1970: David H. Miles - Joseph Smith, Science and Religion

1970: David H. Miles - Joseph Smith, Science and Religion


The first scientist honored as a McKay lecturer, David H. Miles utilized both his extensive knowledge in his chosen discipline and esoteric facts concerning Joseph Smith's life for the eighth annual McKay lecture in 1970. With a B.S. in Chemistry from Brigham Young University in 1953 and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Iowa State University in 1957, Miles contributed substantially to the fledgling chemistry program at Church College of Hawaii upon joining its faculty in 1960, and later helped inaugurate the study of computer science on the campus. A past recipient of a Faculty Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Miles also served for many years as Chair of Physical Sciences at Church College. His Church callings included bishop, high councilor, and sealing supervisor in the Hawaii Temple. He and his wife Mary, who was a special instructor in home economics, have adopted eleven children: Baldemar, Mary Ellen, Gilbert, Estella, Gordon, Lorein, Armando, Elsa, Stephen, Loa, and Linda.

Joseph Smith

In the year 1805, there was born the boy Joseph Smith who was to have such a profound influence on the world of religion. He even predicted in his youth that "my name should be had for good and evil among all nations" (JS-H 1: 33). Despite this great religious influence which he had, there are few people who will claim that he, of himself, made any great contributions to the world of science. Yet almost a century after his birth, John A. Widtsoe published about 160 pages on the topic, Joseph Smith as Scientist (1908), a copy of which is available to you in our library.

Joseph Smith a Scientist

Neither Elder Widtsoe, then a 35-year chemist, nor myself claims that Joseph Smith was a scientist, but we both claim that his attitude toward life was a scientific one, and also that he proclaimed, by revelation, many truths of science either unknown in his day, or just becoming known. To quote Brother Widtsoe, "The mission of Joseph Smith was of a spiritual nature; and. . . it is not to be expected that the discussion of scientific matters will be found in the Prophet's writings" (Joseph 5). He then points out that it is only incidental when such science appears in his writings and concludes his opening remarks by stating,

the teachings of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, were in full harmony with the most advanced scientific thought of today [1908], and. . . he anticipated the world of science in the statement of fundamental facts and theories of physics, chemistry, astronomy and biology. (Joseph 9)

It should be thought provoking to consider that much of the science which Brother Widtsoe knew in 1908 has changed because of the many new discoveries, new interpretations, and new applications which have come about in the last six decades. It should be yet more thought provoking to know that these changes in science, rather than denying the "science" of Joseph Smith confirm even more strongly the truths which he stated.

To repeat here all of the ideas which Brother Widtsoe developed in his little volume would be folly since you all can read these words for yourselves and I recommend that you do so. What I wish to do, is to point out some of the new scientific ideas not known or not fully known in 1908 which confirm the views of the Prophet. I realize, as I am sure Brother Widtsoe knew, that the truth of what I saw will change as more facts are discovered, since scientific truths are relative and depend upon our knowledge and also on our interpretations of that knowledge. I also know that in the long run, future changes will only grow closer to the absolute truths proclaimed by revelations from our Father in Heaven.


Before reviewing some of these "new" truths, I would like to comment on the scientific attitude of the Prophet. While translating the Book of Mormon, he came across the words of Amulek:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves--It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea it beginneth to be delicious to me.

Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. . . .

And now, behold, are you sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness. . . .

And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth. . . ye must needs know that the seed is good. (Alma 32: 27-33)

Joseph Smith himself was such an experimenter. When as a boy he "lacked wisdom," he studied the problem and found a possible solution described in James: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God" (1: 5). He made a hypothesis: "if anyone can ask God, then why not me?" or perhaps it was, "If I ask God then I'll know which church is right." But being a good scientist, he put this hypothesis to the test, one which like many other hypotheses required complete faith, "nothing wavering" (James 1: 6). His hypothesis was not only proven true provisionally but beyond all doubt, the seed was good. Not only in the first vision, but throughout his life, he was open to new information and proclaimed by revelation the importance of the study in good books (D&C 88: 118; 90: 15; 109; 7). He also organized the school of prophets to study Hebrew, history, theology, and other important subjects.

