In 1911, The Superintendent of Church Schools, charged three Brigham Young University Professors with Heresy. They were charged with (a) “including man in the process of evolution,” (b) “Joseph Smith’s vision were described in terms of their psychological, and therefore subjective, aspects,” and (c) “In regard to the Bible, teaching from the standpoint of the ‘Higher Criticism’” (p. 141). A committee was formed to assess the charges and, after meeting with the men, recommended that such things not be taught at BYU. This would result in the men, some of the University’s shinning stars, leaving BYU thereby weakening its reputation and influence for many years.
Everyone agrees this Some feel this was a mistake and was really about a clash of personalities and not about the issues stated. I will be blogging on this in the near future in more detail, but what I want to do now is share the student’s response to these events. The following was signed by five-sixths of the student-body and sent to the president of the University. It is a study in faithful engagement with challenging and difficult issues that invariably arise in academic studies. It was never responded to.
The Student’s Response:
“We believe that we have sincerely at heart the interests of the Church, the interests of the Brigham Young University, and perhaps our own selfish interests as college students, and we respectfully ask that our voice be considered in a matter that is of vital concern to the school and to every individual connected therewith, viz., the question as to whether some of the subjects of science being taught from the modern scientific viewpoint are to be excluded. We take it for granted that the question at issue is mutually understood without detailed explanation and will proceed at once with our reasons for asking that Dr. Joseph Peterson, Dr. Ralph V. Chamberlin and Professor Henry Peterson should be retained by the faculty.
“In the first place we believe that freedom of investigation is a fundamental necessity for all scientific religious, or any other kind of progress, and that we: of all people can least afford to take any stand against it or do anything that will be interpreted as such a stand. ‘
“We believe that the great problems of modern science are worthy of our most respectful consideration and we realize the folly of attempting to solve them independently and alone by ignoring the findings of the past and the work that is being done at present by others who are striving with honesty and sincerity equal to our own and with better facilities.
“Even if it were desirable for a Church school to maintain an attitude contrary to the generally accepted stand of the scientific world, it is absolutely impossible for the reason that, except in theology, the Church does not furnish adequate material for college work, and we must necessarily look elsewhere.
“From some of the printed statements of The First Presidency we take it that it is not the function of the Church to pass upon scientific questions, but rather to furnish theological direction. The general theory of evolution is not put forth as theological doctrine, but is held to simply as a working hypothesis, because of the great number of observable facts in Nature which it explains and to which it gives meaning. It will be discarded without a tear just as soon as another hypothesis is brought forth which explains a larger number of facts, but we believe that we ought not to condemn this valuable theory until we are able to examine the evidence upon which it is based more carefully and more completely than it has ever been examined before and produce a better explanation of the workings of Nature with which to condemn the old one. No other sort of condemnation can ever be effective. Shall we acquire the power to do this by excluding the subject from our schools?
“In view of the fact that the best modern educational thought takes as a basis the theory of evolution, we feel that it should be taught here. This does not mean that we thereby assume the theory is true or false, but simply that because it is commanding the attention of the greatest thinkers, it should be open to investigation.
“As college men and women we have confidence that if the evidences which tend to support the theory of evolution be presented simply for what they are worth we will have sufficient discretion to determine whether or not we wish to accept them. In so far as we have studied the subjects in question we feel that we have broadened in that we have seen both sides of a mooted question. We believe that it is not the proper attitude to fight a proposition by ruling it completely out of consideration. We feel that if our gospel is true it will triumph over error without any artificial protection. We understand that it invites us to investigate anything that is ‘praiseworthy or of good report;’ hence to prohibit the investigation of a scientific theory so well established as the theory of evolution is scarcely living up to our understanding of the gospel. Would it not be better to throw the question open to study and investigation, if for no other reason than that we stand for fair play and toleration of the beliefs of all men? Is not this our missionary watchword?
“We are convinced that nothing can be gained by excluding these subjects from our college, since every man or woman who goes east or west to colleges of high rank must face the questions. We believe that we should provide for him to meet them here under circumstances that will assist him in making for sane conservative and logical adjustment.
“We have just reached the point in our educational career as a college where our work is being recognized by up-to-date universities. This recognition means considerable to us educationally and to our hopes as a church of wielding an influence among humanity. If the proposed restrictions are adopted, it needs only common foresight to foretell the effect upon our credit abroad.
“Those of us who have had work under the men who are being criticised are unanimous in denying the alleged evil effects of their teachings.
“They are all leaders in their respective lines. They are eminently successful as teachers, and for our present needs we consider them to be without peers. Aside from our appreciation of their scholarship, we have the highest respect for their integrity as men and as loyal members of the Church.
“Those of us who have had missionary experience realize the need of just such a course as we are getting now to enable us to defend the truth against all comers. While we are free to admit that in the new light some points of doctrine, as we have understood them, lose their former color, we see a deeper meaning in life than before, additional evidence of an all-wise God, and a new and holier significance in the message of Mormonism and all other revelations of God to man.
“It is not simply a question of dropping the professors who have been criticised, but we believe that the proposed policy, if persisted in, can amount to nothing else than a death-blow to our college work, because it is impossible to secure men equal in scholarship to the ones we have, who are so thoroughly in sympathy with the Church, who do not give credence to the same objectionable theories.
“We have great faith in the Church and we can hardly imagine that any policy contrary to its best needs will be adopted, but we ask you to consider what the proposed restriction would mean for us educationally, and what it would mean to our critics, and what it would mean to our standing in the educational world. Some of our fondest have been for the future of the ‘dear old B. Y. U.’ it would continue to grow and continue to adapt itself to the growing needs of humanity and demonstrate to the world, as only that can demonstrate, that Mormonism is a real, vitalized divine institution.” p. 148-152.
From: Chamberlin, Ralph V. 1925. The Life and Philosophy of W. H. Chamberlin. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah.