Mormonism and the nature of God/King Follett Discourse

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Joseph Smith's King Follett discourse on the nature of God

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Question: Does what Joseph Smith taught about the creation of spirits contradict the scriptures?

It should be noted specifically that Joseph addresses the word “create” as meaning “to organize” and not to “create out of nothing"

Joseph Smith taught that spirits were not created, and that spirits did not have a beginning because they will not have an end. In scripture, however, there are many verses which stated that God created spirits.

  • Did what Joseph taught about the creation of spirits contradict the scriptures?

It should be noted specifically that Joseph addresses the word “create” as meaning “to organize” and not to “create out of nothing.” Therefore, God can still at some point “organize” whatever composes spirits just as He organized the “chaotic matter” into the world and all that we see. As long as one properly understands that "to create" is “to organize” rather than “to create out of nothing,” there is no problem or conflict between God creating spirits and creating the world. In both instances He used some preexistent material from which He organized both.

The statement upon which this teaching is based is actually an excerpt from Joseph Smith's April 7, 1844 talk known as the "King Follett Discourse"

In the 2008-9 lesson manual Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, we find the following in Chapter 17 - The Great Plan of Salvation:

In April 1844, the Prophet taught: “I have another subject to dwell upon, which is calculated to exalt man. … It is associated with the subject of the resurrection of the dead,—namely, the soul—the mind of man—the immortal spirit. Where did it come from? All learned men and doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning; but it is not so: the very idea lessens man in my estimation. I do not believe the doctrine; I know better. Hear it, all ye ends of the world; for God has told me so; and if you don’t believe me, it will not make the truth without effect. …"

“I am dwelling on the immortality of the spirit of man. Is it logical to say that the intelligence of spirits is immortal, and yet that it has a beginning? The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end. There never was a time when there were not spirits. … " [1]

The present text of quotes from the "King Follet discourse" as recorded in the lesson manual is from the Grimshaw Amalgamation

The present text of quotes from the "King Follet discourse" as recorded in the lesson manual is from the Grimshaw Amalgamation, which was the work of Jonathan Grimshaw in 1855. Grimshaw was a clerk in the Church Historian's Office assigned to prepare Joseph Smith’s sermons for inclusion in what would eventually become the 7-volume History of the Church.

Grimshaw relied upon the accounts of the four men who made record of the prophet’s words on that day

Since there was no stenographic report of the sermon and no prepared text from which to reconstruct the sermon, Grimshaw relied upon the accounts of the four men who made record of the prophet’s words on that day. Three of these men, Thomas Bullock, Willard Richards and William Clayton, were assigned to do so and the fourth, Wilford Woodruff, made a record for inclusion in his journal.

Thomas Bullock amalgamated together his account and that of William Clayton in 1844, which was then printed in the LDS periodical Times and Seasons. Grimshaw took this amalgamation and amalgamated it with the accounts of Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff in an attempt to provide the most complete account possible. This version of the sermon has been reprinted more than any other and has been published in the Ensign, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is also the source of the quotations noted above from Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith.

Does the teaching contradict scripture?

The following quote appeared in the April and May 1971 Ensign on pages 13-17 of each. Within the sermon, Joseph is reported as having said:

“I am dwelling on the immortality of the spirit of man. Is it logical to say that the intelligence of spirits is immortal, and yet that it has a beginning? The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end. There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven.”

The question is: Are there indications within the scriptures regarding creation contradict such a statement? It should be noted that the scriptures themselves clearly state that,

“Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” (DC 93:29) It would appear that whatever this “intelligence” is, it cannot be “created or made.” Precisely what this “intelligence” is and whether it is an individuated spirit being or merely the chaotic precursor to an organized individuated spirit has been the subject of a much of discussion in LDS thought. Suffice to say that we existed as this “intelligence” previous to whatever action the Father took that resulted in our becoming His spirit children. This is the manner in which the matter has been understood and expounded upon within Church publications.

Does the fact that we existed as “intelligence” previous to our organization into spirits preclude “creation”? Not necessarily. It would all depend upon how one views the process of “creation.” Did God create the world from nothing as most of our Christian brothers from other faiths infer? Joseph did not think so. In the same sermon he stated:

“You ask the learned doctors why they say the world was made out of nothing, and they will answer, “Doesn’t the Bible say he created the world?” And they infer, from the word create, that it must have been made out of nothing. Now, the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time He had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end.”

Therefore, it is not merely “intelligence” which cannot be “created or made” but “chaotic matter” or “element.” Something existed, some form of primordial “matter” or “element” which “had an existence from the time He [God] had” just as “The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.”


Question: What was Gordon B. Hinckley's opinion about the King Follett Discourse?

Some Christians claim that, in an effort to appear more "mainline" Christian, the Church is downplaying the importance of some doctrines taught late in Joseph Smith's lifetime

Some Christians claim that, in an effort to appear more "mainline" Christian, the Church is downplaying the importance of some doctrines taught late in Joseph Smith's lifetime. Prominent among these is the doctrine of human deification. To bolster their argument, they usually quote from a 1997 Time magazine interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley.

On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he [Hinckley] 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.[2]

A combination of an ambiguous question, a complicated and little-understood doctrine, and TIME's incomplete representation of both the question and the answer contributed to the confusion.

It is amusing, though, to see anti-Mormons scramble to find fault—as if President Hinckley would announce a change of doctrine in a magazine interview!

Hinckley considered it's subject a "grand and incomparable concept"

In 1994, Gordon B. Hinckley emphasized the importance of the King Follett Discourse:

On the other hand, the whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become!

