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’sera 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 syste that ran of its own accord, no intervention required.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
 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.
 “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.
 Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861, 2nd ed. (1988), 71-80.
 James Dwight Dana, Science and the Bible: A Review of the Six Days of Creation (1856).
 James Morehead, Worlds Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things (1999).