John A Widtsoe (1872-1952) was born in Norway and migrated with his mother to Utah, grew up in the Mormon faith, and studied chemistry at Harvard University and the University of Gottingen (Germany). He understood that one mission of the LDS Church was “to conquer the desert in terms of processes (irrigation) based on scientific study.” His commitment to this conquest was, in the words of the LDS Church press, “ardent and appropriate.” As a reward for his commitment to science and religion, he was given important leadership positions including university president and LDS Church apostle. But for me, his most important contribution was as a respected interpreter of science to the LDS Church community. According to Widtsoe’s biographer, he “always saw science and religion as confederates . . . both sought the truth. Both were sacred to him, and the abuse of either was an annoyance.”
The marriage of scientist and religious leader was not always easy. For example, Apostle Widtsoe felt that a literal Noachian flood, one where the whole earth was covered, was not scientifically viable. Despite his concerns, the LDS Church is still embroiled in this discussion today. He was also unwittingly caught in the middle of a debate on evolution; he believed in a limited evolution, one which didn’t include common descent. Since Widtsoe was a good friend of Joseph Fielding Smith (a strong anti-evolution proponent), he walked carefully.
John A. Widtsoe died in 1952. I was 7-years old at the time, too young to understand the significance of the event. LDS apostles and evolution proponents B.H. Roberts and James E. Talmage died in 1933, within 2 months of each other. They both had a restraining impact on Mormon biblical literalists, a role that Widtsoe continued to fill until his death.
President Joseph Fielding Smith waited until after Widtsoe had passed away before publishing his superficial anti-evolution book Man, His Origin and Destiny, a publication that greatly displeased then Church president David O. McKay. Research Duane E. Jeffery noted: “The work marked a milestone. For the first time Mormonism had a book that was agnostic to much of science.”
Widtsoe’s death allowed for a Mormon shift away from science and rationality toward biblical literalism as it relates to the Old Testament. For me, this was an unfortunate event and one that continues–to some degree–to this day. Luckily, many contemporary Mormon scientists are willing to carry on Widtsoe’s battle.
Since Widtsoe’s death in 1952, there have been dramatic advances in areas related to organic evolution, including:
- DNA and universal genetic code research
- Comparative anatomy and physical anthropology; and
- Paleontological discoveries, particularly in Africa.
Because of his dedication to science, I feel strongly that Widtsoe, if he were alive today, would have a high comfort level with the entire theory of evolution, including common descent. Of course, this is only speculation on my part. But I think Church members who quote Widtsoe as an opponent of evolution based on his concerns about common descent are misconstruing the man.
For me, it is also insightful to speculate on where the LDS Church might be today if Joseph Fielding Smith had died in 1952 and not John A. Widtsoe. I suspect the general membership would have a much high regard for science and other truths.
Apostle Widtsoe is a great example of being both a highly-spiritual believer and a respected scientist. He had a life-long love for scientific progress. His interest in evolution was driven by his great respect for Joseph Smith and the doctrine of eternal progression. He viewed this as an example of how science and Mormon theology are in lockstep. To quote Widtsoe: “Latter-day Saints are the foremost evolutionists in the world. They believe that the immortal spirit of man may eternally approach the likeness of God himself.”