Roberts v. Smith: Death Before the Fall (p1of2)

Word. I’m BHodges. I blog at and currently host the FAIR podcast. I was invited to do a few guest posts over here at faithpromotingrumor this month. I’m starting with a bit about B.H. Roberts’s “The Truth, The Way, The Life.”

B.H. Roberts considered his manuscript The Truth, The Way, The Life (TWL) to be “the most important work that I have yet contributed to the Church, the six-volumed Comprehensive History of the Church not omitted.”1 TWL aimed to be “the most comprehensive treatise of the Gospel that has yet been published,” as Elder George Albert Smith described it in 1929.2 A committee of members of the Quorum of the Twelve was assigned to review the lengthy manuscript in order to approve it for use as a church manual. The committee attempted to convince Roberts to change some of his fundamental arguments in order to conform more closely to established church doctrine. “Some learned men don’t see some of its chapters so I am letting it ride until I have more time,” Roberts wrote to a friend, “Will not change it if it has to sleep.”3

It had to sleep.

Until 1994 when it was woken up in two separate publications by Smith Research Associates and BYU Studies, respectively. In the next few posts I want to highlight some passages I found most interesting.

Much has been written regarding the doctrinal/scientific debates between Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith regarding TWL.4 This post highlights an interesting argument Roberts employed in his scriptural exegesis regarding whether there was death on the earth prior to the fall of Adam in response to Joseph Fielding Smith. In part one I give a little historical background on the exchange between Roberts and Smith. In part two I discuss the exegetical argument Roberts used to diffuse Smith’s objections, an argument I haven’t seen confronted in any of the subsequent literature.

Historical Background:

Elder Joseph Fielding Smith was a member of the committee of Apostles reviewing Roberts’s manuscript, and was its most vocal opponent. On April 5, 1930 Smith delivered an address to Genealogical Society of Utah to “denounce” the ideas that the earth was peopled before Adam or that there was death on the earth prior to the fall—ideas found in the unpublished TWL. Smith didn’t refer to TWL directly, but his preemptive strike was published in the October issue of the Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine.5

Roberts must have been angry to see Smith’s views published so easily while his own were undergoing intense scrutiny. On December 15 Roberts wrote to the First Presidency to ask if Smith’s address had been approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve. Was it the official position of the Church? If not, why wasn’t it labeled as Smith’s own opinion? Roberts objected to its “finality” and “dogmatic” style, questioning the “competence” of the author and citing Orson Hyde and Brigham Young as greater authorities than Smith who allowed for similar views to Roberts’s.6

On January 7, 1931 Roberts met with the Twelve with a draft of TWL amplified by additional scientific evidence and quotes from Hyde and Young for ecclesiastical leverage. An “Addendum” to chapter 31 directly responded to Smith’s main points about death on earth before the fall.7 In the next part I’ll highlight an interesting argument Roberts used therein to deflate Smith’s assertion that Adam was “immortal” in the Garden of Eden: “There is no such thing as conditional immortality.”


1. B. H. Roberts to Heber J. Grant, 9 February 1931, quoted in James B. Allen, “The Story of The Truth, the Way, the Life,” B. H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, the Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 1994), clxxxvi.

2. George Albert Smith to John A. Widtsoe, February 26, 1929, Ibid., clxxv.

3. B.H. Roberts to Elizabeth Hinckley, May 1929, Ibid., clxxvii.

4. See, for instance, Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B.H. Roberts Story (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980); Richard Sherlock, “A Turbulent Spectrum: Mormon Reactions to the Darwinist Legacy,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 33-59; “‘We Can See No Advantage To a Continuation of the Discussion’: The Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Fall 1980): 63-78; Jeffrey R. Keller, “Discussion Continued: The Sequel to the Roberts/Smith/Talmage Affair,” Dialogue 15 (Sprint 1982): 79-98. An updated version of these was published in Richard Sherlock and Jeffrey E. Keller, “The B. H. Roberts/Joseph Fielding Smith/James E. Talmage Affair,” The Search for Harmony: Essays on Science and Mormonism, eds. Gene A. Sessions and Craig J. Oberg, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), chapter six. B.H. Roberts, The Truth, the Way, the Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology: The Masterwork of B.H. Roberts, ed. Stan Larsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), “Editors Introduction.”

5. Allen, Ibid.,, clxxix.

6. Ibid., clxxxi.

7. The “Addendum” is awesomely included in the BYU Studies edition of TWL on pages 318-322.

10 Replies to “Roberts v. Smith: Death Before the Fall (p1of2)”

  1. Dave, I’ll have to take a closer look at the guts/editing decisions of the Signature volume. (I only have a copy on that Mormon Studies dvd, which uses that dreadful Infobase software, a real pain in the gut). I’ll check it out more closely and get a post going on that.

  2. Actually, Roberts brings up a great point: that Adam had a clear path leading to to death before him and so a claim that he was not subject to death can not be true.

    Also, it is interesting, as you point out, that the reason so many people share the Smith/McConkie views of all this is Roberts, Talmage and Widtsoe died giving Smith and McConkie free reign in the publishing arena.

  3. “Was Joseph Fielding Smith fair in ignoring the objection in subsequent publications?”

    I do not want in any was to knock Joseph Fielding Smith, but I think he ignored many things that contradicted his view. (Most importantly the increasing body of scientific data that many faithful members of the church like Henry Eyring continued to call him on.) The harshest way to say it is that he had to cherry pick all things before him to support his conclusions. Unfortunately, such an approach often leads to incorrect conclusions. But again we all often do this to one degree or another so I don’t mean to be to hard on him.

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