From Monotheism to Eternal Progression: The Evolution of the Mormon Doctrine of Exaltation
We come now to the final chapter in the LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles. The issues of concern with this chapter are without a doubt the most crucial issues dividing the LDS religion from orthodox, traditional Christianity.
Mormons may find the above statement surprising. Chapter 47 of Gospel Principles deals with the subject of “exaltation.” As this doctrine is commonly stated, it is the LDS belief that faithful members of the LDS Church and other people who accept the LDS gospel in the afterlife have the potential to become like their Heavenly Father. What could be wrong with wanting to become like one’s father?
However, from our standpoint as Bible-believing Christians, what is especially troubling and radically wrong with the LDS doctrine is what it says about the nature of God himself. We understand the LDS doctrine of exaltation to rest on a doctrine of God that is fundamentally at odds with what God has testified about himself in the Bible as well as what all of the major streams of traditional, historic Christianity have understood about the nature of God. In this study, we shall explain why. The study will proceed in two parts. In this first part, we will explain the LDS doctrine and trace its historical development from Joseph Smith to the present day. In doing so, we will see that the LDS doctrine is contrary to the teaching of the Book of Mormon as well as Joseph Smith’s earliest doctrinal pronouncements about the nature of God. In the second part of this study, we will explain how this doctrine conflicts with the teaching of the Bible.
The basic idea of the LDS doctrine of exaltation may be stated simply. It is that human beings have the potential to become Gods—beings of the very same nature and abilities as our God the Father—because he also was once a man like us who became a God by the same process that we are now invited to follow. The classic statement of this doctrine was formulated by Lorenzo Snow (frequently quoted, e.g., Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith , 71):
As man is now, God once was;
as God is now, man may be.
The same idea—using some of the same wording—was expressed by Joseph Smith himself in 1844 in his most famous (or infamous) sermon, the King Follett Discourse (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 345-46):
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! ...Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you….
We will look at these statements more closely later in this study. To put these statements in as full a context as possible, we need to review the history of Joseph Smith’s revelations and what they taught about God and human beings, beginning with the Book of Mormon. The fact is, as we shall demonstrate here, that Joseph Smith’s theology of God and man underwent major development and even dramatic changes in the fifteen years from his dictating the Book of Mormon in 1829 to his death in 1844. The approach taken here, then, is to examine the teachings of Joseph Smith and his revelations historically, tracing the changes chronologically.
A. God and Man in the Book of Mormon (1829)
We begin with the Book of Mormon, most of which Joseph Smith dictated in 1829. From the LDS perspective, the Book of Mormon is an ancient book and therefore should reflect an ancient theology, not Joseph Smith’s own theology. However, as we will see, for whatever reason the Book of Mormon’s theology is the same as Joseph Smith’s at this earliest stage of his work as the LDS prophet.
The Book of Mormon teaches a more or less traditional understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The “Testimony of Three Witnesses,” signed by Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, appears in the front matter of every edition of the Book of Mormon. The Testimony concludes with the following doxology:
“And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.”
This same language appears in the Book of Mormon text:
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 Ne. 31:21b)
…to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end. (Mormon 7:7)
The doxologies of honor and praises in the Testimony of Three Witnesses and in Mormon 7:7 clearly echo the doxology found, for example, in the Book of Common Prayer: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” The language used here and elsewhere in these earliest LDS texts is clearly that of the traditional belief in the doctrine of the Trinity. This is not to say that the Book of Mormon perfectly or accurately reflects that doctrine. 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), which is not consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity. The relevant point here, though, is that the Book of Mormon emphatically and without qualification views the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as one God.
The Book of Mormon teaches that God has always, from eternity past, been God.
The Book of Mormon explicitly teaches that God has been God without change from eternity past and will continue to be God to eternity future:
For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity. (Moroni 8:18; see also Mosiah 3:5; Alma 13:7; Moroni 7:22; compare the similar statement in Psalm 90:2)
The Book of Mormon teaches that God is the sole Creator of all things.
