Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy
by O. Kendall White, Jr

Chapter 3
Traditional Mormon Theology

It was a turbulent era in American history that gave birth to Mormonism (see O’Dea 1957, 1-21; Brodie 1945; Bushman 1984). On the one hand, it was a time of “enlightenment” and skepticism. Basic assumptions of Reformation Christianity were subjected to vigorous criticism. The depraved, helpless human creature of Luther and Calvin seemed inconsistent with the rationality assumed by the American Constitution and the national consciousness of the new nation. Optimism generated from an increasing standard of living, opportunity provided by a limitless frontier, success of democratic forms of government, the extension of political and economic freedom, and increased confidence in reason, scientific method, and education—which combined to produce Protestant liberalism—profoundly influenced early Mormonism.

This age, on the other hand, was also one of deep religious “emotionalism,” exaggerated supernaturalism, and folk magic (see Quinn 1987). In no sense was Mormonism oblivious to these forces. On the contrary, it was, at least partially, a product of the “Burned-Over District”—a label attached to western New York during the early 1800s because of the intensity of its revivalism (see Cross 1950). The emotional fervor of its conversions, the imminence of [p.58] apocalyptic expectations, and a reliance upon the supernatural sired numerous religious movements, of which Mormonism was the most successful.

Experiencing cross-pressures from these environmental forces, some movements turned toward a position that would later come to be known as fundamentalism, while others turned toward liberalism. Mormonism eventually did both. It retained a biblical literalism as the means of expressing its new liberal theology. In the words of Sterling M. McMurrin, a perceptive analyst of Mormon theology, Mormonism is “a unique and uneasy union of nineteenth-century liberalism with fourth-century Christian fundamentalism” (1965, 113).

This dual heritage obscures Mormonism’s liberalism so that Mormons and non-Mormons alike typically misunderstand some of the more subtle implications of Mormon theology. Due to a commitment to biblical literalism, Mormonism is frequently considered another expression of fundamentalist Christianity. However, this notion—widespread though it may be—fails to account for the basic liberal doctrines which oppose the central tenets of Christian orthodoxy. Moreover, the metaphysics assumed in Mormon thought guarantees theological deviation from traditional Christianity. By discussing its basic doctrines of God, human nature, and salvation, the liberal character of traditional Mormon theology will hopefully become apparent. [p.59]


Mormons typically assume that their theology departs most significantly from classical Christianity in its doctrine that God is a person with a tangible body. While this has implications for divine omnipresence, it is hardly the most radical difference between the Mormon and traditional Christian notions of God. On the contrary, the finite character of God, which permeates traditional Mormon thought, is a much bolder denial of Christian orthodoxy.

A finite God follows logically from Mormon metaphysics. Since God is not the only entity existing necessarily, he is not the creator of all that is. In other words, he does not bring nonexistent entities into being; he organizes extant materials into new forms. The Mormon God is analogous to a builder and an architect rather than to a creator. This is not to say that Mormons do not speak of God as a creator, but that the Mormon concept of creation does not involve God creating the universe “out of nothing.” He takes existing matter from which he “organizes,” “prepares,” and “forms” the objects of the universe. He creates the world the same way a builder creates a building. Using existing materials, he erects a structure.

In the Book of Abraham (3:24, in PGP), a Mormon revelation of the Creation, the Son of God is depicted as saying to a group of pre-existent spirits: “We will go down [p.60] for there is space there, and we will take these materials, and we will make an earth whereupon these [the pre-existent spirits of all human beings to inhabit the earth] may dwell.” The gods, throughout the remainder of this account, “organize” the earth, “prepare” the waters, and “form” man. They never “create” anything. Though Mormon literature abounds in references to the Creation, it is not to the ex nihilo creation of classical Christianity.

In fact, Mormonism finds the ex nihilo creation absurd. Even so, the typical Mormon argument misconstrues the meaning and significance of this doctrine for traditional Christianity (see Roberts 1893, 317; cf. McMurrin 1965, 19-48). Most Mormon literature assumes that an ex nihilo creation is a creation from nothing in that nothing is presumed to be something (see J. Smith 1938, 350-51; see also Larson 1978; Cannon 1978; Hale 1978; Hale 1983). But to those familiar with traditional Christian theology, the ex nihilo creation has a different meaning. Its value involves a distinction between necessary and contingent being. God alone exists necessarily. He cannot not exist. All else—space, time, heaven, earth, human beings, etc.—owes its very existence to him. Without him, it could not exist; and at his will, it can be destroyed. To be contingent means to have one’s existence dependent upon something else. Thus the real meaning of the ex nihilo creation is that the creature is contingent upon the creator. All creation owes its existence to the creator and without his sustaining support will cease to exist. The important point, then, is [p.61] not that God created the world out of nothing, but that everything that exists is completely dependent upon him for its being. Without God, it cannot exist.

