Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism?
Modalism is the name given to an ancient heretical teaching that denies that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons within the one Divine Being or Godhead. Instead, it teaches that they are only three different modes in which one Divine Person (the God of the Bible) has revealed Himself at different times, just as a single actor might play several different parts in a movie. As the late Sir Alec Guinness did long ago in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Kirk Douglas did in Man From Snowy River (1982), or Kate Hudson did more recently in Alex and Emma (2003)
Most discussions of the modalistic views of the founder of Mormonism take for granted he had in mind a sequential, or Sabellian, modalism.1 Since we are reflecting on the views of an early nineteenth century individual let us quote a description of that kind of modalism from the 1830 edition of Charles Buck’s Theological Dictionary, a reference work that was known and used by early Mormons:2
The Sabellians maintained that the Word and the Holy Spirit are only virtues, emanations, or functions of the Deity; and held that he who is in heaven is the Father of all things; that he descended into the Virgin, became a child, and was born of her as a son; and that, having accomplished the mystery of our salvation, he diffused himself on the apostles in tongues of fire, and was then denominated the Holy Ghost. This they explained by resembling God to the sun; the illuminated virtue or quality of which was the Word, and its warming virtue the Holy Spirit. The Word, they taught, was darted, like a divine ray, to accomplish the work of redemption; and that, being reascended to heaven, the influences of the Father were communicated after a like manner to the apostles.
Traditional Trinitarianism accepts neither modalism nor the plurality of gods, but steers a course between the two. The Athanasian Creed, for example, put it this way:
We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For the person of the Father is one; of the Son, another; of the Holy Spirit, another. But the divinity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one. (italics added)
The chief concern of modalism is safeguarding the unity, the oneness, of God. But it seeks to do so by “confounding the persons,” by breaking down the distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as it is possible to loose the distinction between the divine persons in the process of trying to preserve the divine oneness, it is also possible to lose sight of the divine oneness in trying to safeguard the distinction between the divine persons, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, to “divide the substance.” The early Joseph Smith falls to the right of traditional Trinitarianism by “confounding the persons.” The later Joseph Smith falls to the left of it by “dividing the substance.” In other words he begins teaching modalism and ends teaching polytheism, or at least henotheism (though Mormons have preferred using the term plurality of Gods).3
The Book of Mormon4
Joseph Smith’s first great prophetic project was the Book of Mormon, published in 1830. No clear distinction is made between the person of God the Father and the person of God the Son in the Book of Mormon. In fact Jesus is clearly asserted to be both. This is stated most baldly in Ether 3:14: “I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son.” The Son is repeatedly referred to as the “Eternal Father.” (1 Nephi 11:21, 13:40; Mosiah 16:15; Alma 11:37-38). And so we read, for example, “behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father,” (1 Nephi 11:21), and “the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Saviour of the world.” (1 Nephi 13:40; cf., Mosiah 16:15 and Alma 11:37-38). Jesus is also called the “Father of heaven and of earth” (2 Nephi 25:12; Mosiah 3:8, 15:4; Alma 11:39, Helaman 14:12, 16:18; Ether 4:7), the “God of Israel” (1 Neph 19:13 (cf. 10:3), 3 Nephi 11:14), the holy one of Israel” (2 Neph 1:10, 6:9, 9:12, 25:29), the creator of heaven and earth (Mosiah 4:2, Helaman 14:12), “the God of our fathers, which were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him; yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob (1 Nephi 19:10). One of the most explicit passages on the oneness of the Father and the Son in the Book of Mormon takes place in the context of the interrogation of Amulek by Zeezrom:
And Zeezrom saith unto him, Thou sayest there is a true and a living God?
And Amulek saith, Yea, there is a true and living God.
Now Zeezrom saith, Is there more than one God?
And he answereth No….
And Zeezrom saith again: Who is he that shall come? Is it the Son of God?
And he said unto him, Yea….
Now Zeezrom saith again unto him: Is the Son of God the very Eternal Father?
And Amulek saith unto him, Yea, he is the very Eternal Father of Heaven and of Earth, and all things which in them is; he is the beginning and the end, the first and the last; and he shall come into the world to redeem his people; and he shall take upon him the transgressions of those who believe on his name; and these are they that shall have eternal life, and salvation cometh to none else…. (Alma 11:26-40)
When the brother of Jared saw the finger of the Lord in the generation of the Tower of Babel, the Lord whose finger it was said of himself: “I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son” (Ether 3:14). He goes on almost immediately afterward to say: “Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created, in the beginning, after mine own image. Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit, will I appear unto my people in the flesh.” (Ether 3:15-16). Jesus becomes the Father and the Son in the fullest sense only at the incarnation. The key passage explaining this comes from Abinadi’s speech at Mosiah 15:1-4:
…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 Son: and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of Heaven and of Earth (italics added)
While on earth Jesus does not cease to be God the Father: “I am he that gave the law, and I am he which covenanted with my people Israel” (3 Nephi 15:5).
Throughout the Book of Mormon, and especially during the account of Jesus’ visit to the ancient people of the New World, we also find language that seems to contradict the idea that there is only one divine person. We are told to pray to the Father in the name of the Christ (2 Nephi 32:9, 33:12, Mormon 9:21; Moroni 3:2, 4:2), or of Jesus (3 Nephi 19:6-8, 28:30; Mormon 9:6, 27; Moroni 8:3). Jesus speaks repeatedly of asking “the Father in my name” (3 Nephi 16:4, 17:3, 18:19-20, 23, 30, 20:31, 27:28, Moroni 7:26) or urges that we call on the Father in his name (3 Nephi 21:27, 27:7; Ether 4:15, Moroni 2:2). Jesus also prays to the Father (3 Nephi 17:14-18, 18:24, 19:24, 27, 31). He speaks of going unto the Father (3 Nephi 17:4, 18:35, 27:28), and of being sent by the Father: “I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me; and my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross” (3 Nephi 27:13-14). We are also told that “Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath set down on the right hand of God” (Moroni 7:27, cf. 9:26). It is not surprising that passages like these have been pointed to by those who deny that the Father and the Son are a single divine person in the Book of Mormon.
