Mormonism directs the faithful to “seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), and finds no incompatibility between truth that is revealed by God and truth that is discovered by the observation and patient inquiry of thoughtful humanity. Apparent contradiction between religion and science is due to misunderstanding and the temporary incompleteness of both revelation and human knowledge; ultimately, there will be no conflict.
Mormonism tolerates an element of ambiguity where scientific questions are concerned. For example, latter-day scripture affirms the historical reality of Old Testament figures such as Moses, Noah, and Abraham; some facts of their lives are specifically endorsed by Mormon doctrine, yet individual Mormons may hold various opinions as to other details of Old Testament accounts. Mormonism has no official position on the mechanism by which the Red Sea was parted for the crossing of the Israelites (Exodus 14:21-22), and does not explain the phenomenon described by Joshua as “the sun [standing] still in the midst of heaven” (Joshua 10:12-13), among other scriptural challenges to modern scientific understanding.
Joseph Smith’s theology embraced ideas which are usually considered the province of science, or which contradict common Christian ideas of scientific issues: “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos … The pure principles of element are principles which never can be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed.” (Smith, History of the Church, 6:308-9); “Spirit is a substance … more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; … it existed before the body, can exist in the body; and will exist separate from the body” (Smith, History of the Church, 4:575); “Kolob [a star] is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as the [Earth]” (Abraham 3:9); and “Worlds without number have I [God] created” (Moses 1:33). The books of Abraham and Moses – published in the Pearl of Great Price – contain many uniquely Mormon concepts of creation and the organization of the cosmos.
Related ideas are sometimes mistakenly attributed to Smith. It is claimed by some, for example, that Smith taught that the moon was inhabited by men averaging six feet in height, who dressed as Quakers and lived for 1,000 years. This notion cannot be traced to Smith, however. It appeared in the 1881 writings of Oliver B. Huntington (Young Woman’s Journal, 3:263) as the reminiscence of events nearly 30 years earlier, when Huntington had been a child. Despite its frequent citation by critics of Mormonism, this idea is absent from the writings of Smith himself and of his adult contemporaries.
Discussions among Smith and his associates encouraged speculation on scientific subjects, and in a few cases provoked serious scientific study among men who, had their lives not been spent in the hardships of the frontier and the needs of a missionary church, might have been dedicated to scientific study. Apostle Orson Pratt may have been such a man. After the church was established in Utah, Pratt operated an observatory on the grounds of the Salt Lake Temple. The observatory was sponsored by the U.S. Coastal Survey, one of a chain of observatories across the continent; there Pratt took daily solar readings to establish the correct time for the city’s clocks. Pratt also kept his 3-inch telescope there, scanning the night sky through movable slats in the observatory’s roof. The observatory also held the stone shaft marking the intersection of the Salt Lake Base and Meridian, the point established by Pratt from which the Great Basin was surveyed. (A replica stone now stands a short distance away, outside the southeast corner of Temple Square where it is easily seen by tourists.) In addition to his studies and observations, Pratt taught at the University of Deseret, gave public lectures on scientific topics, and published works on mathematics and cosmology.
Archaeology was another focus for early Mormon scientific interest. Because the Book of Mormon purports to be a literal history of the inhabitants of the New World from ca. 600 B.C.-421 A.D., Mormons have looked to archaeology to demonstrate the historicity of scripture, and have tended to interpret archaeological discoveries in the light of scripture. Geographical features in the Palmyra area were tentatively identified with events in the Book of Mormon (the hill where Joseph Smith reported finding the plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon was proposed as the Book of Mormon Cumorah, the site of the great final battle), and during the 1834 march of Zion’s Camp Smith identified a skeleton unearthed by the expedition as that of Zelph, a Lamanite. The first systematic attempt to identify Book of Mormon settings with archaeological sites was published in 1841 (and excerpted the next year in the Nauvoo newspaper) by Charles Thompson. His Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon compares artifacts and excavations described by Josiah Priest in his American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West (1834) with the Book of Mormon narrative.
