Organic evolution and how it might either conflict -- or perhaps fit -- within LDS doctrine is something I've pondered and studied a fair amount over past several years. Michael Ash wrote an article for Dialogue which I think is a good place to start for members of the church who might be wondering about the history of the church's position (or non-position) on evolution:
I know some people have struggles with this subject, and my perception is that even now at church it’s hard to find people who are open to the idea of evolution as a possibility (at least where I live). I think that is changing as time goes on. I find when I study the subject - the evidence in favor of evolution is virtually overwhelming.
Church Leaders Past Teachings
First, let me say that I love and respect Elder McConkie and also Joseph Fielding Smith. They were apostles in our church (JFS became President of the Church). Both held very strong views and taught against evolution. Of course, that’s not the only thing they taught - both served in the church for decades in many capacities, they just happened to also be vocal anti-evolutionists. JFS even wrote a book against evolution - you can read the history of that in the article mentioned above.
I consider them - as I do all of our church leaders - great men of God. As a young missionary I discovered and enjoyed Elder McConkie’s writings, and have read most of his books. He had a very direct and no-nonsense way of teaching that speaks to me, and he also was willing to jump into doctrinal areas that I was curious about.
Joseph Fielding Smith was similar. I’ve never read a more powerful account of the atonement than when I read his writings about it in Doctrines of Salvation. What I read there from him, about the Savior, affected me for days. I still remember the closeness I felt to Christ after reading it. Yet he also seemed to think that our sun was a celestial kingdom. He pulled that idea from a very literal reading of the phrase “dwelling in everlasting burnings”. I can’t really go with him on that one.
Leaders are not infallible, and neither McConkie nor Smith were always correct on every subject, and that has caused them to become somewhat controversial figures. I think one should understand that their teaching and writing style was to be absolutely firm - declarative.. that’s who they were, full of faith and never showing a sliver of uncertainty. I think it’s the style they felt they had to use, as apostles (and partly it may have been the style of the time they were brought up in). And yet when shown to be wrong - as with Elder McConkie’s prediction about when blacks would recieve the priesthood, he was quite willing to throw away his earlier statements.
“Forget everything I have said, or what President Brigham Young said, or President George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and truth that has now come into the world” (Doctrines of the Restoration, McConkie, p. 165).
I love that in the church the only thing we are required to believe is truth. We are not required to believe or defend anything that is false. We have living prophets and God can always give us more knowledge. There was nothing more important than truth to Elder McConkie, and if he was shown to be wrong his response was to immediately throw out what he held to before, and embrace the revealed truth. Elder Packer has called him the most misunderstood of our modern prophets - which is really saying something when you consider Brigham Young or some of the other early church leaders.
Evolution in the LDS Church Today
The church has no official position on the subject of evolution, except what is written in the First Presidency official statements. These essentially can be boiled down to:
- God created the earth and all things upon it
- Adam was the first man on the earth
- Adam and Eve (and all of us) are spirit children of God, created in His image.
It’s possible (and entirely permissible) to believe that bodies for Adam and Eve were created through a process of evolution over millions of years, but there are significant doctrinal concerns to overcome if you choose to accept that (which I do).
McConkie and other leaders in the church have characterized evolution as “evil”. Well, if your belief in evolution leads you toward atheism, that is, that all of life was started by complete random chance - and that God doesn’t exist, then that is an evil theory. I believe that version of evolution is the evil that many church leaders have preached against, including President Benson. Satan loves that idea, and unfortunately that is the particular brand of evolution that is promoted quite heavily in the popular science literature, schools and colleges of our day.
It has done a huge amount of harm to faith in our society. The evolution-no-God theory has contributed a great deal to the secularization of young people, and it seems to me that atheism is growing - largely because of this brand of the theory. If you believe that life is an accident, that’s going to color how you live your life and set your values in so many ways. It’s understandable to me that schools should not teach creationism, but neither should they teach atheism. Schools need to teach the mechanisms involved, the “how” as science has come to work it out, but they should also at least leave the door open to faith. It is wrong for teachers to slam it shut and say there is no God, and that religionists are fools.
Popular evolution authors (like Dawkins) often set up a straw-man battle between young-earth creationists and themselves. They create a very simplistic literal reading of the Genesis creation story and then proceed to blast it apart. This is pretty easy to do, but obviously is not fair to our faith.
I would say that over the past 2 decades or so, the church has become gradually more and more open to the idea of evolutionary process in creation. I have noticed that in our official lesson manuals, Preach My Gospel, the Gospel Principles manual, etc.. where there are lessons about the creation, those lessons are getting shorter and shorter. I take that as an acknowledgement by the leaders that there is much we simply do not know. As was written in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under evolution: the scriptures teach what happened, and why it happened, but they do not teach us how it happened .
