Charles Darwin’s niece once told her son (the famed British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams) that: “The Bible says that God made the world in six days, Great Uncle Charles thinks it took longer: but we need not worry about it, for it is equally wonderful either way.” While it is wonderful either way, since the early 20th century, what scientists have come to understand through their studies of evolution has become increasingly important to people to discuss in terms of understanding religion and creation. Literal readings of the Bible and the histories presented in Genesis underly the idea that organic evolution is not compatible with Judeo-Christianity. And, for better or worse, a literal understanding of Biblical narratives is a part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, influencing the translations and revelations that Joseph Smith produced. Yet, as the best understanding of the process by which life as we know it was created based on the evidence found in the world around us, evolution is difficult to dismiss. The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has both features that help with the acceptance of evolution and concepts that make it difficult to embrace the scientific theory—perhaps most notably the concept of a literal Adam.
In an 1838 editorial written as a series of questions and answers with Joseph Smith, the Prophet remarked that: “We are the only people under heaven” that believe the Bible, adding that Latter-day Saints “believe the bible, and all other sects profess to believe their interpretations of the bible, and their creeds.” These statements reflect a belief that Joseph Smith intended to read the Bible literally and to take it at its word. Other influential early Church leaders were known to take similar approaches. For example, Elder Parley P. Pratt frequently derided the “doctrine of spiritualizing” passages in the Bible such that all passages of scripture seemed to not “have any literal meaning.” While in reality, Biblical literalism in early Mormonism could be quite selective, it was a concept that was important to Church leaders.
The desire for Biblical literalism and taking the Bible at its word shows up in the translations and revelations of Joseph Smith that have been canonized. For example, the story of the Tower of Babel is treated as literal in the Book of Ether, where a group of people (the Jaredites) flee from the events surrounding that story in Genesis. The Book of Abraham describes the history of Egypt in the context of the Flood and Noah’s family settling the world afterwards. The New Translation of the Bible that is presented in the Book of Moses reinforces the stories of the early chapters in Genesis. Most relevant to the current discussion, however, is the insistence on a literal Adam.
The revelations and teachings of Joseph Smith reference the idea that Adam was a historic person and indicated that he has a significant role in the history of God’s people. A September 1830 revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants, Section 29) was received in response to disagreements in the Church about “the death of Adam (that is his transgression),” and discussed the narrative of “Adam being tempted of the Devil.” As part of the New Translation of the Bible project, Joseph Smith revised Genesis and included expanded narratives about the life of Adam, both affirming the belief that he was a person and Christianizing Adam through those narratives. An 1835 revision of an earlier revelation (Section 27) described a future event where the Lord “will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with” a variety of significant figures from scriptural narratives, including “with Michael, or Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days.” This prophesy was referenced in a September 1838 Joseph Smith journal entry, documenting a visit to Lyman Wight in Daviess County, Missouri (a portion of which would become Section 116). While visiting the settlement, Joseph Smith stated that Spring Hill was “named by the mouth of [the] Lord and was called Adam Ondi Awmen [Adam-ondi-Ahman], because said he it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people, or the Ancient of days shall sit as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet.” These documents affirm that Adam is a significant individual with both a past and a future in the salvific history of the Lord’s people.
Joseph Smith carried this role for Adam even further in his sermons and discussions. He stated that:
The Priesthood was first given to Adam: he obtained the first Presidency & held the Keys of it, from generation to Generation. … His Michael, the Archangel, spoken of in the Scriptures. … Dan VII Speaks of the Ancient of days, he means the oldest man, our Father Adam, Michael. … He, (Adam) is the Father of the human family & presides over the Spirits of all men, & all that have had the Keys must stand before him in this great Council.
Adam held a preeminent place in Joseph Smith’s teachings as a patriarchal figure and priesthood leader over all humankind. Smith would reiterate this and other similar ideas on other occasions. For example, in 1840, he stated that Adam was:
the ‘Antient of days’ or in other words the first and oldest of all, the great grand progenitor of whom it is said in another place he is Michael because he was the first and father of all, not only by progeny, but he was the first to hold the spiritual blessings, … and to whom Christ was first revealed, and through whom Christ has been revealed from heaven and will continue to be revealed from henceforth. … He [Christ] set the ordinances to be the same for Ever and ever and set Adam to watch over them to reveal them from heaven to man or to send Angels to reveal them.
In these sermons, Joseph Smith attributed to Adam roles in the history of humankind that very much affirm a view of Adam being an actual person who has been involved in God’s work throughout the history of the world.
