Question: Was Brigham Young a "young earth creationist"?


Question: Was Brigham Young a "young earth creationist"?

Whether or not a prophet knows how old the earth is says nothing about whether he can teach the truths about Jesus Christ necessary for salvation

It is claimed that Brigham Young was a "young earth creationist" (YEC). This is someone who believes the earth was created in the recent past, usually 6-7,000 years ago, based upon a literal and fundamentalist reading of Genesis. For example, critic George D. Smith writes that

Brigham Young ridiculed geologists who "tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years."[1]

  • Did Brigham Young ridicule geologists who believe that the earth has existed for millions of years?
  • Was Brigham a young earth creationist?
  • Does Brigham knowledge (or lack of) regarding modern science challenge his status as a prophet?

Note: This wiki section was based partly on a review of G.D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy. As such, it focuses on that author's presentation of the data. To read the full review, follow the link. Gregory L. Smith, A review of Nauvoo Polygamy:...but we called it celestial marriage by George D. Smith. FARMS Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2. (Detailed book review)

The meaning of the passage is completely reversed when viewed in context. Brigham was not mocking those who accept an earth greater than six thousand years old—he is giving this idea his provisional approval and insists that while young earth creationism (as we would call it) may be a problem for traditional Christians, it is not a problem for the Latter-day Saints. An examination of the passage cited by George D. Smith (displayed in blue) in context clearly shows this:

You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has; and they say, "If the Lord, as religionists declare, made the earth out of nothing in six days, six thousand years ago, our studies are all vain; but by what we can learn from nature and the immutable laws of the Creator as revealed therein, we know that your theories are incorrect and consequently we must reject your religions as false and vain; we must be what you call infidels, with the demonstrated truths of science in our possession; or, rejecting those truths, become enthusiasts in, what you call, Christianity."

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...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.
Brigham Young, (May 14, 1871) Journal of Discourses 14:115-116. (emphasis added)

Whether or not a prophet knows how old the earth is says nothing about whether he can teach the truths about Jesus Christ necessary for salvation.

However, in this case, some critics have twisted the documentary sources to make Brigham Young say something that is completely the opposite of what he intended.

For example, George D. Smith writes that

Brigham Young ridiculed geologists who "tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years."[1]

G. D. Smith quotes Journal of Discourses, 12:271, for this assertion. He gets the citation wrong (it is at 14:115) but he might benefit from reading 12:271—it provides Brigham’s insistence that plural marriage had little to do with early persecution of Joseph and the church.

What did Brigham really say?

Brigham in his own words

The source cited says nothing of the kind. Brigham begins by remarking that he is not surprised that unbelief prevails, since apostate “religious teachers of the people advance many ideas and notions for truth which are in opposition to and contradict facts demonstrated by science.” To Brigham, this state of affairs creates a conflict in which men of science must reject truths discovered through science if they are to accept creedal Christianity. He then proceeds to give an example: “You take, for instance, our geologists, and they tell us that this earth has been in existence for thousands and millions of years. They think, and they have good reason for their faith, that their researches and investigations enable them to demonstrate that this earth has been in existence as long as they assert it has.”

There is no ridicule here: Brigham points out that geologists “have good reason” to believe that the earth is extremely old. “If the Lord, as religionists declare, made the earth out of nothing in six days, six thousand years ago,” Brigham has the geologists reply, “our studies are all vain; but by what we can learn from nature and the immutable laws of the Creator as revealed therein, we know that your theories are incorrect and consequently we must reject your religions as false and vain.”

Concludes Brigham, “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.”[2]

The Church does not take an official position on this issue

This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:

Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.[3]

Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:

All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer.[4]

This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):

Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.[5]

In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:

Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.[6]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: "...but we called it celestial marriage" (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2008), 277. ( Index of claims , (Detailed book review))
  2. Brigham Young, "Attending Meetings—Religion & Science—Geology—The Creation," (14 May 1871) Journal of Discourses 14:115-116.
  3. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
  4. Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  5. LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007)
  6. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).