Early Mormon apostles BH Roberts, John A. Widtsoe, and James E. Talmage seemed to be very amenable to evolution. It seems like Joseph Fielding Smith on the other hand, had an outsize influence on LDS thought, and tended more towards a creationist stance. In our next conversation with Ben Spackman, we’ll talk about that dynamic, and how early leaders diverged, and how it seems like Smith temporarily won the evolutionary debate.
GT: So let me throw that out there. We talked about who won between Tertullian and Augustine and it sounds like Augustine won? Is that a fair assumption? Before you answer that, I also want to do this. Let’s talk about Talmage, Roberts and Widtsoe and Joseph Fielding Smith. It sounds like Joseph Fielding Smith won in a lot of minds.
Ben: In a lot of ways, I think he did. If you want to be cynical, he kind of waited until his opponents died. Then he published Man, His Origin and Destiny, which was kind of his young-Earth creationist book. Parts of that were written word for word 20 or 30 years earlier. None of his discussions with apostles, who were in some cases his senior and had Ph.D.’s in relevant fields shifted him one bit.
Ben: On the one hand, you can look at that as very admirable. His strength was, he thought, and rightly so, at least in this narrow way, what is important is that we’re faithful to scripture. Where that goes wrong, and I would disagree with it, is how he read scripture. There are other examples of this in LDS history. I have made a very loose argument somewhere that, in a way, Joseph Fielding Smith was kind of the epitome of 19th century assumptions that Mormons had inherited. These other three guys were outsiders in several ways. First of all, they were all foreign, technically. Roberts was British, Talmage was British, Widtsoe was Norwegian. So they were not raised in a set of 19th century American assumptions. They were getting 19th century European assumptions which differed in some ways. They were all converts and so they were not raised with, what you might think of as religious Mormon assumptions that they would just start imbibing by osmosis, from age three onwards in church or something. So, it’s interesting that these three guys who are outsiders in significant ways are the ones who opposed Joseph Fielding Smith’s insider perspective. By insider I mean, you couldn’t be much more of an insider than Joseph Fielding Smith. I mean by his position, by his family, by his history. He was just at the center, at the core.
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Don’t forget to check out our previous conversation with Ben!
242: Evolution & Bible: Irreconcilable Differences? (Spackman)