And yet it moves…

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
– Joshua 10:12-13

In 1632, Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems defended Copernicun heliocentrism (the idea that the sun is at the centre of the solar system and that the planets, including the Earth, orbit around it). After facing the Inquistion, Galileo was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

At stake, apparently, was the word of God. If Joshua could command the sun to “stand still” this would imply that the sun — not the Earth — moved. Thus, heliocentrism was wrong and worthy of the Inquisition.

Of course, it is obvious from our vantage point that it was not the word of God that was at stake at all, but an overly and absurdly literalist reading of the word of God. St. Augustine had it right all those years ago:

One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: I will send you the Paraclete [Comforter] who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon. For He willed to make them Christians, not mathematicians.


  1. Jonathan Green says:

    Augustine sounds quite reasonable on this point, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. Yes, people can be good Christians and terrible astronomers, but, all else being equal, wouldn’t it be better to be a good Christian and a good astronomer? And beyond that general point, our Book of Abraham represents a case of learning about the course of the sun and the moon (as well as several more exotic bodies) through divine mediation, although you’re quite right that getting hung up on literalist assumptions is not a good idea.

    (Also, you’d probably admit that the story is more complex than the sketch you present here. Copernicus was a canon in Varmia, and his ideas seem to have been relatively well received in Rome during his lifetime, while Luther and Melanchthon were very much opposed, and yet their colleague Osiander helped publish De revolutionibus… Like I said, it’s more complex than The Pope (or Catholicism or Christianity or Religion) Hates Science.)

  2. Stick to the manual, JG.

  3. Restating the 3rd paragraph:

    “At stake, apparently, was the word of God. If Moses said that the Earth was created in 6 days/periods, this would imply that billions of years is far too long. Thus, evolution was wrong and worthy of the Inquisition, or at least some strong words.”

    Things don’t change very much.

  4. Mike S,
    I’m not sure I get your implication. I’ve never met a Mormon IRL who didn’t agree with evolution, or at least who was open to the idea, NDBF Gary notwithstanding.

  5. Mike Parker says:

    Jonathan Green (#1) writes:

    …our Book of Abraham represents a case of learning about the course of the sun and the moon (as well as several more exotic bodies) through divine mediation….

    Except that the astronomical revelation in Abraham 3 is also geocentric. See John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “And I Saw the Stars — The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant.

    The purpose of the revelation in Abraham 3 isn’t to teach Abraham about astronomy; it’s to teach him that “If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them,” therefore if “there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all” (Abr 3:16, 19). Abraham’s cosmology is intended to prove the grading of intelligences.

    The universe is not constructed “one [planet or star] above another.” Abraham 3 should not be read in an overly fundamentalist way.

  6. The Earth is not the center of the universe? What about the crystal spheres? You’re not playing with that are you?

  7. Thank goodness we’ve progressed by leaps and bounds since Galileo’s day. It’s unthinkable that we modern religious folk would interpret the scriptures without first internalizing St. Augustine’s point.

    Move along. Nothing to see here.

  8. Jonathan Green says:

    Sure, Ronan. Here’s the correlated version:

    Hel. 12:15 says, “And thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.” Clearly, then, heliocentrism and the true motions of the planets are a worthy topic for scripture.

  9. And God replied to Joshua, silly man the sun doesn’t move, but I’ll make it so it doesn’t change position in your sky if that’ll help…and Joshua did not record the message because there wasn’t room…or something.

  10. Mike Parker says:

    Jonathan Green (#8): Stopping the rotation of the earth—which is around 1,000 MPH—would have devastating effects on the planet, the oceans, and living beings. Either we have to believe that God stayed these massive physical effects, or that he used some form of optical illusion to make it appear that the earth stood still to the Israelites and Nephites.

  11. “I’ll keep it light for you so you can finish your business”. Could be that simple and what got written down was a writer’s attempt to explain what caused the extra light.

  12. Joshua: Lord, Why didn’t you tell me?! You told me the Sun and Moon revolved around the Earth!

    Lord: Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the Sun and the Moon appeared to cease movement, but in reality, Vader had actually stopped them from moving with his Force-grip. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.

    Joshua: [incredulously] A certain point of view?

    Lord: Joshua, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

  13. Scott FTW!!!!!111!!!11

  14. re: 7
    I’m not so sure “modern religious folk” have progressed as far as the people commenting here like to think. What percentage of American Christians are creationists?

  15. John Taber says:

    Better question: What percentage of LDS are creationists? In the priesthood lesson in my Elders’ Quorum this last Sunday, the movie _Expelled_ was touted (by a member) and the “Big Bang” Theory was described as atheistic (by a full-time missionary).

  16. Re: #4- my own brother doesn’t believe that species evolve, believes that the earth was created 6000 yrs ago. All this despite the fact that I am a research scientist studying evolution and have tried very hard to explain the evidence and why his faith doesn’t need to be threatened.
    John – are you sure we aren’t in the same EQ? Exact same description (Big Bang = atheism), except not by a full-time missionary, just the previous EQ president.

