Science and Mormon Teachings: "Mormon Answers" to Frequent Questions
Does modern science contradict the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes incorrectly called the "Mormon Church")? Do Mormons flee from science in fear? Or can serious scientists also find room to have faith in Jesus Christ and to accept the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other teachings of the Church? Here I offer my perspectives as a member of the Church. This page is part of my suite on "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This work is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and has not been officially endorsed by the Church.
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You would think the Mormons were terrified of science, based on some of the propaganda from vocal critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or, as the New York Times insists on incorrectly calling it, "The Mormon Church"). Some "scientific" critics have tried to paint the Church as anti-science, with archaic doctrines that have been toppled by modern knowledge. Some critics have allegedly used scientific knowledge to debunk the Book of Mormon and "prove" that the Church is nothing more than a man-made organization with false and unsupported doctrines. In all this, one thing is for sure: the scientific method has been abandoned by those who wrap themselves in the shroud of scientific enlightenment. In the emotion-packed "end-justifies-the-means" agenda of some anti-Mormon "ministries," science is being misused, and the teachings of the Church are being grossly misstated, to attack the Church and "win back" benighted Mormons.
Some critics like Thomas Murphy, with the help of his publicist, have drawn national attention to the allegedly anti-science position of the Church (a professor with a publicist?--there is a clue that something more than pure science is involved in his efforts). The media has generally ignored the voice of the many real scientists in the Church who generally lack professional publicists. But far from opposing scientific knowledge and encouraging ignorance among the masses, the Church continues to embrace both scientific knowledge and revelation from God. Education is being encouraged more than ever by the Church for both men and women. The Church invests much money in Brigham Young University and other schools, where advanced scientific knowledge is taught (yes, students will learn about the findings and conclusions of modern science, including evolutionary science, genetics, anthropology, etc., and are not simply taught scriptures and faith).
Many Church leaders show a love for science, and advanced degrees are not a rarity. Looking at the published background information for the 12 Apostles, I count seven advanced degrees (as of April 4, 2004). In the area of science, Russell M. Nelson has a Ph.D. in surgery from the University of Minnesota. I didn't count Richard G. Scott as having an advanced degree, but he has a B.S. in mechanical engineering, his career was in nuclear engineering, and he did post-graduate work at the Oak Ridge laboratory in Tennessee. Though the Ph.D. of Henry B. Eyring, Jr. was in business administration at Harvard (not a bad school, frankly), he does have a healthy scientific background: he obtained a B.S. in physics and he is the son of a truly famous LDS chemist, Dr. Henry B. Eyring, recipient of the National Medal of Science, and former president of the American Chemical Society (1963) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1965)--one of the more famous LDS scientists whose personal example, I believe, helped strengthen the general appreciation of science in the Church.
In spite of the attacks of anti-Mormons and their spinning of science and doctrine to create a whirl of bad publicity for the Church, their position is unfounded. As we will explore below, well established scientific truth does not pose any fundamental challenge for the Church. It does not conflict with the canonized, official doctrines of the Church, which are remarkably neutral on scientific issues. Modern science has challenged many common assumptions among some members of the Church, and has not been compatible with the personal opinions of some members, including some leaders. But there is a huge difference between invalidating the truthfulness of the Church versus challenging an individual's incorrect opinion or requiring an update of our understanding of a tangential issue.
In the sections below, I will offer my personal perspectives as a science-loving and Gospel-loving member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For what it's worth, I have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering (BYU, 1986) and have been involved in scientific research throughout my career. A summary of my education, experience, and honors is at www.JeffLindsay.com/resume4.shtml. I grew up as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in fairly traditional family with deep LDS roots, going back as far as 7 generations in one case.
As a child, my heritage gave me a deep respect for God's Creation and for the richness of science. Many of my uncles on my mother's side had advanced degrees. One was a chemistry professor at the University of Utah (he helped me get a summer job there after my mission where I met the famous scientist, Henry B. Eyring). Her family had a deep respect for scientific knowledge and, for some of them, a love of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
From my perspective, I see no fundamental conflict between science and religion. When there is an apparent conflict, it means that knowledge is incomplete and needs to be updated. Sometimes the science needs updating, other times our interpretation of the scriptures or the assumptions we use need to be updated, but both science and the Gospel permit--and even require --this kind of flexibility. Science is forever tentative, and mortal understanding is forever limited. Some anti-Mormons feel that any flexibility in ones approach makes one a fraud and a liar, and they want to hold us accountable for every errant human opinion that any prominent Mormon has ever had on matters pertaining to science. That's silliness to the extreme. We are accountable for the canonized doctrines of the Church, and as we will see, they do not require an abandonment of science to be a faithful Latter-day Saint.
Before I get into some specific issues of science and religion, let me add a little more perspective, turning to the life and times and that great Old Testament figure, Moses.
I believe Moses was a prophet, a great one. But not everybody felt that way. Ancient as he is to us now, he was a modern living prophet in his day, and the modern prophets are always the ones that people prefer to reject.
Imagine what might happen if today's professional anti-Mormon critics were sent back in time to his day (ah, a refreshing change of pace!). They would quickly notice that Moses, the self-professed prophet, was not perfect. In fact, he came with a lot of historical dirt they could dig up: raised in luxury by pagan parents, guilty of murdering an Egyptian, a coward who ran rather than face the consequences of a violent crime, a dabbler in the occult using a magic wand that could turn into a snake (a symbol of Satan, as Moses would have known if he had bothered to read the Bible!), a bloody man who led a renegade militia into horrific acts of war against peaceful Canaanite cities, a power-hungry dictator who wanted to conquer and rule all the nations in his region, and an apostate cultist who tried to add new scripture--and those are just some of the accusations they could make without wholesale fabrication (not that the critics would feel compelled to limit themselves to arguments with actual substance behind them). Imagine the sensational books they could make, such as, The Rod Makers, Behind the Maze of Mosesism, Sinai Mountain Empire, No Hebrew Knows My History, and so on.
There might also be some defenders of the faith and of Moses who would speak up and refute the critics. These would be dismissed as Mosaic apologists--or, as the anti's would oh-so-cleverly say, "mopologists" (what else?).
But for shocking the intellectuals of that day, the antis might especially enjoy attacking Moses for his scientific errors. I can just imagine their chortling and mocking, pointing out, for example, that the supposed prophet, in a supposed revelation from the most scientifically intelligent Being in the universe, stated that a bat is a bird. Good grief, what idiocy! But here is the smoking gun of scientific ignorance in Leviticus 11:13-19:
13 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,
14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;
15 Every raven after his kind;
16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,
17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,
18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,
19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.
The word "bat" occurs only one other time in the Bible, and Moses got it wrong there, too. The passage is Deut. 14:11-20, which follows exactly the same scientifically flawed classification scheme that we saw in Leviticus, clearly confirming that Moses thought bats were birds:
11 Of all clean birds ye shall eat.
12 But these are they of which ye shall not eat: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,
13 And the glede, and the kite, and the vulture after his kind,
14 And every raven after his kind,
15 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,
16 The little owl, and the great owl, and the swan,
17 And the pelican, and the gier eagle, and the cormorant,
18 And the stork, and the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.
19 And every creeping thing that flieth is unclean unto you: they shall not be eaten.
20 But of all clean fowls ye may eat.
Moses had plenty of time before writing these two related passages to correct his error, but he did not. When it came to the bat, Moses simply struck out.
Naturally, the mopologists would point out that God reveals truth to Moses according to his own language and understanding, and the divine principles such as dietary laws would still need to be expressed by Moses. God may have revealed that several flying creatures should not be eaten, and Moses provided the written phraseology classifying them as "birds." The antis would mock, but perhaps the mopologists would have a point in saying that even though he was writing scripture, Moses' choice of words could reflect a personal opinion rather than actually representing God's view of bats. Now Moses is welcome to ornithological views, and can call a bat a bird if he wants, even in scripture. I'm not going to lose my testimony over that.
