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The Holy Ghost of Mormonism: The Evolution of the LDS Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

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The Holy Ghost of Mormonism: The Evolution of the LDS Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

The First Article of Faith in the LDS scripture collection the Pearl of Great Price states, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” This statement gives the appearance of affirming a traditional Christian belief, including an acknowledgment of the divine person called the Holy Ghost. But what does Mormonism actually teach about the Holy Ghost? In this article, we will survey the historical development of the LDS doctrine of the Holy Ghost and discuss how it differs from the biblical, orthodox Christian view.1

Stage One: The Holy Ghost as God in the Book of Mormon

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith Jr. in upstate New York. He had just published The Book of Mormon, a book about an Israelite civilization living in the ancient Americas that he claimed to have translated the previous year from gold plates temporarily entrusted to him by an angel. At the time, Joseph’s theology appeared to be roughly comparable to that of the Methodists, though with strong restorationist elements. Over the next 14 years, however, his theology underwent at least two rather dramatic shifts, ending in an overt polytheistic worldview. Along the way Joseph produced nearly all of the extrabiblical texts that the LDS Church regards as part of its “standard works” (more or less equivalent to its canon of Scripture). Mormons view Joseph Smith as the founding prophet of the Restoration, and their doctrine is a synthesis and development of his revelations and teachings. Mormonism does not purport to base its doctrine of the Holy Spirit on the Bible alone, but appeals to additional modern revelations as interpreted by the LDS Church’s current leaders.2 

In dependence on the King James Version, Mormonism uses the name “Holy Ghost” for the person of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Mormon contains what appear to be explicitly Trinitarian confessions, such as the following:

And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen. (2 Nephi 31:21; see also Alma 11:44; Mormon 7:7)3

In an earlier passage in the Book of Mormon, Nephi (the founder of the Israelite civilization, called the Nephites) says that “the spirit of the Lord” appeared to him “in the form of a man” and that he spoke to Nephi as one man speaks to another (1 Nephi 11:9-12). Mormons today typically interpret this passage as referring to the Holy Ghost as an embodied being of spirit.4 However, in its Book of Mormon context, this passage appears to be referring to the human form of God before he came in the flesh. That is, the Book of Mormon appears to teach that Jesus Christ was God himself and that he existed as an anthropomorphic spirit in heaven prior to coming in a body of flesh on earth. Indeed, in places the Book of Mormon actually seems to identify Jesus Christ as both the Father and the Son (e.g., Mosiah 15:1-5; Mormon 9:12; Ether 3:14).

Stage Two: The Holy Spirit as the Divine Mind Shared by Two Personages

Less than three years after he published the Book of Mormon, Joseph issued a revelation in which the Lord announced that he was sending the Holy Spirit upon the Saints. This revelation is not easy to interpret, but it appears to have spoken of the Holy Spirit as a divine light that is in all things, including God himself:

3 Wherefore, I now send upon you another Comforter, even upon you my friends, that it may abide in your hearts, even the Holy Spirit of promise; which other Comforter is the same that I promised unto my disciples, as is recorded in the testimony of John. 4 This Comforter is the promise which I give unto you of eternal life, even the glory of the celestial kingdom… 7 Which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made…. 11 And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; 12 Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—13 The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (D&C 88:3-4, 7, 11-13; dated Dec. 27 and 28, 1832, and Jan. 3, 1833)

Mormons today understand the “other Comforter” to refer to the personage of the Holy Ghost, but in context the term appears to describe “the Holy Spirit of promise” as “the promise…of eternal life” that comes from “the light of Christ.” This “light” is said to be the power by which the sun, moon, stars, and earth were all made and the light that gives people understanding. Joseph says that this light fills all space, gives life to all things, and is “even the power of God.” At this point in his theological evolution, Joseph apparently did not think of the Holy Spirit as a divine person. This assessment is confirmed by the Lectures on Faith, published in 1835 as part of the LDS scriptural collection Doctrine and Covenants. The fifth Lecture states:

There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things…. They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit, glory and power: possessing all perfection and fullness: The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle…. And he being the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, and having overcome, received a fullness of the glory of the Father—possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit, that bears record of the Father and the Son, and these three are one, or in other words, these three constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things: by whom all things were created and made, that were created and made; and these three constitute the Godhead, and are one: The Father and the Son possessing the same mind, the same wisdom, glory, power and fullness: Filling all in all—the Son being filled with the fullness of the Mind, glory and power, or, in other words, the Spirit, glory and power of the Father… (V.2).

