Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor
The Origin of the Human Spirit in Early Mormon Thought
[p.115]”Where did we come from?” is the first of three questions familiar to Mormons today, thanks to the official missionary lessons and other texts. The response—that we came from a premortal existence where our spirits were literally begotten by a heavenly father and a heavenly mother—is a doctrine most Mormons accept. It has been taught in sermons, articles, books, and manuals from the church’s beginning. Closely related is the belief that the resurrected faithful of this earth will do what God has been doing: procreate spirit children for future worlds. Few, if any, teachings are more widely believed among Mormons, but the origin of the preexistence doctrine has remained somewhat obscure.
Although there are no clear statements of the doctrine in any of the church’s four standard works, Mormons sometimes cite several New Testament passages in support. For example, Hebrews 12:9 speaks of God as the “Father of spirits”; in Acts 17:28, Paul calls men the “offspring” of God; and in Galatians 4 and Romans 8, Paul calls certain men “sons of God.” But these passages do not state that God procreated our spirits, and while a premortal spirit birth may be inferred by the terms “Father,” “sons,” and “offspring,” the more likely intent of these biblical authors is that God is the father of those who accept the gospel and are adopted as his spiritual children. Even if it could be argued persuasively that the authors believed in a [p.116]premortal spirit birth, this would be a unique interpretation unknown to previous biblical scholars, and the question would still remain, When in Mormonism and by whom did this interpretation originate?
In Mormon scripture the one passage used to support the spirit birth doctrine is Doctrine and Covenants 76:24 in which the inhabitants of the different worlds are referred to as “begotten sons and daughters unto God.” However, the context of this passage is that the inhabitants of the worlds are begotten sons and daughters unto God through Jesus Christ. The reference to sons and daughters clearly means “adopted” spiritual children—not spirit children—and does not refer to the idea of literal procreation by God. The doctrine clearly did not originate in scripture. This should not be surprising since most LDS scripture was produced while Mormon theology was in its infancy, and there is little in LDS canon from the theologically productive Nauvoo, Illinois, period of the early to mid-1840s.
In tracing the doctrine of spirit birth backwards we find hundreds of references to it throughout Mormon literature, and the teaching that spirits originated through premortal procreation seems to have been the prevailing explanation ever since the Nauvoo period. What is surprising, however, is that none of Joseph Smith’s recorded sermons—including those delivered in Nauvoo—teach the doctrine. In fact, several seem to teach a doctrine logically at odds with the belief that spirits are the literal offspring of God through premortal birth.
While two references to the spirit birth doctrine were written by Mormons during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Smith’s own doctrinal teaching was that the human spirit as a conscious entity is eternal—as eternal as God. It has no beginning and has no end. It was not created; it is self-existing. God, being more advanced than the other spirits, organized them and instituted laws to give them the privilege to advance like himself. He presides and will preside over them throughout eternity. Smith used the terms “spirit,” “soul,” “intelligence,” and “mind” synonymously to describe the inchoate, indestructible essence of life.
This summary is drawn from eight documentary sources—dating from 6 May 1833 to 7 April 1844. None of them suggest that God presides over the spirits because they are his begotten off-[p.117]spring, but because he was more intelligent, more advanced, than they and because he organized them into a premortal council.
The earliest reference to the uncreated, eternal portion of all human beings is from the Doctrine and Covenants 93:29, dated 6 May 1833: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” This statement, although brief to the point of being ambiguous, does indicate that some aspect of individual existence was not created.
