(by Dennis B. Horne)
December 4, 1935; Joseph Fielding Smith, Letter to Sterling B. Talmage:
My attention has been called to your letter of November 24, 1935, to President Heber J. Grant and Counselors in which you offer criticism of an article written by Floyd Day and appearing in the Deseret News. I do not know who Mr. Day is, neither do I care to enter into any controversy in regard to what he has written or what you may write. I write to you now for one purpose only.
In your communication you refer to a talk delivered by your father entitled “Earth and Man” and say it was an “Apostolic utterance delivered by appointment,” and again, “to be considered as an Apostolic utterance, and not merely an airing of his own views, ’for which the Church should not be held responsible’ as was presumptuously suggested by Dr. Sidney B. Sperry.” Since you have referred in similar terms to this discourse before, I am writing to say that I happen to know it was not issued by authority of the Church, but arbitrarily, in the absence of the President of the Church, and over the protest of the majority of the Council of the Apostles.
December 19, 1935; First Presidency letter to Sterling B. Talmage:
We have your letter of December 7, with reference to your father’s sermon, “The Earth and Man,” and to the statement made to you by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith regarding the same. You ask certain categorical questions concerning the sermon.
Inasmuch as categorical answers to your questions would not give – even if it were possible to make them (which it is not)–a true picture of the situation, we feel it due you and your inquiry to advise you of exactly what happened, for your confidential information, regarding your father’s sermon above referred to.
There were some antecedents to the preaching of the sermon, of which you may not be fully advised. Briefly they were as follows:
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith had preached a sermon expressing a view different from that later expressed in your father’s sermon. The preaching of the sermon by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith brought some controversy between Brother Brigham H. Roberts and Brother Smith, which, after various exchanges, resulted in both brethren being told that they should cease their discussion of the matter.
Thereafter the matter seems to have been taken up with President Ivins by persons near to him who were not willing that the matter should be allowed to rest where it was. As a result of these activities, your father delivered the sermon, “The Earth and Man.” It would seem that this was brought about through an arrangement between President Ivins and your father. The sermon was delivered at a meeting over which President Ivins presided.
Thereafter the sermon was brought to the attention of the Council of the Twelve, where it was the unanimous view, minus one, that the sermon should not be published. The one not fully approving of this decision asked that the opportunity be give your father so to recast the sermon as to make it acceptable. Accordingly there were some changes made in the sermon, and it was again submitted to the quorum of the Council of the Twelve. Upon this second submission it was again determined by the Twelve, one excepting, that the sermon should not be published. The member making the exception again pleaded that the sermon be further changed in order to make its publication possible.
At this point President Ivins withdrew the sermon from the consideration of the Council and himself decided that it should be published. It was printed within two or three days thereafter.
At the time this final decision was made, President Grant was not at home, and was not consulted.
The foregoing are the recorded facts with reference to the publication and “approval” of the sermon, “The Earth and Man.”
The later publication of the sermon in pamphlet form was made without president Grant’s knowledge or consent, though, it is understood, with the approval of President Ivins.
You will see from the foregoing that the sermon “The Earth and Man” cannot be regarded as an official expression of the Church, binding upon the Church and covering the subject matter discussed in the sermon. Its publication was never approved by the President of the Church.
We make this foregoing statement without making any comment at all upon the matters discussed in the sermon. The whole point of this explanation is that the sermon cannot be regarded as the official pronouncement of the Church.
With reference to a further question involved in your letter, as to the value to be attached to a publication made “by appointment:” In our Church, as you know, men are called “by appointment” to do many things, but that does not mean that the Church must approve everything that they do, nor does it necessarily give to that which they do an official sanction. These “appointments” are made merely in order that certain work shall be done. For example: Elder John A. Widtsoe is at present engaged in delivering a series of lectures at the University of Southern California, in a course bearing the title, “Mormon History, Doctrines and Philosophy.” He is doing this “by appointment” of the Presidency, but that does not mean that everything or anything which Elder Widtsoe may teach or say, acquires, by virtue of the “appointment” any peculiar value or force. Certainly what he says cannot be taken as the official and therefore, of necessity, the inspired view of the Church, nor the official doctrine of the Church. This does not mean that his views are not orthodox–they may be or they may not be; it only means that whether orthodox or not, they are not the official utterances of the Church and are not binding upon the Church, and stand only as the well considered views of a scholar and an Apostle of the Church.