According to the Book of Mormon, God “created all things” (2 Nephi 2:14-15, 22; Mosiah 4:2, 9; 5:15; 18:28-29; 22:10-11; 3 Nephi 9:15; Mormon 9:11). For example, it teaches that there would be nothing at all in existence without God:
And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things must have vanished away. And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon. (2 Nephi 2:13-14)
The Book of Mormon teaches that God—and specifically the Father—is spirit.
In one passage it tells about Jesus Christ before his mortal birth appearing in a “body of spirit”—an idea that the LDS Church does still teach today:
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. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters. And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. 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 3:14-16).
Another passage also speaks about “the Spirit of the Lord” appearing in human form, suggesting that he has a body of spirit:
And I said unto him: To know the interpretation thereof—for I spake unto him as a man speaketh; for I beheld that he was in the form of a man; yet nevertheless, I knew that it was the Spirit of the Lord; and he spake unto me as a man speaketh with another” (1 Ne. 11:11).
The Book of Mormon teaches that human beings are creatures originating as physical beings here on earth.
The Book of Mormon repeatedly refers to Adam and Eve as “our first parents” (1 Ne. 5:11; 2 Ne. 2:15; 9:9; Jacob 4:3; Mos. 16:3; Alma 12:21, 26; 42:2, 7; Hel. 6:26; Ether 8:25). There is no suggestion anywhere that we lived in heaven as children of heavenly parents. As quoted above, the Book of Mormon states that without God we would not even exist (2 Nephi 2:13-14).
If we are not eternally existent beings but rather creatures whom God brought into existence, it follows that we are not potential Gods of the same kind or nature as the eternal God who made us. Consistently, then, the Book of Mormon says nothing to suggest that human beings can become gods.
The Book of Mormon’s teaching that Christ before his physical birth had a “body” of spirit is a significant departure from the teaching of orthodox, traditional Christianity, which understands Christ’s divine nature to be incorporeal. Still, in other respects the Book of Mormon doctrine of God is surprisingly close to orthodox theology. It affirms clearly that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God; it teaches that God exists without change as God from eternity to eternity, as the Great Spirit, and that he is the sole Creator of all that exists. The Book of Mormon also gives no support to the notion that human beings can become Gods.
B. Joseph Smith’s Early Teaching (1830 – ca. 1839)
When we turn to Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations and teachings after the publication of the Book of Mormon, we find that he starts off with the same doctrine as the one he dictated in the Book of Mormon. For example, in one of his earliest revelations (dated 1830), Joseph affirmed that God is eternally God, unchangeable, and the Trinity:
By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them.... Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen. (Doctrine & Covenants 20:17, 28; see also 39:1; 61:1; 76:4; Moses 6:7; 7:29, 31)
Joseph Smith taught more clearly and consistently that the Father and the Son were two distinct persons. They are called “God” or “the Father” and his “Only Begotten” or “the Son” in the Book of Moses (1:6, 13, 16, 17, 21, 32, 33; 2:1, 26, 27; 3:18; 4:1, 3, 28; 5:7, 9, 57; 6:52, 57, 59, 62; 7:50, 59, 62; see also Doctrine & Covenants 20:21; 29:42, 46; 49:5; 76:13, 23-25, 35, 57). This language was already in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 25:12; Jacob 4:5, 11; Alma 5:48; 9:26; 12:33-34; 13:5, 9), but Joseph’s earliest revelations outside the Book of Mormon use that language more consistently.
One of Joseph’s earliest doctrinal innovations concerned the act of creation. While still affirming that God “created all things” (Doctrine & Covenants 29:30-34; Moses 3:5, 7, 9; 6:63), Joseph also taught that God created all living things in spiritual form before the physical (Moses 3:4-9).
