Making Your Calling and Election Sure, II. Mormonism and Intelligent Design: A Historical Meander.

A recent article in the New Era made me think about the Latter-day Saint version of the science-religion interface in the Joseph Smith period. And how that may have influenced the LDS thought tradition in the twentieth century.

The intellectual world of Joseph Smith’s

Joseph Smith repeated the traditions and to some degree the  science of his day. Just ask him why people got sick in Nauvoo. It was the smell man!

Joseph Smith repeated the traditions and to some degree the science of his day. Just ask him why people got sick in Nauvoo. It was the smell man!

era was marked by a near uniform belief in intelligent design. The Enlightenment of Locke, Newton and the so-called Founding Fathers of America was marked by a deep belief in the rational design of the Universe, Christian or not. Critics of Christianity, or American non-believers in general usually still passed muster as Deists. If the latter didn’t go for the Genesis account, they still saw the universe as the creation of a God, however impersonal and remote, lacing together a system that ran of its own accord, no intervention required.[1]

For Christians of the day, two books rendered God’s hand visible. The Bible, and The Book of Nature. The latter meant the obviously discoverable order in nature. The Book of Nature was capable of revealing the “thoughts of God” just as well as the Word of God.[2]

The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.(Al. 30:44)

William Paley’s Natural Theology (1805) laid out a case by case argument for a Supernatural creation. Perhaps his most famous example (quoted by one apostle in a recent general conference) was that the human eye shows as much evidence for design as human-made telescopes. Paley did not misrepresent the scientific community of the day. Natural Theology, the finding of God in The Book of Nature, was almost universally studied in American colleges—out of Paley’s book.[3]

Thomas Paine. Not a live and let live Deist.

Thomas Paine. Not a live and let live Deist.

The Christian of Joseph Smith’s time saw The Book of Nature as revealing the laws by which a constructed universe operated to become the home for human moral action. This kind of thinking is directly reflected in Mormon scripture (for example, the Book of Abraham, chapter 3) and the same notion appears in the Bible and Book of Mormon:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

American science saw intelligent design as the aether of creation but it also found harmony with scripture. James Dana and Edward Hitchcock considered Genesis as merely a text to promote faith in primitive minds. The Genesis story of creation did not reflect “days” but immensely long periods. Ancient fossils were simply a result of eons of biology in the earth.[4] The prevailing theory about modern and ancient species registered each as a special creation. Joseph Smith subscribed to another notion: an earth made from chunks of other worlds, broken up and reformed as the present globe suggesting that ancient fossils were the result of material from other planets.

Early nineteenth century scientists saw their discipline as having two branches. Natural History, and Natural Philosophy. Natural History was mainly a classification exercise, describing organisms and rocks–including fossils, essentially (we still have these museums of natural history). Natural Philosophy included what we call physics, astronomy, chemistry. Most scientists were not professionals and for that matter, most university professors were people who took teaching jobs as a pause in their careers, reflecting perhaps either indecision or a change of life course ahead. They weren’t researchers in the tenure-track as it were.

James Dana, 1858. The brush of Daniel Huntington. Dana's picture of the Universe is still popular among many believers.

James Dana, 1858. The brush of Daniel Huntington. Dana’s picture of the Universe is still popular among many believers.

For biologists and other natural historians, the important activity amounted to organizing their subject matter. Taxonomy, the classification of species, was a major work. This went hand in hand with exploration and map making. Natural History and the other sciences benefited immensely from the rapid developments in communications and speed of travel that occurred during the formative years of Mormonism.

Protestants endorsed scientific progress with enthusiasm since most had signed on to a post-millennial view of history. One where mankind was destined to reform the earth, morally and technologically, with a broadly based increase in prosperity, in preparation for the 1000 years of joy.[5] Mormons held some agreement with the idea, embedded in the building of a Zion but fundamentally Mormons were still pre-millennialists, with a strong witness of—not a positive growth toward perfection in society—but the coming of drastic calamities and the fall of the social order.

Paley's Text on Natural Philosophy. Hume is the unread antidote of the time. But he was too scary.

Paley’s Text on Natural Philosophy. Hume is the unread antidote of the time. But he was too scary.

With Darwin, and the concept of natural selection encoded with the operation of chance and later, mutation, at least two things gradually happened. Scientists moved from the notion that God was needed to explain existence, and religion was freed from an impossible cosmological conundrum—many didn’t seem to like the opportunity, however. But that’s another story for later.

