Reflecting on The Origin of Man Guest Post by Jared*

Jared* was born and raised in the Church, served a mission in the U.S., and graduated from BYU. Having subsequently completed a Ph.D. in microbiology, he is now a postdoctoral researcher. He is married with children, and wastes more time than he ought to blogging at LDS Science Review.

One hundred years ago this month, Presidents Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund published “The Origin of Man” in the Church’s magazine, Improvement Era. It was drafted by Elder Orson F. Whitney and the final paragraphs relied heavily on his previous writing. For a century this statement has been the touchstone of the Church’s position on evolution, yet the statement has little to say about evolution directly. The vast majority of text is an argument in support of the doctrine that God the Father has a body of human form, and that “Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our heavenly Father.”

“The Origin of Man” has an authoritative tone and it is sometimes invoked as a definitive answer on questions of humans and evolution. Yet almost immediately after being issued, the statement was left out of discussions where it would seem most applicable. A mere five months after “The Origin of Man” was published, a column in the Improvement Era dealt with the question of how Adam and Eve’s mortal bodies were created. The answer:

Whether the mortal bodies of man evolved in natural processes to present perfection, through the direction and power of God; whether the first parents of our generations, Adam and Eve, were transplanted from another sphere, with immortal tabernacles, which became corrupted through sin and the partaking of natural foods, in the process of time; whether they were born here in mortality, as other mortals have been, are questions not fully answered in the revealed word of God.

Although it was given as a reference for further study, the then-recent First Presidency statement was not quoted and was apparently not considered definitive enough to rule out evolution. Over the next year a controversy developed at Brigham Young University (BYU)–in part–over the teaching of evolution, and several professors were ultimately forced to resign. In April 1911, President Joseph F. Smith published two editorials explaining the decisions of Church and school authorities. One editorial was published in the Improvement Era, the other in the Juvenile Instructor. Taken together, President Smith asserted the supremacy of revelation and Church doctrine, yet considered the issue one of propriety rather than a judgment of the truth or falsity of evolution. Neither editorial made reference to “The Origin of Man.” A few years later at the 1917 October General Conference, Elders Anthony W. Ivins and Joseph Fielding Smith both gave talks that contained extended criticism of evolution, and a similar but more extensive talk given by Joseph Fielding Smith was published in the March 1920 Improvement Era. Again, none of these talks made reference to “The Origin of Man.”

In 1925, the First Presidency under President Heber J. Grant issued “Mormon View of Evolution.” This statement consists exclusively of quotations from the earlier 1909 statement; however, the more anti-evolutionary passages from “The Origin of Man” are missing. Ironically, “Mormon View of Evolution” says nothing about evolution.

As far as I can determine, Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1954 book, Man, His Origin and Destiny, contained the first full reproduction of “The Origin of Man” since its original publication over forty years before. Since then it has eclipsed the 1925 statement and has gained wider distribution as it has appeared in part (especially in Mormon Doctrine) or in full in a variety of publications, and has become available on the internet. More recently it was published in the Feb 2002 issue of the Ensign.

During this time science has not stood still. Almost all of what one would learn in a biology course or any of its sub-disciplines has been discovered since 1909. The evidence for human evolution is substantial. In addition to the many fossils and skeletal remains that have been discovered, we now know that we share odd genetic features like broken genes and the remnants of ancient viruses with other animals, especially other primates. Most of this was unknown and could not even have been imagined when “The Origin of Man” was issued. Further, our understanding about how evolution works has progressed as well. I have previously suggested that some portions of the statement that appear to directly counter evolutionary claims are misleading to modern readers because the inferred evolutionary claims are outdated.

Has modern science rendered the statement superfluous, or is the statement, by virtue of having been approved by the First Presidency, the standard by which science is judged? Is the statement primarily an institutional guide that reflects the limits of what the Church can officially endorse absent further revelation, or is it incumbent upon members to “conform their opinions” to it? Answers to these questions are likely to turn on a person’s view of prophetic authority as well as the definition of key terms contained in the statement. For example, if the word “man” includes the spirit, rather than just the physical body, then the question of the origin of man takes on additional religious meaning.