If the meaning of the ex nihilo creation is frequently misunderstood by Mormons, it nonetheless profoundly contradicts fundamental tenets of Mormon theology when understood correctly. Mormonism denies that God alone has necessary being. For Mormon metaphysics assumes a pluralistic materialism in which all matter—including spirit, since even it is conceived of as purer and more refined matter—exists necessarily. A Mormon revelation proclaims that “the elements are eternal” (D&C 93:33), and Joseph Smith, in a polemic against the ex nihilo creation, declared that to create

means to organize; the same as a man would organize materials and build a ship. Hence, we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos—chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time he had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end (1938, 350-52).

This metaphysical materialism not only assumes that God and the elements exist necessarily, but so do space and time. In contrast, traditional Christian orthodoxy maintains that space and time, along with everything else except God, exist only because God created them. They would not be if God had not willed their existence.

[p.62] To most Mormons God exists within time and space; he is not their creator. Obviously the possession of a tangible body would place some spatial limitations upon God. Accordingly, the question of whether or not God can be in more than one place at the same time has received some attention in Mormon literature. Attempting to preserve divine omnipresence, James E. Talmage, the church’s foremost conservative theologian of the early twentieth century, developed an argument anticipated by his predecessors and employed frequently by his successors, asserting that God’s influence can be felt throughout the whole universe. However, God is spatially limited—a position which Talmage argued on the basis of biblical anthropomorphism, such as God’s moving from one place to another (1955, 42-43). In the Book of Abraham creation scripture, cited above, the gods “go down for there is space there” to “organize” matter into the universe. Space is conceived as if it were primal matter through which other matter can pass or travel, while, at the same time, it is also conceived of as a location or place. Even before the universe was created, its future location was identified in terms of the “space” which “is there,” where it could be organized. Yet this space is real. It is irreducible matter that can neither be created nor destroyed.

The concept of a changing God, a God in the process of “becoming” rather than “being,” permeates traditional Mormon theology and further illustrates God’s temporality. God is not the creator of time, as Christian [p.63] orthodoxy assumes, but exists within time. According to Mormon doctrine, God was not always God; he has changed and progressed. Again, in the King Follett Discourse, perhaps the most important of Joseph Smith’s speeches, the Mormon prophet taught that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret.” Smith continued:

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 (1938, 345-46).

In spite of the virtual canonization of Joseph Smith’s position in the couplet “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become,” Mormonism has sometimes expressed confusion regarding the progressive nature of God. I suspect that the problem originates in other early Mormon teachings assuming a position similar to orthodox Christianity and the theological naivete of the church’s “lay” clergy. For example, the third lecture of the 1835 “Lectures on Faith,” which Joseph Smith certainly endorsed, if not authored personally, contains the following:

But it is equally necessary that men should have the idea that he is a God who changes not, in order to have faith in him …;for without the idea of unchangeableness in the character of the Deity, doubt would take the place of faith. But with the idea that he changes not, faith lays hold upon the excellencies in his character with [p.64] unshaken confidence, believing he is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that his course is one eternal round (J. Smith n.d., 36).

Instead of settling upon the idea of either an unchangeable or a progressing God, many Mormons have come to embrace both. Arguments exhibiting little appreciation for the implications of either concept are occasionally used to qualify unchangeability or to modify progression—usually both—in such a manner as to negate the advantages of either. However, most Mormon theologians have emphasized the changeability of God since even Mormonism’s most exacting absolutists are unable to abandon the idea of divine progression (see J. F. Smith 1954; McConkie 1958).

At least from the time of the King Follett Discourse, Mormon theology found God to be the very embodiment of “eternal progression.” Criticizing Orson Pratt, one of nineteenth-century Mormonism’s more sophisticated absolutist theologians, Brigham Young declared:

Some men seem as if they could learn so much and no more. They appear to be bounded by their capacity for acquiring knowledge, as Brother Orson Pratt, has in theory, bounded the capacity of God. According to his theory, God can progress no further in knowledge and power; but the God that I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children: they will increase to all eternity if they are faithful (JD 11:286; see also Bergera 1980).

Ten years earlier, in 1857, Wilford Woodruff, one of Brigham Young’s successors to the Mormon presidency, said:

[p.65] If there was a point where man in his progression could not proceed any farther, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so worlds without end; it is just so with us (JD 6:120).

