BCC Research Collaborative 3: Social History of Evolution

From an exemplary graduate student in history:

I’m interested in researching the impact of evolution on Mormonism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. We know a great deal about Mormons’ doctrinal response to Darwin – men like BH Roberts sought to incorporate it into Mormon doctrine; others like Joseph Fielding Smith virulently opposed it.

What I’m more interested in is its impact on Mormon theologizing in areas other than Biblical literalism, and on Mormon culture and society in general. Thus, I’m less interested in citations to conference talks and The Truth, The Way, The Life, and more interested in more informal references. What did Mormons think about Social Darwinism? Was evolution brought up when genealogical work got hot in the 1890s in relation to issues of ancestry? Did it pop up as men like Roberts sought to clarify the exact nature of the familial relationship between God and man?

References to that sort of theology welcome; to popular culture (Nephi Anderson novels, diaries) treasured.


As always, we wil be glad to consider your questions at research at bycommon consent dot org


  1. There’s a fair bit invoking the Progressive Chain of Being in early Mormon afterlife theology, what people have been describing as process theology (though I don’t think it’s a great fit). Lovejoy talks some about how evolution and the progressive chain play into each other, though I haven’t seen it applied specifically to Darwin.

  2. I also somewhat recall places where early Mormons, with pro-family Protestants invoked the family/home/hearth as a protection from the cold competition of the marketplace, though I don’t recall specific mention of social Darwinism there.

  3. Claiming that “BH Roberts sought to incorporate it [evolution] into Mormon doctrine” is like saying he beat his wife and you want to study the social impact of that.

    BYU scholars who prepared TWL for publication say its theories are “not those of an evolutionist.”  Roberts himself twice refers TWL readers to his own previous discussion of evolution in Man’s Relationship to Deity where he said:

    “The theory of evolution as advocated by many modern scientists lies stranded upon the shore of idle speculation.”

    He was remarkably consistent in his criticism of evolution and there is no evidence of disagreement between Roberts and his Brethren about Darwin’s theory of organic evolution.

  4. John A. Widtsoe address Evolution in a non-biblical way often throughout his evidences and reconciliations. One interestingthing he does is distinguish between the “fact” and the “theory” of evolution as he puts it. He mainly relates it to eternal progression in a useful way.

    I am assuming you’ve already read the pertinent material like Michael Ash’s “Mormon Myth of Evil Evolution.” right?

    For the other side of the equation (against evolution), no one resource is better than Gary’s website, linked to above.

  5. re: 3, I did not edit the proposal from the grad student and do not follow Roberts closely. My memory is that he applied a particular vision of evolutionary theory to his afterlife theology, not that he was a thoroughgoing Darwinist, but again, it’s not something I’ve followed closely.

    I have a vague memory of someone like Truman Madsen spending some time on the theories of Teilhard du Chardin. I wonder whether a search on Chardin would bring much up in the armchair Mormon philosophy literature.

  6. I don’t have any actual research or studies to pass along. All I can do is give you my own experiences. Take it for what it is worth.

    There are two things that Evolution has done in the way Mormons think about religion. The first is that it has caused a split between “Progressive” and “Literalist” theologians, making it very hard for the two to communicate without serious disagreements. More than that, it has been the war cry for literalists to decry the lack of faith in miracles and authority. At the same time, it has given the more progressives an excuse to paint literalists as simple minded and sheep. How a Mormon views theology can often be tied to how they view Creation and Evolution. And, not all the views are one or the other(more commonly with a recognition of both as legitimate and even compatible).

    The second thing it has done, paticularly for those who are more progressive theologically, is to reinterpret miracles. Starting with the Creation, going to the Flood, and touching on less well known miracle stories a more scientific approach is used. They don’t particularly deny the miracles (although some literalists don’t see the difference) as much as try to make more sense out of them. They don’t go so far as make them purely spiritualized or symbolic, but they do question the accuracy. What is written in the Scriptures about miracles (especially the world changing ones) are viewpoint specific to the writers or witnesses. In other words, the Creation narratives do not specify the exact methods; but only describe the most basic outlines that a non-scientific person could understand.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I assume you are familiar with the various Dialogue articles that deal with the arguments among the leading brethren on evolution, even though that is not what you are looking for here. There may be some tangential information or references in those articles that would be useful for your project.

