The Love Affair with Science
As I wrote in part 1, Mormonism cannot be said to be “anti-rational” in that despite what I see as the privileging of the ecstatic, there has always been a strong faith that Mormonism would be vindicated by scientific discovery. An instructive parallel to Mormon attitudes toward science can be seen in the response of Evangelical Christians to Enlightenment ideas. In his book “Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism,” George Marsden describes how Evangelicals responded to the Enlightenment with great enthusiasm for scientific discovery, which he terms a “love affair with Enlightenment Science.” They believed that all knowledge came from God, and thus reason and science were just more tools for approaching knowledge. Thus, Christianity itself, they believed, was rational and would ultimately be validated by scientific discovery and reason.
However, there were two currents of thought in Evangelicalism regarding science. The first suggested that although scientific methodology was uniform, one’s conclusions depended on the approach one took. Thus, “Christian and non-Christian scientific thinkers were not working on different parts of the same building, but on different buildings.” Anticipating Thomas Kuhn’s ideas of paradigm, this argument for “two kinds of science” implicitly recognized that Christians and non-Christians were “working from differing starting points and frameworks of assumptions.”
The second approach to science expressed faith that there was no conflict between religious belief and “objective” science, so evidence for religion was to be found in the material and rational world, as well as within subjective “spiritual” experience. As B.B. Warfield expressed it, “It is not true that [the Christian] cannot soundly prove his position. It is not true that the Christian view of the world is subjective merely, and is incapable of validation in the form of pure reason.” This optimism about the compatibility between faith and scientific discovery was grounded in Enlightenment ideas about the free exchange of ideas and information, which would inevitably lead to more truth and knowledge. As Warfield put it, “Men of all sorts and of all grades work side by side at the common task, and the common edifice grows under their hands into ever fuller and truer outlines.”
This faith in the rational is not absent in Mormonism but rather runs concurrently with belief in the ability of the subjective to produce truth. From the very beginnings of Mormonism, its leaders provided the twin proofs of spiritual experience (see part 1) and objective evidence. The Book of Mormon was attested to by witnesses, not just the singular supernatural experiences of Joseph Smith; of the eleven witnesses, eight saw only the physical plates and made no claims to supernatural witness. Similarly, Martin Harris was dispatched to show the “Caractors” to learned men to vouch for their authenticity.
Joseph Smith clearly believed that science, specifically archaeology, would corroborate Mormon claims. In an 1842 editorial in church newspaper “Times and Seasons,” he wrote”
“If men, in their researches into the history of this country, in noticing the mounds, fortifications, statues, architecture, implements of war, of husbandry, and ornaments of silver, brass, &c.-were to examine the Book of Mormon, their conjectures would be removed, and their opinions altered; uncertainty and doubt would be changed into certainty and facts; and they would find that those things that they are anxiously prying into were matters of history, unfolded in that book. They would find their conjectures were more than realized-that a great and a mighty people had inhabited this continent-that the arts sciences and religion, had prevailed to a very great extent, and that there was as great and mighty cities on this continent as on the continent of Asia. Babylon, Ninevah, nor any of the ruins of the Levant could boast of more perfect sculpture, better architectural designs, and more imperishable ruins, than what are found on this continent. Stephens and Catherwood’s researches in Central America abundantly testify of this thing. The stupendous ruins, the elegant sculpture, and the magnificence of the ruins of Guat[e]mala, and other cities, corroborate this statement, and show that a great and mighty people-men of great minds, clear intellect, bright genius, and comprehensive designs inhabited this continent. Their ruins speak of their greatness; the Book of Morm[o]n unfolds their history.”
This appeal to external evidences suggests that, like the Enlightenment rationalists, early Mormons believed that the free exchange of ideas and information could only strengthen their case. Church members were convinced that their faith was confirmed by the spirit but could also be demonstrated rationally. Mormon missionaries were sent out not only to preach but to debate. Parley P. Pratt exemplifies this appeal to reason. He believed that Mormonism benefited from “candid investigation.” His faith was not merely subjective. “I have traced it in all its bearings, weighed it in every possible light, and am prepared to impart to others that which, I trust, will satisfy and enlighten the inquiring mind.” Similarly, in an 1841 tract “Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon,” Charles Thompson writes that his purpose is not to bear testimony but rather “to present the scriptures, facts, and sound reasoning, to convince the judgement and enlighten the mind; he has endeavored to address himself to the intellect, not to the passions of the people, that if any should be converted they might be able to give a reason for the [h]ope that is in them with meekness and fear.”
