Much of what follows is taken from the book The Truth, The Way, The Life (2nd edition, Provo: BYU Studies, 1996). Written by Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy in 1927-28, it remained in manuscript form until 1994. The book now includes an informative introduction and twelve analytical essays, one of which was written by William E. Evenson, who also wrote the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article about Evolution. The Truth, The Way, The Life will be referred to in the remainder of this article simply as TWL.
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article about Evolution (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992, vol. 2, p. 478) written by William E. Evenson is often cited as evidence that the Church takes no official position on evolution. It is a short article, addressing two subjects with only 258 words. "The origin of man" is covered in 109 words, 44 of them quoted from two earlier First Presidencies. The subject of "organic evolution" is covered in 149 words, 96 of them quoted from an unpublished 1931 First Presidency statement.
Two of the Church's First Presidencies are misquoted and the third is quoted out of context.
Regarding the origin of man, Evenson quotes identical wording from two First Presidencies. However, the phrase "proclaims man to be" was changed to read "declares man to be" and it continues to be quoted thus incorrectly in publications that cite Evenson's article. Whether the word change would have been considered a meaning change by the 1909 or 1925 First Presidency is probably not important.
The sentence is actually quoted three times in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, the other two being reprints of the original two First Presidency statements cited by Evenson and in both of these cases the phrase is quoted correctly (see vol. 4, pp. 1669 and 1670). On the surface, the word change appears to be an unintentional error, but there is another possibility.
John Gee in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1993, 5:174) reports that the influence of the editors at Macmillan was heavy at times. Even so, an intentionally substituted word should be inside square brackets. The original reads as follows:
Much more significant is the assertion that in 1931 there was "intense discussion on the issue of organic evolution." This claim is false, which means the 1931 First Presidency is quoted completely out of context. This is the article's major defect.
The Focus of the 1931 Discussion
The focus of the discussion in 1931 was the manuscript for TWL, which had been submitted for use as a Melchizedek Priesthood course of study (TWL, pp. xi-xvi, 680-720).
The story begins in 1927, when Elder Roberts asked for permission to take some time off from his duties as a General Authority to write a book. The First Presidency not only approved his request, they authorized him to hire a stenographer. (TWL, 691) In October 1928, at the suggestion of the First Presidency, a committee of five members of the Quorum of the Twelve was formed to review the Roberts manuscript (TWL, 694).
The committee's initial evaluation was completed a few months later (TWL, 698). Then, throughout 1929 and 1930, discussion of TWL continued in meetings of the Quorum of the Twelve while members of the review committee tried to persuade Roberts to eliminate certain "objectionable features" (TWL, 698-707). Rather than cooperate with the committee, Roberts began defending his point of view in Church talks and "on the air." (TWL, 700)
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, a member of the review committee, felt Roberts was "causing a great deal of commotion" among Church members (Ibid.) so he attempted to clarify some things in a talk given in April 1930 to the Genealogical Society of Utah. (TWL, 701) Publication of Elder Smith's talk in October 1930 was disquieting for Roberts and eventually led to some lengthy discussions in meetings of the entire Quorum of the Twelve (TWL, 702), meetings that included Elder Roberts because it was his book they were discussing. (TWL, 703-707)
In January 1931, the discussions came to a high point and the matter was referred to the First Presidency (TWL, 706-707). Three months later, the First Presidency convened a special meeting of all the General Authorities where they said, among other things, what is quoted in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article.
The Objectionable Features of the Manuscript
Although TWL was considered an excellent work in many respects, Roberts insisted on including in it some things that his Brethren could not approve (TWL, xiii; 692-702). Most of the problems were related to an attempt to reconcile the scriptures with the "rock record," or fossils. (TWL, 302, 297). Rejecting all other explanations for fossil origins (including organic evolution), Roberts set forth his own theory of an earlier, pre-Adamic creation. (TWL, 238-240; 289-296). In this creation, God brought plants, animals, and pre-Adamic human-like beings to the earth, all of which lived and died for millions of years before the time of Adam. This, according to Roberts, would explain fossils found in the earth today. And because science studies these prehistoric creatures using geology, biology, anthropology and archaeology, Roberts used sources from these disciplines in his book. (TWL, 232-240, 297-322.)
Thus it was that pre-Adamites became a major part of the discussion. But, it is important to note that Elder Roberts had used that term in a way that did not support organic evolution because these beings did not evolve. They were created and placed on earth last, after all other forms of life, millions of years ago. (TWL, 238-240.)
Roberts then speculates that "previous to the advent of Adam upon the earth, some destructive cataclysm,... left the earth empty and desolate." (TWL, p. 294.) A new creation followed with Adam, the human creation, being this time "the first creation instead of the last [and] not only the first man, but the 'first flesh' upon the earth also." (TWL, p. 292.)