All of these revelations, including Joseph’s revision of Genesis in what he called the Book of Moses, reflect the traditional Christian belief that one God, existing eternally as God, created everything other than himself. In this biblical and traditional Christian worldview, God is the sole eternal being, the only reality that has no beginning; human beings and everything else are created entities that literally began to exist at some point of time. Joseph began moving away from this worldview as early as 1833, when he issued a revelation stating, “Man was also in the beginning with God” and that “intelligence” is uncreated (Doctrine & Covenants 93:29). This statement appears to be the seed from which Joseph’s radically different worldview was to develop. The transformation of his theology did not happen overnight. Thus, for example, Joseph did not teach the LDS Church’s signature doctrine that God the Father is a man of flesh and bones until the early 1840s. In late 1834, for example, Joseph drew a clear contrast between the Father as “a personage of spirit” and the Son Jesus Christ as “a personage of tabernacle,” that is, of flesh:
There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing, and supreme power over all things—by whom all things were created and made that are created and made, whether visible or invisible; whether in heaven, on earth, or in the earth, under the earth, or throughout the immensity of space. 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 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. (Lectures on Faith 5.2)
Lectures on Faith were part of Doctrine & Covenants, and thus part of the LDS Church’s “standard works,” from early 1835 until 1921.
C. Joseph Smith’s Later Teaching (ca. 1839 – 1844)
There is no specific date marking a clear transition from Joseph Smith’s early teaching in the first years of the LDS Church to his later teaching toward the end of his life. From 1831 to 1837 the LDS Church movement was centered in Kirtland, Ohio. This was the period during which Joseph published the Book of Moses, Lectures on Faith, and about half of the revelations in Doctrine & Covenants. As we have seen, Joseph produced some unorthodox doctrinal revelations during this period, but he still seemed to hold to a fairly traditional Christian worldview. Troubles in Kirtland led the Mormons to relocate for a short time in Far West, Missouri (1838-1839) before establishing a new but ill-fated community in Nauvoo, Illinois (1839-1844). In Nauvoo, Joseph changed the name of the LDS Church to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (its present name), had a new temple built, and became the de facto political and military leader of the Mormon people. Troubles there led to Joseph being killed in an act of mob violence in 1844.
A significant part of Joseph’s troubles during his last years was doctrinal. It was in Nauvoo that Joseph Smith published the Book of Abraham, another rewrite of the opening chapters of Genesis, this one teaching polytheism. However, Joseph had dictated most of the text of the Book of Abraham in 1835, so the idea of multiple gods was apparently contemplated privately by Joseph as early as that date. During the last four years of his life, Joseph issued his most controversial revelations, notably concerning baptism for the dead, plural marriage (polygamy), explicit plurality of gods (polytheism), and God the Father as a physical being. The combination of these teachings dramatically transformed the LDS Church from that date forward both theologically and practically.
The basic elements of Joseph Smith’s radically unorthodox and unbiblical doctrine of God emerged in 1843. The Book of Abraham, published that year, attributes creation not to one God, but to a group of Gods, and reinterprets creation as an act of organizing preexistent material: “They, the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth” (Abraham 4:1). Joseph Smith taught that same year that “the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:22) and that faithful Mormons would “be gods” with “all power” (132:20). God, then, is apparently a man, with a physical body like ours, and we can become omnipotent gods like him.
Joseph connected the dots of these 1843 revelations with a stunning doctrinal lecture on April 7, 1844, known as the King Follett Discourse (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 345-46, 353-54):
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!
…I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea….
…he was once a man like us: yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did….
Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you….
The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal with God himself…. God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all.
The King Follett Discourse, commonly regarded as Joseph’s most important sermon, lays down some startling claims. God the Father was once a man like us, and became an exalted man, which is to say, he became God. Joseph claims to “refute” the idea that God has been God from all eternity. No, Joseph argues, God the Father was once a man like us who became a God through a process of being “exalted.” He started out as an ordinary man, not as God, and became a God by that process. Furthermore, Joseph asserted, “you have got to learn to be Gods yourselves…the same as all Gods have done before you.” In context, this statement clearly means that just as God was once a man and became a God, we who are now ordinary human beings can become Gods just as he did.
If our God the Father was once a man like us and had to pass through a process of exaltation to become a God, who was running his world before he became a God? Joseph answered this question a few weeks later on June 16, 1844, just eleven days before his death, in a speech known as the “Sermon at the Grove.” In this sermon, Joseph attacked the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity, claimed (falsely) that he had been teaching polytheism for fifteen years, and presented the idea that God the Father himself had a Father who was his God before him:
Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow…. All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God—he would be a giant or a monster…. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? …Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also?” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370-73).