And there are obvious reasons for this if you think about it. If God attempted to explain how he created life on earth, how he prepared our physical bodies, how many people would really follow that explanation? Wouldn’t he first need to teach us about biology, genetics, chemistry and a host of other detailed earth-science subjects? Well, perhaps he is revealing how he created the earth, he’s just taking a long time to do it. And it requires that we learn something in all of those subjects if we really desire to know how it was done.
It has long been understood among Latter-day Saints that the geological timescales that science demands for the formation of earth aren’t really a problem. Genesis does speak of the creation happening over a period of seven days, however we do not know what a “day” in this context is.
Most LDS scholars and scriptorians are in agreement that these seven days could be thought of more as distinct periods of time, not 24 hour periods. Even Elder McConkie teaches this idea (McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration, p. 181). Besides, how much sense does it make to think of them as 24 hour days, when the sun wasn’t even created until the third day? The earth might turn on it’s axis, but without the sun, or the moon, what use is the term “day”?
In reality then, scientists really aim to destroy a straw man when they attack the idea of the earth being created in a week. Most of us never believed that anyway. We have no idea how long these seven periods of time were - no idea how long the process of the earth’s formation took. Perhaps each period of time is akin to geological epocs, being hundreds of millions of years in length.
We do have the problem of a biblical timeline for humans on the earth, of approximately 6000 years. Our LDS revelations are also in agreement with this timeline. Adam and Eve, according to scripture, lived on this earth roughly 6000 years ago, and this earth has a “temporal existence” of 7000 years (D&C 77:6, D&C 88:108-110, D&C 84:14-16).
One can think however of a process of earth’s creation stretching over long geological epochs, hundreds of millions of years long, until the creation is “finished” - at which point the earth begins it’s temporal existence. It is now fully prepared for mankind, and Adam and Eve make their arrival (I'll get to that). It would be at this point that we begin the story of the Garden of Eden, and the fall.
No Death Before the Fall
The main doctrinal problem with evolution is the concept that there was no death before the fall of Adam. Mormonism teaches that one of the consequences of the fall of Adam was that death came into the world. This truth is stated clearly in our current lesson manuals:
Their part in our Father’s plan was to bring mortality into the world. (Gospel Principles, chp 6)
When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden, they were not yet mortal. In this state,"they would have had no children" (2 Nephi 2:23). There was no death. (Gospel Principles, chp 6).
And the current entry in our LDS bible dictionary, under the heading "Fall of Adam and Eve" states clearly:
Before the Fall, there were no sin, no death, and no children. With the eating of the "forbidden fruit," Adam and Eve became mortal, sin entered, and death became a part of life. Adam became the "first flesh" upon the earth (Moses 3:7), meaning that he and Eve were the first to become mortal. After Adam fell, the whole creation fell and became mortal. Adam’s Fall brought both physical and spiritual death into the world upon all mankind (Hel. 14:16–17).
But you can’t have a world full of fossils going back hundreds of millions of years (including hominid fossils) if these living things did not die in order to become fossils. In order for evolution to work, that is, for species to evolve through a long process of time - where the strong survive and adaptations occur based on natural selection - it requires that organisms live and die over that long stretch of time.
However, there have been church leaders including both Elder Talmage, and Elder B.H. Roberts who disagreed with the whole notion of "no death before the fall". See this article in the FairMormon Wiki:
(there’s a great statement there by Elder McConkie about the reliability of the study aids such as the bible dictionary in declaring doctrine - they are not infallible, and may contain errors).
That said, we cannot lightly toss this doctrinal point away. The idea that Adam brought death into the world is crucial to our understanding of what happened during, and because of the fall, and also leads up to the need for the atonement.