Mormon belief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the existence of metal plates from which it was translated has occasionally made Mormonism the target of deliberate hoaxes. The most famous of these occurred in 1843 when six bell-shaped brass plates were presented to Joseph Smith for evaluation. The story told by their owners was that these mysterious engraved plates had been found buried in Kinderhook, Illinois, south of Nauvoo. The Mormon public was greatly interested in the discovery. Although some Mormons claimed that Smith planned to translate the plates (an entry to that effect appears in the diary of Smith’s clerk, William Clayton), no translation exists and no definitive evidence has been forwarded to show that Smith in fact ever did try to translate the plates, either through prophetic power or through his growing knowledge of ancient languages. The owners of the Kinderhook plates eventually reported their creation of the plates as a deliberate attempt to discredit Smith.
The church has no official position as to the location of events narrated in the Book of Mormon, other than a general view that the setting was somewhere in the New World. Secondhand accounts attribute to Joseph Smith the claim that Lehi’s voyage ended on the coast of Chile (a view accepted and taught by Orson Pratt), or, alternatively, south of the Isthmus of Panama. Neither statement can be conclusively traced to Smith. Church officials have preferred to remain aloof from the discussion, with reminders that “There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question” (Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report, Apr. 1929, 16).
Such official distancing has not discouraged individuals from attempting to define the geography of the Book of Mormon. Attempts generally take one of two approaches: developing an internal geography based on the relative positions of cities, rivers, and seacoasts mentioned in the narrative; or identifying Book of Mormon features with existing features (which of course must also take into account the book’s internal geography). Proposals have been made to identify the scene of the Book of Mormon as the full continents of North and South America, or Central and South America, or the Great Lakes region of North America, or other limited geographical regions.
An ambitious project in relation to Book of Mormon archaeology was mounted in 1900. Benjamin Cluff, president of Brigham Young Academy (precursor to Brigham Young University), sought permission from the church’s First Presidency to send a student expedition into Central and South America. The men would study geography, geology, botany and zoology in an attempt to locate sites and verify the material culture described within the Book of Mormon. Some of the students would remain in South America long enough to learn native languages and record local lore and legend. The First Presidency agreed to the project as a scholarly endeavor sponsored by the school; Cluff, however, recruited his participants and backers by claiming that his was a religious mission call extended by church authority. The line between the academic and ecclesiastic was further blurred when the participants were blessed by church apostles and counseled to conduct themselves as missionaries.
On April 17, fifteen students, two faculty members, and a half dozen volunteers set out on horseback for their trek to South America. The expedition reached Thatcher, Arizona, about six weeks after leaving Provo, having been feted at nine banquets and five dances on the southward trail. There Cluff left his young men with instructions to proselyte as missionaries while he went into Mexico to negotiate with officials for the group’s passage through that country. Rather than meeting with Mexican officials, Cluff joined a young woman with whom he had made arrangements to enter a polygamous marriage. Left without supervision and eager to get on with their adventure, the students in Thatcher became restless; when they eventually learned the real reason for their leader’s absence, the young men abandoned any pretense of missionary work. Word of the disintegrating expedition reached church leaders, who advised its discontinuance. Most of the students returned to Provo; a few pushed on to Colombia where, after one week’s stay, all but one returned to the United States. Chester Van Buren, the last member of the expedition, remained in Colombia long enough to collect wildlife specimens for shipment to Provo.
Today, although “Book of Mormon tours” are popular among lay Mormon tourists, few expeditions are undertaken with the specific goal to prove the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Mormon scientists continue to examine artifacts in light of Book of Mormon testimony, and linguistic studies linking literary characteristics of the Book of Mormon with Near Eastern counterparts are especially popular. Many such studies are sponsored by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies (formerly Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies — FARMS), an organization affiliated with Brigham Young University.
Mormonism did not escape the controversy over organic evolution, the age of the earth, Biblical higher criticism, and related issues that disturbed other churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These ideas reached the Mormon people slowly, in part because so few Mormons studied at eastern universities until the 1890s. A new emphasis on scholarship was adopted at BYU with the opening years of the 20th century, and professors with advanced degrees were hired, bringing with them ideas that were largely unfamiliar in the intermountain west. A new and livelier approach to modern education swept through the Mormon school: “subjects ranging from communism to eugenics were hotly debated both in and out of class” (Bergera, Brigham Young University, 135).
