Line upon Line
Gary James Bergera, editor

Chapter 12
The Idea of Preexistence in Mormon Thought
Blake T. Ostler

[p.127]Most Mormons assume that a doctrine of preexistence has always characterized their theology. However, the teaching encountered by the earliest Mormons did not depart significantly from the prevailing Christian view of a single, infinite, and absolute God who created everything from nothing. Although a doctrine of the preexistence of human souls was accepted by Origen, the brilliant second-century theologian, it was officially condemned in 543 A.D. Catholic doctrine more typically vacillated between the view that all persons existed seminally in Adam (a view known as traducianism) and the view that all persons are created “from nothing” at the moment of conception.1 (Angels and demons were usually thought to be products of a separate creation and were unrelated to humans.)

The earliest Mormon publications defined God—in terms borrowed from contemporary orthodox Christianity—as the sole and necessary basis of all existence.2 The concept of a preexistence either in the sense of eternal, uncreated spirits co-existing with God or as spirit offspring of God did not exist in early Mormon thought. The Book of Mormon assumed that human existence depended entirely upon God (see, for example, Mos. 2:20-21). When the premortal Lord revealed his finger to the brother of Jared, he explained that humans were created “in the beginning after mine own image … after the body of my spirit” (Eth. 3:15-16), implying that human, physical bodies resemble God’s spiritual body.3 In contrast, orthodox Christianity interpreted “image and likeness” (Gen. 1:26) [p.128]to mean humankind’s moral capacities, not its physical attributes.4 The seeds, at least, of anthropomorphism and of co-existence of humans with God were thus planted in Mormon thought in the Book of Mormon notion of creation after the image of God’s spiritual body.

Some Mormons have understood Alma 13 to teach the preexistence of humans because it refers to an ordination “prepared before the foundation of the world” (v. 3).5 However, a close reading suggests that the ordination was not based on actions made prior to mortality but according to the foreknowledge of God (vv. 3, 7). This notion is identical to the Arminian doctrine that God ordains people to salvation based on their good works foreseen by God and not because of preexistence. That early Mormons did not see an idea of preexistence explicitly taught in the Book of Mormon, and that the earliest Mormon converts were unaware of the doctrine, is apparent from Mormon apostle Orson Pratt’s comment: “This same doctrine [of premortal existence] is inculcated in some small degree in the Book of Mormon. However, I do not think that I should have ever discerned it in that book had it not been for the new translation of [the Bible by Joseph Smith].”6

The classical gulf between God and his mortal creations entailed in the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo was accepted without revision in the official Mormon publication The Evening and the Morning Star in October 1832: “The Creator, who having created our souls at first by an act of his will can either eternally preserve them or absolutely annihilate them” (p. 77). Humans were thus contingent beings who did not exist prior to their creation by God—either as body or as spirit—and could lapse into non-being if God willed it. A letter in the May 1835 Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate echoed a similar belief: “Man is dependent on the great first cause and is constantly upheld by Him, therefore justly amenable to him” (p. 113).

Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon foreshadowed a kind of preexistence by treating the Adamic myth as an expression of generic human experience. Book of Mormon prophet Alma explained the necessity of the Atonement by noting that “mankind” had fallen from God’s presence and could “return” only through the Atonement (Al. 42:7, 14; see also 2 Ne. 2:21, 25; Al. 34:9; 41:9). The Book of Mormon inculcated (to borrow Orson Pratt’s term) the belief that [p.129]humanity existed in God’s presence–at least, on a mythic level—prior to the Fall, and identified all humans with Adam in a corporate existence. If one were to identify a point from which the Mormon idea of preexistence developed, this description of humanity’s fall from the presence of God would be, in my opinion, the best candidate.

Joseph Smith’s 1830 commentary on Genesis, later published as the Book of Moses, marked the next development in the notion of a preexistence. Since at least the second century A.D., Christian writers recognized a contradiction between Genesis 1:26-27, which declares that man was created in the image and likeness of God, and Genesis 2:5, which declares that there was not yet a man to till the ground.7 Numerous early Christian writers had tried to resolve the problem by treating Genesis 1:1-2:3 as a “conceptual blueprint” of God’s plan to create the world and Genesis 2:4f as an account of the actual physical creation.8 Joseph Smith expanded the Genesis text in his Book of Moses to provide a similar explanation: “4. [T]hese are the generations of the heaven and of the earth, when they were created, in the day that I, the Lord god, made the heaven and the earth, 5. And every plant of the field before it was on the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I the Lord God, created all things of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth… . And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth… . 7. And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust … and man became a living soul … nevertheless, all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word. 9. And [every tree] also became a living soul. For it was spiritual in the day that I created it; for it remaineth in the sphere in which I, God, created it, yea, even all things which I prepared for the use of man (Moses 3:4-9; italics indicate text added by Joseph Smith).