The date of the second statement, recorded by Apostle Willard Richards, is uncertain but undoubtedly occurred during the years 1839-1841. Here the spirit is not created and the “Father” is referred to as “organizer”: “The Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from Eternity & will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be Eternal… . The Father called all spirits before him at the creation of Man & organized them. He (Adam) is the head, was told to multiply.”1
The next statement, from a sermon Smith delivered to in Washington, D.C., on 6 February 1840, was published in an eastern newspaper. Note here that “soul” is synonymous with “spirit” and is without beginning: “I believe that God is eternal. That He had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or end. I believe that the soul is eternal; and had no beginning; it can have no end… . the soul of man, the spirit, had existed from eternity in the bosom of Divinity.”2
The following is from another of Smith’s discourses, this one delivered to a school of instruction at Nauvoo on 5 January 1841. Note again that “soul” seems to be synonymous with “spirit,” that it has no beginning, and that spirits were organized in the pre-existence: “If the soul of man had a beginning it will surely have an end… . Spirits are eternal. At the first organization in heaven we were all present and saw the Savior chosen and appointed, and the plan of salvation made and we sanctioned it.”3
Fifth is a 28 March 1841 statement Smith made to the school at Nauvoo. Again, “spirit” seems to be synonymous with “intelligence,” it is self existent, God was a superior intelligence, and God organized a premortal council: “the spirit or the inteligence of men are self Existant principles before the foundation [of] this Earth … God saw that those intelegences had Not power to Defend [p.118]themselves against those that had a tabernicle therefore the Lord Calls them togather in Counsel & agrees to form them tabernicles.”4
The next documentary source is composed of parts of three verses from the “Book of Abraham” (3:18, 22-23), published at Nauvoo in 1842. Again spirits have no beginning; the terms “spirit,” “intelligence,” and “soul” are used interchangeably; and God organized the spirits into a premortal council: “18… . if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal. 22. Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; 23. And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits …”
In 1845 George Laub was writing his journal from memory and using scraps of notes he had taken from 1843 and 1844. The following comes from his report of a Smith sermon which Laub dates 6 April 1843: “How came Spirits? Why, they are and ware Self Existing as all eternity & our Spirits are as Eternal as the very God is himself & that we choose to come on this Earth to take unto ourselvs tabernakles by permition of our Father.”5
The last, and most extensive, statement of Joseph Smith is from his so-called King Follett discourse, delivered at a General Conference of the church on 7 April 1844. The address eulogized King Follett, who had recently died, and reassured friends and family of the eternal nature of individual existence. Four reports of this discourse were recorded: one by Thomas Bullock and one by William Clayton, both of whom were officially appointed clerks or reporters of the conference; one by Willard Richards, who was keeping Joseph Smith’s diary; and one by Apostle Wilford Woodruff for his own diary. In 1855 these four reports were amalgamated into the version found in current editions of the official History of the Church, which, I believe, allows for an interpretation not intended by Joseph Smith.
The following quotation, which I believe more closely represents the thinking of Joseph Smith, is taken from Bullock’s and Clayton’s versions.6 Note again that spirit has no beginning—it was [p.119]not created; that “spirit,” “mind,” “soul,” and “intelligence” are synonymous; and that God, being greater than the other spirits, instituted laws so that the spirits could advance like himself: “… the soul, the mind of man, the immortal spirit. All men say God created it in the beginning. The very idea lessens man in my estimation; I do not believe the doctrine … The mind of man is as immortal as God himself. I know that my testimony is true, hence when I talk to these mourners; what have they lost, they are only separated from their bodies for a short season; their spirits existed coequal with God, and they now exist in a place where they converse together, the same as we do on the earth. It is [not] logic to say that a spirit is immortal, and yet have a beginning. Because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end; [not] good logic… . I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning… . All the fools, learned and wise men, from the beginning of creation, who say that man had a beginning, proves that he must have an end and then the doctrine of annihilation would be true. But, if I am right I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops, that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself: intelligence exists upon a self existent principle, it is a spirit from age to age, and, there is no creation about it… . God himself finds himself in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was greater, and because he saw proper to institute laws, whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself, that they might have one glory upon another, in all that knowledge, power, and glory, &c., in order to save the world of spirits.”7
Although Smith seems not to have taught that spirits come into existence through a birth process, apostles Lorenzo Snow and Orson Pratt believed such a doctrine during Smith’s lifetime. On 14 February 1842, Snow, at the time a missionary in England, wrote the following to an Elder Walker: “When I write to you I feel to let my imagination rove I do not know why may be because you are sometimes as foolish as myself wish to know and dwell upon big things of the kingdom.