Perhaps a faithful approach to both science and “The Origin of Man” is represented in a talk given by Elder Marion D. Hanks at BYU that was printed in the July 1981 issue of the Ensign. Speaking of God’s method of creation, Elder Hanks said:

I know that man is co-eternal with God, and that he clothed us in spirit form and then made it possible for us to have eternal life, through his gift, through his love. I know that, with his Son, he is our Creator and that his children are his special and crowning creation. But I take great comfort in personal conversations I had with President David O. McKay some years ago when I was concerned with these matters. His answer was about what I have given you. He said, ìIt would do no violence to my faith to learn that God had formed man in one way or another.î

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Comments

  1. “It would do no violence to my faith to learn that God had formed man in one way or another.”

    Pretty much sums up my feelings.

  2. It seems to me that if we are preparing to become Gods ourselves and “create” our own worlds, we ought to learn how Gods do it.

  3. Jared*- Thanks for this, I appreciate your efforts, and have always loved your blog.

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    Marion D. Hanks is a Mormon treasure.

  5. Nice write-up, Jared*.

  6. Aaron Brown says:

    I always refer to the ’25 Statement as a “gutting” or a “backpedalling from” the ’09 Statement, for that’s what it is.

  7. john willis says:

    One thing to keep in mind when comparing the 1909 and 1925 statements ,besides the fact that Heber J. Grant had suceeded Joseph F. Smith ,was that James E. Talmage and John A. Widstoe, who had scientific backgrounds and training had come into the quorum of the 12. I think it is very likely that their influence was a factor in droping the anti-evolution passages from the 1909 statement in the 1925 statement whic was issued in the wake of the Scopes trial.

  8. Rob Osborn says:

    The 1909 statement according to text given by the 2002 Presidency is still the “official” doctrine regarding human evolution- that it did not happen- that man is the literal lineal offspring of deity. The 1909 staement is very clear that man did not evolve through a lower order of species. Now of course, we as LDS believers can take it or not for what it is worth, but, the official stance of the church regarding human evolution is that is did not happen. As for my own personal beliefs concerning “how” Adam and Eve were formed-

    In my family here on this same earth I was able to, up to this point, create from the dust of the earth both a boy and a girl- both created in my image. That process was done not in a lab,or a test tube, nor through throwing molecules around under lightning strikes in some soup like substance. No, my children were created because I had intimate relations with my wife. I “knew” her so to speak and thus we had children created in our image. So I ask-

    If we are created in God’s image, then it is safe to assume that his parts work like my parts- he (both He and Her) has “seed” (sperm and egg), and that the easiest and safest method for ensuring that the created image would be like yourself would be through procreation. After all- it does take both a Male and Female for the “seeds to continue for the Gods. It’s like 2=2+4 in my book. God had sex with his wife and they begat children in their very image.

  9. Who again is God’s wife?

  10. Thanks to SteveP and BCC for hosting my post, and for the comments.

    I’ve posted a comparison of Elder Whitney’s original article with “The Origin of Man” here.

  11. Rob, if you’re going to make that argument, then you must be open to making the argument that inasmuch as you are created in God’s image, then his skin color must be precisely your skin color, and that therefore anybody lighter or darker than you is not created in God’s image. Or that women are not created in God’s image. Or that because you will die if you go too long without liquids, the same is true of God. Or that he has veins filled with blood, although scripture speaks consistently of divine “flesh and bone” rather than “flesh and blood.”

    Or, if you say any of that isn’t true, that those details are different for mortals than immortals, you open yourself wide for the same charge about your assumptions based on analogy. Yours is simply not a defensible position — any more than your declaration of an “official” church position on evolution is defensible.

    Thanks, Jared, for an understandable and helpful post.

  12. Rob, your logic is truly as reasonable as “2=2+4.” IMHO this is a blatant example of creating God in your own image.

    Ardis, thanks for your eloquent reply.

  13. 2+2=4, my bad. If People would rather believe that we evolved from a long line of ancestors going back billions of years and all by a random chance process, that is fine by me, we can all believe in fairytales if it helps us sleep at night.

  14. Rob, I pointed to a flaw in your reasoning. Rather than addressing that point, or noting some flaw in my own, you respond with a run-on sentence jam-packed with non sequiturs. (I don’t believe, for example, that there was anything random or chancey about the placement and/or development of human life on this world, and nothing in my comment remotely suggested that I did.)

    Want to try again by addressing the issues raised by your analogy, and their connection to evolution? Maybe, after all, I’m up in the night myself, rather than dreaming sweetly of fairytales.

  15. Rob,
    There are ways of disagreeing with evolution without being rude. That’s been a theme all over these posts on evolution since yesterday–the difficulty of helping each other recognize that we’re not trying to attack one another or use science/faith as a bludgeon to force acceptance of a set of beliefs on others.
    Please try harder, okay?