Two possible explanations for what it means to be “created spiritually” before existing “naturally on the earth” can be ascertained from context. First, it should be noted that the term “spirit” was not clarified in Mormon usage until 1843 to mean “pure” or “refined” matter, and “to create” was not clarified until 1842 to mean to “organize” rather than creation out of nothing.9 Prior to this, Mormon use of these terms was similar to the Christian definition of [p.130]creation ex nihilo. Indeed, the fact that Smith, in the 1840s, corrected “to create” in Genesis to mean to organize rather than to create from nothing suggests that those to whom he spoke did not yet know or appreciate the difference. Further, the early nineteenth-century usage of the word “spiritual” often implied a conceptual or intellectual blueprint without connoting real (i.e., mind-independent) existence. Moses 3:7 indicated that the physical creation proceeded “according to [God’s] word.” That is, God formed the idea and spoke the command before the actions occurred. This is consistent with Smith’s later redaction in the Book of Abraham. (See also Moses 6:61-63, which identifies God’s plan of salvation as the spiritual likeness of temporal things).

On the other hand, the key to these passages may be the phrase, “for it remaineth in the sphere in which I God created it” (Moses 3:9). This phrase was also used in 2 Nephi 2:22-23 to describe the status of Adam in the Garden of Eden prior to the Fall: “if Adam had not transgressed he would have remained in the Garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were created.” This may refer to an intermediate, paradisiacal existence unique to Adam and Eve. According to the Book of Mormon, only with the Fall did the temporal world, including a temporal Adam, come into existence. Thus, Adam existed spiritually only after being placed in the garden, and in mortality only after the Fall. The Book of Moses speaks of Adam being created in the beginning but placed in the Garden of Eden in a state of innocence prior to his existence in a mortal state. A popular nineteenth-century occult teaching involved a prototypic, androgynous Adam in a “spiritual body” before the Fall prior to the existence of “terrestrial man.”10 (This is another way of viewing the same transient state of being in the garden.)

This interpretation of the Book of Moses is supported by a revelation to Joseph Smith in September 1830 which he received while working on the Book of Moses. The revelation explained that “the devil was before Adam, for he rebelled against me saying, give me thine honor” (Book of Commandments, chap. 29) The story corresponding to Moses 4:1-4 is then recounted. The meaning of this revelation appears to be that in a pre-earth time, before Adam existed, Satan rebelled against God. The relation of this revelation to the Book of Moses and to the Book of Mormon seems clear: Adam [p.131]did not exist until he was spiritually created in the Garden of Eden. The notion that everyone preexisted in the Garden of Eden in Adam is also reinforced by the Book of Moses’ comment that Adam “is many” (1:34). This theme of identifying all humans in a corporate existence in Adam was adopted in the later temple endowment creation narrative.11

The next development in the Mormon concept of preexistence occurred in a May 1833 revelation that reinforced the idea of humankind existing in the beginning only as an aspect of God’s intelligence or knowledge of all truth (i.e., “ideal” or mind-dependent existence): “Ye were also in the beginning with the Father: that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of Truth; and truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come… . Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth was not created or made, neither can it be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which god has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also… . Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning (D&C 1835, 82:4-6; D&C 93 in current LDS editions).

This passage suggests that humanity preexisted “ideally” as part of God’s knowledge of all things and was not independent of God’s knowledge. That ideal preexistence was probably intended in this revelation is evident from two observations. First, “intelligence” is singular and defines God’s knowledge and glory, and is not plural in the sense of self-existent individuals, as it would be in the later Book of Abraham. Second, in every instance where man is said to “exist in the beginning with the Father” (vv. 23, 29) the statement is clarified to mean that humans existed in God’s knowledge of truth (vv. 23-24, 29).

