With his academic experience at what is now Utah State University, and at Brigham Young University and the University of Utah, apostle John A. Widtsoe was keenly aware of the interests and attitudes of young people, and the changing times of the 20th century. As president of the European Missions, for instance, he realized that changing times called for new proselyting methods and messages.
The old missionary tracts, so comfortable and familiar to generations of missionaries, no longer spoke to the non-Mormon public. Those old tracts assumed that people believed in God and knew the Bible, and that their primary concerns were which form of baptism was preferred by God, or who had authority to speak for God. Answering those questions in favor of Mormonism, the old proselyting methods assumed, meant that people would join the Church. But Widtsoe realized that theological debates no longer appealed to most people, and certainly didn’t govern their behavior in choosing a church, or choosing to be religious at all. To meet the needs of changing times, Widtsoe wrote a set of tracts which he called “Centennial Tracts” in honor of the Church’s approaching 100th birthday, addressing the questions he thought were on the minds of modern people: What can a church and its teachings do to improve my life and meet my needs? His Centennial Tracts still taught doctrine and theology, but they began with the practical needs of modern people and showed how faith and Church membership would meet those needs.
He also realized that young people, with expanded access to education and an excitement with the possibilities of modernism, approached the world in ways their parents had not. Authority, whether of parents, teachers, or religious leaders, was no longer enough. Young people wanted to know how and why and wherefore; they wanted evidence and objectivity, not dogma.
Widtsoe’s 1930 book In Search of Truth was written to address that need. “The book was written,” he confided to a friend, “with the feeling that a large number of our people, especially young people, were wandering away because they could not well discriminate between a fact and an inference. Facts never lead people astray: but inferences too often do so. … I shall be very happy if here and there some confused soul is made to see more clearly by my modest effort.”
In Search of Truth teaches readers how to distinguish between facts – observable, testable, reliable facts – and the meaning we find in them or the uses we put them to. (We still have that problem in 2014: A scientific report will note the fact that Chemical X had a certain negative effect upon the health of mice in a laboratory experiment, and immediately we leap to the inference that we should eliminate Grain Z from our diet because Grain Z contains trace amounts of Chemical X.) The scientific method that distinguishes among facts, theories, and inferences is not only useful for exploring the physical world, Widtsoe says, but also the realms of faith and reason.
Widtsoe was not alone in that earlier generation in believing that the facts of faith were, in many ways, as testable as the facts of the physical world. N.L. Nelson, a professor at BYU, had earlier written a book called Scientific Aspects of Mormonism, declaring that “The fundamental conception of Reality is alike in science and Mormonism. Joseph Smith defined truth as an account of ‘things as they are, as they have been, and as they will be.” For men like Widtsoe and Nelson, the lesson of Alma 32, the call to “experiment upon [Alma’s] word” in comparing faith to a seed that could be planted, nurtured, and grown, was a lesson in the scientific method every bit as much as any experiment with beakers and flasks.
The book was a moderate success in Mormon publishing history. going through several printings in its first few years. President Heber J. Grant chose it as one of the books he distributed to Church leaders and missionaries at Christmas, 1931. Copies are easy to find in the usual used book sources.
But since it does not appear at the moment in any online source that does not require registration and/or payment, I’ve transcribed it, as promised in an earlier post. It’s short – 31 pages of 10-pt type. It has been only cursorily proofread – if you spot typos, I would appreciate a comment with a phrase I can search to find and correct the errors.
My thanks, too, to “wm” for sending me a cut-and-paste from a version he has access to, to save me some typing.