The Mormon God Has Not Always Been God
Prior to 1844, Joseph Smith taught the traditional Christian doctrine that God has been God from all eternity. This is the position taught in the Book of Mormon: “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). It is also the position that Joseph taught in his early revelations, notably in the following statement: “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).
However, in 1844 Joseph publicly repudiated this doctrine, though without acknowledging that he himself had taught it previously. In his King Follett Discourse, Joseph taught that God the Father became a God through a process of exaltation and that human beings are meant to follow the same path of exaltation to Godhood.
Mormons who do not speak for the LDS Church, especially in online forums, often claim that this is not what Joseph Smith taught. However, LDS Church prophets and other leaders ever since 1844 have taught as doctrine that God the Father was not always God but became God. That is how these men, who do speak for the LDS Church, have interpreted the King Follett Discourse. This three-part article will document this fact with direct quotations from these sources. Part One considers Joseph Smith’s teaching in the King Follett Discourse; Part Two provides quotations from LDS leaders from Brigham Young to the late 1970s; and Part Three documents what LDS doctrinal manuals and theologians have been teaching on the subject from the late 1970s up to the present.
Joseph Smith’s “King Follett Discourse” (7 April 1844)
Before considering the teaching of the King Follett Discourse, we should briefly address a common objection one hears occasionally, namely, that the sermon should not be used in discussing LDS doctrine because it is not part of the LDS scriptures and has never been canonized. This objection assumes an approach to doctrine that, frankly, is contrary to the LDS Church’s own teachings. Mormonism does not limit doctrinal sources to “canonical” Scripture. In a real sense, Mormons do not accept the idea of a canon at all. They do regard certain writings as “the standard works,” but they do not limit doctrine to what can be found there.
In the LDS manual Teaching Seminary Preservice Readings: Religion 370, 471, and 475 (2004), the LDS Church makes this point explicitly and with specific reference to the King Follett Discourse:
Also by way of having all things in perspective, we should be aware that there are approved and inspired writings that are not in the standard works. These writings also are true and should be used along with the scriptures themselves in learning and teaching the gospel. Next to the standard works five of the greatest documents in our literature are—
- The “Wentworth Letter.” …
- Lectures on Faith….
- The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve….
- The “King Follett Sermon” and the “Sermon in the Grove.” (See History of the Church, 6:302–17; 6:473–79.) These two sermons, one in thought and content, set forth the doctrine of the plurality of Gods and of becoming joint heirs with Christ. They show that man may become as his Maker and reign in celestial exaltation forever.
- “The Origin of Man,” by the First Presidency of the Church….1
Having shown that the King Follett Discourse is an accepted source for Mormon doctrine, we will now turn to the sermon and see what it says. Because this sermon is the foundation of the LDS doctrine on this point, and because its interpretation is sometimes disputed, we will quote the relevant statements in context and give them some careful attention. In what follows, the italics are as they appear in the LDS publication Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, while the use of bold type is added here for emphasis.
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another.
In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how He came to be so; for 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, and take away the veil, so that you may see.
These ideas are incomprehensible to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with Him as one man converses with another, and that 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; and I will show it from the Bible.
I wish I was in a suitable place to tell it, and that I had the trump of an archangel, so that I could tell the story in such a manner that persecution would cease forever. What did Jesus say? (Mark it, Elder Rigdon!) The scriptures inform us that Jesus said, as the Father hath power in himself, even so hath the Son power—to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious—in a manner to lay down his body and take it up again. Jesus, what are you going to do? To lay down my life as my Father did, and take it up again. Do you believe it? If you do not believe it you do not believe the Bible. The scriptures say it, and I defy all the learning and wisdom and all the combined powers of earth and hell together to refute it.
Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power. And I want you to know that God, in the last days, while certain individuals are proclaiming His name, is not trifling with you or me.2
Three times Joseph stated explicitly that God had not always been God. He said it in three different ways so that there can be no mistaking this to have been his meaning. (1) He announced that he was going to expound on “the character and being of God and how He came to be so.” That is, Joseph said he was going to explain how God “came to be” the character and being of God that he now is. (2) He then says, “for I am going to tell you how God came to be God.” Here it is explicitly: God “came to be God.” God is not something he always was but something he “came to be.” (3) Then Joseph states the same point in another way: “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.” What we “have imagined” and “supposed,” of course, Joseph meant are not true. He thus says, “I will refute that idea,” that is, he will prove it to be wrong, to be false. What is the idea he will refute? “That God was God from all eternity.”