But those who do, do so incautiously since wherever the Book of Mormon pauses to give clarification as to how such passages are to be understood, its clarification runs along modalistic lines. So, for example, when the passage so often used in Mormon evangelism says “if ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true…” (Moroni 10:4), it is hard for us, given what Joseph had already said, to view it as anything other than praying to Jesus as Eternal Father in the name of Jesus the incarnate Christ. Prior to the incarnation the title Eternal Father is used almost exclusively of Jesus (1 Nephi 11:21, 13:4; Mosiah 16:15 Alma 11:38-39). The only exception is the Abinadi’s speech in Mosiah 15:1-7 already mentioned, where the Father and the Son together are the Eternal Father, but that statement appears in the context of explaining how the Eternal Father became the Son by taking on flesh. The Father, as explicitely distinct from the Son, is never referred to as the Eternal Father until after the incarnation of Jesus, and then we find such references in the evangelistic passage already cited and in the liturgy of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in Moroni 4:3 (2x) and 5:2 (2x).5
This restricted usage of the title Eternal Father is especially interesting because the idea of praying to the Father in the name of the Son was used prior to the incarnation in the Book of Mormon.
We are left then with two options: (1) Praying to the Father in the name of the Son is a mere formality. Really we are only praying to Jesus under one aspect in the name of Jesus under another, or (2) Jesus left a part of himself in heaven when he came to earth, to serve henceforth in some sense as a separate God, or representation of God, or added an extra separate something to himself when he came to earth.
A number of factors favor the former option. In the first place, contrary to the claims of writers like Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulson, who feel they can point to a number of passages that “describe two or more members of the Godhead manifesting themselves at the same time,”6 the reality is that in all the instances they cite the language has been carefully crafted to avoid the impression that the Father and the Son anyway are appearing simultaneously. A case in point is what these authors refer to as “one of the most clearly explicit antimodalistic passages in the Book of Mormon,” i.e., “the announcement of Jesus Christ by the Father as Christ descends to the Nephites after his resurrection.” When one reads that passage carefully, however, it becomes clear that the announcement of Jesus Christ does not occur “as Christ descends” as Bruening and Paulson insist, but, in a very self-conscious way, just before he descends. In the context the people hear a voice two times. Yet they do not understand it, nor are they able to tell where it came from. But then:
the third time they did hear the voice, and did open their ears to hear it; and their eyes were towards the sound thereof; and they did look steadfastly towards Heaven, from whence the sound came; and behold, the third time they did understand the voice which they heard; and it saith unto them, Behold, my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name, hear ye him.
And it came to pass as they understood, they cast their eyes up again towards Heaven, and behold, they saw a man descending out of Heaven. (3 Nephi 11:7-8).
The words of the voice from heaven in this case echo the voice of God in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ baptism. This being so it is significant that in the account of the Baptism of Jesus in 1 Nephi 11:27 the Holy Spirit does descend, but there is no accompanying voice from heaven. In both of these instances, and there are others (cf. 1 Nephi 1:8-10), the book of Mormon actually avoids describing “two or more members of the Godhead manifesting themselves at the same time,” at least in cases where the two persons are the Father and the Son.
A further point of evidence of this same type has to do with Book of Mormon’s statements concerning Jesus’ interaction with the Father. We have already noted how Jesus prays to the Father. How could this be unless the Father was a separate person? The same question could be asked, however, about those places in the Book of Mormon where Jesus is said to do the Father’s will or obey the Father’s commandments. “Verily, verily, I say unto you,” says Jesus in 3 Nephi 16:16, “Thus has the Father commanded me….” And in 3 Nephi 11:11 he says: “I have drank out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things, from the beginning.” How could Jesus be said to obey the will of the Father unless the Father was a separate person with a separate will? This time the Book of Mormon provides an explanation. “Behold,” God says at 3 Nephi 1:14,” I come…to do the will, both of the Father, and of the Son [,] of the Father, because of me, and of the Son, because of my flesh.” Thus when the Jesus of the Book of Mormon submits to the Father’s will, he submits to himself, and when he obeys the Father’s commandments he obeys his own commandments. If this is so it is also likely that we should understand references to Jesus’ praying to the Father as his commiserating with himself.
Yet there is another interesting implication of the passage we have just quoted, which may lead us to suggest that although there are not two persons in the Godhead in the Book of Mormon there are in fact two personages. The term personage was regularly used in early Mormon discussions of God. The official story of the first vision uses it (JS-H 1:19), as does Joseph’s 9 November 1835 first-vision recital to Robert Matthews, D&C 130:22, and the Fifth Lecture on Faith in the original 1835 Doctrine & Covenants (pp. 53, 55-56). It has generally been assumed that Joseph Smith used the term to mean basically the same thing as a person, or perhaps as Samuel Johnson’s dictionary put it in 1755: “a considerable person.” Yet in Smith’s time, as in ours, personage could also mean something less than person. Both Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary and Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary offer as an alternative definition of personage, a “character assumed.” And while, to be sure, such a meaning could be used in describing the more traditional form of modalism, the single divine person assumes first the personage of the Father, then the personage of the Son, then the personage of the Holy Ghost, it might also have provided Joseph room to think of a second personage come into being when God the father took a body of flesh at the incarnation. On such an understanding person might be thought of as the spirit, mind, or essential being of an individual, and personage as a body. So while it is ultimately very hard to avoid the conclusion that the Father and the Son represent only one divine person in the Book of Mormon, it can be suggested from the evidence that it sees one divine person expressing himself in two personages. The passage already cited which says that God does the will of the Son “because of my flesh” (3 Nephi 1:14), implies that in entering a body Jesus added a new and in a sense separate element into the Godhead. The will of the Son is the will of the assumed body of flesh. Jesus already had a spirit body, now he adds something extra, a fleshly body, made in its image (Ether 3:15), so that the single divine person has now taken on a second personage as one might (to use a crude but useful illustration) take on a branch office in order to expand one’s business operations. That this is the direction of the Book of Mormon’s thinking is seen in Abinadi’s speech of Mosiah 15 1-7:
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 Son: and they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of Heaven and of Earth; and thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father… the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father. (italics added)
In this passage there is a process being described in which the will of Jesus’ flesh as the Son is subsumed or assimilated into the will of Jesus as the Eternal Father. The end of the process is that the fleshly will is swallowed up, i.e., made completely submissive to the divine will.