The idea of divine progression became a tenet of Mormon theology (see Bergera 1982). Even absolutists, who claim that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, accept a unique Mormon concept of eternity that implies divine progression. In contrast with the classical Christian concept of eternity as a condition of timelessness—something beyond time—which necessarily follows from the ex nihilo creation, where God creates time along with everything else, most Mormons conceive of eternity as unending time, “everlastingness,” “foreverness.” Time—like God, matter, and space—exists necessarily. It is an environmental fact that God cannot alter. He, like everything else that exists, exists within and not beyond time. Moreover, this concept underscores the continuity between the sacred and secular—the now and the then—of Mormon thought in contrast with the radical discontinuity of orthodox Christianity.

This temporal character of God not only establishes his finitude but, in the context of Mormonism, presupposes natural and moral laws as universals. The path to godhood lies in the acquisition of the knowledge to understand these laws, the development of the skills to apply them, and the molding of the requisite character through obedience to [p.66] eternal moral precepts. Thus Orson F. Whitney, a late nineteenth-century Mormon theologian, claimed that it is God’s “superior intelligence that makes Him God,” that the gospel is merely a ladder “of light, of intelligence, of principle” by which men become gods (Deseret Weekly, 25 May 1889). And B. H. Roberts, in a discussion of moral laws, wrote: “Good and evil then, in Latter-day Saint philosophy, are not created things. Both are eternal, just as duration is, and space. They are as old as law—as old as truth, old as this eternal universe. Intelligences must adjust themselves to these eternal existences; this, the measure of their duty” (1930, 2:404).

The idea of God as “becoming” rather than “being,” God’s spatial limitations, and the general environment in which moral laws, natural laws, and matter all exist necessarily combine to provide the finitism that characterizes traditional Mormon theology. Clearly, the omnipotence and omniscience associated with classical Christianity cannot justifiably be attributed to the Mormon God. This should not be construed, however, to mean that such absolutist language is absent from Mormon discourse. Like most Christians, many Mormons seem unable to resist the use of the “omnis” in their descriptions of deity. Even those Mormon writers who describe God as all-knowing and all-powerful typically embrace the metaphysics described above. Indeed, the problem for Mormonism arises not so often out of disagreement over the metaphysical basis of Mormon theology as out of a misunderstanding of the implications [p.67] of this metaphysics for one’s concept of God and the language of absolutism. A “typical” Mormon might conclude that God is omnipotent and omniscient while accepting Mormon metaphysics. He or she might not understand that Mormon metaphysics precludes an infinite God and necessarily implies that God must be finite since he exists within an environment over which he lacks complete control.

Lowell Bennion, a contemporary Mormon theologian, advocates a position that is consistent with Mormon metaphysics, by describing God as “most-powerful” rather than all-powerful. Asserting that God has tremendous power but not all power, Bennion assumes that even God cannot do everything he wills (1962). For instance, there are presumably occasions when God would like to reduce or eliminate the suffering of humans and other animals but lacks the power to do so. Under these circumstances, God can merely suffer with us. Bennion’s position follows from an acute sensitivity to the problem of evil and an understanding of Mormon metaphysics. If his view is not widely held within Mormon circles, it is nonetheless compatible with a metaphysics that enjoys consensus. The concepts of omnipotence and omniscience appear in Mormon discourse as frequently as they do simply because Mormons, officials and laity, do not fully appreciate their meanings. Both are inconsistent with traditional Mormonism’s doctrine of a finite God. [p.68]

Human Nature

If traditional Mormonism’s concept of God deviates from classical Christianity, its assessment of human nature is an even more radical departure. Denying the ex nihilo creation not only has implications for the absoluteness of God but, for Mormons, results in an affirmation of the necessary existence of humanity. Just as God exists necessarily, so do matter, space, time, natural and moral law, and “intelligence,” the uncreated essence of human beings. Mormonism thereby denies the ultimate contingency of humankind.

That Joseph Smith recognized the radical nature of this doctrine and its implications for the orthodox Christian concept of human nature seems apparent. In 1833, he recorded a revelation which proclaimed that “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be” (D&C 93:29). And subsequently, in the King Follett Discourse, he reiterated this, explaining that his remarks were “calculated to exalt man.” He chose to discuss “the soul—the mind of man—the immortal spirit. Where did it come from? All learned men and doctors of divinity say that God created it in the beginning; but it is not so: the very idea lessens man in my estimation. I do not believe the doctrine; I know better” (1938, 352; emphasis added). He continued,

I am dwelling upon the immortality of the spirit of man. Is it logical to say that the intelligence of spirits is immortal, and yet that it had a beginning? The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end.

