Joseph Smith's Changing Doctrine of Deity
If you have ever compared the two creation accounts in the Pearl of Great Price you may have noticed the dramatic difference in the way they speak about Deity. The creation story in the Book of Moses chapters 2-3 speaks repeatedly of one God who "created" the heavens and earth. By contrast, the Book of Abraham speaks of a plurality of Gods who work together to "organize" or "order" the world (the word "create" is never used of Divine activity in the Book of Abraham).
The opening verses of the creation account in Moses read:
And the earth was without form, and void; and I caused darkness to come upon the face of the deep; and my Spirit moved upon the face of the water; for I am God. And I, God, said: Let there be light; and there was light (Moses 2:2-3).
Expressions such as "I, God, created," "I, God, saw," and "I, God, caused" occur no less than 50 times in chapters 2-3 of the Book of Moses.
The creation story in the Book of Abraham (chapters 4-5) is strikingly different in the way it describes Deity. It speaks of a plurality of Gods who formed the heavens and earth. Abraham 4:2-3 reads:
And the earth, after it was formed, was empty and desolate ... and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters. And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light.
Expressions such as "the Gods called," "the Gods ordered," and "the Gods prepared" occur 45 times in Abraham 4-5. Taken at face value, these two Latter-day scriptures present contradictory teachings regarding the nature of Deity. Increasingly, many contemporary Mormon historians are acknowledging that Joseph's doctrine of Deity changed in ways that cannot simply be harmonized away.
Joseph Smith The Monotheist
There are four major stages in the development of Joseph Smith's doctrine of Deity. The earliest stage is represented by the Book of Mormon (1830), the Book of Moses (1830-31), and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (1833). Mormon author Boyd Kirkland does not hesitate to label the doctrine of Deity in these early works ''monotheism'' (one God).1 For example, in Alma 11:26-28 we read:
And Zeezrom said unto him: Thou sayest there is a true and living God. And Amulek said: Yea, there is a true and living God. Now Zeezrom said: Is there more than one God? And he answered, No.
Taken at face value, this passage clearly teaches monotheism.2 The "Testimony of the Three Witnesses" that appears in the Preface to the Book of Mormon supports such a monotheistic interpretation. It concludes with the statement, "And honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen." The belief that there is only one God — anywhere in this, or any other, universe — agrees with the teaching of the Bible. There are 27 biblical passages the explicitly state that there is only one God.3 One of these passages, Isaiah 44:6,8, states:
Thus saith the LORD the King of Israel, and his redeemer, the LORD of hosts; I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God. Is there a God beside me? yea, there is no God; I know not any.
It is notable that when Joseph Smith produced his Inspired Revision of the Bible, also known as the Joseph Smith Translation, or JST, these verses declaring that there is only one God were left unchanged. Thus, the JST is an additional witness to Joseph Smith's original monotheism. The Book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price, completed in 1831, is a further example of Joseph's original teaching of one God. In addition to the implied monotheism of its creation account noted above, Moses 1:6 clearly affirms that there is only one God:
And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of my Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all.
Is Jesus The Father?
While Joseph initially held the historic Christian belief that there is only one God, he departed from orthodoxy by denying that there is a clear distinction between the Persons within the Trinity. A number of passages in the Book of Mormon present Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as the same Person. Theologians call this modalism, because Father and Son are understood, not as distinct persons, but merely as different modes in which the one God has manifested Himself at different times. Mosiah 15:1-3 presents such a modalistic view of the Father and Son:
And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son — The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and the Son.
Similarly, Mosiah 16:15 declares that Jesus is the Father: "Teach them that redemption cometh through Christ the Lord, who is the very Eternal Father." A modal view of Father and Son is also evident in Ether chapters 3:14: "Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son" (see also, Ether 4:7,12; Helaman 14:12).
The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST), completed in 1833, also shows a tendency to minimize, if not eradicate, the distinction between the Father and Son. Compare the King James Version of Luke 10:22 (a literal rendering of the original Greek text) with that of the JST:
KJV: All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.
JST: All things are delivered to me of my Father; and no man knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will reveal it.4
The JST changes verse 22 into a direct statement by Jesus' that He and the Father are the same Person. Joseph Smith made similar changes to Matthew 11:27,5 a parallel passage. There is no manuscript evidence for these or any of the hundreds of other changes the JST makes to the biblical text.6
The modalistic view of the Father and Son in the early Mormon scriptures is sharply at odds with the historic Christian doctrine that Father and Son are distinct persons within the one Divine Being. Nevertheless, elsewhere the Book of Mormon does appear to support a monotheistic view of Deity, since Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are presented as one God, not three separate Gods, as in later Mormonism.