  17. John Taber says:

    And of course another member quoted Elder McConkie as saying science is good as long as it stays within the confines of what the prophets say . . .

  18. John Taber says:

    Alex, hopefully the majority of your EQ isn’t corporate lawyers like mine is.

  19. John Mansfield says:

    Funny, just last night I was lying in bed thumbing through the latest Physics Today and settled on Siegfried Bodenmann’s article about “The 18th-century battle over lunar motion.” Then I got sleepy and turned out the light. But, wow, what a cliffhanger. I can hardly wait to find out tonight why Newton’s calculation of the nine-year cycle of the lunar apsides was off by a factor of two, and whether it was Clairaut, Euler, or d’Alembert who figured it out.

  20. Jonathan Green says:

    Mike Parker, I don’t think I’m arguing for what you think I’m arguing for, as I agree with both your comments, and don’t see how they contradict mine.

  21. That was a good article, John (19).

  22. There is a spot in Chronicles, in the Old Testament, where the ratio of a circle’s circumference to it diameter is given as 3. Of course, we with our superior knowledge know that it is actually pi, an irrational, transcendental number. But Hebrew Mathematics barely had a conception of fractions, much less an infinitely non-repeating decimal. God could have corrected them, but He spoke to their level of understanding, sufficient that they could do what they needed to.

    God was not ashamed at using a sufficient approximation.

  23. #4 Sam B:

    I think people visiting here tend to be self-selected to be open to evolution, etc. I would argue that the majority of the LDS membership still thinks evolution would be a “deception” of Satan.

    – The Pew study, while the questioning is potentially problematic, suggests only 22% of Mormons believe in evolution
    – I have a book at home, which I therefore can’t quote directly, which breaks people into groups. Of LDS scientists, nearly 80-90% believe in evolution. This drops to around 40% for the “masses”. For LDS seminary teachers, this drops below 20%.
    – Joseph Fielding Smith / McConkie / etc. would suggest evolution is a tool of Satan, which I think many members place stock in

    Adding all of these together, I think the majority of our membership probably feels the same way about evolution despite the scientific evidence for it that people felt in Galileo’s time.

  24. Mike S,
    I totally agree that people on blogs tend to be self-selecting. What I’m saying, though, is that I personally know few Mormons, if any, who don’t believe in evolution. (It wasn’t until BYU or maybe my mission that I realized that any Mormon didn’t believe in evolution, and I’ve been active my whole life.) I realize this is anecdote and not evidence, but, again in my experience, there are no repercussions, socially or ecclesiastically, to believing in evolution. The creationists in the church tend to be more defensive, in my opinion.

    And MikeInWeHo (14), I really want to go to the Creationist Museum. I was in Ohio a couple months ago, and someone (not Mormon) was talking about her family’s visit to the museum and how they enjoyed it. I kept waiting for the irony, or at least the acknowledgment that there’s something weird about an anti-science museum, but it never came.

    My wife kind of wants to go, too, but she doesn’t have complete faith that I can keep my mouth shut, so she’s weighing her desire to see evidence (“evidence”?) that humans and dinosaurs coexisted against the (pretty high) probability that I’ll embarrass her by being not-too-subtly ironic at the museum.

  25. MikeInWeHo says:

    I can’t imagine anything more fun than going to the Creation Museum with some LDS bloggers. Seriously! — we’d freak out the evangelical sponsors in every possible way. Unfortunately it’s located far away from anyplace I would ever happen to be. Kentucky???!!

    Apparently their premise is that dinosaurs and humans co-existed in the past, but the dinosaurs were called dragons back then. So dragons were real, and walked the earth together with humans a few thousand years ago.

    Perhaps 1/3 of Americans and an even higher percentage of Latter-day Saints believe stuff like this. Is is really any different than the anti-heliocentrism of Galileo’s age?

  26. I had to laugh about Expelled being mentioned in church meetings . I made a blog entry a couple of days ago relative to my experiece at priesthood meeting that led to a member lending me a copy to watch. I had never seen it before then. Then tonight at a meeting with some writing critiquers, I mentioned the movie and was surprised to see that all of the Mormons knew exactly what that movie was all about. My sense is that the majority of LDS members shun most notions of evolution relative to mankind and believe it is wicked.

  27. MikeInWeHo, there is one in San Diego. Name your Saturday and I’m totally there with you!

  28. The Ohio/Kentucky (technically in Kentucky but close to Cincinnati) museum is supposed to be the best there is. I live in the area but haven’t gone yet (laughing at stupidity isn’t as much fun when I’m all alone). If anyone else wants to go, let me know.
    Most of the people in family wards I’ve lived in in the U.S. (in three different states) have been anti-evolution. College wards are more likely to be open to it (probably because people in college wards tend to be more educated than people in the average family ward).
    In a family ward, if someone speaks up when the anti-science comes up–well, it’s usually me speaking up. In college wards I wasn’t nearly so alone.
    However, most Mormons don’t think much about it one way or another, explaining why, in Utah, Expelled languishes on the $5 discount rack at Smiths.

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