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Dear Brigham: “Compulsory Swallowing of the Six Day Absurdity”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 24, 2011

Although many of the letters to be posted in this series will no doubt be the odder ones sent to Brigham Young, those constitute only a small portion of his incoming correspondence. Many others, like the one presented below, come from faithful Latter-day Saints who simply wanted to make a connection with their president – and how fortunate we are that some of those connections were made on paper and not only on street corners or in the parlors of the Beehive House!

Early in 1871, Brigham Young gave a talk that touched upon the compatibility of divine revelation and the scientific discoveries of man:

Those principles which the Lord has revealed are the only correct principles that man possesses on the earth. We may imagine to ourselves that we possess a great deal of human wisdom independent of the Lord, but this is a mistake, for every truth that is in the possession of the children of men upon the earth came from God. The sciences understood by man came from God, and when we demonstrate a truth, we demonstrate a portion of the faith, law, or power by which all intelligent beings exist, whether in heaven or on earth, consequently when we have truth in our possession we have so much of the knowledge of God. I delight in this, because truth is calculated to sustain itself; it is based upon eternal facts and will endure, while all else will sooner or later perish. …

In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular. You may take geology, for instance, and it is a true science; not that I would say for a moment that all the conclusions and deductions of its professors are true, but its leading principles are; they are facts – they are eternal; and to assert that the Lord made this earth out of nothing is preposterous and impossible. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist. There is an eternity before us, and it is full of matter; and if we but understand enough of the Lord and his ways, we would say that he took of this matter and organized this earth from it.

How long it has been organized it is not for me to say, and I do not care anything about it. As for the Bible account of the creation we may say that the Lord gave it to Moses, or rather Moses obtained the history and traditions of the fathers, and from these picked out what he considered necessary, and that account has been handed down from age to age, and we have got it, no matter whether it is correct or not, and whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or in as many millions of years, is and will remain a matter of speculation in the minds of men unless he give revelation on the subject. If we understood the process of creation there would be no mystery about it, it would be all reasonable and plain, for there is no mystery except to the ignorant.

This talk, with quite a bit of additional commentary on technology and science – and the statement that “the Lord is one of the most scientific men that ever lived” – drew this letter from a Salt Lake man a few days later:

Dear Brother

In some of your remarks on Saturday I understood you to say that you had been studying up Geology in order to find what caused so many Geologists to be Infidels. I think I can throw a little light on this matter, Some time before joining the Church I had studied this science by reading, attending lectures, and as far as was consistent with my work, inspection of Rocks of which the numerous R[ail].R[oad]. Cuttings afforded us the best opportunity in the vicinity of London …

It had begun to be considered by several Geologists that the Six days of Creation as spoken of by Moses related not to six days as now, but to six periods of time of considerable duration and that the term “days” was only used figuratively – This the extreme Religionists and the more ignorant, the more positive would not admit, they insisted on a Creation in six days and from nothing and I well remember the extreme and earnest solicitude with which I was regarded by the Curate and the members of a Sunday School Teachers Bible Class which I had been instrumental in forming when I stated that I did not believe in the theory of six days creation from nothing, and did not see how any man of sense could believe it, The Curate tried to explain that it was possible that the Lord could create it by miraculous power in that manner. I could not admit this as I did not see the necessity for it

Soon afterwards I heard the doctrines of the Church preached and fortunately for me the worst fears of my former friends were realized. I did not then trouble about what Geology taught in relation to times and seasons, for I had better authority to reckon upon than either Parsons or Geologists. I however do not see anything in the teachings of Geology (I do not mean as interpreted by Geologists as they differ among themselves) incompatible with the teachings of our religion.

I do think that many Geologists have not taken into account the possibility that, owing to the greater heat of the earth in its early stages, the changes in the Formations would take place in a much less space of time than under present circumstances and conditions.

You will of course understand that as many men are constituted, the compulsory swallowing of the six day absurdity would often cause them to reject the whole.

I remain Yours Respectfully …



21 Comments »

  1. Priceless. I’d read this one and forgotten about it, but it will prove quite useful. Brigham did not have a high view of the creation account in Genesis. To my knowledge, he never expressed an opinion on the related (literarily derivative?) accounts of Moses and Abraham, given that neither was really prominent in his lifetime.

    Comment by Ben S — August 24, 2011 @ 7:47 am

  2. Brilliant. Thanks for this. It shocks me at times that fundamentalists think this kind of idea is a heresy. They base their testimonies in the traditions of men. Biblical literalism drives me nuts.

    Comment by Sean — August 24, 2011 @ 7:48 am

  3. The man who wrote the letter was baptized in England in 1851, so this is another fairly early evidence of this scientific acceptance among our people.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2011 @ 7:56 am

  4. It’s posts like this one that keep me coming back, Ardis. :-)

    Comment by Paul — August 24, 2011 @ 8:05 am

  5. A thousand ages in Thy sight
    Are like an evening gone;

    It’s funny how Christians the world over literally pay lip service to this notion on any given Sunday, yet (the more literal-minded among them) can cling so fiercely to the “six day absurdity.”

    I have my issues with Brother Brigham, but it’s things like this that keep me interested in him. (By the way, it may or may not be worth noting that 1871 was also the year Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published.)

    :-)

    Comment by SLK in SF — August 24, 2011 @ 8:53 am

  6. As to the books or Abraham and Moses and Brigham Young–The PoGP was not canonized until after Brigham’s death. He saw the PoGP as Franklin Richards creation and since Richards spent the rest of Brigham’s life in the doghouse over the Martin and Willie disaster, the PoGP got no traction with Brother Brigham. I imagine it was familiar to and used by many others during Brigham’s life, however.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — August 24, 2011 @ 9:38 am

  7. @Marjorie Conder ( #6 ): could you shed a little more light on this? The PoGP as a Franklin Richards creation?

