Does President Gordon B. Hinckley Understand LDS Doctrine?

Michael W. Fordham

Does President Gordon B. Hinckley Understand LDS Doctrine?

The August 4, 1997, edition of Time magazine published an article entitled “Kingdom Come” by David Van Biema. Since its publication, critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have pounced on a couple of sentences which they use to attack President Gordon B. Hinckley as a leader who does not understand the doctrine of the Church. An examination into the facts, however, shows that it is the critics who fail to understand just what President Hinckley stated. This is probably due to their eagerness to argue against the Church, instead of a desire to actually learn the truth about the Church. The claim of the critics is that President Hinckley dodged the issue, and that he does not understand what the church has taught in the past. And what is the issue, you ask? There is a well-known couplet in the Church that says, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now man may be.” Lorenzo Snow, President of the Church from 1898 to 1901, coined this couplet. The article in Time refers to this couplet, and the critics, as well as the interviewer, don’t seem to like the response that President Hinckley gave.

Before continuing, it would be appropriate to quote the sentences in question, just as they appeared in Time (page 56):

On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it … I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.

Professional anti-Mormon Luke P. Wilson wrote to the Church and asked if President Hinckley was accurately quoted. (Mr. Wilson’s organization was kind enough to provide photocopies of his correspondence with the Church and Time in this matter.) In a letter dated September 3, 1997, the Office of the First Presidency replied to Mr. Wilson by stating:

The quotation you reference was taken out of context. The statement was made in response to a question about the actual circumstances and background surrounding remarks given during the funeral services of a man named King Follet, not the doctrine of exaltation and the blessings that await those who will inherit the celestial kingdom. (emphasis added)

After receiving his reply from the Church, Mr. Wilson sent the following correspondence to Time.

September 9, 1997

David Van Biema
Time Magazine
Time & Life Building
Rockefeller Center
New York, NY 10020

Dear Mr. Van Biema:

I am writing to seek clarification regarding a quotation attributed to Gordon B. Hinckley in your cover article on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Day Saints in the August 4, 1997 issue of Time.

In response to your question as to whether or not it is a teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that “God the Father was once a man,” President Hinckley is quoted as replying, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it … I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don’t know a lot about it, and I don’t think others know a lot about it.” (page 56)

Because successive Presidents of the LDS Church, going back to Joseph Smith in 1844, have clearly taught that God was once a man who progressed to become God, I found President Hinckley’s answer to your question remarkable. I wrote the Office of the First Presidency to seek clarification, and received a letter stating that President Hinckley was quoted out of context (see enclosed correspondence).

Would you be so kind as to tell me whether you accept as accurate the explanation offered to me in the letter from F. Michael Watson of the Office of the First Presidency, namely, that you quoted President Hinckley out of context.

Luke P. Wilson
Executive Director


Let’s be honest about the results of these communications. First, the ellipses used in the letter quoting President Hinckley are in the article as published in Time, indicating an omission of text. In a letter to me from the Office Manager of Mr. Wilson’s organization, Barbara Ray explains:

The ellipsis […] that occurs in the transcript does not indicate that any words were left out; it simply indicates a pause in the conversation.

There are two ellipses in connection with this matter: one in the transcript, which did not appear in the article as published, and one in the article as published. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Time’s correspondence to Mr. Wilson that indicates a pause in the conversation, or an omission. It is completely silent on the matter.

On his Web site Mr. Wilson says:

In a telephone conversation, Van Biema told us that Time stood by its story as written, and that he had asked Time senior correspondent Richard N. Ostling, who conducted the Hinckley interview, to reply to our letter.

I have no copy of a transcript of this telephone conversation, so I’ll have to take Mr. Wilson’s word for it, and I have no reason to doubt what he says here. Of course Time stands by its story. Even though there are other errors regarding the Church in the article, I am sure Time would stand by its story. Have you ever heard of a news organization not standing by its story? Mr. Ostling replied with a handwritten memo stating,

Here’s the transcript of my question and President Hinckley’s response to me. This came just after a long discussion on whether men can become gods, which the President affirmed. You can judge Mr. Watson’s “out of context” assertion for yourself. (emphasis added)

Notice that the conversation was not about Heavenly Father’s past, but specifically about our potential to become like Him. President Hinckley clearly confirmed the second half of President Snow’s couplet in the interview. Time agrees. However, what is important to this conversation, considering it is about context, is that the statement was only a part of the total statements on the subject. The transcript provided by Mr. Wilson’s organization of this portion of the interview shows just what President Hinckley’s published quote was in response to.

Transcript Comments
Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.

A: Yeah

Q: …about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are? Notice the ellipsis starting this question. This may be the ellipsis Ms. Ray was referring to, but there is no indication of such.

Also, pay particular note to the actual question being asked.

A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it. The answer is correct; we do not teach in our classes today that God was a man just like us. We emphasize trying to pattern our lives after Jesus Christ so we may reach our full potential of becoming like God is. As for not discussing the concept in public discourse, all one has to do is examine Conference talks to see the truth of the answer.

Red text was omitted in the Time article and replaced with ellipsis.

President Hinckley did not deny this part of President Snow’s couplet. He merely said we do not emphasize it, which is true. We are more concerned with our future, not Heavenly Father’s past. So how could this be out of context? Simply because the author of the article said “On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain” does not mean that President Hinckley was, in fact, uncertain. The author goes on to quote President Hinckley stating that we do not emphasize it. The article did not print the question President Hinckley was answering. The question was, “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the father was once a man like we are?” (emphasis added) To which President Hinckley replied, “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it.”

