Home / Testimonies / Frank B. Salisbury

Sometime during the autumn of 1944, our double-dating foursome attended sacrament meeting in the Stratford Ward. My date was Marilyn Olson, and Frank (“Speed”) Davis’s date was Mary Thorpe. Speed and I were waiting anxiously to be called up for active duty in the United States Army Air Force—the wait being long because World War II was winding down, and the brass didn’t really know whether they needed us or not. We four often went to sacrament meetings together, but this one turned out to be a very special one. The speaker was John M. Knight, a patriarch from Sugar House Stake (next to our Highland Stake). How I wish I could remember exactly what he said, but I strongly remember the thrill that went through my body as he spoke. It had to do with God and His universe (maybe Doctrine and Covenants 88), but that is about as far as the memory goes. Especially because Speed and I were going into the service, the four of us decided that it was time for our patriarchal blessings. We called Patriarch Knight and made appointments (possible then, although he was not in our stake). On October 25th, Speed and Mary received their blessings, and a week later, on November 1st, Marilyn and I were given ours. (Speed and I were called to active duty in late January, 1945.)

Looking back, my blessing is virtually a summary of the important parts of my life, but one theme came to mind as I thought about writing this testimony: “You shall be blessed with the gift of faith, with an understanding heart and power to distinguish between truth and error, between the genuine and the counterfeit . . . .” But the path would not be without a testing of my faith, for “Satan will seek your overthrow, and lay traps to ensnare your feet.” Furthermore: “It will require all your faith, your devotion, and integrity to combat these influences . . . .”

It is almost surprising to me that my faith has remained strong in view of the many “influences” to combat! Now, one more intellectual test comes to mind as I think about testimony; I must ask myself: Is my faith really a blessing from God, or is it just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is the faith behind my testimony truly a blessing, or do I have such faith because John M. Knight said that I would, and I believed him?

I could argue in favor of the patriarchal blessing being truly inspired by citing other promises and their fulfillment through events that I did not control (such as my missionary call to Switzerland), but other thoughts come to mind. Looking back, my life has included many trials of faith, and I doubt that I could have met them if I were just trying to live up to my patriarchal blessing.

As a young lad, I was excited by science in general (and still am), and by my mid-teens I was headed for biology, specifically botany (thanks to the botany merit badge), with much physical science thrown in. Eventually, I ended up in plant physiology, which applies physical science to understand how plants function.

Biologists will tell you that the heart of life science is evolutionary theory: that it happened and how it happened. I’ve been deeply involved in thoughts about those matters at least since high school (reading Luther Burbank!) and a special course in evolution during a summer at the University of Utah. A visiting lady professor took us through the two most recent and important books on evolution, one by Theodosius Dobzhansky and the other by Ernst Mayr.

I hate to call evolutionary theory one of Satan’s traps, especially because it contains such a huge volume of truth! But there can be many kinds of traps, and this one seems to have been such a trap for many modern biologists who have used the doctrine (and the speculations about it) to reject God. Of course this is nothing new. I can think of scholars in the mid-1700s who took this road, and poor Charles Darwin struggled along that road all his life. His friend T. H. Huxley coined the term agnostic to express how he himself felt.

So I was becoming deeply immersed in biology and at the same time the LDS concepts of the Godhead, and pre-, present-, and post-mortal existence with its wonderful doctrine of eternal progression—based on how we use our God-given agency, all possible because of the atonement! If one is unaware of the depths of biology and/or our theology, it is easy to say that truth is truth so there should be no conflict. Well, there should be no conflict, but at the present state of our knowledge, there is plenty of conflict. Otherwise there would not be so many atheistic or at least agnostic biologists—and so many fundamentalist creationists who reject any version of evolution!

How to deal with the conflict and remain an active Latter-day Saint and an active biologist? I found it impossible to reject either evolution or LDS theology, so it was essential to seek some way to reconcile the two views. (Putting each one in its own separate pocket never worked for me.) I think this is where the blessing of faith pulled me through those early years while I was learning about what was known in both fields. Back then, I always seemed to know that there had to be an answer. I searched for it, and while I still haven’t exactly found that answer, my faith allows me to continue the search. And looking back, it seems like searching with faith is what it is all about.