God told them they could freely eat of every tree in the garden except one, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Of that tree God said, "In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gospel Principles, chp 6)
Satan promised them that they would not die, but should be as the Gods. However,
Because Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the Lord sent them out of the Garden of Eden into the world. Their physical condition changed as a result of their eating the forbidden fruit. As God had promised, they became mortal. They and their children would experience sickness, pain, and physical death. (Gospel Principles, chp 6)
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22)
There is similar language in our Preach My Gospel manual:
Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, with bodies of flesh and bones. While Adam and Eve were in the garden, they were still in God’s presence and could have lived forever. They lived in innocence, and God provided for their needs. (PMG - Agency and Fall of Adam and Eve)
Adam and Eve became mortal—subject to physical death, or separation of the body and spirit. They could now experience disease and all types of suffering. They had moral agency or the ability to choose between good and evil. This made it possible for them to learn and progress. It also made it possible for them to make wrong choices and to sin. In addition, they could now have children, so the rest of God’s spirit children could come to earth, obtain physical bodies, and be tested. Only in this way could God’s children progress and become like Him. (PMG - Agency and Fall of Adam and Eve)
So any doctrinal theory that attempts to reconcile evolution with the creation as related in scripture must somehow account for this reality. Adam and Eve were immortal in the garden of Eden, and could not die until after the fall. In addition, the scriptures speak of the earth being cursed at the fall. Previous to the fall, the earth brought forth flowers and fruits spontaneously. No effort was required. But after the fall, the earth would bring forth "noxious weeds", and Adam was to till the earth and eat his bread by the sweat of his brow.
Our 10th Article of Faith states in part: "We believe ...that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory." This is generally understood to mean that the earth was once in a paradise condition (a terrestrial condition), and that the fall brought about a change, or curse, upon the earth itself. Perhaps once the earth’s creation process was completed (or as a part of it’s creation process), the earth went through some kind of transformation / cleansing - to become a paradise for Adam and Eve, so that it could then fall. Another possibilty is that paradise refers only to the Garden of Eden on the earth, perhaps the rest of the earth was always in a telestial condition as it is now.
Most have assumed that Adam was either born in a normal mortal birth, or he was created in a special creation apart from all other things. Some members of the church, and undoubtedly many Christian believe that Adam and Eve were "formed of the dust of the earth" as adult human beings. That is, God took the raw elements and put them together to form human adults.
Either he was born mortal and a product of evolutionary pathways, or he was created in an immortal condition and was not made mortal until after the fall. If the bodies of Adam and Eve were products of an evolutionary process (as I feel to be case), then how do we account for the idea of their Edenic immortal condition?
Notice the phrase in PMG above, that they were created in God's image, with bodies of flesh and bone. Normally we might say "flesh and blood" to describe a mortal body. Joseph Fielding Smith believed in an idea that goes back as far as Orson Pratt (and which I think is still reflected today in the phrasing "flesh and bone"), that when Adam and Eve were created, it was in an immortal condition with no blood running through their veins. He taught that in partaking of the forbidden fruit, this triggered some kind of transformation upon their physical bodies, and that blood then began to flow within them. This idea however I do not find any scriptural evidence for, and no revelation has been found to confirm or expound it (See this article for a history of this theory). It was only ever a speculation by Elder Pratt that got picked up and carried down into our church traditions.
Why not consider the Tree of Life?
Another possibilty I think worth exploring is to consider the tree of life as the source for the Edenic condition of immortality. We sometimes overlook the fact, and yet it is well documented in our scriptures, that there were in fact two trees in the garden of Eden. The trees were set up to work in opposition to each other. Consider this verse:
15 And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. (2 Nephi 2:15)
We don’t know very much about this original tree of life, but there is great evidence to indicate that it was certainly important. We can surmise that partaking of it’s fruit granted to the individual the quality of life -- that is: health, strength, even of immortality. But was one bite enough to grant immortality? Or did one need to continually have access to it’s fruit to live forever?
We know that Adam and Eve were allowed to eat of this tree while in the garden, for the Lord said:
16 ...Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
If Adam and Eve were created originally in an immortal condition, then why did God provide the tree of life? They would have no need for it if they were already immortal, and they never partook of it after the fall, for we know of the important teachings of Alma regarding the Lord placing cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way of the tree of life after they were driven from the garden (Alma 12:21-27 and Alma 42:2-6). If they were immortal to start with, on their own, the tree of life seems to have little purpose in the Garden of Eden.
If the pre-fall immortality of Adam and Eve came about from partaking of the tree of life, then the only change that needed to occur in order for death to come up on them, was banishment from the garden and this tree. Perhaps partaking of the forbidden fruit did have some physical effects, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. But the scriptures make no mention of any transformation whereby blood begins to flow in their veins.
They are simply banished, driven from the garden and access to the tree of life is strictly prohibited. If they were created originally with normal mortal bodies, and were receiving their immortality from this tree of life, that’s all it would take to allow mortality to enter. Banishment from the tree of life would be a death sentence (although not an immediate one). This could also help to explain why Adam and the early patriarchs lived for so long. Perhaps the effects of the tree of life took a long time to wear off. Perhaps these effects were even hereditary and were passed along for several generations?