So Joseph was a scientist in attitude if not in language, training, and new scientific "discoveries." It is probable that he had more true knowledge about matter, the universe, good nutrition, the archaeology of South and Central America, good health, and so forth, than any single scientist of his day.

New Science of Light

Let us then review some of the new science developed in the past few decades. On the subject of the indestructibility of matter, Joseph taught that the elements are eternal, and that even Spirit is matter (D&C 93: 33; 131: 7). In 1908, the laws of conservation of matter and of energy were well-known, but the present idea of the proton, neutron, electron, and meson structure of matter was just being investigated. This new concept of atoms filled by electrical forces and yet relatively empty certainly leaves room for spirit and matter to fit together. Another new concept is that developed in the first decade of the century by Dr. Einstein that matter and energy are interconvertible, yet still indestructible (Infeld 40). Is this idea in harmony with the statement of Joseph that the elements are eternal? Of course. Joseph said, "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither. . . can be" (D&C 93: 29). This is very similar to saying that energy cannot be created or destroyed. We now know that light can be transferred from one body to another one as a flash of energy, but while it is part of the body it is not present as "light," but as mass, or another form of energy. Perhaps it is so with the "light of truth" or intelligence; each of us apparently brought with us at birth an "intelligence" which permeates our body and gives us life. No experiment has ever been able to weigh this intelligence or our spirit, but neither has anyone ever weighed a photon of light, either. So, perhaps, the comparison of intelligence and light is a very good one. Joseph Smith by revelation taught

the light [now] which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space--

The light which is in all things. . . which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God'. (D&C 88: 11-13)

Thus, he taught that there is a power which permeates the universe and governs everything, and that like light it becomes part of everything with which it interacts. This is similar to saying that it follows E=Mc2 (Einstein Out 112-115). In 1908, Brother Widtsoe likened this light to the so-called "universal ether" which was a "certainty of science" and which scientists had hypothesized to explain how light traveled through space (Joseph 19-29). Because of properties they ascribed to this "ether" and the inability to find these properties, the universal ether theory was discarded, based largely on experiments done as far back as 1887, but not fully comprehended until the relativity theory of Einstein (1917). The fact still remains that light does permeate the universe, at a constant speed, and that we detect radio waves (a form of light) from outer space, and though universal ether is gone, the fact of light still exists. Of this, Brother Widtsoe later wrote,

a fact remains unchanged throughout all time; an inference changes as facts accumulate. A straight stick in a pool appears bent, an unchanging fact, all the conditions remaining the same; the theory of light explaining the 'bent' stick has already been changed several times, and is subject to more change. (Search 111)

And just as light permeates the universe so does the influence of the Holy Spirit. I am not suggesting they are the same, but that perhaps they are related phenomena, and that it is no harder to explain "spirit" than it is to explain "light."


Another topic discussed by Brother Widtsoe is titled "The New Astronomy" (Joseph 39-49); but then there is much newer astronomy now. Few astronomers in 1908 talked of other worlds with people on them. We were an accident that probably had never been achieved elsewhere; today such topics as, "Is There Anyone There?", "Are Flying Saucers From Outer Space?", and so forth are taken more seriously by the scientific world. Many scientists believe man must exist elsewhere on many other worlds. This has never been new to us since Joseph taught, "And worlds without number have I [God] created; and I also created them for mine own purpose. . . . And the first man of all men have I called Adam, which is many" (Moses 1: 33-34). We knew all of this long before scientists even thought it possible. At the turn of the century, telescopes were beginning to train on the "odd objects" in the sky and they discovered galaxies, decided that our galaxy (the Milky Way) was rotating at high speeds around a center obscured by clouds of stars and dark nebulae, but towards the center of the constellation we call Sagittarius, the Archer. It has been estimated that the material within our Milky Way is enough for 100 billion solar systems. And thousands of galaxies are being catalogued. Of this Joseph Smith recorded the Lord's words, "they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine" (Moses 1: 37). Joseph described, by revelation, that there were bodies that rotated around the sun, and that the sun rotated around another body, or group of bodies, and so forth, until we come to Kolob (Abr. 3: 3, 9).. Telescopes are confirming this, even though Einstein taught,

If we ponder over. . . the universe. . . as a whole. . . the first answer that suggests itself. . . is surely this. . . . the universe is infinite. There are stars everywhere, so that the density of matter. . . is. . . on the average everywhere the same. . . . This. . . is not in harmony with the theory of Newton. . . [which] requires that [we] should have a. . . center in which the density of. . . stars is a maximum. (Relativity 105-106)

Einstein then proposed a curved universe which is not infinite, but rather finite, because of the finite amount of matter available (Ortega y Gasset qtd. in Williams 156). So we still wait for more developments, which must surely some time detect the presence of Kolob, and the other teaching of the Prophet.


