To say Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species changed the landscape for discussions about science and religion would be a drastic understatement. Origin’s publication in 1859 was more like a new big bang; its aftershock has rippled through discussions about the relationship between science and religion to the present. Articles describing the interaction between Mormonism and Darwinism tend to focus mainly on the disagreements between Joseph Fielding Smith and B.H. Roberts, or perhaps the unfortunate 1911 BYU controversy when several brilliant professors were dismissed from their posts. But the story extends long before and after that crucial point in Mormon history.
As for BYU, the school has come a long way. In 2009 the school celebrated Darwin’s 200th birthday anniversary with a series of lectures in praise of his work, and the biology department is first class. But a recent Pew Forum survey suggests that Mormons lag behind when it comes to understanding evolution. 22% of Mormons said “it is the best explanation for human life,” while three-in-four (75%) disagreed. Perhaps the numbers reflect poor question phrasing, but my limited personal experience suggests the number isn’t entirely off-base.
And yet, it need not be so. Mormon responses to Darwin date back to 1860, within a year of the publication of Origin. While they were initially skeptical if not hostile, some Mormons took a “wait and see” approach as scientists worked through the implications. Some Mormons even labored to find solid reconciliations between their faith in the restored gospel and the discoveries of modern science in Darwinism. Such efforts continue to the present.* In memory of Darwin’s birth (12 February, 1809), this post includes a 1954 General Conference shout-out to the famous naturalist.
Mormon scripture has long encouraged believers to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). In 1954, Elder Levi Edgar Young of the Seventy referred to this scripture as the impetus behind the Seventy’s ongoing interest in education. He referred to a century-old plan to construct a Seventies’ Hall of Science by the first Great Basin Mormon colonists. Despite having been in Utah less than a decade, they proposed a building with “majesty and beauty that surpassed any building of its kind on the American frontier in originality and dignity.”
According to Young:
It was designed to be the repository not only of the seventies’ library, but also for the library brought to Utah in 1851. Owing to the poverty of the people who were just beginning to establish their homes, President Brigham Young prevailed upon his brother Joseph, president of the seventies, not to build it for some years to come. For this reason, the edifice was never started. The seventies continued collecting books, however, and they soon had a fine library of the modern and ancient classics of literature. Among these books were:
The Holy Bible, the Works of John Locke, The Germania of Tacitus, Goethe’s Faust, History of the Holy Land, Paley’s Natural Theology, Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Commodore Perry’s Japan Expedition, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, Wonders of Nature by Josiah Priest, Ainsworth’s Latin Dictionary, Hackenberg’s Greek Grammar, Southey’s Lord Nelson, Marco Polo’s Travels, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of a Naturalist.
These few titles mentioned indicate the types of history and literature that the seventies were bringing together. The lesson of what such books contain will ever be truths that we should remember. The literature of the ages that has been preserved, conveys the thought that men had knowledge of great truths that have influenced humanity and have brought the civilization we have today.
Young’s interesting list invites much critical thought. Notice that it also included William Paley’s famous book of “natural theology,” an approach which initially appealed to Darwin, but which he would later reject as unfruitful, for instance.
Young parlayed the scriptural injunction to seek wisdom “out of the best books” into a panegyric to the printed page:
It is a beautiful concept, for good books on history and fine literary writings give us the great discoverers and interpreters of life. They take us into an intellectual world and lend themselves to our uses and give themselves joyfully to our companionship. Nothing is more gratifying and inspiring in our intellectual lives than the lessons given by good books, and by good books we mean the best of the world’s literature (See Levi Edgar Young, “Seek Ye Knowledge,” Conference Report, October 1954, pp. 60-63)..
It’s encouraging to see one of Darwin’s contributions listed among a few books Young considered to be the world’s best literature. Happy Birthday, Brother Darwin!
* See, for example, Steven Peck, “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here. The image is from a nifty t-shirt design, featuring Darwin’s famous tree of life sketch in the background.