The idea that God might cause a temporary change to come over the mortal bodies of Adam and Eve - causing them to be in an immortal condition while in the garden, is not so radical as it might appear. We have scriptural evidence that God caused physical changes in the bodies of other people on the earth, in a similar way, to suit his divine purposes. Consider John the Beloved, or the three Nephites. Our scriptures indicate that they are still living upon the earth, doing the work of God. They are not quite resurrected beings, but also no longer fully mortal. They cannot be killed by man, and presumably cannot feel physical pain, etc.. yet one day we are told, they will be changed and become resurrected (3 Nephi 28:13-32).
How did human creation happen?
How did God create Adam and Eve? Did he simply speak and a body for man was “organized” from the elements? Did he transport their bodies from another populated world (which only serves to delay the question - how did man come to be on that world?) We have no official revealed answer, only theories and speculations - and we don’t usually speak of these at church because church is not the right place or setting for airing our speculations.
An important scripture we should consider is this which contains the words of the Lord to Adam as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price:
58 Therefore I give unto you a commandment, to teach these things freely unto your children, saying:
59 That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; (Moses 6:58-59)
The verse appears to make reference to the birth of Adam, and further - it indicates that blood was involved in that birth. I admit however, it might be interpreted (given verse 58) to mean that this was what Adam was to teach his children, and that it means to describe their births, not his own. But, the phrase "and so became of dust a living soul" has direct reference to Adam, as that is the language used in the bible to describe how he was created. I believe this verse of scripture is describing a process, the only process, by which all men and women are created. Our mortal birth is connected by powerful symbolism to our later spiritual birth and the very atonement of Christ. I think Adam and Eve must have passed through the same process.
Which of course begs the question, who were their mortal parents? This has not been revealed. Did they live on this world, or some other world? Were they part of another group of people that were part of a pre-Eden population that was destroyed?
As for me I am of the opinion that the bodies of Adam and Eve were prepared over a long period of "human" evolution. I place the word human in quote marks, because I don’t want to describe what came before Adam as fully human. Adam was the first man. I feel that these bodies were prepared over time, and at a certain point when God was satisfied with them He chose to now send the spirits of his own children into these mortal bodies.
Were the humans, these "pre-Adamites" (if they existed) children of God? No. They would have had spirits, but they were essentially animals. There are in the animal kingdom many levels of intelligence and many heirarchies of spirit. Dogs have a certain level of intelligence, as do all other animals. There is a ranking of the intelligences, some have more intelligence and some have less (Abraham 3:19). But they are not God’s spirit children. Still, they have a part to play, and they are as eternal as we are. They have a place in God’s eternal plan.
There is of course a problem with this idea, from an evolutionary standpoint. Scientists tell us that the homosapien species goes back at least 30,000 years according to the fossil record. Evolution is only really noticeable over huge spans of time. If you were to compare individuals seperated by many millions, or even perhaps many thousands of years, differences would be apparent. But from a single generation to the next generation, very little significant difference takes place. This would mean that any mortal parent of Adam would really be not that much different in intelligence, or appearance, from Adam. This is obviously a significant problem doctrinally, and it’s one that I don’t have an answer for.
But, given my understanding of other clear physical evidences for evolution (an ever-growing abundance of fossils, our own irrelevant body parts that we can’t explain, radio-carbon dating, DNA evidence, etc..) I currently am sitting right about here in the debate. For many, many reasons I believe the bible. I have had many spiritual experiences which have confirmed my own faith in God, his prophets, and the message of the restoration. I believe life has a divine purpose. I believe that God has all power, and that the creation was grand, overwhelming, and astonishing.
I hope that by writing this little essay exploring and explaining these ideas, I have at least cracked the door open for faith in some who might have otherwise abandoned it. God does live, and his work is more majestic and amazing than we have the ability to comprehend.
- Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements - a small compilation of the authoritative statements from the Church
- Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding - written by LDS scientists, very good history of the controversy and a good overview of evidence for evolution.
- Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture
- The Case for Divine Design - Frank Salisbury is a retired botany professor, former department chair of Plant Physiology at Utah State University and an active LDS member.
- Evolving Faith, Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist - a new (2015) book by Dr. Steven Peck, BYU Professor of Biology
- The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence of Belief - by Francis Collins (Geneticist, leader of the Human Genome Project and a Christian)
Journals and Online Resources
- Dialogue Journal Topic Page: Evolution Dialogue is an independent journal, not church sponsored.
- What do Mormons think of Evolution? BCC blog, independent
- Evolution and Mormonism - BYU Studies Journal & free online book review
- Mormonism and Evolution - MormonMatters blog, independent.
- Teaching Faith and Science to Children, by Taylor Halvorson. Published in the church-owned Deseret News, Feb 23, 2016.