2005 Update: William Evenson responds

During the summer of 2005, a short exchange of reader comment in The Salt Lake Tribune involved William E. Evenson and his Encyclopedia of Mormonism article about Evolution. The exchange was prompted by an article in the June 12th issue of the Tribune titled "Mormons are taught to leave theory of evolution to science" which said:

"Over the years, the LDS Church has rarely stepped into the fight over evolution.... The official LDS Church position has remained steady from a 1931 First Presidency statement to a 1993 packet handed out at BYU."

Faith Forum Letter, June 24, 2005

This prompted me to write a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune. It was published in the Faith Forum section on June 24, 2005 and says:

      Evolution rebuttal
      Your June 12 article, "Mormons are taught to leave theory of evolution to science," implied that the 1931 First Presidency made a statement about  evolution.
      The 1931 decision closed the LDS Church's official evaluation of a priesthood manual submitted in 1928 by Elder B. H. Roberts of the Quorum of the Seventy. Neither the author nor his manuscript were sympathetic to evolution. Roberts had previously written, "the claims of evolution ... are contrary to all experience so far as man's knowledge extends" and the manuscript affirmed "each subdivision of life ... produces after its kind, whereas evolution in all its forms destroys that thought."
      Problems arose for the manual, however, because it attempted to reconcile fossils with scripture using a bizarre theory that was both unscientific and doctrinally unsupportable. The Quorum of the Twelve finally referred the matter to the governing First Presidency, whose decision was that further discussion of the manuscript with its unorthodox interpretations of "geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology" would lead only to "confusion, division, and misunderstanding." Because Roberts refused to rewrite the manual, it was not published. The statement was not about evolution.
      The Salt Lake Tribune is not the first to innocently repeat this urban legend. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism makes a similar error in its article about evolution. Two of my web sites (http://ndbf.net and http://ndbf.blogspot.com) provide a wealth of information about this unfortunate misunderstanding.
      R. Gary Shapiro

Faith Forum Letter, July 2, 2005

William E. Evenson followed with a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune that was published in the Faith Forum section on July 2, 2005. Evenson said:

      LDS science counsel still valid
      In 1931, the LDS First Presidency counseled the other general authorities to leave scientific matters to scientific investigation, and that the general authorities should restrict themselves strictly to matters of the ministry. Several writers have recently used this statement as a reflection of current church opinion. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism uses the quote in this sense.
      Gary Shapiro (June 25) asserted that since this counsel was given in 1931 to terminate discussion of Elder B. H. Roberts' views, it is not relevant today, and the encyclopedia and more recent writers are in error to use it. This interpretation overlooks some pertinent facts.
      As the author of the article on evolution for the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, I can attest that the article went through various drafts and eventually was submitted to the First Presidency and members of the Twelve for their counsel. It was at their initiative, and specifically by the action of then-First Counselor Gordon B. Hinckley, that the 1931 counsel was supplied to be used in the encyclopedia to indicate the church's position in 1992. This updates the 1931 counsel and gives it focus directly to modern conditions. The encyclopedia and other writers are quite correct in citing it as a currently valid statement.
      William E. Evenson

Six things the reader should notice

    1.  Evenson misquotes my letter. I did not say writers are in error to use the 1931 quote. I said "the statement was not about evolution."

    2.  Evenson is trying to invent a new context for the quoted excerpt. Contrary to what he actually said in the Encyclopedia article, he now claims that

"In 1931, the LDS First Presidency counseled the other general authorities to leave scientific matters to scientific investigation, and that the general authorities should restrict themselves strictly to matters of the ministry.... The Encyclopedia of Mormonism uses the quote in this sense." (Emphasis added.)

But the Encyclopedia article doesn't say that at all. It says:

"In 1931, when there was intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution, the First Presidency ... addressed all of the General Authorities of the Church on the matter, and concluded,..." (Emphasis added.)

Whereupon, and clearly in this sense, the article quotes the 1931 First Presidency. In his 1992 Encyclopedia article, Evenson quotes the 1931 First Presidency completely out of context.

    3.  The meaning of the 1931 excerpt is not as obvious as one would think because it is taken completely out of context. The 1931 First Presidency statement discusses and rejects a specific attempt by Elder B. H. Roberts to interpret scripture according to his view of science (see this article for further information).

The 1931 First Presidency statement, if it must be applied to "modern conditions," means simply that similar attempts should not be made. Where did the words Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology come from? They came from Roberts' book. The 1931 First Presidency statement itself says:

"Elder Roberts quotes from the scripture and extensively from the conclusions reached by the leading scientists of the world, to show that the earth is older than the time given to its creation in Genesis indicates." (Italics added.)

In his manuscript, and in his presentation before the Twelve (which was taken from Chapter 31 of the manuscript) Roberts used the conclusions of scientists in the fields of Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology to support his theory. Unfortunately, the scientists he was quoting had not themselves even dreamed of such a theory as Roberts outlined and the First Presidency and Twelve found Roberts' theory to be doctrinally unsupportable. Nevertheless, in his book Roberts relied on quotes from experts in the named fields of science.

The 1931 First Presidency admonition applies specifically to Roberts' book. That is where the First Presidency's words Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology originated.

Viewed in context, it becomes clear that the 1931 statement was given by the First Presidency privately to and intended for the 1931 General Authorities and was a directive to not attempt reconciliations of science with scripture as Roberts had done. What the 1931 First Presidency clearly was not saying is: Let science interpret scripture.

    4.  Church leaders were not counseled to "restrict themselves strictly to ... the ministry." Then, as now, leaders freely warn members about false scientific theories (see for example Ensign, Jan. 2005, 49; see also here, here, here, and here for additional examples).

    5.  Whatever President Hinckley's involvement, the Encyclopedia article was published with Evenson named as its sole author, leaving Evenson responsible for its content. When President Gordon B. Hinckley desires the general membership of the Church to adopt his interpretation of something, he will put his name on an article and we will read it in a Church publication.

    6.  The LDS Church does not rely on physics professors and New York publishers to announce its position on anything. The Church's position on evolution was announced in the November 1909 Improvement Era and reprinted in the February 2002 Ensign. This formal, Church-published First Presidency statement is the Church's current position on evolution—and yes, it is easily and usually interpreted as anti-evolution (more information here).

All but three pages of the "official" BYU Evolution Packet either are the 1909 First Presidency statement, or are taken from it. The Church's 2002 reprint of the 1909 statement outlines "the Church's doctrinal position on ... evolution" (Ensign, Feb. 2002, 26)

And speaking of the BYU Evolution Packet, see this thorough discussion about Evenson's Encyclopedia article in relation to that Packet.

R. Gary Shapiro
March 2, 2006


Copyright 2006 by R. Gary Shapiro
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