This is the position in which all of the work which your father did “by appointment’ stands.
You will recall that for many years the Standard Works of the Church, by which the Church should be guided, were accepted at our semi-annual conferences. The practice of proposing them each Conference for acceptance and support by the people has been discontinued, but the principle stands, namely, that only those things which the Church itself accepts and adopts for its guidance can be regarded as authoritative in the sense that they are the expressed views of the Church.
Furthermore, the fact that some of your father’s works were actually issued under the supervision of committees of members of the Council of the Twelve, does not give to any of those works the character of a Standard Work of the Church, until adopted by the Church. The work done by these committees was a further guarantee to the already great one which your father’s authorship itself gave, that the statements, expressions, and discussions in the works were in harmony with the principles of the Gospel, but that did not give the works such status as is possessed, say, by a revelation contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, nor did it give the work the status of a Standard Work of the Church.
In saying all of this you will please understand that we are in no wise seeking to detract from the great excellence of the work which your father did. He was a profound student of the Gospel, he loved it, he marshalled all of his learning—which was great—to the support of the Gospel, his writings supplied a great need which the Church felt, they are deservedly used and quoted as authoritative sources of expression of one who was high in Church councils, and who had a right to the inspiration of the Lord, indeed they are frequently used almost as if they were the Standard Works of the Church. We are happy to see them so used, but notwithstanding all this, it must be understood that those writings are not part of the Standard Works of the Church, and may not be so used or invoked.
We are sure your father, with his clear, analytical, logical mind, would be the first to recognize the accuracy and soundness of the foregoing observations.
Elder Harold B. Lee warned about theories and while doing so also quoted Elder James E. Talmage, from his lecture “The Earth and Man,” cautioning against mistaking theories as facts:
We have these speculations, these theories that if we want to have them in our minds as something to ponder and something that we never can find a full answer to, let us go ahead and think about them but label them what they are and do not teach them as facts until the Lord tells us about the details: for the present, such ideas must be considered in the realm of theory.
With further reference to this matter, Elder James E. Talmage, who was one of our great scientists, has this to say about evolution: “Evolution is true so far as it means development, and progress, and advancement in all the works of God; but many of the vagaries that have been made to do duty under that name are so vague as to be unacceptable to the scientific mind. At best, the conception of the development of man’s body from the lower forms through evolutionary processes has been but a theory, an unproved hypothesis. Theories may be regarded as the scaffolding upon which the builder stands while placing the blocks of truth in position. It is a grave error to mistake the scaffolding for the wall, the flimsy and temporary structure for the stable and permanent. The scaffolding serves but a passing purpose, important though it be, and is removed as soon as the walls of that part of the edifice of knowledge have been constructed. Theories have their purpose and are indispensable, but they must never be mistaken for demonstrated facts.”
Now let me emphasize that again, with reference to religion as well as science. Theories may have their purpose as scaffolding until we begin to evolve into a better understanding of the gospel, but they must never be mistaken for demonstrated facts.
Elder James E. Talmage’s lecture “The Earth and Man” has become something of a banner for evolutionists to rally behind, even though it doesn’t really promote evolution—though he evidently does allow for death of plant and animal life before the fall. Yet the story behind the lecture is not as simple as some have supposed. The main reason Elder Talmage gave the lecture (in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on August 9, 1930) was because the First Presidency had desired that a senior church leader inform church membership (especially young people and students) that “the Church does not refuse to recognize the discoveries and demonstrations of science, especially in relation to the subject at issue [whether there was death of plants and animals on the earth before the fall].” Elder Joseph Fielding Smith had given a talk earlier in which he had taught that there was no death of any form of life before the fall of Adam. Evidently some students were mistakenly inferring from his address that the church was opposed to science, period. Elder Talmage, being an accomplished scientist (a chemist and geologist), spoke of fossils being found in the earth’s crust, thinking they indicated the death of plants and animals before the fall.