This theory of a prior creation and cataclysmic destruction followed by the Adamic creation was the major objectionable feature of the book. Note that neither the Roberts theory itself nor the response of the committee of the Twelve talks about organic evolution. What the committee did say was this:
Historian James B. Allen tells of a lengthy interview Elder Roberts had with the First Presidency about TWL. During this meeting, Allen informs us, Roberts was "told again that the First Presidency and the Twelve could not approve some parts." (TWL, p. 702; emphasis added.)
The decision of the 1931 First Presidency was that the discussions involving "Geology, Biology, Archaeology, and Anthropology" as used by Roberts to promote his theory would lead only to "confusion, division, and misunderstanding if carried further." (TWL, 709-710). Publication of TWL without removing it's objectionable features was no longer an option. (TWL, 710) It was the end of debate about TWL's controversial theories. It was the end of a long, unpleasant ordeal for Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy. It was not about organic evolution.
There Was No Disagreement About Organic Evolution
The 1928-1931 review of TWL did not involve "intense" discussion about organic evolution. There was no disagreement on that issue.
Elder Roberts was not an evolutionist and TWL does not promote organic evolution. On the contrary, TWL plainly teaches that each "subdivision of life ... produces after its kind, whereas evolution in all its forms destroys that thought" (TWL, p. 239). Roberts twice (TWL, pp. 236, 245) refers the reader to his own previous discussion of the theory of evolution in "Man's Relationship to Deity":
The so-called opposing view was that "the doctrine of organic evolution which pervades the modern day sciences proclaiming the edict that man has evolved from the lower forms of life ... is as false as [its] author who lives in hell." (Elder Joseph Fielding Smith to the Quorum of the Twelve, January 21, 1931, as quoted in Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg editors, The Search For Harmony, Salt Lake City: Signature Books,1993, p. 96.)
Now, who desires to destroy the grand, central truth of all revelation if it isn't the author of all lies who lives in hell? There is no evidence of disagreement between Roberts and his Brethren about the theory of organic evolution!
In his introduction to TWL, law professor and editor of BYU Studies, John W. Welch describes the relationship between the concepts in TWL and those in "Man's Relationship to Deity." According to Welch, Roberts was remarkably consistent in his writings (TWL, p. xxix.) being uniformly "critical of the general theories of evolution" and asserting that "all forms of life were brought to the earth 'not by the process of evolution, but ... from some other and older sphere.' " (TWL, pp. xxx-xxxi.)
The main difference, according to Welch, between the views expressed in "Man's Relationship to Deity" and those expressed in TWL "is that the latter is more specific in locating the great cataclysm on this earth [whereas] the earlier exposition ... argued that the Earth was created from fragments of another planet [click here for more on this doctrine] and that pre-Adamic races 'were inhabitants of that world which was destroyed.' " (TWL, pp. xxx-xxxi.) Perhaps "Man's Relationship to Deity" was not considered "theologically problematical," Welch concludes, "because it entailed no death on this planet after its formation and before the fall of Adam." (TWL, p. xxxi.)
Others who have read TWL agree likewise that organic evolution was not an issue.
For example, Richard Sherlock, professor of philosophy at USU, says the theory advanced by Elder Roberts in TWL "was clearly not a theory of evolution [because] it did not deal at all with the central thesis of evolution—the mutability of species and descent with modification.... He [Roberts] was unwilling to attempt a reconciliation grounded in a firm commitment to evolution." (The Search For Harmony, pp. 76-77; emphasis added.)
Surprisingly, William E. Evenson, who authored the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article, has also since recognized that the opinions in the manuscript were "not those of an evolutionist" and the discussions "were not centered on the scientific theories of origins of life forms. Rather, the central point of concern was whether death occurred on earth before the fall of Adam." (TWL, p. 645; emphasis added.) Evenson now acknowledges that the Roberts manuscript "addresses three forms of evolutionary theory [and] finds all three ... to be inadequate." (Ibid.) Evenson further concedes that Roberts, in TWL, "rejects all current [evolutionary] theories as he understands them [and] puts forward his own theory" to reconcile the scriptures with the fossil record. (Ibid.)
The Question of Death Before the Fall
Because it can be argued that death before the fall is "one of the pillars of evolutionary theory" (The Search For Harmony, p. 67), it might be argued that the decision of the 1931 First Presidency was related to the theory of organic evolution. Even so, how can Latter-day Saints be expected to accept a private discussion, even a First Presidency discussion, as the current position of the Church if that discussion has never been published by the Church and issued to its members in an official Church magazine or in any Church curriculum materials? The answer to this question should be obvious.
More importantly, the question of death before the fall (which was left open in 1931) has since been settled by another First Presidency.
Joseph Fielding Smith became the Church's Tenth President in January 1970. He served until his death in July 1972. Early that year, the book Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions was made available as the Melchizedek Priesthood Course of Study for the period September 1972 to August 1973.
Although some passages have been published privately, the 1931 statement has not yet been published by the Church. On the other hand, Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions was published "by the First Presidency" and distributed to the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums of the Church.