As Mormon students, and especially their parents, became aware of the new studies, church leaders were besieged by inquiries asking whether these scientific theories could be reconciled with scriptural descriptions of creation and the nature of man. The First Presidency requested apostle Orson F. Whitney to draft a statement reflecting the church’s position on these questions. Whitney’s draft was reviewed and revised by an apostolic committee, endorsed by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and published in November 1909. This statement confirmed Mormon belief in both a spiritual and physical creation, God’s organization of the earth, and man’s position as the literal offspring of God.
Perhaps because this statement did not address evolution directly, partisan debate within the church and at BYU continued. By 1911, the question had become so contentious that three BYU professors were fired and church president Joseph F. Smith issued another statement pleading for church schools to avoid the theoretical questions of science, explicitly refusing “to say how much of evolution is true, or how much is false” (Evenson, Mormonism and Evolution, 49).
In 1930-1931, several church leaders, notably Joseph Fielding Smith (apostle, and son of the church president), B.H. Roberts (a Seventy, and philosopher/historian), and James E. Talmage (apostle, chemist, and geologist) engaged in an extended and often rancorous exchange of views in various Mormon publications, with Smith taking a fundamentalist, anti-evolutionary position and Roberts and Talmage advocating elements of the secular scientific theories. The public argument called forth a memorandum of the First Presidency addressed to all of the church’s general authorities. This memorandum noted the detrimental effect of such disputations on the church and commanded: “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” (Evenson, Evolution and Mormonism, 67).
The controversy was renewed briefly in 1954 when Smith, the last survivor of the leaders so prominent in the earlier debates, published Man, His Origin and Destiny. This volume ignored the First Presidency’s injunction to leave such matters alone; Smith instead declared organic evolution “to be the most pernicious doctrine ever entering the mind of man” and dismissed explanations of the geologic record as “ridiculous” and “rubbish.” When Smith requested that his book be adopted as a textbook for the church’s seminary and institute program, instructors, objecting to Smith’s dogmatic positions, took their concerns directly to the First Presidency, who essentially repeated the decision of the earlier leaders: “The Brethren were agreed that inasmuch as this book has not been passed upon by the Church that it should not be used as a study course in the seminaries and institutes. They felt that the matter therein discussed is really not essential to the advancement of the cardinal principles of the Church” (David O. McKay office diary, Aug. 18, 1954).
The question remains today essentially as it has throughout the 20th century: The church neither condemns nor endorses secular scientific explanations for the development of life and the origin of man, the age of the Earth, and related matters. Since 1992, a packet of materials commonly called the “BYU Evolution Packet,” or “Evolution and the Origin of Man,” has been distributed to BYU students and is widely available elsewhere. This packet reproduces all of the church’s official statements on these topics and constitutes a handy reference for a debate that continues to flare at irregular intervals.
Less controversial within Mormon history has been the Mormon attitude toward health care. Mormons follow the scriptural injunction to call for the elders to bless the sick; Mormons also make full use of modern medicine. Historically, there was some hesitation to rely on primitive medical treatments during the early 19th century; by 1866, as medical and especially surgical care became more reliable, such hesitation all but vanished. Brigham Young encouraged women to study midwifery, and the Relief Society provided training. The church established and maintained hospitals, including Salt Lake City’s LDS Hospital with its nurses’ training facilities, and Primary Children’s Hospital which provides charitable care to children from throughout the world; with the increasing availability of other facilities, the church sold its hospitals in the 1970s. Mormons accept all treatments generally recognized by the broader culture, including blood transfusions, organ transplants, fertility treatments, birth control, and vaccinations. Some Mormons, placing more than ordinary emphasis on the Word of Wisdom’s endorsement of “wholesome herbs” (D&C 89:10-11), practice various forms of so-called natural medicine, but such practices are not dictated by church teaching. It is becoming increasingly common for Mormon doctors and dentists to render periodic humanitarian service in remote and needy regions of the world, especially in areas where doctors served previously as missionaries.