Elder Talmage’s journal does not specify a formal request for him to speak, just that some one or more of the Brethren should. There is also no indication of Elder Talmage being given any particulars, by the First Presidency, of what to say. Under these circumstances, it is not fully clear whether to see Elder Talmage’s lecture as arising from a First Presidency appointment—but for the sake of argument, we can entertain that possibility. Elder Harold B. Lee quoted a letter from a later First Presidency, written to Elder Talmage’s son Sterling (who was seeking to defend both evolution and his father’s lecture) explaining how appointments in the Church should be viewed:
If the [First] Presidency appoints someone to do a certain thing, is that appointment sufficient to guarantee what he says to be authentic? With reference to a certain address which had been delivered years ago by one of our brethren on a controversial subject, the First Presidency wrote:
“We make this foregoing statement without making any comment at all upon the matters discussed in the sermon. The whole point of this explanation is that the sermon cannot be regarded as the official pronouncement of the Church.
“With reference to a further question involved in your letter, as to the value to be attached to a publication [“The Earth and Man”] made ‘by appointment’: In our Church, as you know, men are called ‘by appointment’ to do many things, but that does not mean that the Church must approve everything that they do, nor does it necessarily give to that which they do an official sanction. These ‘appointments’ are made merely in order that certain work shall be done. For example, Elder John A. Widtsoe is at present engaged in delivering a series of lectures at the University of Southern California, in a course bearing the title, ‘Mormon History, Doctrines, and Philosophy.’ He is doing this ‘by appointment’ of the Presidency, but that does not mean that everything or anything which Elder Widtsoe may teach or say acquires by virtue of the ‘appointment’ any peculiar value or force. Certainly what he says cannot be taken as the official and therefore, of necessity, the inspired view of the Church, nor the official doctrine of the Church. This does not mean that his views are not orthodox—they may be or they may not be; it only means that whether orthodox or not, they are not the official utterances of the Church and are not binding upon the Church and stand only as the well-considered views of a scholar . . . of the Church. This is the position in which all of the work which your father [James E. Talmage] did ‘by appointment’ stands.”
Now, that is a pretty straightforward interpretation, isn’t it? But I think it is one that we all should get.
This explanation gives us improved perspective on how to view Elder Talmage’s lecture. It almost wasn’t approved for publication by the Church, and though it eventually was, it is not a formal doctrinal statement by the First Presidency, as is “The Origin of Man” and “Mormon View of Evolution.”
After Elder Talmage gave his talk, the advisability of publishing his lecture for the Church was deliberated by the Quorum of the Twelve (Elder Talmage’s Quorum) at the request of the First Presidency. Their report states:
“Report of President Clawson made at the regular weekly meeting of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, October 1 , dated November 20, 1931”
The Council of the Twelve were in session on Tuesday, September 29, their quarterly meeting day.
I am prompted to give rather a full report of our proceedings because of the importance already attached to brother Talmage’s sermon which was referred to the Twelve for their opinion as to whether or not it should be published.
The whole day was given over to a consideration of this matter. Nearly all, if not all, the brethren spoke expressing their views with reference to various portions of the sermon which, in the views expressed, were quite fully analyzed.
Early in the discussion one of the brethren said he could not see an objectionable utterance in the sermon whatever, that, in his opinion, it is exactly what is needed to be placed in the hands of our young people who are tinged with skepticism, to reconcile them to the teachings of the gospel. He reported that a great number of copies of the sermon had been applied for to distribute among the young people of the Church.
Others of the brethren did not apparently entertain this view.