The transformation of Joseph Smith’s theology could not have been more radical. He began in 1828 as a monotheist and ended in 1844 as a polytheist—while denying he had changed on this point at all. Just compare the following statements from Joseph Smith in 1830 and in 1844:
Joseph Smith in 1830
Joseph Smith in 1844
“By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them” (D&C 20:17).
“I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea” (King Follett Discourse).
“Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen” (D&C 20:28).
“Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow” (Sermon at the Grove).
By any reasonable understanding of these statements, Joseph Smith in 1844 flatly contradicted his own teaching from 1830. More troubling is the result: a doctrine that redefines God as a status or condition that no one possesses from all eternity but that any human being can attain by a process of exaltation. Gone is the historic understanding of Judaism and Christianity (as well as Islam) that God is the one absolutely eternal, uncreated Being who brought all things other than himself into existence. Our “God” is simply one of many finite beings that attained Godhood by a process of exaltation that we ourselves are summoned to repeat. Our Heavenly Father had a Father who was his God, and since Joseph claims that every father starts out as a son, evidently that God had a Father who was his God before him, and so on ad infinitum. As spirits, we are not created at all, but are eternal beings with the inherent potential to become Gods just as all Gods did before us.
D. The Classic LDS Doctrine of Eternal Progression
LDS Church Presidents following Joseph Smith clearly understood the teaching he gave toward the end of his life in just the way we have summarized above. We will focus here on three of these Presidents: Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Lorenzo Snow.
The second President of the LDS Church, Brigham Young, repeatedly taught the same doctrine. Numerous lengthy quotations could be given, but the following will serve to illustrate the point:
But I expect, if I am faithful with yourselves, that I shall see the time with yourselves that we shall know how to prepare to organize an earth like this—know how to people that earth, how to redeem it, how to sanctify it, and how to glorify it, with those who live upon it who hearken to our counsels. The Father and the Son have attained to this point already; I am on the way, and so are you, and every faithful servant of God…. After men have got their exaltations and their crowns—have become Gods, even the sons of God—are made Kings of kings and Lords of lords, they have the power then of propagating their species in spirit; and that is the first of their operations with regard to organizing a world. Power is then given to them to organize the elements, and then commence the organization of tabernacles” (Brigham Young, August 28, 1852, in Journal of Discourses 6:274-75).
Some men seem as if they could learn so much and no more. They appear to be bounded in their capacity for acquiring knowledge, as Brother Orson Pratt, has in theory, bounded the capacity of God. According to his theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity, if they are faithful” (Brigham Young, Jan. 13, 1867, Journal of Discourses 11:286).
Then will they become gods, even the sons of God; then will they become eternal fathers, eternal mothers, eternal sons and eternal daughters; being eternal in their organization, they go from glory to glory, from power to power; they will never cease to increase and to multiply, worlds without end. When they receive their crowns, their dominions, they then will be prepared to frame earths like unto ours and to people them in the same manner as we have been brought forth by our parents, by our Father and God” (Brigham Young, October 8, 1876, Journal of Discourses 18:259).
Young’s statement that “the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children,” pithily expresses the doctrine that Mormons classically have called eternal progression.
Joseph Fielding Smith
The following statement from Joseph Fielding Smith, the tenth LDS Church President (1970-1972), illustrates the understanding that God the Father had a Father, who in turn had a Father before him, who also had a Father before him, and so on endlessly into the past:
Our Father in heaven, according to the Prophet, had a Father, and since there has been a condition of this kind through all eternity, each Father had a Father, until we come to a stop where we cannot go further, because of our limited capacity to understand (Doctrines of Salvation , 2:45).