Some critics who try to use science to attack the Book of Mormon may be surprised to find how their approach could even more thoroughly trounce the Bible. As an entertaining demonstration, I recommend you read John Tvedtnes' satirical essay, "An Anthropologist Looks at the Bible," a spoof based on a popular anti-Mormon article, "A Biologist Looks at the Book of Mormon." Please don't lose your testimony over the Bible based on this tongue-in-cheek article: the approach is improper, but meant to illustrate the silliness of some typical anti-Mormon "scientific" attacks.
Let's keep Moses and his scientific limitations in mind as we turn to questions of the modern era. Let us also recall that the purpose of the scriptures, the Church, and revelation to prophets has not been to inform us on details of science and natural history, but to lead us to repentance and salvation through Jesus Christ. Those who attack apparent scientific weakness in the prophets and their texts are pummeling a straw man and missing the point of the scriptures. But let's look at some of the specific controversies.
If the earth was created in six 24-hour days, and if the chronologies in the Bible are correct, then earth would be about 6,000 years old. However, numerous scientific methods of estimating the age of the earth, of fossils, and of various geologic structures all point to an earth that is much, much older--even billions of years old. Today, I believe that most Christians who are scientists have little difficulty in accepting the idea that the earth is very old. See, for example, the Affiliation of Christian Geologists. One of several helpful articles there is "I was first convinced . . ." (of the old age of the earth) by C. Gordon Winder.
Should we be surprised if Church leaders in New Testament times probably relied on a literal interpretation of Genesis and thought the earth was young? In the absence of scientific information, it may have been a natural conclusion. Peter did write that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years to man (2 Peter 3:8), and may have reflected his understanding that longer times were involved in the Creation--but could he have entertained the notion of an earth many billions of years old?. In the absence of specific revelation and scientific information on the matter, we should not dismiss the witness of the Apostles if they failed to understand the true age of the earth.
On the other hand, it is wrong to think that "historic Christianity" has always taught a young earth based on Creation over six 24-hour days. A useful discussion comes from a page of quotes compiled by Stephen Jones of Australia (not the LDS Steven Jones of BYU):
From the outset, we note that at least some of the acrimony over the interpretation of the Genesis days arises from language differences. Turning biblical Hebrew into English prose and poetry presents some enormous difficulties. Whereas biblical Hebrew has a vocabulary of under 3,100 words (not including proper nouns), English words number over 4,000,000. The disparity is even greater for nouns. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Hebrew nouns have multiple literal definitions. The English word day most often refers either to the daylight hours or to a period of 24 hours. As in "the day of the Romans," it is also used for a longer time period. English speakers and writers, however, have many words for an extended period--age, era, epoch, and eon, just to name a few. The Hebrew word yom similarly refers to daylight hours, 24 hours, and a long (but finite) time period. Unlike English, however, biblical Hebrew has no word other than yom to denote a long timespan. The word yom appears repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures with reference to a period longer than 12 or 24 hours. The Hebrew terms yom (singular) and yamin (plural) often refer to an extended time frame. Perhaps the most familiar passages are those referring to God's "day of wrath." Before English translations were available, animosity over the length of the Genesis days did not exist, at least not as far as anyone can tell from the extant theological literature. Prior to the Nicene Council, the early Church fathers wrote two thousand pages of commentary on the Genesis creation days, yet did not devote a word to disparaging each other's viewpoints on the creation time scale. All these early scholars accepted that yom could mean "a long time period." The majority explicitly taught that the Genesis creation days were extended time periods (something like a thousand years per yom). Not one Ante-Nicene Father explicitly endorsed the 24-hour interpretation. Ambrose, who came the closest to doing so, apparently vacillated on the issue. We certainly cannot charge the Church fathers with "scientific bias" in their interpretations. They wrote long before astronomical, geological, and paleontological evidences for the antiquity of the universe, the earth, and life became available. Nor had biological evolution yet been proposed. Lamarck, Darwin, and Huxley came along some 1,400 years later." (Ross H.N. and Archer G.L., "The Day-Age View," in Hagopian D.G., ed., The Genesis Debate: Three Views on the Days of Creation, Crux Press: Mission Viejo CA, 2001, pp. 125-126, as cited by Jones)
In recent decades, many ministers have taught that the earth was created in six 24-hour periods, and many may have believed it earlier, though it was in response to Darwinian theories that young earth theories became solidified. It is still taught widely today. Some have even taught that the whole universe is no older than 6,000 years. But modern scientific advances now call for a revision to once-popular "young-earth" interpretations of Genesis. It's important to note that this view is an interpretation, particularly in light of the variety of meanings possible for the Hebrew word yom. (As examples to supplement the above discussion of its meanings, note that in Genesis 40:4, the word for day is translated as "a season"; in Judges 11:4 a form of the word is translated as "in the process of time.") In fact, one part of the LDS canon, the Book of Abraham, repeats the creation story much as found in Genesis, but uses the term "time" instead of "day," opening the possibility for lengthy periods being used instead of single days (e.g., see Abraham 4:13).
We can criticize earlier Christian leaders as well as modern ministers and even modern LDS teachers who teach a young earth. The flaw is in their understanding and interpretation, not in the revelations of God. The simple outline of the Creation in Genesis speaks of multiple stages of development that are fundamentally reasonable in light of modern scientific nature. Trouble may arise when we read more into the text than can reasonably be taken from the simple explanation God gave to ancient men about His creation. There was no need to get into the details and the science in those revelations, and there is danger when we try to judge the validity of such revelations based on popular mortal interpretations.
While some LDS people have favored young earth theories, this is not the official position of the Church. The fact that some people, even some leaders, have had incorrect personal opinions on this matter is of little concern. In light of modern science, we can correct previous errant opinions and move on.
As for critics who might argue that "old earth" opinions somehow contradict standard Church doctrine, they are without real foundation. As early as 1845, William Phelps wrote that the text of the Book of Abraham (only a portion of which was translated, and almost none of which survived the Chicago fire of 1871) indicated that "this system" was 2.55 billion years old (Times and Seasons, Nauvoo, vol. 5, pg. 758, Dec. 25, 1844, as cited by BYU Professor, Steven Jones, in his essay, "How Old Is the Earth?").
Brigham Young seemed willing to accept the views of geologists on the age of the earth:
I am not astonished that infidelity prevails to a great extent among the inhabitants of the earth, for the religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science, and which are generally understood. You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has. . . . 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 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 the earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. . . . How long it's been organized is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As to the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses. 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.
John A. Widtsoe, Discourses of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978, pp. 258-259), as cited by Michael Whiting, "Lamarck, Giraffes, and the Sermon on the Mount," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1993, pp. 209-222, available online (no subscription required) in PDF and HTML formats.
More recently, but still before recent "scientific" attacks on LDS doctrine, President David O. McKay suggested that he was comfortable with an old earth:
And now I have just time to comment on the opportunity of the BYU to teach these fundamental truths. This thought was expressed by Dr. Sidney B. Sperry in the opening prayer, that here in this school, destined to become the greatest in the world, opportunities are given to guide students in this higher quality of life, this guide, this anchor, this cord leading into the depths of the forest. Whatever the subject may be, the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ may be elaborated upon without fear of anyone's objecting, and the teacher can be free to express his honest conviction regarding it, whether that subject be in geology, the history of the world, the millions of years that it took to prepare the physical world, whether it be in engineering, literature, art...
(President David O. McKay, speech at BYU, October 30, 1956, as cited by Steven Jones in "How Old Is the Earth?," emphasis mine)
For details on the various opinions held by some leaders of the Church, and the Church's officially neutral position, see the resources on the Eyring-L page, "What is the Church's position on Evolution?." Also see "Evolution" in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol.2.
Doctrine and Covenants 77: Does It Teach a Young Earth?
