Janne Mattson Sjodahl (1853-1939) was a highly educated Swedish convert (in fact, he emigrated to Utah before he converted, specifically to investigate the church). He trained for the Baptist ministry in Stockholm, earned a further divinity degree in London, and studied German, Greek, Hebrew, and a handful of other languages, as well as his native Swedish and the fluent English he learned in London.

In Utah, Sjodahl was the first person to be endowed in the Manti Temple. He translated the LDS scriptures into Swedish, and, after serving a mission to Palestine, he began a notable editorial career with the Deseret News, Salt Lake’s various Scandinavian-language newspapers, and the church magazines. He assisted apostle James E. Talmage in revising the footnotes that appeared in the 1920 edition of the Book of Mormon, authored commentaries on the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and entered the debate over Book of Mormon geography. There is no question that he made a solid and lasting contribution to Mormon intellectual life.

… Which is why I was a little surprised to run across his challenge of Einstein’s theory of special relativity:


The newspapers have told us that the celebrated scientist, Professor Albert Einstein, at present [February 1931] is located in a modest bungalow at Pasadena, Cal., for the purpose of putting some of his ideas of the structure of the universe to scientific tests. The professor maintains, as is well known, that we are living in a world in which everything has four dimensions instead of only three. Time he considers as the fourth dimension. Every object, accordingly, must be regarded as having a time-dimension as well as length, breadth and height. This is part of his theory of the structure of the universe.

Sjodahl then runs through the history of human attempts to understand the cosmos: the harmonious, luminous orbs of Pythagoras, producing the “music of the spheres”; Ptolemy’s view that the earth was the center of the universe; Copernicus, with his revolutionary recognition that the earth moved around the sun; Tycho Brahe … Kepler … Galileo … La Place … Newton …

“Now,” Sjodahl says with a hint of sarcasm, “Professor Einstein is about to enrich the knowledge of mankind with another plan.”


I do not claim to comprehend his theory in every detail, but, as far as I have been able to follow his arguments, which are to a large extent expressed in Algebraic formulae, I understand him to maintain that the wonderful movements of the celestial orbs, as explained by astronomers, are only apparent. We are, as it were, sitting in a rapidly moving railroad car. We see the objects near the track moving in a direction opposite to ours, while objects farther away seem to be moving in the same direction as we. But all this is only optical delusion.

The velocity and the direction of a body in motion depends entirely on the point of observation. Dr. Einstein expresses this principle of “relativity” thus:

The carriage is in motion relative to the embankment.

The embankment is in motion relative to the carriage.

These are his own words, and they seem to take it for granted that the apparent motion of the embankment is as real as the motion of the train, depending on the point of view we occupy. And yet, it seems to me very clear that, while I can go from Salt Lake City to Ogden, sitting in a railroad car moving in that direction, I cannot return to Salt Lake City by sitting on the embankment, no matter what point of view I take.

Sjodahl’s dismissal of this illustration demonstrates a rather thorough lack of understanding of relativity: that the perception of motion depends on relative positions and movements. The train carriage is changing position relative to Salt Lake City, Ogden, and the embankment between them, while the two cities and the ground in between are not moving relative to each other.

Sjodahl runs through a few other examples illustrating Einstein’s ideas, dismissing them with equal ease: “How utterly difficult it is to follow” the line of argument of “the famous professor,” he says. The perception of relative movements is not due to reality, but to “error of judgment on the part of the observer” – after all, “we have known persons who have called green red and red green,” too. Clocks act strangely; two lengths of cloth, each equal to the same yardstick, are not of equal length; a rod placed on the floor of an infinitely fast train grows shorter and shorter, “from which conclusion seems inevitable, that if the train moves fast enough, there will be no rod at all, and yet, when the train slows up, the rod is there, and was there, all the time.”

Sjodahl doesn’t care what algebraic formulas “the famous professor” produces in support of his absurd claims, because “it seems to me that by such reasoning it would be easy to argue the entire universe out of existence.”

And then he falls back onto the non-argument that has always been the refuge of religious people who do not understand secular studies (which is, really, only a variant of the refuge of secularists who do not understand the claims of religion, who fall back to a sole reliance on what can be observed and measured):

I am not disputing the theory of Professor Einstein, but I firmly believe that the world we inhabit is real, both as to substance and motion, and not a complex system of optical illusions. I believe, further, that it is, both in substance and qualities, such as God intended that we should perceive it through our five senses, which are so many counterparts of the Divine image.

I’m not sure why this episode fascinates me. Because I hadn’t realized mathematics could be a front in the culture wars? Because I like finding moments when larger cultural issues are reflected in our own culture? Because while algebra is opaque to me and my most sophisticated numerical calculations end with balancing a checkbook, I can actually visualize the simpler thought experiments Einstein described?

What is your reaction to Sjodahl’s reaction to Einstein?

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