Darwinism’s Influence on the Mormon View of Spirits
This is the first part in a series. This first post covers a brief history leading up to the Nov. 1909 Doctrinal Exposition, The Origin of Man. Part Two deals with the Exposition itself, and later posts the history after the Exposition.
Gospel Principles, originally published in 1978, begins its articulation of Mormon cosmology by referring to a statement issued November 1909 by Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund titled The Origin of Man.
What is the history behind this doctrinal exposition? Why November 1909? What was occurring in the Church and in America broadly that precipitated such a statement by the First Presidency? What happened after the statement was issued?
Religious America Meets Darwin
The relationship between science and religion has a long and turbulent history. Religious America would inevitably confront itself with Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published on November 24, 1859, and Darwin’s later work, The Descent of Man, published in 1871.
Preoccupied with the Civil War and Reconstruction, Americans wouldn’t feel the “real impact of Darwinism” until about 1869.1 Yet, the impact would come. Freud would later refer to Darwin’s discoveries as a “blow to human narcissism” that shook the presumption that humans were distinct from the animal kingdom.2
The early Latter-day Saints, like the rest of religious America, initially responded to Darwin’s writings with incredulity. On January 20, 1878, Elder Erastus Snow explained:
“Mr. Darwin, and a kindred school of modern philosophers, would fain try to impress upon us their theory of evolutions, and would have us believe we are descendants from, and only a little in advance of our ancestor, the monkey; and that other inferior grades of animals are aspiring to become monkeys; they fail to demonstrate their theories, simply because they are not demonstrateable.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 19, p.326
Refining his argument Snow would preach from the pulpit:
“There is a theory put forth by Mr. Darwin, and others, that is the school of modern philosophers, which is termed in late years, the theory of Evolution, that man in our present state upon the earth, is but the sequence and outgrowth of steady advancement from the lowest order of creation, till the present type of man, and that we have advanced step by step from the lowest order of creation till at last man has been formed upon the earth in our present sphere of action . . . But if there is any truth in the history given us by Moses this being we call man, is only God in embryo. Erastus Snow, March 3, 1878, Journal of Discourses, vol. 19, p.271.
“God in embryo.” Records indicate that John Taylor used the phrase as early as 1860, Orson Pratt in 1874, and Orson F. Whitney in 1885. Yet this term would take on important significance in light of the evolution controversy. What could be more appropriate than a biological term “embryo” to counter the Darwinian heresy?
The religious reaction to Darwin was not entirely uniform. Even among the Latter-day Saints, some accepted Darwin’s views or at least accepted a modified version of them. There were some Catholic and Protestant thinkers who believed that science and religion were not completely at odds and sought, if not to harmonize, to enlist Darwin’s ideas to illustrate the sheer complexity of God’s creations.3
Man’s Origin and Destiny, 1882
After the death of Charles Darwin on April 19, 1882, Orson F. Whitney wrote a historically significant article titled “Man’s Origin and Destiny.” In this piece, Whitney denounces Darwinism on the one hand and questions attempts to reconcile evolution with the Bible by Christian churchmen on the other, especially given their views of creation out of nothing.
In contrast to both those views, Whitney concludes his article with these words:
“Man is the direct offspring of Deity, of a being who is the Begetter of his spirit in the eternal worlds, and the Architect of his mortal tabernacle in this. . . For man is the child of God, fashioned in His image and endowed with His attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable in due time of becoming a God.” Orson F. Whitney, “Man’s Origin and Destiny” Contributor, Vol. 3, No. 9. June 1882.
The phrase “offspring of God” was not radical, or even a term indigenous to Mormonism. Christians have been familiar with the term “offspring of God” ever since Paul quoted from the Greek poet Aratus in the Book of Acts (Acts 17:29).
Under Whitney’s pen, however, the phrase evolved to “direct offspring” in direct defiance of Darwin’s step by step understanding of man’s origins. While Protestants and Catholics would generally understand the term “offspring” in a non-physical manner, consistent with their understanding of the phrase “created in the image of God,” Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, with a doctrine of an embodied God, would entertain other possibilities.
Science and Scientists Among the Mormons
James Edward Talmage and John Andreas Widtsoe, members of the scientific community, and essentially holding Mormonism’s first doctorates, viewed the Gospel as encompassing all scientific truth. At the time, neither Talmage nor Widtsoe were apostles (Talmage ordained in 1911 and Widtsoe in 1921), yet they commanded quite a large influence among the saints.
In 1900, Talmage, professor of geology and chemistry at the University of Utah (already having served as president of the University of Utah) wrote an article in the Improvement Era titled “The Methods and Motives of Science.” Talmage argued against a mindset that completely denounced the scientific pursuit, and urged for a more informed and reasoned assessment of scientific truth claims.
Widtsoe, who would later become president of the University of Utah in 1916, had studied biochemistry in Goettingen, Germany, on a Harvard fellowship, would publish a series titled “Joseph Smith as Scientist” from 1903 to 1904 in the Improvement Era. Widtsoe presented arguments that the earth was in fact very old in contrast to a literal reading of the Genesis account. In 1908, he wrote an encomium on Lord Kelvin who had passed a few months before. Widtsoe held up Lord Kelvin as an example that a scientist can also be God-fearing. In his article, Widtsoe approvingly cites a few statements by Darwin but mentions that he omitted references to the natural selection hypothesis “because I have always felt that this hypothesis does not contain the true theory of evolution, if evolution there has been, in biology.” John A. Widtsoe, “Lord Kelvin the God-fearing.” Improvement Era, vol 10, no. 9, April 1908.
Science and Religion at Brigham Young University
At the same time Talmage and Widtsoe were writing on scientific truth, in 1903, Brigham Young Academy became Brigham Young University with George H. Brimhall appointed its first president. President Brimhall sought to attract star scholars trained at elite universities, in order to raise the reputation of the budding university. Among those hired, Brimhall recruited Ralph V. Chamberlin, who was head of the biology department at the University of Utah, as well as the dean of its medical school.
In 1909, a centennial commemoration of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809) was conducted at Brigham Young University. According to Bergera, “Ralph Chamberlin publicly pronounced the British biologist one of the greatest scientific minds of the era.” The BYU’s student newspaper followed suit: “Undoubtedly among the great men of the nineteenth century the foremost place should be given to the eminent scientist Charles Darwin.”4
Widtsoe and Talmage opened the door to seriously consider scientific knowledge but developments at Brigham Young University greatly alarmed Church leaders. The concerns became such that the First Presidency, Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, decided to prepare a statement and asked Orson F. Whitney to draft it. Whitney used his April 19, 1882 article as his template. According to Alexander, “From September 27 though October 15 members of the First Presidency and the Twelve, together with Widtsoe, Talmage, and George H. Brimhall, met to review the draft.”5
What exactly did the statement say? What happened afterward? What was the impact of the statement on Mormon cosmology and the nature of spirits? In our next post in this series, we shall turn our attention to the exposition itself and explore these questions.
1. Ahlstrom, Sidney. Religious History of the American People, 2d. New Haven: Yale University, 2004, p. 768.
2. Freud, Sigmund. “A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis.” (1917) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated by James Strachey. vol.17:137-144. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955.
3. Gaustad, Edwin and Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America. revised ed. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002, pp. 303-305. See also Ahlstrom, p. 771.
4. Bergera, Gary James. “The 1911 Evolution Controversy at Brigham Young University” in Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg, eds. The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1993, p. 23-41.
5. Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986, p. 276.