At first glance, D&C 77 seems to say that the earth is 7,000 years old. But this is not the case, as I discuss on a Mormanity post about the age of the earth. A good discussion of this verse can be found in a book I just picked up (Aug. 2004) and highly recommend, Can Science Be Faith-Promoting? (Salt Lake City: Blue Ribbon Books, 2001, 252 pages), ed. by Stan Larson and taken from the writings of Dr. Sterling B. Talmage, son of the late Apostle and scientist, James E. Talmage. In his discussion (pp. 174-176), he examines the words uses in D&C 77:6:
What are we to understand by the book which John saw, which was sealed on the back with seven seals?
A. We are to understand that it contains the revealed will, mysteries, and the works of God; the hidden things of his economy concerning this earth during the seven thousand years of its continuance, or its temporal existence.
The time covered by the seven seals refers to things of God's "economy" during this period of "continuance." He finds "economy" is not used elsewhere in the scriptures, but does have a theological definition in the dictionary (Practical Standard Dictionary, p. 369):
6. Theol. A method of divine management of human affairs, or a system of laws and regulations, rites, and ceremonies; the holy scheme of creation and redemption; specif., and particular method of divine government, as the Mosaic economy.
Talmage then suggests that "economy" may refer to God's dealings with men on earth rather than with the earth itself, and the hidden things in this regard refer to things that have been revealed or yet to be revealed (it would seem that "mysteries" would fit well here).
He then considers the word "continuance" and notes that its usage in the scriptures (Ps. 139:16, Is. 64:5, and Rom. 2:7) does not indicate totality of duration, but progress in advance of an earlier stage. The first volume of a magazine is not a continuance, for example, but later volumes can be. His examination of the dictionary leads to the conclusion that "continuance" refers to the current time period with an unspecified time period preceding it.
The final term he considers is "temporal." The dictionary allows "temporal" to have the same connotation as "temporary" or "current," but he finds no evidence that it should be synonymous with "physical" or "material." He finds its most usual or appropriate meaning to be "pertaining to affairs of the present life."
The three terms that Talmage analyzes harmonize with each other and all point to the conclusions that D&C 77 refers to God's dealing with man under the present time period (the collection of dispensations of the past several thousand years), and does not say anything about the time of the Creation or age of the earth, or even the antiquity of other humans or humanoids.
The Church avoids making official teachings regarding issues of science. While it affirms that the Creation is divine, the details of how it took place has not been revealed and is appropriately left to science. There is no fundamental reason why scientific truth (when established and properly understood) should be incompatible with religion. Indeed, the Church teaches that all truth should be part one great whole and should be compatible. Human understanding, on the other hand, is often in error, so patience, faith, and continued learning are needed.
For examples of what is taught on the Church's official website, LDS.org, see the beautiful pro-science but especially pro-faith statement of LDS scientist Dr. John Lewis, formerly of the University of Arizona and MIT, which is prominently displayed on the page "Our Divine Creator" at LDS.org. Also see the science-heavy statement on "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" which displays a great deal of comfort with concepts relevant to modern science and ancient human genetics.
For an overview of the history of the LDS positions relative to evolution, see David H. Bailey, "History of the LDS Church's view on the age of the earth and evolution," Jan. 1, 2017, at ScienceMeetsReligion.org. David H. Bailey is a scientist from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (recently retired) and the University of California, Davis. Also see his collection of 14 LDS-related pages on science and religion.
While we affirm that God is the Creator and that we are His children, even His offspring (Acts 17:28,29), the "official" position of the Church on the issue of evolution is generally said to be neutral. In spite of all the debates and differing opinions that men have held about scientific and religious controversies, I agree that the Church takes no official position on the scientific details of how the earth was formed or life was created. However, you won't hear evolution being pushed in General Conference, and you'll hear plenty about how God is the Creator - so most Mormons who aren't in the sciences are likely to say that they don't believe in evolution, since the issue is widely viewed as an either-or issue: either God created the universe, or everything happened by blind chance with no intelligence behind it. However, many Latter-day Saints recognize the possibility that God could have used evolutionary mechanisms to bring the earth to its present state. Nothing in official doctrine precludes this view.
Also see the FAIR Blog for "Mormons and Evolution.
Can the evolution of species (or their apparent gradual development over millions of years) jive with the existence of a supreme Creator? We believe all truth must be consistent, and if there is a conflict, something needs to be revised. Brigham Young said, "Our religion embraces all truth and every fact in existence, no matter whether in heaven, earth, or hell. A fact is a fact, all truth issues forth from the Fountain of truth, and the sciences are facts as far as men have proved them" ("Remarks by President Brigham Young, Attending Meetings--Religion and Science--Geology--The Creation," Delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, May 14, 1871, Journal of Discourses, 14: 117.)
Personally, I am comfortable with an old earth where God guided the development of conditions as well as species to prepare each stage of the Creation, yielding the fossil record that we see now. I have no trouble with the hypothesis that God guided the development of life over many small steps to achieve the brilliant results that cause us such marvel. I wish I knew more about how God created the earth, but the evidence for intelligent design is so overwhelming that there should be no question that there is a Creator (elsewhere I treat the issue of alleged design flaws). While gradual development may have occurred, I would reject the unfounded human fantasy that it all happened by chance. The fossil record gives clues about what happened, but cannot explain how the changes came about. Personally, I believe that brilliant science by a Master Scientist was involved to prepare the earth, one stage after another. It didn't all happen by itself! In terms of Christianity, the controversy is over how God achieved the Creation, and I think much of the controversy is unnecessary.
A BYU professor, Dr. Howard C. Stutz, has published an important new book on the issue of scripture and evolution. Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture (Greg Kofford Books, 2011) shows that science and LDS religion can be compatible. See the review by B. Hodges on the "By Common Consent" blog. Dr. Stutz recently passed away, but had served in many LDS callings including bishop and patriarch, while also being a scientist with a Ph.D in genetics at UC Berkeley and teaching at Brigham Young University. His manuscript was prepared to "point out the harmony which exists between the theory of speciation by organic evolution and revealed truths contained in hold scriptures" (xv).
Michael R. Ash has prepared an excellent essay about the controversy within the Church over organic evolution and the origins of man in his article, "The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution," Dialogue, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2002, pp. 19-59 (yes, it's available online at Michael Ash's Mormon Fortress site). Ash notes that many Latter-day Saints have held that the doctrine of evolution contradicted the Gospel, while others saw room for flexibility in the doctrines of the Church, allowing recent findings of science to still be harmonized with the Gospel. Ash emphasizes what has been well established elsewhere: the Church's official position on the doctrine of evolution and the origins of man has remained neutral. While the First Presidency insisted in 1909 that Adam is the "primal parent of our race," this can refer to our cultural group and need not imply that there were no Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, or other humans or human-like creatures prior to Adam. Indeed, as Ash points out, six months later, the Church's magazine, Improvement Era,carried this statement in April 1910:
Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, thru the direction and power of God; whether the first parents or our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted thru 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. (p. 570)
Ash notes that while no name is associated with this statement, a number of scholars have suggested that it was authored by Joseph F. Smith. The statement offers three possibilities for the origins of the human body: (1) natural evolutionary processes, (2) transplanting of mortals from another world to the earth, and (3) birth here.
Joseph Fielding Smith as an Apostle offered many views in support of young earth theories and wrote an influential book on the topic, Man, His Origin and Destiny, which some LDS people may have mistaken for LDS doctrine and not just one man's views. These views were not representative of all leaders of the Church, and were opposed by other Apostles and General Authorities such as B.H. Roberts. Joseph Fielding Smith's views had been largely influenced by the writings of George McCready Price, a Seventh-Day Adventist and self-made "scientist" who was seriously out of touch with real science, and took a fundamentalist position on Genesis. Elder Smith, lacking training in science, understandably could be more easily influenced by the seemingly impressive Price than could men like Elders Roberts and Talmage.
