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Gordon Hinckley, Richard Mouw, and Eternal Progression

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Gordon Hinckley, Richard Mouw, and Eternal Progression

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In the May 2016 issue of the Christian periodical First Things, Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, argued that Mormons are “approaching orthodoxy” because they are marginalizing the doctrine that God was once a man like us.1 In that article, Mouw appealed to a famous statement by Gordon Hinckley in a 1997 interview with Time magazine as support for his belief that Mormonism is moving toward orthodoxy. We will be examining Hinckley’s statement in some detail here and discussing the ways that both Mormons and non-Mormons have understood it. In a separate article, we provide a broader response to Mouw’s contention that Mormonism is backing away from its doctrine that God is an exalted man.2

What Hinckley Said

In Hinckley’s interview with Time in 1997, he was asked, “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?” He did not give a straight answer to the question:

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. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.3

Hinckley says “I don’t know” six times in seven short sentences, obviously uncomfortable with the question. After stating, “I don’t know that we teach it,” Hinckley immediately stated, “I don’t know that we emphasize it”—a peculiar comment to make about a doctrine if they don’t teach it at all. Of course, one would think that the president and prophet of the LDS Church would know whether his religion teaches that God the Father was once a man like us. The only reasonable and fair way to understand Hinckley here is that his second statement was meant to clarify or qualify the first statement: it may be included in their teachings, but it isn’t something they “emphasize.” The rest of what he said is consistent with this interpretation. He claimed that it had not been discussed publicly for some time (more on this shortly). The one thing he admitted knowing was “the philosophical background behind” the doctrine. In saying that neither he nor others “know a lot about it,” Hinckley was simply saying that Mormonism doesn’t provide much in the way of details about God the Father’s life before he became a God. In saying that he didn’t “know a lot about it,” Hinckley was admitting implicitly that he did know something about it, as he had just admitted in saying that he understood the philosophy behind it.

The Mormon apologetics website FairMormon, in its response to the controversy over Hinckley’s 1997 interview, explains his statement as follows:

He did not deny or renounce the doctrine. Quite simply, President Hinckley asserted that:

  • we don’t emphasize it.
  • we don’t tend to teach it much in public discourse.
  • he doesn’t know much about this topic, though he understands the philosophical underpinnings.
  • no one else in the Church has much information on it either.4

That seems to be an accurate summary of what Hinckley said.

What Mouw Has Said Hinckley’s Statement Meant

For the past few years, Mouw has been citing Hinckley’s statement to show that Mormonism is no longer committed to the ideas that God was once a man like us, that God and man are the same species, and that humans can become Gods of the same nature as God. Here is how Mouw presented Hinckley’s statement in his 2012 book:

Mormonism is often portrayed as a self-deification program—and not without some legitimacy, given the popularity of the Lorenzo Snow couplet: “What Man now is, God once was; what God now is, Man may become.” My Mormon friends are quick to point out, however, that this couplet has no official canonical status—indeed, Gordon Hinckley famously told Time magazine that he had no idea what it means to say “As God is, man may become.”5

Mouw’s claim that Hinckley told Time “that he had no idea what it means” is quite clearly false. What Hinckley said was that he understood the philosophy behind it and that he didn’t “know a lot about it,” not that he didn’t know anything about it. Thus, Mouw’s reference to Hinckley was a clear case of misrepresentation. Mouw also misrepresented Hinckley on at least two occasions in public speeches in 2012 and early 2013 (both given alongside LDS scholar and friend Robert Millet):

Indeed, Gordon Hinckley, when he was the chief prophet of the church, in Time magazine when he was asked about that said, “I don’t even know what that means. We don’t really talk about that at all.”6

And what Gordon Hinckley, the late president of the LDS, said to Time Magazine when they asked him about that, he said, “Yeh, we used to hear a lot about that. I can’t say that I understand what it is and we certainly don’t hear much about that anymore.”7

Again, Hinckley did say that Mormons don’t talk much about God the Father’s mortal life and that they didn’t know much about it, but he never denied knowing what the doctrine is or what it means. These were outright misrepresentations by Mouw.

