Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Authority (Part 12: The Unsettled Doctrine of Premortality)
You may be wondering what this topic has to do with authority. Well, quite a bit, it turns out, but you’ll have to wait for two weeks to see where I’m going with this because it’s rather involved. So hang in there until part 14. What follows in the next three posts is an abbreviated version of a longer article that may appear sometime next year in print. We’ll see.
To begin this exploration of premortality, let me suggest that although our understanding of the particulars of the premortal existence is certainly meager, without this doctrine, the boundary between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity blurs in certain ways, because it has inescapable ramifications not only for how we understand our own eternal nature and potential, but also how we view our relationship with God, including the question of why and how he is able to exercise authority over us. In short, this doctrine is perhaps the most distinctively “Mormon” of all our doctrines and is something we should neither gloss over nor disavow in any way. This tenet is not just an afterthought to Joseph Smith’s other teachings; it is, in a fundamental way, the culmination of what he was trying to teach the Saints in Nauvoo, and if we were to fully embrace this doctrine, it might have several consequences, not least of which would be to revolutionize the way we understand and exercise authority in the Church.
A Selective History of the Doctrine of Preexistence
In 2013, BYU Studies Quarterly published an essay on adoption theology by Samuel Brown, a theology that he claims, among other things, offered an alternative to the doctrine of spirit birth that has prevailed in the Church since shortly after the death of Joseph Smith.1 Before beginning my edit of Brown’s essay, I spent some time reacquainting myself with the history of this doctrine. What I learned reinforced for me just how crucial our view of the premortal experience is and how important it is to examine the ramifications of certain beliefs, some of which remain very much unsettled.
The doctrine of spirit birth plays an integral role in the development of the more encompassing doctrine of preexistence. Blake Ostler recounts a portion of this doctrinal history in a 1982 Dialogue article,2 as does Charles Harrell in a 1988 BYU Studies article3 and in his more recent “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology.4 Ostler and Harrell begin with early Mormonism (roughly 1830–1835) when Latter-day Saints accepted the Catholic/Protestant idea of an infinite and absolute God and perhaps had no well-developed concept yet of an actual premortal existence of humanity. It has been argued that the spiritual creation mentioned in what is now the book of Moses5 was understood by early Mormons to involve a strictly conceptual creation rather than an actual creation of all things, including men and women, in spirit form. Ostler presents this argument,6 for instance, but Harrell contends that “no record from the early era of the Church offers any evidence that this spiritual creation was ever viewed in any way other than as a spirit creation.”7 Although we may not be able to discern exactly how early Latter-day Saints understood the concept of “spiritual creation,” we do know that Joseph Smith introduced the idea of uncreated intelligence in 1833 with the revelation that is now D&C 93,8 but at that time the word intelligence was understood differently than Mormons today interpret the scriptural text. The notion of uncreated intelligence was understood to mean a general knowledge or awareness and not a personal preexistent spirit or unembodied but self-aware entity.9 Contemporary Latter-day Saints have been guilty of superimposing their current definition of terms on earlier statements, which creates problems in understanding what those early Latter-day Saints actually believed.
In 1839, Joseph Smith publicly rejected the notion of creatio ex nihilo and introduced the idea that each individual’s spirit was not created and has always existed.10 This teaching appeared on several different occasions,11 and again what Joseph meant exactly with the term spirit is subject to debate, but he did use the term soul twice in describing the eternal existence of human beings, suggesting something more than a form of nonsentient intelligence. B. H. Roberts, for instance, insisted that Joseph was referring only to the mind or intelligence of man, not to his spirit body,12 but Joseph could very well have been referring to the spirit as an embodied form. In 1842, Joseph began teaching that spirit is matter.13 He expanded the idea of uncreated, eternal spirits and their relationship to God until his death in 1844. In the so-called King Follett discourse, for example, Joseph taught that God found “himself in the midst of spirit and glory [and] because he was greater saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself.”14 If the record is an accurate reflection of what Joseph taught,15 it appears he understood that God did not “create” his spirit children, but found them and entered into a covenant relationship with them. This is consistent with the book of Abraham, which explains that God “came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences” that Abraham was shown (Abraham 3:21). Two comments on this statement: First, if neither God nor the human race has a beginning, what is this beginning Abraham talks about, which is also mentioned in D&C 93:29 (“Man was also in the beginning with God”)? It must be the beginning of our association with our Father. If we accept the notion that God was once as we are, we also must accept the idea that he was not always God and that he was therefore not always our Father, which means our relationship with him had to have a beginning. Second, Joseph seemed to use the terms intelligence, spirit, and soul interchangeably at times. Two verses later in Abraham’s record, referring to the “intelligences” mentioned in verse 21, the account states that “God saw these souls16 that they were good” (emphasis mine), so he likely wasn’t seeing what modern-day Mormons would consider “intelligences,” namely, some sort of self-aware prespirit entities, because this concept did not develop until many years after Joseph’s death.