    Comment by Silus Grok — August 24, 2011 @ 10:43 am

  8. James R. Clark wrote a brief account of the development of the Pearl of Great Price as a volume of scripture (not a history of the individual parts, but how it came to be assembled into the book we know) — it’s outdated, yet interesting, in the fact that it speaks of two documents added to the Pearl of Great Price just before publication of this 1976 article; those documents have since been moved out of the PoGP and appear in the Doctrine and Covenants as Secs. 137 and 138.

    Franklin D. Richards was mission president in Great Britain, with the resources of the Liverpool printing operation that published the Millennial Star and a number of LDS books. He assembled materials that he thought would be useful from a missionary standpoint, and which were not easily procurable in Europe (or in the U.S., for that matter); his collection eventually developed into what we’re familiar with today as the PoGP. The work had become so familiar and so accepted among Church members that it was canonized in the 1878 October conference.

    (I think Marjorie’s assessment of FDR’s “doghouse status” and its effect on the PoGP is a wee bit overdrawn.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  9. Interesting appearance of FDR in this blog. :)

    Comment by Mark B. — August 24, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  10. Is that his first appearance on Keepa? We’ll give him three more terms, then he’s outta here.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 24, 2011 @ 11:14 am

  11. This is fascinating! I think B.Y.’s opinion about the creation would be news to many people in my ward. Thanks for these posts, Ardis!

    Comment by jk — August 24, 2011 @ 11:22 am

  12. It was during this period that William Thomson AKA Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) started working out limits of the age of the earth from thermodynamic considerations. How long would it take the surface of a molten sphere to cool to the temperature observed for our Earth? Thomson’s calculation put an upper bound of 400 million years, later refined to 40 million. Huxley didn’t like that at all, and it contradicted the current philosophy of geologic “Uniformitarianism,” but that was what thermodynamics required UNLESS there were some source of heat generation within the Earth. In 1903, a few years before Thomson’s death, radioactivity was discovered and allowed a much older Earth consistent with thermodynamics. It is interesting what contradictions can twist about while a science works itself out, and the number of times dogma and iconoclasm can switch places.

    “On Geological Dynamics”

    Comment by John Mansfield — August 24, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  13. Thanks, Ardis!

    And thank you for this gem. President Young certainly wasn’t a very polished stone, but those are sometimes the most beautiful — not to mention useful.

    Comment by Silus Grok — August 24, 2011 @ 11:58 am

  14. God never made something out of nothing; it is not in the economy or law by which the worlds were, are, or will exist.

    Such a core doctrinal principle, very well stated by Brigham Young. For every exasperation I have with him over some sarcastic statement, there are at least two gems like this to counterbalance with. BY was never dull, that’s for sure.

    Comment by kevinf — August 24, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  15. This is great, Ardis, especially in light of recent discussions on Mormonism and science.

    BY’s thought really needs to be engaged more, including his interpretation of the bible. He once called the narrative of Genesis “stork stories”!

    Comment by Ben Park — August 24, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  16. Ben Park, I’m looking for quotes like that to engage with. I’m aware of the two in this and the following comment.

    Comment by Ben S — August 24, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

  17. BY’s “no matter if it is correct or not” is eye opening for me. Also, the 6 million year figure is a much longer creation period than what I think most mormons believe.

    I think I’ll pass these quotes on to the other ward members after Gospel Doctrine class, prefaced with, “I’m not supposed to talk about this, but did you know…” :-)

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 24, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

  18. Ben S: I found the “stork stories” comment quoted in Phil Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible.” if I had the book handy, I’d give you the reference.

    Comment by Ben Park — August 24, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  19. Ben S.,

    I could be easily wrong, but I think the “stork stories” comment that Ben Park mentions comes from the following by Barlow on page 100 (Hardcover):

    It was another response entirely for Brigham Young to write off part of the Bible as fables, the sort of stories that adults told children deemed unready for the “facts of life.”

    I assumed when I read that sentence that Barlow was referring to a quote from Brigham Young on page 92. It is the same quote as the second quote in your link. The quote that says in part, “little Billy came from a hollow toadstool.” Maybe I am wrong; I might have missed a stork story reference in the book.

    Comment by Karl D. — August 24, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

  20. I remember learning this is seminary. When I was a teenager we had a science teacher who was our the bishop. We had a fireside that included the BY talk, as well as several others by general authorities, that supported the need for science.

    I had the understanding that when science finds new things about the earth and the animals that have previously lived here, that it is another piece of the puzzle of how the Lord creates a world. I have always talked to my kids about how wonderful it is that we live in a time when we can learn about how the science of the world and universe work. We talk about how Heavenly Father might use the priesthood to direct how the building blocks get put together to make planets, people and all of the wonderful things on the earth.

    I am always a little puzzled when people who are members of the church see science as something to fight against. I have always wondered if I missed something. Seeing this has reminded me that the early members of the church were taught that science and the gospel are compatible, even integral, to the understanding of each other.

    Comment by Julia — August 18, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

  21. I agree with you, Julia; thanks for this comment. While I am puzzled by how some church leaders of an earlier — but NOT the earliest — generation of Mormonism could have adopted the fundamentalist Christian anti-science stance that they did, I don’t fault current church members for assuming it. They believe they’re following church doctrine, having been erroneously taught some of these ideas. Sometimes the anti-science voices are so strong and loud and persistent, that it’s hard for many to hear the quieter, usually calmer and less angry voices, pointing out the authoritative statements that the church has no official dogma on these matters, but trusts that continuing revelation and continuing study will eventually reconcile any contradictions.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 18, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

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