Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution (HarperOne, 2008) relates Giberson’s journey from fundamentalist Christian student to still-believing but no longer fundamentalist physicist. Chapter 5 of the book critiques the sources of Young Earth Creationism (YEC), primarily George McCready Price’s The New Geology, published in 1923, and Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood, published in 1961. As Price’s book is also a source for LDS YEC beliefs — which for some bizarre reason still seem to guide Correlation in approving statements made in LDS publications — the chapter seems particularly helpful for Latter-day Saints seeking to understand LDS views on science and evolution.
George McCready Price (1870-1963), a Canadian, was a “self-taught geologist with little education beyond high school” (p. 124). Price was a Seventh-Day Adventist who defended the Young Earth theories (a six-day creation and a geological record created by a global flood rather than lengthy geological processes) of Ellen G. White, the visionary founder of the Adventist movement. Price’s arguments made little sense to trained geologists, but “lay readers, unfamiliar with geology, often find Price’s argument convincing” (p. 126). His lay readers included William Jennings Bryan and Joseph Fielding Smith, who both used Price’s ideas to promote their anti-evolution views.
President Smith’s reliance on Price is evident in the acknowledgments section of his book Man, His Origin and Destiny, which lists Price’s The New Geology as well his 1924 book The Phantom of Organic Evolution. A longer discussion of the sources President Smith cited as support for his views is available in “The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair,” Chapter 6 of The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism (Signature, 1993). That essay also relates the views of James E. Talmage, the LDS apostle who also happened to be a trained geologist. Talmage was drawn into the discussion in 1931, when the Quorum of the Twelve was asked to mediate the disagreement between B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith over the publication of Roberts’ manuscript The Way, the Truth, the Life, in which Roberts accepted an ancient earth and pre-Adamites (a dated but descriptive term). As explained in the essay:
Talmage was particularly upset by Smith’s use of George McCready Price as an authority in geology. Price was professor of geology at a small parochial college in the midwest and author of many books purporting to vindicate orthodox Christian belief by exposing the weaknesses of scientific theory. After a quorum meeting in which Smith quoted extensively from Price’s The New Geology, Talmage decided to prepare himself more fully for a debate on the merits of this type of evidence. He wrote to his eldest son, Sterling, for an opinion of the book. Sterling was a professor of geology at the New Mexico School of Mines.
Like Giberson in Saving Darwin, Sterling Talmage critiqued the shortcomings of Price’s work. As noted in the essay, the elder Talmage then presented that critique to the Quorum of the Twelve in a later discussion again called to resolve the dispute between Roberts and Smith. Both the Twelve and the First Presidency ultimately declined to rule in favor of either side, essentially allowing the two to agree to disagree while avoiding further public discussion of the disagreement (so Roberts’ book was not published). Shortly thereafter, the elder Talmage stated his own views in a public address in the Tabernacle in August 1931 in a talk titled “The Earth and Man,” later published in pamphlet form (apparently with the approval of the First Presidency but over the objections of some of the Twelve, including Smith). Like Roberts, Talmage argued in favor of an ancient earth, the existence of pre-Adamites, and the occurrence of death before the Fall.
Ironically, it was Smith’s restatement of his conservative views in the 1954 book Man, His Origin and Destiny that became the default LDS position rejecting science and evolution, in part due to Elder McConkie’s vigorous championing of those views in Mormon Doctrine, first published in 1958. The vast majority of Latter-day Saints are entirely unaware of both the sources of Smith’s conservative views and of how controversial Smith’s views were among his fellow LDS leaders. [I’m not suggesting the rejection of science and evolution is the official LDS view, just that many Latter-day Saints accept it as the LDS view because of publications by Smith and McConkie — see Jeff Lindsay’s LDS Science page for helpful discussion and references.]
Three points in closing. First, the Giberson book is a friendly introduction to the science and evolution issue for an LDS reader and is highly recommended. Second, I find it odd Joseph Fielding Smith was so willing to accept the views of the Adventists James McCready Price and Ellen G. White while rejecting the views of LDS apostles and scientists like Talmage and Widtsoe. I think present-day apostles are more inclined to defer to their colleagues, especially on issues where that colleague has some expertise. Third, given the questionable sources that Smith relied on, why does LDS Correlation continue to defer to the views Smith and McConkie (channeling the views of Price and White) on these disputed issues, ignoring the views of LDS apostles like Talmage and Widtsoe? That seems like cafeteria correlation to me. [What’s worse than Correlation? Cafeteria Correlation.]