On this view we can still not properly call the Son a separate person, since the person who has taken on the fleshly body is the God the Father of the pre-incarnation period. Therefore we must still use the term modalism to describe it. But it is a different sort of modalism. We usually think of modalism in sequential terms: God first manifests himself as the Father, then as the Son, then as the Holy Ghost. The kind of modalism we encounter in the book of Mormon is not so much sequential as it is expansionistic. Prior to the incarnation the one God who is Jesus has a spirit and a spirit body. As he tells the brother of Jared: “Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son.…this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit “ (Ether 3:14). Then, at the incarnation, he takes on another, fleshly body.
The question then becomes, what happened to Jesus’ spirit body when he took on flesh? The answer might be either that (1) it “put on” the fleshly body, or (2) it remained separate somehow in heaven. In the former case the process might be describe as an expansionism of layering. Perhaps at some time in the distant past (the Book of Mormon does not say) the God that is Jesus took on a spirit body (layer one) and now he takes on a body of flesh (layer 2), as one might put on a shirt and then an overcoat. In the latter case we are dealing with an expansionism of duplication. Jesus first occupies the spirit body, but then expands to occupy a second fleshly body as well. On the other hand we might think of Jesus continuing to dwell in the spirit body in heaven as God the Father, while at the same time ministering in the fleshly body on earth as the Son. Thus the reduplication of bodies would also allow for a separation of roles and attributes between the spirit body of Jesus as Father and the fleshly body of Jesus as Son. Henceforth for example, the title Eternel Father might be reserved for the spirit body in heaven. This latter understanding would also resolve the problem of Jesus’ ascending to the father and sitting at his right hand.
If we had taken as our starting point Alexander Campbell’s 1831 remark that “The prophet Joseph Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies,” including the one on “the trinity,”7 we would certainly not be led by any direct route to a discussion of the view we have been describing. Among more classical Trinitarians in Joseph Smith’s day, there were those who rejected as unbiblical the traditional understanding of the eternal generation, or eternal sonship, of Jesus. Was Jesus the only begotten son from all eternity, or did he become such only at the incarnation? Those who rejected eternal generation did so in the name of upholding the deity of Christ in the fullest sense, arguing that eternal sonship implies eternal subordination. An 1830 American edition of Buck’s Theological Dictionary sums up the debate as follows:8
The Father is said by some divines to have produced the Word, or Son, from all eternity, by way of generation…And hence it is, they say, that the second person is called the Son; and that in such a way and manner as never any other was, is, or can be, because of his own divine nature, he being the true, proper, and natural Son of God, begotten by him before all worlds…Some, however, suppose that the term Son of God refers to Christ as mediator; and that his Sonship does not lie in his divine or human nature, separately considered, but in the union of both in one person.
This was a debate that, at that time, split Methodism,9 the American reformed tradition10 and, to a certain extent, the Restoration Movement.11 The Book of Mormon, however, does not directly address that debate, as is seen, for example, in the fact that it does not repeat any of its special terminology.
One place where we do find a close affinity to the line of thinking presented in the Book of Mormon is in the doctrine of the New Church, also called Swedenborgianism, a religion based on the esoteric writings of the Swedish mystic visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Direct evidence exists indicating that Joseph Smith and his family were familiar with Swedenborgianism. Not only were the Smith family’s occult magical parchments copied from a book that also contained an extended summary of Swedenborg’s teaching, but Joseph Smith himself made mention of Swedenborg and a certain aspect of his teaching in 1839.12
In “A Catechism for the Use of the New Church,” quoted here from a version of it printed in New Hampshire in 1805, we find the following affirmation:13
I believe that Jehovah God, the Creator of heaven and earth, is one in essence and in person, in whom there is a divine Trinity, consisting of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is that God.
This language sounds familiar to anyone who has read the Book of Mormon. It reminds us, for example, of Mosiah 3:5: “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, which was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from Heaven, among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay.”
The New Church catechism goes on to ask how it is that the three members of the Trinity can “be comprehended in one person?” The answer comes back:
Even as in the individual man, there is a human trinity of soul, body and operation; so is there a divine Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the Person of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ
The catechism then asks, in three questions, what is meant by the Father?, …the Son?, …the Holy Spirit? The responses speak of the Father “answering to the soul of man. In other words it is the naked divinity,” the Son “to the body of man. In other words it is divine humanity,” and the Holy Spirit “to the operations of man’s soul and body together.”14
Swedenborg’s thinking on this same point is expressed in his The True Christian Religion (1771):15
When it is said, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are the three essentials of one God, like the soul body and operation, in man, it appears to the human mind as if those three essentials were three persons, which is not possible.
A popular reference work that was housed in the Manchester, New York, Library at roughly the time Joseph Smith was living nearby, explained the Swedenborgian position this way:16
This trinity consisteth not of three distinct persons, but is united as body, soul, and operation in man, in the one man Jesus Christ, who therefore is the God of heaven, and alone to be worshipped; being Creator from Eternity, Redeemer in time, and Regenerator to eternity.