Is there God in his heaven? Science has no way to really know, but “science” can make snide remarks about the question—like the cosmonaut who said that he had circled the Earth but never saw heaven. (Modern physicists may be coming around as they talk about parallel universes—where heaven might be located!)

Many biologists say there is no need for an intelligent Creator because they are convinced that the complexity of organisms can be accounted for by the operation of natural selection in populations that are struggling for existence, where those individuals most able to reproduce pass their sometimes-mutated genes on to the next generation. Natural selection can do it all, they say!

Before Darwin and Wallace proposed the natural-selection mechanism in 1858, there was already the counterargument from design. William Paley had talked about the watch and the watchmaker in his 1802 book. Many modern biologists proclaim that natural selection answers Paley’s argument (and, for that matter, Darwin made that claim), but some of us still see so much complexity in life structure and function that we are skeptical about the ultimate power of natural selection to accomplish such marvels. There were eyes and wings for Paley to contemplate, but by now there are mitochondria, chloroplasts, and even the molecular rotary motor called the ATP synthase machine, of which thousands in every living cell keep the cell alive. If there were hundreds of living complexities for Paley to cogitate about, by now there are tens of thousands for us to marvel at. (Yes, this is the intelligent-design movement, but I don’t use the term much because it implies a specific group of people whose philosophy is a little foreign to mine.)

Does biological complexity prove there is a Creator God? Well, not quite, because we simply do not know enough. Arguments on either side of the question can still be highly persuasive. And that’s where faith plays a role again. For a long time I argued that my faith was not based on biology, but that there were many other things that convinced me that there is a God and that the restored gospel is the closest we can come to learning about him and his purposes. A few powerful spiritual experiences fortified my view that testimony depended only on confirmation by the Spirit. Biology was only secondary to testimony. I wrote that idea, and I preached it in BYU Education Weeks.

When my sixteen-year-old son was killed in an automobile accident, however, that thinking was called into question. Contrary to the agonies of many others in that situation, I never wondered how a loving God could take my son. It was an accident, and that was that. But the pain was almost unbearable. And how disappointed Phillip must be to have been cut so short in his life! Suddenly, I had a comforting thought that may well be surprising to many: What if the atheists and materialists were right!? What if there were no God and no life after death? Then at death there could be no regrets. A “nothing” can have no regrets or anything else. I need not regret that I couldn’t see my son again. I would not regret anything because after death I would not be!

I remember where I was when that thought hit me, driving home alone. But the thought didn’t last for long. Down the road a ways I realized that I simply could not accept that view of the universe, comforting though it was at that moment. And it was not my religious teachings that pulled me through; it was biology! Not to mention astronomy and many other things about this complex and astounding universe. Life and the cosmos are simply too organized and complex to be without purpose. The human mind, situated in that incredible organ, the brain, which is in some way built by the divisions and specializations of a single fertilized egg, a zygote—that mind has to be part of some eternal plan. I knew it, and I know it. Thanks Father, for that patriarchal blessing of faith! And for the biological, spiritual experience or insight!

As time progressed, further ruminations again confirmed in my mind that the restored gospel was true, at least in the basic parts that our Lord wants us to understand; there are certainly many things yet to learn. Prominent in my testimony are the witnesses who took part in the restoration: Joseph, Oliver, Martin, David, Sidney (who saw God and the vision of the Glories), and others, including modern ones. And even in its yet imperfect form, LDS theology has a logic that gives it a place in the universe. At some intellectual level it makes sense. That idea was especially important to me as a young man. That’s why Patriarch Knight’s talk in sacrament meeting thrilled me to the core: The gospel was (and is) true! Knowing such truth is the most sublime kind of joy! Actually, knowing any kind of truth is a source of joy; otherwise I would not have entered science, especially biology, the science of life. And how thankful I am for that gift of faith, which allowed me to withstand the early buffetings of biology and build my understanding, religious feelings, and knowledge of biology and theology, such that it is.

