Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » John A. Widtsoe, “In Search of Truth”

John A. Widtsoe, “In Search of Truth”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 11, 2014

Aladdin had a magic lamp. The genie who was summoned by Aladdin’s rubbing of the lamp brought Aladdin incredible wealth, and arranged matters so that Aladdin married the daughter of a king. He owed everything to that lamp.

Aladdin’s wife had no idea of the significance of that old copper lamp and its powerful genie. A wicked magician did know, however, and he was determined to obtain the lamp. To do that, he disguised himself as a peddler offering to exchange new lamps for old. Foolish bride! When the magician offered her a brand new beautiful lamp in place of the battered old one, she made the exchange. The evil magician lost no time in reducing Aladdin to a beggar and enriching himself.

John A. Widtsoe used this story to begin his 1930 book In Search of Truth. This short book – only 111 pages – is written for high school or college-age students challenged by science, philosophy, and other ideas that confronted them in school. Widtsoe was proud of the youth of the Church who were willing to get an education. “The youth of our day,” he wrote, “are thinking for themselves. For that let us be grateful.”

But he saw Aladdin’s story as a cautionary tale for students. “Almost every day someone, usually honest enough, offers a new belief or thought, burnished and bright with newness, to replace convictions that we have long held and which have well maintained us. This always raises the question whether the old beliefs should be surrendered.” Don’t do it, he says, “unless we are certain that the new offerings can serve us better. A careless exchange may result in loss or fearful consequences.”

In nine chapters, Elder Widtsoe teaches his readers how to think, but not what to think, proceeding on the assumption that his Latter-day Saint readers believe in God and modern-day prophets – he is not addressing a general audience, or attempting to convince doubters. He explains how science works – and for him, “science” meant not just biology, chemistry, astronomy, and other aspects of the physical world, but also philosophy, religion, and other workings of the mind. He distinguishes between fact, hypothesis, and inference, between possibilities, probabilities, and assumptions. “In this scientific age men and women should understand the processes and limitations of science; and should be able to test for themselves the doctrines drawn from scientific investigation. Confusion of thought lies back of most of our human discord; clarity of thought is a saving issue in any day.”

After teaching readers how science works, and the points where careless thinkers are apt to misunderstand the difference between facts and conclusions, Widtsoe addresses two issues which were of special concern at the time … and which are both hot topics again today: Evolution, and Higher Criticism. The chapter on Evolution is interesting, and I may post it soon.1 But today I want to abridge the Higher Criticism chapter, given the past week’s rancorous misrepresentations of scriptural scholarship in some online neighborhoods.

As written by the apostle John A. Widtsoe –

VI. Higher Criticism

In the field of modern thought the so-called higher criticism of the bible has played an important part. The careful examination fo the Bible in the light of our best knowledge of history, languages and literary form, has brought to light many facts not sensed by the ordinary reader of the Scriptures. Based upon the facts thus gathered, scholars have in the usual manner of science proceeded to make inferences, some of considerable, others of low probability of truth. …

To Latter-day Saints there can be no objection to the careful and critical study of the scriptures, ancient or modern, provided only that it be an honest study– a search for truth. The prophet Joseph Smith voiced the attitude of the Church at a time when modern higher criticism was in its infancy. “We believe the Bible to be the Word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” …

Whether under a special call of God, or impelled by personal desire, there can be no objection to the critical study of the Bible. …


The results of all sound scholarship are welcomed by Latter-day Saints. Higher criticism is not excluded. …

From the beginning of the human race the Lord has spoken to and inspired His children on earth. Thus, truth has been among men from the first day. At various times men have been moved upon to commit to writing the eternal truths pertaining to man’s existence. Thus have come the Holy Scriptures.

The Scriptures have been given by God and under His direction; but in the language of man. It has always been so. In this day, the Lord speaking to Joseph Smith said, “These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” That is, the Lord does His work in our behalf through earthly instruments. Naturally, therefore, in outside form there may be many errors, but in inner substance the eternal truth is preserved for those who can read the language understandingly. This doctrine has been stated in unusual beauty by Moroni – “Thou has also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.” In such a manner has come the text of the scriptures.

As these early manuscripts, before the days of printing, were copied by hand, often by unbelievers who did not respect the text, errors and changes crept in. When we believe the Bible to be the **Word of God as far as it had been translated correctly, we refer to all changes, in all transcriptions and translations, back to the very original manuscripts. The Church therefore is in full harmony with the avowed purpose of the higher critics.


The scriptures contain the most precious truths of humanity. They give the most complete exposition of God’s law for human conduct and destiny. Without them, the earth would be poor indeed.

It was part of the purpose under which man dwells on earth that the plan of salvation, with its included principles, should be revealed to men from the beginning. The scriptures are as a gift from God. They not only contain the story of man’s own devices; but of the dealings of the Lord with His earthly children. Thus our Father in Heaven is better understood.

Accepting the existence of God, and the doctrine that the Gospel truths were deliberately taught to men, it can not be believed that the Lord would allow these precious gifts to be wholly lost, and thus leave the children of men at any time without a witness for him.

Throughout the ages, therefore, amidst all the vicissitudes of time, the Holy Scriptures have been preserved, and though mutilated by careless men, they yet bear amid their human imperfections and errors, the message of god’s nature and of man’s relationship to deity, and of the eternal and glorious destiny of mankind.

The scriptures have never been wholly at the mercy of man.