B.H. Roberts, with a strong background in science, apparently saw no fundamental conflict between the findings of science and the Gospel. Elder Roberts believed that "Adam represented the beginning of the Adamic Dispensation, but before him, a whole race of human beings had lived and died on earth. These 'pre-Adamites' were simply destroyed in a great cataclysm that 'cleansed' the earth before Adam, leaving only fossilized remains as the meager evidence of their presence" (Richard E. Sherlock and Jeffrey E. Keller, "'We Can See No Advantage to a Continuation of the Discussion': The Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair," Dialogue, Vol. 13, Fall 1980, p. 63, as cited by Ash, op. cit., pp. 22-23). Another scientifically-minded Apostle, James E. Talmage, was sympathetic with Elder Roberts' efforts to oppose the personal views being espoused by Joseph Fielding Smith. Elder Talmage wrote in his journal that he could "see no reason why the evolution of animal bodies cannot be true--as indeed the facts of observation make it difficult to deny--and still the soul of man is of divine origin" (Jeffrey E. Keller, "Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair," Dialogue, Vol. 15, Spring 1982, p. 81, as cited by Ash, p. 24). Elder Roberts tried to dissuade Joseph Fielding Smith, but was not successful.
The internal debate among the General Authorities was settled, so it would seem, when the First Presidency issued a 1931 statement on the neutrality of the Church. The official 1931 Statement of the First Presidency on the issue of organic evolution (the First Presidency at the time comprised Presidents Heber J. Grant, Anthony W. Ivins, and Charles W. Nibley) directed to the General Authorities of the Church, stated:
The statement made by Elder Smith that the existence of pre-Adamites is not a doctrine of the Church is true. It is just as true that the statement: "There were not pre-Adamites upon the earth", is not a doctrine of the Church. Neither side of the controversy has been accepted as a doctrine at all.
Both parties make the scripture and the statements of men who have been prominent in the affairs of the Church the basis of their contention; neither has produced definite proof in support of his views. . ..
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. . .
The neutrality of the Church on this matter was later affirmed in a letter from President McKay to William Lee Stokes dated February 15, 1957:
Your letter of February 11, 1957, has been received.
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.
Sincerely your brother,
[signed] David O. McKay
[On 18 October 1968, President McKay gave permission for the publication of this letter. It was published by Stokes in Dialogue 12:90-92 (Winter 1979), along with background and commentary.]
After taking a position of neutrality, the First Presidency asked that the topic of evolution be dropped from public discourse by the General Authorities. Unfortunately, Joseph Fielding Smith's book had already been published, without the opportunity to be balanced by a work that was being prepared by B.H. Roberts. Members of the Church often assumed that the Church was officially against the theory of evolution, based on what Joseph Fielding Smith had written. In fact, I read his book as a teenager and personally mistook it for official doctrine, not understanding that it was written before Joseph Fielding Smith became prophet, and not appreciating the diversity of personal opinion that can be held among our very human, fallible, but still inspired Church leaders.
For further details, see the excellent and comprehensive Web page from Eyring-L (the Eyring mail list), "FAQ: Evolution", which has a wealth of information. Especially see the talk given by Apostle James Talmage in the Tabernacle on Aug. 9, 1931, entitled "The Earth and Man." This speech is especially important because, as Michael Ash points out, it appears to be "the only exposition of a Quorum member to have been reviewed and approved by at least some, if not all, of the First Presidency, and then published officially by the Church" (Ash, op. cit., p. 27). William E. Evenson also affirms that this statement is "[t]he only exposition on evolution by a general authority which was review and approved by the First Presidency and then published by the Church" (William E. Evenson, "LDS Doctrine and the Theory of Evolution," in Stan Larson, ed., Can Science Be Faith-Promoting?, Salt Lake City: Blue Ribbon Books, 2001, pp. xxxi to xliii; the quotation is from p. xxxvii). A few excerpts from this speech follow:
From the fossil remains of plants and animals found in the rocks the scientist points to a very definite order in the sequence of life embodiment, for the older rocks, the earlier formations, reveal to us organisms of simplest structure only, whether of plants or animals. These primitive species were aquatic; land forms were of later development. Some of these simpler forms of life have persisted until the present time, though with great variation as the result of changing environment.
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. . . .
In due course came the crowning work of this creative sequence, the advent of man! Concerning this all-important event we are told that scientists and theologians are at hopeless and irreconcilable variance. I regard the assumption or claim, whichever it be, as an exaggeration. Discrepancies that trouble us now will diminish as our knowledge of pertinent facts is extended. The creator has made record in the rocks for man to decipher; but He has also spoken directly regarding the main stages of progress by which the earth has been brought to be what it is. The accounts can not be fundamentally opposed; one can not contradict the other; though man's interpretation of either may be seriously at fault. . . .
This record of Adam and his posterity is the only scriptural account we have of the appearance of man upon the 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 can not explain. The opening chapters of Genesis, and scriptures related thereto, were never intended as a text-book of geology, archaeology, earth-science or man-science. Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation. . . .
Geologists and anthropologists say that if the beginning of Adamic history dates back but 6000 years or less, there must have been races of human sort upon earth long before that time -- without denying, however, that Adamic history may be correct, if it be solely regarded solely as the history of the Adamic race. . . .
Evolution is true so far as it means development, and progress, and advancement in all the works of God; but many of the vagaries that have been made to do duty under that name are so vague as to be unacceptable to the scientific mind. At best, the conception of the development of man's body from the lower forms through evolutionary processes has been but a theory, an unproved hypothesis. Theories may be regarded as the scaffolding upon which the builder stands while placing the blocks of truth in position. It is a grave error to mistake the scaffolding for the wall, the flimsy and temporary structure for the stable and permanent. The scaffolding serves but a passing purpose, important though it be, and is removed as soon as the walls of that part of the edifice of knowledge have been constructed. Theories have their purpose and are indispensable, but they must never be mistaken for demonstrated facts. The Holy Scriptures should not be discredited by theories of men; they can not be discredited by fact and truth. Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known. The Gospel is not behind the times, on the contrary it is up-to-date and ever shall be.
It is natural for the young and immature mind to think that what to it is new must of necessity be new to the world. Comparatively inexperienced students are discovering from time to time apparent discrepancies between the faith of their fathers and the development of modern thought; and these they are apt to magnify and exaggerate, when as a matter of fact, their great-grandfathers met the same seeming difficulties and yet survived. Believe not those who assert that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in any way opposed to progress or inconsistent with advancement.
In the September 1987 Ensign (the official monthly magazine of the Church for adults), a question and answer section addressed a question about the fossil record and its compatibility with the Gospel. The question was answered by a geology professor at BYU, Dr. Morris Petersen. You can read the full answer on a page at LDS.org (about halfway down) or on a page by Marc Schindler in his extensive "Science and the Gospel" section of his Website. Here are some selected excerpts:
Do we know how the earth's history as indicated from fossils fits with the earth's history as the scriptures present it?
[Answered by] Morris S. Petersen, professor of geology, Brigham Young University, and stake president, Provo Utah East Stake. There is much we do not know about the creation and early history of the earth. The scriptural record is sketchy, and the record of science is incomplete. Indeed, what we imagine to be true now about the history of the earth may prove to be only partially true in the light of greater knowledge. We are assured, however, that the day will come when the Lord "shall reveal all things--
"Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof--
"Things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven." (D&C 101:32-34.)
Until that day comes, we must rely on what we are taught in the scriptures and what we assume to be true based on the evidence gathered and examined by science.
We are, in fact, encouraged to obtain both scriptural and secular knowledge in striving to learn about God and his creations: "Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
"Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms." (D&C 88:78-79.)
Latter-day Saints share Elder James E. Talmage's conviction that "within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known." ("The Earth and Man," Deseret News, 21 November 1931.) With these ideas in mind, let us examine briefly what we currently know from the fossil record and compare it with the scriptural record.
God is the creator of our earth and of all life on the earth. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. . . . And God created . . . every living creature that moveth. . . . And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." (Gen. 1:1, 21, 31.)