In all of Joseph’s teachings about the eternal nature of God and his children, there is no mention of exactly how they are related. Harrell and Ostler agree that there is no record of Joseph introducing the idea of a literal spirit birth, although Harrell argues that “Joseph Smith must be credited with having provided the impetus that led to an awareness of spirit birth.”17 Terryl Givens goes a step further, suggesting that Joseph must have given his close associates reason to believe not only that spirits are eternal but also that something such as spirit birth occurs. For instance, “William Clayton . . . recorded Smith as teaching that marriages which persist in the eternities will include the power to ‘have children in the celestial glory,’ implying that we may have been created by a comparable process. . . . Other evidence, however, suggests that Smith considered spirit and intelligence to be synonymous concepts, referring to an eternally existent entity.”18 If he had lived a year or two longer, he may have resolved this uncertainty, but we have no way of knowing which path Joseph’s thought may have taken. After his demise, though, his followers began openly developing the doctrine of spirit birth. According to Brown,
By 1845, several Church leaders were arguing publicly that Joseph Smith’s divine anthropology required a birth from prespirit into spirit, a transition graphically patterned on the process of gestation and parturition familiar from human biology. There is a relentless, albeit asymmetrical, logic in this attempt to describe the internal workings of the system Joseph Smith had revealed only in broad contours. . . . They could as easily have chosen the spiritual rebirth of conversion and baptism, or the covenantal fatherhood proclaimed by King Benjamin, or the rebirth of resurrection as the exemplar for the process of premortal birth, but they chose mortal parenthood as their reference point.19
Ostler indicates that after Joseph’s death Brigham Young and Orson Pratt, who disagreed on the basic nature of God and man, both nevertheless adopted the idea of a literal spirit birth.20 Although others promoted the idea of spirit birth,21 Young and Pratt were its two most influential early proponents. Young preferred the idea that personal identity was created at the organization of the spirit body and that intelligence was a raw material of sorts, without self-awareness or agency or accountability.22 Pratt’s theory, by contrast, involved “particles” that were eternal, self-aware, and capable of being governed by laws. They were organized at spirit birth into a new configuration that required them to act, feel, and think in union (as a spirit body).23 Both Young and Pratt agreed, however, that both man and God did not exist as autonomous, self-aware individuals until after they had been organized through the process of spirit birth.
In 1884, after the deaths of Young and Pratt, Charles Penrose promoted a theory somewhat similar to Orson Pratt’s, endorsing again the idea that only “in the elementary particles of His organism” did God have no beginning and that “there must have been a time when [God] was organized.”24 In 1907, B. H. Roberts published the idea that before spirit birth we existed as individualized “intelligences” who were then given spirit bodies through a process similar to mortal conception, gestation, and birth.25 Whether this idea is original to Roberts is uncertain, perhaps even doubtful. As Jim Faulconer has pointed out,26 in 1895, Brigham Young Academy instructor Nels L. Nelson published an article in The Contributor in which he proposed three components in man: the ego, the spirit body, and the physical body. Defining the first component, Nelson wrote: “The ego [is] that in us which enables us to say: ‘This is I, and this is the universe.’ This principle is co-eternal with God. It never had a beginning nor can it ever have an end. It might appropriately be called the mind of the spirit.”27 This notion of an uncreated ego, he claimed, was the only way he could see to harmonize Joseph Smith’s teaching that the spirit is uncreated and the later-developed notion that it is born of Heavenly Parents. Roberts had certainly read Nelson’s article, for he mentioned both “Prof. Nelson” and the “ego” in his own 1907 article,28 but he expanded upon this reasoning and perhaps adopted the terminology of Smith’s King Follett discourse, renaming this uncreated component the “intelligence,” a self-aware prespirit entity. Roberts was not alone in promoting this theory. In the draft of his 1914 Rational Theology that was submitted for approval to the First Presidency, John A. Widtsoe promoted ideas similar to Roberts’s.29