This text explicitly distinguishes between the Father and the Son as “two personages” and the Holy Spirit as the “mind” that those two personages share. The language about this mind or Spirit “filling all in all” recalls Joseph’s earlier revelation about the “light of Christ” filling all space. Thus, at this point Joseph clearly regarded the Holy Spirit as the mind or power that fills all things and that was possessed in fullness by the personages of the Father and the Son.

Stage Three: The Holy Ghost as a Third God

In the early 1840s, Joseph’s theology changed again. In 1841 Joseph was recorded as referring for the first time to three divine personages:

Everlasting covenant was made between three personages before the organizations of the earth, and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth, these personages according to Abraham’s record, are called God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer, and God the third, the witness or Testator.5

Although the three personages are not named here, everyone agrees that Joseph was referring to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It should be noted that his language appears to speak of the three personages as three different Gods. In 1843, Joseph made the point about the Holy Ghost explicit: “The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage.”6 Not long after making that statement, Joseph presented the following teaching about the Holy Ghost:

The Holy Ghost is a personage, and a person cannot have the personage of the Holy Ghost in his heart.7

This statement passed through two revisions, apparently both after Joseph’s death in 1844, and was eventually published in 1856 in the following form, which is its present wording in Doctrine and Covenants:

The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us. A man may receive the Holy Ghost, and it may descend upon him and not tarry with him (D&C 130:22-23).8

Joseph’s original statement that the Holy Ghost cannot dwell in a person’s heart was thereby changed to saying that it was only because the Holy Ghost is a personage of Spirit that he is able to dwell in us. Despite the wording of the canonical version, the LDS Church today explicitly denies that the Holy Ghost can dwell in an individual human being. A current doctrinal manual states, “He can be in only one place at a time, but His influence can be everywhere at the same time.”9 The usual Mormon explanations for the statement in D&C 130:22 is that the text is speaking figuratively. “In a figurative sense, the Holy Ghost dwells in the hearts of the righteous Saints of all dispensations.”10 An alternative explanation proposes that D&C 130:22 refers to the Holy Ghost dwelling in the Church as a whole, not in any individual’s heart. Both explanations, however, fail to explain why the Holy Ghost would need to be a personage of Spirit in order to accomplish this “dwelling,” whether figurative or in the Church as a whole.11

The Current LDS Doctrine of the Holy Ghost

The current LDS doctrine is summed up as follows by Robert Millet, one of the leading LDS theologians today: “The Holy Ghost, the third member of the Godhead, is a male spirit personage, the minister of the Father and the Son…. He is one with the Father and the Son in mind, purpose, character, attributes, and glory.”12 No official explanation seems to have been given as to the relationship of the Holy Ghost to the other divine personages.

Since Mormonism teaches that the Son, Jesus Christ, is the firstborn spirit son and that all human beings are spirit sons and daughters of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, some Mormons have inferred that the “male spirit personage” of the Holy Ghost is another “spirit son of God the Father.”13 In any case, this male divine personage is now sharply distinguished from the “light of Christ,” the omnipresent spiritual power of truth and life, even though this light is sometimes called the “Holy Spirit.”14

A Christian Assessment of the Mormon Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Our review of the evolution of Mormon thought regarding the Holy Spirit shows outright confusion on the subject. The confusion stems from Joseph Smith’s own changing theology in the fourteen short years that he was the first Prophet of the LDS Church.15 First the Holy Ghost was God, who seems to have been considered a single divine being; then the Holy Spirit was described as the divine light and power that fills all things and the mind shared by the two personages of the Father and the Son; then the Holy Ghost was a third personage, though one of spirit rather than with a physical body, and was even a third God. The Mormons in the half-century following Joseph’s death struggled to make any sense out of these disparate teachings, eventually settling on the clumsy claim that the Holy Ghost was a third divine personage while the Holy Spirit was the impersonal divine light—except when it is clearly synonymous with the Holy Ghost.

According to current LDS theology, the Holy Ghost is a male spirit personage, an individual, anthropomorphic being composed of spirit. We should note that in Mormon metaphysics, based on Joseph Smith’s teachings, spirit is just a more refined form of matter (D&C 131:7-8).16 Thus, Mormons view the Holy Ghost as a person in the same sense as we are persons; indeed, in Mormon theology all human beings, all angels, and all divine beings (including the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) are members of the same species or kind.

From an orthodox Christian perspective, in which the Bible is the sufficient, fully authoritative word of God, the Holy Spirit is fully personal (as Mormons recognize) but he is not one of several separately embodied personages. Only the Son is a human person, and only by virtue of his condescension and self-humbling in the Incarnation (John 1:14; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:5-8). This means that the Holy Ghost is not a third God but is the Lord himself (2 Cor. 3:17-18).

