13) 3 BYU PROFESSORS: Why did President Joseph F. Smith dismiss three professors from Brigham Young University for teaching organic evolution?

Associated Locations:

  • BYU, Provo, Utah

Associated Dates:

  • 1910 – President Joseph F. Smith dismisses three BYU professors

Commentary

Please see Boyd K. Packer’s speech that touches heavily on this event. A source for the history on this subject is Brigham Young University: A School of Destiny, compiled by Ernest L. Wilkinson and W. Cleon Skousen or Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, vol. 1, by Ernest L. Wilkinson.

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Note to reader: In researching information on this subject, please be careful to find a history of this incident that is not negative toward President Joseph F. Smith and the history of the Church. Most modern writers take the position of the modernist/evolutionist and feel that President Joseph F. Smith was in error and that the true heroes of this story are the professors who contended with the Prophet.

Brigham Young University has had a very interesting history when it comes to the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Brigham Young Academy, the forerunner of BYU was established to refute the false theories of Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley and Louis Compton Miall all prominent biologists who dedicated much of their lives to establishing the doctrine of organic evolution as the solution to the mystery of life. Please see this FAQ for details. Later during the presidency of Joseph F. Smith the University moved far from its moorings. New highly educated professors were hired who desired to move the teaching environment far from the foundation laid by President Brigham Young and Karl G. Maeser. President Boyd K. Packer explained the situation:

. . . we must go back to 1910.

George Brimhall, having already served 19 years as president of BYU, determined to establish a recognized teachers college. He had hired three professors: one with a master’s degree from Harvard, one with a doctorate from Cornell, and the other with a doctorate from Chicago. They hoped to transform the college into a full-fledged university. They determined that practicality and religion, which had characterized the school, must now give way to more intellectual and scientific philosophies.

The professors held that “the fundamentals of religion could and must be investigated by extending the [empirical] method into the spiritual realm,” and they “considered evolution to be a basic, spiritual principle through which the divinity in nature expressed itself.” The faculty sided with the new professors and the students rallied to them. 1

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The three BYU professors mentioned above taught these concepts, as well as other false scientific and philosophical theories including:

  1. The Bible contains many myths and large portions of scripture should not be taken literally.
  2. The accounts in scripture of the Creation, Fall, Flood, Confusion of Tongues and other events should not be considered actual events.
  3. The theory of evolution should be treated as a demonstrated law and applications of it to gospel truths give rise to many curious and conflicting explanations of scripture.
  4. The writings of prophets should not be held as fixed eternal truth, but as evolving over time.
  5. The scriptures should be interpreted in the light of modernism.

George Brimhall, President of BYU, was apprised of the influence that this teaching was having on the BYU students. Some of the students “frankly told him they had quit praying because they learned in school there was no real God to hear them.” 2. After learning of the weakening of the students’ faith, President Brimhall had this dream:

He saw several of the BYU professors standing around a peculiar machine on the campus. When one of them touched a spring a baited fish hook attached to a long thin wire rose rapidly into the air. . . .

Casting his eyes around the sky he [President Brimhall] discovered a flock of snow-white birds circling among the clouds and disporting themselves in the sky, seemingly very happy. Presently one of them, seeing the bait on the hook, darted toward it and grabbed it. Instantly one of the professors on the ground touched a spring in the machine, and the bird was rapidly hauled down to the earth.

On reaching the ground the bird proved to be a BYU student, clad in an ancient Greek costume, and was directed to join a group of other students who had been brought down in a similar manner. Brother Brimhall walked over to them, and noticing that all of them looked very sad, discouraged and downcast, he asked them:

Why, students, what on earth makes you so sad and downhearted?”

Alas, we can never fly again!” they replied with a sigh and a sad shake of the head.

Their Greek philosophy had tied them to the earth. They could believe only what they could demonstrate in the laboratory. Their prayers could go no higher than the ceiling. They could see no heaven—no hereafter.”