In another talk in January 2013 earlier in the same day as the one quoted previously, Mouw gave a somewhat more nuanced comment:

When Gordon Hinckley, the President of the Mormon Church the last time around, was asked by Time magazine about that, he said, “I don’t understand it. I used to hear that when I was younger but we don’t really talk about that anymore.” There’s something there that’s a very important sociological fact about Mormon theology, and that is, “We don’t talk much about that anymore.” He wasn’t saying, “I repudiate that.” He was just saying, “That’s not at the center of things. That’s off to one side.” …If we just say, “Unless you repudiate everything in the past we’re not going to take you seriously,’ that’s not going to happen.”8

Once again, Mouw asserted that Hinckley had stated that he didn’t understand the doctrine of God the Father having been a man and that the LDS Church didn’t talk about that doctrinal idea any more. As explained above, Mouw’s claims here are misrepresentations of what Hinckley actually said. Mouw went further here, though, and claimed that what Hinckley meant was that the doctrine that God was once a mortal man was not central to Mormon belief. On that point, Mouw was probably right as to the impression Hinckley was seeking to convey. His comments did suggest that the doctrine was on the periphery of LDS belief.

In his recent First Things article, Mouw quotes Hinckley directly (a definite improvement) and explains the significance of Hinckley’s remarks as follows:

Hinckley was signaling a decision on the part of the Mormon leadership to downplay the Snow couplet within the corpus of Mormon teachings about the deity, not just to outsiders, but within their own community. This suggests that contemporary Mormonism is interested in joining the broad Jewish and Christian consensus that God is ontologically different from man—or at least that Mormons today don’t want to directly contradict that consensus.

Since Hinckley’s comment to Time was made in 1997, we have had nearly twenty years to see if the LDS Church actually has pivoted away from its earlier doctrine and ceased contradicting “the broad Jewish and Christian consensus that God is ontologically different from man.” The record of the past twenty years demonstrably contradicts Mouw’s interpretation, which he considers preferable to the view taken by most evangelical watchers of Mormonism at the time. Mouw comments on this view that he rejects:

One interpretation, set forth in various ways by critics of Mormonism, assumes that Hinckley was being deceptive. The Mormon leader knew well, the argument goes, that the idea of God the Father having started off as a human being strikes the uninitiated as a puzzling, even shocking, notion. Since Hinckley worried that a clear affirmation would harm LDS proselytizing efforts, he prevaricated. One Evangelical assessment was particularly blunt: “What Joseph Smith declared proudly and unambiguously—that God the Father was once a man—President Hinckley apparently now wishes to conceal from the public.”

The quote at the end of Mouw’s paragraph comes from an article that the Institute for Religious Research published on its website in 1997. In that article, IRR made the crucial point that in fact the LDS Church was still teaching the doctrine in question, citing as an example the 1992 edition of the LDS manual Gospel Principles.9 The 1997 edition of Gospel Principles, released sometime in the same year as Hinckley’s interview, also teaches the doctrine, even quoting Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse.10 While we may be glad that Mouw is reading some of IRR’s publications, it is disconcerting that he is not addressing the documentary evidence we have presented that supports our conclusions.

A thorough review of LDS publications in the 1990s and up to the present completely vindicates the statement made in IRR’s 1997 article.11 In fact, Gordon Hinckley himself taught the doctrine that Mouw claims Hinckley was trying to marginalize. In 1994, just three years earlier, Hinckley had made the following statements in an official General Conference address:

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 [sic] 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! Our enemies have criticized us for believing in this. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.12

Several points are worth noting here. 