This idea is known in logic as an infinite regress—a backward chain of cause and effect that hypothetically stretches backward infinitely into the past, a chain of events with no beginning. The idea of an infinite regress of Gods was expressed perhaps most clearly by B. H. Roberts, one of the most influential theologians in LDS Church history:
But if God the Father was not always God, but came to his present exalted position by degrees of progress as indicated in the teachings of the prophet, how has there been a God from all eternity? The answer is that there has been and there now exists an endless line of Gods, stretching back into the eternities, that had no beginning and will have no end. Their existence runs parallel with endless duration, and their dominions are as limitless as boundless space (B. H. Roberts, A New Witness for God [Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon & Sons, 1895], 466).
Lorenzo Snow was the fifth President of the LDS Church (1898-1901). We are considering his teaching here, out of chronological order, because of its special importance long before and long after his presidency. The classic LDS statement on the subject of eternal progression actually came from Snow, in the two-line verse or “couplet” quoted toward the beginning of this study:
As man is now, God once was;
as God is now, man may be.
It is interesting to note that Snow formulated this famous couplet before Joseph Smith’s polytheistic revelations in 1843 and 1844. In fact, Snow’s own testimony (accepted by the LDS Church in its publications) is that he came up with the couplet in the spring of 1840 and shared it with Joseph Smith in January 1843. According to Snow, Joseph responded by saying, “Brother Snow, that is true gospel doctrine, and it is a revelation from God to you” (Snow, Improvement Era, June 1919, 656). (The Improvement Era was the magazine now known as the Ensign.) This means that Snow passed on the couplet to Joseph a few months before Joseph’s revelation in April 1843 teaching that God the Father has a body of flesh and bones (Doctrine & Covenants 130:22) and the recording of Joseph’s revelation in July 1843 teaching that faithful Mormons who practice plural marriage will become gods (Doctrine & Covenants 132:20). Joseph’s 1844 King Follett Discourse uses almost the same words as the first half of Snow’s couplet in the course of elaborating on the same doctrinal concept:
Joseph Smith (1844)
Lorenzo Snow (1840)
“God himself was once as we are now….
…he was once a man like us….”
As man is now, God once was….
Throughout his life, Snow taught the doctrine he had helped to formulate, and he went on to become the fifth President of the LDS Church (1898-1901). The LDS Church continued to quote Snow’s couplet with approval and still affirms it today. In 1982, in answer to a question about the status of the couplet as LDS doctrine, Gerald Lund made the following statement in Ensign, the LDS Church’s official magazine: “It is clear that the teaching of President Snow is both acceptable and accepted doctrine in the Church today” (Gerald N. Lund, Ensign, Feb. 1982, 40). The couplet is quoted with approval in two recent curriculum manuals. The first of these quotes not only the couplet but also a comment from Snow that explains just what he understood it to mean. According to Snow, some LDS boys would one day “be able to go out into space where there is unorganized matter and call together the necessary elements, and through their knowledge of and control over the laws and powers of nature, to organize matter into worlds on which their posterity may dwell, and over which they shall rule as gods” (Presidents of the Church Student Manual , 89).
An even more recent manual of the teachings of the eighth LDS Church President, George Albert Smith, includes his endorsement of the couplet and its traditional LDS meaning:
Eternal life is to us the sum of pre-existence, present existence, and the continuation of life in immortality, holding out to us the power of endless progression and increase. With that feeling and that assurance, we believe that ‘As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become.’ [See Lorenzo Snow, ‘The Grand Destiny of Man,’ Deseret Evening News, July 20, 1901, 22.] Being created in the image of God, we believe that it is not improper, that it is not unrighteous, for us to hope that we may be permitted to partake of the attributes of deity and, if we are faithful, to become like unto God…” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith , 71).
Notice not only George Albert Smith’s quotation of Snow’s couplet as something “we believe,” but also his affirmation that human beings may have “the power of endless progression and increase.” This doctrine of eternal progression has thus been part of the LDS Church’s teaching by its leaders and in its official doctrinal publications from the last days of Joseph Smith right up to the present day.
