trustees. What's more, a notable number of the BYU and BYU-Idaho faculty are well published in these disciplines. Two areas in which BYU researchers are particularly noted are the collection and analysis of dinosaur fossils (see BYU dinosaur museum) and bioinformatics, i.e., the sequencing and analysis of DNA for studies in evolution, medicine and other applications (see BYU bioinformatics program).

References

  1. [Bergera2007] Gary James Bergera, Statements of the First Presidency: A Topical Compendium, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 2007.
  2. [Evenson1991] William Evenson, "Evolution," from Daniel Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillian, NY, 1991.
  3. [Evenson2006] William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 2006.
  4. [IE1910] Editorial, Improvement Era, 1910, available at Online article.
  5. [FP1909] LDS First Presidency, "The Origin of Man," 1909, available at Online article.
  6. [FP1925] LDS First Presidency, "Mormon View of Evolution," 1925, available at Online article.
  7. [FP1931] LDS First Presidency, letter to general authorities, 1931, available at Online article.
  8. [Gospel2002] "Gospel Classics: The Origin of Man," Ensign, Feb 2002, pg. 26.
  9. [Jarvik2005] Elaine Jarvik, "Utah's Non-War over Evolution," Deseret News, 18 Mar 2005, available at Online article.
  10. [Jeffery1974] Duane E. Jeffery, "Seers, Savants and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 8, no. 3-4 (1974), pg. 41-69, available at Online article.
  11. [LDS-GD-OT] [no author] Old Testament: Gospel Doctrine Teacher's Manual, LDS Church, Salt Lake City, UT, 2001, available at Online manual.
  12. [LDS-Inst-OT] [no author] Old Testament Student Manual: Genesis - 2 Samuel, Church Education System, 2003, available at Online article.
  13. [McKay1952] David O. McKay, "A Message for LDS College Youth," BYU Speeches of the Year, 10 Oct 1952, pg. 6-7.
  14. [McKay1956] David O. McKay, "Gospel Ideals -- Life's Surest Anchor," BYU Speeches of the Year, 30 Oct 1956.
  15. [McKay1957] David O. McKay, letter to William Lee Stokes, 11 Feb 1957, available at McKay evolution.
  16. [McKay1960] David O. McKay, journal dated 7 Jan 1960, copy in author's possession.
  17. [McKay1967] David O. McKay, "Gospel Ideals -- Life's Surest Anchor," BYU Speeches of the Year, 16 May 1967.
  18. [McKay1968] David O. McKay, LDS Conference Report, Apr 1968, pg. 92.
  19. [McConkie1958] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, UT, 1958, second edition, 1966.
  20. [McConkie1980] Bruce R. McConkie, "The Seven Deadly Heresies," transcript in author's possession.
  21. [Packer1988] Boyd K. Packer, "The Law and the Light," in Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, eds., To Learn with Joy, Brigham Young University, Apr 1990.
  22. [Petersen1987] Morris S. Petersen, "I Have a Question," Ensign, Sep 1987, pg. 28-29.
  23. [Phelps1844] W. W. Phelps, Times and Seasons, vol.5, pg. 758, 1 Jan 1844.
  24. [Prince2005] Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay: The Rise of Modern Mormonism, University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, UT, 2005.
  25. [Roberts1931] B. H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, the Life, originally written 1931, published by Smith Research Associates, Salt Lake City, UT, 1994.
  26. [Smith1954] Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, UT, 1954.
  27. [Talmage1931] James E. Talmage, "The Earth and Man," address delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, 9 Aug 1931, and published by the LDS Church, available at Online article.
  28. [Young1871] [Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 14, pg. 116, 14 May 1871.