Other passages in this revelation foreshadow real preexistence, or existence independent of God’s mind. For example, the 1833 revelation states: “all truth is independent in that sphere in which God placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also, otherwise there is no existence” (v. 31). Mormonism did not yet have a notion of individualized human spirits, human intelligence being nothing more than an extension of God’s uncreated spirit. In fact, as late as 1839 Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote that when dry land and the Great Deep became “filled with the quickening, or life giving substance which we call spirit,” they produced living creatures. When [p.132]the human form was infused with the same life force, it also “quickened him with life and animation.” Pratt’s view, which derived from Joseph Smith’s teachings, held that “it was not a personal spirit that quickened the body, but rather an infused portion of the divine spirit.”12 The notion that “man was also in the beginning with God” and that “every spirit of man was innocent from the beginning” was simply a confirmation that Adam was innocent when placed in the Garden of Eden prior to mortal existence. However, the identification of individuals with Adam was actualized in the revelation so that every individual human had the same moral qualities (i.e., innocence) as Adam prior to the Fall.

By 1835, however, Joseph Smith was developing the concept of preexistence which he would later teach in Nauvoo, Illinois. In the June 1835 Messenger and Advocate W. W. Phelps, one of the prophet’s closest associates, stated: “We shall by and by learn that we were with God in another world before the foundation of the world, and had our agency, in order that we may prepare ourselves for a kingdom of glory” (p. 130). Phelps’s statement is evidence that Joseph Smith was probably reconsidering his teachings on man and God in light of the developing doctrines of plurality of worlds and plurality of gods. The following month Joseph Smith obtained the Egyptian papryi from which he would produce the Book of Abraham, a document confirming the individuality of spirits and preexistence. Phelps’s Messenger and Advocate statement is significant for at least three reasons: Phelps affirmed that people had agency in this “other world before the foundation of [this] world”; implied that people existed actually with God rather than ideally; and treated the doctrine of preexistence as something new to his readers.

Other developments occurring in Mormon theology at this time similarly affected the idea of preexistence. The Godhead, for instance, was being differentiated into three separate personages; the vision of the three degrees of glory (later D&C 76) suggested that humans, like God, were ultimately uncreated; and reality—including spirit—was defined in materialistic terms. Previously spirit was understood to be immaterial.13

By 1836 Joseph Smith had begun work on the Book of Abraham, although it would not be published until 1842. In the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith expanded the discussion he had begun in Moses 4:1-4 regarding the premortal council in which [p.133]Satan rebelled against God14 and introduced the notion of “intelligences”—the individual, self-conscious, and autonomous essence of persons which existed from all eternity (see Abr. 3:18, 22). Joseph Smith redefined the Hebrew term “‘olam” (“gnolaum” in the Book of Abraham)—which meant an indefinite period of time—to describe the nature of these spirits/intelligences to mean that they existed without beginning and without end. The unequal status of these spirits/intelligences meant that they were differentiated, not a single mass of spirit stuff. Further, they existed from all eternity. The Book of Abraham speaks of intelligences/spirits being “organized before the world was” (v. 22). However, “organization” did not mean organization of spirit body through spiritual birth, but social organization of the spirits into a heavenly council of preexisting entities.15

Joseph Smith did not distinguish between a time before which these spirits/intelligences were organized and a time after they were “born” as “spirit children”—in fact, the contemporary Mormon notion that God is the literal father of individual spirits through spirit birth would probably have been foreign to him. He taught that spirits were eternal and uncreated and used the terms “spirits” and “intelligences” synonymously. Joseph Smith’s fullest statement of the doctrine of preexistence of humans was the King Follett discourse delivered shortly before his death in 1844. The prophet taught that human existence has the same ontological status as God’s existence—that people cannot not exist, even in their spiritual essence. The theological significance of this fundamental departure from traditional Christian thought cannot be overstated.