  16. Great post, Jared*. History + biology + heresy = a good read!

  17. It was very disconcerting to me when the 2002 Ensign carried this “gospel classic” 1909 Origin of Man. For me, it did no good but to reinforce the idea in the minds of many Mormons who weren’t open to any real science, or even any substantive discussion on the issue of evolution and thus set the whole discussion back a hundred years. Although there are many statements by general authorities acknowledging that we Mormons don’t know everything on the issue and that we should leave science alone and do our religious work in saving souls, there are still many Mormons, perhaps even a majority of Mormons, who carry the idea that the Church does NOT believe evolution in any way, like it were a torch of freedom, when in reality it is a torch of ignorance. Coupled with Mormons new-found alliance with Evangelicals who also disbelieve evolution, we are in a bad position, IMHO.

  18. Jared*, I am truly amazed that the 1910 non-statement figures so prominently in your post. I’m talking, of course, about the anonymous comment you quoted which disagrees outright with the Church president and which has no bearing on the efficacy or meaning of the official 1909 statement.

    Given your subject, I am also amazed at your second and only other quote. I’m surprised you would pass over Boyd Packer’s major discussion of the 1909 statement and give preference instead to Hanks who didn’t even mention it.

    It is not by chance that the LDS Church has reprinted its official 1909 statement for the general membership of the Church in major publications twice during this decade.

    And by the way, the human race was created in God’s image. In fact, man was created in God’s “express image,” local sarcastic hyperbole notwithstanding.

  19. R. Gary, since you address me, although slitheringly and sidewise, I’ll respond: I too believe that we are created in God’s image, and you will be bearing false witness if you ever again claim otherwise.

    That is not, however, justification for analogizing that because man’s fallen bodies in a fallen world operate in such-and-such a manner, God’s perfected body therefore operates in precisely the same way.

  20. Jared*,

    Didn’t you get the memo. Only GA quotes which agree with R. Gary are acceptable in discussion of this topic.

    R. Gary,

    Holding firm to you beliefs is great. Messing with Ardis is bad form.

  21. Chris Henrichsen,

    First, Jared* and I have been discussing his penchant for the April 1910 anonymous comment since March 2005 before “the memo” was written. I hope by now that we have a pretty good understanding of each other.

    Second, your thoughtful warning brings to mind one of my favorite Hugh B. Brown missionary stories. It seems he had gone to a certain house several times and had been rejected and warned not to come back. But then as he was walking past that house, he was prompted to try again. He used the big brass knocker on the English door without any response. He could see a lady in the front room knitting, and he made considerable noise with that knocker. But she did not come out, so he went around to the back door. There was no knocker on that door so he used his walking stick, knocking with considerable vigor. Soon the lady came out, and I’ll let him tell the rest of the story.

    “Her coming out reminded me of my early days on the farm when I teased a setting hen off the nest. (I see some of you have had farm experience.) You know that a setting hen when she is teased off the nest comes off with her feathers going in the wrong direction, with her beak in perpetual motion, and this woman reminded me of that.”

    Chris, you’re probably right. It’s probably bad form. But don’t discount the entertainment value.

  22. I came to accept the probability of evolution through my biology and genetics classes at BYU, and it certainly “does no violence” to my faith in God. It would be easier, however, to reconcile our faith with evolution if we were liberal Christians who didn’t read Genesis too literally, but as Mormons, we have a lot of additional revelation that doesn’t seem so easy to reconcile with evolution. I’d be interested in learning how some faithful LDS who accept the theory of evolution reconcile it with the following characteristically LDS revelations and/or ideas:

    1. God the father has a body of flesh and bones that resembles man’s and was once mortal. If human morphology is explainable by evolution, does that mean that God’s form is an example of “convergent evolution?” How likely is such a high degree of convergence? There are many examples of convergent evolution on Earth, but none are quite that convergent.

    2. God is literally the father of Jesus Christ, and Mary is literally his mother. I apologize if this is too explicit, but I didn’t make this up; it’s Mormon doctrine. God and Mary would be reproductively compatible and therefore members of closely related species (or the same species). Yet God should predate the ancestral species of humans.

    3. Adam began his physical existence as an immortal being.

    4. Recognizing that there are a lot of educated Mormons who don’t believe that the Noachic flood was global, there are LDS scriptures that seem to strongly suggest otherwise (see for example Ether 13:2, Moses 8:30, Abraham 1:24). What does this have to do with evolution? There is paleontological evidence for “in situ” evolution of many modern animal species. For example, Australian marsupials evolved from earlier marsupials in Australia which indicates an unbroken lineage that predates the supposed date of the flood.

