The Student Response to the 1911 BYU Heresy Controversy

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.

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21 comments to The Student Response to the 1911 BYU Heresy Controversy

  • Wow, 100 years later and the same talking points. As a non-biologist, I can only assume evidence for evolution has mounted many fold in the interim. But NDBF persists (fed by the quotes of living apostles). Sad, really.

  • This is a tremendously important piece of BYU history. As you expand your blogs, I highly suggest that you obtain from the HBL library or from the BYU Psychology Dept. Mark K. Allen’s “The History of Psychology at Brigham Young University.” He devotes a couple of chapters to this issue.

  • I’m looking forward to the rest.

    Everyone agrees this was a mistake and was really about a clash of personalities and not about the issues stated.

    I don’t know if it’s too early to bring it up, but there appears to be at least one exception.

  • SteveP

    S. Faux, I’ll be sure and look at that. I’ve got some good sources, but the more the merrier.

    Jared*, Thanks. I had not seen that. I’ve updated my post to reflect it. Must we see Brimhall’s dream as doctrinal? What do we do when people we are in conflict with, and have power over us, have dreams reflecting negatively about us?

  • “We feel that if our gospel is true it will triumph over error without any artificial protection.”

    Profound. This is really great Steve, looking forward to the ensuing pieces.

    I attend Utah Valley University and am really amazed by the fear of both members and non-members (some former BYU professors) that paralyzes the discussion of important ideas. The antagonism towards the Church can be really distracting to any sort of approach to understanding, and likewise, a lot of people cannot stomach consuming a false fact as they neither have the capacity to spit it back up or to even understand what it means to be sick.

    Maybe the metaphor is lost in the above statement, but nevertheless:

    “We feel that if our gospel is true it will triumph over error without any artificial protection.”

  • Absolutely fascinating, Steve. Thanks.

  • .

    Jared*

    I sincerely and gratefully thank you for the link. And I hope I can say that without painting anyone in “non-faithful colors.”

  • What’s interesting to me is that the students seem to focus entirely on evolution, and very little on so-called “higher criticism” which remains quite an important issue to be dealt with. Most LDS today are still ignorant of it and unprepared to understand let alone synthesize or deal with it, even those coming out of BYU.

  • You’re welcome, Gary.

    What do we do when people we are in conflict with, and have power over us, have dreams reflecting negatively about us?

    Hope that the person with power over them sees things your way. I think that’s about all you can do.

    I can see the issue both ways, and I can understand why the leadership made the decision that they did. I don’t know if it was the best or right decision, but it’s water under the bridge now.

    I appreciate President Packer’s view on the episode, but unfortunately his story leaves to the imagination why that former professor felt burdened. We are left to assume that his sorrow supports the lesson President Packer draws from the story.

    But I should also point out “the rest of the story” for William Chamberlin, also one of the professors.

  • David H Bailey

    What struck me in reading letter is how even in 1911, the vast majority of students then attending BYU recognized that evolution was a dominant scientific view with considerable evidence in its favor.

    This was 100 years ago! — long before scientists armed with radioisotope dating nailed the precise ages of the geological eras; long before Fisher and others demonstrated the mathematical plausibility of evolution; long before Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA; and nearly a century before the advent of vast databases of DNA sequences permitted us to see the course of evolution at the molecular level.

    What will be the situation 100 years from now?

  • For all of the advances in science, I wonder if the public has actually digressed on this issue in the last 100 years. I can only hope that at least 5/6 of current BYU students would still sign such a letter.

    Too bad this issue is controlled by PR and rhetoric, rather than by science.

    I look forward to the next posts.

  • SteveP

    Thanks All. It is amazing to me too that this was going on about 100 years ago and is still an issue today. And evidence has done nothing but accumulate in stunning ways for evolution. Clearly, the issue has nothing to do with evidence or rational inquiry or we would still not be fighting these battles!

  • That’s a very interesting talk by Mr. Packer. How’s the fishing at BYU these days, Steve? (Or would that be birding?)

  • ujlapana, Now armed with faith and science the birds are flying higher, faster and further than ever before. It’s like a scene from Jonathan Livingston Seagull around here.

  • Cap

    Very interesting. I am looking forward to the later posts about this.

  • Kari

    I don’t know if it’s too early to bring it up, but there appears to be at least one exception.

    Whenever we speak about science and the teaching of science at BYU, isn’t it always presumed that BKP will be the exception?

  • Anonymous

    I can safely say that 10% of current BYU faculty members would not sign such a statement. It would be viewed as evidence of a lack of faithfulness.

  • Owen

    I think this:

    “5. The teachers carried philosophical ideas too far: (1) “They believed sinners should be pitied and enlightened rather than blamed or punished,”

    should be enough to demonstrate how much of the author’s own prejudices are present in both the original source and Packer’s choice to quote it. Or am I remembering incorrectly and Jesus actually went around blaming and punishing every sinner he met? We really should reintroduce corporal punishment to our state penitentiaries. None of these silly education and work programs for our crooks.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I miswrote.

    I can safely say that 90% of current BYU faculty members would not sign such a statement. It would be viewed as evidence of a lack of faithfulness.

  • Over a hundred years ago, blood letting was taught in Harvard and Oxford. Has much changed these days? And how do we know?

  • Dan Langlois

    Hi, my great grandfather was Ralph Chamberlin (one of the three professors–& you’re quoting him here). I’d been told something of this episode, as family heritage. I’ve made a small attempt to familiarize myself w/your site(wonderful, so much here, I’m fascinated by your position as a BYU professor who is in deep w/this), my own position on evolution is that it’s pretty darn solid as science, and I’m, in the end, impatient with Intelligent Design. I see that you have blogged against ID in no uncertain terms.

    Actually, when you offer something like this: ‘Many, many books by scientists and philosophers of science have responded. Their conclusion, universally reached, is that this is not a science.’, you seem more set against ID even than me. I suppose that a subtle wordsmith, who adopts progressively more nuanced positions, might be capable at some point, of contributing something interesting, even from a seemingly unpromising beginning (like creationism apologetics). I take philosophy of science to be a rather vexed subject. ‘Their conclusion, universally reached’, well, that settles–nothing, then. Did I lose track of the score?

    I’m interested in evolution and I’m interested in this particular episode in the history of Utah intellectual life, came across your site doing a search..Hi!

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