The issues surrounding the three professors became more serious. President Brimhall defended his professors, but as time continued the pressure became great. Eventually, President Joseph F. Smith had the professors removed from the faculty. President Smith gave this reasoning for his actions in the matter:

Recently there was some trouble…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” . . . are in conflict on some matters with the scriptures, including some modern revelation . . . 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 . . . 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 [they were] required to refrain from so doing . . . ” 3

President Smith clearly understood the consequences of allowing teaching to occur on Church campuses that destroys faith. He also clearly understood the contradictions between the theories of Darwinian Evolution and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of these consequences have been illustrated by President Boyd K. Packer. President Packer explained the result of this experience on one of the professors:

And now to Sunday, January 8, 1956. President David O. McKay came to Brigham City to dedicate a chapel built for students of the Intermountain Indian School. I stood next to him to introduce those who came forward to shake his hand.

A very old man, a stranger to me, came forward on the arm of his daughter. He had come some distance to speak to President McKay. It was impossible for me not to hear their conversation. He gave President McKay his name and said that many years ago he had taught at BYU. President McKay said, “Yes, I know who you are.” Tears came as the old man spoke sorrowfully about the burden he had carried for years. President McKay was very tender in consoling him. “I know your heart,” he said. That old man was one of the three professors who had been hired by President Brimhall in 1910.” 4

This is the experience of one of those “learned” professors who strayed from holding to the rod of iron. What of the consequences to the President who hired the learned professors and weakened the faith of unsuspecting students? For unknown reasons President Brimhall ended his own life with a hunting rifle. These are all tragic experiences, but the true casualties are the students and those that have been influenced through the years by these subtle philosophies. President Boyd K. Packer has taught that these issues are serious:

The knowledge that we are the children of God is a refining, even an exalting truth. On the other hand, no idea has been more destructive of happiness, no philosophy has produced more sorrow, more heartbreak, more suffering and mischief, no idea has contributed more to the erosion of the family than the idea that we are not the offspring of God, but only advanced animals. There flows from that idea the not too subtle perception that we are compelled to yield to every carnal urge, are subject to physical but not to moral law.

The man-from-animal theory has been passed about enough to be pronounced true on the basis of general acceptance. Because it seems to offer logical explanations for some things, it is widely taught and generally accepted as the solution to the mystery of life.

I know there are two views on the subject. But it is one thing to measure this theory soley against intellectual or academic standards, quite another to measure it against moral or spiritual or doctrinal standards.

When the theory that man is the offspring of animals is planted in young minds, it should be accompanied by careful instruction to set it in isolation in the garden of the mind until faith is well rooted. Otherwise, seeds of doubt may spring up and choke out the seedling of faith, and the harvest will be bitter fruit and the giver will have served the wrong master.” 5

President Howard W. Hunter also spoke strongly of where we should stand on the issue of modernism:

The Old Testament unfolds the story of the creation of the earth and mankind by God. Should we now disregard this account and modernize the creation according to the theories of the modernists? Can we say there was no Garden of Eden or an Adam and Eve? Because modernists now declare the story of the flood is unreasonable and impossible, should we disbelieve the account of Noah and the flood as related in the Old Testament? Let us examine what the Master said when the disciples came to him as he sat on the Mount of Olives. They asked him to tell them of the time of his coming and of the end of the world. Jesus answered: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” (Matthew 24:36–39). In this statement the Master confirmed the story of the flood without modernizing it. Can we accept some of the statements of the Lord as being true and at the same time reject others as being false? When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, and they discussed the matter of the death of her brother and the resurrection. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”(John 11:25) . Both of these statements, the one regarding Noah and the fact of the flood and the one in which he declared himself to be the resurrection and the life, were made by the Lord. How can we believe one and not the other? How can we modernize the story of the flood, or refer to it as a myth, and yet cling to the truth of the other? How can we modernize the Bible and still have it be a guiding light to us and a vital influence in our beliefs? There are those who declare it is old-fashioned to believe in the Bible. Is it old-fashioned to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God? Is it old-fashioned to believe in his atoning sacrifice and the resurrection? If it is, I declare myself to be old-fashioned and the Church to be old-fashioned. In great simplicity, the Master taught the principles of life eternal and lessons that bring happiness to those with the faith to believe.” 6