Among the life forms God created were apparently many species now extinct. Fossil-bearing rocks are common on the earth, and these fossils represent once-living organisms, preserved now as part of the earth's rocky crust. Paleontology is the branch of science that studies these fossils to collect information about the past. But one does not need to be a paleontologist to find fossiliferous rocks--they are more common than most people imagine, and almost anyone can find fossils near home. These fossils may include microscopic invertebrate and plant remains, a myriad of fossilized sea shells, and even the fossilized bones of the large terrestrial animals, the dinosaurs. (Local and national laws generally protect fossil deposits, and would-be-collectors should be aware of these restrictions. People are free, however, to examine fossils in place without removing them, thus preserving their scientific value and meeting the intentions of the protective laws.)
As one examines the rock layers, it becomes evident that there is a highly ordered pattern in the occurrence of fossils. As Elder James E. Talmage, a geologist, wrote in the Deseret News on 21 November 1931: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.
The sequence in the occurrence of fossils repeats itself in sedimentary rocks throughout the world. Furthermore, whether they were in Australia, Africa, the Americas, or elsewhere, the various forms of life on earth appeared and disappeared at the same time. To the faithful student of the scriptures, this precision reflects the ordered processes of God, the divine Creator. The sequence of the creation of life on earth as recorded in Genesis--first plants (Gen. 1:11-12), then animals (Gen. 1:20-23)--is duplicated in the fossil record: plant fossils precede the appearance of animal fossils.
This agreement shouldn't be surprising because the God who created this earth is the same God who inspired the prophets. A conflict arises only when we assume that God has revealed all he is going to reveal on the subject or forget that scientific theories change as new discoveries are made. We also need to remember both the purposes for which the scriptures were given and the objectives of the scientific method.
Foremost, the scriptures testify of Jesus Christ and how we may receive the blessings of salvation and exaltation through his atonement. They reveal why (not necessarily how) the earth was created, and what laws and principles a person must follow to obtain eternal life. The goal of science, on the other hand, is to learn how (not why) the world was made and to understand the laws and principles governing the physical world. . . .
The relationship between scripture and what is currently understood in science is ever changing. Science continually learns more about the history of life on earth, and we have every reason to believe that much more will be learned as research continues.
The struggle to correlate a passage in scripture with a specific portion of scientific research has been a challenge for centuries. But experience has shown that what a person understands today will be modified by tomorrow's discoveries. Patience and humility will eventually resolve all questions--if not in this life, then in the next.
Fortunately, we need not know all the details of the Creation to take advantage of the essential saving ordinances of the gospel and conform to divine standards of progression. The scriptures and the inspired counsel of the prophets are sufficient to lead us back to God.
But this does not mean that science has no place in our eternal pursuit of truth. The more we learn of God's handiwork, the more we come to know him and love his works. As a Latter-day Saint geologist, I consider myself fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to study rocks and fossils as evidences of God's creation of our earth. Everything I have learned of the grandeur of the Creation has strengthened my resolve to learn more of our Heavenly Father and live as He would have me live.
Dr. Hugh Nibley is another highly respected LDS scholar who has also recognized the compatibility of scientific discoveries with the Gospel. Regarding the existence of humans before Adam, he stated the following to a BYU group in a speech on April 1, 1980 ("Before Adam," available online at FARMS):
So we might well ask: What about those people who lived before Cain and Abel? What about those who disappeared from sight? What about those who were not even warned of the Flood? What about those many, many who visited the earth as resurrected beings? What about the Watchers? What about the sons of God who should not marry the daughters of men, and vice versa? And what about the giants they begot when they did marry? What about the comings and goings of Enoch's day between the worlds? What about his own status as "a wild man,--a strange thing in the land"? (Moses 6:38.) Who were his people, living in a distant land of righteousness, who never appear on the scene? . . . What about the nations among whom Noah will have surviving progeny?
Speaking of Noah, God promised Enoch "that he [God] would call upon the children of Noah; and he sent forth an unalterable decree, that a remnant of his seed [Enoch's through Noah] should always be found among all nations, while the earth should stand; and the Lord said: Blessed is he through whose seed Messiah shall come." (Moses 7:51-53.) Methuselah boasted about his line as something special. (Moses 8:2-3.) Why special if it included the whole human race? These blessings have no meaning if all the people of the earth and all the nations are the seed of Noah and Enoch. What other line could the Messiah come through? Well, there were humans who were not invited by Enoch's preaching, not included among the residue of people not entering Enoch's city. They were "the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain . . ." (Moses 7:22.) ...
Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God's affection or even a right to exaltation--for our scriptures allow them such. Nor am I overly concerned as to just when they might have lived, for their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared. God assigned them their proper times and functions, as he has given me mine--a full-time job that admonishes me to remember his words to the overly eager Moses: "For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me." (Moses 1:31.) It is Adam as my own parent who concerns me. When he walks onto the stage, then and only then the play begins. He opens a book and starts calling out names. They are the sons of Adam, who also qualify as sons of God, Adam himself being a son of God. This is the book of remembrance from which many have been blotted out.
I like Hugh Nibley's perspective. There are numerous things we don't yet know about, and it is foolishness to presume we do. But the LDS scriptures hint at the existence of humans or human-like creatures who were not purely from Adam's line. Surely they played a role in God's work, but for us, Nibley states, the play begins with Adam.
Some people have been influenced by Clark A. Peterson's book, Using the Book of Mormon to Combat Falsehoods in Organic Evolution (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 1992). A very helpful review of the deficiencies of this approach is given by Michael Whiting, "Lamarck, Giraffes, and the Sermon on the Mount," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1993, pp. 209-222, available online (no subscription required) in PDF and HTML formats.
Another excellent resource is the packet of information on evolution for BYU students, assembled in 1992 and approved by the BYU Board of Trustees. It contains three First Presidency statements on the topic. The BYU Board of Trustees includes the First Presidency, a majority of the Council of the Twelve, and a few other officers of the Church. The packet was assembled by William E. Evenson, a professor of physics at BYU (see William E. Evenson, "LDS Doctrine and the Theory of Evolution," in Stan Larson, ed., Can Science Be Faith-Promoting?, pp. xxxi to xliii).
An outstanding essay on the compatibility of Genesis and modern science is "Issues of Creationism and the Creation Are Compatible" by Richard L. Leed, Ithaca Journal, April 6, 2007 (hat tip to T. Allen Lambert, 2007). Here is an excerpt:
There is a widespread belief, recently expressed in a number of letters, that the Darwinian theory of evolution and the story of Creation in the book of Genesis are incompatible. This belief is current among creationists and evolutionists alike.
The belief is based on a faulty reading of the so-called "story" of creation. It is not a story. It is not a history. It is not intended as a chronology. Unlike the creation tales of many other religions, it does not feature mythical creatures, or sexual unions of gods and goddesses, or any other such primordial big bang.
The account of creation in Genesis is rather an argument. It is a list of natural phenomena laid out in categories translated into English as "days," the purpose of which is to refute the contentions of opponents in a theological dispute. The evidence for the "story" not being chronological is clear from the arrangement of the items listed: Vegetation comes on day three and the sun on day four. You don't have to be a cosmologist or a farmer to know that it takes sunlight to grow plants and that therefore the sun has to come first, as in fact it did in the evolutionary scheme of things.
Why has the sun been demoted to a place so low in the list of things created? According to some theologians, it is because the sun god was a prime object of worship among polytheists when Genesis was being written. The point of the creation argument is that all of the objects listed are merely artifacts created by One God, merely things to be observed by mankind, free to be used but not to be worshipped. Therefore, the sun is not on top of the list, and the pagan sun god doesn't exist.
Some Biblical scholars see a hierarchical rather than chronological organization of the creation in the first chapter of Genesis. This list of things not to be worshipped starts off with things that don't move or don't seem to move: light, sky, waters, dry land, vegetation. After these first three "days" come things that do move, in order of increasing mobility or consciousness: sun, stars, fish, birds, land animals, and, at the top of the list, man, made "in the image of God."
