Church History
Organic Evolution
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“Organic Evolution,” Church History Topics (2022)

“Organic Evolution,” Church History Topics

Organic Evolution

The modern science of evolution can be traced back to the work of Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel in the mid-1800s.1 Based on his study of animal species, Darwin noted that environmental conditions favor some individuals within a population better than others. Members of a species that developed certain traits were better suited to survive and reproduce across generations. Over generations, he argued, this process of “natural selection” could give rise to new species.2 Meanwhile, Mendel tracked variations in plant reproduction and argued that some of their traits are transmitted through genes.

As scientists debated Darwin’s and Mendel’s theories over the following decades, people of faith grappled with the implications of organic evolution for human origins, the Creation of the earth, and the meaning of scripture.3 In the early 20th century, public controversy about evolution centered on “Darwinism,” or Darwin’s explanation of natural selection through random mutation. Theologians were divided over whether the findings of scientists attested to God’s creative power or denied His role in the Creation.4

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time did not take an official stance on the theory of evolution, but they did take steps to clarify the Church’s teachings related to human origins. In 1909, President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency published an official declaration entitled “The Origin of Man.” Drafted by Elder Orson F. Whitney, the declaration affirmed our divine nature as children of God.5 The next year, President Smith urged Church leaders not to undertake “to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false.”6

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Smith. Joseph F.

The First Presidency in 1909.

In 1925, a high school science instructor named John Scopes stood trial in the southern United States for teaching human evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law prohibiting the promotion of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible.”7 During this trial, courtroom arguments over science and scriptural interpretation attracted widespread attention, amplifying the debate about the Bible’s account of human origins.8

As international interest in the trial grew, several prominent newspapers asked Church leaders for the position of Latter-day Saints on evolution. The First Presidency issued a condensed version of “The Origin of Man” in 1925 that reiterated, “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally sons and daughters of Deity.” Both versions of this statement affirmed the doctrine of human divinity, as supported by ancient and modern scripture, and used the term “evolve” in a positive sense, pointing forward to the “ages and eons” of the eternities in which human beings could continue to progress toward godhood themselves.9

In the wake of the Scopes trial, Christians in the United States became increasingly divided over the question of human origins. “Modernist” Christians embraced scientific discovery and reasoning and were open to many approaches to biblical interpretation. Christians who opposed modernism, often labeled “fundamentalists,” regarded the idea that humankind evolved from other species as blasphemous.10 Latter-day Saints and their leaders found themselves on both sides of this issue. James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe, two professional scientists who became Apostles, regarded scientific discovery of truth as evidence of God’s use of natural laws to govern the universe.11 Meanwhile, Apostle and future Church President Joseph Fielding Smith believed that the Biblical account of the Creation did not allow for the long spans required for species to multiply through evolution.12 Addressing these differing opinions, Church President Heber J. Grant and his counselors in the First Presidency urged leaders not to take sides on the issue, requesting in 1931 that they “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.”13

As time went on, faithful Latter-day Saints continued to hold diverse views on the topic of evolution.14 Joseph Fielding Smith in his influential writings maintained the reliability of scripture as a guide to the Creation timeline. Henry Eyring, a prominent scientist and Sunday School general board member, welcomed evidence of evolutionary change and reiterated the teachings of Brigham Young, who taught that the gospel encompassed all truth, scientific or otherwise.15 In 1965, Church President David O. McKay worked with Bertrand F. Harrison, a botany professor at Brigham Young University, to foster greater understanding between Saints with differing viewpoints on evolution.16

In the late 20th century, Church-sponsored schools expanded their educational offerings in the sciences. In 1992, the First Presidency and board of trustees at Brigham Young University approved a packet of reading material for use in science classes that presented the official 1909 and 1925 statements and other statements from members of the First Presidency on the faithful application of scientific truth.17 The packet also included an entry from the 1992 publication The Encyclopedia of Mormonism, produced with Church leader approval, which explained that “the scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how.”18 In 2016, the Church’s youth magazine published articles on the pursuit of scientific truth. These articles reiterated that “the Church has no official position on the theory of evolution” and characterized it as a “matter for scientific study.” Echoing countless statements of Church leaders, the articles once again affirmed God’s role in creation and our relationship to our Heavenly Father as His children.19

Related Topics: Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, B. H. Roberts, John and Leah Widtsoe

  1. Martinez Hewlett, “Evolution: The Controversy with Creationism,” in Lindsay Jones, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed., 14 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 2005), 5:2908–9; Phillip Sloan, “Darwin: From Origin of Species to Descent of Man,” in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/origin-descent.