  1. Hinckley explicitly cited with approval both the King Follett Discourse and the Snow couplet.
  2. Hinckley explicitly affirmed the goal of attaining “godhood” as set forth by Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow.
  3. The fact that Hinckley gave only a partial quote of the Snow couplet does not mean he was rejecting or distancing himself from the first part. As the FairMormon page previously cited comments, “Although he did not mention the other half of President Snow’s statement (‘As man is, God once was’), it’s quite clear from the context that President Hinckley was aware of and agreed with it.”13 Although Hinckley’s focus was on the potential of humans to become gods, that potential presupposes the possibility of someone who is not a god becoming one—of which the Heavenly Father in Mormon theology is the chief example. In Mormon thought, it is because we are literal offspring of God the Father that we have the potential to become like him, as children grow up to become like their parents. This belief is not incompatible with affirming that God the Father will always be greater than his children.
  4. Hinckley did not consider this idea of humans attaining godhood marginal or nonessential; rather, he spoke of it as “the whole design of the gospel,” a “grand and incomparable concept.”
  5. Finally, the LDS doctrine of eternal progression, or of humans becoming gods, does not rest on the Snow couplet alone. In fact, the primary basis for it in Mormon thought is the King Follett Discourse, one of Joseph Smith’s last sermons.

On this last point, the fact that the doctrine of eternal progression does not rest on the Snow couplet alone is one reason why Mouw’s repeated assertions about the Snow couplet not being “canonical” are irrelevant. Mormonism is not a canonically defined religion. Mouw knows this, as he has made the point himself: “The real point is that books are not where the true authority resides for Mormons. Evangelical Christians often miss this basic point.”14 Some evangelicals may indeed be unaware of this aspect of Mormonism (the ministry leaders of evangelical organizations working in the field of Mormonism are not), but Mouw himself seems to forget it when he claims that the entire idea of God and man as the same species can be ignored because the Snow couplet is not “canonical.”

Not only did Hinckley affirm the doctrine and its expressions in the King Follett Discourse and the Snow couplet prior to his Time interview, he assured Mormons months later that they could ignore what they read in that interview:

The media have been kind and generous to us. This past year of pioneer celebrations has resulted in very extensive, favorable press coverage. There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.15

It is unfortunate that Richard Mouw continues to make this mistake. At his best, he understands that what counts is not what Mormons say to non-Mormons but what they say to each other: “The test for me is not what Mormons say to me, but what they say to each other.”16 It is particularly important to base our conclusions about Mormon doctrine on what Mormon leaders teach their people. Hinckley’s controversial remarks to the media are not the appropriate place to begin in ascertaining what Mormonism teaches.



1. Richard J. Mouw, “Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy,” First Things, May 2016.

2. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Are Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy? A Response to Richard Mouw” (Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

3. This is the full answer in the unedited transcript provided to IRR by the interviewer for Time, Richard N. Ostling, and quoted in Luke P. Wilson and Joel B. Groat, “Dodging and Dissembling Prophet?” (IRR, 1997). See David Van Biema, “Kingdom Come: Salt Lake City was just for starters,” Time, 4 Aug. 1997.

4. “Mormonism and the nature of God/Hinckley downplaying the King Follett Discourse” (FairMormon, last modified 24 March 2015, accessed 13 April 2016).

5. Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 55, emphasis added.

6. Richard J. Mouw, in “Evangelicals and Mormons: A Conversation and Dialogue,” with Robert L. Millet, moderated by Michael Cromartie, South Beach, Miami, FL, published on Faith Angle Forum, Ethics and Public Policy Center, 7 May 2012 (emphasis added; misspelling of Hinckley’s name in the transcript corrected).

7. Richard J. Mouw, Author Events at Eerdmans Bookstore, with Robert L. Millet, 9 Jan. 2013, emphasis added. Note that Mouw corrected his earlier blatant misrepresentation about the Mormons not talking about it “at all,” but continued to assert that Hinckley claimed to have no knowledge about the doctrine.

8. Richard J. Mouw, “Evangelicals and Mormons: A Conversation and Dialogue,” with Robert L. Millet, January Series, Calvin College, 9 Jan. 2013.

9. Wilson and Groat, “Dodging and Dissembling Prophet?”

10. Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 305.

11. That article, I should note, was written eleven years before I joined IRR’s staff.

12. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Don’t Drop the Ball,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 46, emphasis added.

13. “Hinckley downplaying the King Follett Discourse” (FairMormon).

14. Mouw, Talking with Evangelicals, 61, paragraph break removed.

15. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Drawing Nearer to the Lord,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 4–6, emphasis added.

16. Mouw, Talking with Mormons, 41.