By the way, after the Army Air Force and a mission to Switzerland, I married Marilyn Olson of that high school foursome. We were blessed with seven wonderful children, who are the pride of my life. But life can be complex, and today I am married to Mary Thorpe, the other female in that happy group! Life is full of unforeseen twists and turns, but knowledge and joy are still intimately united, and the restored gospel is true!

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Frank Boyer Salisbury grew up in Springville and Salt Lake City, Utah. After a year in the Army Air Force, he served as a missionary in Switzerland. As a teenager, he led hikes and taught nature and crafts at two Scout camps, Tracy Wigwam and Camp Steiner, where he began a life-long fascination with biology in general and botany in particular—as well as all the physical sciences. B.S. and M.A. degrees in botany and biochemistry at the University of Utah were followed by a doctoral degree in plant physiology and geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (1955). After a year (1954/55) teaching ecology, general biology, and other subjects at Pomona College (substituting for a professor on sabbatical), he spent eleven years at Colorado State University, then moved to Utah State University to become department head of the newly organized Plant Science Department in the College of Agriculture. He resigned as department chairman after four years to spend more time writing, then continued at Utah State for a total of 31 years. He retired in 1997, served with his wife in the Ohio Columbus Mission, returned to live in Salt Lake City (and serve as an ordinance worker in the Salt Lake Temple, 2002-2008), and has since been working on writing projects.

Professor Salisbury has authored or coauthored approximately three hundred items. He was a member of the editorial boards of Plant Physiology (1967–1992), BioScience (1972–1978), and the International Journal of Plant Sciences (1991-1999), and he served as Editor-in-Chief for the Americas and Pacific Rim Countries (1989–1993) and as Editor (1993–1996) of the Journal of Plant Physiology. Among his fifteen books are The Flowering Process (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1963); The Biology of Flowering (New York: Natural History Press, 1971), for high school students; (with R.V. Parke) Vascular Plants: Form and Function (1964, 1970); (with E. J. Kormondy, T. F. Sherman, N. T. Spratt, and G. McCaine) Biology (1977); (with C. Ross) Plant Physiology (1969, 1978, 1985, 1991, besides editions in Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and other languages); (with W.A. Jensen) Botany (1972, 1984)—the latter four all published by Wadsworth, in Belmont, California. He edited Units, Symbols, and Terminology for Plant Physiology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), contributing four chapters of his own to it, as well as Geochemistry and the Biosphere (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Synergetic Press, 2006). The Utah UFO Display: A Biologist’s Report (Old Greenwich, Connecticut: Devin Adair) was published in 1974, and a revised and updated version is in press with Cedar Fort, in Springville, Utah. His two books on science and religion written in the context of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Truth: By Reason and By Revelation (1965) and The Creation (1976), both from Deseret Book in Salt Lake City. A book dealing with biology and creation was published in 2006: The Case for Divine Design (Springville, Utah: Horizon). This book (written for a general audience) is an examination of evolution and creation ideas, providing arguments for both sides of the debate (but concluding that there is indeed evidence for both evolution and a Creator God).

Professor Salisbury’s research projects included the physiology of flowering, plants in the alpine tundra, plant growth under snow, achieving maximum yields of crop plants in controlled environments (to provide food and oxygen for astronauts), and plant response to gravity. He led a project to grow wheat in the Russian Space Station Mir. The wheat produced more biomass than had been grown in any other space experiment, but the seed heads were empty, thanks to trace amounts of ethylene in the cabin atmosphere—which provided valuable insight for future space experiments with plants. He spent a sabbatical year (1962/63) in Tübingen, Germany, and Innsbruck, Austria, and another (1983) in Austria (as a guest professor at the University of Innsbruck) and Israel (as a Lady Davis Fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

He received a Certificate of Merit from the Botanical Society of America in 1982, and the Founders Award from the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology in 1994. He served on the NASA Life Sciences Advisory Committee (1986–1988) and the NASA Aerospace Medical Advisory Committee (1988–1993), and was the Chairman of the NASA Controlled Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) Discipline Working Group (1988–1992).

Professor Salisbury was married to L. Marilyn Olson, and they had seven children. He is presently married to Mary Thorpe Salisbury. He has been a semiprofessional photographer since college days, and has strong interests in skiing, hiking, swimming, and sculpture.

Posted February 2010