David O. McKay Evolution Letter – February 15, 1957
On February 15, 1957 the President of the Church, David O. McKay, penned a letter to William Lee Stokes claiming that “On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position.” However, this statement contradicted the The Origin of Man: 1909 First Presidency Message “which expresses the Church’s doctrinal position on these matters.” (Ensign, February 2002, reprint of 1909 First Presidency Message) See also “Mormon” View of Evolution: 1925 First Presidency Message. Presidents Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, Boyd K. Packer and Elder Bruce R. McConkie each clarified that President David O. McKay was inaccurate in this instance. To learn more, please see our compilation of statements by Presidents of the Church and scripture on the subject of science, creation, Darwinian Evolution, the age of the earth, pre-Adamites and so forth.
Letter from President David O. McKay
Salt Lake City, Utah
February 15, 1957
Professor William Lee Stokes
2970 South 15th East
Salt Lake City, Utah
Dear Brother Stokes:
Your letter of February 11, 1957, has been received.
On the subject of organic evolution the Church has officially taken no position. The book “Man, His Origin and Destiny” [by Joseph Fielding Smith] was not published by the Church, and is not approved by the Church
The book contains expressions of the author’s views for which he alone is responsible.
Sincerely your brother,
[signed] David O. McKay
President Boyd K. Packer
I should take note of one letter signed by a president of the Church addressed to a private individual. It includes a sentence which, taken out of context, reads, “On the subject of organic evolution the church has officially taken no position.” For some reasons the addressee passed this letter about. For years it has appeared each time this subject is debated.
Letters to individuals are not the channel for announcing the policy of the Church. For several important reasons, this letter itself is not a declaration of the position of the Church, as some have interpreted it to be. Do not anchor your position on this major issue to that one sentence! It is in conflict with the two official declarations, each signed by all members of the First Presidency. Remember the revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants, “Every decision made by . . . [the First Presidency] must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member . . . must be agreed to its decisions . . . . Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently, who were ordained after the order of Melchizedek, and were righteous and holy men” (D&C 107:27, 29). (President Boyd K. Packer, The Law and the Light, p. 13)
President Harold B. Lee
I have a few moments to respond to your letter of recent date in which you express some concern about some contradictory information as to the position we should take with regard to the doctrine of evolution.
This, as you know, has been long a bone of contention so serious that in the earlier years when Darwin’s theory first was enunciated, a number of professors at the Brigham Young University were released because of their unwillingness to teach the theory and then counter by delivering the true doctrines of the gospel.
Apparently the thing that confused you was that these who have contended have shown you a copy of a letter which was signed by President David O. McKay in which he disavowed the church having taken any official position on the subject of organic evolution. And, furthermore, that in that note to Professor William Lee Stokes, he declared that the book, Man, His Origin and Destiny was not published by the church and is not approved by the church.
There is a little bit of history that I should tell you about. One summer some years ago, I was assigned to deliver a day by day set of lessons to all the seminary students [teachers?] and some of the institute teachers of the church, which proved to be a very demanding assignment. I went down each morning and met with all of these teachers. President Joseph Fielding Smith’s book had just come off the press and I assigned as a part of the course, the reading of this book and writing a dissertation not less than 2500 words on the subject “What Your Appraisal Is of the Value of This Book to a High School Senior or a College Student.” This caused quite a consternation among the teachers, some of whom wanted to write a very critical analysis of the book and were fearful of doing so lest I would downgrade them in the course. This was not at all my intent, it was merely to have them respond critically if they wished, and I so told President Smith that I was inviting criticism and he said that was alright. [sic]
Some of these brethren who were critical of the book came directly to President McKay and represented to him that I had used President Joseph Fielding Smith’s book as a text for my lectures at the BYU. He called President Ernest Wilkinson in to express his criticism that I had done so, and President Wilkinson told him that that was not true, that he, President Wilkinson, had sat in on most of the lectures that I had given and I did not use the book as a text, it was merely an assigned reading outside of the lessons.
It was undoubtedly the undue pressure of some of these dissidents, one of which was his own son, who was a professor at the University of Utah, that induced him to write this brief and to them a satisfying but to you a disturbing note, which poured water over their wheel and tended to lessen the influence of President Joseph Fielding Smith’s book.
When your letter came to our attention, President Marion G. Romney told me of a conference address which he had delivered at the April conference in 1953, where he spoke directly to this subject of the fall of Adam, or the fall of man, as it is spoken of, and then brought forth scriptures to support the position of the church with respect to the advent of man upon the earth, etc.