Significantly, Roberts’s explanation of premortality was rejected by the First Presidency, as was Widtsoe’s, and the relevant text was deleted from Rational Theology before it was published; Roberts’s magnum opus, The Truth, the Way, and the Life, in which he outlined his view of a two-tiered premortality, was not published until sixty-one years after his death (jointly by BYU Studies and Deseret Book, followed the next year by a Signature Books edition). But because of the inherent appeal of the idea of sentient prespirit intelligences, over time it gained ascendency and is now probably the most common understanding of the premortal existence held among Latter-day Saints.30
Bruce R. McConkie and others, however, promoted a neoorthodox view more similar to Brigham Young’s, insisting that men and women did not exist as conscious entities before spirit birth.31 The Church has never weighed in with an official stance on this disagreement over our prespirit status (if we indeed had one), and so a degree of ambiguity reigns at this fundamental level of LDS theology. The one constant, however, from 1845 to the present—appearing in the theories of Pratt, Young, Penrose, Nelson, Roberts, McConkie, and many others—is the idea that we are begotten by our Heavenly Father and given birth by a Heavenly Mother in a process similar to human conception, gestation, and parturition.
Darwin’s Contribution to LDS Theology
Ironically, it may have been Charles Darwin who indirectly cemented spirit birth’s place in the Mormon doctrine of premortality.32 Five years after Young’s death, arguing against Darwin’s theory of evolution, which presented challenges to Christian theology in general, Orson Whitney employed the notion of spirit birth in his defense of the biblical account of earth’s (and man’s) creation: “Man is the direct offspring of Deity, of a being who is the Begetter of his spirit in the eternal worlds, and the Architect of his mortal tabernacle in this. . . . For man is the child of God, fashioned in His image and endowed with His attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable in due time of becoming a God.”33
Twenty-seven years later, in November 1909, in the wake of a Brigham Young University centennial celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin and troubling statements in support of Darwin by faculty member Ralph Chamberlin and others, the First Presidency issued a document (“The Origin of Man”) drafted by Orson Whitney and based largely on his 1882 article. This document included the following:
The Father of Jesus is our Father also. . . . Jesus, however, is the firstborn among all the sons of God—the first begotten in the spirit, and the only begotten in the flesh. He is our elder brother, and we, like Him, are in the image of God. All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother, and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity. . . . The doctrine of the pre-existence . . . shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality.34
This doctrinal exposition effectively sealed the deal in terms of casting spirit birth as the official doctrine of the Church regarding our premortal relationship with our Father in Heaven.
The doctrine of spirit birth gained traction only after Joseph Smith’s death; nevertheless, it seems to be the only official teaching of the Church today, although the wording current Church leaders use is often more cautious and measured than in earlier days, likely because of the adverse reaction this doctrine elicits from mainstream Christians.35
It may be that the doctrine of literal spirit birth emerged as an attempt to bridge the conceptual gap between Joseph’s early revelations (especially Moses 3) about a spiritual creation of everything, including humankind, preceding physical creation and his later teachings about uncreated and eternal spirits. This new doctrine, however, gave birth to another conundrum: how to account for evil and accountability in the world if, as Brigham Young taught, God created the spirits of men and women from impersonal eternal material called “intelligence.”36 This conundrum is identical to the dilemma created by the Christian doctrine creatio ex nihilo, merely moving it back one link in the chain of existence. B. H. Roberts (perhaps following the lead of Nels Nelson) solved this problem by introducing the idea of prespirit beings called “intelligences,” thus allowing for eternal inequality and accountability, but this idea introduced other philosophical difficulties, which are outlined briefly by Blake Ostler.37 What we are left with today are certain unsettled points of doctrine.
1. Samuel M. Brown, “Believing Adoption,” BYU Studies Quarterly 52, no. 2 (2013): 45–65.
2. Blake T. Ostler, “The Idea of Pre-Existence in the Development of Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15, no. 1 (1982): 59–78. Thomas G. Alexander also offers this argument in “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine from Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,” Sunstone 5 (July–August 1980): 33 n. 23.
3. Charles Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830–1844,” BYU Studies 28, no. 2 (1988): 75–96.
4. See Charles R. Harrell, “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Draper, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), ch. 11.