Soon after Joseph Smith’s death, however, the view that individual spirits existed without beginning would be modified by successors in favor of a concept of contingent preexistence more congenial to classical Christian absolutism. In this later development, only diffuse “spirit element” was considered uncreated; autonomous individual existence arose only after the organization of this eternal substance, or intelligence, into a spirit person through “spiritual birth.” This concept was an outgrowth of the paradox between the doctrine popularized by Eliza R. Snow that individuals are literally begotten of divine parents and Smith’s affirmation that humans, in an elementary state, are eternal. As a result, preexistence of individuals began with literal spiritual birth, while before this birth only unrefined and disorganized spirit, or intelligence, existed. “I will tell [p.134]you how it is,” said Brigham Young. “Our Father in Heaven begat all the spirits that ever were, or ever will be, upon this earth; and they were born spirits in the eternal world.”16

One of the most able expositors of this doctrine of preexistence was Apostle Orson Pratt. In 1853, Pratt published The Seer, elaborating upon ideas expressed in his 1849 treatise “The Absurdities of Immaterialism” and his 1851 pamphlet “The Great First Cause.” Building upon Joseph Smith’s modified materialism, Pratt constructed an ultra-materialistic system reminiscent of the thought of Gottfried Leibniz in which all matter necessarily existed in the form of ultimately indivisible particles possessing a degree of inherent intelligence.17 In the course of time, according to Pratt, these eternal particle entities would be “organized in the womb of the celestial female” thereby creating an individual spirit body. Thus, through spiritual pregnancy and birth, existence would begin on a new level.18 In effect, each particle of intelligence would be analogous to a cell of a body which had its own existence but which formed another individual on an aggregate level. Spirit identity was created through spiritual birth, even though each intelligence or particle making up the spirit was uncreated. Pratt called the inherent intelligence in these primeval particles “The Great First Cause.”

Despite Pratt’s standing in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, his views were almost immediately censured by Brigham Young. In response to Young’s general criticism that some items in The Seer were not “Sound Doctrine,” Pratt assumed that Young was referring to his concept of God’s attributes.19 In reality, the conflict between Pratt and Young was a much more fundamental dispute over absolutist and finitist theologies. Although Pratt’s idea of eternal, individual particles would have been compatible with Young’s materialistic pluralism, Pratt interpreted his doctrine as a monistic absolutism, endorsing the pantheistic concept of God.

In the ensuing years Young opposed Pratt’s concept of God and rejected the implications of his opinions on preexistence. Ironically, both men no doubt believed their teachings originated with Joseph Smith. The crux of the conflict was Young’s criticism that Pratt worshipped the attributes of Absolute Being rather than God the person. In turn Pratt rejected Young’s ultra-personalistic view of God as an exalted man forever becoming greater in dominion and knowledge.20 Pratt’s notion of God was merely a logical corollary of [p.135]his idea of preexistence particles. In Pratt’s interpretation of God’s attributes, the idea that all beings, including the Father and the Son, were the result of intelligent particles meant that the sum of their individual parts comprised the Intelligence of God or the essence of Deity which should be worshipped. Young stressed the importance of the person of God, not his attributes or particles. Both leaders were attempting to reconcile the parentage of spirits with Joseph Smith’s apparently conflicting teachings regarding, first, the contingent existence of humans and, second, the eternal, uncreated existence of spirits, as well as his teaching that God was a man.

The conflict between Pratt and Young resulted in an official denunciation of Pratt’s views by the First Presidency in 1860 and again in 1865. Specifically, Young’s 1860 First Presidency objected to Pratt’s idea of God’s absolute omniscience and discounted the concept of a “Great First Cause.” The 1865 denunciation challenged Pratt’s view that “every part of the Holy Spirit, however minute and infinitesimal, possessed `every intellectual or moral attribute possessed by the Father and the Son'” and that all beings were the result of self-organized, eternal particles of matter. On the matter of the origin of preexistent beings, the First Presidency stated that the church would have to be “content with the knowledge that from all eternity there had been organized beings, in an organized form, possessing superior and controlling power to govern … and that it was neither rational nor consistent with the revelations of God and with reason and philosophy, to believe that these latter Forces and Powers had existed prior to the Being who controlled and governed them” (emphasis added).21

Even though the First Presidency’s statement appears to establish the doctrine that “organized being” necessarily exists, when analyzed in relation to Brigham Young’s contemporary teachings, it merely indicates that there never was a time when organized beings did not exist. Young’s idea was one of eternal regression of progenitors, the doctrine that all fathers had fathers ad infinitum. The statement did show that Pratt’s ideas of particles as self-organizing and his notion that we should worship the Intelligence created by the sum of its parts were contrary to the church’s position. Perhaps the point of both official statements was that because they could not “explain how the first organized Being originated,” any attempt to do so was merely philosophical speculation.