Prophetic Statements

Joseph F. Smith

#1:

Recently there was some trouble…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”…are in conflict on some matters with the scriptures, including some modern revelation…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…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 [they were] required to refrain from so doing…The trustees of the Brigham Young University…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. The ordinary student cannot delve into these subjects deep enough to make them of any practical use to him, and a smattering of knowledge in this line only tends to upset his simple faith in the gospel, which is of more value to him in life than all the learning of the world without it. 7

#2:

Some . . . limit the power of God to the power of men, and we have some of these among us and they have been among our school teachers. They would have you disbelieve the inspired accounts of the Scriptures . . . but we know better . . . . And I say, beware of men who come to you with heresies that things come by laws of nature of themselves, and that God is without power. 8

#3:

Any man who will . . . deny the so-called miracles of the scriptures is unfit to be a teacher of Latter-day Saint children. 9

Joseph Fielding Smith

“Our children are taught in their homes, in our Auxiliary organizations and in our Priesthood quorums, to believe in the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. . . . The have been taught that man is the offspring of God and that through the fall of Adam death came into the world and passed upon every creature through Adam’s transgression. . . . In this manner they are instructed in the home. Then they go to school and find these glorious principles ridiculed and denied by the doctrines of men founded on foolish theories . . . that man is the offspring of some worm or amoeba that in some unknown way multiplied to fill the earth with all its plants and animal life. . . . these theories do dominate the secular educations of our youth. They are constantly published in our newspapers, in magazines and other periodicals, and those who believe in God and his divine revelations frequently sit supinely by without raising any voice of protest. Under these adverse conditions is there any wonder that the student becomes confused? . . . Bishops and other presiding officers should see to it that only men and women whor are converted and full of faith are appointed to teach. Too frequently, I regret to say, unwittingly presiding officers in ward and quorums choose teachers that have scholastic trainings without discovering whether or not they are converted and in full faith in the doctrines of the Church. . . . Under such conditions, with enemies in our ranks, the influence of both Church and home is further weakened and our youth more seriously impressed with the false theories.” 10

Harold B. Lee

I was somewhat sorrowed recently to hear someone, a sister who comes from a church family, ask, “What about the pre-Adamic people?” Here was someone who I thought was fully grounded in the faith. I asked, “What about the pre-Adamic people?” She replied, “Well, aren’t there evidences that people preceded the Adamic period of the earth?” I said, “Have you forgotten the scripture that says, ‘And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also….’ “(Moses 3:7) I asked, “Do you believe that?” She wondered about the creation because she had read the theories of the scientists, and the question that she was really asking was: How do you reconcile science with religion? The answer must be, If science is not true, you cannot reconcile truth with error. 11

Ezra Taft Benson

#1:

There are a few teachers within the Church who, while courting apostasy, still want to remain members of the Church, for being members makes them more effective in misleading the Saints. But their day of judgment is coming, and when it does come, for some of them it would have been better, as the Savior said, that a millstone had been put around their necks and they had been drowned in the depths of the sea than to have led away any of the youth of the Church (Matthew 18:6D&C 121:22);. 12

#2:

I hope there will never be any time when teachers in our own institutions will ever propose any theory or program, or present as fact anything that will tend to destroy the faith of our young people. 13

#3:

“Recently one of our Church educators published what he purports to be a history of the Church’s stand on the question of organic evolution. His thesis challenges the integrity of a prophet of God. He suggests that Joseph Fielding Smith published his work Man: His Origin and Destiny against the counsel of the First Presidency and his own brethren. This writer’s interpretation is not only inaccurate, but it runs counter to the testimony of Elder Mark E. Petersen, who wrote this foreword to President Smith’s book, a book I would encourage all of you to read:

“Some of us [members of the Council of the Twelve] urged [Elder Joseph Fielding Smith] to write a book on the creation of the world and the origin of man…the present volume is the result. It is a most remarkable presentation of material from both sources [science and religion] under discussion. It will fill a great need in the Church, and will be particularly invaluable to students who have become confused by the misapplication of information derived from scientific experimentation.” 14

#4:

“When one understands that the author to whom I allude is an exponent for the theory of organic evolution, his motive in disparaging President Joseph Fielding Smith becomes apparent. To hold to a private opinion on such matters is one thing, but when one undertakes to publish his views to discredit the work of a prophet, it is a very serious matter. It is also apparent to all who have the Spirit of God in them that Joseph Fielding Smith’s writings will stand the test of time.” 15

#5:

“I know one noble father who reviews with his children regularly what they have been taught, and if they have been taught any falsehoods; then the children and the father together research out the truth…If your children are taught untruths on evolution in the public schools or even in our Church schools, provide them with a copy of President Joseph Fielding Smith’s excellent rebuttal in his book Man, His Origin and Destiny.” 16

#6:

“Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to His Prophet on the same subject. They feel the prophet must have the same earthly credentials or training which they have had before they will accept anything the prophet has to say that might contradict their earthly schooling. . . . We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember, if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet, and you’ll be blessed and time will vindicate you.” 17

Howard W. Hunter

The Old Testament unfolds the story of the creation of the earth and mankind by God. Should we now disregard this account and modernize the creation according to the theories of the modernists? Can we say there was no Garden of Eden or an Adam and Eve? Because modernists now declare the story of the flood is unreasonable and impossible, should we disbelieve the account of Noah and the flood as related in the Old Testament? Let us examine what the Master said when the disciples came to him as he sat on the Mount of Olives. They asked him to tell them of the time of his coming and of the end of the world. Jesus answered: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” (Matthew 24:36–39) . In this statement the Master confirmed the story of the flood without modernizing it. Can we accept some of the statements of the Lord as being true and at the same time reject others as being false? When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, and they discussed the matter of the death of her brother and the resurrection. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”(John 11:25). Both of these statements, the one regarding Noah and the fact of the flood and the one in which he declared himself to be the resurrection and the life, were made by the Lord. How can we believe one and not the other? How can we modernize the story of the flood, or refer to it as a myth, and yet cling to the truth of the other? How can we modernize the Bible and still have it be a guiding light to us and a vital influence in our beliefs? There are those who declare it is old-fashioned to believe in the Bible. Is it old-fashioned to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God? Is it old-fashioned to believe in his atoning sacrifice and the resurrection? If it is, I declare myself to be old-fashioned and the Church to be old-fashioned. In great simplicity, the Master taught the principles of life eternal and lessons that bring happiness to those with the faith to believe.” 18

Supporting Statements

Boyd K. Packer

#1:

. . . we must go back to 1910.

George Brimhall, having already served 19 years as president of BYU, determined to establish a recognized teachers college. He had hired three professors: one with a master’s degree from Harvard, one with a doctorate from Cornell, and the other with a doctorate from Chicago. They hoped to transform the college into a full-fledged university. They determined that practicality and religion, which had characterized the school, must now give way to more intellectual and scientific philosophies.

The professors held that “the fundamentals of religion could and must be investigated by extending the [empirical] method into the spiritual realm,” and they “considered evolution to be a basic, spiritual principle through which the divinity in nature expressed itself.” The faculty sided with the new professors and the students rallied to them.” 19

#2:

And now to Sunday, January 8, 1956. President David O. McKay came to Brigham City to dedicate a chapel built for students of the Intermountain Indian School. I stood next to him to introduce those who came forward to shake his hand.