Despite the clarity and explicitness with which Joseph Smith denied that God had been God from all eternity, there are those within the LDS movement who argue that this is not what he meant. They almost never give any attention to the words just quoted. Instead, they seize on one statement in the above passage that they assert proves that Joseph Smith could not have meant that God was first a man who then became a God. The statement they think disproves this to have been Joseph’s meaning (despite his explicit statements just discussed) is the following:
…that Jesus said, as the Father hath power in himself, even so hath the Son power—to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious—in a manner to lay down his body and take it up again. Jesus, what are you going to do? To lay down my life as my Father did, and take it up again.
Some Mormons reason as follows: Jesus was a God (Jehovah) before he became a man, died, and rose from the dead; Joseph Smith said here that the Son had the power to do what the Father had done before him; therefore, the Father must also have been a God before he became a man, died, and rose from the dead. These Mormons therefore infer that the Father was a God before he became a man, not just afterward.
It is not my purpose here to challenge what individual Mormons may think about this subject. If a Mormon personally believes that the Father was God and then became a man, then that is his or her business. I certainly would never claim that no Mormons believe this. However, as a historical matter, the question still remains what Joseph Smith’s meaning was.
First, the inference drawn by these revisionist Mormons, that the Father was a God before he became a man, is not stated by Joseph Smith, and as we saw above was explicitly contradicted by him. What Joseph said in the passage these Mormons emphasize is that the Father lived on an earth like ours, that he died, and that he rose from the dead. In these respects, and in these respects only, Joseph said that Jesus did the same things that the Father did. Nothing in this passage or in the rest of the sermon indicates that Joseph concluded that the Father had been a God before he became a man.
Second, assuming for the sake of argument that Joseph might have meant that the Father was a God who then became a man, he still did in fact say that it was false that God had always been God. So those who take this revisionist position, to be consistent, should conclude that the order was like this: first the person we call the Father was not a God; then he became a God; and then he became a man, died, and rose from the dead. This would be a better interpretation of Joseph Smith’s meaning than the view that God has always been God from eternity past, since at least this explanation would take seriously Joseph’s explicit denials that God has always been God. Where this view goes wrong is that Joseph is quite clear in saying that his purpose was to tell his listeners “how God came to be God,” namely, by becoming a man, dying, rising from the dead, and progressing upward until he had become fully exalted and attained his present status as God.
Third, to my knowledge no Mormon insists that Jesus Christ has been God from eternity past. They regard him as the firstborn spirit son of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother—our elder brother in the spirit world. In this context, Mormonism today clearly teaches that Jesus Christ became a God at some point in time before the formation of this earth. If Mormons can acknowledge that in their theology Jesus Christ has not always been a God, then they should have no trouble acknowledging that in their theology the Father has also not always been a God.
Fourth, suppose one wished to insist that Joseph’s statement would be inconsistent if the Father became a God only after his mortality while the Son Jesus Christ was a God before his mortality. Then, in the context of Joseph’s sermon, the proper conclusion would be that Jesus Christ also was not a God, or at least not fully a God, until after he became a man. And this interpretation actually makes coherent sense of Joseph’s sermon in its totality. Recall that Joseph went on to say, “you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you.” This statement makes more sense if it is understood to mean that “all gods” did “learn how to be gods” in the same way, by becoming human beings, dying, rising from the dead to immortality, and then progressing from that point upward until they attained full exaltation to Godhood. It would therefore follow that this is how Jesus Christ became a God. The obvious objection to this conclusion from a Mormon perspective is that it contradicts what the LDS Church teaches today as well as the teachings of the Bible and the LDS scriptures. However, as an interpretation of where Joseph Smith had arrived theologically in 1844, it makes perfect sense of the information we have. I would not insist that this must have been Joseph’s meaning, since he did not say one way or the other explicitly how Jesus came to be God. What we know, however, is that according to Joseph Smith the way God the Father came to be God was by living on an earth like ours as a man like us, dying, rising from the dead, and progressing to Godhood.
Finally, in terms of the teachings of the LDS Church, the record shows that the Mormon prophets, apostles, theologians, and curriculum writers have consistently understood the King Follett Discourse to mean that God the Father was a man who then became a God. The next two parts of this article will document this record.
1. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Bible, a Sealed Book,” in Teaching Seminary Preservice Readings Religion 370, 471, and 475 (2004), 123–32, quoted from A Symposium on the New Testament, 1984, 1–7.
2. “King Follett Discourse,” April 7, 1844, as quoted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1976), 345-47. The entire sermon was also published and is available online at LDS.org in an article in the Ensign, April 1971. Parts of this sermon are quoted in “The Fulness of the Gospel: The Nature of the Godhead,” Ensign, Jan. 2006; “Chapter 2: God the Father,” in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2011), 36–44; and in many other sources throughout LDS history.