  23. R. Gary and Roger, your voices are both refreshing on this forum, thank you.

  24. I agree that sometimes I am rude to evolutionary theory and I am sorry I feel that way at times. It just seems though that the attacks against ID are done so in such a displeasing manner. Its like we never get past the semantics of words and terms in these discussions to ever really get anywhere. I get tired of ID being labeled unscientific by those proclaiming to know science. I have often felt this way about “science”-

    If something is viable as happening through natural laws, regardless of who or what caused it, that should be something that can be scientifically aknowledged and documnatable as real scientific inquiry. There is a very real possibility that life on this earth was seeded here by an intelligent person or process- whether it be aliens, God, other humans who traveled here, or even some unseen force we are all unaware of. Any of those are scientifically probable- it really may have happened that way. We do not have any evidence stating otherwise. We know that they are all processes that could have very easily happened. So I ask- why not scientifically aknowledge them?

    If it turns out that life really did evolve through undirected random processes and it can be proven beyond any doubt then of course we should all embrace that as science. But if we find that life started on this planet because of some type of intelligent intervention or cause, and can prove it scientifically beyond any doubt then we should embrace it as science. This is where science should be objective, especially because we do not really know how intelligent life arose on this planet.

    From a purely religiuos stance we as LDS do know how life arose on this planet. We know there was a special creation with Jesus Christ as the head of the creation process. We know through our faith that life exists here because God ordained it and set it in motion. We know that this process is an intelligent cause. We also know as LDS that God works within laws- that he doesn’t do anything outside of laws. From that aspect I do not even understand where some LDS believers can displace the Creator from his work in the creation.

  25. Gary,

    My point in using the 1910 “non-statement”, as you call it, was simply to point out that the 1909 statement, although fresh, was not seen by all as a definitive answer on the issue. I did not say that it represented Joseph F. Smith’s view. I’ve been persuaded by you that it probably didn’t.

    The significance of it is that it was published in the Church’s magazine. I can think of three reasons it might have been published: 1) the editors weren’t paying close enough attention and let it slip through, 2) the editors did not see a direct contradiction, or 3) the editors were willing to tolerate multiple views. Two of those three options suggest that the author of the “non-statement” and at least one editor did not view the 1909 statement as the final authoritative word on the issue. I know that our correlation procedures are a more modern development, but can you imagine reading an article in the Ensign six months after the proclamation on the family was announced, questioning whether gender was part of our identity in the pre-mortal life?

    As for President Packer vs Elder Hanks, it’s simple. I went with the quote that passed correlation. ;-) More seriously, I’ll simply say that I didn’t think that President Packer’s discussion would add much to this post. If you want a longer answer, we can discuss it privately.

  26. Jared*, if we never come to complete agreement, I’ll still count you as a friend.

  27. I’m new to this blog. I’m amased at the range of LDS blogs there are. You can always find someone who has something interesting to say. Anyway, I’m a recent convert to “evolution”. I fought it for years, but the weight of evidence is overwhelming. I’ve had to learn to live with this paradigm shift. There are some really good non-LDS books out there that help. Finding Darwin’s God and the The Geneisis Enigma. The former is written by a practicing Catholic, the second by an agnostic, but both are scientists. I’ve read (Brigham Young I think) that in Mormonism that “if something isn’t true then you don’t have to believe it”. I think the more we deny evolution, the more we damage our credibility, so when a church member, whether a prophet or not, denies evolution, I don’t believe them. Let’s face it, Joseph Smith was as about as ignorant as Moses on the creation process when the Creation accounts were recorded in the POGP and Temple endowment. It would be the “revelation” of science, inspired perhaps, that brought the advancement in knowledge of temporal creation. As an example of how stupid we can look if we deny evolution, I sat in on a New Member discussion recently (The Plasn of Salvation) and the Elder asked the convert how long it took for the creation. I could tell he was trying to drag the answer, “6-days”, out of the convert. I felt copmpelled to interject and explain that the “days” were in fact creative periods, not the 24-hour days we are accustomed to. I could tell this was a bit of a surprise to the Elder. This disturbed me graetly, so I mentioned it to a senior ward member. He too was surprised that the days were creative periods. Fair dinkum, if we don’t stop this reign of ignorance than we are doomed!!!!

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