Changes To The Book Of Mormon
In addition to the evidence from the early Mormon scriptures, there are also historical reasons for believing that Joseph Smith was a monotheist at the time he produced the Book of Mormon, and that only later did he come to believe in the plurality of Gods. One historical reason is the well documented fact that significant alterations were made to key passages in the original Book of Mormon which have the effect of accommodating Joseph's later teaching of the plurality of Gods.7 The box below presents a side-by-side comparison of four key Book of Mormon passages on Deity. Notice that in each case the original 1830 version refers to Jesus as "God," while the current, altered version changes this to ''Son of God.'' The most reasonable explanation for these changes is that they were made to avoid a troublesome contradiction with Joseph Smith's later teaching of the plurality of Gods.
|Changes To The Book Of Mormon
Key passages on Deity in the original 1830 text of the Book of Mormon were changed in the 1837 edition to reflect Joseph Smith’s changing doctrine of Deity. He originally taught that Jesus and the Father were the same person, but later developed the idea that they are separate Gods, each with a tangible body.
|Original 1830 Text||Current, Altered Text|
|And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin whom thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh.*
[View the 1830 Book of Mormon text.]
|And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God. (1 Nephi 11:18)|
|And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!
[View the 1830 Book of Mormon text.]
|And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, even the Son of the Eternal Father! (1 Nephi 11:21)|
|And I looked and beheld the Lamb of god, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world.
[View the 1830 Book of Mormon text.]
|And I looked and beheld the Lamb of god, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the Everlasting God, was judged of the world. (1 Nephi 11:32)
|These last records .... shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world.
[View the 1830 Book of Mormon text.]
|These last records .... shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world. (1 Nephi 13:40)|
|*The 1830 text did not have verse divisions.|
Is it possible to harmonize the monotheistic passages in the Book of Mormon with Joseph's later teaching of the plurality of Gods, by saying that, while there are many Gods, "there is only one God with whom we have to do, or whom we worship?" Must this not be considered a faulty rationalization in light of God's clear affirmations in passages such as Isaiah 44:8 — "Is there a God beside me? yea, There is no God; I know not any" (see also Isaiah 43:10-11; 45:21-22; 46:9). If the God of the Bible declares that He does not know of any other Gods, how can anyone claiming to speak as His prophet teach that there are other Gods?
Changing First Vision Accounts
Another historical reason for believing that Joseph Smith originally believed in only one God (and held a modalistic view of Jesus and the Father), is that his original First Vision story reflects such a view. Over the last thirty years LDS scholars have discovered that Joseph gave several different accounts of his First Vision, and that the earliest accounts are significantly different than the version in the Pearl of Great Price (Joseph Smith—History, 1:14-20).88 The differences in these successive first vision accounts reflect an attempt to keep pace with changes in Joseph's doctrine of Deity.
According to the official account of Joseph Smith's First Vision, which dates from 1838, two divine personages in bodily form appeared to him, whom he identified as Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. This is consistent with Joseph Smith's later doctrine of Deity, namely, that the Father and Son are separate Gods, each with tangible bodies.
However, as LDS historian Dean C. Jessee has documented, the earliest known First Vision account, a document from 1831-32 in Joseph's own handwriting, describes the appearance of only a single divine personage, Jesus Christ.10 This is highly significant because it accords with the Book of Mormon's modal monotheism, described above. It is understandable that when Joseph latter abandoned monotheism and began to teach the plurality of Gods, he would change his original First Vision story to make it consistent with the teaching that Father and Son are separate Gods.
The Lectures On Faith
In 1834-35, during the Kirtland, Ohio period, Joseph Smith made a major departure from the Book of Mormon emphasis that the Father and Son are the same person. While still apparently maintaining that there is only one God (monotheism), he began to teach that there are two persons within the Godhead — the Father and the Son. Theologians call this "binitarianism." This second stage in Joseph's teaching regarding Deity is spelled out in the "Lectures on Faith." These seven "lectures on theology" were approved for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants by a Conference vote of the LDS Church on August 17, 1835. They appeared in all English editions of the D&C until their unexplained removal in 1921 without a General Conference vote.9 Lecture Five explicitly teaches that there are two persons in the Godhead:
There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things — by whom all things were created and made . . . 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, made and fashioned like unto man.
A question and answer section in Lecture Five confirms its binitarian view of the God:
Q. How many personages are there in the Godhead?
A. Two: the Father and the Son.
According to the Lectures on Faith, the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit (the two terms were not distinguished at this stage), is not a person, but is the shared "mind" of the Father and Son. However, there is abundant biblical evidence to support the historic Christian teaching that the Holy Ghost is a person. For example, He teaches and comforts (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-10) and He can be grieved and lied to (Ephesians 4:30; Acts 5:3). The Bible does not support the belief that God is binitarian (two-in-one, Father and Son), but rather, trinitarian (three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Thus, the doctrine of Deity in the Lectures on Faith falls short of historic Christian teaching, even though it is correct on the point that God the Father is spirit, and does not possess a body (John 4:24).