The differences between the Mormon and orthodox Christian views of the Holy Spirit must be understood in the context of the differences between Mormon theology and classical Christian theology. In Mormon theology, all Gods are corporeal, material, anthropomorphic beings; mortal human beings are potential gods in development. The three personages of the “Godhead” are thus persons in the same sense as human beings. In classic Christian theology, God by nature is incorporeal, nonphysical, transcendent, infinite Being (1 Kings 8:27; Isa. 66:1; John 4:21-24; etc.). This means he is not a “person” if by that term one means a finite being of any sort. Christian theologians use the term person analogically, recognizing that such a term as applied to God must be qualified due to his unique, boundless nature. In orthodox theology, neither God as such, nor the three divine Persons, are “persons” in the anthropomorphic sense. With these differences in mind, we must respectfully disagree with the Mormons. God the Father is not an exalted Man, there is no heavenly Mother,17 and the Holy Ghost is not a male spirit personage.

There is good news here for those who wish to know God in truth. The Holy Spirit, as a transcendent and immanent divine person, omnipresent by nature, is able to indwell each individual person who is united to Christ by faith. His presence is not dependent on membership in the right religious organization or participation in the right sacred rituals. He works in the heart, usually quietly and invisibly, to illuminate our thinking and to give us new life, joy, and peace through faith in Christ. For those whose relationship with God is based on the truth of the Bible about redemption as God’s free gift in Christ alone (John 3:16; Rom. 3:21-26; 6:23; Eph. 2:8-10), the Holy Spirit is freely and fully given to be present forever.



1. For a comparison of the Mormon doctrine of the Holy Ghost with that of other groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “One Spirit, Five Views: Trinitarian and Non-Trinitarian Theologies of the Holy Spirit,” paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society annual convention, Denver, CO, Nov. 13, 2018.

2. A comprehensive evangelical study of Mormon doctrine is provided in Robert M. Bowman Jr., Gospel Principles and the Bible (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2012). On Mormonism and the Trinity, see also Bowman, “Social Trinitarianism and Mormon Theology,” paper presented at the Evangelical Theological Society annual convention, San Antonio, TX, Nov. 16, 2016.

3. This quotation from the Book of Mormon comes from the Book of Mormon Study Text (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2018). This is the only critical edition of the Book of Mormon text produced by a non-Mormon. For a comparable LDS work, see The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, ed. Royal Skousen (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

4. For a brief discussion of the confusion over this passage, see Ronald E. Bartholomew, “The Textual Development of D&C 130:22 and the Embodiment of the Holy Ghost,” BYU Studies Quarterly 52/3 (2013): 8 n. 4.

5. Joseph Smith, in a discourse ca. May 1841, in The statement has often been quoted with approval by subsequent LDS leaders, teachers, and curriculum manuals. See especially Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 190. Later quotations often omit the words “according to Abraham’s record.”

6. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 276.

7. As recorded at the time by William Clayton; see Bartholomew, “Textual Development of D&C 130:22,” 9.

8. It is uncertain when the first revision was made; Bartholomew narrows it down to sometime between 1843 and 1846; see ibid., 12. In any case, the key change came in the 1850s, when Joseph’s statement that the Holy Ghost could not dwell in a person’s heart was changed to an affirmation that the Holy Ghost “could not dwell in us” if he were not a personage of spirit.

9. Gospel Principles (2011), 31–33. Manuals published by the LDS Church are here cited without publication details.

10. Joseph Fielding McConkie, “Holy Ghost,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 649.

11. Charles R. Harrell, “This Is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 189.

12. Robert L. Millet, “Holy Ghost,” in. LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, by Robert L. Millet, Camille Fronk Olson, Andrew C. Skinner, and Brent L. Top (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2011), 307. The description of the Holy Ghost as minister appears to derive from James E. Talmage: “the Holy Ghost may be regarded as the minister of the Godhead, carrying into effect the decisions of the Supreme Council.” James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, 145.

13. McConkie, “Holy Ghost,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 649.

14. C. Kent Dunford, “Light of Christ,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 835; True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference (2004), 96; LDS Bible Dictionary (1985, rev. 2013), 725.

15. See further Luke P. Wilson, “Joseph Smith’s Changing Doctrine of Deity” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2011).

16. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Spirits and the Mormon Worldview” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2011).

17. See Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Heavenly Mother: Origin of the Mormon Doctrine of a Mother in Heaven” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2014).