People trying to describe the classical doctrine of the Trinity, writes Swedenborg,17
cannot present it … otherwise than as a man of three heads upon one body, or of three bodies under one head. Such a monstrous image of the Trinity must appear to those who believe there are three divine persons, and each one God by himself, and conjoin them into one God, and deny that God, because he is one, is one person.
Interestingly the McIntire Minute Book records Joseph Smith using this same illustration in a discourse he gave on 16 February 1841: “Joseph said Concerning the Godhead it was Not as many imagined—three Heads & but one body ….”18
The Swedenborgian magazine containing the catechism quoted earlier also bemoaned the fact that “Some know not whether they should worship the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit, sometimes addressing one and sometimes another, as distinct beings or persons.”19 Had they been better informed they would have known that “the Lord Jesus Christ is the one glorified divine person; in whom dwells the fulness of the godhead bodily….”20
But how does it happen in Swedenborg that Jesus has become the only true God? How did the advent of the man Jesus in time play into his identity as the one God Jehovah? Swedenborg’s description of the Father as the Soul, as “naked divinity,” and the Son as the body helps us to understand that the Son essentially represents God’s human body. But here again we come up against the old problem of Jesus speaking to and about the Father, and being spoken to by the Father, at the Baptism, Transfiguration, and in the Garden of Gethsemane. How can Jesus pray, “not my will but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)? How could he cry, “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)? Swedenborg thought he had the answer. The human body of Jesus, he said, was derived from Mary, and as such it had to go through a process of glorification as it was gradually incorporated in to the Godhead. “It is believed,” Swedenborg wrote,21
that the Lord, as to the Human nature, not only was, but also is the Son of Mary; but in this the Christian world is under a delusion. That he was the Son of Mary is true; but that He is so still, is not true; for by acts of redemption, He put off the Human of the Mother, and put on the Human of the Father; thence it is, that the Human of the Lord is Divine and, that, in Him, God is man and Man God.
The process of being transformed from the Human of Mary to the Human of the Father Swedenborg called exination, or humiliation, and the completion of the process he called glorification. While in the state of exination Jesus had need from time to time to cry out to the Father, as he did in the Garden and on the Cross.22 What essentially happened was that the man Jesus was gradually saturated by, and therefore also became, the Godhead. Another way of saying this is that the consequence of the incarnation was that a body was added to the Godhead, or God got a human body. Yet in the process there was a period of transition in which it looked as if there were two persons in the Godhead.
Swedenborg’s modalism then is a modalism of expansion rather than sequential manifestation, and it is similar to what we find beginning to happen in the Book of Mormon, although Joseph does not seem as clearly settled on this solution, since he has left room for a sequential modalism at places like the Baptism and descent to the New World. The Book of Mormon’s understanding does clearly appear to be that the Son is the Eternal Father with a human body added on.
From the perspective of the broader debates of the time we would say that the Book of Mormon not only denies that the second person of the godhead was eternally generated, it denies that there ever was a second person. There was only Jesus, the Father and the Son.
As in Swedenborg, the fleshly body taken on by Jesus at the incarnation undergoes a process of excination. God enters the body of flesh as its soul, the flesh learns subjection through a process of suffering, leading to a situation in which the will of the outer man is swallowed up in the will of the inner God. We are reminded of the way Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) takes over other people’s bodies in the Matrix Reloaded (2003). Thus in the Book of Mormon the incarnation really amounts to the addition of a human body to the one person of God, who is also the same divine person as the Father.
There is one important point at which the Book of Mormon differs from Swedenborg and his followers in its version of expansionistic modalism. Although Swedenborgians felt sure they had a satisfactory explanation of the biblical texts that seemed to represent the Father and the Son as two different persons, their writings regularly leave one in doubt as to the exact character of the divine person Jesus addresses in prayer during his period of excination. Is he crying out to the Father within? or to some sort of divine Omnipotence without? Or to what? The Book of Mormon seeks to clarify this problem by replacing the Swedenborgian pre-incarnate Father as “naked deity,” with its own pre-incarnate Father as “clothed deity,” that is to say a God who already can speak of a “body of my spirit” (Ether 3:16). As a precedent for this Joseph might have drawn on another idea in Swedenborg, the idea of correspondence. The previously mentioned reference work in the Manchester Library explains correspondence as follows: “there is a correspondence or analogy between all things in heaven and all things in man.” In addition, “While we live in this world our spirits have their abode in the spiritual world.”23 Perhaps Joseph built upon this notion in order to explain how there was a separate God in the spiritual world while Jesus ministered on earth, the Father in a spirit body in the spirit world and the Son on earth in a body of flesh. Then when the Son ascended into heaven there would henceforth be two personages there. Again one person, two personages, or as early Mormons liked to say, two tabernacles.
The view I have been describing is only hinted at in the book of Mormon. That it accurately represents the direction of Joseph Smith’s thought is, I believe, indicated by the development of his ideas on the matter over the next decade. It is often argued that Joseph Smith’s doctrine of God changes from modalism in the 1830 Book of Mormon to Binitarianism in the 1835 Lectures on Faith, and then to a radically different doctrine of the plurality of Gods beginning in 1841. If what I am arguing is true, however, Joseph Smith is simply continuing to develop the same line of thinking about the relation between the Father and the Son right through the 1830s, that he, in fact, continues to teach expansionistic modalism right up until he abandoned it in favor of the doctrine of the plurality of Gods in 1841. This is a position which, I think, can be defended without imposing unnatural meanings on Joseph’s later statements nor accusing him of radical inconsistency in the development of his thought.
In his Book of Mormon post-resurrection discourses, Jesus repeatedly interrupts what he is saying with the phrase “saith the Father” (3 Nephi 16:7,8, 10, 13,14; 20:20 (2x), 21:14, 20, 29), a phrase that is also unique to these speeches in the Book of Mormon. Because of this it is impossible at times to tell whether it is the Father or the Son who is speaking.24 This sets the stage for what is to come soon after. Given the scope of the present paper we shall limit our discussion to only the most significant texts illustrating the progress of Joseph Smith’s expansionistic modalism.
