Since the early 1990’s, it has been written and published that the April 1910 Priesthood Quorums’ Table (PQT) entry entitled “Origin of Man” represented a First Presidency Statement on the topic. A few examples:
A modified version of the BYU Evolution packet was occasionally passed out to students in the College of Biology and Agriculture at BYU (personal observation) which was appended with the April 1910 Priesthood Quorums’ Table (PQT) entry. Above it, the instructor (Duane Jeffery?) had noted that it was the “only other document directly dealing with evolution which can be formally identified with the First Presidency.”
When Evenson and Jeffery published Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements, initially in 2006, they also included the 1910 PQT entry, but gave it the title “First Presidency Instructions to the Priesthood: ‘Origin of Man,’ 1910” (see here).
In a recent discussion, LDS scholar Briah Hales quoted the 1910 PQT statement and referred to it as “the 1909 [sic] First Presidency Statement” (he mistakenly conflated the date with the 1909 statement, it would appear).
In a recent presentation by Ugo Perego entitled DNA and the Book of Mormon (posted by The Nauvoo History Project and uploaded to vimeo February 7, 2017 at 3:28 PM EST), Perego presented a slide entitled First Presidency Statement and stated (roughly at the 21:00 minute mark):
The Church office, the First Presidency Office, got bombarded with letters asking is this an official statement against evolution, are you saying that the church position is we are creationists and not evolutionists, is that what you are saying? So, they wrote these letters. So, the First Presidency … felt the need the following year to make a second statement, which was published in the Improvement Era, and there is an excerpt right here from that statement, same First Presidency, same first individuals that signed it, Improvement Era, which was the official Church magazine at that time…
Beneath the statement, Perego includes the names of the First Presidency (which indicates that they signed the statement).
[update: In personal communication, Ugo said his slide was based on information from Evolution and Mormonism by Meldrum, Jeffery, and Peterson. Before my communication with him, he said he had already altered his slide and presentation, mostly focusing on the counterargument presented after the evidence section for why the 1910 PQT statement should be seen as a qualifier for the 1909 First Presidency Statement.]
Was the April 1910 statement issued by the First Presidency? Does the statement even reflect the views of the First Presidency at that time?
I will present a summary of the evidence (with some personal extensions), first compiled by R. Gary Shapiro here. Please read Shapiro’s complete post for a few details which I have left out here.
The April 1910 statement “Origin of Man” was an entry in the Priesthood Quorums’ Table (PQT).
Several data points cast doubt on whether the statement had any First Presidency imprimature:
The PQT entry was not signed by the First Presidency or any member of the First Presidency. As argued here, all articles or statements written by a First Presidency member or written by them collectively seem to have been signed by the author(s) in these magazines. For instance, in the same Improvement Era issue just before the Priesthood Quorums’ Table, Joseph F. Smith signed 2 of the 4 notes in the Editor’s Table (“Masquerade Balls” and “Stay at Home”). Shapiro discusses attribution, signed, and unsigned articles in greater depth here.
The BYU Evolution Packet, “Evolution and the Origin of Man”, does not contain within it the 1910 PQT statement, and it explicitly states:
This packet contains, as far as could be found, all statements issued by the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the subject of evolution and the origin of man, and a statement on the Church’s attitude toward science. (emphasis added)
Given that the 1910 Priesthood Quorums’ Table statement is not included in the packet, we can logically deduce that the PQT statement was not issued by the First Presidency (or at least could not be ascertained, at the time when the BYU packet was written, to have been issued by them). As far as I am aware, the packet is still made available to students today in the same form, indicating that no additional First Presidency issued statements have come to light on the topic.
As discussed by Shapiro, the Priesthood Quorums’ Table was for communication from the General Priesthood Committee to local quorums, hence any member of the Priesthood Committee could have authored the statement. Further, statements in the table appear to have been written from a Priesthood Committee perspective, seem to rely on the restatement of existing scripture and doctrine or argue from existing principles, give information specific to the quorums themselves (like quorum statistics) and also offers counsel on more mundane matters (e.g., “Who can estimate the value of a nature so sunny that it attracts everybody! Everybody wants to get near sunny people”), which further argues that such a venue is not the place were doctrine would be officially clarified for the Church.
Joseph F. Smith wrote (in a signed comment as editor of the Improvement Era) in the Editor’s Table, Dec 1915:
It may be well to remind our readers that the Era is not responsible for the individual views or opinions expressed by contributors to its columns.
I question whether the Priesthood Quorums’ Table is properly classified as an “individual view or opinion expressed by contributors to its columns”, but nonetheless it offers some perspective about how ownership of articles was viewed by Joseph F. Smith.
Shortly after the publication of the 1910 PQT statement, Joseph F. Smith would ultimately chair the committee which dismissed three BYU professors primarily for teaching evolution at BYU. In an Editor’s Table article (transcript here), signed by Joseph F. Smith, the President of the Church clearly articulated the Church’s view of evolution and its compatibility with LDS doctrine (emphasis added):
Recently there was some trouble of this kind in one of the leading Church schools—the training college of the Brigham Young University—where three of the professors advanced certain theories on evolution as applied to the origin of man, and certain opinions on “higher criticism,” as conclusive and demonstrated truths. This was done although it is well known that evolution and the “higher criticism”—though perhaps containing many truths—are in conflict on some matters with the scriptures, including some modern revelation.