During the past few weeks, the topic of evolution has been widely discussed on campus. Since 1908 much has come forth, especially on such items as RNA, DNA, and the creation of the first proteins in a "metabolic pool." Most of these items are interpreted to prove natural selection as taught by Darwin. The Lord taught us the principle of evolution when he said, "Line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" (2 Ne. 28: 30). He told us the earth was created in six periods, not all at once, but he didn't teach us that it all came about by natural selection. I believe in evolution, but not that man was necessarily created by natural selection. God does work in ways which obey natural law. I am a chemist, and can build exotic molecules for specific purposes; but when I build them, I do it stepwise, using the reactions I know. I am sure that God would do likewise; that is, he would likely use the same pattern in creating a man as a monkey, just changing the essential steps to give a man and not a monkey. Joseph did not comment on "Darwinism," since Darwin'sOrigin of the Species was not published until 1859, but he did reconfirm the evolution of the earth's creation. Most of the present-day interpretations of fossils, etc., seem to indicate that evolution is a probable explanation. However, the same thing that happened to "the universal ether" may yet happen to "natural selection." Until that time we should continue to accept, tentatively, the idea of "natural selection" as we do all scientific truths which are of relative value.


On the subject of the earth, Joseph's writings reconfirmed that the land mass was at one time all together. In the 133rd section of the D&C he says, "and the earth shall be like it was in the days before it was divided" (133: 24). The idea of "continental drift" was for years held to be ridiculous, but many present-day geologists have come to believe in it as the facts have started to pile up.

Word of Wisdom

On the Word of Wisdom, we all know that more confirmation has come for most of Joseph's pronouncements, especially for those relating to alcohol and tobacco (D&C 89: 5-8), but also for many of his comments on health. The importance of fruits, vegetables, and wheat and grain were emphasized with the discovery of vitamins and minerals. Joseph stated that these should be used in season (D&C 89: 11). We now know that many vitamins are destroyed by cooking, and hence confirm his views. Many of you know that later in his life, Brother Widtsoe wrote a book on the Word of Wisdom and included many of these ideas in it, but in 1908, he didn't include them, because they were not yet known.


In summary, Joseph Smith taught many things that predicted present-day science. Science continues to confirm many of these. Among some I have not discussed are the ruins to be expected in South America ("Facts" 921-922); the prediction of metals, roads, etc., in these ruins; his concept of truth (D&C 93: 23-40); his social order (D&C 42, 51, 105); cleanliness (D&C 42: 41); importance of sleep (D&C 88: 124); etc. He knew what the science discoveries would be because he learned of these facts by revelation and in his own language. There are, perhaps, things he said which do not agree with present-day inferences based on our present facts, but as more facts are found, I predict that they will fit the pronouncements made by a true Prophet of God, Joseph Smith.

Works Cited

The Bible.

The Book of Mormon.

The Doctrine and Covenants.

Einstein, Albert. Out of My Later Years. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

---. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. 1917. Trans. Robert W. Lawson. 1921. New York: Crown Publishers, 1961.

"Facts are Stubborn Things." Times and Seasons 3 (September 15, 1842): 921-922.

Infeld, Leopold. Albert Einstein: His Work and Its Influence on Our World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.

The Pearl of Great Price.

Widtsoe, John A. In Search of Truth: Comments on the Gospel and Modern Thought. Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1963.

---. Joseph Smith as Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy. 1908. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964.

Widtsoe, John A. and Leah D. Widtsoe. The Word of Wisdom: A Modern Interpretation. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938.

Williams, L. Pierce. Relativity Theory: Its Origin and Impact on Modern Thought. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1968.