There is a big difference between Time’s published statement that President Hinckley “sounded uncertain” and President Hinckley’s statement that we do not emphasize it. So, was the Church correct in its reply to Mr. Wilson? Did Time take President Hinckley’s comment out of context? You bet they did.

The real problem our critics have is not that President Hinckley sounded uncertain, but that they disagree with the LDS understanding of the nature of God. The real question should be, is President Snow’s couplet an accurate reflection of LDS doctrine? Luke P. Wilson says on his Web site, “It is clear that this doctrine is still taught today.” He follows this statement by quoting page 9 of the Gospel Principles manual,

The Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible–I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form‘ (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345). God is a glorified and perfected man, a personage of flesh and bones (see D&C 130:22).

This article in the manual continues on to say (but which Mr. Wilson did not quote),

God is perfect. He is a God of love, mercy, charity, truth, power, faith, knowledge, and judgement. He has all power. He knows all things. He is full of goodness. All good things come from God. Everything that He does is to help His children become like Him – a god. He has said, ‘Behold, this is my work and my glory–to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man’ (Moses 1:39).

Everything Latter-day Saints teach about God is in agreement with the rest of the Christian world, with the exception of His nature. Joseph Smith said God is in the same form as we are, because we were created in His image as the Bible plainly and clearly tells us. But again, we do not emphasize Heavenly Father’s past, but the possibility of our future. Besides being created in God’s image, the Bible also informs us that Jesus Christ is the Son of Man. If God calls Himself man, and we are in His image, and we are called man, then is it correct to say that Heavenly Father was once like we are? Apparently so according to scripture. And I would much rather believe what the Bible teaches us than what the historic and traditional creeds teach us. Now, let’s look at what President Snow said about how this couplet came about.

I remember an incident which occurred in Kirtland when I received my first patriarchal blessing from Father Smith. A better man never existed, nor was there a man better-loved than he. I was introduced by my sister Eliza R., though at that time I was not a Latter-day Saint and had no idea of becoming one. He said to me: “Don’t worry, take it calmly and the Lord will show you, and you will want to be baptized,” He told me another thing that greatly surprised me. He said, “You will be great, and as great as you want to be, as great as God Himself, and you will not wish to be greater.” I could not understand this, but years after in Nauvoo while talking upon a Principle of the gospel, the Spirit of God rested powerfully upon me and showed me more clearly than I can now see your faces a certain principle and its glory, and it came to me summarized in this brief sentence: “As man is now, God once was; as God is now man may be.” The Spirit of God was on me in a marvelous manner all that day, and I stored that great truth away in my mind. I felt that I had learnt something that I ought not to communicate to others.

“As God now is, man may be.” Now, I have told you what Father Smith said to me, that I should become as great as I could want to be, even as great as God Himself. About two years and a half after, in Nauvoo, I asked Elder Sherwood to explain a certain passage of scripture; and while he was endeavoring to give an explanation, the Spirit of God fell upon me to a marked extent, and the Lord revealed to me, just as plainly as the sun at noon-day, this principle, which I put in a couplet: “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.” That fulfilled Father Smith’s declaration. Nothing was ever revealed more distinctly than that was to me. Of course, now that it is so well known it may not appear such a wonderful manifestation; but when I received it, the knowledge was marvelous to me. This principle, in substance, is found also in the scriptures. The Lord said to John, as recorded in the third chapter of his Revelation: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” [Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, compiled by Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 2.]

Obedience and purity are requirements of godhood. That exalted position was made manifest to me at a very early day. I had a direct revelation of this. It was most perfect and complete. If there ever was a thing revealed to man perfectly, clearly, so that there could be no doubt or dubiety, this was revealed to me, and it came in these words: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be.” This may appear to some minds as something very strange and remarkable, but it is in perfect harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ and with His promises. He said: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Revelation 3:21). The Apostle Paul also taught in this wise: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). This is the high destiny of the sons of God, they who overcome, who are obedient to His commandments, who purify themselves even as He is pure. They are to become like Him; they will see Him as He is; they will behold His face and reign with Him in His glory, becoming like unto Him in every particular. (Ibid., 5.)

Again, notice that the emphasis, even by President Snow, is on our future, that man may become “as God now is.” President Hinckley was correct, we do not emphasize Heavenly Father’s past. He did not deny it. He was not “confused” about the doctrine. He was not dodging the question. Time misconstrued his comments to mean otherwise, thus Time did, in fact, take President Hinckley’s comments out of context. As a result of that, so have the anti-Mormons, like Luke P. Wilson, who have jumped on the bandwagon.

The individuals from Time who were involved with the published article are not members of the LDS Church, nor do they understand LDS doctrine. The same is true of Mr. Wilson. Those who do not attend Sunday School, Sacrament meeting, priesthood meeting, Relief Society, Ward Conference, Stake Conference, General Conference, or read the Ensign, scriptures, nor study LDS manuals, have no right to define for those that do, just what the beliefs of the members of the Church are. Perhaps those that criticize President Hinckley for what they think he understands about the nature of God should spend their time trying to understand the incomprehensible God they claim to believe in. After all, it is important for our eternal salvation to know God.

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3, emphasis added).

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