Thursday, February 02, 2006

James E. Talmage and Death Before the Fall

On Sunday, Aug. 9, 1931, Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve Apostles spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In his sermon, Elder Talmage affirmed his geologist's perspective on earth's early development, with life and death before man's advent.

"According to the conception of geologists,... plants and animals ... lived and died, age after age, while the earth was yet unfit for human habitation." (Pamphlet, "The Earth and Man," published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1931, 4.)

President Heber J. Grant — or, as another account has it, his First Counselor Anthony W. Ivins (pp. 87-91, here) — authorized publication of the speech as a Church pamphlet, hence some view it as a statement of the Church on the question of death before the fall.

This view disregards the fact that only a few months earlier the First Presidency, as a Presidency, had considered that question and declined to rule one way or the other — which leads to what I believe is another possible (and more probable) explanation as to why the pamphlet was published.

Balancing the public record

For two and a half years (from the fall of 1928 to the spring of 1931), Church leaders had privately discussed a Melchizedek Priesthood manual written by Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy. A reading committee consisting of five Apostles had recommended that the manual remained unpublished primarily because its double creation theory asserted death on this earth before the time of Adam.

In April, 1931, after discussions had escalated to include the full Council of Twelve Apostles, the First Presidency ruled in favor of the reading committee regarding publication of the manual, but declined to rule on the question of death before the fall.

Only once had anything appeared in print that was related to these closed-door discussions. In a speech delivered in April 1930 and published six months later, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith (without mentioning Roberts, his book, or his double creation theory) had presented scriptural evidence against death before the fall of Adam.

Publication of the Talmage speech the following year (again without mentioning Roberts, his book, or his theory) thus created a more balanced public record of what had otherwise been a private discussion. Historian James B. Allen explains:

"Most significant ... is Elder Talmage's explanation as to why he gave the talk.... In his lengthy journal entry for November 21, 1931 [the day his talk appeared in the Deseret News], Elder Talmage briefly reviewed all the recent discussions, then noted that many LDS students had inferred from Elder Smith's 1930 address that the Church refused to recognize the findings of science if there was even a seeming conflict with scripture and that therefore the policy of the Church was opposed to scientific research. In other words, because Elder Smith's statement had been published and Elder Roberts's had not, Elder Smith's view was catching on among the youth of the Church." ("The Story of TWL," in B. H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life, 2nd edition, Provo: BYU Studies, 1996, 711.)

Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey Keller further point out that "it was not Talmage's intent to assert [the sermon] as the church position on the subject." ("The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair," in The Search for Harmony, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993, 104.)

Apostolic clarification

Elder Talmage died in 1933. The following year, Apostle John A. Widtsoe informed Talmage's son, Sterling, that "there appears to be no evidence on file that your father's splendid article, ' The Earth and Man,' went out with what is held to be full authoritative approval, that is, the vote of approval of the Presidency and the Twelve." (As quoted by Sherlock and Keller in The Search for Harmony, 106.)

First Presidency clarification

In 1935, the First Presidency (Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, and David O. McKay) told Sterling that his deceased father's 1931 sermon "cannot be regarded as an official expression of the Church." (Ibid., 108-109.)

Responding to the younger Talmage's assertion that his father's speech had been delivered and published "by appointment," the First Presidency said, "These 'appointments' are made merely in order that certain work shall be done ... but that does not mean that the Church must approve everything" that is said or done "by appointment." (Ibid., 109.)

These comments by the 1935 First Presidency support the conclusion that the Church published Talmage's 1931 speech primarily (if not only) to balance the public record with respect to previous non-public discussions about the Roberts manuscript.

Sterling Talmage's response is also noteworthy. He accepted without question that his father's speech was not authoritative:

"I am very grateful to you for clarifying my mind in this respect. I shall not again, either in publication or in private correspondence, place undue stress on the authoritativeness of this document, or any statements contained in it." (Ibid.)

According to Sherlock and Keller, Sterling Talmage remained true to his promise "although he had several opportunities" to do otherwise. (Ibid.)

Discussion of the Roberts manuscript halted

The doctrine of no death before the fall has been around since the early days of the Church. However, it is thought by some that, subsequent to 1931, General Authorities were forbidden to discuss death before Adam in their public writings and sermons.

In reality, it was discussion of the Roberts theory itself that was proscribed, not the doctrinal assumptions on which his theory was based. Public teaching of no death before the fall continued unabated.

For example, during the remainder of President Heber J. Grant's administration, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith published no death before the fall teachings in 1936, 1942, and 1944.

During the administration of President George Albert Smith in 1947 and 1948, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith's no death before the fall teachings were found in Melchizedek Priesthood manuals written by him and "Published by The Council of the Twelve Apostles."

In 1947 and 1948, four of the five Apostles who had served on the 1928-31 reading committee were still living and these four, along with Elder John A. Widtsoe (also a 1931 Apostle), knew full well the meaning of the 1931 injunction, which quite obviously did not mean no death before the fall couldn't be taught in Melchizedek Priesthood manuals.

In 1954, while serving as President of the Council of the Twelve and at the urging of members of that Council, President Smith published Man: His Origin and Destiny, which teaches the doctrine of no death before the fall from cover to cover.

And in 1966, while serving as a member of the First Presidency, President Smith again published unequivocal no death before the fall teachings.

Additional First Presidency clarification

In 1972, the First Presidency (Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and N. Eldon Tanner) published and distributed no death before the fall teachings in a Melchizedek Priesthood study guide. This First Presidency action significantly clarified the Church's position on the subject

In 1979, the Scriptures Publication Committee (Thomas S. Monson, Boyd K. Packer, and Bruce R. McConkie), under the direction of the First Presidency (Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney), placed no death before the fall teachings in the LDS Bible Dictionary.

The LDS Bible Dictionary is not intended as an official endorsement of the doctrinal matters set forth therein. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that some articles may be viewed as more reliable than others simply because of their apostolic origin and how they are currently used by the Church and its leaders.

In 2002 and 2006, the current First Presidency (Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and James E. Faust) approved distribution of no death before the fall teachings to all adults members in the Priesthood and Relief Society study guides for those years.

Unlike the Bible Dictionary, these Priesthood and Relief Society study guides do not carry a disclaimer. On the contrary,

"The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have established the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series to help you deepen your understanding of the restored gospel and draw closer to the Lord through the teachings of latter-day prophets. As the Church adds volumes to this series, you will build a collection of gospel reference books for your home." (Introduction, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff; emphasis added.)

A reference book is "a book, such as a dictionary or encyclopedia, to which one can refer for authoritative information." Therefore, these "gospel reference books" also update the status of the 1931 Talmage pamphlet.


This year, "The Earth and Man" is seventy-five years old. Personally, I think there is a lot of truth in the sermon — things we haven't talked about in this article. Apparently, the sermon was delivered and published "by appointment." But here's the bottom line for me.

I've subscribed to the Improvement Era and the Ensign since January 1970 (five weeks after I was married) and I've read and kept every issue. During the years since then, the six Church Presidents and thirty one Apostles have served in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and they have demonstrated a remarkable unity in their public teaching that there was no death before the fall.

I think that unity is a pretty good indication that "The Earth and Man" does not represent the Church's current position on death before the fall.

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