Stephen L. Richards on science, religion, questions, and General Authorities

Stephen L. Richards on science, religion, questions, and General Authorities May 9, 2016

Richards in 1920 (public domain)

On May 31, 1925, Elder Stephen L. Richards gave the baccalaureate sermon to the graduating class of BYU, which was quite small at the time. This was in the lead-up to the Scopes trial (which is why I’m reading it), and Richards, a lawyer, had been an Apostle for 15 years at this point. His address was printed in the Improvement Era in September, after the Scopes trial had concluded. (On which, see this great book.)

That issue also eulogizes William Jennings Bryan (who had died suddenly right after the Scopes trial), and contains a First Presidency statement on evolution (largely excerpted from the 1909 statement), followed by an editorial on “Teaching Bible Stories.” This editorial takes issue with “a number of communications” on the topic of the “literary” nature of Bible stories.

In other words the idea is expressed that they are not historical, not actual, but that they are fiction.

In our opinion, if God is left out in teaching Bible stories, and literary excellence, rather than historical truth, made the only reason for their study in school or otherwise, we may as well study Shakespeare. We think the teaching of Bible stories in this way would be unfortunate. We dislike to call the Bible stories “tales,” which means legends or fiction, in other words. The whole trend of such teaching is to impress the reader that the stories of the Bible are literary fictions, “made up” to boost the God of Israel and the Israelitish religion— they are not real. Taught this way they become a joke, and God a myth. We mean by Bible stories such stories as the creation, the flood, the wooing of Rebecca, Joseph and his brethren, Moses, the Ten Plagues, the passage of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments received on Mount Sinai, the golden calf, Samson, David and Goliath, Jonathan and Bathsheba, Daniel, and many others.

The Bible must be studied for more than its literature, however excellent that is.

If you’ve read much of me at all, you can probably guess that I think this is treating a topic with an axe when it requires a scalpel. Tying all truth and religious value to historical genre is both a misunderstanding of scripture and a function of Enlightenment assumptions. C.S. Lewis didn’t have a problem with myth in scripture, for example, and didn’t think it rendered the Bible a “joke” or God a “myth.” See also my posts here, here, and here, to choose three.) But, it was the early days, and the arguments weren’t entirely disentangled from each other.

Below, some interesting highlights from Richards.

I am sure we [General Authorities? Mormons?] require more effecient help in discovering the needs of the Church and her people. No organized body, social, politic or religious, ever makes satisfactory progress without a thorough understanding of the actions, tendencies and psychology of its constituency. To arrive at such an understanding entails intelligent observation and careful survey. Guess-work furnishes an unsafe foundation on which to estimate and build. We do not tolerate it in material construction or business. We demand the accuracy of the engineer and the accountants. We would not hazard a dollar without them. While human tendencies, traits and actions are not so susceptible of definite measurement as brick and profits, yet through careful study and investigation, data may be secured which will furnish a safer basis on which to legislate and proceed than that now available to us. I am not unmindful of the gift of discernment which comes to the inspired worker in the Church. It has been of untold value and will continue so to be. It will assist the student in his investigations and surveys, and every true officer in the Church in the administration of his office. It is expected, however, that that gift shall reward the sincere, intelligent, prayerful effort of the student and worker. The Church is reliant upon you, its trained, intelligent students and thinkers, to scientifically discover its needs and lay the foundation for remedies and advancements, when you are called into leadership, of course….

[Richards relates some then-current questions and needs]

If you imagine such questions are easy to answer, I beg of you to submit your answers to the General Authorities without delay, for I assure you they are sorely perplexed about them. __ If on the other hand you recognize their serious import to the Church and the difficulties attendant upon their solution, you will discover that a study of the needs and conditions of the Church constitutes a great field of endeavor which challenges the highest and best trained intellects we can produce. It will be a contribution you are to make.

When the needs of the Church are found it is needless to say, remedies must be provided and constructive programs projected. Your trained minds will find useful application in this service, and while the Church is governed from its head, it will be remembered that those who create its policies and set forth its programs derive no small portion of their ideas and inspiration from association with and observation of the workers in the field, so that your influence on the general policies of the Church will be felt long before you arrive at places of eminence in its general government.

Let me here say that what I have said with reference to the Church; discovering its needs and suggesting remedies, applies equally well to community and other organizations where the welfare of the people is concerned. If any happen to be not identified with the Church, their opportunities are still abundant….

You have a duty not only to yourselves but to the public and to the cause of education itself to use and interpret it wisely and well. You will be called upon, not infrequently, both by yourselves and by others, to harmonize science and religion. This will be particularly true of those coming from this University, since its graduates are expected to be the exponents of both science and religion. I don’t know that I can aid you much in making this contribution to society and the Church, but I take the liberty of venturing a few suggestions.
In the first place, I am much inclined to the view that no one can successfully make reconciliation between science and religion who is not a first class scientist and a first class religionist. I mean by that, not that one man must know everything to be known about science and everything to be known about religion, but that one must have the true scientific attitude and understand the genius of scientific approach and research, and at the same time be endowed with the true conception and genuine spirit of religion. I am thinking that he who fails in this synchronization may well look to himself to discover his deficiency in one direction or the other or perhaps in both.

It occurs to me, too, that the field of science and the field of religion are sufficiently distinct, one from the other in methods and application, as to forstall confusion if a few governing principles are borne in mind. Science deals generally in process, religion with ultimate facts….Science is man’s way of disclosing the hidden secrets and laws of the universe, subject, of course, to the limitations of man’s power and intelligence. Truth is truth, discovered or undiscovered by man. Revealed by the research of man or the power of God, it is the same. When one believes that God has spoken, it is no reflection on his intelligence to say, “I cannot understand, but I believe.” Science or God some day will enable him to understand.

The greatest confusion and perplexity seem to prevail with respect to the origin of life and its manifestations. Can we not keep our thinking straight by here bearing in mind the distinctive fields of science and religion. Science does not account for life, it seeks to analyze it. Religion accounts for it although it does not give all the processes by which it came. Since Science has not been able to produce fife ought it not to be content to accept the explanation of religion, or at least abide the time when its further discoveries may bring more light and knowledge. God has told us whence we came, why we are here, and where we are going. This knowledge serves our needs. It explains life and its purpose. We welcome the discoveries of science as to the components of organic life and their functions. They subserve vital interests in the preservation of life and its usefulness. Within its proper domain, as the tool of man, for the discovery of truth, Science is king, governing the orderly marshalling of facts to assail the strongholds of error and superstition, and raising over their demolished ruins the banner of truth and pure knowledge. Outside of its domain it is a ruthless tyrant, enslaving the minds of the misguided and partly learned and killing the spirits of men. I trust you, my fellow students, to bear this message from a great University, the only University in existence where pure science and true religion are apt to be found in happy combination, to a despairing world, torn by the conflict of the deceived and billigerent disciples of these two great captains of human thought and philosophy, who when understood are really gentle and firm friends, Science and Religion….

In all the fervor of my soul, in the love I bear you, I pray you may preserve your faith and your testimonies. Be tolerant and broad-minded. Be truly scientific, but be true to the faith of your fathers. Let the world know that “Caps and Gowns” of this University lead not to agnosticism, heresy and apostasy, but to pure knowledge, faith and trust in God. Amen.

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