As the 21st century opens, the scientific question most debated in relation to Mormonism concerns DNA and the Book of Mormon. Critics have pointed toward recent studies showing a lack of affinity between the DNA of modern Jews and Native Americans, claiming this disproves the Book of Mormon teaching that a family group left Jerusalem anciently and traveled to the New World. Supporters of the Book of Mormon have countered such claims with their own arguments, attacking the science of their opponents and promoting alternate hypotheses. The debate will no doubt continue for the foreseeable future, generating much heat and little light, and swaying few participants from their original positions.
While this essay has focused on scientific topics, it should not be overlooked that Mormonism is fully compatible with applied technology: Mormons value labor and cherish tradition, but see no special virtue in shunning technological advancements.
One widely known example of Mormon technology is the odometer (or “roadometer”) built during the 1847 trek across the plains. Charged with recording the mileage of each day’s travel, William Clayton wearied of counting the revolutions of a wagon wheel and calculating distance by multiplying the wheel’s circumference by the number of revolutions made in each day’s travel. Consulting with Orson Pratt to determine precise measurements, Clayton designed a set of cogwheels, whereby the wagon wheel’s revolutions would be recorded mechanically. The device was built from wood by the pioneer company’s carpenter and put into use on the morning of May 12, 1847. The odometer was not invented on this occasion, but it is believed that the Mormon odometer was the first used on the Mormon/Oregon Trail.
Other Mormon inventors and innovators include Philo T. Farnsworth, who patented elements of the first electronic television; Jonathan Browning, frontier gunsmith, and his even more innovative son Jonathan Moses Browning, who patented several versions of repeating shotguns and machine guns; H. Tracy Hall, who developed the tetrahedron press and was the first producer of synthetic diamonds; Harvey Fletcher, who invented the electronic hearing aid; and William DeVries, the surgeon who performed the first implantation of an artificial heart into a human patient (Barney Clark, also a Mormon).
A list of Mormon accomplishments in the pure sciences, particularly medicine, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, and nuclear engineering, is beyond the scope of this essay. Studies of the birthplaces of scientists whose biographies appear in American Men and Women of Science from 1938 to 1999 purportedly demonstrate that Utah’s per capita representation – presumably heavily Mormon – is consistently higher than any other state.
While much remains to be received through revelation and learned through investigation, Mormons believe that science and religion will ultimately be fully reconciled. In the words of chemist and apostle John A. Widtsoe, “The religion of the Latter-day Saints is not hostile to any truth, nor to scientific search for truth” (Evidences and Reconciliations, 1:129).
Bergera, Gary James and Ronald Priddis. Brigham Young University: A House of Faith. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985.
Bush, Lester E., “The Mormon Tradition,” Caring and Curing: Health and Medicine in Western Religion Traditions. New York, 1986, 397-420.
Ehat, Andrew and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith. Provo, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1993.
Evenson, William E. and Duane E. Jeffery. Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2005.
Eyring, Henry. Reflections of a Scientist. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983.
Green, Paul R., comp. Science and Your Faith in God: A Selected Compilation of Writings and Talks by Prominent Latter-day Saint Scientists on the Subject of Science and Religion. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958.
Hunter, J. Michael. “The Kinderhook Plates, the Tucson Artifacts, and Mormon Archaeological Zeal,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 31-70.
Parry, Donald W., Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks, eds. Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen. Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002.
Reeve, W. Paul. “‘As Ugly as Evil’ and ‘As Wicked as Hell’: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 27, no. 2 (Fall 2001), 125-149.
Smith, Joseph Jr. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B.H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev., 7 vols. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971.
Smith, Joseph F., John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund. “Origin of Man,” Improvement Era, vol. 13, no. 1 (November 1909), 75-81.
Smith, Joseph Fielding. Man, His Origin and Destiny. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954.
Sorenson, John L. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book; Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1985.
Thorndike, Edward L. “The Production, Retention and Attraction of Men of Science,” Science 92 (Aug. 16, 1940): 137-41. [Related studies were conducted in 1949 by Richard T. Wootton; in 1962 by H.E. Zabel; and in 1999 by Wootton]
Widtsoe, John A. Evidences and Reconciliations. 3 vols. Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1951.
Wilkinson, Ernest L., ed. Brigham Young University: The First One Hundred Years. 4 vols. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1975.
“Words in Season from the First Presidency,” Deseret Evening News, 17 December 1910, 3.