5. See Moses 3:1–7; 5:24; 6:36, 51, 59, 63.
6. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-Existence,” 61.
7. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 80.
8. D&C 93:24 states, “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”
9. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 82–83. Harrell quotes Parley P. Pratt and Thomas Ward to support the notion that the early Saints did not understand intelligence to mean a “personal preexistent spirit.”
10. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-Existence,” 61. See also Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 85. It should be noted that Joseph Smith’s understanding of the premortal existence of the human race and related concepts evolved and expanded over time. To try to harmonize all of his statements and even his revelations on the subject is probably impossible. Consequently, his later statements deserve more attention than his earlier statements. For example, Moses 6:36, revealed in June 1830, speaks of “spirits that God had created.” Likewise, Moses 3:5 refers to “the children of men” and that “in heaven I created them.” But in 1839, Joseph began teaching the doctrine of uncreated spirits: “The Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from Eternity & will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be Eternal.” Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book, 1991), 9, quoting the August 8, 1839, entry in Willard Richards Pocket Companion. In February 1840, he taught, “I believe that the soul is eternal; and had no beginning.” Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 33, quoting Matthew Livingston Davis, a journalist who reported a speech Joseph gave on February 5, 1840. It is difficult to reconcile these statements.
11. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 85, gives quotations from Joseph Smith in August 1839, February 1840, January 1841, March 1841, April 1842, and April 1844 to support this doctrinal innovation.
12. See Roberts’s footnote to his amalgamated version of Joseph’s King Follett Discourse, recorded in Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 6:311 (hereafter cited as History of the Church).
13. “In tracing the thing to the foundation, and looking at it philosophically we shall find a very material difference between the body and the spirit:—the body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit by many is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ—and state that spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic, and refined matter than the body;—that it existed before the body, can exist in the body, and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it.” Joseph Smith Jr., “Try the Spirits,” Times and Seasons 3 (April 1, 1842): 745. See also Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 84. On May 17, 1843, Joseph taught this doctrine at Ramus, Illinois; his words as recorded by William Clayton were later canonized as D&C 131:7.
14. Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 360, quoting William Clayton’s transcript.
15. The King Follett Discourse is generally quoted from one of two amalgamated texts, one published in History of the Church, and a more recent amalgamation by Stan Larson, published in BYU Studies in vol. 18, no. 2 (1978). These amalgamations are attempts to weave a coherent thread of oratory from four different sets of notes, all taken in longhand. The quotation here is taken from William Clayton’s account, not from an amalgamated text, but since it is a longhand transcript, it may not represent exactly what Joseph said.
16. Obviously, Joseph didn’t mean by “souls” our current understanding, which is body and spirit welded together (see D&C 88:15).
17. Harrell, “Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence,” 91.
18. Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 156.
19. Brown, “Believing Adoption,” 49.
20. See Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 64–65.
21. For example, Lorenzo Snow had speculated on the doctrine as early as 1842. Lorenzo Snow to Elder Walker, February 14, 1842, Lorenzo Snow Notebook 1841–1842, MS 2737, pp. 75–77, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. William W. Phelps had also written the notion into a hymn published several months after Joseph Smith’s death. William W. Phelps, “Come to Me,” Times and Seasons 6 (January 15, 1845): 783.
22. See discussion in Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 66. For examples of Brigham Young’s teachings see Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855–86), 2:135 (“The origin of thought was planted in our organization at the beginning of our being”); 6:31 (“What is the mind? It is that character that was made and fashioned after the image of God before these bodies were made”); 7:285 (“The life that is within us is a part of an eternity of life and is organized spirit, which is clothed upon by tabernacles”); 8:205 (“God is the source of all intelligence, no matter who possesses it, whether man upon the earth, the spirits in the spirit-world, the angels that dwell in the eternities of the Gods, or the most inferior intelligence among the devils in hell”). I should note here that as of the next issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, the practice of quoting from the Journal of Discourses will be seen as a bit iffy. An article we are publishing discusses the work of LaJean Carruth, an employee at the Church History Library, who for years has been transcribing the shorthand of George D. Watt, the secretary who recorded many of the speeches published in JD. What this project reveals is that the published version of a discourse often differs significantly from what the speaker actually said, with Watt either heavily editing or adding material to the speeches in order to make them read better (and make the speaker sound more educated). Often this process removed the personality of General Authorities from the discourses, particularly in the case of someone like Brigham Young. So we must now take quotes from JD with more than a pinch of salt.