[p.136]The conflict between absolutist and finitist theologies continued after the deaths of Young and Pratt. Just three years after Pratt’s death in 1881, future apostle Charles W. Penrose, then chief editor of the Deseret News, delivered a discourse that adopted Pratt’s absolutist view of God despite the earlier statements of the First Presidency. Penrose claimed that God is omnipresent because of the Holy Spirit, “which animates all created beings.” He also taught that this omnipresent spirit or Intelligence existed before the organization of the person of God. Penrose’s doctrine of God also necessitated the “creation” of individual man. He explained: “The individual, the organized person may have had a beginning, but that spirit of which and by which they [were] organized never had a beginning… . The primal particles never had a beginning. They have been organized in different shapes; the organism had a beginning, but the atoms of which it is composed never had… . The elementary parts of matter as well as of spirit, using ordinary language, never had beginning.”22 Thus, Penrose’s doctrine was merely Pratt’s neo-absolutist pantheism.

The postmortem popularity of Pratt’s doctrine, however, did not go unchallenged by the First Presidency. In 1892, in response to the teaching that “our spirits were not begotten by God but were created out of the elements,” George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the First Presidency, referred to the trouble between Young and Pratt over the same issue and corrected the view “that it was right to worship intelligence that was in God the Eternal Father and not God (as an embodied person).” He distinguished between the Father and the Son, saying that we pray to the Father in the name of the Son, and refuted the idea that Deity was composed of particles, each of which possessed the attributes of God. However, neither Cannon nor church president Wilford Woodruff specifically disagreed with Pratt’s doctrine of preexistence, although this was implied in the notion of God which they rejected.23

While the origin of human identity was rarely addressed in official discourse during the mid- to late nineteenth century, the issue of personal eternalism became a subject of much controversy in the early 1900s. The issue was addressed in Outlines of Mormon Philosophy, a little-known work by Lycurgus Wilson. Wilson rejected the neo-absolutist view “that spirits owe their origin to God” and concluded that “intelligences always were and always will be indi-[p.137]vidual entities, and, however varied in capacity, never had a beginning and can never be annihilated.”24 Wilson’s work was reportedly reviewed by an official church committee and was published by the Deseret News Publishing Company, the publishing arm of the Mormon church.

B. H. Roberts, one of the seven presidents of the Quorum of the Seventy, also took exception to the neo-absolutist view that man, as an autonomous individual, was created or begotten. Elaborating on views expressed in his New Witness for God, Roberts claimed that even before spiritual birth and consequent organization of a spirit body, man existed as an individual, autonomous and self-conscious entity known as an intelligence. The First Presidency allowed Roberts to publish his views in the Improvement Era in April 1907 with their appended approval: “Elder Roberts submitted the following paper to the First Presidency and a number of the Twelve Apostles, none of whom found anything objectionable in it, or contrary to the revealed work of God, and therefore favor its publication.”25

Roberts met with opposition when he attempted to incorporate similar views into his 1911 Seventy’s Course in Theology. Penrose in particular objected to Roberts’s view that “intelligences were self-existent entities before they entered into the organization of the spirit.”26 Both Penrose and Anthon Lund, members of the First Presidency under Joseph F. Smith, persuaded Roberts “to eliminate his theories in regard to intelligences as conscious self-existing beings or entities before being organized into spirit.” Lund recorded in his journal, “This doctrine has raised much discussion and the inference on which [B. H. Roberts] builds his theory is very vague. The Prophet’s [Joseph Smith] speech delivered as a funeral sermon over King Follett is the basis of Bro. Roberts doctrine: namely, where he speaks of man’s eternity claim. Roberts wants to prove that man is then co-eval with God.”27

Even though Roberts agreed to remove passages referring to intelligences before spirit birth, the Seventy’s Course in Theology is very explicit about individual uncreated intelligence. Roberts derived six attributes inherent in human primal intelligence calculated to clarify eternal existence as personal identities. Roberts asserted that much of the confusion about the subject stemmed from inexact word usage. Noting possible equivocations of meaning, he attempted to reconcile the pre-Nauvoo usage of terms such as “intelligence” and [p.138]”spirit” with that of the Nauvoo era, especially in the King Follett discourse. Roberts noted, “It is observed that he [Joseph Smith] uses the words `Intelligence’ and `spirit’ interchangeably—one for the other; and yet we can discern that it is the `intelligence of spirits,’ not `spirits’ entire that is the subject of his thought. It is the `Intelligence of Spirits’ that he declares uncreated and uncreatable—eternal as God is.”28