September 1830 (D&C 29)
The Book of Mormon hit the shelves of Grandin’s bookstore in Palmyra, New York, on 26 March 1830. In September 1830 Joseph records a prophesy, which first appeared in the 1833 Book of Commandments and then in the 1835 original edition of the Doctrine & Covenants. Today it appears as D&C 29. Consistent with what we saw in the Book of Mormon, when the voice of God can be identified in the Book of Commandments it is usually Jesus who is speaking. And so too this revelation begins: “Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Redeemer, the Great I AM” (D&C 29:1). A few lines later the speaker goes on to further identify himself as Jesus: “I am in your midst, and am your advocate with the Father;” (vs. 5), and still later he refers to “mine apostles, the twelve which were with me in my ministry at Jerusalem” (vs. 12). He goes on to speak of being ashamed “to own” the wicked “before my Father.” But then, a bit later in the revelation, it is no longer the Son who is speaking but the Father: “behold I say unto you, that little children are redeemed from the foundation of the world, through mine only Begotten” (vs. 46). In this revelation, a single divine voice speaks now as the Son and now as the Father without the slightest indication of transition. A single divine person speaking under the guise of two personages.
The Joseph Smith Translation (1830-1833)
Around the same time as the above prophesy was given in the fall of 1830, Joseph Smith was revising the first chapters of Genesis for his Inspired Version of the Bible, which also now appears as the Book of Moses in the LDS Pearl of Great Price. In his reworking of Genesis 1:27, Joseph changes the King James Version’s “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him.” To read instead “I, God, created man in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten created I him” (Moses 2:27). This echoes the statement in the Book of Mormon:
I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son…all men were created, in the beginning, after mine own image. Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit, will I appear unto my people in the flesh. (Ether 3:14-16)
Conversely this Book of Mormon passage is also echoed in Joseph’s idea of two creations, developed in his reworking of Genesis. “I, the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth,” says Joseph’s “corrected” version of Genesis 2:5, “I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men, and not yet a man to till the ground, for in heaven created I them, and there was not yet flesh upon the earth…” (Moses 3:5).
Bruening and Paulson point to the 16 February 1832 revelation that now appears as Doctrine & Covenants 76 as providing “one of the clearest examples of … distinctly antimodalistic language.”25 The language they refer to appears in verse 20-23, from which I quote as it first appeared in the July 1832 issue of The Evening and Morning Star. There we are told that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon saw Jesus:26
we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father…and saw the holy angels, and they who are sanctified before his throne, worshiping God and the Lamb…we saw him, even on the right hand of God….
Although Bruening and Paulson’s criticism might hold true of sequential modalism, it counts for nothing against the kind of expansionistic modalism we have been describing. And lest we think Joseph abandoned that kind of modalism we need only note that less than a month before, in D&C 76 (sometime between 10 January and 16 February 1832)27 Joseph had again affirmed his expansionistic modalist position by changing the King James of Luke 10:22, “and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son,” to read instead, “no man knoweth that the son is the Father, and that the Father is the son” (JST Luke 10:23; italics added).28
The Lectures on Faith in the Original Doctrine & Covenants (1835)
The Lectures on Faith, the Doctrine part of the original Doctrine and Covenants, were officially de-canonized in 1921. The decision to drop them, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains, “may have been influenced by what many readers have perceived as conflicts between statements about the Godhead in the fifth lecture and certain later revelations.”29 The basic problem was that whereas the Fifth Lectures referred to the Father as a “personage of spirit,”30 the revelation of D&C 130, given eight years later (2 April 1843), declares that the Father “has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's,” and reserves the description “personage of Spirit,” to the Holy Ghost. The Fifth Lecture went on to explain that although the Father is a Personage of Spirit, the Son is a “personage of tabernacle,” made in the form and likeness of man, or rather, man was formed after his likeness, and in his image—he is also the express image of the Father.” And it goes on to say that the Son, possesses the “same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit,” and that “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.”31 It goes on to explain more clearly what this means:
The Father and the Son possessing the same mind, the same wisdom, glory, power and fulness: Filling all in all--the Son being filled with the fulness of the Mind, glory and power, or, in other words, the Spirit, glory and power of the Father--possessing all knowledge and glory, and the same kingdom: sitting at the right hand of power, in the express image and likeness of the Father--a Mediator for man--being filled with the fulness of the Mind of the Father, or, in other words, the Spirit of the Father: which Spirit is shed forth upon all who believe on his name and keep his commandments….”
By identifying the mind that is the Holy Spirit with the spirit of the Father, the Fifth Lecture falls short of Binitarianism, which would imply two divine persons. What we really have is one divine spirit, mind, (or person!) which inhabits two personages (one of spirit the other of tabernacle, i.e., flesh), with some additional overflow being shed forth as the Holy Spirit, which is not yet at this point given the status of a personage. So again we are dealing with an expansionistic modalism as before: one person two personages, plus something left over called the Holy Spirit.
One development of particular importance here is that God’s mind is now explicitly described as something not limited to or by the boundaries of personage. The Holy Spirit is not a personage, but an overflow of the divine mind, spirit, or being. From this perspective, whether the single divine person has one, three, or five personages, or none at all, becomes strictly incidental.
Book of Mormon Second Edition (1837)
The second edition of the Book of Mormon was prepared by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and published in 1837. In it Joseph and Oliver tweaked the language relating to the Godhead in significant ways. There is still no hesitation about applying the title Everlasting Father to Christ (Mosiah 16:15) and to the Son of God (Mosiah 15:4, Alma 11:38-39). The same is true of the title Eternal God, which is given as an alternative title to Christ on the title page and at 2 Nephi 26:12 of the 1837 edition. But now we have a clear tendency toward ceasing to use these titles where reference is being made to Jesus’ incarnate flesh. Thus at 1 Neph 11:18 where the 1830 Book of Mormon referred to Mary as “the mother of God,” it is changed in 1837 to call her instead “the mother of the Son of God.” Similarly, where the 1830 Book of Mormon has called the Lamb of God the Eternal Father twice (1 Nephi 11:1 and 13:40) and the Everlasting God once (1 Nephi 11:32), the phrase, the son of, is now inserted to change the meaning.