The point has been made that God himself might approve of the theory of evolution. Genesis does not tell you how the world was created; it simply says God made its contents as material artifacts. If you want to make a scientific study of the world, that's fine -- just don't worship it, or anything in it. In other words, Genesis is an anti-animist, anti-polytheist polemic to promote monotheism, As such, it gives carte blanche to scientific efforts of all kinds, including, one supposes, Darwinism.
The Bible says that the flood covered the whole earth, including mountains, and that everything and everybody died except the few people and animals in the ark. Critics have long pointed out that the ark could not possibly have contained all the known species of animals, and that a flood that covered all the mountains of the world simply makes no sense and finds no evidence in the geologic record.
While many faithful religious leaders, including Latter-day Saints, have accepted the literal meaning of the words in Genesis, the Bible frequently uses language that was never meant to be taken in a literal, modern sense. In other cases, perhaps the author or later editor meant it literally, but due to limitations in the author's understanding, the passage demands something other than a literal reading from the modern perspective. For example, when the author of Luke states that "there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed" (Luke 2:1), we should understand that "all the world" really meant "the world" of the Roman empire, that small fraction of "all the world" from a modern, literal perspective. Perhaps the scope of the Roman empire was the entire populated world known to the author, or perhaps it was just a figurative expression to indicate a large geographical scope. Critics of the Bible might strive to disprove the Bible by spewing forth long diatribes about the impossibility of South American natives paying tax to the Roman empire in those days, but they would be wasting their breath, for Luke 2:1 cannot be reasonably understood as an allegedly inspired statement about global financial networks.
I am pointing to the obvious fact that there are non-literal interpretations to some passages of scripture. Since some LDS and other Christian leaders have naturally and understandably accepted a literal interpretation of some such passages, I am suggesting that their interpretation of those passages may have been in error. If their interpretation was not correct, the mistake does not affect core, canonized doctrines of the Church, but rather our understanding of some events in the canonized scriptures. To differ in the interpretation of academic issues in the scriptures - how long was the Creation, how big was the flood, how many animals were in the ark, etc. - is not to challenge canonized LDS doctrines. Dealing with these issues does not require rejecting the doctrine of the Creation or the Fall and Redemption of man, the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, the sacredness of the Temple, the divine role of Joseph Smith as a chosen prophet of God, the power of the Priesthood, and the reality of the Restoration.
Turning to the flood, look at the language of Genesis 7:19-24:
19 And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.
20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.
21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:
22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.
23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.
This was in fulfillment of the Lord's declaration in Genesis 6:17:
17 And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.
A literal reading of these passages points to a global flood that covered "all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven" that killed "everything that is in the earth" and "all flesh . . . under heaven." But such language is commonly used figuratively to indicate a significant extent without requiring a literal reading. For example, in Deuteronomy 2:25, as the Lord is commanding Moses to go battle Sihon the Amorite, of Heshbon, the Lord encourages Moses with these words:
"This day will I begin to put the dread of thee and the fear of thee upon the nations that are under the whole heaven, who shall hear report of thee, and shall tremble, and be in anguish because of thee."
Now should we imagine that the lords of the Olmec empire in southern Mexico would soon be learning of that awesome warrior, Moses, and tremble in fear and anguish? Did the emperor of China lose sleep, worried that Moses and his several thousand warriors might make a surprise thrust across thousands of miles to overthrow his empire? Were Australian natives living in terror at the mention of Moses? After all," the nations that are under whole heaven" would include those in Australia, the New World, China, Ireland, Samoa, Japan, and everywhere else, for that matter. Can atheists disprove the Bible by showing that no Japanese emperor ever even heard of Moses until centuries after Moses died? Of course not. When the text refers to the nations under the whole heaven, the only way that passage makes any sense is to accept it as a figure of speech. The extent of the nations that lost sleep (or lives) due to Moses was probably limited to a minute speck of earth around Palestine, a scope covering perhaps a few hundred miles or so at most.
Likewise, in Romans 1:8 the Apostle Paul declares that the faith of the Roman Christians was "spoken of throughout the whole world." Again, Paul was using figures of speech, and not reporting on a global communications network that was spanning multiple continents in 40 A.D. See also 1 Kings 10:24, which tells us that "all the earth sought to Solomon, to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart." This may refer to all the earth the writer was personally familiar--perhaps multiple kingdoms and nations within the Middle East--but surely the Lord does not expect us to believe that Siberians, Finns, South Africans, Polynesians, and Olmec lords were all making their way to Israel to honor Solomon.
I could beat this dead horse a few more times, but the point should be clear: If language that literally refers to "all the world" or all the "nations under the whole heaven" actually covers only a tiny portion of the globe, why should we assume that similar language about the flood must be taken literally? Might a limited geographical scope be the most reasonable way to understand the text?
Granted, many LDS teachers and leaders have insisted on a literal meaning of the text. Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, for example, both wrote books offering their strong and generally literal views on the matter. But I do not believe that there is any canonized revelation which requires a global flood. We can understand the language used in the scriptures to be describing a local flood, though it may have seemed to cover the whole world from the perspective of the observers.
John A. Widtsoe, a scientist and apostle of the Church, recognizing the limitations inherent in the scriptural account of the flood, wrote the following comments sometime around 1930, I think (Evidences and Reconciliations, edited by G. Homer Durham, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960, pp. 126-127):
Did the Flood Cover the Highest Mountains of Earth?
This question, really of insignificant importance, is a good example of man-made objections to the sacred character of the Bible, and therefore to faith.
The coming of the flood and its extent and duration, are described in the seventh chapter of the Book of Genesis. The account states that "the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered." (Gen. 7:19-20) . . .
A cubit, an ancient and well-known measure of length, is the distance from a man's elbow to the end of his middle finger. . . . If we employ the largest of these values, 20.61 inches, fifteen cubits would be something less than twenty-six-feet. This, then, was the depth of the flood, according to Genesis.
The suggestion has been made that the flood filled every hollow and valley until the earth was a great sphere of water covering the highest mountain peaks twenty-six feet deep, Mount Ararat, seventeen thousand feet high, "upon the mountains" of which the ark rested, would according to this view have been completely under water. It is doubtful whether the water in the sky and all the oceans would suffice to cover the earth so completely.
Another suggestion is that the earth at that time was so flat that a depth of water of twenty-six feet would cover the highest hill. There is no existing evidence of this supposition; and Mount Ararat did exist then according to the record.
It has also been suggested that a blanket of water twenty-six feet thick lay up and down the sides of every hill, mountain, and valley. This would seem to be in defiance of the law of gravity, though under a long-continued, furious rainfall such a layer, not too thick, might roll down every slope.
The fact remains that the exact nature of the flood is not known. We set up assumptions, based upon our best knowledge, but can go no further. We should remember that when inspired writers deal with historical incidents they relate that which they have seen or that which may have been told them, unless indeed the past is opened to them by revelation.
The details in the story of the flood are undoubtedly drawn from the experiences of the writer. Under a downpour of rain, likened to the opening of the heavens, a destructive torrent twenty-six feet deep or deeper would easily be formed. The writer of Genesis made a faithful report of the facts known to him concerning the flood. In other localities the depth of the water might have been more or less. In fact, the details of the flood are not known to us.
Elder Widtsoe's remarks given above are also quoted in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism in an article on the flood (Vol. 2). He went on to speculate that the flood occurred in the Mississippi Valley, where the flat terrain could easily be subject to massive flooding that covered a broad area (but I think Mesopotamia is where we should look). In any case, Elder Widtsoe seemed to have no trouble with the concept of a local flood and of human limitations in the text, both in its preparation and its interpretation.