Because it is inconceivable that the First Presidency would publish that which it had not approved, the conclusion is inescapable that the Church's 1972 First Presidency approved the following teachings found in Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions:
"The animals were all created and placed on the earth preceding the coming of Adam and Eve. In fact the whole earth and the creatures on it were prepared for Adam and Eve before Adam's fall.… The earth and all upon it were not subject to death until Adam fell.… It was through the fall of Adam that death came into the world." (pp. 53-54, 111; emphasis added.)
Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions recommends three sections from volume one of President Smith's Doctrines of Salvation (pp. 107-120, 148-151, and 307-320) wherein President Smith discusses organic evolution and the doctrine of no death before the fall.
Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions recommends no fewer than 35 passages from President Smith's 1954 book Man: His Origin and Destiny, a volume that is openly antagonistic to organic evolution. In Man: His Origin and Destiny, President Smith teaches very forcefully the doctrine of no death before the fall (pp. 2, 50-51, 279-280, 328-329, 357-358, 362-365, 376-377, 381, 384, 387-396, 463-464).
Publication of the book Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions was enough to resolve the question of death before the fall. It was not necessary that a special announcement be made. An official pronouncement by the First Presidency might have been more satisfactory to some Church members but the fact remains that President Smith quietly settled the question and the majority of Church members have quietly accepted his decision.
Taught as Church Doctrine by Other Church Presidents
The doctrine of no death before the fall has been taught as Church doctrine by other Church Presidents. For example, President Harold B. Lee taught this doctrine in 1954 when he spoke to the Seminary and Institute teachers of the Church about the "Fall of Man." He was not President of the Church at the time, but his teachings on that occasion have since been published by the Church as the teachings of a President of the Church:
"Besides the Fall having had to do with Adam and Eve, causing a change to come over them, that change affected all human nature, all of the natural creations, all of the creation of animals, plants—all kinds of life were changed. The earth itself became subject to death. … How it took place no one can explain, and anyone who would attempt to make an explanation would be going far beyond anything the Lord has told us. But a change was wrought over the whole face of the creation, which up to that time had not been subject to death. From that time henceforth all in nature was in a state of gradual dissolution until mortal death was to come, after which there would be required a restoration in a resurrected state." (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, 2000, p. 20.)
Whether the doctrine of no death before the fall should be viewed as controversial today depends upon how a person views the published teachings of the Presidents of the Church.
The Settled Doctrine of the Church
The Prophet Joseph Smith said: "The fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 21; emphasis added.) "The President of the Church [is] the only person on earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys." (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 229; emphasis added.) Therefore, only the President of the Church may "proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church." (President J. Reuben Clark, as quoted by Francis M. Gibbons in Joseph Fielding Smith: Gospel Scholar, Prophet of God, p. 216; emphasis added.)
Joseph Fielding Smith was a participant in the discussions about the Roberts manuscript. He was present when the 1931 First Presidency announced its decision. Years later, when he himself became Church President, Joseph Fielding Smith became the one man on earth who was authorized to exercise all priesthood keys and he did in fact, as explained above, proclaim one doctrine among two doctrines in dispute as the settled doctrine of the Church—namely the doctrine of no death before the fall. That fact alone removes the doctrine from the area of controversy. But that isn't the end of the story.
The LDS Bible Dictionary
The LDS edition of the Bible was published in 1979. One of its features is a new dictionary prepared especially for Latter-day Saints. The LDS Bible Dictionary is not intended as an official endorsement by the Church of the doctrinal matters set forth therein. However, it is safe to say that unsettled or controversial views would not have been considered as additions to the LDS Bible Dictionary.
The following is a summary of LDS Bible Dictionary teachings about death before the fall. It is not presented as evidence that the doctrine is "official," but merely as evidence that the doctrine is no longer considered controversial.
In addition, the heading to chapter 4 in the book of Moses now reads, "How Satan became the devil—He tempts Eve—Adam and Eve fall and death enters the world."
Review and Conclusion
The 1931 discussion was not about organic evolution and the 1931 First Presidency decision did not address that subject. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism article about Evolution quotes the 1931 First Presidency completely out of context.
Quoting the 1931 First Presidency in context as current and authoritative on the subject of death before the fall doesn't work either because the creatures that were being discussed as having lived and died for millions of years before the fall were not the evolutionary forefathers of any creatures that inhabit the earth today. In fact, they were not the products of evolution at all. Therefore, the 1931 First Presidency decision was not even related to organic evolution.
Lastly, earlier prophets don't trump later ones. Quoting the 1931 First Presidency in context, as current and authoritative on the subject of death before the fall, does at least these two things: First, it challenges the authority of the 1972 First Presidency to clarify that doctrine; and second, it calls into question several key phrases about that doctrine that were added by the Church to the LDS Bible Dictionary in 1979.
The pre-Adamic creation theory advanced in TWL remains where the First Presidency left it in 1931. Subsequent Church Presidents have not addressed that issue. When applied to other subjects, however, the 1931 decision is either unrelated or outdated—it was never related to organic evolution and it no longer applies to death before the fall.
R. Gary Shapiro
Copyright © 2004 by R. Gary Shapiro