BYU and the theory of evolution haven’t always coexisted peacefully. Over the course of more than a century, BYU and the teaching of evolution have developed harmony.
According to the historical site Signature Books, in the early 1900s, President George H. Brimhall desired to transform Brigham Young Academy into a true university. Brimhall hired four intellectual and well-educated men who held either masters or doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago, Harvard and Berkeley to bring scholarship to the new university.
These intellectuals, brothers Joseph and Henry Peterson and Ralph and William Chamberlin, celebrated Darwinism, taught organic evolution, theology and scriptural explanation.
1909 First Presidency Message
In 1909, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints caught wind of what these professors were teaching at BYU and released an official statement primarily on the theory of evolution and the beliefs of the Church, called the “The Origin of Man.”
The statement reads, “It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declared that Adam was “the first man of all men.”
This message from the First Presidency was anti-evolution and science. Because of this statement, many students at BYU became opposed to the teachings of organic evolution and its correlation with religion and were angry with the school. Over the next two years, Brimhall dismissed the four professors to keep the peace at BYU.
Sunstone magazine released an article “Campus in Crisis” with statements from the professors and an explanation of what occurred during that time. Henry Peterson wrote a letter to The Provo Herald and spoke with Sunstone on how he felt hurt by the accusations that he was “destroying faith.”
“Readers, don’t let people tell you from the pulpit or otherwise that to accept evolution means to forsake your faith or deny God,” said Peterson. “Evolution is the process by which God works.”
1925 Scopes Trial
In 1925, science teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution at a public school in Tennessee, one of the many states which had recently made teaching evolution a misdemeanor. This trial, known as the Scopes Monkey Trial, sparked debate about the controversial topic of evolution and whether it should be legal to teach it.
The First Presidency released an official statement during the time of the Scopes Trial entitled “Mormon View of Evolution,” which offered the Church’s stance on evolution. This statement was a shorter, edited version of “The Origin of Man,” and did not contain any anti-evolution material.
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, then an apostle, gave a General Conference talk in 1930 stating that there was no death before Adam and no such thing as “pre-Adamites.” B.H. Roberts of the Seventy stated he believed otherwise and presented concerns. Elder Roberts was writing a book called “The Truth, The Way, The Life” that discussed religion and evolution cohesively, but the book was challenged by Joseph Fielding Smith and was not published until 1995.
According to an article on the history of the Church’s view and evolution, Joseph Fielding Smith and B.H. Roberts were called in to meet with the First Presidency to discuss the dispute. Joseph Fielding Smith referred back to the scriptures and the 1909 address whereas B.H. Roberts brought scientific evidence and findings to the discussion.
The First Presidency released a statement to all General Authorities in 1931 with instruction to leave science to the scholars.
“Our mission is to bear the message of the restored Gospel to the people of the world,” the statement reads. “Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.”
Elder James E. Talmage, then an apostle, gave a speech about the progression of the earth and evolution called “The Earth and Man.” This talk was not published until November 1931 because it was challenged by another member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
The First Presidency decided to publish the speech in the newspaper and as a pamphlet because the Church’s official stance on evolution was neutral and the only view from the quorum so far was Joseph Fielding Smith’s anti-evolution talk.
Canadian scientist Howard Stutz was the first to teach a graduate course in evolutionary biology at BYU. Stutz taught a class on cytogenetics, the study of chromosome mechanics.
The topic of evolution was still controversial at the time, especially with the publishing of two heavily anti-evolution books from General Authorities; Joseph Fielding Smith’s “Man, His Origin and Destiny” in 1954 and then-Seventy Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine” in 1958. Despite this, Stutz continued to encourage those he taught that evolution and religion are intertwined.
“Not only is the concept of organic evolution completely compatible with the gospel as found in the scriptures, but it is the very heart of it,” said Stutz.
In 1957, President David O. McKay wrote a letter to University of Utah geology professor William Lee Stokes about evolution and said Joseph Fielding Smith’s book was not authorized, nor looked over by the church before it was published.