The Plurality Of Gods
Joseph Smith did not move directly from the binitarian monotheism of the Lectures on Faith to explicit public teaching of the plurality of Gods. There was a third, intermediate stage represented by Doctrine and Covenants 121. This revelation, dated March 20, 1839 (the early Nauvoo, Illinois period), without explicitly declaring there are many Gods, holds this out as a possibility, and predicts that future revelation will clarify the matter:
God shall give you knowledge by his Holy Spirit . . . A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest (D& C 121:26,28).
Chapters 4-5 of the Book of Abraham, first published in 1842, represent the fourth and final stage of Joseph Smith's developing doctrine of Deity. Here, for the first time, is spelled out in unambiguous words the doctrine of the plurality of Gods, as noted in the quotations from Abraham at the beginning of this article.
Directly related to the doctrine of the plurality of Gods is Joseph's teaching that Heavenly Father is an exalted man who Himself has a Father, and whose Father has a Father, ad infinitum. In a June 16, 1844 sermon recorded in the History of the Church11 Smith described his new understanding that there are many Gods and that Heavenly Father is Himself the offspring of a more ancient Deity, who in turn is the offspring of a still more ancient Deity. The Mormon prophet credited this understanding to his study of the Egyptian papyrus from which he produced the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price:
I want to reason a little on this subject [that God himself has a father]. I learned it by translating the [Book of Abraham] papyrus that is now in my house. I learned a testimony concerning Abraham, and he reasoned concerning the God of heaven . . . If Abraham reasoned thus — If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also.
According to Joseph Smith, the Book of Abraham teaches that our Heavenly Father is but one link in this infinite ancestral chain of Gods stretching back through eternity; He is thus only one of innumerable Gods. This, in turn, leads to the Mormon Church's teaching that human beings are the literal offspring of Heavenly Father and one of His celestial wives, and that we are thus "Gods in embryo" who have the potential to achieve exaltation to divine status.
(These doctrines conflict sharply with the Bible, which teaches that we are created by God, not procreated. Christians do not believe that God was once a mortal man because the Bible teaches that He is unchanging and has always existed as God. A free scholarly article comparing the Mormon and historic Christian doctrines of God is available on request from the Institute for Religious Research.)
Is LDS Revelation Progressive?
Because God is the source of all truth, and because consistency is an essential characteristic of truthfulness, we instinctively believe that God will be consistent in revealing Himself to humanity. This is borne out when we examine the Bible. What God reveals about Himself in the New Testament goes beyond Old Testament revelation, but it builds upon what went before, without contradicting it (Matthew 5:17; Romans 3:21,31). Biblical revelation is consistent and progressive.
Are the successive phases of Joseph Smith's teaching about God likewise progressive? The development from modal monotheism, to binitarian monotheism, to the plurality of Gods could perhaps be considered progressive in the sense that it moves in a consistent direction. On the other hand, one might well ask: Can such changes be accurately described as "progressive," or even as a "development," inasmuch as they do not logically build on one another, but, in fact, represent contradictory teachings about the nature of God?
|Joseph Smith’s Changing Doctrine of Deity
VIEWED IN SCRIPTURAL ORDER
The Mormon scriptures are not progressive. Viewed chronologically, beginning from the most ancient period, they move from teaching the plurality of Gods, to monotheism, then back to the plurality of Gods.
|Date||Book / Reference||Doctrine|
|2000 B.C.||Book of Abraham 4:3-7||Plurality of Gods|
|1400 B.C.||Book of Moses 1:6; 2:3-7||Monotheism|
|600 B.C. to
| Book of Mormon
|A.D. 1830||Early (April 1830) Doctrine & Covenants 20:17, 19, 28||Monotheism|
|A.D. 1830||Joseph Smith Translation||Modalistic Monotheism|
|A.D. 1834-1835||Lectures on Faith, 5th Lecture||Binatarian Monotheism, or Bitheism|
|A.D. 1839||Later (March 1839) Doctrine & Covenants 121:26, 28, 32||Possibility of Plurality of gods|
|A.D. 1839-1843||Doctrine & Covenants 131:17-18; 132:20, 37||Plurality of gods (but unlike in the Book of Abraham)|
|A.D. 1844||King Follet Discourse||Plurality of Gods|
The movement from monotheism to the plurality of Gods described in this article is based on viewing the various LDS scriptures in the order they came forth from Joseph Smith. However, since parts of the Mormon canon are supposed to be restored, ancient revelation (Book of Abraham, Book of Moses, and Book of Mormon), it is also necessary to consider how the doctrine of Deity is presented in these scriptures when they are viewed in the chronological order in which they were anciently given (with the Lectures on Faith, Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph's famous sermon on the plurality of Gods, the "King Follett Discourse,"12 coming last, since they were first given in Joseph's day). Since God cannot lie or contradict Himself, later revelation should be consistent with and not contradict what came earlier.