“Then let us indulge our follies at this time and wander a moment into the field of imagination. Some thirteen thousand years ago in Heaven or in Paradise (say) we came into existence or in other words received a spiritual organization according to the laws that [p.120]govern spiritual births in eternity We were there and then (say) born in the express image and likeness of him by whom we received our spiritual birth possessing the same faculties & powers but in their infantile state yet susceptable of an elevation equal to that of those possessed by our Spiritual Father But in order to effect this we must needs be planted in a material tabernacle. Accordingly the great machine was set in motion whereby bodies for the immortal sons and daughters of God came into being … the sons of God or the spirits awaiting to be perfected shouted with joy in anticipation of one day being like their Father in all things both in relation to becoming the Father of Spirits and that of Glorified bodies.”8
When Pratt wrote about this doctrine, he chose not to relegate it to the realm of speculative “imagination,” publishing it under the heading “The Mormon Creed” in his Prophetic Almanac for 1845. Pratt wrote the pamphlet while in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1844, just prior to Smith’s death.9 Brigham Young endorsed Pratt’s work at the October 1844 General Conference.10 In it Pratt presents the following catechism: “What is man? The offspring of God. What is God? The father of man. Who is Jesus Christ? He is our brother… . How many states of existence has man? He has three. What is the first? It is spiritual. What is the second? It is temporal. What is the third? It is immortal and eternal. How did he begin to exist in the first? He was begotten and born of God. How did he begin to exist in the second? He was begotten and born of the flesh.”11
In addition, articles on the spirit birth doctrine, authored by several of Joseph Smith’s close associates, appeared in the church’s official organ, the Times and Seasons, shortly after his death. In one article, published in February 1845, Apostle John Taylor wrote: “that Jesus Christ had a father and mother of his Spirit, and a father and mother of his flesh; and so have all of his brethren and sisters …”12 Issues the following May and June published a story by William W. Phelps entitled “Paracletes.” One of the important points of the story is that premortal spirits are the offspring of a father and mother and would “be born of the flesh as they had been of the spirit.”< 13In the June issue the spirit birth doctrine was again published in Apostle Orson Pratt’s address at the funeral of William Smith’s wife, Caroline.14 And in the November issue Joseph Smith’s plural wife Eliza R. Snow published her poem “My Father in [p.121]Heaven” (better known today as “O My Father”). Snow’s poem is dated October 1845 and speaks of a mother in heaven and of a spirit birth and childhood. Snow indicates that these concepts were unknown to her until Mormonism provided the “key of knowledge.”15
Joseph Smith was without question the doctrinal authority among the Mormons. Baptism for the dead, eternal marriage, plural marriage, the nature of God, the plurality of gods, and men becoming gods are some of the concepts promulgated by the Saints after they were taught by Joseph Smith. During the months preceding Smith” s his to of the in June 1844, teachings were questioned some and rejected by others. In the succession crisis following death one main issues was whether carry on with all of his doctrines. The Twelve Apostles and their followers were dedicated disciples, determined to perpetuate what Smith had begun. It was in this setting that Taylor, Pratt, Phelps, and Snow publicly taught the spirit birth doctrine unaware or unconcerned that they might be contradicting Smith’s doctrine. While the origin of spirits was not one of the controversial doctrines debated at the time, one would nonetheless not expect Smith’s faithful followers to teach a doctrine that did not originate with him.
Another factor in determining the origin of this teaching involves the doctrine of eternal marriage. There is no doubt that Smith taught that one of the purposes of polygamy was eternal procreation. In his autobiography Apostle Parley P. Pratt recalls spending several days with Smith in Philadelphia in 1840. Pratt says that he was taught for the first time “of eternal family organization, and the eternal union of the sexes” resulting in “an offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, or the sands of the sea shore.”16 Three years later, on 16 May 1843, William Clayton recorded that Smith taught privately, “Except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity, while in this probation, by the power and authority of the Holy Priesthood, they will cease to increase when they die; that is, they will not have any children after the resurrection. But those who are married by the power and authority of the priesthood in this life, and continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost will continue to increase and have children in the celestial glory.17
Two months later Smith dictated Doctrine and Covenants [p.122]132 in which those married for eternity are promised “a continuation of the seeds forever and ever. Then shall they be gods” (vv. 19-20). Here Smith implies that gods procreate but does not specify that their offspring are spirits. There is no known explanation from Smith on this subject. In a 16 July 1843 sermon he explained “that he could not reveal the fulness of these things untill the Temple is completed,”18 which was not accomplished until after his death. However, the conclusion some of his contemporaries drew, and the one which has prevailed through Mormon history, is that children born after the resurrection to exalted couples will be spirit children for future worlds.
As far as I know, only one statement of Joseph Smith can be interpreted to suggest that he believed in this particular doctrine of spirit birth. It is found in a brief sketch of a sermon delivered on 16 July 1843, recorded by Franklin D. Richards. He reports Smith teaching that “Those who keep no eternal Law in this life or make no eternal contract are single & alone in the eternal world … [it] is by the multiplication of Lives that the eternal worlds are created and occupied that which is born of the flesh is flesh that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.”19 In a note following his report Richards concludes: “From the above I deduce that we may make an eternal covenant with our wives and in the resurrection claim that which is our own and enjoy blessings & glories peculiar to those in that condition even the multiplication of spirits in the eternal world.”20 The prophet’s point is sufficiently unclear to force Richards to deduce his meaning, and Richards’s interpretation is not, by any means, the only interpretation. William Clayton recorded a brief synopsis of the sermon, but he did not include the statement on the “multiplication of Lives.”
Thus, while it seems certain that Smith taught that gods procreate, he did not specify that their offspring are necessarily spirits. And it is equally unclear if the alternative possibility, that the offspring of the gods are physical children, would be any more plausible in the prophet’s thinking.