23. See discussion in Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 64–65. Pratt taught that “each particle eternally existed prior to its organization; each was enabled to perceive its own existence; each had the power of self-motion.” Orson Pratt, The Seer (Washington, D.C., 1853), 102. These particle entities would be “organized in the womb of the celestial female” and become thereby in individual spirit body. “The particles that enter into the organization of the infant spirit are placed in a new sphere of action . . . [and] can no longer act, or feel, or think as independent individuals, but the law to control them in their new sphere requires them to act, and feel, and think in union.” Pratt, The Seer, 103.
24. Charles Penrose, in Journal of Discourses, 26:23, (November 16, 1884).
25. B. H. Roberts, “Immortality of Man,” Improvement Era 10, no. 6 (April 1907): 406–7, available at https://archive.org/stream/improvementera106unse#page/408/mode/2up.
26. James Faulconer, “The Mormon Understanding of Persons . . . and God,” http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Mormon-Understanding-of-Persons-and-God-James-Faulconer-08-18-2011?offset=1&max=1.
27. Nels L. Nelson, “Theosophy and Mormonism,” The Contributor 16, no. 12 (1895): 736.
28. Roberts, “Immortality of Man,” 407, 408.
29. See discussion in Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 30–31. See also John A. Widtsoe, Rational Theology as Taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: General Priesthood Committee, 1915), 26–27, 64–6, 146, for the published version of Widtsoe’s ideas.
30. “In spite of such cautionary statements [as made by Joseph Fielding Smith], numerous Mormon writers have assumed personal eternalism to be Mormonism’s official doctrine at least since 1940.” Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 72. In the April general conference of 2015, Elder D. Todd Christofferson gave this doctrine a semi-official stamp of approval by presenting it as if it were a settled matter: “Prophets have revealed that we first existed as intelligences and that we were given form, or spirit bodies, by God, thus becoming His spirit children.” D. Todd Christofferson, “Why Marriage, Why Family,” Ensign 45, no. 5 (May 2015): 50.
31. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 72. See, for instance, Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 387 (“The intelligence or spirit element became intelligences after the spirits were born as individual entities”). See also Alexander, “Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” 32.
32. Credit for this insight goes to a blogger using the pseudonym “aquinas,” who wishes to remain anonymous and has since removed all of the relevant posts from the Internet.
33. Orson F. Whitney, “Man’s Origin and Destiny,” Contributor 3, no. 9 (June 1882), 269–70.
34. Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, Anthon H. Lund, “The Origin of Man,” Improvement Era 13, no. 1 (November 1909): 75–81; also reprinted as “Gospel Classics: The Origin of Man,” Ensign 32, no. 2 (February 2002): 26–30.
35. Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, for instance, made this statement in 2012: “Members of the Church understand that God the Father is the Supreme Governor of the universe, the Power that gave us spiritual being, and the Author of the plan that gives us hope and potential. He is our Heavenly Father, and we lived in His presence as part of His family in the premortal life. . . . Our Heavenly Father has chosen not to reveal many details of our premortal life with Him. . . . Every human being is a begotten spirit son or daughter of our Heavenly Father. Begotten is an adjectival form of the verb beget and means ‘brought into being.’ Beget is the expression used in the scriptures to describe the process of giving life.” Quentin L. Cook, “The Doctrine of the Father,” Ensign, February 2012, 33–34. In admitting that God has revealed very little about our premortal existence, Elder Cook employs, interestingly, a carefully worded and rather broad (if not figurative) definition of the term beget.
36. The problem of trying to reconcile God’s goodness with the presence of evil in the world, often referred to as theodicy, is closely intertwined with the ideas presented in this essay. For a thorough discussion of this problem, see David L. Paulsen and Blake Thomas Ostler, “Sin, Suffering, and Soul-Making: Joseph Smith on the Problem of Evil,” in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002), 237–84.
37. Ostler, “Idea of Pre-existence,” 74. “The doctrine of personal eternalism raises problems for Mormon thought. If the number of intelligences is infinite, then an infinite number of intelligences will remain without the chance to progress by further organization. If, on the other hand, the number of intelligences is finite, the eternal progression of gods resulting from begetting spirits must one day cease. Either way, the dilemma remains.”