Thus Mormonism, just as the broader religious community, moved forward with an optimism that faith and reason would together build a more enlightened future. As George Marsden writes, “By 1859, evangelicals, both scientists and theologians, thought they had discovered an impregnable synthesis between faith and reason. Scientific reasoning, the kind they most respected, firmly supported Christian faith. In principle, they were deeply wedded to a scientific culture, so long as it left room (indeed, a privileged place of honor) to add on their version of Christianity.” This assessment applies equally to Mormonism and its relationship to science and reason.
And then came Darwinism. Ironically, Marsden writes, Christian response to Darwinism wasn’t so much hostile as it was “ambivalent.” To Christian theologians, evolutionary theory presented “no new problem. If God could guide the natural evolution of mountains, he could creat other entities that way.” Eventually, however, secularists moved to exclude religion from the scientific conversation. They believed that “positive science must replace inferior ways that civilizations had previously used to find truth. To do this, the essential first step was the reform of science itself, to remove it from any connection to religion. … Science that continued to have the traditional references to religion must be called nonscience.” Until around 1910, Marsden writes, there had been two schools of thought among scientists: “one that viewed such traditional questions of reconciliation of science to the Bible as relevant, and another that saw them as wildly irrelevant and illegitimate.” After 1910, religion had effectively been banished from the scientific conversation, and the clash between the two became more like open warfare. Thus began what Marsden describes as the “dark ages” of Evangelicalism when evolution and science were attacked and demonized by believers.
We see this same clash of perspectives within Mormonism. In the early part of the twentieth century, BYU president George Brimhall began an effort to “include in [his] faculty … the best scholars of the church.” Brimhall’s hiring of “three of the most highly credentialed Utah academics of their day” to the theology faculty brought “a contagious enthusiasm for the latest intellectual pursuits” to BYU. Darwinism was taught openly and unashamedly (Brimhall himself remarked, “I too am an evolutionist”). One student showed the attitude of reconciliation between Mormon beliefs and science: “I had been a teacher of the Bible in several of the organizations of the church and now for the first time in my life I was learning some truths which made reasonable explanations of Bible difficulties.”
But this mingling of religious and secular truth had by this time had become illegitimate, both for believers and scientists. Thus, Horace Cummings, church superintendent of schools, had “expressly forbidden” any textbook on the Bible “written by a non-member of our church.” Investigating the new emphasis on scholarship, Cummings reported to church leaders that the recently hired scholars were “applying the evolutionary theory and other philosophical hypotheses to principles of the gospel and to the teachings of the church in such a way as to disturb, if not destroy, the faith of the pupils.” After being questioned by six of the apostles, the three professors were dismissed. Heber J. Grant wrote, “We were of a unanimous opinion that it would be unsafe for them to continue teaching at the Brigham Young University.” In the aftermath of the dismissals, Thomas Martin wrote, students and faculty members became afraid to share their views on “matters of scientific and sociological value for fear of losing their positions and receiving the boycott of the church.”
Still, the belief that science and reason supported faith persisted in the church. In 1915 apostle John Widtsoe published “Rational Theology,” which he defined as follows:
A rational theology, as understood in this volume, is a theology which (1) is based on fundamental principles that harmonize with the knowledge and reason of man, (2) derives all of its laws, ordinances and authority from the accepted fundamental principles, and (3) finds expression and use in the everyday life of man. In short, a rational theology is derived from the invariable laws of the universe, and exists for the good of man.
Nevertheless, Widtsoe had accepted the separation of science and religion: “No attempt has been made to correlate the doctrines discussed with current philosophical opinions.” That said, he still believed that there was “a surprising harmony between the Gospel and all discovered truth.”
Others, however, believed that scientific theories that conflicted with orthodox Mormonism should be rejected. Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith wrote in 1936, Satan “has instilled into [humans’] minds the doctrine that they are not the offspring of God–‘begotten sons and daughters unto him’–but that they are the sons and daughters of lower forms of life. Satan has made many believe that such a thought is ‘beautiful,’ and that they have reached their present stage of development through long processes of change called ‘organic evolution,’ and by those processes have outdistanced their less fortunate ‘ancestors’ and ‘cousins’ among the animal and vegetable creations. How much more beautiful, noble, and inspiring, is the doctrine revealed from God!”
Against this backdrop of tension between science and faith emerged Mormon apologetics, or the effort among believers, without official sanction necessarily, to find rational evidence for Mormonism’s foundational claims.