A very interesting change that began to be introduced in 1837 is the dropping of the 1830 Book of Mormon’s references to “the Son of the Only Begotten of the Father.” The first of these referred to Jesus Christ as coming as the “Son of the only begotten on the Father” (Alma 5:48), and the second to people becoming “High Priests forever, after the order of the Son of the only begotten of the Father.” (13:9). What could Joseph meant by such language? My best guess is that he was, in his thinking at the time, closely associating the idea of son with the idea of body, viewing what God had called “the body of my spirit” in Ether 3:16, as the Son, the image, and the only begotten of the divine spirit dwelling within. We are reminded in this connection of the question and answer at the end of the Fifth Lecture of Faith:
Q. Why is he [Jesus] called the Son?
A. Because of the flesh …. (D&C 1835, p. 57)
Thinking along these lines the incarnate Jesus, representing as it did the quintessential image of God’s heavenly spirit body, it too might justly be called that body’s Son.
Another point to notice along these lines is that whereas Ether 3:16 says that humanity was created “after the body of my spirit,” the Pearl of Great Price Moses, which was produced in the fall of 1830 says instead that it was created “in mine own image, in the image of mine Only Begotten” (JST Gen 1:27). The body of my spirit in the former parallels “the Only begotten” in the latter, thus again seemingly justifying the 1830 use of the Son of the only begotten in reference to the human body of Jesus. But however that may be, Joseph Smith ends up deciding the title is not desirable and drops it from the 1837 edition (Alma 5:48;13:9).
Often remarked upon, is the change of the original Book of Mormon’s “unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which is one God” at Mormon 7:7 to read instead the second edition: which are one God.” This change has been pointed to in the past as an indication of a clearer distinction being drawn between the divine personages in the second edition of the Book of Mormon. It is hard to be sure that such is the case, however, since (1) The Testimony of the Three Witnesses, 2 Nephi 31:21, and Alma 11:44, retained the is one formulation in similar passages in subsequent edition, and (2) it may have been a grammatical rather than a theological correction, similar to the change at 3 Nephi 17:6-7 where the 1830 Book of Mormon’s “Behold, my bowels is filled with compassion towards you … my bowels is filled with mercy” is corrected in both cases in 1837 to read: “my bowels are filled” (italics added)...
None of these 1837 changes are supported by the extant fragments of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, nor by the original reading of the Printer’s Manuscript, which was originally used in the printing of the 1830 Book of Mormon. Most, but not all, of these changes, however, have been added as late corrections to the Printer’s Manuscript, most likely during the process of preparing the 1837 edition.32
The Wentworth Letter (Times and Seasons [1 March 1842] 3:706-8, 710).33
The Wentworth Letter first appeared in the 1 March 1842 Times and Seasons. In it Joseph Smith attempts to explain his new religion to John Wentworth, editor of the Chicago Democrat. It was in the same issue of this paper that the first installment of the Book of Abraham appeared. It was in the Book of Abraham that Joseph Smith set forth the basis of his radical new doctrine of the plurality of Gods, which he had begun teaching at the beginning of the previous year.
The Wentworth Letter contains a version of Joseph Smith’s first-vision story that is of special significance here. He writes that on that occasion he “saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness.” This statement is virtually identical to one in an earlier account of the first vision written and published by Orson Pratt in 1840.34 Smith also sent a statement that was essentially a copy of the Wentworth Letter to I. Daniel Rupp in 1843, which also contained this statement about the identical appearance of the Father and the Son.35 Although the Wentworth Letter does not identify the two “personages,” there is little doubt that Joseph understood them to be the Father and the Son. In the currently official first-vision account, written in the Spring of 1838, but not published until 1 April 1842, i.e., one month after the publication of the Wentworth Letter, the identity of both personages is revealed when one of them pointed to the other “and said…`This is my beloved Son, hear him’” (JS-H 1:17).36
The Wentworth Letter states explicitly what is only implied in earlier statements. In Joseph’s 9 Nov 1835 recital of the first vision to the deranged religious murderer Robert Matthews, he says only that when the second personage appeared he was “like unto the first.”37
What is the basis for Joseph’s conceiving of the Father and the Son as identical in appearance? Perhaps the answer lies in a train of thought going goes all the way back to the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price Moses, where Joseph was viewing the incarnate Son as the image of the spirit-body of God, which was itself the image of the spirit and personality of God.
If Joseph decided that after the incarnation he would reserve the spirit body of God for the Father and the physical body of God for the Son, it would only make sense that they would be identical in appearance, since one was the image of the other. The 1835 Fifth Lecture on Faith might well speak from the same perspective when it calls the Father a “personage of spirit” and the Son a “personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man or, rather, man was formed after his likeness, and in his image.” (D&C 1835, p. 53).
Joseph Smith’s Plurality of Gods Doctrine as an Outgrowth of His Earlier Expansionistic Modalism
The commonly held opinion that Joseph Smith had, by 1835, moved from modalism to binitarianism is incorrect. The error is based on the assumption that Joseph Smith’s modalism was sequential rather than expansionistic. But as we have seen, Emmanel Swedenborg had provided the thought world of Joseph Smith’s time with a paradigm of expansionistic modalism, which Joseph seems to have taken up and developed in his own unique way. An interesting twist on this situation is that the same expansionistic modalism might have also provided Joseph with critical help in the conceptual formation of his plurality of God doctrine. More than likely Joseph developed his idea of plural gods as theological justification for plural marriage. Many of the women Joseph approached to become his plural wives were already married. We can very easily imagine the difficulties that might accompany Joseph’s approach in these cases:
Joseph: “God has revealed to me that you are to become my wife.”
