Well, now, Brother William, when the house of Israel begin to come into the glorious mysteries of the kingdom, and find that Jesus Christ, whose goings forth, as the prophets said, have been from of old, from eternity; and that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years…
So said William W. Phelps, the Prophet Joseph’s scribe, in a letter to the Prophet’s brother, William Smith, in 1844. Shortly thereafter, the Church’s official periodical published Phelps’ statement, with one small editorial addition:
… eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system (not the world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years… Times & Seasons 5 no. 24 (1 Jan. 1844), 758 (emphasis added).
What a bizarre and perplexing quote. “This system” has been around for 2,555,000,000 years? Whatever could this mean? I asked myself this question when I first came across Phelps’ comment 15 or so years ago. (I think I was on my mission, but I might have been a freshman at BYU). It was rather odd and unbelievable, yet at the same time it seemed to dare the reader to take it seriously. After all, why would an early church leader make this up, or casually assert such a claim if he didn’t have compelling evidence (scriptural, revelatory, or otherwise) to back it up? And that number … 2,555,000,000. It was so huge, and yet so precise! Phelps is talking in the billions, and yet he had pinpointed the age of the “system” within a few million years! The number was so alluring, so mysterious, it tempted one to imagine that some deep secret piece of cosmological trivia had truly been revealed to mankind…
Alas, no. I would later learn, thanks to Erich Robert Paul’s Science, Religion and Mormon Cosmology (U. of Illinois Press, 1992, p.183), that most likely, Phelps was merely engaging in good old-fashioned Biblical numerology. Consider the following explanation from Paul:
(1) Each creative period is the equivalent of 1,000 years of God’s time (not humankind’s) and because the Creation required seven periods (including one of rest), therefore the Creation required 7,000 years of God’s time:
or: 7,000 years (God)/creation (God) (C1)
(2) The reckoning for God’s time is similar to that of human’s time:
or: 365 days (God)/1 year (God) (C2)
(3) 1,000 years in human’s time is equivalent to one day in God’s time (Abr. 3:4, 2 Peter 3:8):
or: 1,000 years (humans)/1 day (God) (C3)
Finally, multiplying C1 by C2 by C3, or
[7,000 years (God)/creation (God)]
X [365 days (God)/1 year (God)]
X [1,000 years (humans)/1 day (God)]
we get: 2,555,000,000 years (humans)/creation (God)
Pretty compelling stuff, me thinks. It wasn’t completely clear to me why one should make the move at C1 (i.e., why think in terms of God’s years at all, rather than just Earth years), but no matter. 2,555 x 10 (to the whatever power) had officially lost its mystique. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.
However, one final mystery remains. Why hasn’t Phelps’ statement played a greater role in LDS arguments about the age of the earth or the cosmos? After all, Phelps’ claim is not exactly obscure. More than one religion teacher at BYU has included the quotation in a packet of materials disseminated to students. I distinctly recall a roommate and his friend expressing confidence in its truth, given its utterance by a high-ranking early Church leader. Even Bruce R. McConkie, in The Mortal Messiah, proclaimed Phelps’ comment an “authentic account, which can be accepted as true.” In short, many have been exposed to the quote, while few have recognized its more mundane and fanciful origins. So I want to know why Phelps’ comments haven’t been used as ammunition in battles over cosmic dating in light of science and scripture. Shouldn’t at least someone be announcing the prescience of Joseph Smith (Phelps was his scribe, after all) in indirectly revealing an age of the earth (solar system?) that is “remarkably close” to that declared by modern science (give or take a couple billion years)?
Yes, I know the arguments are bad, but I’m not asking you to believe them. I’m just wondering why I’ve never run across them. (It’s not like bad arguments haven’t circulated about lots of other church subjects, after all).