[p.69] There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven (ibid., 353).

If some confusion exists over the exact meaning of “intelligence” in Mormon theology, it typically has been conceptualized as something analogous to the ego, self, or, in the language of Joseph Smith, “the soul—the mind of man—the immortal spirit.”1 In one of the more perceptive essays on Mormon theology by an ecclesiastical authority, B. H. Roberts wrote, “There is that in man, according to our doctrine, [that] which is not created at all; there is in him an ‘ego’—a ‘spirit’ uncreated, never made, a self-existent entity, eternal as God himself; and of the same substance or essence with him, and, indeed, part of him, when God is conceived of in the generic sense” (1903, 164). It is this assertion, that human intelligence is uncreated, that it shares with divinity its necessary being, that denies the ultimate contingency of humankind and provides the fundamental basis for an optimistic concept of human nature.

But traditional Mormon optimism is not limited to the denial of human contingency. It is boldly expressed in the claim that human nature is basically good, that an individual is “a God in embryo” (JD 23:65). Nor is the denial [p.70] of human contingency the only significant departure from Christian orthodoxy on the doctrine of human nature. On the contrary, the assertion of human goodness denies the human predicament proclaimed by classical Christianity. It assumes that the human predicament is not really a predicament at all, but that human beings are more good than evil. This, indeed, is a radical departure from orthodox Christianity.

In contrast to Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy, traditional Mormonism denies the doctrine of original sin. While Catholic theologians generally assert that humankind is in a state of sin because divine grace was withheld as a result of the Fall, Protestant theologians typically maintain that humankind is in a universal state of sin because of the corruption of human nature. It is important to note, however, that in both Catholicism and Protestantism all men and women are in a state of sin and can be saved only through the grace of God. Indeed, this is the meaning of the human predicament. Yet to be a sinner means more than to actually sin since sin is defined as a state or condition. To the most pessimistic theologians, human beings, as a result of their sinful condition, can do no good; they can only sin. They are lost and completely helpless. This doctrine of original sin, in which all humanity shares the guilt and estrangement from God, defines the human predicament in traditional Christian thought.

Nowhere is Mormon optimism regarding human nature more evident than in its denial of original sin that [p.71] appears in several tenets of Mormon theology. First, Mormonism radically reinterpreted the Fall. In contrast to the Protestant notion that the Fall resulted in a condition of human depravity and the Catholic view that it led to a withdrawal of supernatural grace, the traditional Mormon position asserts that the Fall was a necessary condition for humanity to realize its ultimate potential. Humankind’s premortal existence as intelligences and then spirits did not provide them with physical bodies which, in Mormon belief, are necessary to “experience a fullness of joy.” Hence, an important consequence of the Fall was the acquisition of physical bodies. Beyond that, it was necessary to leave the immediate presence of God—to “enter the school of mortal experiences”—in order to overcome evil and develop the requisite moral character to realize the destiny of godhood (Talmage 1955, 69).

The real meaning of the Fall, then, is that it provided humanity with opportunities to obtain physical bodies and to gain experience. The Fall was part of God’s plan for the benefit of his children. In a Mormon revelation, Adam and Eve praise God after being banished from the Garden of Eden.

Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.

And, Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal [p.72] life which God giveth unto all the obedient (Moses 5:10-11, in PGP).

This passage anticipates the Mormon propensity to regard the behavior of Adam as a “transgression” rather than a sin. Mormons usually avoid using “sin” to describe Adam’s act of disobedience, for that act constituted a necessary condition for human mortality which itself is essential to human fulfillment. Mormon church apostle and theologian Orson F. Whitney, in a footnote to his lengthy poem, Elias: An Epic of the Ages, diminished the “sin” of Adam.

There are two general classes of crimes—malum per se and malum prohibitum. Malum per se is a Latin phrase signifying “an evil in itself,” while malum prohibitum means “that which is wrong because forbidden by law.” The transgression of our First Parents was malum prohibitum, and the consequent descent from an immortal to a mortal condition was the Fall (1914, 128n7).

In other words, the Fall was an essential step in the eternal quest of humankind. A little more than twenty years ago, Sterling W. Sill, a Mormon official, wrote, “Adam fell, but he fell in the right direction” (Deseret News Church Section, 31 July 1965). And an often quoted passage of the Book of Mormon holds that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25).