An investigation was instituted … to ascertain to what extent the teaching of unorthodox doctrines in the school by these instructors was based upon fact…
… The professors frankly admitted that they held to and taught the theories of evolution as at present set forth in the text books, and also theories relating to the Bible known as “higher criticism,” which they appeared to view as conclusive and demonstrated; so that when these ideas and enunciations were in conflict with the scripture, ancient and modern, it required the modification of the latter to come into harmony with the former, carrying the impression that all revelation combines a human element with the divine impression and should be subject to such modification
The Church, on the contrary, holds to the definite authority of divine revelation which must be the standard; and that, as so-called “science” has changed from age to age in its deductions, and as divine revelation is truth, and must abide forever, views as to the lesser should conform to the positive statements of the greater; and, further, that in institutions founded by the Church for the teaching of theology, as well as other branches of education, its instructors must be in harmony in their teachings with its principles and doctrines.
There was no inclination to interfere with the freedom of thought and expression of the opinion of the professors, but the committee, after carefully weighing the matter, concluded that as teachers in a Church school they could not be given opportunity to inculcate theories that were out of harmony with the recognized doctrines of the Church, and hence that they be required to refrain from so doing.
The committe so reported to the trustees of the Brigham Young University. This body later held a meeting at which they unanimously resolved, “that no doctrine should be taught in the Brigham Young University not in harmony with the revealed word of God as interpreted and construed by the Presidency and Apostles of the Church; and that the power and authority of determining whether any professor or other instructor of the institution is out of harmony with the doctrines and attitude of the Church, be delegated to the presidency of the university.”
… Philosophic theories of life have their place and use, but it is not in the classes of the Church schools, and particularly are they out of place here or anywhere else when they seek to supplant the revelations of God. …
So, given that Joseph F. Smith was dismissing professors from BYU for teaching evolution shortly after the 1910 Statement was issued, and given his explicit verbiage detailing the tension between the theory of evolution and LDS doctrine, it is difficult to view the 1910 PQT Statement as reflecting First Presidency countenance of the theory of evolution as a legitimate means for the creation of man’s body.
The basic counterargument, which I articulated in some part a few years ago in a conversation with Shapiro and which Ugo Perego expressed to me in private communication, is that it seems unreasonable that Joseph F. Smith would have been unaware of the “Origin of Man” response in the PQT. There are a few, related arguments:
- The response followed closely in time to the 1909 statement, so the potential need to clarify seems germane chronologically.
- The response itself indicates that the question came “from several High Priests’ quorums.” The fact that it was a question from several quorums suggests a potential for elevated awareness of the issue.
- It seems unreasonable that a member of the First Presidency wasn’t consulted when writing a response seeking clarification of their statement.
- Redactions and clarifications by the editor of the Improvement Era (Joseph F. Smith) were frequently made. If the initial PQT statement was incongruent with LDS doctrine or the 1909 FP Statement , then Joseph F. Smith could have made a redaction or further clarifying statement.
Perego also noted in private correspondence that he corresponded directly with the office of the New Era asking about statements there and was told that “nothing ends up published in Church magazines without the approval of a priesthood committee that acts under the direct supervision of the Brethern [sic]” and that “nothing is published that would not be in line with their teachings.” An open question is how far back such a policy extended, especially in light of Joseph F. Smith’s December 1915 statement presented in #4 of “The Evidence” above.
Discussion and Conclusions
The cumulative evidence points to one definitive conclusion: the April 1910 PQT statement should not be presented as a statement issued by the First Presidency.
Whether or not a person views the April 1910 PQT statement as a reflection of Joseph F. Smith’s thinking on the topic depends on whether they preference his own direct words (i.e., the signed 1911 editorial comment), or those from an anonymous Priesthood Quorums’ Table entry (which may be countenanced by him but is mostly an argument from silence). It also seems possible that Joseph F. Smith personally disagreed with the PQT statement but did not see it in enough tension with the 1909 statement to require modification or redaction. So, in some significant sense, the 1910 PQT statement seems to stand as an unofficial (or perhaps quasi-official) modifier of the 1909 statement. Regardless, some tension seems to exist between the various statements. Still, LDS leaders seem to make or tacitly countenance statements which leave a topic in some tension at times, so such tension does not necessarily indicate leadership ignorance. Perhaps the resulting ambiguity may be the desired goal of leadership in some cases?
In conclusion, the 1909 statement remains officially unmodified and unclarified; however, reasonable arguments exist that the April 1910 PQT statement unofficially clarifies the 1909 First Presidency Statement—this despite its anonymous nature and despite the tension in which it exists with Joseph F. Smith’s signed 1911 editorial comments. Hence, one who is committed to the preponderance of statements made by LDS leaders (near-comprehensively documented at ndbf.blogspot.com) which seem to undermine the possibility for an evolutionary origin of man will reject the significance of the 1910 PQT statement while a person committed to an evolutionary possibility is likely to continue defending the PQT statement’s significance, even if it may not be tied conclusively with the First Presidency.
Posted at the mormonscholar subreddit