The difficulty of harmonizing Joseph Smith’s teaching that spirits have no beginning with the contemporary Mormon belief that spirits come into existence through a spirit birth has been resolved in two different ways.21 According to one view, it is not the spirit which is uncreated but “unorganized spirit matter,” and [p.123]through the process of spirit birth to heavenly parents this uncreated spirit matter is formed into a conscious spirit being. Thus man’s spirit is as eternal as any other physical object, since the elements of both are eternal. But because the spirit is a conscious being with a beginning to its existence, Joseph Smith might argue that the spirit can also cease to exist, that it can be destroyed and returned to its original state. Brigham Young, in fact, taught that those who do not progress will “regress” until they are disorganized and return to their native element. While this may harmonize the idea that spirit is eternal with the idea that spirits come into being through a spirit birth, it is foreign to Joseph Smith’s doctrinal statements. Smith’s interchangeable use of uncreated “mind,” “soul,” “intelligence,” and “spirit,” as well as his description in the King Follett discourse of spirits communicating, portray spirits as beings. When he declared that spirits are eternal, he was clearly speaking of beings, not of uncreated inanimate spirit matter.
According to the second view, the spirit was born of heavenly parents. It is the mind or intelligence which is without beginning. Through procreation a spirit body is created to clothe the uncreated intelligence. The leading proponent of this theory was B. H. Roberts.22 Although this view—that an conscious entity, not inanimate matter, is uncreated—is closer to Joseph Smith’s own teaching, Roberts relied on the textually inferior 1855 amalgamation of the King Follett discourse. In the earlier 1844 version, “mind,” “intelligence,” “soul,” and “spirit” are used synonymously and are declared to be eternal, uncreated, and without beginning. But in the 1855 version, the mind or intelligence is only part of the spirit–the immortal part. This allows for the belief in a procreated spirit clothing the uncreated mind or intelligence. These later modifications were made eleven years after the discourse and are not supported by any of the four original reports.
Roberts thought Joseph Smith taught that the “intelligence of spirits” is uncreated, while the best evidence holds that Smith taught that the “intelligence or spirit” is uncreated. Others who believed like Roberts include John A. Widtsoe, James E. Talmage, and Joseph Fielding Smith.23 While this teaching is closer to Smith’s belief and represents the interpretation which will probably endure in Mormonism, I do not believe that it represents the doctrine of Joseph Smith on the topic.
[p.124]After arriving in Utah in 1847, Brigham Young taught on a number of occasions that God is both the literal father of our spirits and the progenitor of our flesh and that those who are exalted will beget both physical and spirit children. According to Young, the first physical bodies born on each world are the offspring of the god of that world.24 Although I have found no statement of Joseph Smith that either God or exalted men will beget physical children, Smith did teach that everything comes through a progenitor. For example, on 16 June 1844, he said publicly, “Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way.”25 This suggests that the first physical beings on this earth were begotten. If Smith believed that the offspring of God are physical beings, not spirits, then there would be no conflict between the belief that spirits have no beginning and the belief that gods procreate. The spirit birth would, according to this view, be an expansion based on a misunderstanding of Smith’s ambiguous pronouncements.
Based on a careful reading of the documentary sources, it seems clear that Smith taught the doctrine that God organized a group of eternal spirits who were less advanced than he. To enable them to progress as he had done, he organized the earth. He came here with his wife and, by begetting the first physical children himself, began the process which now provides physical bodies for the spirits he formerly organized. Those from this earth who gain exaltation will do likewise. While this view harmonizes Smith’s statements, it has two weaknesses. First, there is no explicit statement in support of this view from Joseph Smith. Second, none of his close associates taught it; in fact, I have found no Mormon who has ever advocated it, even though it seems to be the most plausible explanation of Smith’s meaning.
In conclusion, one of the cherished doctrines of Mormonism, that spirits are the literal offspring of God, has been taught by virtually all Mormon leaders. The notable exception is probably Joseph Smith, whose direct statements teach a doctrine contrary to that of his closest associates, men and women who maintain that they were simply perpetuating what he had begun. Either the Mormon spirit birth doctrine the result of Smith’s early followers misunderstanding the prophet’s doctrinal statements, or they taught [p.125]unrecorded doctrine taught by Smith privately in Nauvoo, however much in conflict with Smith’s earlier teachings.
5. In Eugene England, ed., “George Laub’s Nauvoo Journal,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978): 171-72. England argues in a footnote that Laub’s dating of the sermon is in error and that it is probably Laub’s report of Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse, given on 7 April 1844.
13. “Paracletes,” Times and Seasons 6 (1 May 1845): 891-92. Phelps included the idea of a mother in heaven in the song, “A Voice from the Prophet, `Come to Me,'” which he wrote for the dedication of the Seventies’ Hall at Nauvoo in December 1844. See Times and Seasons 6 (15 Jan. 1845): 783.