But the First Presidency, particularly Charles Penrose, demonstrated its opposition to the idea of necessary existence through spirit birth or creation when it removed the King Follett discourse from Roberts’s new edition of Joseph Smith’s History of the Church in 1912. Penrose doubted the authenticity and correctness of the reporting of the sermon. Apostle George Albert Smith agreed that “the report of the sermon might not be authentic and I feared that it contained some things that might be contrary to the truth.”29
At least one church member, John A. Widtsoe, accepted Roberts’s theory that intelligences existed as individual entities before they were begotten as spirits. When Widtsoe incorporated this view in A Rational Theology, however, President Joseph F. Smith personally stopped its publication. In December 1914, Smith wired his counselor Anthon Lund from Missouri to postpone publication until he could examine its contents. Upon examination, Lund also disagreed with Widtsoe’s idea “of the origin of God, which he makes an evolution from intelligences and being superior to the other He became God.” Commenting on Widtsoe’s doctrine, Lund said, “I do not like to think of a time when there was no God.” When Smith returned to Salt Lake City on 11 December, he went over the work with Widtsoe and Lund and “eliminated from it all that pertained to intelligences before they became begotten spirits as that would only be speculation.”30

Accordingly, Widtsoe’s published A Rational Theology conceded that “to speculate upon the condition of man when conscious life was just dawning is most interesting, but so little is known about that far-off day that such speculation is profitless.” “All that is really clear,” Widtsoe cautiously affirmed, “is that man has existed `from the beginning,’ and that, from the beginning, he has possessed distinct individuality impossible of confusion with any other individuality among the hosts of intelligent beings.” Like Roberts, he delineated inherent capacities of intelligences: “In addition to his power [p.139]to learn and the consciousness of his own existence, the primeval personality possessed, `from the beginning,’ the distinguishing characteristics of every intelligent, conscious, thinking being—an independent and individual will.”31

As both Lund and Penrose intimated, the consequences of accepting the idea of man’s necessary existence bothered them. In contrast to the need for an infinite being absolutely in control of the universe, both Roberts and Widtsoe insisted that individual eternalism made God necessarily conditioned, a finite being. Ironically, Roberts’s and Widtsoe’s doctrine of individual intelligences predating spirit existence prevailed in Mormon thought despite the reluctance of the First Presidency to endorse a specific doctrine of preexistence. For instance, shortly after Widtsoe’s A Rational Theology was published, future apostle James E. Talmage, then president of the University of Utah, affirmed, “So far as we can peer into the past by the aid of revealed light we can see that there was always a gradation of intelligence, and consequently of ability, among spirits… . Individualism is an attribute of the soul, and as truly eternal as the soul itself.”32
Before his death in 1933, B. H. Roberts sought to more solidly establish the doctrine of the necessary existence of humans. In his unpublished manuscript, “The Truth, The Way, The Life,” Roberts wrote, “The conception of the existence of independent, uncreated, self-existent intelligences, who by the inherent nature of them are of various degrees of intelligence, and moral quality, differing from each other in many ways, yet alike in their eternity and their freedom … relieves God of the responsibility for the nature and moral status of intelligences in all stages of their development.”33

Because of disagreement among church authorities over its contents, Roberts’s manuscript was never published. The committee appointed to review his work was willing to accept Roberts’s definition of an “intelligence” as “that eternal entity which was not created” but could not agree with Roberts that intelligences were morally autonomous in the sense that they could “rebel against truth and God.”34 Committee members argued to the First Presidency that Roberts’s “use of `Mind, spirit and soul,’ appears confusing to us” and that contrary to Roberts’s claims, “intelligence as an entity … cannot rebel against light and truth.”35 Roberts [p.140]refused to alter a single item of his manuscript requested by the committee.