Viewed from this perspective, however, a perplexing pattern emerges, as the chart on this page shows. We are asked to believe that after revealing the doctrine of the plurality of Gods in Abraham's time (2,000 B.C.), Heavenly Father later sent prophets beginning with Moses (1400/1300 B.C.) and through the end of the Book of Mormon period (A.D. 400) who taught monotheism, only to have Joseph Smith revert back to teaching the plurality of Gods in the nineteenth century. Can such inconsistency and confusion be attributed to the true and living God? It can be avoided only by denying that the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham are authentic, ancient scripture.
Does It Matter?
So what if there are contradictions between what the different LDS Standard Works teach about the nature of God? And what if the Mormon doctrine of God is vastly different from that of historic Christianity? Can't a faithful Mormon still pray to a Heavenly Father, experience meaning and wholeness in religious worship, and find consolation in faith when death takes a loved one. What do the contradictions and differences matter?
There is reason to believe that a proper understanding of the central truth of who God is does matter very much. Jesus told the Samaritan woman mentioned in chapter 4 of John's Gospel that truth was essential to salvation: "Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship; for salvation is of the Jews .... God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:22,24).
Sincerity is important but it is not a substitute for truth. Jesus said, "the truth shall make you free," not sincerity. The inconsistencies in Joseph Smith's changing doctrine of Deity signal his departure from Biblical truth and constitute one of the major reasons why the Christian community rejects his claim to be a prophet of the true God.
1. Boyd Kirkland, "The Development of the Mormon Doctrine of God," Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), pp. 35-36.
2. In the words of Thomas G. Alexander of Brigham Young University, "Early critics primarily attacked Mormons for receiving new revelations and scripture, and for claiming authority, but not for Mormon doctrines, which were quite Protestant …. before about 1835, the LDS doctrines on God and man were quite close to those of contemporary Protestant denominations.” (“The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine,” Sunstone, 23:3-4, June 1999; originally published in 1980).
3. Deut. 4:35,39; 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; 1 Kings 8:60; 2 Kings 19:15; Neh. 9:6; Psa. 18:31; 86:10; Isa. 37:16,20; 43:10-11; 45:21; 46:9; Hos. 13:4; Joel 2:27; Zech. 14:9; Mark 12:28-34; John 17:3; Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Tim. 2:5; Jas. 2:19.
4. Luke 10:22 in the King James Version Bible corresponds to 10:23 in the Joseph Smith Translation.
5. Matthew 11:27 in the Kings James Version corresponds to Matthew 11:28 in the Joseph Smith Translation.
6. Prof. Robert J. Matthews of Brigham Young University acknowledges this in his article on the JST in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (2:763-69). The name "Joseph Smith Translation" must be considered a misnomer. There is no reasonable basis by which it can be considered a "translation," since, unlike the King James Version, New International Version, and other Bible translations, Joseph Smith did not base his work on any Old Testament Hebrew or New Testament Greek manuscripts. A free scholarly paper on the Joseph Smith Translation which documents that lack of manuscript evidence for its changes to the biblical text is available on request from the Institute for Religious Research.
7. A photomechanical reproduction of the full text of the original 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon is available in vol. 1 of Joseph Smith Begins His Work, 2 vols. (Wilford C. Wood, 1958). 1 Nephi 11 corresponds to 1 Nephi 3 in the 1830 Book of Mormon, which has different chapter divisions than current editions, and no verse divisions.
8. See Dean C. Jessee, "The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision," BYU Studies, Vol. IX, No. 3 (Spring 1969), pp. 275-294 and, by the same author, "How Lovely Was the Morning," in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. VI, No. 1 (Spring 1971), pp. 85-88; also Paul R. Cheesman, "An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith's Early Visions," M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965, Appendix D.
9. Jessee, ibid.
10. For a helpful, scholarly article on the "Lectures on Faith," see Richard S. Van Wagoner, Steven C. Walker, and Allen D. Roberts, "The 'Lectures on Faith': A Case Study in Decanonization," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Fall 1987), pp. 71-77. A photomechanical reproduction of the full text of the Lectures on Faith is contained in volume 2 of Joseph Smith Begins His Work, 2 vols. (Wilford C. Wood, 1958).
11. History of the Church, 7 vols., 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1950), 6:473-479.
12. History of the Church, 6:302-317.