A second, though perhaps not as important, evidence of the Mormon rejection of original sin may be found in the status typically accorded Adam within Mormon theology. Instead of conceiving of Adam as the cause of human depravity and suffering, Mormonism holds Adam in high [p.73] esteem. James Talmage deplored the “common practice” of heaping reproaches upon “our first parents” and declared that they “are entitled to our deepest gratitude for their legacy to posterity—the means of winning title to glory, exaltation, and eternal life” (1955, 70). Within Mormon theology, Adam is Michael the Archangel, the Ancient of Days. He assisted in the creation of the world, if not the universe, and will participate in resurrecting the dead at the Second Coming. He holds positions of importance next to the Godhead. Indeed, Adam was so highly regarded in nineteenth-century Mormonism that Brigham Young and other church leaders identified him as both the father of Jesus Christ and of humanity (see JD 1:50-52; Turner 1953; and especially Buerger 1982).

The concept of sin constitutes the third example of Mormonism’s denial of the classical Christian doctrine of original sin. Sin, in Mormonism, is not a state or condition. Nor is it the human predicament. Sin is a specific act. Where Christian orthodoxy conceives of adultery as a consequence of human sinfulness, traditional Mormonism regards adultery, in itself, as sin. It is an act of disobedience to a commandment of God. It is, to be more precise, an act of breaking an eternal law.

This concept of sin can be illustrated by examining the meaning of repentance in Mormonism. Repentance is a turning away from sins, a refusing to commit them again. I use the plural rather than the singular to underscore the fact that repentance is the turning away from specific sins [p.74] because for Mormons there are no others. Repentance is only possible because people can change. It is the process whereby the “sinner” stops sinning. Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon president during the late nineteenth century, declared that “the man who repents, if he be a swearer, swears no more; or a thief, steals no more; he turns away from all his former sins and commits them no more” (JD 23:127).

If Mormon discourse sometimes refers to humanity as “sinners,” this should not be construed to mean a state of sin. It merely implies that all people, at some time, disobey eternal laws. However, people are not sinners for the same sins. Some are sinners because they lie, others because they steal. All can be said to be sinners only because none is yet perfect. No one has completely overcome all of his or her sins. Yet it should be recognized that Mormonism, like Protestant liberalism, maintains that humanity is perfectible. Indeed, the very goal of Mormonism is the perfecting of humankind. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” is a frequently quoted passage in Mormon sermons. This admonition of Jesus, to the Mormon mind, would be strange indeed were it impossible to fulfill. Parley P. Pratt, a theologically influential nineteenth-century apostle, argued that the notion that one cannot live without sin, that people cannot achieve perfection, was a false doctrine (in McMurrin 1965, 68). Perfection is a goal toward which the true Mormon must always strive.

[p.75] Consistent with this concept of sin as an act, the assumption of human perfectibility, and the reinterpretation of the Fall, is the emphasis on freedom of the will found in Mormon theology. Not only does it constitute an explicit denial of the classical doctrine of original sin, it may also be the most radical concept of freedom of will found within the Christian tradition. At least the Mormon doctrine of free will suffers from few of the limitations found in Protestantism and Catholicism. While free agency, which is the Mormon term for freedom of the will, is sometimes spoken of as a “gift of God,” this is fundamentally inaccurate because Mormon metaphysics imply that the will, or human agency, has its origin in the uncreated human intelligence—that, strictly speaking, it is independent of God. It too is an uncreated quality of human intelligence. This appears at least to be an implicit assumption underlying much Mormon discourse.

In a typical interpretation of Mormon scripture, John A. Widtsoe, a popular twentieth-century theologian and apostle, discussed a council at which the preexistent spirits of all future inhabitants of the earth rejected any imposition on the freedom of will of men and women; for such a condition, even if it assured universal salvation, would destroy the essential nature of humanity and its relationship to deity. Speaking of humankind’s “earth-career,” Widtsoe wrote:

Though he might walk in forgetfulness of the past, and have dim visions of the future, he would be allowed a [p.76] free and untrammeled agency as he walked in the clearness of the earth’s day. While upon earth he might learn much or little, might accept law or reject it, just as he had been privileged to do in all the days that had gone before (1952, 38-39).

The crucial point here is the unqualified claim that humanity is free to do good or evil as a consequence of their nature. There is no notion, as is frequently found in Christian orthodoxy, that humankind can only choose to act perversely. That is, men and women, because of the fall of Adam, can only choose to sin. They are only partially free. Such notions are foreign to Mormonism. While they follow from conceptions of the Fall as the basis for original sin, this concept of the Fall is, as I have argued, rejected by traditional Mormons. The typical Mormon concept of the Fall as the basis for implementing moral agency is entirely consistent with this concept of complete freedom of will. Moreover, it underlies a radical doctrine of salvation by merit, which is also consistent with the traditional doctrine of deity.