The attempts of Roberts and Widtsoe to refine Mormon theology on humanity’s ultimate origin was again rebuffed in 1936 by apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, son of Joseph F. Smith. While confirming the existence of pre-spirit intelligence and spirit birth, Smith criticized those who sought to define the doctrine of the church on the nature of uncreated intelligence. Probably with Roberts and Widtsoe in mind, Smith asserted, “Some of our writers have endeavored to explain what an intelligence is, but to do so is futile, for we have never been given any insight into this matter beyond what the Lord had fragmentarily revealed. We know, however, that there is something called an intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which is not created or made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual entity or individual. The spirit of man, then, is a combination of the intelligence and the spirit which is an entity begotten of God.”36 Smith resisted the idea that intelligence possessed individuality or self-determination. But he unknowingly capitulated on what Lund and Penrose had earlier objected to—the contingency of the human spirit.

In spite of such cautionary statements, numerous Mormon writers at least since 1940 have assumed that the eternal existence of individuals was Mormonism’s official doctrine. Such is the case with Gilbert Orme, The Four Estates of Man (1948); Sterling McMurrin, The Philosophical Foundations of Mormonism (1959) and The Theological Foundations of Mormonism (1965); Truman Madsen, Eternal Man (1966); B. F. Cummings III, The Eternal Individual Self (1968); and to a lesser degree R. Clayton Brough, Our First Estate (1977). Through the 1970s, Mormon thought appeared to be well established in metaphysical pluralism and finitistic theology despite occasional rhetoric expressing faith in the vocabulary of traditional absolutism.

Since 1960, a philosophy in contrast to traditional Mormon thought has gained some popularity in Mormon circles. Known as Mormon neo-orthodoxy, it emphasizes human contingency, the creation of humankind as conscious entities, and God’s absoluteness and complete otherness.37 The most influential proponent of Mormon neo-orthodoxy was probably Apostle Bruce R. McConkie. Greatly influenced by Joseph Fielding Smith, McConkie insisted on [p.141]an absolute conception of God and also maintained that “intelligence or spirit element became intelligences after the spirits were born as individual entities.”38 In response to an inquiry regarding the official position of the church on the status of intelligences before spiritual birth, McConkie said, “As far as I know there is no official pronouncement on the subject at hand… . In my judgment there was no agency prior to spirit birth and we did not exist as entities until that time.”39

Whenever the issue of humanity’s eternal existence has been raised by writers of church priesthood or auxiliary lessons in recent years, the matter has been officially branded as speculation and deleted from lesson manuals.40 The conflict between absolute and finite theologies has yet to be satisfactorily resolved in Mormon thought.

The idea of human necessary existence has not always characterized Mormon theology, and even when it has, the philosophical strength of the doctrine has rarely been appreciated. But the doctrine is a foundation upon which a consistent and unique theology has been built. The belief that humans necessarily exist provides philosophical justification for the idea that they may ultimately become like God. It stresses the positive aspects of human existence, rejects the dogma of original sin and salvation by grace alone, and emphasizes works and personal ability to do good. It accentuates freedom of the will, explains the existence of evil and the purpose of life, and, most importantly, asserts that God is a personal being conditioned by and related to the physical universe.

BLAKE T. OSTLER is an attorney in Salt Lake City.


1. S. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 175, 345-46.

2. See, for example, Apostle Parley P. Pratt’s statement that at death the human spirit “return[s] to the fountain and become[s] part of the great all from which [it] emanated,” in Parker Pratt Robinson, Writings of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Robinson, 1952), 216.

3. Book of Mormon and early Mormon theology tended toward binitarianism; the Son was a manifestation of the Father, not necessarily a separate being. See Boyd Kirkland, “The Development of the Mormon Doctrine of God,” in this volume.

4. Bonaventura Mariani in “Genesi,” La Sacra Biblia (Milano: Gaizanti Edition, 1964): 17-18.

[p.142]5. See Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 290.

6. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86), 15:249; hereafter JD.

7. The transition between these verses is the juncture of the Yahwist (J) narrative and the priestly (P) account of the Creation, the so-called P-J seam, which the King James translators glossed over.

8. Origen accepted the doctrine of human preexistence and treated Genesis 1:1-2:4 as a conceptual blueprint. See Manilo Simonetti, “Alcune Osservazioni sull’ interpretazione Oregeniana de Genisi,” Aevum 36 (1972): 370-81. Philo Judaeus also accepted the notion of a spiritual creation prior to the actual creation as a conceptual blueprint. See De opiticio mundi 46, 34; Legatio All. I. xii, 31.