The Bible story represents long periods of time. It is made up of many books written by many hands. In these respects it is like the Book of Mormon. We do not always know with certainty the authorship of the books. It may be that through the years the authorship of collections of writings may have been credited erroneously, or in default of knowledge, to the outstanding figure of the day.

It tells the history of a people which by its own actions passed through periods of progress and degeneracy. The manner in which the Lord dealt with these people is everywhere set forth. Its teachings are universal, and may be applied to any people in any land in any time.

The Bible is not a treatise on science. Naturally, the knowledge of the day is reflected in the telling of the story; but the events recorded deal primarily with principles of conduct before the Lord and before man, which are independent of mere secular knowledge. The Bible is not read well, unless the manner and the purpose of its making are kept in mind.


As in all good books every literary device is used in the Bible that will drive the lesson home. It contains, history, poetry and allegory. These are not always distinguishable, now that the centuries have passed away since the original writing. The ideas in the Bible, the fundamental, constant ones, are true; the vehicle is human and often confusing. Much needless discussion has come about because critics would not separate the message from its form of presentation. Latter-day Saints strive to read the Bible intelligently. Brigham Young asked the pertinent question: “Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them, a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?” That is the only way by which the variety of the Biblical style and form may be understood; but the essential moral doctrines presented are clear without such scholarship, to every reader. …


The events recorded in the Bible must be read in the same intelligent manner. Every recorded event should be read and interpreted in the light of the times when it occurred. In every age man accepts inspiration according to his understanding. The Lord commands and man obeys as he understands the request. Man’s free agency is never forgotten by the Lord. Thereby hang many explanations of human conduct throughout the long history of mankind.


Higher criticism is not feared by Latter-day Saints. New facts with regard to the Bible are eagerly sought. Suggested inferences are respectfully considered and accepted or rejected, as they merit. Least of all do Latter-day Saints accept every new hypothesis of Biblical origin or history. As has been said, we distinguish carefully between facts and inferences and claim the right with other intelligent people to determine for ourselves the weight of probability of the truth of any presented opinion. …

Destructive Biblical criticism leads nowhere. Constructive Biblical criticism enhances greatly the joy of reading and studying the Book of Books. All knowledge should be applied in the study of the Bible, but the labor should be approached in the true spirit of science – as a search for truth, and with a prayer for truth. Thus, bidden, truth always arrives. …

“Truth is the most precious of the possessions of man,” Elder Widtsoe tells his readers. “It is holy. By its use alone can man realize his deepest hopes and achieve his highest destiny. … The search for truth is, therefore, our first and highest duty. Whatever a man’s labor may be, he must make sure that it is founded in truth, and he must, always, eagerly and with all his might seek for new and additional truth. Since error often masquerades as truth, and since our preconceived ideas, our traditions, tend to becloud our brains, he must be on guard against involuntary deception. It is pitiful to seek truth, honestly, then fail to recognize it as it passes by; and finally to accept error by mistake. Truth must be verified, by personal effort, before it is incorporated into our lives.”

What a challenge! What an invitation!

  1. The book is short enough that if there is any demand, I’ll transcribe it and post it on Keepa. It’s available through fee-based e-book and online lending libraries, but I cannot find it freely available – if you do, please post a link in comments. []


  1. Whew! I think that this is the most positive assessment of higher criticism I’ve ever read by a church leader. I quite enjoyed this gem.

    Comment by Samuel — August 11, 2014 @ 11:10 am

  2. I’d like to read the whole thing.

    Comment by Grant — August 11, 2014 @ 11:53 am

  3. Thanks for this. Some real gems in there that I wish had been magnified and expanded, on things like reading in context of that time period, literary and genre recognition, our current inability to distinguish those terribly well, and God’s accommodation to human weakness (quoting D&C 1:24).

    As these early manuscripts, before the days of printing, were copied by hand, often by unbelievers who did not respect the text, errors and changes crept in.

    I wonder as to the source of this idea? Everything I’ve read has pointed in the other direction; Biblical texts were largely copied by believers, though not always literarily competent ones. And sometimes believers made changes, “correcting” what seemed like “obvious” mistakes.

    Comment by Ben S — August 11, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

  4. Love it! I would be very excited to read the whole thing. Thank you for posting, Ardis!

    Comment by Braden — August 11, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  5. Thanks for this post, Ardis. It comes just at the right time for me, as I’m working on a post about similar topics right now. I’m sorry to say that I missed out on the rancorous misrepresentations of scriptural scholarship. I must not get out enough.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — August 11, 2014 @ 2:14 pm

  6. Good stuff! I was drawn to the line

    The Lord commands and man obeys as he understands the request.

    It’s the first semi-authoritative source I’m aware of that allows certain troubling Old Testament episodes (Abraham sacrificing Isaac, for instance, or the genocides of Joshua and David) to be mistakes, rather than actually God’s will.

    Comment by The Other Clark — August 11, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

  7. Just to add my thanks for this and express my desire to read the whole thing, if you’re up for some transcribing.

    Comment by wm — August 14, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

  8. Should have Googled first, save your time Ardis.

    Comment by wm — August 14, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

  9. Yes, wm, I found both of those sites through Googling. They’re both password protected. I don’t know what’s involved in setting up an account to “borrow” from Internet Archive, but I do know that you have to pay to access GospelLink. As I said, the book is not freely available on the Internet.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

  10. My mistake, GospelLink used to do a month’s free trial. They still do I guess if you remember to cancel.

    As for the Internet Archive, create a free account either there or here – – and the book is free to “borrow”.

    Comment by wm — August 15, 2014 @ 12:59 am

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