  2. Sloan, “Darwin.” Although concepts of natural changes to species dated to ancient philosophers, Darwin argued that random mutations within a species’ population could lead to new, more complex forms of life. See Phillip Sloan, “Evolutionary Thought before Darwin,” in Edward N. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2019 ed., https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evolution-before-darwin.

  3. Robert C. Fuller, “Religious Responses to Modern Science, 1865–1945,” chapter 24 in Stephen J. Stein, ed., The Cambridge History of Religions in America, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 2:523–44; see also Ronald L. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998).

  4. Fuller, “Religious Responses,” 2:526–28.

  5. Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era, vol. 8, no. 1 (Nov. 1909), 75–81; “What Does the Church Believe about Evolution?,” New Era, Oct. 2016, https://churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2016/10/to-the-point/what-does-the-church-believe-about-evolution.

  6. Joseph F. Smith, “Philosophy and the Church Schools,” The Juvenile Instructor, vol. 46, no. 4 (Apr. 1911), 208–9.

  7. Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America, 77–78.

  8. Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate over Science and Religion (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Stefaan Blancke, Hans Henrik Hjermitslev, and Peter C. Kjærgaard, eds., Creationism in Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 3, 9–13, 229; Numbers, Darwinism Comes to America, 4–23, 88; Fuller, “Religious Responses,” 2:541–43.

  9. “‘Mormon’ View of Evolution,” Deseret News, July 18, 1925, section 3, 5; see also T. Benjamin Spackman, “The 1909 and 1925 First Presidency Statements in Historical and Scientific Contexts,” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 2 (2022).

  10. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 3–4, 234.

  11. James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith: A Series of Lectures on the Principal Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1899), 3, 30–34; John A. Widtsoe, Joseph Smith as Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Associations General Board, 1908), 1–2, 103–14; John A. Widtsoe, “Evidences and Reconciliations: To What Extent Should the Doctrine of Evolution Be Accepted?,” Improvement Era, vol. 42, no. 7 (Jul. 1939), 417, 444–45, 447.

  12. Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 179; see also Joseph Fielding Smith, “Faith Leads to a Fulness of Truth and Righteousness,” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, vol. 21, no. 4 (Oct. 1930), 145–158; Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954).

  13. First Presidency, Memorandum to the Council of the Twelve, First Council of the Seventy, and Presiding Bishopric, 5 April 1931, Document C, in William E. Evenson and Duane E. Jeffery, Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005), 54–67.

  14. Compare Paul R. Green, comp., Science and Your Faith in God: A Selected Compilation of Writings and Talks by Prominent Latter-day Saints Scientists on the Subjects of Science and Religion (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958); Marion G. Romney, in Conference Report, Apr. 1959, 10; Marion G. Romney, “Records of Great Worth,” Ensign, Sept. 1980, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1980/09/records-of-great-worth; Russell M. Nelson, “The Magnificence of Man” (Brigham Young University devotional, Mar. 29, 1987), https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/russell-m-nelson/magnificence-man; William S. Bradshaw, Andrea J. Phillips, Seth M. Bybee, Richard A. Gill, Steven L. Peck, and Jamie L. Jensen, “A Longitudinal Study of Attitudes toward Evolution among Undergraduates Who Are Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” PLoS One, vol. 13, no. 11 (Nov. 7, 2018), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6221276.

  15. See Henry J. Eyring, Mormon Scientist: The Life and Faith of Henry Eyring (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 60–70; Henry Eyring, The Faith of a Scientist (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967); Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny; Joseph Fielding Smith, “Evolution,” chapter 9 in Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954), 1:139–51. See also “The Gospel Defined,” chapter 2 in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/teachings-brigham-young/chapter-2.

  16. Bertrand F. Harrison, “The Relatedness of Living Things,” The Instructor, Jul. 1965, 272–76, https://archive.org/details/instructor1007dese/page/n17/mode/2up.

  17. William E. Evenson, “Evolution Packet Defined,” The Daily Universe, Nov. 12, 1992, 3, in Evolution Packet, Collection on Brigham Young University Evolution Packet, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

  18. William E. Evenson, “Evolution,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., The Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 478.

  19. Alicia K. Stanton, “Science and Our Search for Truth,” New Era, July 2016, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2016/07/science-and-our-search-for-truth; “What Does the Church Believe about Evolution?,” New Era, Oct. 2016, https://churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2016/10/to-the-point/what-does-the-church-believe-about-evolution.