This concept of a literal Adam who is the father and patriarch of all humankind is something that does not reconcile very well with the concept of organic evolution. Evolution is a gradual process of change, survival, and a passing on of genetics. Through a variety of natural processes, mutations in the genetic code of organisms occur, changing traits of groups of organisms. Most of the time, these mutations are harmful, but once in a while, the mutations lead to traits that improve the odds of an organism surviving. One biotechnology professor I studied under compared these mutations to trying to cut cables or take components out of an engine—most of the time it results in the engine not working, but there is a small possibility that removal of the component will lead to the engine working better. (Whether or not that’s an accurate analogy is debatable, but it gets the basic idea across.) In any case, by virtue of surviving and reproducing, those traits are passed on to descendants of the organism with the original mutation. If that mutation continues to give that organism’s line a significant advantage, it can eventually become a trait shared by a larger population.
While occasionally some genetics changes are very abrupt and cause rapid divergence, the emergence of new species generally follows a gradual process. This happens as a series of mutations accumulate in a population over long time periods until that population is different enough from their ancestors and relatives to be considered a new species. There is still much to learn about the development of our species, but it is likely that this was the process by which we evolved from earlier humans. Since it was likely a population that developed into the species rather than an individual, it is highly unlikely that a single individual could be considered the definitive first Homo sapiens. Even the concepts of a “mitochondrial Eve” and a “Y-chromosomal Adam” do not align with the Biblical idea of all of humankind originating and descending from two humans. Instead, these concepts represent the theoretical most recent shared ancestors from which pieces of DNA that are consistently passed from parents of each specific sex to their children (Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA) originated. While that is an indication of shared ancestry, it doesn’t mean that they were the only humans living at the time or even that the respective “Eve” and “Adam” lived at the same time or place. Our current best scientific understanding of the origins of the human species doesn’t align well with the story of Adam and Eve presented in the Bible or related texts and liturgy used in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, I personally believe that the scientific understanding of organic evolution is our best understanding of the mechanisms by which we came to be. I am a biological engineer with a background in molecular biology, so that’s probably not too surprising, but based on the evidence I have studied, I do not see a way to dismiss the concept of evolution. This does present me with a dilemma, though—how do I simultaneously hold onto belief in evolution and the Church, with its emphasis on a literal Adam? (Even the strongest statement of the First Presidency that supports not having a definitive stance on evolution declares that: “Upon one thing we should all be able to agree, namely … Adam is the primal parent of our race.”)
One way I have approached this dilemma is to view both religion and science as quests for truth using different approaches. While they currently do not align, as both approach truth through revelation from heaven or investigation of the world, they will eventually converge. This could be viewed as a form of double-think or naïve optimism, but to me it is really about being patient and accepting that we don’t know as much as we like to think we do in either realm (science or religion). I hope that they will align some day, though I do not see it happening any time soon.
A few other approaches are also worth consideration. Of course, one approach is treating the entire story of Adam and Eve as a myth and not a historical reality. This aligns well with higher criticism of the Bible, but also includes rejecting both the official teachings of the Church on the subject and the Biblical record, i.e., the “spiritualizing” that Parley P. Pratt dreaded. Another concept that I have considered is that Adam and Eve may not have been the first humans to exist but may have been the first family to which God revealed the Gospel. In other words, they were the first people through whom God opened a dispensation. This leaves the possibility that God worked through evolution to create humans and then waited until a specific point in their development to reveal Himself to them. While this still means not taking narratives about Adam and Eve at face value, Adam as first prophet rather than first human serves as a meeting point in the middle of lockstep acceptance of the story and complete spiritualization of the story.
In any case, I still agree with the rhetorical questions of the Lord in the 8 July 1838 revelation that is now Section 117: “Have I not the fowls of Heaven, and also the fish of the sea, and the beasts of the mountains. Have I not made the earth?” Whether He made the world in six days, or whether it took Him longer, through eons of evolution and development, it is equally wonderful either way.
 Ursula Vaughan Williams, R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford, 1964), 13.
 “Elders’ Journal, July 1838,” p. 42, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 12, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/elders-journal-july-1838/10
 The Essential Parley P. Pratt, Ch.20, p.234
 See Ether 1:33-42.
 See Abraham 1:11, 21-27.
 “Revelation, September 1830–A [D&C 29],” p. 36, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-a-dc-29/1
 “Revelation, September 1830–A [D&C 29],” p. 39, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-september-1830-a-dc-29/4
 “Revelation, circa August 1835 [D&C 27],” p. 180, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-circa-august-1835-dc-27/2
 “Journal, March–September 1838,” p. 44, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-march-september-1838/30.
Joseph Smith sermon, 8 August 1839, recorded by Willard Richards. Quoted in Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 511-512). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
 Sermon 5 October 1840, recorded by Robert B. Thompson, cited in Cook, Lyndon W.. The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 1122-1126). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.
 First Presidency Minutes, Apr. 7, 1931.
 “Revelation, 8 July 1838–E [D&C 117],” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed October 15, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-8-july-1838-e-dc-117/1