Mrs. So and So: “That’s all very nice, but I already have a husband.”
Joseph: “Ah, yes, but he is your husband for time, I will be your husband for eternity.”
Mrs. So & So: “What do I need an eternal husband for?”
Joseph: “So that we can become Gods together.”
Mrs: So & So: “But I thought there was only one God.”
Joseph: “No, actually, God became God the same way we will become Gods, by achieving a celestial marriage.”
It is a remarkable fact that Joseph Smith gave up modalism at the same moment in which he also gave up monotheism. It is only at the beginning of 1841 that Joseph explicitly claims that “There is no God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones.”38 It is in the same sermon that he declares that “elements are eternal,” i.e., the world was not created ex nihilo but out of pre-existent matter, and that “spirits are eternal.”39 Not long after, he clarifies this in another sermon in which he says: “the spirits or the inteligence [sic] of men are self Existent principles before the foundation [of] this world.”40 This line of thinking came to its greatest expression in the funeral sermon for Elder King Follett (7 April 1844) There he had presented the view that the current world had not been created out of nothing, but rather had been “organized” out of pre-existent chaotic matter by a multiplicity of Gods,41 and that the present figure we usually think of as God the Father, “once was a man like one of us and that God Himself, the Father of us all, once dwelled on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did in the flesh and like us.”42 On the basis of this he had likewise urged his listeners: “You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods,” indeed “To inherit and enjoy the same glory, powers, and exaltation until you ascend a throne of eternal power and arrive at the station of a God, the same as those who have gone before.”43 Smith also develops his earlier assertion that it is not God alone that is self existent, but all human spirits:44
We say that God Himself is a self-existent God…It's correct enough, but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principle…God made the tabernacle of man out of the earth and put into him Adam's spirit (which was created before), and then it became a living body or human soul. Man existed in spirit; the mind of man--the intelligent part--is as immortal as, and is coequal with, God Himself… God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God Himself could not create Himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement and improvement. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God Himself found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest, who were less in intelligence, could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him, so that they might have one glory upon another in all that knowledge, power, and glory. So He took in hand to save the world of spirits.
An interesting point to consider here is whether there is a sense in which the new doctrine is consistent with the old. The personality behind the personages of God was called the mind or spirit of God. Now behind the multiplicity of persons striving to become Gods is an “eternal…self-existent principle” called “intelligence.” Is there a parallel here to what we saw during Joseph Smith’s modalistic period? Are we to view Intelligence as a sort of single person behind the great multiplicity of persons? And if so are we not also approaching a situation in which we may almost begin to speak of something approaching a kind of cosmic modalism? If not, why does Joseph support his assertion “God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all,” with the remark “God Himself could not create Himself”? How can we understand this in any other way than to say that God is derived from intelligence just like everyone else?
Thus, to sum up the matter, throughout the 1830s, Joseph Smith continued to develop the expansionistic modalism of the Book of Mormon. Jesus as God the Father and Jesus as God the Son looked identical because the physical body of Jesus in his role as Son was made in the image of the spirit body of Jesus in the role of Father. Smith’s logic in this development ruled out the view that he began with the understanding that God the Father had a body of flesh and bone. The shift to that position was accompanied by the shift to an idea of the plurality of Gods based on our all becoming Gods in the same way that God did before us. In other words Joseph Smith’s separate divine personages graduated to the status of full persons only when they were made like us, to the end that we might be made like them as well. At the same moment Joseph abandoned monotheism for henotheism (referring to whatever Gods there might be before or after the present God), and polytheism (referring to the fact that the trinity has now become, to quote the 1840s Joseph Smith, “three distinct personages and three Gods”).45 Yet even with changes so vast, the aroma of Joseph Smith’s early modalism continued to flavor to the end his thinking and his description of the relationship between the Father and the Son.
1 Dan Vogel’s,"The Earliest Mormon Concept of God," in Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine (ed. by Gary J. Bergera; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1989), 17–33, is one of the earliest and most unqualified defenders of the idea that the earliest Mormon Christology was essentially modalistic. See further Melodie Moench Charles, "Book of Mormon Christology," in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology (ed. by Brent L. Metcalfe; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1993), 81–114, and Kurt Widmer. Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830–1915. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000). For a more detailed bibliography relating to the debate, see Ari D. Bruening and David L. Paulson, “The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Other Myths,” FARMS Review of Books 13.2 (2001) 111, notes 3 and4. Breuning and Paulson also represent what may be the best attempt at countering the early Mormon modalism proposal. But again these authors are mainly targeting a Sabellian modalism.
2 “Sabellianism,” Buck’s Theological Dictionary (2 vols. in 1; Philadelphia: Joseph J. Woodward, 1830) 538. Buck’s dictionary is referenced or quoted, e.g., in Doctrine and Covenants of the Latter Day Saints (Kirtland, Ohio: F. G. Williams, 1835) 9; “Try the Spirits,” Times and Seasons 3.11 (1 April 1842) 745; “Massacre of the Nestorian Christians,” Times and Seasons 4.2 (1 Oct 1843) 345
3 E.g., John Jaques’ Catechism for Children Exhibiting the Prominent Doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ([Salt Lake City, Utah: David O. Calder, 1877] 12) had as its first question in the chapter entitled “Plurality of Gods,” “Are there more Gods than one?” To which the prescribed answer was given as: “Yes, many.” The question immediately following The biblical reference given in the context is the KJV 1 Cor 8:5: “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many). The question immediately following reads: “Must we worship more than one God,” to which the given answer is patterned after 1 Cor 8:6: “No, To us there is but one God, the Father of mankind, and the Creator of the earth.” Joseph Smith had appealed to the same passage in his final public sermon (16 June 1844) as proof of the plurality of Gods (The Essential Joseph Smith [Classic of Mormon Thought 4; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995] 252). That sermon was in part a response to the charge made on 7 June 1844 by the Nauvoo Expositor, a dissident Mormon newspaper, that Joseph and some other leaders had introduced two “false and damnable doctrines,” one of which was, “a plurality of gods above the God of this universe.” See further, “Plurality of Gods,” in Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1979) 577.