The consensus of opinion was, as I interpreted it, that inferences might be drawn from the sermon, if published in its present form, that would lead to much discussion in the Church and possibly put into the minds of many people doubts in relation to the correctness of some matters, or doctrines, given to the Church by divine revelation. As for instance, it is well understood by the brethren of this Council to be a doctrine of the gospel, given to the Church by Divine Revelation, through Joseph Smith, the Prophet, that Adam was the first man (on the earth); that he was and is the Father of the human family, and presides over the human family under Christ; that he is the Ancient of Days, which in itself is a very significant title; that mortality and death upon the earth came through the fall and the fall came by the transgression of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I take it for granted that the brethren of this Council accept these doctrines fully and completely without mental reservation.
This was one phase of the question under discussion. Now, let me point out the other principal phase briefly, and as fairly as I am able to do.
The sermon in one paragraph sets forth the claim, (which to do justice to Brother Talmage, is given as the views of eminent scientific men) that there was life and death upon the earth in an endless succession of animals and plants running back into the ages and ages that are past, thus leaving one to infer that there was life and death upon the earth before Adam, or prior to the fall.
Wherever in the Church the discussion takes this phase our young people will be left to choose between Divine Revelation and the claims of science, which latter are often based on theory;
And again the scientific theory, or claim, is set forth in the sermon to the effect that man finally emerged, or was developed from and through a line of animal life reaching back, into numberless ages of the past, to the protoplasm. This of course is the doctrine of evolution and is as I understand it repugnant to the teachings of the Church of Christ.
Should this phase of the sermon be discussed among our people, many misleading inferences would be drawn, and questions like this might arise: If there was life and death and a race of men before the fall of Adam, then there must have been two Adams and two falls, also two fathers of the human family, all of which would lead to utter confusion.
Finally a motion was made and seconded to the effect that in the opinion of the Twelve the sermon should not be published. This motion, after some further discussion, was followed by a substitute motion to the effect that the sermon be returned to Brother Talmage and that he be requested to remodel it if possible by cutting out the objectionable features. Brother Talmage consented to do this.
The substitute motion was adopted. The matter will be further considered by the Twelve. I may be permitted to say that throughout the discussion good feelings were maintained by the brethren who appeared, notwithstanding difference of opinion, to desire to do the right thing.
Note: When this report was made to the Council some of the brethren took exception to the expression, “reaching back, into numberless ages of the past, to the protoplasm.” I presume I should have said “reaching back, into numberless ages of the past, to the single-celled protozoan.”
It is insightful to follow the deliberations of the Twelve on the matter of this lecture, which provides a more negative nuance than Elder Talmage’s journal; also to notice the President of the Twelve’s comment about the Quorum viewing evolution as being repugnant to church doctrine; also how close the lecture came to not being published because of objectional portions. We are not appraised as to what Elder Joseph Fielding Smith may have said in this meeting. We can easily guess however, that he would have favored either not publishing the lecture, or removing the parts he believed contrary to the scriptures. We do know what President Smith wrote to Elder Talmage’s son about the publication of his father’s address: “In your communication you refer to a talk delivered by your father entitled ‘Earth and Man’ and say it was an ‘Apostolic utterance delivered by appointment,’ and again, ‘to be considered as an Apostolic utterance, and not merely an airing of his own views.’ ‘for which the Church should not be held responsible’ as was ‘presumptuously suggested by Dr. Sidney B. Sperry.’ Since you have referred in similar terms to this discourse before, I am writing to say that I happen to know it was not issued by authority of the Church, but arbitrarily, in the absence of the President of the Church, and over the protest of the majority of the Council of the Apostles.” President Smith gave the same information to Dr. Henry Eyring:
[In a letter] You also said: “It would be instructive to have President Smith comment on ‘The Earth and Man,’ by Dr. James E. Talmage, delivered from the tabernacle August 9, 1931, and published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” I assure you that it would have been a pleasure to have commented on that talk. No one is more familiar with it and how it came to be published than I, and I can state positively that it was not published by the Church, nor by the approval of the Authorities of the Church. There are some circumstances concerning this discourse which I think it is hardly proper for me to write inasmuch as the First Presidency, one of whom was President David O. McKay, gave the answer to Dr. Sterling B. Talmage in reply to an inquiry from him, which, in my opinion, sets forth the facts as I have stated them. I suggest that you write Dr. Sterling B. Talmage and ask him to permit you to read this communication from the First Presidency, Presidents Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, Jr., and David O. McKay, dated December 19, 1935. [This is the First Presidency letter on “appointments” quoted by Elder Lee above.]