9. B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), 5:392-93; Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1980), 351. Anthony Hutchinson has argued that the Book of Moses intended “real” preexistence as opposed to ontologically mind-independent or “ideal” preexistence, citing Moses 3:5: “the Lord God had created all the children of men … for in heaven I created them” (p. 37n15). However, this overlooks Doctrine and Covenants 29 as an aid to interpreting Moses. Further, the parallels which Hutchinson thought suggested real premortal existence do not clearly refer to anything more than a plan in the mind of God to create in his own image. Finally, D&C 93 almost certainly refers to ideal premortal existence, and it is unlikely that Smith formulated and then retreated from the notion of real premortal existence. It is more logical to assume that he was consistent during this period in teaching a spiritual creation, or divine prescience, that predated the idea of spiritual creation, and that the later concept evolved gradually.

10. Charles R. Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” Brigham Young University Studies 28 (Spring 1988): 77, 43n20.

11. See Hutchinson, 65.

12. Robinson, 66-67; Harrell, 84.

13. See, for example, Messenger and Advocate 1 (April 1835): 97.

14. Compare Anthony A. Hutchinson, “A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Winter 1988), 21:51.

15. See Ehat and Cook, 207, 60. Smith’s January 1841 statement demonstrates that the “organization of spirits” in the Book of Abraham refers to an organization into a heavenly council and not to an organization of an intelligence through spiritual birth resulting in an “organized spirit”: [p.143]”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” (ibid., 60). Smith similarly stated in May 1843: “The design of God before the foundation of the world was that we should take tabernacles … inasmuch as the Spirits of the Eternal World, glory in bringing other Spirits in Subjection unto them, striving continually for the mastery, He who rules the heavens when he has a certain work to do calls the Spirits before him to organize them. They present themselves and offer their services” (ibid., 207). This same point is made by Harrell.

16. Fred C. Collier, ed., The Teachings of President Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing Co., 1987), 3:92.

17. See T. Edgar Lyon, “Orson Pratt: Early Mormon Leader,” M.A. thesis, University of Chicago, 1932, 102-19; cf. Gottfried Leibniz, “The Monadology,” in The Rationalists (New York: Anchor Books, 1974), trans. Albert Chandler, 455-71.

18. See Orson Pratt, The Seer (Washington, D.C., 1853), 102-103.

19. Brigham Young to Orson Pratt, 1 Sept. 1853, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereafter church archives; Orson Pratt to Brigham Young, 4 Nov. 1853, church archives.

20. See Gary James Bergera, “The Orson Pratt-Brigham Young Controversies: Conflict Within the Quorums, 1853 to 1868,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 13 (Summer 1980), 2:7-49.

21. Both official statements are in James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75), 2:214-24, 229-40; the quotes are from pp. 232-33.

22. Charles Penrose, in JD 26:17.

23. See St. George, Utah, Stake High Council Minutes, 11 June 1892, church archives.

24. Lycurgus A. Wilson, Outline of Mormon Philosophy (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Company, 1905), 42.

25. B. H. Roberts, “The Immortality of Man,” Improvement Era, April 1907, 401-23.

26. Anthon H. Lund Journal, 25 Aug. 1911, church archives.

27. Ibid., 29 Aug. 1911.

28. B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing Company, 1911), 11.

29. See Donald Q. Cannon, “The King Follett Discourse: Joseph Smith’s Greatest Sermon in Historical Perspective,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (1978): 191n61, n62.

30. Lund Journal, 7, 11 Dec. 1914.

[p.144]31. John A. Widtsoe, A Rational Theology (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1915), 24-25, 16, 17.

32. James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism (Boston: Gorham Press, 1919), 321.

33. B. H. Roberts, “The Truth, The Way, The Life,” chap. 26, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

34. George Albert Smith to Rudger Clawson, 10 Oct. 1929, church archives.

35. In Rudger Clawson to Heber J. Grant, 15 May 1930, church archives.

36. Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man (Salt Lake City: Utah Genealogical Society, 1936), 11.

37. See O. Kendall White, Jr., Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy: A Crisis Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987).

38. McConkie, 387.

39. Bruce R. McConkie to Walter Horme, 2 Oct. 1974, copy in my possession.

40. Ibid.