“By the end of the ’50s and ’60s, all of the seminary teachers and religious teachers had become very anti-science. Others who weren’t had to be very quiet,” BYU evolutionary biology professor Duane Jeffery said.
By the mid-60s things were loosening up a little bit. In 1965, the Church’s magazine for Sunday School titled “The Instructor” published an article by BYU botanist Bertrand F. Harrison called “The Relatedness of Living Things” and James E. Talmage’s speech “The Earth and Man.”
Jeffery said BYU biology students were not that well regarded in the real world of science because of the lack of knowledge about evolution, which is a vital component to biology.
Jeffery was getting his Ph. D. in zoology under the direction of world-renowned geneticist Curt Stern when he got a call from BYU asking him to join its faculty. Jeffrey didn’t want to teach at BYU because of its reputation in the science department, but he found out that BYU badly needed a geneticist.
“I had no intention of coming,” Jeffery said, “but the students weren’t receiving a good education. BYU had graduate students teaching genetics.”
When Jeffery arrived at BYU in 1969, Howard was known as an evolutionist on campus and Jeffery said it was spoken as a depreciative, “we tolerate the guy.”
Jeffery said he let it be known that when he came to BYU he was going to propose a course on evolution.
“I asked, ‘how would that be received?’ And they said, ‘like any other course. You put together the proposition, it will be considered by the committees and, if it looks well put together, it then goes to the Board of Trustees. And if they approve it, it goes,'” Jeffery said.
Jeffery compiled his course and sent in the proposition and it got approved. While still controversial, the evolutionary biology course was well-received. Jeffery said the religion faculty had a harder time with evolution being taught than the students.
Duane Jeffery began researching the Church’s stance and history with evolution to better understand. In 1974, He published a paper titled “Seers, Savants, and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface,” which reviewed and detailed articles, dates and events dealing with the Church and evolution.
Evolutionary biology professor Wiliam Bradshaw began teaching the reconciliation of evolution with theism in his classroom in the 1980s. Bradshaw gave the same test at the beginning and end of his course to collect data about the acceptance of this reconciliation.
“During this time, there would be BYU students who would go to their religion class and have their teacher strongly condemn evolution,” Bradshaw said. “And then they would come to Biology 100 and be presented with the notion that evolution was true, but that it was not an enemy to their religious faith.”
In 2014, evolutionary biology professor Jamie Jensen began giving a similar test to see if this acceptance to the reconciliation of religion and evolution had changed or improved over the past few decades since Bradshaw’s time at BYU.
Jensen found that the data has improved dramatically between the two time periods. She said students are much more accepting of evolution but that there are still a lot of students who felt as though they have to choose either science or religion.
“Our first and foremost goal is to keep people’s testimonies,” Jensen said. “I see so many students that are standing on a precipice that doesn’t actually exist — where they feel like they have to ditch their faith because the science makes sense. There is no reason one would have to abandon their faith to accept the science.”
Jensen wanted to do something about this. Representative Sean Carroll from Howard Hughes Medical Institute talked with Jensen and said he was interested in funding the collection of data from other universities and hosting a conference to encourage discussion and collaboration between the science and religion worlds.
2016 to today
The BYU biology department invited four other religious universities to its first Reconciling Evolution Conference in October 2016 with President Kevin J Worthen in attendance. In that same month, the Church released an article in the New Era titled “What does the Church believe about evolution?”
BYU opened an evolution exhibit in March 2019 in the Bean Life Science Museum that illustrates the process of evolution at a macro level. There is a plaque posted on the exhibit stating that it is not Church doctrine and the Church has no stance on the issue.
In July 2019, the BYU biology department hosted 18 different religious institutions from across the country to discuss the topic of evolution in relation to other religions and their institutions. This conference showed that the topic of combining evolution and religion for these other universities is also a difficult topic to discuss.
Although through the majority of the 1900s controversy existed in the Church and at BYU dealing with the subject of evolution, the Church has officially stated its neutral stance on evolution, and the BYU administration today has been supportive of the teaching of evolution.