[1] Kevin P. van Anglen, “‘The lightning in from the Sky and the Sceptre from Tyrants’: Religion and the American Enlightenment,” (review) Religion and the Arts 3, no. 2 (1999): 248-59.
[2] “thoughts of God” claim was that of Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman. John C. Greene, “Protestantism, Science, and the American Enlightenment,” in Benjamin Silliman and His Circle (1961), 23.
[3] Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861, 2nd ed. (1988), 71-80.
[4] James Dwight Dana, Science and the Bible: A Review of the Six Days of Creation (1856).
[5] James Morehead, Worlds Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things (1999).


  1. Great article, I wouldn’t mind seeing “another story for later” sooner than later. This is a big issue. I attend byui and in religious class the majority of students still make fun of the idea of evolution, even though they are taught evolution in biology class. They still feel the science and religion can’t mingle. Especially evolution and religion.

  2. Thanks C. Miller. Many Latter-day Saints see evolution as a threatening idea, and for many of the same reasons early 20th-century Christians allowed. I don’t know that there is any way out of such a difference of opinion right now. It won’t be resolved by some uniform pronouncement by church leaders. They have clearly had varying opinions over the years and it remains a touchy subject, largely because Genesis looms so large in Mormon literature and theology. We’ve got four versions of it. It makes some version of the Dana resolution pretty popular. Moreover, the door is pretty much closed on the question of Adam and Eve as parents of the whole human race (see the New Era article above). If any trust develops for the modern facts of science within the Mormon mainstream, it will probably come from faithful LDS science types tipping the scales of trust/fear. Give it five decades or so.

  3. Been thinking about this for days (since it was posted two days ago, at least). That alone says “interesting, valuable etc.” .The pervasive “deep belief in the rational design of the universe” has had many consequences. It seems likely that it plays back into a description of God as the rational designer. Perhaps without notice that it’s happening. Moving forward it becomes difficult to reconcile the Rational Designer with randomness and long times involved in natural selection and evolution, and the expanse and variety, the Big Bang and expansion, and the great unknowns, of modern cosmology. Rational design also leads to or is closely associated with “perfectibility of man” thinking (in my opinion, kind of making it up, but reasonably related in argument type and 18c-19c timing) which with rankings and directions and ideal types gives us racism, eugenics, gender essentials, and more, and difficulty grappling with both the broad similarities across all humans as a class, and also the wild variations of all types within the class.

  4. Christiankimball, interesting thoughts. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for the post. Given the difficult situation many “LDS science types” find in the church sometimes, several of us have formed a facebook group for people interested in maintaining their commitment to both evolution and their LDS faith – “Mormons Talk | Science, Evolution, & LDS Faith.” We hope it can be an intellectual sanctuary for such people, and would love to have you contribute.

  6. I think the most productive approach is to ask ourselves “What did the writers of the Genesis account actually mean to say through the creation stories?” If the message is cultural, can we not more readily compartmentalize science and theology? Do we have to continually approach Genesis and evolution with a fundamentalist (and defensive) mindset?

  7. Clark Goble says:

    Christian you might like some of Jeff’s posts over at New Cool Thang. He’s been addressing a lot of those issues of late. He’s a bit more of a social constructivist than I am but the discussion is quite interesting. More importantly his different way of thinking through the issues makes me rethink just those issues.

    My own view is that originally rationality and reason meant deductive logic. (This was especially true in the medieval era where Aristotle’s logic was so influential) This in turn allowed science to develop by seeing the world as reasonable due to it being God’s creation. In my view (if not necessarily Jeff’s) this enabled a kind of divorcing of God from creation such that God is reduced to first cause by the deists. I don’t know the history well enough to say for certain, but my guess is that the rise of importance of free will in early modernism allows science to shift things up. Free will taken ontologically shifts God’s foreknowledge from being pure reason. That in turn shifts how the universe is reasonable. While perhaps it’s merely coincidence, around the time of Hume scientists start paying closer attention to the distinction between inductive logic and deductive logic. Induction isn’t ‘sure’ and perhaps opens up the ability to allow more chance.