There are still other angles from which this lecture and its publication can be viewed. For instance, over the last few years, the superb journal of President George Q. Cannon has become available for study. One entry is especially relevant. It seems that Brother Talmage, long before he gave his lecture on “The Earth and Man,” put considerable thought and effort into formulating his own position. In 1899 (over 30 years before the lecture) President Cannon recorded: “Brother James E. Talmage came to the office [of the Church president] with a number of questions that he wished answered. The First Presidency listened to them. President [Lorenzo] Snow excused himself and asked President (Joseph F.] Smith and myself to answer them. They were questions concerning science and the attitude that scientific men occupied in relation to the scriptures. He wished these questions answered because he is professor of geology in the University [of Utah] and holds the chair endowed by the Church. I fancied from the drift of his talk that he himself was unsettled on some points, for instance, the antiquity of man, and whether there were more progenitors of our race than Adam.” It shows a marked degree of humility and receptiveness in this gifted professor, that before deciding his own mind he sought the views of the First Presidency. From Presidents Cannon and Smith he would have received no encouragement regarding these scientific theories of men “in relation to scripture”; both counselors were opposed to evolution. This helps explain why he eventually settled on the position he did regarding the creation of Adam and Eve.
Another angle: in 1967, when Elder McConkie was teaching a summer school class for religious educators at BYU, he conducted a question and answer session, and these items came up. Elder McConkie was obviously familiar with the content of Elder Talmage’s address, and very diplomatically sought to explain how issues such as contrary opinion among church leaders should be approached:
Question: Was Adam immortal before the fall?
Answer: Adam was immortal before the fall; meaning that body and spirit were inseparably connected. But it’s a different kind of immortality than resurrected immortality, and that is what caused Bro. Talmage to coin the word “unmortal,” to try and distinguish between the two kinds of immortality. There was no death for Adam until a change came, which change is named the fall….
All we have done up to this point in our consideration of the atonement, is lay the basic foundation, to define the term and show its importance, and show the foundations upon which it rests [the creation and the fall of Adam] and out of which it as a doctrine grows and a lot of blessings that flow from it. And there are a lot of applications to things that it has….
Question: In relation to the fall of Adam, why was “The Earth and Man” by Talmage reprinted in the Instructor two weeks ago because it seems to contradict—
Answer: I haven’t the faintest idea—write the Instructor. Don’t ask me.
Question: How do you feel about the comments of Bro. Talmage?
Answer: There are a lot of divergent views on this business. Everybody knows that. There isn’t anybody here who doesn’t know that there are people who think that they can harmonize evolution and the gospel, or who think that things happened in a different way than the scriptures say they did.
All I’m hoping to do today is to say precisely and accurately what the scriptures say, and I did make the comment earlier that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and Orson Pratt and Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor and Joseph F. Smith and the early Brethren who interpreted these scriptural passages did it in the way we are doing it here. Now it just so happens in the Church that people believe all [different] portions of the gospel and some of them don’t believe very much and some of them believe a little more and I hope the day comes that we will all believe a lot more. But you can’t really harmonize 2 Nephi 2 about no death in the world with some of the evolutionary theories. You just can’t do it…. Now that’s what I say. You’re going to find somebody else that says something different. I’m aware of that. I hope what you will do is get a hold of the scripture and try to tie in what you believe with what the revelations actually say—as interpreted by Joseph Smith the Prophet and so on.