At the conclusion of his talk, President Romney said that President David O. McKay had congratulated him and had written a brief note, a copy of which I am attaching hereto, in which he congratulated President Romney and then said, “I congratulate you for your excellent contribution during the conference and express gratitude for your remarks as well as your fine spirit, and I assure you that I agreed heartily in every instance.” President Romney thought if you had this statement from President David O. McKay, signed by himself, to counter this other statement which has been so confusing, that that should be sufficient for you to understand that President McKay had made this other statement probably because of a compromising position he had been in due to the circumstances as I have explained them.
I might add one further thought. Just after this book of President Joseph Fielding Smith’s was printed, I had a young student of science from the University of Utah who came from a family who lived in my stake, come in with several books and wanted to argue against statements made in President [Joseph] Fielding Smith’s book. I said to him, “Now Brother ___.” (his name was Dr. ___.) “I haven’t had the opportunity of delving deeply into science, but I want to tell you an experience that Mark E. Petersen and I had when we organized the new Kansas City Stake. In our interview we had a man who was considered as a bishop of one of the wards who was a teacher of anatomy in the Kansas City University, which was a dental school. Of course this made it necessary for us to examine very carefully his faith as contrasted with his teaching of the evolutionary theory which of course would be taught in connection with the subject of anatomy. After we had discussed this, I asked him if he had read Brother Smith’s book. He smiled and said, ‘Yes, I have, and it was the most difficult book I have ever read. But,’ he said, ‘I want to tell you that in my opinion this is the finest book that the church has ever produced for men who were teachers in the field of science. And I endorse what President Smith has said entirely so.’ ”
I said to this young Dr. ____, “I wish you would write to this professor of science, who is much older and more experienced than you, in Kansas City, and have him respond to your questions.”
A few weeks later this young man came back in a humble spirit and said, “Well I need nothing more to quiet my concerns, when a man of his experience can say what he said, that’s enough for me.”
Now if I were you, Brother ____, I would not be discouraged. This is a contention which has gone on and will continue to the end of time I suppose, and until the scientists get nearer and nearer to the doctrines of the Church, there will still be contention, but remember this, that truth can never be composed with the errors of men. Just know that the gospel is true and that these are the theories of men which you as a student must learn if you want to pass the courses you are taking.
With kindest personal regards and trusting this letter will be sufficient to set the matter right in your mind I am, Very sincerely yours,
Harold B. Lee.
President Ezra Taft Benson
More 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 also runs counter to the testimony of Elder Mark E. Petersen, who wrote this foreword to Elder Smith’s book, a book I would encourage all to read. Elder Petersen said:
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.
When one understands that the author to whom I alluded is an exponent of 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.” (Ezra Taft Benson, God’s Hand in Our Nation’s History, Mar 28, 1977)
Elder Bruce R. McConkie
“. . . there is no way to harmonize the revealed religion that has come to us with the theoretical postulates of Darwinism and the diverse speculations descending therefrom.
“Do not be deceived and led to believe that the the famous document of the First Presidency issued in the days of President Joseph F. Smith and entitled “The Origin of Man” means anything except exactly what it says. The saving doctrine is that Adam stood next to Christ in power and might and intelligence before the foundations of the world were laid; that Adam was placed on this earth as an immortal being; that there was no death in the world for him or for any form of life until after the Fall; that the fall of Adam brought temporal and spiritual death into the world; that this temporal death passed upon all forms of life, upon man and animal and fish and fowl and plant life; that Christ came to ransom man and all forms of life from the effects of the temporal death brought into the world through the Fall, and in the case of man from a spiritual death also; and that this ransom includes a resurrection for man and for all forms of life.
“Try as you may, you cannot harmonize these things with the evolutionary postulate that death has always existed and that the various forms of life have evolved from preceding forms over astronomically long periods of time? Try as you may, you cannot harmonize the theories of men with the inspired word that says:
“And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the Garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end.
“And they [meaning Adam and Eve] would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.
“But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. “And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.” [2 Ne. 2:22–26]
“The atonement of Christ is the great and eternal foundation upon which revealed religion rests. No man can be saved unless he believes that our Lord’s atoning sacrifice brings immortality to all and eternal life to those who believe and obey. And no man can believe in the atonement unless he accepts both the divine Sonship of Christ and the fall of Adam. If death has always prevailed in the world there was no fall of Adam which brought death to all forms of life. If Adam did not fall, there is no need for an atonement. If there was no atonement, there is no salvation, no resurrection, no eternal life, nothing in all of the glorious promises that the Lord has given us. If there is no salvation there is no God. The Fall affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself. The atonement affects man, all forms of life, and the earth itself.” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, The Seven Deadly Heresies, given at Brigham Young University, Marriott Center, June 1, 1980, unedited)