A final argument for the denial of the doctrine of original sin is indicated by Mormon proclamations that the natural condition of humankind is good. Though occasionally one finds references to Paul’s judgments of the “natural man” or to the Book of Mormon on the same theme (see Mos. 3:19), Mormon literature typically avoids these pessimistic depictions of the human predicament. In 1862, Brigham Young told a congregation,

[p.77] It is fully proved in all the revelations that…[men and women] naturally love and admire righteousness, justice, and truth more than they do evil. It is, however, universally received by professors of religion as a Scriptural doctrine that man is naturally opposed to God. This is not so. Paul says in his Epistle to the Corinthians, “But the natural man receiveth not the things of God,” but I say it is the unnatural man “that receiveth not the things of God…”The natural man is of God. We are the natural sons and daughters of our natural parents, and spiritually we are the natural children of The Father of Light and natural heirs to his kingdom; and when we do evil, we do it in opposition to the promptings of the Spirit of Truth that is within us. Man, the noblest work of God, was in his creation designed for endless duration, for which the love of all good was incorporated in his nature. It was never designed that he should naturally do and love evil (JD 9:305).

Young often argued that humanity is “naturally” good and attributed any inclination toward evil to “the force of example and wrong tradition.” In a speech on “Man’s Agency,” he stated: “If a man had always been permitted to follow the instincts of his nature, had he always followed the great and holy principles of his organism, they would have led him to the path of life everlasting, which the whole human family are constantly trying to find” (1889, 82).

Despite some Calvinistic inroads into contemporary Mormonism (see the next chapter), most Mormon discourse retains the concept of the basic goodness of human nature. Hugh B. Brown, a member of the church’s governing First Presidency from 1961 to 1970, expressed the more representative position in a 1964 General Conference speech:

[p.78] Our doctrine of man is positive and life affirming. We declare unequivocally that by his very nature every man has the freedom to do good as well as evil, that God has endowed him with a free moral will and given him the power to discern good from evil, right from wrong, and to choose the good and the right. We refuse to believe…that the biblical account of the fall of man records the corruption of human nature or to accept the doctrine of original sin. We do not believe that man is incapable of doing the will of God or is unable to merit the reward of Divine approval; that he is therefore totally estranged from God and that whatever salvation comes to him must come as a free and undeserved gift. We never tire of proclaiming the inspiring truth of the gospel that man is that he might have joy. For us the so-called fall of man placed the human spirit in a world of experience and adventure where evils are real but can be overcome, where free moral decision is a constant requirement, and where choices freely made, determine the quality of life and the eventual condition of the soul (CR, April 1964, 82).

In addition to the denial of the classical Christian doctrines of original sin and the ex nihilo creation, traditional Mormon attitudes toward reason, science, and education attest to its optimistic assessment of human nature. The common interpretation of several verses in Mormon scriptures, not the least of which is the “glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), exhorts Mormons to seek knowledge outside of religion. In fact, Mormonism defines areas which are generally considered secular as the proper domain of religion. It is necessary, as an obvious implication of Mormon metaphysics, to gain knowledge of the subject matter [p.79] of the physical sciences in order to understand the world, of the behavioral sciences in order to understand human nature, and of ethics in order to understand morality. As Thomas O’Dea, in an excellent sociological study of Mormonism, wrote: “The Mormon definition of life makes the earthly sojourn basically an educational process. Knowledge is necessary to mastery, and the way to deification is through mastery, for not only does education aid man in fulfilling present tasks, it advances him in his eternal progress” (1957, 147).

If a growing anti-intellectual trend is apparent in the church today, Mormon theology still retains a rational world view that requires faith in basic education. Mormons often hear that their religion embraces all truth, and this confidence in education is usually bolstered by quotes from Mormon leaders such as the following from Brigham Young:

I am happy to see our children engaged in the study and practice of music. Let them be educated in every useful branch of learning, for we, as a people, have in the future to excel the nations of the earth in religion, science, and philosophy. Great advancement has been made in knowledge by the learned of this world, still there is much to learn. The hidden powers of nature which give life, growth, and existence to all things have not yet been approached by the wisdom of the world (JD 12:122).

Traditional Mormon optimism is equally apparent in its doctrine of salvation. Indeed, the goodness of humankind, the finitude of God, and humanity’s potential for salvation by avoiding sin are concepts that combine to make [p.80] Mormonism an anthropocentric theology in contrast to the theocentric theology of classical Christianity.