    One thing you might want to look into is the 1911 evolution crisis at BYU involving the Chamberlin brothers. Some sources for this are:

    Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 129-34;

    Richard Sherlock, “Campus in Crisis: BYU: 1911,” Sunstone 4 (January/February 1979): 10-16, here; and

    Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 134-71, here.

    If you’re not familiar with it, here is an .online article by Gary Bergera.

    This caused quite an uproar among the students themselves, and if you were to do some research in the BYU student newspaper of the time, The White and Blue, you might find some of the low-level impact you are interested in.

  8. Prince, in his bio, relates McKay using evolution in a funeral sermon as pattern for eternal progression.

    I’m not certain about Jettboy’s categorization. While most folk that believe in evolution are going to be skeptical of the world-wide flood, I don’t think there is any correlation to how they view the historicity of, say, Jesus walking on water or the historicity of the First Vision.

  9. 1911–the big controversy at BYU, presided over by President George H. Brimhall but directed by Horace Hall Cummings, provides a fascinating glimpse into LDS thought in the early 19th Century. 3 professors were fired (actually two resigned) for teaching evolution (among other things). Cummings reported: “The theory of evolution is treated as a demonstrated law and their applications of it to gospel truths give rise to many curious and conflicting explanations of scripture.”
    Years later, Elder Boyd K. Packer referred to the event and quoted a dream which George H. Brimhall supposedly had. In the dream, BYU students were symbolized by “snow white birds” and were unable to fly because they were tied to earth by worldly philosophies.
    Actually, I have never found any reference to that dream except in the journals of Cummings–and in all honesty, I have come to distrust Cummings. (I have read Brimhall’s journals extensively. He is my great great grandfather.) Cummings’s journal entries leave me with a sense of a self-congratulatory, ambitious, narrow man, eager to remove academics from their ivory towers. (Apologies to any of his descendants who might read this.)
    Cummings was replaced by David O. McKay, who stated passionately that he was grateful he had not had any part in the firing of W.H. Chamberlin (one of the three professors), as he admired Chamberlin’s thought. Chamberlin was even invited back to BYU, but by that time–though still very young–he was dying. He said, “It is too late.” Within a month after receiving that conciliatory invitation, Chamberlin was dead.
    By 1925, evolution was being taught again at BYU.

  10. I shall expose myself – thanks, all.

    Gary, Sam is correct. I’m quite aware of Roberts’s lukewarm reception of orthodox Darwinian theory; what I’m more interested in is the way basic concepts of descent, heredity, and (as Herbert Spencer put it) survival of the fittest subtly interacted with religious thought, the sort of thing Sam alludes to in Lovejoy’s work. _Lots_ of GAs, like Widstoe (and I haven’t read as much of him as I should – thanks for the heads up, Matt), felt compelled to differentiate between ‘false’ and ‘true’ evolution, the latter being something like eternal progression. The mere fact that they did this shows the influence evolutionary ideas had on the ways they thought about human development and destiny, even if they rejected Darwin’s views on human origins – exactly like McKay apparently did. Roberts himself was skeptical of Darwin, but his work with concepts like pre-Adamic man and his theories about spirit birth and the pre-existence show him wrestling with these sorts of ideas.

    Kevin – I’ve read everything Sherlock’s written, but have yet to delve into Begara’s; Margaret has convinced me that the BYU crisis seems like a more interesting case study than I originally thought – thanks.

  11. Matt–when we get this documentary done, I’ll return to writing about the crisis and the people involved. I am co-writing it with a grand-daughter of Ralph Vary Chamberlin (who was the fourth professor involved, though not fired). The personal stories of these men AND their wives are remarkable.

  12. If I remember correctly, wasn’t there a post somewhere a while back in the ‘Nacle on (I think it was Wilford Woodruff’s) belief in polygamistic eugenics, and how he spun the perception that Mormon sons and daughters were strong and virile because of their polygamous heritage, while those who practiced monogamy produced offspring that only got worse?

  13. Stirling’s post on eugenics is here.

  14. Thanks Justin

  15. I’d note that Cannon also published several responses to Darwinism. Donald Q. Cannon, “George Q. Cannon and the British Mission,” BYU Studies 27/1 (Winter 1987): 108-110.

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