Dr. Hugh Nibley, one of the most beloved of Mormon scholars, also had no trouble with a local flood, as he indicated in his speech, "Before Adam," given at BYU on April 1, 1980:
The earliest Abraham books are supposed to be autobiographies, and the story told from his point of view makes perfectly good sense. So with Noah in the ark. From where he was, "the whole earth" (Genesis 8:9) was covered with water as far as he could see; after things had quieted down for 150 days and the ark ground to a halt, it was still three months before he could see any mountaintops. But what were conditions in other parts of the world? If Noah knew that, he would not have sent forth messenger birds to explore. The flood as he described it is what he saw of it. "He sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground." (Genesis 8:8.) Couldn't he see for himself? Not where the dove went. It was not until seven days later that he sent it out again; and after flying all day, the bird came back with a green leaf fetched from afar; "so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth." (Genesis 8:11.) Still he waited another seven days. When the dove did not return, Noah had his answer. In some distant place, trees were bearing and there was birdfood to be found. But not where Noah was. All that time he had not dared to open up.
Note that the author does not fall into the literary trap of telling where the birds went and what they saw. That became a standard theme of early Oriental literature, faithfully reflected in the classical stories of the sea-eagle and the hoopoe. All Noah tells us is what he saw of the birds and the flood.
Other Christians have also recognized that the scriptures permit a limited flood. For example, see Dr. Hugh Ross, "The Waters of the Flood," available online.
Of course, just making the flood local does not solve some of the scientific challenges to the story of Noah's flood. If there was a flood that lasted a year and wiped out human and animal life over many hundreds of square miles, one would expect the geologic and archaeological evidence to be clear. There have been major floods in Mesopotamia and surrounding regions, but as far as I know, we don't have evidence of a flood in that region of sufficient magnitude to explain the extreme description in Genesis. Some have said that there are hints of such flooding, but I am unaware of convincing evidence. But this is an issue where I am willing to be patient. I do not rule out the possibility that magnitude of the flood became exaggerated in written accounts over time. In any case, I welcome further advances in knowledge, both of past calamities on the earth and of the meaning of the Hebrew scriptures.
Simply reducing the scope of the flood to local proportions does not address some criticisms of the Biblical record. Is there any archaeological evidence of a major flood, albeit local, wiping out numerous cities and bringing elevated waters that lasted for many days? There does not appear to be evidence for a flood of that magnitude that once swept over present lands in the Middle East or Central Asia in a time frame compatible with the Bible. But recently, a fascinating new theory may offer the solution. The regions that were wiped out by Noah's flood may presently be still underwater and still unexplored--in the region that is now the Black Sea. Preliminary evidence points to the possibility of a massive flood around 5600 B.C. as breach of the Bosporus land bridge allowed waters from the Mediterranean Sea to flood the area, expanding a small ancient freshwater lake into the present Black Sea. On the other hand, more recent scientific data from the region suggests that the flood of that time may have been much less severe, perhaps not quite big enough to qualify as Noah's flood. See Lonny Lippsett, "Noah's Not-so-big Flood: New evidence rebuts controversial theory of Black Sea deluge," Oceanus Magazine, Vol. 47, No. 2 (Sep. 2009).
The Black Sea theory and other issues from science are discussed in an excellent article on the LDS perspective: "Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions" by Duane E. Jeffery, Sunstone, Oct. 2004, pp. 27-45. The link is to a 3-MB PDF file for the whole Sunstone issue, in which the article on Noah's Flood begins on page 29 of the file (p. 27 of the magazine). The article by Dr. Jeffery is valuable on many counts, including his survey of various approaches to dealing with the gap between science and scripture, and uniquely LDS issues and perspectives on flood. Here is a passage that I find especially relevant to the issues addressed on this webpage:
But how should we approach the assumptions built into modern revelation that Noah was an historical figure and the Flood was worldwide? How might we determine when a latter-day prophet is, as Pratt suggests, drawing his "own conclusions" rather than speaking about a matter on which he has received specific revelation? [Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 16: 335 (1873)] This takes us to the mechanism, nature, and interpretation of revelation, which, in detail, is a topic for another time. But Apostle Stephen L. Richards gives us some beginning guidance. In the 1933 Improvement Era, Elder Richards published "An Open Letter to College Students." Therein he deplores the tendency for academic persons to reject the scriptures because of errors, or at least contradictions of natural laws, the writers make.Many of the scientific world having discovered that the earth is round and not flat as the people of the Old Testament evidently believed it to be have ungenerously . . . thrown the good book into the discard. . . . They point out with glowing satisfaction that the God of the Hebrews is a capricious, jealous, tribal God, fighting the battles of his favored people and reveling in the defeat of their enemies. And then in . . . triumph they point to the so-called miracles of the Bible: the standing still of the sun, the incarceration of Jonah in the belly of the fish . . . and tell you that all these accounts are manifestly untrue because they contravene the known laws of nature.
Richards argues this is unfair, that the Bible is far too precious for this type of treatment. He then continues:[So] what if Hebrew prophets, conversant with only a small fraction of the surface of the earth, thinking and writing in terms of their own limited geography and tribal relations did interpret [God] in terms of a tribal king and so limit His personality and the laws of the universe under His control to the dominion with which they were familiar? Can any interpreter even though he be inspired present his interpretation and conception in terms other than those with which he has had experience and acquaintance? Even under the assumption that Divinity may manifest to the prophet higher and more exalted truths than he has ever before known and unfold to his spiritual eyes visions of the past, forecasts of the future, and circumstances of the utmost novelty, how will the inspired man interpret? Manifestly, I think, in the language he knows and in the terms of expression with which his knowledge and experience have made him familiar. So is it not therefore ungenerous, unfair and unreasonable to impugn the validity and the whole worth of the Bible merely because of the limited knowledge of astronomy and geography that its writers possessed[?]." (Improvement Era 36 (June 1933): 451ff.)
These points seem critical not only for the Bible but also for latter-day scriptures. Every writer of LDS scripture was raised in an environment, so far as we know, where the Noachian Flood was accepted as literal with little or no questioning. None, so far as we can identify, had gone to God for information on the details of the Flood; they either referred to the story in anecdotal asides or came to mention it through their seeking information on matters such as priesthood structure. I believe the same can safely be said for the utterances of our LDS leaders who have made similar, uncanonized statements. LDS tradition has rarely claimed that the recording and interpretation of scripture is infallible, and certainly a claim to infallibility for prophetic writers and speakers in our own dispensation cannot be defended. [See J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "When Are Church Leader's [sic] Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?" Church News, 31 July 1954, 8-11.] I believe many of the dilemmas we face in today's Church regarding possible conflicts between science and religion would be significantly reduced were we to more consciously remind ourselves of this principle: that leaders' fallibility on factual issues does not negate the sacredness and genuineness of their calling nor our responsibility to listen carefully and respond prayerfully to their guidance on spiritual and moral principles.
There is much more food for though in Dr. Jeffery's discussion.
Another recent and helpful resource on the flood is "Mormonism and Science/Global or Local Flood" by FAIRLDS.org. This discusses the traditional and literal view taken by LDS leaders while also showing that this is not an official doctrinal position and that it is possible for good members to believe in a local flood.
Joseph Smith named a location in Missouri as "Adam-ondi-Ahman," referring to a place where Adam dwelt and a great meeting that Adam held with his posterity. According to some contemporaries, he also stated that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri. It's hard to see how that fits the Biblical description of Eden, but no place on earth is a reasonable fit for that description, including such details as four major rivers all originating from Eden.
However, some of us may be drawing some errant conclusions about these statements. Two interesting articles dealing with this topic have been helpful for me: FAIRMormon on the Garden of Eden in Missouri and Kevin Barney's "Was the Garden of Eden Really in Missouri?" (By Common Consent, 2007).
Several anti-Mormon groups have used the findings of recent DNA studies to claim that the Book of Mormon has been refuted. The attack relies on the classical straw man fallacy. Rather than dealing with the actual claims of the Book of Mormon, they have focused their attacks on popular misreadings of the text, which they treat as if they were authoritative. By showing that a misconception about the Book of Mormon does not jive with science, they have done nothing to refute the authenticity of the text itself. DNA evidence points to a predominately Asiatic origin for Native Americans. The Book of Mormon describes three Old World migrations to the Americas, the most ancient of which, and the one which may well have provided the largest genetic influence on the Americas, appears to have come from Central Asia (the Jaredites). The Book of Mormon does not require that there were no other peoples on the continent when the tiny boatloads of people in these migrations arrived. If Nephi's family represented less than 1% of the genes on the continent in 590 B.C., should we be surprised now to find that most Native Americans do not have easily detectable genetic evidence of Jewish ancestry?