A very old man, a stranger to me, came forward on the arm of his daughter. He had come some distance to speak to President McKay. It was impossible for me not to hear their conversation. He gave President McKay his name and said that many years ago he had taught at BYU. President McKay said, “Yes, I know who you are.” Tears came as the old man spoke sorrowfully about the burden he had carried for years. President McKay was very tender in consoling him. “I know your heart,” he said. That old man was one of the three professors who had been hired by President Brimhall in 1910.” 20

#3:

The knowledge that we are the children of God is a refining, even an exalting truth. On the other hand, no idea has been more destructive of happiness, no philosophy has produced more sorrow, more heartbreak, more suffering and mischief, no idea has contributed more to the erosion of the family than the idea that we are not the offspring of God, but only advanced animals. There flows from that idea the not too subtle perception that we are compelled to yield to every carnal urge, are subject to physical but not to moral law.

I know there are two views on the subject. But it is one thing to measure this theory soley against intellectual or academic standards, quite another to measure it against moral or spiritual or doctrinal standards.

When the theory that man is the offspring of animals is planted in young minds, it should be accompanied by careful instruction to set it in isolation in the garden of the mind until faith is well rooted. Otherwise, seeds of doubt may spring up and choke out the seedling of faith, and the harvest will be bitter fruit and the giver will have served the wrong master.” 21

why-did-jfs-byu-professors-01


References:

  1. Boyd K. Packer, The Snow White Birds, http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=10919
  2.  Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years, 1:421
  3. Joseph F. Smith, “Theory and Divine Revelation”, Editor’s Table., Improvement Era, 1911, Vol. Xiv. April, 1911. No. 6
  4.  Boyd K. Packer, The Snow White Birds, http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=10919
  5. Boyd K. Packer, March 1992, “The Fountain of Life,” 18-Stake BYU fireside, published in Things of the Soul
  6. Howard W. Hunter, That We Might Have Joy, p. 23
  7. Joseph F. Smith, “Theory and Divine Revelation”, Editor’s Table., Improvement Era, 1911, Vol. Xiv. April, 1911. No. 6
  8. —Logan Journal, April 7, 1914. Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 372
  9. Improvement Era Vol. 21, p. 104
  10.  Smith, Joseph Fielding. Man, His Origin and Destiny. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Deseret News Press, 1954. pg. 1-3
  11. Harold B. Lee, “First Presidency Message: Find the Answers in the Scriptures,” Ensign, Dec. 1972, 2.
  12. Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 309; An Enemy Hath Done This, p. 286
  13. Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 308; “The Greatest Leadership,” BYU Student Leadership Conference, Sun Valley, Idaho, September 1959
  14. Mark E. Petersen, Quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, Foreword
  15. Ezra Taft Benson, This Nation Shall Endure, 26.
  16.  Ezra Taft Benson, God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, p. 227.
  17. Ezra Taft Benson, Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, BYU devotional, February 26, 1980
  18. Howard W. Hunter, That We Might Have Joy, p. 23
  19. Boyd K. Packer, The Snow White Birds, http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=10919
  20. Boyd K. Packer, The Snow White Birds, http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=10919
  21. Boyd K. Packer, March 1992, “The Fountain of Life,” 18-Stake BYU fireside, published in Things of the Soul

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3 Responses

  1. Jeff says:

    I completely agree with President Joseph F. Smith’s statement about why he dismissed the professors when he stated that “they could not be given opportunity to inculcate theories that were out of harmony with the recognized doctrines of the Church”. Ultimately, the professors at BYU then, as well as the professors teaching these evolution theories today, are teaching these theories in direct opposition to the doctrines of the Fall of Adam, the Creation, and the miracles in the scriptures which include the undermining the Atonement of the Savior. I believe President Benson’s warning that those professors who mislead our youth in these matters will answer to the Lord.

  2. Eliza says:

    Within modern society, or any society, standing with a prophet of God is not necessarily popular or easy. However, as we follow the prophets and their teachings, we will be safe and blessed. President Smith is often looked down on for his course of action regarding the BYU professors and their philosophies. However, do we doubt the Lord’s spokesman? If we do, I doubt there is much hope for us. We must align our worldview and philosophical ideas with the Prophets of God. If we do this, will we stand ashamed? Will we regret our opinion and actions? No. The prophets of God act for Him here on earth. And if we oppose them, I wonder how we will be able to effectively explain our resistance at the pleasing bar of God.

  1. February 28, 2016

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