Comment: I heard “The Earth and Man” was published without the consent of the First Presidency and without their approval—I think we need to note that fact.
Answer: I don’t know that this is true so maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I understand that someone who’s the top man in the Church was a little upset with it. He didn’t tell me that but the rumors float around our building.
These further insights enlarge and clarify perspective where this lecture by Elder Talmage is concerned. No matter what he actually came to believe in regard to plant and animal life and death on the earth before the fall of Adam, we do have this testimony from Elder Talmage, given at the October, 1916, General Conference, that tells us what he thought of evolution (or theistic evolution) in relation to the creation of man: “When I see how often the theories and conceptions of men have gone astray, have fallen short of the truth, yea, have even contradicted the truth directly, I am thankful in my heart that we have an iron rod to which we can cling—the rod of certainty, the rod of revealed truth. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welcomes all truth, but it distinguishes most carefully between fact and fancy, between truth and theory, between premises and deductions; and it is willing to leave some questions in abeyance until the Lord in his wisdom shall see fit to speak more plainly. As the result of the combined labors of wise men I learn that man is but the developed offspring of the beast; and yet I read that God created man in his own image, after his likeness; and again, I stand on the word of God, though it be in contradiction to the theories of men.”
 Harold B. Lee, “The Story of the Creation,” Lecture Given to Seminary and Institute Teachers, June 22, 1954,
Brigham Young University. For further information about the problems of holding too tightly to scientific theories, see Hugh Nibley, “Archaeology and Our Religion,” and especially its follow-up document, a letter that Hugh Nibley wrote to Lorin F. Wheelwright, September 16, 1965, discussing and defending his Archaeology article that had been rejected for publication, and also bringing up the fallacies of evolution.
 As quoted from James E. Talmage journal, November 21, 1930.
 Harold B. Lee, excerpt from “The Church and Divine Revelation,” Lecture Given to Seminary and Institute Teachers, Brigham Young University, July 13, 1954.
 Personal Correspondence, Joseph Fielding Smith to Sterling B. Talmage, December 4, 1935; copy in author’s possession.
 Personal Correspondence, Joseph Fielding Smith to Henry Eyring, April 15, 1955, 4; copy in author’s possession.
 Here, “inseparably connected” is evidently a misstatement, or should be understood to mean inseparably connected only while they were in their unmortal/nonmortal pre-Fall condition, as the next sentence in full context clearly shows. President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote: “We read also that in fulfilment of the promise of the Lord, Adam died. . . . He, like all of his posterity, had to be redeemed from death through the mission of Jesus Christ. A resurrected being cannot die; therefore Adam was not a resurrected being from some other planet, when he came here. . . . It is true that Adam (Michael) as a spirit came from another planet, a celestial world; so did I and you, for we dwelt in the presence of God our Eternal Father in that world before we were assigned to this mortal world. Adam was not born of earthly parents, that is mortal parents. He was not subject to death and could have lived forever had he not transgressed the law. (2 Nephi 2:22.) It was possible, however, for Adam, through that transgression, to bring mortality upon himself because he had not passed through the resurrection. In the resurrection the spirit and body became inseparably connected. (D&C 88:15-16, and 93:33.) (As quoted in personal correspondence, Joseph Fielding Smith to unnamed recipient; undated.)
 “The Atonement,” BYU Summer 1967 graduate religion class lecture, unpublished transcript made by author.
 James E. Talmage, General Conference, October 1916, 75. One author of an article on the disagreements and discussions of Bros. Talmage, Smith, and Roberts, wrote this about Elder Talmage: “Although he seems to have rejected (after his college years) the theory that life forms evolved from one another, the logical implication of his comments was that his mind could be changed by further scientific evidence; his objections to evolution did not derive from a particular scriptural interpretation” (82). I think there is no question the testimony quoted from Elder Talmage’s General Conference talk entirely refutes that conclusion.