Nowhere is the anthropocentric character of traditional Mormon theology more clearly evident than in the concept of salvation. Mormon doctrine differs significantly from the doctrines of grace that permeate orthodox Christianity. A Protestant scholar has called the “good news” that an infinite God wants to save depraved humanity from its predicament the essence of the Christian gospel (R. M. Brown 1966, 113). Such news, for the traditional Protestant, is especially good because humanity can do nothing to save itself. Indeed, we are lost. We cannot even participate in the salvation process. In the words of Emil Brunner, “even a partial clearing up of the contradiction on man’s part” is impossible (1929, 56). The fundamental message of both orthodox and neo-orthodox Christianity is that humankind cannot save itself.

In contrast, Mormonism espouses a doctrine of salvation by works, evident in the emphasis on the Epistle of James. While Protestant and Catholic clergy quote Paul’s “by grace are ye saved” and “not of works lest any man should boast,” Mormon authorities typically quote James’s “faith without works is dead.” There is a virtual dearth of Pauline theology within traditional Mormon thought. Although Paul is quoted, it is on death, the resurrection, or his ethical exhortations. When Mormons do quote Paul [p.81] on salvation, they typically misrepresent his concept of grace to mean that humanity will be physically resurrected by the gracious act of God. Traditional Mormonism denies classical doctrines of grace.

This does not mean that Mormonism has no concept of grace, but that Mormon concepts of grace differ from those of traditional and neo-orthodox Christianity. Like orthodox Christianity, Mormonism holds that mortality is a consequence of the Fall which is overcome through the atonement of Christ. Moreover, Mormon theology claims that as a result of the Fall humankind experienced a “spiritual death,” a separation from the presence of God. Unlike Christian orthodoxy, this spiritual death did not alter human nature. It is not a condition of alienation in which the human/divine relationship has undergone some dramatic transformation, leaving the two in opposition to each other. On the contrary, the work and destinies of humankind and God remain interlocked. The meaning of “spiritual death” is to be cut off from the presence of God, not to be cut off from God. More importantly, this separation from the immediate presence of God is conceived of as a necessary condition for the development of humanity. It is through one’s own meritorious efforts, along with the atonement of Christ, that he or she may be saved, transcend death, and return to the presence of God. Thus, it is essential to an understanding of Mormonism to recognize that the fall of Adam is a manifestation of the grace of God in as real a sense as the atonement of Christ. Both are [p.82] necessary conditions for human fulfillment and the ultimate salvation of humankind.

I use the adjective “ultimate” to emphasize the difference between Mormon and traditional Christian concepts of salvation. Mormonism is not concerned with salvation, as it is typically conceived, but with exaltation. Nineteenth-century Mormonism, following the Universalists, embraced a doctrine of universal salvation, which profoundly affected subsequent doctrinal and theological elaboration. While Mormon notions of salvation typically refer to the universal physical resurrection of all humanity (D&C 76) or to the near universal extension of a “degree of glory” in heaven to all except those who sin against the Holy Ghost (ibid.), exaltation denotes returning to the presence of God and the realization of the ultimate potential of godhood. The exaltation of humankind is both the ultimate goal of Mormonism and the very work of God himself (Moses 1:36, in PGP). This is what Joseph Smith had in mind when he proclaimed:

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 the 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 (1938, 346-47).

This concept of exaltation, which combines grace, sacramental, and merit doctrines of salvation, clearly reveals the eclecticism of traditional Mormon theology. Grace, as [p.83] noted, is evident in the fall of Adam and in the atonement of Christ; both are necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for exaltation, which also requires submission to such sacraments as baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, priesthood ordinations, and temple endowments. Yet, even when combined with the Fall and Atonement, these sacraments are insufficient. In popular Mormon parlance, people must also “work out their own salvation.”

Accordingly, a doctrine of salvation by merit, consistent with Mormon metaphysics, obliges the devotee to acquire the requisite knowledge—secular as well as religious—to become like God. A Mormon revelation declares that “it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6), and Joseph Smith spoke of the “principle of knowledge” as the “principle of salvation.” Mormon theologian Orson F. Whitney stated:

So says Joseph Smith. Intelligence is the glory of God. It is his superior intelligence that makes him God. The Gospel…is nothing more or less than a ladder of light, of intelligence, or principle, by which man, the child of god, may mount step by step to become eventually like his Father (Deseret Weekly, 25 May 1889).

