Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » New Methods for a New Age: In Search of Truth / John A. Widtsoe

New Methods for a New Age: In Search of Truth / John A. Widtsoe

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 26, 2014

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.

In Search of Truth, complete transcription



  1. I was trying to read the table of contents as some sort of poem. It was confusing.

    It seems to be cut of at the end.

    Comment by Matt W. — August 27, 2014 @ 6:45 am

  2. It looks okay on my screen, Matt — it does end a little abruptly, I suppose, but the last paragraph is:

    “Truth is the only enduring possession of man; the only power that lifts man into permanent joy. It is the final justification of life. Human days are valueless if truth is not worth every sacrifice of life. Those who have lived most have lived by truth. So speaks the voice of human experience.”

    If you see that, you have it all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 27, 2014 @ 6:53 am

  3. Thanks!

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 8:51 am

  4. First ir violates

    First it violates

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 9:01 am

  5. How the eternal spirit of ma became associated

    ma -> man

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 9:05 am

  6. Ma possesses many powers of spiritual but reliable nature

    Unless he is praising his mother, ma -> man.

    without the scaffolding support of -men

    Is something missing before the -? Or is the – extraneous?

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 9:07 am

  7. Higher criticism as an issue in modern thought is essentially concerned with the question of the existence of God. Many of those who have pursued higher criticism have done so to find support for their atheism, and the views of these have been heard more widely than those emanating from believers in God.

    Not a typo. That’s quite the assertion! It may be true that it has been used as a club to beat believers (or in the early days, Jews) over the head, but tying higher criticism to atheistic evangelization is guilt by association.

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 9:10 am

  8. Typos in comments 4-6 corrected — thanks. You’re reading this!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 28, 2014 @ 9:10 am

  9. 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.

    Also quite the assertion. I’m assuming he had sources on these things; I’d suggest they either weren’t the best sources, or else we’ve completely overturned their views in the 85 years since then.

    Though generally, I find Widtsoe a breath of fresh air, and would rejoice to hear a near-identical talk over the pulpit or from an Apostle via Deseret Book. (Although, caveat, I’m still reading…)

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 9:13 am

  10. it can not be relieved that the Lord

    cannot as one word? relieved -> believed?

    Comment by Ben S — August 28, 2014 @ 9:15 am

  11. 9: “Breath of fresh air” is a great way to describe Widtsoe … still, there are a few jars. One paragraph in a letter I read yesterday referring Mountain Meadows, completely denying LDS participation, jarred about like the one you point to, Ben. Widtsoe seems thoroughly on the side of candor and openness, so I’m guessing these points are ones where he was genuinely misinformed and not deliberately obfuscating. Nobody can know everything, I suppose (except those of us in the Bloggernacle, of course).

    10: He regularly wrote “cannot” as “can not,” although my fingers may have unconsciously corrected that in a few places. Have now corrected “relieved” to “believed.” Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 28, 2014 @ 9:19 am

  12. Wonderful, thank you so much for doing this.

    Comment by Braden — August 29, 2014 @ 7:35 am

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