E. Contemporary LDS Doctrine: Softening Eternal Progression
Although the doctrine of eternal progression remains “on the books” as part of LDS doctrine, there is evidence that the LDS Church has been quietly softening, perhaps even slowly backing away from, this doctrine. The contemporary period may be dated from the time of Spencer W. Kimball, LDS President from 1973 to 1985. Kimball issued a revelation in 1974 directing all young LDS men to serve for two years as missionaries. Another revelation in 1978 opened the LDS priesthood, which for over a century had been generally denied “to people of color,” to members of all races and ethnicities. These innovations by Kimball eventually changed the religion as a whole. The aggressive pursuit of an international, multiracial membership, drawn almost entirely from people whose background was in traditional Christian churches, led to efforts to make LDS theology seem more mainstream or at least more biblical. As these changes had their effect and as the old guard passed away, LDS doctrine subtly shifted in emphasis if not substance.
A more traditional view of the family
One very noticeable difference between LDS religion and culture in the contemporary period as contrasted with the period before the 1970s has to do with the family. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the LDS Church had been teaching that we have a heavenly Mother as well as a heavenly Father. It now teaches that they procreated us as spirit children. These ideas are not in the Book of Mormon and were not taught by Joseph Smith. LDS polygamy officially ended in the early twentieth century, and its last polygamous families died off by the 1950s. (Polygamous Mormons since that time have been members of LDS splinter sects, not of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) With the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, Mormons found themselves culturally more conservative than mainstream American society. This was a complete and ironic change from the nineteenth century when the LDS Church encouraged polygamy. These developments led to an emphasis especially since the 1970s on “the family” as the cornerstone of Mormon theology. In turn, this more “family-oriented” way of understanding LDS belief affected the way Mormons understood and explained Joseph Smith’s doctrine of exaltation.
Dropping the doctrine of a heavenly Grandfather
Meanwhile, an element of the classic LDS doctrine of eternal progression that is generally missing from contemporary LDS teaching is the notion of an infinite regress of divine Fathers or successive generations of Gods. Joseph Smith’s idea that God the Father himself had a Father—a sort of heavenly grandfather—has not been rejected, but is now largely ignored. For example, the idea appears nowhere in any of the current LDS doctrinal manuals, including Gospel Principles (in any of its editions from the 1970s to the present).
Changes to the exaltation chapter in Gospel Principles
Speaking of Gospel Principles, recent developments in LDS theology can be tracked through its changing editions, first published under Kimball. Significant differences occur in the 1978, 1992, 1997, and current 2009 editions. Instead of adding new revelations or even clarifying older statements, the newer editions often omit significant statements from the earlier editions or reword them in ways that are less clear than before. Several rather interesting examples of such changes appear in the final chapter on exaltation.
Consider the following example:
Will we have spirit children?
Exalted persons “will have their righteous family members with them and will be able to have spirit children also. These spirit children will have the same relationship to them as we do to our Heavenly Father” (1978 ed., 225; 1997 ed., 302).
Exalted persons “will be reunited eternally with their righteous family members and will be able to have eternal increase” (2009 ed., 277).
The current edition of Gospel Principles drops the clear reference to exalted persons having “spirit children” and says instead that they will have “eternal increase.” This might mean the same thing, but it might not—the language is ambiguous at best. The current edition also drops the statement that if we become exalted beings, our spirit children will have the same relationship to us as we have to our Heavenly Father. Evidently the implication that we might one day have spirit offspring who will worship and pray to us in the same way that we worship and pray to our God was too controversial. Rather than clarify the statement or repudiate it, the editors of this curriculum decided to omit it.
Here is another important change, so inconspicuous that if you blink you will miss it:
Will we become Gods?
“We can become Gods like our Heavenly Father. This is exaltation” (1978 ed., 225).
“We can become like our Heavenly Father. This is exaltation” (1997 ed., 302; 2009 ed., 275).
The omission of the word “Gods” from the above sentence is extremely significant. Notice that the LDS Church is not now denying that we can become Gods like our Heavenly Father. In fact, that people can become Gods has been LDS doctrine since 1844 and apparently still is LDS doctrine, as we have documented above. For some reason, though, the LDS Church in this publication has chosen not to continue making that straightforward affirmation.