If the “principle of knowledge is the principle of salvation,” knowledge itself is insufficient. People must also live according to certain moral principles. They must live the commandments of God—the eternal laws. They must be more than hearers of the word. They must be doers, for it is only through obedience to the “laws and ordinances of the gospel” that they may be exalted. This emphasis on [p.84] works, or merit, is indicated by James Talmage’s claim, cited previously, that mortality is a “school” in which we learn the differences between good and evil so as to help us overcome the latter. In The Gospel and Man’s Relationship to Deity, one of the better discussions of the basic principles of the Mormon religion, B. H. Roberts described salvation as a “character-building” process,2 in which the disciple must shun evil. Salvation comes by “resisting a temptation today, overcoming a weakness tomorrow, forsaking evil associations the next day, and thus day by day, month after month, year after year, pruning, restraining and weeding out that which is evil in the disposition, that the character is purged of its imperfections” (1893, 264).

Yet, Roberts argued, overcoming evil does not fill the requirement. People must also do good. They must “cultivate noble sentiments by performing noble deeds,” not necessarily those deemed great by society but small, good works. Roberts concludes his chapter on “Laws of Spiritual Development” by summarizing the meaning of exaltation.

Thus by eschewing the evil inclination of the disposition on the one hand, and cultivating noble sentiments on the other, a character may be formed that shall be godlike in its attributes and consequently its possessor [p.85] will be fitted to dwell with God, and if so prepared, there is no question but his calling and election are sure (ibid., 265).

The traditional Mormon concept of salvation is fundamentally set apart from orthodox Christianity by its insistence upon the perfectibility of the individual and the imperative that he or she become like God. Because of this emphasis on merit, that people “work out their own salvation,” the traditional Mormon doctrine of salvation, or exaltation, like the doctrines of God and human nature, stands as a heresy within the orthodox Christian tradition.


Whereas the God of Christian orthodoxy is absolute, the God of traditional Mormonism is necessarily finite. For the latter exists within an environment over which he lacks ultimate control. Matter, space, time, natural and moral law, uncreated intelligences, and God himself all exist together necessarily. Consequently Mormonism denies the ex nihilo creation which guarantees the hiatus between creator and creature in traditional and neo-orthodox Christianity. Moreover, the Mormon God changes. He progressed to become what he is today, and he continues to progress. He is more accurately characterized in terms of “becoming” than “being.” God is not, in the vocabulary of classical Christianity, omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, and references to him as such are, I believe, clearly inconsistent with traditional Mormon metaphysics.

[p.86] The traditional Mormon concept of human nature, as I have argued, is an even more radical departure from Christian orthodoxy. Not only do humans exist necessarily, which is the ultimate basis for their freedom and autonomy, but the human situation is defined as good rather than evil. This is apparent in Mormonism’s denial of the classical doctrines of original sin, reflected in its reinterpretation of the Fall as a necessary condition for human exaltation; in the high status accorded Adam; the defining of sin as an act rather than a condition; in the radical freedom of will attributed to humankind; and in the assumption that human nature is good rather than evil. The emphasis on reason, science, and education permeating much of Mormon culture further enhances its optimistic concept of human nature.

Following from these doctrines of God and human nature is a doctrine of salvation stressing merit rather than grace. If grace appears in both the Fall and the Atonement as necessary conditions for the salvation of humanity, then exaltation, which is the ultimate purpose of Mormonism and is the destiny of humankind, is thoroughly dependent upon works. It requires the observance of key sacraments, the acquisition of the requisite knowledge, and the development of the appropriate moral character.

It is, in fact, the traditional Mormon concept of exaltation, or the realization of godhood, that best expresses its peculiar American character. The idea of unlimited progress, which permeated American consciousness, became [p.87] the “doctrine of eternal progression” among Mormons. The fluidity of the American class structure was projected onto the beyond with a religious imperative for social mobility. If God had attained his exalted status, human destiny was no less promising. Nowhere would the basic American values of work, achievement, mobility, and progress become more explicitly sacralized as cardinal tenets of a Christian theology. Thus, Mormon theology, like American cultural mythology, is preoccupied with “becoming” rather than “being.” This unique doctrine of salvation, along with traditional Mormon concepts of deity and humanity, clearly differentiates its anthropocentricism from the theocentricism of Christian orthodoxy. [p.89]


1. Smith is apparently not referring to the Mormon usage of these terms, for they have special meaning in Mormon theological discourse. Rather, he is referring to the general usage within the Christian tradition designating the essence of humanity. For an introduction to the Mormon concept of the pre-existence, see Ostler 1982.

2. Roberts does not use the term “character-building” in the edition from which these quotes are taken. However, it is used in subsequent editions and appears at least as early as in the fifth edition. The importance of Roberts’s work was first pointed out to me by Sterling McMurrin (1965, 68-77).