5 When Mormon 6:22 speaks of “the Father, yea, the eternal Father of heaven,” we have no reason to suppose that it is not Jesus being referred to since he is called not only the Eternal Father but also the Father (e.g., Ether 3:14).
9 The generation of Methodism that followed the death of its spiritual founder, John Wesley, also found itself divided over this issue, with two of its most prominent figures, Adam Clarke the eminent bible commentator and Richard Watson the author of the Theological Institutes (1821-1825) facing off over it. During the opening decades of the nineteenth century volumes of Clarke’s commentary were appearing, containing several passages repudiating the Eternal Sonship of Jesus (final edition 1831; see especially his comment on Luke 1:35, but see also those on Ps 2:7, 89:27; Prov 8:36; Heb 1:14). . Already by 1818 Watson had issued a pamphlet entitled “The Eternal Sonship of Christ,” which was intended to counter the views of Clarke, defending instead the more traditional view. Watson also followed up with a strong defense of the same in the Institutes. Lorenzo Dow (d. 1834), the very popular and eccentric preacher with loose Methodist connections, also came out strongly against Eternal Sonship.
10 Old School Presbyterians at places like Princeton Seminary supported eternal generation, while New School Presbyterians, taking their lead in part at least from New Divinity Congregationalists at places like Yale Divinity School and Andover Seminary rejected it. One of the key documents in the debate was Moses Stuart’s Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son, Addressed to the Rev. Samuel Miller, D.D. (Andover, Mass.: Flagg and Gould, 1822). Stuart was a professor at Andover Seminary.
11 The leaders of the two main branches of the Restoration Movement, Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, both rejected Eternal Sonship but for markedly different reasons. Campbell did so on the basis of the Restorationist principle of teaching Bible doctrine using Bible words. Like the Methodists and New Divinity teachers Campbell argued that Jesus only became the only begotten Son at the time of the incarnation. Like them also Campbell vigorously defended both Jesus’ deity and his eternal preexistence. Barton W. Stone, on the other hand, rejected Eternal Generation because he did not ultimately believe in either.
12 D. Michael Quinn informs us that “Aside from his lengthy summary of Swedenborg’s teachings, [Ebenezer] Sibly's [Occult Sciences] was also the only source for various inscriptions on the Smith family’s magic parchments. In 1839 the prophet met with early Mormonism’s only convert from Swedenborgianism. Smith told Edward Hunter: `Emmanuel Swedenborg had a view of the world to come, but for daily food he perished’” (Mormonism and the Magic World View [2d. ed.; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1998] 217-18). Both Joseph Smith and Emmanuel Swedenborg taught that there were three heavens, and both called the highest of the three by the name celestial (see discussion in Quinn p. 217 and the 1832 revelations that now appear as D&C 76 and 88).
15 Emmanuel Swedenborg, The True Christian Religion: Containing the Universal Theology of the New Church Foretold by the Lord in Daniel VII. 13, 14; and in Revelation XXI 1,2 (Boston: Otis Clapp // New York: John Allen 1851) 144.
16 “New Jerusalem Church,” in Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations … (4th ed.; New York: James Eastburn // Boston: Cummings and Hillard, 1817) 203. See D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (2d. ed.; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1998) 15-16, and Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library,” BYU Studies 22 (Summer 1982) 347.
18 The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (ed. and comp. by Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook; Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980) 63.
24 See, e.g., the second half of 3 Nephi 21, an instance which is further complicated by the fact that in it Son quotes the Father speaking about the Son in the third person: “For it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that at that day, whosoever will not repent and come unto my beloved Son, them will I cut off from among my people, O house of Israel” (vs. 20).
34 Orson Pratt, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes, 1840) 5, from portion reprinted in Early Mormon Documents I (ed. by Dan Vogel; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1996) 151.
38 “William Clayton’s Private Book,” in The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Religious Stiudies Monograph Series 6; ed. by Andrew F. Ehat & Lyndon W. Cook; Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980) 60. Mormon writers sometimes point to Truman Coe’s statement in the 11 August 1836 Ohio Observer as proof that by that time the Mormons already had a clear understanding that God had a body of flesh and bone. Coe had said: “They [the Mormons] contend…that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts; and that when the Creator formed Adam in his own image, he made him about the size and shape of God himself." (see for example, Robert L. Millet, “A Discussion of Lecture 5: The Supreme Power over All Things; The Doctrine of the Godhead in the Lectures on Faith,” in The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1990. (ed. by Larry E. Dahl and Charles D. Tate, Jr Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1990) 277, on Infobase CD-ROM. Whatever we make of the claim that God is material, clearly the body of God in Ether 3 of the Book of Mormon was “composed of body and parts.” He had after all said in Ether 3:16: “man have I created after the body of my spirit created.” And this was very clearly taken in a very literal sense, since he had said to the brother just before this: “Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image” (vs. 15).
41 I am using Stan Larson’s “Newly Amalgamated Text” as it appears in The Essential Joseph Smith (Classics in Mormon Thought 4; Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995) 232-45. Here p. 238: “In the beginning the Head of the Gods called a council of the Gods. The Gods came together and concocted a scheme to create this world and the inhabitants … The word create came from the word BARA, but it doesn't mean so. What does BARA mean? It means to organize; the same as a man would organize and use things to build a ship. Hence, we infer that God Himself 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 that never can be destroyed. They may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed. Nothing can be destroyed. They never can have a beginning or an ending; they exist eternally.”