Basic to Joseph Smith’s doctrine of eternal progression was the idea that the Father himself progressed from a state in which he was not yet God to one in which he had become a God. Gospel Principles taught this idea explicitly for thirty years, but in the current edition it is simply dropped without explanation:
Did the Father become a God?
“This [exaltation] is the way our Heavenly Father became a God” (1978 ed., 228).
“This [exaltation] is the way our Heavenly Father became God” (1997 ed., 305).
Statement omitted from 2009 ed. (279).
The evidence that the LDS Church has to some extent been backing away from the doctrine of eternal progression without actually rejecting it is not limited to these changes in Gospel Principles. In 1997, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley was asked by Time magazine if the Church taught that “God the Father was once a man like we are.” Infamously, he replied: “I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse.” Three years earlier, Hinckley had given a ringing endorsement of Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse—but omitted its reference to God having been a man like us:
On the other hand, the whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 342–62) and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become! (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Don’t Drop the Ball,” Ensign, Nov 1994, 46).
Although the LDS Church’s leaders and publications at times downplay or omit explicit reference to the idea that God was once a man like us, the idea continues to appear in official curriculum materials. Furthermore, the affirmation that man may become “as God now is” obviously presupposes that God was not always as he “now is.” The very idea that human beings may become beings of the same order and nature as God entails that “God” is an open category. In other words, if humans can become beings of the same type as God the Father, then beings other than the Father may be added to the category of “God” as they meet the qualifications.
Joseph Smith started out in the late 1820s adhering to a basically traditional Christian view of God and man. Both the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s earliest revelations taught that God has existed from eternity past as God, the sole Creator of everything but himself, one God existing as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. By the end of his life in 1844, Joseph taught a radically different theology. God the Father was once a man like us, became a God by a process of exaltation, and is thus an exalted Man of flesh and bones. We may also be exalted to become Gods ourselves in the same way that the Father did. Our Heavenly Father was himself once a son and had a Father God before him (and, implicitly, another Father God before that God, and so on). This is the theology clearly and emphatically taught by LDS Church Presidents such as Brigham Young, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph Fielding Smith and by such renowned LDS teachers as B. H. Roberts.
The LDS Church has not repudiated or rejected any element of this classic LDS doctrine. However, in recent decades it has softened or moderated the way this doctrine is presented. Official LDS Church publications for a generation have not taught the doctrine that the Father had a Father God before him. Strong affirmations of the classic doctrine in Gospel Principles, a manual continuously in print for over thirty years, have been softened or even deleted without explanation. Yet expressions of the doctrine still appear in other official LDS curriculum materials. We conclude that the doctrine of God formulated by Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow is still official LDS doctrine: that God was once a man like us, that he became a God through a process of exaltation, and that we may do the same.
In the next and final article of this study, we will consider what God has revealed in the Bible about himself and about our relationship to him.
For Further Study
Bowman, Robert M. Jr. The Creator and the Creation. Response to chapter 5 of Gospel Principles, showing how Joseph Smith’s doctrine of creation went through radical changes.
Dodging and Dissembling Prophet? Brief article detailing IRR’s correspondence with the LDS Church regarding Hinckley’s controversial remarks in his Time magazine interview.
Groat, Joel B. God Was Once a Man Like Us: Finessing an Off-Putting Mormon Doctrine. Provides numerous quotations from LDS Church leaders over the years affirming this doctrine and discusses recent statements that seem to call it into question.
Huggins, Ronald V. “‘As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be’: ‘No functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine?’ A response to Richard Mouw.” Academic article responding to neo-evangelical scholar Mouw’s claim that Mormons no longer believe that God was once a mortal man. Highly recommended.
Huggins, Ronald V. Joseph Smith’s Modalism: Sabellian Sequentialism or Swedenborgian Expansionism? Academic article showing that the doctrine of God in the Book of Mormon is incompatible with the idea of God the Father being an exalted man with a physical body.
Wilson, Luke P. Joseph Smith’s Changing Doctrine of Deity. Documents how Joseph Smith’s view of the nature of God changed radically; includes helpful table summarizing the doctrines of Joseph’s various translations and other revelations.