Our enemies have criticized us for believing in this. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.
(Gordon B. Hinckley, “Don’t Drop the Ball,” Ensign, Nov 1994, 46)

Note that President Hinckley is talking about how man may become like God. Note also that he makes no comment about God once being a man. In this Ensign article, he does not comment on the statements made by Joseph Smith or Lorenzo Snow that God was once a man, but he does emphasize what these two men said about man becoming like God.


Question: Why does TIME's report make it appear the Pres. Hinckley is downplaying Joseph Smith's statements in the King Follett Discourse?

TIME omitted the portion of Hinckley's remarks that clarified what he was saying

It is important to note thatTIME's report did not include the entire citation, and President Hinckley was not denying or downplaying Joseph Smith's statements in the King Follett Discourse. It is important to note which question was being asked. Lorenzo Snow's famous "couplet" on deification reads as follows: "As man is now, God once was; as God is now man may be."[3]

There are two parts of the couplet:

  • As man is now, God once was
  • As God is now, man may be.

President Hinckley was asked about the first part of the couplet, as the citation above demonstrates. (The second part of the couplet is typically the focus of LDS doctrine and practice, since it is something over which mortals have some degree of influence.)

The exact question asked was:

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?

President Hinckley's complete response was:

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 portion in italics was omitted from TIME's reporting.]

He did not deny or renounce the doctrine. Quite simply, President Hinckley asserted that:

  • we don't emphasize it.
  • we don't tend to teach it much in public discourse.
  • he doesn't know much about this topic, though he understands the philosophical underpinnings.
  • no one else in the Church has much information on it either.

Ambiguity

The question is also somewhat ambiguous. TIME says they asked "whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man." But, the actual question was "Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?" {emphasis added)

"Teaching" can be understood in at least two senses:

  • "doctrine"/"belief," in the sense of "does the church still hold this belief?"
  • "something that is taught or preached," "actively taught"

The reporter seems to have meant the question in the first sense; President Hinckley seems to have responded in the second sense—the first part of his answer was "I don't know that we teach it" (emphasis added). That is, it is not topic upon which the Church or its leaders spend much time, simply because very little is known about it. This misunderstanding of the sense it which "teach" is understood is a good example of the logical fallacy of amphibology at work.

Furthermore, President Hinckley seems to have understood the question as he did because of the reporter's prelude to the question. The interviewer noted that "[t]his is something that Christian writers are always addressing." I suspect that he meant that "This is a point of LDS doctrine which always troubles non-LDS Christian authors, and they write a lot about it."

President Hinckley's reply that "I don't know that we emphasize it" seems a clear response to this idea—other writers or other denominations may spend a lot of time on the issue, but we don't. Again, this shows that he understood "teaching" in the second sense, and not the first.


Question: Why didn't Gordon B. Hinckley say more about the King Follett Discourse in the TIME Magazine interview?

t should be remembered that this doctrine requires a great deal of "background" to understand even the little that the Church does know

Providing that background in an interview for the general public is virtually impossible. Anti-Mormon authors are always quick to pounce on "strange" things they can use to alienate other Christians from LDS theology; one might suspect that President Hinckley did not want to confuse matters by attempting what probably would have been an unsatisfactory explanation of the doctrine.

Also the responses a reporter receives in an oral interview are, by the nature of the interview itself, unprepared and off-the-cuff. Frequently, interviewees will give hasty answers that reflect a misunderstanding of the question or are the result of not expecting certain questions in the first place. Had the reporter submitted his questions in writing and asked for written responses, it's quite likely that President Hinckley's response to this question would have been clearer.

President Hinckley responds

Clearly aware of the controversy that his comments had engendered, President Hinckley raised the subject in October 1997 General Conference:

The media have been kind and generous to us. This past year of pioneer celebrations has resulted in very extensive, favorable press coverage. There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that's to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.[4]

President Hinckley quotes Lorenzo Snow

Finally, any claim that President Hinckley did not believe the King Follett Discourse or the Lorenzo Snow couplet has to deal with this contemporary public statement from a talk he gave in October 1994 General Conference:

...[T]he whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become! Our enemies have criticized us for believing in this. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.[5]

Although he did not mention the other half of President Snow's statement ("As man is, God once was"), it's quite clear from the context that President Hinckley was aware of and agreed with it.

Gospel Topics on LDS.org, "Becoming Like God"

Gospel Topics,  Gospel Topics on LDS.org, (February 25, 2014)
Since that sermon, known as the King Follett discourse, the doctrine that humans can progress to exaltation and godliness has been taught within the Church. Lorenzo Snow, the Church’s fifth President, coined a well-known couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”43 Little has been revealed about the first half of this couplet, and consequently little is taught. When asked about this topic, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told a reporter in 1997, “That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” When asked about the belief in humans’ divine potential, President Hinckley responded, “Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.”

Click here to view the complete article

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Citation from Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith: History of the Church, 6:310–12; capitalization modernized; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Apr. 7, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton; see also appendix, page 562, item 3.
  2. David van Biema, "Kingdom Come," TIME Magazine (4 August 1997): 56, ellipsis in original.
  3. Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, compiled by Clyde J. Williams, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 2. ISBN 0884945170.
  4. Gordon B. Hinckley, "Drawing Nearer to the Lord," Ensign (November 1997), 4–6.
  5. Gordon B. Hinckley, "Don't Drop the Ball," Ensign (November 1994), 46–49.