Serious students of the Book of Mormon have long recognized the possibility of other migrations (even Joseph Smith was open to this) and have noted for many decades that it would be a mistake to think that the origins of all Native Americans are described in the text. When we state these obvious facts now, in response to the straw man DNA arguments against the Book of Mormon, the critics cry foul, stating that we are revising official Church teachings to skirt the challenges of science. Baloney.
There is actually quite a lot to this issue, and I have explored a number of the critical issues on my lengthy page, "Does DNA Evidence Refute the Book of Mormon?." The Church has also placed a copy of my article in PDF format on the "DNA and the Book of Mormon" page, where several other DNA-related articles are also available (but use my more recent version at JeffLindsay.com, including Appendix 1 on what the Book of Mormon really teaches, Appendix 2 on what science shows, Appendix 3 on related scientific issues in the DNA and Book of Mormon controversy, and Appendix 4 with references and further resources).
One of the most interesting and delightfully ironic aspects of the controversy has been the deceptive misuse of science by anti-Mormon ministries. Evangelical ministries, holding fast to literalist young-earth, anti-evolutionary interpretations of Genesis, are attacking the Mormons using DNA studies based on evolutionary science. The studies that allegedly contradict the Book of Mormon (or the straw men they have constructed) are actually much more lethal to their own their views, but this fact is hidden. For example, the studies they point that allegedly disprove the Book of Mormon point to Asian entry in the Americas over 20,000 years ago, long before their chronology for the Creation. Some of these critics, especially the Living Hope Ministries, have deliberately censored information from the scientists they interview, for that information would thoroughly trash their actual beliefs, and not just a straw man.
A discussion of that issue from Daniel C. Peterson in his "Editor's Introduction," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2003, pp. ix-lxii, available online for subscribers. In his comments, he asks a fair question:
If this group of conservative Protestants accepts the validity of genetic research for their attack on Mormonism, why do they seem not to accept it for what it tells us about human prehistory? . . . They appear to become excited about genetic research when it purportedly discredits the Book of Mormon but ignore it, or even suppress it, when it seems to conflict with their understanding of the Bible. Are they willing to accept all that it tells us about American Indian origins, or do they simply want to pick and choose what will be most helpful to their assault on the faith of the Latter-day Saints?
Sure! Take the Word of Wisdom, the LDS health code that was revealed in 1833. It follows modern principles of nutrition, and warned that tobacco was not healthy for man, long before the scientific evidence was in. It's remarkably impressive.
Book of Mormon evidences also include a variety of scientific issues that may be of interest. It's wrong to say that science can prove or disprove the sacred text of any religion, but in my opinion, it can point to areas that would have been hard to fabricate in 1830, or add plausibility to the claim that it is an ancient text. An example of such a scientific issue pertaining to the Book of Mormon is volcanism. Volcanic activity is accurately described in the Book of Mormon. In fact, modern science confirms that volcanic activity occurred in Mesoamerica, the only plausible geographic setting for the New World aspects of the Book of Mormon, and that it occurred at approximately the same time the Book of Mormon says it happened. This issue of volcanism is one of several issues treated on my page of Book of Mormon evidences.
More to come....
What is the Church's position on Evolution? - lots of material provided by the Eyring-L list.
Science and the Gospel - an extensive collection of resources by Marc Schindler (archived from 2005), including many original articles and reviews he had written. Offers topics that may be of interest to Latter-day Saints as well as other faiths.
Science and the Book of Mormon by Wade Miller. Transcript of a 2009 FAIRLDS presentation given by a geologist and scientist about some of the alleged scientific gaps in the Book of Mormon (metals, horses, etc.).
The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution by Michael Ash from Dialogue, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2002, pp. 19-59. One of the best resources I've seen to discuss what is and isn't the official LDS position on evolution. Fascinating!
What is Official Doctrine? by Stephen Robinson.
Are Brigham Young's Sermons Scripture? by John Walsh.
A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton's "Galileo Event"--Kevin Barney responds to an article by Thomas Murphy and Simon Southerton, "Genetic Research a 'Galileo Event' for Mormons," Anthropology News, Vol. 44, No. 2 (February 2003): 20, a publication of the American Anthropological Association. Kevin's response is at FAIRLDS.org.
An Anthropologist Looks at the Bible - John Tvedtnes satirical response to a popular anti-Mormon article, "A Biologist Looks at the Book of Mormon."
DNA and the Book of Mormon--Cooper Johnson's excellent article at FAIRLDS.org.
Dinosaurs and Mormon Doctrine - info at FAIRMormon.org.
Dr. Stephen E. Jones, "Was There Death Before Adam?," personal views of an LDS scientist.
FARMS Review of Books--great reviews of and responses to books about LDS scripture. Also see the FARMS news item from 2000, "Genetics Indicates That Polynesians Were Connected to Ancient America."
Does Science Disprove God? - a chapter in the free online book by David Stewart, "Discussions with My Friend: An Introduction to the Gospel of Jesus Christ" at the Cumorah Project (cumorah.com).
DNA Mutation Rates & Evolution--an outstanding and carefully documented article on DNA mutation rates and the problem of using DNA as a molecular clock, written by Dr. Sean Pitman, Aug. 2003.
"The Problematic Role of DNA Testing in Unraveling Human History," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (2000): 66-74. This article discusses the limitations and benefits of DNA analysis, urging caution before leaping to errant conclusions based on early work with new methods.
Genetic Markers Are Not a Valid Test of Native Identity by Brett Lee Shelton, J.D. and Jonathan Marks, Ph.D. This essay points out the serious limitations of DNA testing in identifying tribal identity. I would suggest that some of the same factors that limit DNA tests to determine one's status as a Native American would also limit DNA tests in determining whether someone is Jewish or not. And it also points out that 5% of Native Americans believed to not have non-native DNA fall outside the major haplotypes (e.g., mtDNA haplotypes A, B, C, D, and X).
Tempest in a Tea Pot: DNA Studies and the Book of Mormon - Brant Gardner's article at FAIRLDS.org discusses of some of Tom Murphy's errors in interpreting scientific data.
Affiliation of Christian Geologists. See, for example, the article, "I was first convinced . . ." (of the old age of the earth) by C. Gordon Winder.
"How Joshua's Sun Stood Still While the World Turned" - a great post from LDS Science Review indicating that we may be translating Joshua improperly when we wonder how the sun was able to stand still in the sky for an ancient battle. The text may not mean that at all.
Dialog: A Journal of Mormon Thought, made available online by the University of Utah. While this journal contains some controversial items, I have found a number of thought-provoking and fascinating essays. For example, you can read one of my favorite articles, Michael Ash's "The Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution" (Dialogue, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2002, pp. 19-59) and other articles cited on this page.
Theistic Evolution - an essay by a Christian, Carl Drews, who argues for evolution as a mechanism in God's creation process. I don't agree with several aspects, but it's interesting reading. Has some good comments about the old earth versus young earth debate.
Noah's Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions - an outstanding article on Noah's flood and a possible scientific explanation. By Duane E. Jeffery, Sunstone, Oct. 2004, pp. 27-45.
"How Hitler perverted the course of science" - good reminder on the limitations of science without morality.
"Are Science and Religion Mutually Exclusive?" by Jazz Shaw at Hotair.com, June 2015. He discussed Jerry Coyne's anti-religion book, Faith Versus Fact.
"'Endless Forms Most Beautiful': The uses and abuses of evolutionary biology in six works" by Greg L. Smith for MormonInterpreter.com.