    All that said it’s really not until the early 20th century that the grasp of determinism that arose in early science really gets thrown off. (And even then never completely) So when people look at Darwin’s notion of chance, in the 19th century it’s still a kind of chance against a broader background of mechanistic determinism. While Darwin arguably enables intellectuals to throw away God, I’d argue that even before Darwin many had as a practical matter. The difference between the atheists who appeal to Darwin and the deists who appeal to major Unitarian figures is pretty slight in my view. The main difference is primarily just over whether chance or determinism is the reason to throw away an interventionist theistic God.

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Solid post..and still anxious to see how you tire all this together.

  9. Good post WVS. To me this has become one of the bigger questions for LDS thinkers.
    I’m a bit taken aback, C. Miller, by some of the BYUI students’ backwards attitudes on evolution–I would have hoped LDS students had progressed more than that. When I was a student at BYU in the 80’s, my freshman biology class’s coverage of evolution took part of one class period. The professor drew a solid circle in the middle of the grease board labeled “the gospel” and a small dot way out at the edge of the third grease board labeled “evolution,” with the point that evolution’s veracity was that far away from what’s important to our salvation.
    I’m hoping it doesn’t take five decades to tip the trust/fear scale on this, WVS. Henry Eyring (Pres. Henry B. Eyring’s father), was an LDS scientist who once told the brethren that BYU had better start teaching the theory of evolution (I believe this was in the 60’s) or they could risk losing accreditation. I suppose if he had been called to the Twelve the pace of acceptance might have been faster.

  10. This post is late to the game I realize, but I am just now catching up on blog reading. Outstanding post WVS. A few thoughts.

    Can you reference the assertion Joseph Smith believed fossils came from outside ingredients in our world’s cake batter? I would be very interested in a reference if you have one. A seminary teacher taught my class that idea a couple of decades ago. At first, I thought he was joking. It sounded too ridiculous to me. Since that time I’ve heard several others make this assertion in a variety of church environments, but none attributed it to Joseph Smith. I am assuming if it were a widely held belief during Joseph Smith’s time then perhaps it was passed down through religious belief systems that found the idea palatable, including making its way into informal Mormon teachings for the same reasons. Or is it a part of Mormon storytelling around fossils because Joseph Smith did talk about it? Again, I would be interested if you can shed light on the idea’s origin with our religious culture.

    I am not surprised many BYUI students reflexively view evolution as being antithetical to Mormon beliefs. Many of the students’ parents undoubtedly hold to the same belief, and within a church school environment, I imagine it is also reinforced because of a social desirability effect. As a graduate student at BYU 20 years ago, at least in the sciences among fellow students I was close to, it was not an issue. We fully embraced it and raised our eyebrows at those who dismissed it out of hand, understanding it is never a good use of time to engage in a discussion with someone who hadn’t “done the reading.” Most of the time it seemed those most vehemently against evolution took the position, “Why waste time to learn about something you know is wrong?”

    I am surprised by how many local leaders at the highest levels lack an understanding of the church’s official position on the matter let alone the basics of the theory of evolution. I have even heard a couple of leaders and teachers promote ideas embodied in young Earth creationism–it left me shocked. While I do not want to believe WVS’s assertions it will take fifty years, that may turn out to be a good estimate. Not only do we need faithful LDS scientists to tip the scale, we need the time it will take to work them into the center of cultural acceptance so more are called into positions of authority. Unless other forces upend our culture entirely, it will take the clout of bishops and stake presidents who are also scientists to educate members on why understanding science is so critical to our ongoing efforts to develop a Mormon theology that flourishes in the future instead of one that is marginalized because it failed to resolve the tension between old faith and the modern world.

  11. BigSky, what I wrote about Joseph Smith’s creation ideas implied that he explicitly claimed fossils originated on other worlds. He didn’t claim that as far as I know. His remarks about creation of the earth were delivered at a Nauvoo Lyceum, January 5, 1841. Others have used these reports of Smith’s statements to make claims about dinosaur bones, etc. One can see hints of this in the Moses (worlds created and destroyed) and Abraham (take of these materials) texts. Based on texts like his interpretation of the book of Revelation (D&C 77) he may have believed in something approximating an Ussher timeline of earth’s existence. On bones and other worlds, see Duane Jeffery, “Noah’s Flood: Modern Scholarship and Mormon Traditions,” Sunstone magazine, October 2004 (page 37).

%d bloggers like this: