The Word of God
Dan Vogel, ed.

Chapter 13
Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Cosmology
Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe

[p.187]Persistent throughout Mormon scripture are explicit statements about the nature of revelation and scripture. Book of Mormon prophet Nephi explained that God “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (LDS 2 Ne. 31:3; RLDS 2 Ne. 13:5), and Moroni lamented that God “made our words powerful and great,” but “when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words” (LDS Eth. 12:25; RLDS Eth. 5:26). The title page of the Book of Mormon explains that it was “written … by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation” but also warns that “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.” In a revelation dictated by Joseph Smith, God said he had given commandments to his “servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (LDS D&C 1:24; RLDS D&C l:5a). Despite such clarifications, Mormons generally have been slow to appreciate fully the dynamic between the human and the divine in the revelatory process.

In reassessing Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to religious experience, W. W. Meissner observed, “Whatever else we can say about religious experience, we can postulate that the form of divine intervention does not violate the nature and functioning of man’s capacities … and that the form of the experience is determined significantly by the nature of the psychic organization and functioning of the person affected.”1 Many Bible scholars have [p.188] recognized the idea that an individual’s personality and environment influence both the manner in which the divine encounter is perceived as well as the way in which it is articulated. While this concept has long been an underlying presupposition in biblical studies, Mormons have only recently come to consider various elements of Joseph Smith’s theological system in light of his cultural and intellectual milieu.

Bible scholars, for instance, generally agree that the writers and prophets of sacred literature drew (whether consciously, unconsciously, inspired, or otherwise) upon the mythological and cosmological motifs of surrounding cultures to communicate their religious affirmations. The earth was depicted as a flat strip (Is. 42:5; 44:24) supported on pillars or props (Job 9:6; Ps. 75:3; 2 Sam. 22:16; Is. 24:18; Jer. 31:37) above a cosmic ocean (Ps. 24:2; 136:6) or empty space (Job 26:7). The earth had “four corners” or “four edges” (Is. 11:12; Ezk. 7:2). In common with their contemporaries, biblical writers saw the earth as stationary while the sun, moon and stars (luminaries not planets) moved across the sky. The moon moved by God’s will (Gen. 1:14-19; Ps. 104:19; 136:9) and could be halted in its course by him (Hab. 3:11). The sun was fashioned by God and placed in the firmament (Gen. 1:14-19), and once it actually stood still (Josh. 10:12).

The Hebrew word translated as “firmament” means literally “strip of beaten metal” and reflects the ancient notion that the sky was a mirror-like surface which separated the upper and lower waters. This ancient Hebrew conception of the world is in substantial “agreement with Near Eastern cosmology.”2 Catholic exegete Luis Stadelmann found in the Genesis creation accounts “traces either of borrowings or of parallels to the cosmogonic traditions of the ancient Near East.” Moreover, Stadelmann noted, “it has long been recognized by Bible scholars that the Priestly account of the creation of the world [Gen. 1:1-2:4a] reveals obvious traces of Mesopotamian influence.”3

These insights, however, have been challenged by biblical literalists not because such views challenge biblical inspiration but rather because they challenge fundamentalist preconceptions about the nature of revelation. Literalists not only hold the notion of verbal inspiration but also assume that for revelation to be true, it must contain unique and new concepts which transcend time and [p.189] space—any environmental dependency would be proof of human origin. Attempting to avoid the implications of cultural parallels in the Genesis creation account, some have conjectured that similarities are due to an earlier no longer extant source to which both Mesopotamians and Hebrews were indebted.4 E. A. Speiser, however, rebutted this argument, stating that there is not “the slightest basis in fact for assuming some unidentified ultimate source from which both the Mesopotamians and the Hebrews could have derived their views about creation.” And Alexander Heidel conceded that there is nothing “incompatible with the doctrine of inspiration to assume that Gen. 1:1-2:3 might in a measure be dependent on [the earlier Babylonian creation epic] Enuma elish.”5

The idea that Joseph Smith and early Mormons were limited by the cosmological concepts of their day has also been resisted by traditionalists who minimize environmental influences by focusing on the uniqueness and complexity of Joseph Smith’s cosmology—as if a new and intricate whole could not have parts with cultural antecedents.6 This construction of early Mormon thought is unnecessarily narrow and ignores rhetorical distinctions in Mormon scripture. In order to understand this, it may be helpful first to review some of the major trends in the development of the plurality of worlds concept which stood at the center of Joseph Smith’s cosmology.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed a sweeping change in the scientific view of the universe. A geocentric (earth-centered) picture of the universe gave way to one in which the earth was only another planet orbiting the sun. The sun itself became one of millions of stars. This transformation of humankind’s perception of its place in the larger scheme of things led to a vast rethinking of moral and religious matters as well as scientific theory. However, this transformation was not without some intense ecclesiastical resistance.

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his concept of a heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system in Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs. He viewed the first completed volume on his deathbed. But his arguments for a heliocentric cosmology received little attention, and in 1660 his works were placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books. Not until Galileo Galilei publicized his telescopic findings and arguments for the Copernican system did [p.190] the old view of the cosmos begin to give way. The most famous of Galileo’s works, Dialogue an the Two Chief World Systems (1632), brought down upon him the condemnation of the Roman Catholic church, which placed him under house arrest until his death.7 Despite resistance, Copernicanism took root and began to blossom in the seventeenth century.

The Copernican Revolution also intensified speculation and debate about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. However, not all seventeenth-century Copernicans were advocates of the existence of other earth-like worlds. Astronomer Johannes Kepler, for example, believed that a plurality of inhabited worlds was possible, while Galileo believed the concept was “false and damnable.”8 The plurality of worlds concept was not inherent in Copernican cosmology, but it provided fertile ground for the idea to flourish.

William Herschel, famous for his discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, was one of the earliest from the scientific community to receive popular notice for his ideas about the multiplicity of inhabited worlds. As one scholar has summarized his views, Herschel “thought it [was] possible that there was a region below the Sun’s fiery surface where men might live, and he regarded the existence of life on the Moon as ‘an absolute certainty.'”9 In a letter to Nevil Maskelyn, then “Astronomer Royal,” Herschel reasoned that by “comparing the Moon with this planet; finding that in such a satellite there is a provision of light and heat; also in all appearance, a soil proper for habitation fully as good as ours, if not perhaps better—who can say that it is not extremely probable, nay beyond doubt, that there must be inhabitants on the Moon of some kind or other?”10

In 1795 Herschel publicly declared his belief that the sun and moon were inhabited by beings whose organs “were adapted to the peculiar circumstances of those luminaries.”11 Media coverage exaggerated these speculations into realities. In the second number of Robert B. Thomas’s Farmer’s Almanack, published in New England in 1794, reported from a London paper that “Mr. Herschel is now said, by the aid of his powerful glasses, to have reduced to a certainty, the opinion that the moon is inhabited. He has discovered land and water, and is enabled to distinguish between the green and barren mountainous spots on the former, which, as with us, are subdivided by the sea. Within these few days he has distinguished a large edifice, apparently of greater magnitude than St. Paul’s; and he is confident [p.191] of shortly being able to give an account of the inhabitants.”12 Naturally the public’s interest in telescopic discoveries and the anticipation of confirmation about the moon’s inhabitants was quite intense.

Not everyone in the publishing community ascribed to these embellished speculations about extraterrestrials. In January 1818, for example, the North American Review stated that one astronomer believed the “sun is not inhabited, as some have been led to suppose from the observations of Dr. Herschel.”13 Yet Herschel’s theories continued to find currency, his controversial conjectures leading some astronomers to assert that the sun “is most probably inhabited, like the rest of the planets” and the existence of lunar residents “a high probability.”14

August 1835 saw a rekindling of Herschel’s speculations when the New York Sun reported that John Herschel, son of the now deceased William Herschel, had developed a more powerful telescope through which the inhabitants of the moon could be clearly seen. On 25 August the paper asserted that Herschel “has affirmatively settled the question whether this satellite be inhabited, and by what orders of being.” On 28 August the paper described humanoid creatures who were covered with reddish hair, averaged four feet in height, and possessed bat-like wings.

Harriet Martineau, a British commentator in America at the time, described the excitement these reports were causing: “I happened to be going the round of several Massachusetts villages when the marvellous account of Sir John Herschel’s discoveries in the moon was sent abroad. The sensation it excited was wonderful… A story is going … that the astronomer has received at the Cape [Cod], a letter from a large number of Baptist clergymen of the United States, congratulating him on his discovery, informing him that it had been the occasion of much edifying preaching and of prayer-meetings for the benefit of brethren in newly explored regions; and beseeching him to inform his correspondents whether science affords any prospects of a method of conveying the Gospel to residents in the moon.”15 One exuberant minister went so far as to tell his congregation that “on account of the wonderful discoveries of the present age, he lived in expectation of one day calling upon them for a subscription to buy Bibles for the benighted inhabitants of the moon.”16

[p.192]It was all a hoax, of course. The Sun itself eventually acknowledged the fact on 16 September, but not before it had briefly boasted the largest circulation of any daily in the world.17 The Great Moon Hoax flourished because it had a degree of plausibility in the minds of the public. As the New York Times editorialized, “these new discoveries are both probable and plausible.”18

Even prior to the Great Moon Hoax, religionists were involved in vigorous discussions about the theological ramifications of an infinite number of inhabited worlds. In his commentary on the Genesis creation, Methodist theologian Adam Clarke wrote that “Dr. Herschel’s discoveries by means of his immensely magnifying telescopes, have, by the general consent of philosophers, added a new habitable world to our system, which is the SUN.” Commenting also on the moon, Clarke explained that “there is scarcely any doubt now remaining in the philosophical world that the moon is a habitable globe. The most accurate observations that have been made with the most powerful telescopes have confirmed the opinion.” According to Clarke, even the stars “are considered to be suns, similar to that in our system, each having an appropriate number of planets moving round it; and, as these stars are innumerable, consequently there are innumerable worlds, all dependent on the power, protection, and providence of God.”19 Commenting on the phrase “heaven of heavens” in Deuteronomy 10:14, Clarke said that “the words were probably intended to point out the immensity of God’s creation, in which we may readily conceive one system of heavenly bodies, and others beyond them, and others still in endless progression through the whole vortex of space, every star in the vast abyss of nature being a sun, with its peculiar and numerous attendant worlds! Thus there may be systems of systems in endless gradation up to the throne of God.”20

Plurality had become for the religionists evidence for God’s majesty and power. When Bernard de Fontenelle had claimed that Copernicus’s motive was to “abate the Vanity of Mankind” and Christian Huygens had cited plurality as proof of “how inconsiderable this Earth [is],” they were expressing an antagonistic undercurrent to the enthusiasm for plurality.21 The Roman church had perceived the idea as an attack on the traditional view of humanity’s special relationship to God, but now liberal and natural theologians were seeing it as confirming God’s grandeur.

[p.193]Some theologians argued that the universe must be fully exploited. As seventeenth-century Robert Burton put it, “Why should not an infinite cause (as God is) produce infinite effects?” He concluded that the creation of “infinite worlds” devoid of life would have been “an infinite waste.” According to this reasoning, if even one planet was uninhabited, the whole argument would be untenable. The argument naturally led Burton to wonder about the theological implications raised by the doctrine of infinity and to ask if the extraterrestrials would have “souls to be saved?”22

Burton’s argument of a purposeful creation also found expression in nineteenth-century America. “By a very correct analogy,” Clarke suggested, “we are led to infer that all the planets and their satellites, or attendant moons, are inhabited, for matter seems only to exist for the sake of intelligent beings.”23 The argument appeared in the Palmyra Register on 24 November 1819: “The Creator has made nothing without adjudging it to some purpose and those suns above were not made for affording this earth a dubious light.” Boston’s Masonic Mirror for 4 July 1829 reprinted Clarke’s argument that all the planets and stars are inhabited because God created them for “intelligent beings.”

In his book, A View of the Heavens, or Familiar Lessons on Astronomy, published in 1826 in New Haven, Connecticut, and “adapted to the use of schools,” the Reverend Amos Pettengill similarly argued that “the Planets are evidently calculated and designed to accommodate rational beings. They are like this Earth, and some of them vastly larger… Many circumstances constrain us to believe that they are filled with inhabitants; and that every fixed Star illuminates worlds peopled with creatures like ourselves, but not involved with us in rebellion against the Creator—that there is peace in all his high places.” Pettengill’s argument rested largely on Isaiah 45:18: “For thus saith the LORD that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; … he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited.” He thus surmised, “Jehovah intimates that it would have been inconsistent for him to create the Earth, had he not designed it to be inhabited… As he shows us a number of other worlds, … must we not infer from his perfections that he acted consistently in creating them, that he created them not in vain, but to be inhabited?”24 The Reverend was expressing a popular plurality argument which others had similarly taken from scripture.

[p.194]Another proof text used by Christian defenders of plurality was Hebrews 1:2: “God … hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.” One definition for the term “world” which appeared in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary was a “system of beings, or the orbs which occupy space, and all the beings which inhabit them.”25 The passage in Hebrews was interpreted as a direct reference to Jesus creating other inhabited worlds besides this earth.26

In 1828 natural theologian Thomas Dick sought to harmonize Christian theology with the material universe of science as well as the nineteenth-century concept of plural worlds. Alluding to Isaiah 45:18, Dick insisted that every star and planet was inhabited because God “has created nothing in vain.” He even speculated that the worlds were inhabited by “various orders of intelligences” and that these beings were eternally progressing towards perfection. Similar to Clarke, Dick envisioned an elaborate cosmology in which “the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre … the throne of God.”27

Eighteenth-century visionary Emanuel Swedenborg’s unique blend of metaphysics, cosmology, and science influenced such poets as William Blake and W. B. Yeats and the thinking of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Swedenborg declared that “there are earths inhabited by men, not only in this solar system, but also out of it in the starry heaven, to an immense number… Where there is an earth, there are men; for man is the end for which every earth was created, and nothing was made by the Great Creator without an end.”28 For Swedenborg, however, the multiplicity of worlds was not just a theory, for this mystic-seer had actually seen with “the eyes of my spirit” the inhabitants of every known planet and moon of the solar system.

In his influential book The Age of Reason, which was published in 1794 and went through numerous editions, deist Thomas Paine explained that “the immensity of space will appear to us to be filled with systems of worlds; and that no part of space lies at waste.” In addition, he argued that since “the Creator made nothing in vain,” every planet is an inhabited world. (Note that Paine, a deist who routinely belittled the Bible, followed contemporaries in using biblical terms to articulate his views on plural worlds.) That the [p.195] belief in the multiplicity of worlds was so widespread in the Christian world is shown by Paine’s use of it in an argument against the Christian faith. “Are we to suppose that every world, in the boundless creation, had an Eve, an apple, a serpent, and a redeemer? In this case, the person who is irreverently called the Son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death with scarcely a momentary interval of life.”29

In a widely read book published in 1799, Baptist minister Andrew Fuller argued against Paine, stating that “all the reasoning in favor of a multiplicity of worlds, inhabited by intelligent beings, amounts to no more than a strong probability. No man can properly be said to believe it: it is not a matter of faith, but of opinion.”30 Fuller, however, added that if indeed there are many worlds, then Jesus’ atonement could save them as well.

The early Mormon concept of the universe was not unlike that held by their contemporaries. Even when Mormonism began to develop its unique cosmology, it was built from the foundation of commonly held assumptions. Evidence for the early Mormon belief in plural worlds is found not only in the discourses of the early Saints but also in the revelations of Joseph Smith. Interestingly, plurality of worlds is absent from the Book of Mormon, but the concept is present in the Book of Moses (chaps. 1 and 7; RLDS D&C 22, 36), Doctrine and Covenants (primarily sections 76 and 88; RLDS D&C 76 and 85), and the Book of Abraham (chap. 3).31

A passage in the Book of Mormon seems to set the tone for later utterances. Helaman 12:13-15 (RLDS He. 4:61-62) reads: “If [God] say unto the earth—Move—it is moved. Yea, if he say unto the earth—Thou shalt go back, that it lengthen out the day for many hours—it is done; and thus, according to his word the earth goeth back, and it appeareth unto man that the sun standeth still; yea, and behold, this is so; for surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun.”

Here it would seem that the Book of Mormon alludes to the miracle of Joshua’s commanding the sun to stand still in Joshua 10:12-14. Adam Clarke mentioned those who disparaged scriptural inspiration by saying “that the account given of this miracle supposes the earth to be in the centre of the system, and the sun moveable; and as this is demonstrably a false philosophy, consequently the [p.196] history was never dictated by the Spirit of truth.” Paine said it “shews the ignorance of Joshua, for he should have commanded the earth to have stood still.”32 Clarke, however, argued that the scriptural phrase “the sun stood still” should be interpreted metaphorically and speculated that Joshua’s command was fulfilled in that the sun did stop its rotation and somehow that affected the earth’s movement.33 One writer has observed that the Book of Mormon apparently defends biblical inspiration by trying “to make the miracle more acceptable by up-dating the Ptolemaic assumption of the biblical text to that of a Copernican outlook.”34

Joseph Smith’s earliest revelations dealing with plurality seem to be sensitive to the Christian/deist debate. Paine’s question about whether each world has an Adam, Eve, a Fall, and a redeemer receives partial answer in the “Visions of Moses,” which Joseph Smith dictated in June 1830. In this revelation, Moses sees in vision many earths as well as their inhabitants and is told by God that “the first man of all men, have I called Adam, which is many” (Moses 1:34; RLDS D&C 22:21c). Moses is also told that “Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living; for thus have I, the Lord God, called the first of all women, which are many” (Moses 4:26; JST Gen. 3:26). Evidently with these passages in mind, Brigham Young once commented that “every world has had an Adam, and an Eve—named so, simply because the first man is always called Adam, and the first woman Eve.”35

Paine’s question about the redemption of the extraterrestrials and their need of a savior is answered in the Visions of Moses. In the context of plural worlds, God disclosed to Moses: “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39; RLDS D&C 22:23b). The divine answer to the pluralists’ most basic question was that God did not create any of the worlds in vain; he designed them to be inhabited by humanity where they could attain “immortality and eternal life.” While it is clear that the inhabitants of other worlds are destined for salvation, exactly how this is to be accomplished is not explained, though the context would imply the Christian system. For it is through Jesus that the worlds were created: “And by the word of my power, have I created them, which is mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth. And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is [p.197] mine Only Begotten” (Moses 1:33; RLDS D&C 22:21b-21c). The Book of Moses reinforced the position of the Christian proponents of plural worlds who referred to Hebrews 1:2 to support the concept that Jesus created the worlds. The existence of extraterrestrials confirmed rather than destroyed revealed religion, contrary to what Paine and other deists had asserted.

For those who wondered why extraterrestrial worlds were not mentioned in the Genesis account of creation,36 the Book of Moses offered two explanations. First, Moses is told that his account of creation would be altered and thereby misinterpreted: “And in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men—among as many as shall believe” (Moses 1:41; RLDS D&C 22:24b). The revelation thus not only explains why the Bible, particularly Genesis, does not include reference to the plurality of worlds but also justifies Joseph Smith’s additions to the text. Second, Moses is told “only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you” (Moses 1:35; RLDS D&C 22:21d)—this explains why the account of creation which follows does not mention the creation of other worlds.

The Book of Moses describes an evolving and decaying universe consistent with pluralist thinking at the time. Moses is told: “There are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man, but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them… And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come, and there is no end to my works” (Moses 1:35, 38; RLDS D&C 22:21d-21e, 23a-23b). Josiah Priest, for example, reported in 1834 that “worlds, and systems of worlds, are not only perpetually creating, by the hand of God, but are also perpetually diminishing and disappearing.” Priest referred to the observations of astronomers who had seen new stars appear and old stars vanish completely. “In many instances it is unquestionable that the stars [or suns] themselves, the supposed habitations of other kinds or orders of intelligent beings, together with the different planets by which it is probable they were surrounded … have utterly vanished.” For Priest this was all evidence supporting the Bible’s [p.198] prediction that the earth would be destroyed by fire at Jesus’ return.37

Despite such hints to the contrary in the Book of Moses, by 1832 Joseph Smith was teaching that the earth, like humans, would be sanctified and immortalized (LDS D&C 77:1; 130:9). Advocates of plurality such as Priest left open the possibility of the earth’s continued existence in changed form, perhaps in another dimension of reality. “In addition to all the changes which the earth has undergone,” Priest stated, “… it is yet to pass through another still more wonderful; and whether the matter of which it is now composed will assume some other form, and be adapted to other states of being, or shall utterly vanish, and be annihilated, is unknown.”38

Pluralists who referred to Isaiah 45:18 and argued that God had created nothing in vain perhaps found comfort in the answer to Moses’ question: “Tell me, I pray thee, why these things are so, and by what thou madest them? … And the Lord God said unto Moses. For my own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me” (Moses 1:30-31; RLDS D&C 22:20-21a).

Mormons interpreted Joseph Smith’s Visions of Moses within the wider Christian/deist debate and assumed that the revelation was clear scriptural proof that every star and planet was inhabited. Oliver Cowdery, for example, commented in 1833: “It is a pleasing thing to let the mind stretch away and contemplate the vast creations of the Almighty; to see the planets perform their regular revolutions, and observe their exact motions; to view the thousand suns giving light to myriads of globes, moving in their respective orbits, and revolving upon their several axis, all inhabited by intelligent beings.”39

George Laub recorded in his journal that in April 1843 Hyrum Smith declared that “every Star that we see is a world and is inhabited the same as this world is peopled. The Sun & Moon is inhabited & the Stars & (Jesus Christ is the light of the Sun, etc.). The Stars are inhabited the same as this Earth… They are under the same order as this Earth is undergoing & undergoing the same change. There was & is a first man Adam and also a Saviour in the Meredien of times, the same computing times and all things in order. Many things are to be considered that will bring knowledge to our understanding, but the foolish understand not these things for [p.199] this world was patterned after the former world or after Mansions above.”40

In 1870 Brigham Young declared that there was no question in his mind that the sun is inhabited, because “it was not made in vain.”41 Orson Pratt argued in 1878 that the planets of the solar system were not “made for nothing… all these are kingdoms, to which [God] has given laws.”42 In 1875 Pratt conjectured that in creating the various planets, “the Lord had a useful design in view, namely to add to his own glory and to the happiness of millions of his sons and daughters who should come to people these worlds.”43 An article in the Deseret Weekly News, 4 November 1893, remarked that “observation teaches us that other planets of the solar system resemble the earth in many respects; and we therefore conclude that they are the residences of sensitive and rational beings,” for “none of the Creator’s works are vain.”

In December 1830 Joseph Smith dictated the “Prophecy of Enoch” in which the concept of extraterrestrial worlds is reaffirmed. In this revelation Enoch says to God: “Were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still; and yet thou art there, and thy bosom is there” (Moses 7:30; RLDS D&C 36:6d-6e). A new element is introduced into Mormon cosmology when Enoch is then told that the inhabitants of this earth are the most wicked of all God’s children: “Behold, I am God; Man of Holiness is my name; Man of Counsel is my name; and Endless and Eternal is my name, also. Wherefore, I can stretch forth mine hands and hold all the creations which I have made; and mine eye can pierce them also, and among all the workmanship of mine hands there has not been so great wickedness as among thy brethren” (Moses 7:35-36; RLDS D&C 36:7d-7e).

This concept was discussed by other pluralists. Webster, for example, quoted Presbyterian minister William Buell Sprague as saying: “There may be other worlds, where the inhabitants have never violated their allegiance to their Almighty sovereign.”44 Pettengill’s account of the “condescension of God” described Jesus as “passing by millions of other worlds, that needed no Saviour, he decended, to this globe, suffered, and died, to save the rebellious inhabitants, who deserved to die.”45 Yale’s president Timothy Dwight sermonized that [p.200] Lucifer’s rebellion in heaven and Adam’s fall on earth “are with high probability the only instances, in which the Ruler of all things has been disobeyed by his rational subjects.”46

In December 1832 Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received “The Vision,” which depicted an afterlife of three heavens. Among other things, they saw “the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fullness; … and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (LDS D&C 76:20, 23-24; RLDS D&C 76:3f, 3h). What was implicit in the Book of Moses is explicit in this and subsequent sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. Paine’s question—”are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation, had … a redeemer?”—is resolved in a poetic version of the vision published in 1843, Joseph Smith writing that the inhabitants of the worlds “Are sav’d by the very same Saviour of ours; … / By the very same truths, and the very same pow’rs.”47

Even before deists such as Paine pointed out the theological problems pluralism posed, fifteenth-century scholastic William Vorilong had wondered “whether Christ by dying on this earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world.”48 Philip Melanchthon, the sixteenth-century expositor of Martin Luther’s theology, argued in the negative: “It must not be imagined that there are many worlds because it must not be imagined that Christ died and was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the Son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life.”49 The problem was whether Jesus’ atonement could be applied to extraterrestrials who were presumably untainted by Adam’s sin. Moreover, was Jesus to be seen as a planet-hopping savior in the new cosmology?

While Melanchthon rejected pluralism altogether because the idea of Jesus repeatedly dying was unthinkable, Paine argued that plurality was nearly an established fact in order to undermine Christianity. Those who responded to the deist attack, however, stressed the singularity of Jesus’ atonement. The Reverend Edward Nares, for example, asserted in 1801 that this earth was the only planet on which God became incarnate and performed redemptive acts and that redemption was spread “in some way inscrutable to us, [p.201] to every rational creature throughout the mighty firmament.”50 Andrew Fuller also argued in 1800 that if there were extraterrestrials, Jesus’ atonement saved them as well.51

The Smith-Rigdon vision is not only an expression of pluralism but also of an elaborate cosmology. Building on the Apostle Paul’s ambiguous reference to “being caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2) and his description of bodies to emerge in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:40-42), Smith and Rigdon described three orders of “worlds” to which humankind is destined. The two men saw “they whose bodies are celestial, whose glory is that of the sun, even the glory of God, the highest of all, whose glory the sun of the firmament is written of as being typical. And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn, who have received the fullness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament… And again, we saw the glory of the telestial, which glory is that of the lesser, even as the glory of the stars differs from that of the glory of the moon in the firmament” (LDS D&C 76:70-71, 81; RLDS D&C 76:5r-6b, 7a).

The use of the term “worlds” in reference to the final abodes of humanity influenced some early Mormons to interpret the revelation literally. Orson Hyde, for example, said in 1857 that “the sun, moon, and stars are the representatives of the final homes of the departed dead, if not their real homes.”52 The assertion that the sun was the literal abode of God and celestial beings was irresistible. Brigham Young declared in 1876 that “the Sun was inhabited and God dwel[le]d in the midst of eternal burnings.”53 In 1855 Parley P. Pratt speculated that Adam and Eve had come to the earth from the sun, “thus a colony from heaven, it may be from the sun, is transplanted on our soil.”54

While it may be that Smith and Rigdon themselves assumed literal “worlds” would be inhabited by resurrected beings, it does not follow that each planet or star was necessarily one of the three types of “worlds” described in the vision. Yet given the early Mormon intellectual environment, the speculations of Young, Pratt, and Hyde do not seem unreasonable. Where Paul had implied a third heaven, Smith’s theology incorporated three heavenly abodes differing from each other as the sun, moon, and stars differ from one [p.202] another. How literal Smith intended the analogy to be taken remains uncertain.

In December 1832 Smith dictated another revelation of major doctrinal and cosmological importance. Known as the “Olive Leaf,” this revelation began by making a direct link between spiritual and physical light: “The light of Christ … is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; as also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; and the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand. And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things” (LDS D&C 88:7-13; RLDS D&C 85:2b-3b). The combining of spiritual and elemental light is an example of Joseph Smith’s developing materialism.

The revelation expressed a kind of cosmological hierarchy of light. Blending both kinds of light, the revelation explained that God through Jesus was the ultimate source of light in the universe (LDS D&C 88:3-7; RLDS D&C 85:1-2). The light which emanated from the “presence of God to fill the immensity of space” was the “light of Christ,” which also was the light of the sun, moon, stars, and earth.55

The revelation also proceeded to explain the earth’s ultimate destiny: “The earth abideth the law of a celestial kingdom, for it filleth the measure of its creation, and transgresseth not the law—wherefore, it shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it” (LDS D&C 88:25-26; RLDS D&C 85:6a-6b). Thomas Paine’s assertion that “the immensity of space will appear to us to be filled with systems of worlds; and that no part of space lies waste, any more than any part of our globe of earth and water is left unoccupied”56 is affirmed in the revelation: “All kingdoms have a law given; and there are many [p.203] kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom. And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions. All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified” (LDS D&C 88:36-39; RLDS D&C 85:9a-10a). Speaking of the vast “heavenly bodies,” Amos Pettengill said that God had “arranged them in such perfect order, and fixed the laws by which they are governed.”57

The Olive Leaf revelation becomes poetic in its description of God’s creation: “The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God” (LDS D&C 88:45; RLDS D&C 85:12a). The question is posed: “Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?” (LDS v. 46; RLDS v. 12b; emphasis added). The answer is given in the form of a parable in which a farmer visits his servants one at a time working in different areas of a field. “Therefore,” the parable concludes, “unto this parable I will liken all these kingdoms [i.e., the earth, sun, moon, and stars of LDS vv. 45-46; RLDS vv. 12a-12b], and the inhabitants thereof …” (LDS vv. 51-57, 60-61; RLDS vv. 13, 14d-15; emphasis added). Exegetically, the parable asserts that the earth, sun, moon, and stars are inhabited, and it was precisely this way early Mormons understood it. Oliver Cowdery, for instance, referred to this revelation in 1833 for proof that “the vast creations of the Almighty … [are] all inhabited by intelligent beings” and that “they all are [to be] visited with the light of his [Jesus’] countenance, according to the revelation of his own character.”58 When Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s brother, declared in 1843 that the sun, moon, and stars were inhabited, he was alluding to this revelation as proof.59 Orson Pratt’s 1878 sermon is more detailed: “Consider the planets of our solar system, namely, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune… Are these made for nothing? No. What has the Lord said to us, Latter-day Saints, concerning these planets? He says, all these are kingdoms, to which he has given laws. And he likens these worlds, or kingdoms, unto a man having a field.”60

These cosmological concepts received further elaboration as Joseph Smith began interpreting the Egyptian papyri in the mid-1830s. On 1 October 1835 as he prepared to translate, he recorded [p.204] in his journal: “the principles of astronomy as understood by Father Abraham and the ancients unfolded to our understanding.”61 Smith then proceeded to dictate the opening chapters of the Book of Abraham (chaps. 1 and 2) and to keep a notebook of the “Grammar & Alphabet of the Egyptian Language.”

In this notebook Smith gave details of the Egyptian/ Abrahamic cosmology which seem vaguely similar to the cosmology of three types of worlds expressed in the earlier 1832 Vision. One Egyptian character Smith named “Beth Ku” and assigned a meaning befitting a telestial world: “A place of residence for man; apponited [appointed] of God: made to be more fruitful, by blessing; a more perfect place of happiness given by promise.” Another character—”Kah tu-ain”—could easily describe a terrestrial world: “Another Kingdom governed by different laws, composed of subjects who receive their place at a future period, and governed by those who are under the directions of another; a kingdom whose subject[s] differ one from another in glory … [who] behold not the face of God” (cf. LDS D&C 76:71-80, 87; RLDS D&C 76:6, 7). “Lish Zi ho e oop Iota” Smith translated: “The glory of the celestial Kingdom… One glory above all other glories, as the the [sun] excels the moon in light, this glory excels [Kah tu-ain or Beth Ku].”62

Moving beyond the relatively simple cosmology of three types of worlds, Joseph Smith unfolded in his Egyptian notebook a complex system of planetary associations. One Egyptian character, named “Jah-oh-eh,” was defined as “The earth under the governing power of oliblish, Enish go on dosh, and kai e van rash, which are the grand … Key or in other words, the governi[n]g power, which governs the fifteen fixed stars … [that] governs the earth, sun, & moon, (which have their power in one) with the other twelve moving planets of this system. Oliblish = Enish go on dosh, and Kaii ven rash, are the three grand central … powers that govern all other creations.”63 Thus the cosmos was organized in hierarchical fashion.

The cosmological system elaborated in the Egyptian notebook is not without its contradictions and perplexities, but general features of the system can be outlined with some confidence. At the lowest level is the solar system: the sun, moon, earth, and “the other twelve moving planets of this system.”64 This system, according to Smith’s notebook, is governed by “fifteen fixed stars,” which in turn are governed by three supreme ruling stars. Later it becomes [p.205] apparent that the three ruling stars belong to the “fifteen fixed stars” as the notebook gives “the names of the other twelve fixed stars.”65 Abrahamic cosmology, as outlined in the notebook, consists of two systems: one of fifteen moving planets, including the sun, moon, and earth, and another of fifteen fixed stars, of which three are described as being prominent.

A possible model for Joseph Smith’s cosmos may have been the structure of his newly organized church hierarchy. By 1835 the church had evolved from charismatic-based authority to highly structured institutional-based authority.66 In February 1834 Smith organized the High Council of the Church of Christ consisting of three presidents and twelve other high priests. This body was to be “a standing council” in Kirtland, Ohio (LDS D&C 102; 20:67). In February 1835 Smith organized the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. The Twelve, under the direction of the First Presidency, were described in March 1835 as the “Traveling Presiding High Council” (LDS D&C 107:33). The First Presidency of the church was the presidency of both the standing and the traveling high councils, each council totalling fifteen members (twelve plus the three members of the First Presidency).

The shift to a hierarchical church government received explicit justification in Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham. Probably written in the early 1840s,67 chapter 3 makes a direct analogy between planetary order and priesthood order—although not as detailed as in the Egyptian notebook. The reasoning for the hierarchical ordering and for the parallel between the two systems is set forth in the center of the chapter: “If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubean [stars] that thou has seen… Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it… Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, … there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all” (3:16-19).

The details of each system are clearly analogous. The parallel elements in the planetary/priesthood hierarchy are: (1)”And I [Abraham] saw the stars, that they were very great”/ “And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them”; [p.206] (2) “and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God”/ “And there stood one among them that was like unto God”; (3) “and there were many great ones which were near unto it”/ “and among all these [intelligences] there were many of the noble and great ones”; (4) “And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones”/ “These I [God] will make my rulers… Abraham, thou art one of them”; (5) “and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me”/ “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all”; and (6) “I [God] have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest”/ “I [God] rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligences” (vv. 2-3/ 19-24).68

The idea that Kolob was near “the throne of God” and that the sun, moon, and earth were part of the same cosmological system with Kolob strongly implies a material heaven similar to that advanced by pluralists such as Adam Clarke and Thomas Dick, who similarly believed “the throne of God” was a massive body located at the center of the universe.69 The Egyptian notebook described “Oliblish, Enish go on dosh, and Kai e van rash” as “central” governing stars as well as a place for “the centre for light” where the “15 fixed stars centre.”70 The Deseret Weekly News for 4 November 1893 conjectured that “there are as many solar systems as there are fixed stars, … and that the whole hosts of stars, with all their planetary trains revolve around some common center, and that the system of the universe is the same on a vast scale, as the solar system is in miniature.”

The prominence of Kolob in the Book of Abraham resulted from its changing status in Smith’s notebook. Originally the Egyptian notebook had subordinated Kolob to “oliblish, Enish go on dosh, and Kai e van rash … the three grand central … powers that govern all other creations.” Listed among the “names of the other twelve of the fixed stars,” “Kolob” was the fourth in order. However, at the end of each of the five sections of the notebook appear definitions of Kolob which reverse the preceding information. One definition, for example, reads: “Kolob signifies the first creation nearer to the Celestial, or the residence of God, first in government, the last pertaining to the measurement of time, the  measurement according … to Celestial time which signifies one day to a cubit which day is equal to a thousand years according to the measure-[p.207]ment of the earth.”71 These definitions of Kolob are intrusions on the original text and were apparently added at the conclusion of the project in the hand of Warren Parrish.72

Joseph Smith based his version of astronomical hierarchy not only on a planet’s cosmological positioning but also on its speed of revolution. Taking 2 Peter 3:8 (cf. Ps. 90:4) literally—”one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”—the Book of Abraham outlines a time-based hierarchical cosmology with slower planets receiving higher status. The Book of Abraham reads: “And the Lord said unto me, by the Urim and Thummim, that Kolob was after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof; that one revolution was a day unto the Lord, after his manner of reckoning, it being one thousand years according to the time appointed unto that whereon thou standest. This is the reckoning of the Lord’s time, according to the reckoning of Kolob. And the Lord said unto me: The planet which is the lesser light, lesser than that which is to rule the day, even the night, is above or greater than that upon which thou standest in point of reckoning, for it moveth in order more slow; this is in order because it standeth above the earth upon which thou standest, therefore the reckoning of its time not so many as to its number of days, and of months, and of years” (3:4-5).

Interestingly Christian Huygens referred to size and motion as factors for “advantage” and classified Jupiter and Saturn as “superior” to the earth because they have more moons.73 Immanuel Kant claimed that the moral perfection of each planet’s inhabitants increased “according to the proportion of [its] distance from the sun.”74 Certainly in such an intellectual climate, Joseph Smith’s ideas about pluralism and astronomical hierarchy were not unusual.

The concept of “fixed stars” which “govern” “moving planets” was a common notion in Joseph Smith’s day.75 Thomas Paine, for example, reasoned: “Far beyond all power of calculation, are the stars called the fixed stars. They are called fixed, because they have no revolutionary motion as the six worlds or planets [of this solar system] have… Those fixed stars continue always at the same distance from each other, and always in the same place, as the Sun does in the center of our system. The probability therefore is, that each of those fixed stars is also a Sun, round which another system of worlds or planets, though too remote for us to discover, [p.208] performs its revolutions, as our system of worlds does round our central Sun.”76

Light is an intriguing feature of the Abrahamic cosmology. Joseph Smith’s explanation in his Egyptian notebook of “Flos isis,” for example, states: “The highest degree of light, … The gove[r]ning principle of light Because God has said Let this be the centre for light, and let there be bounds that it may not pass. He hath set a cloud round about in the heavens, and the light of the grand gover[n]ing of the 15 fixed stars centre there; and from there it is drawn by the heavenly bodies according to their portions; according to the decrees that God hath set, as the bounds of the ocean, that it should not pass over as a flood, so God has set the bounds of light lest it pass over and consume the planets.”77 In the early 1840s as he prepared to publish his translation of the papyri, Smith gave the following interpretation for one of the figures on Facsimile No. 2: “[It] is called in Egyptian Enish-go-on-dosh; this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key, or, in other words, the governing power, which governs fifteen other fixed planets or stars, as also Floeese or the Moon, the Earth and the Sun in their annual revolutions. This planet receives its power through the medium of Kli-flos-is-es, or Hah-ko-kau-beam, … receiving light from the revolutions of Kolob.”

This system is incomprehensible to modern astronomers, who remain puzzled about how one “fixed star” can “govern” another “fixed star” and how one star can “borrow light” from another.78 Comparing Joseph Smith’s concepts with those of the pluralists of his day suggests a possible answer. Commenting on the problem of the origin of light in the Genesis account, Adam Clarke said: “Many have asked, ‘How could light be produced on the first day, and the sun, the fountain of it, not created till the fourth day?’ … I therefore conclude, that as God has diffused the matter of caloric or latent heat through every part of nature, without which there could be neither vegetation nor animal life, that it is caloric or latent heat which is principally intended by the original word.”79 After mentioning Herschel’s theories of an inhabited sun with its special “atmosphere … of a phosphoric nature,” Clarke comments: “This atmosphere itself is not fiery nor hot, but is the instrument which God designed to act on the caloric or latent heat; and that the heat is only [p.209] produced by the solar light acting upon and combining with the caloric or matter of fire contained in the [earth’s] air.”80 Within this nineteenth-century context, Joseph Smith’s concept of “borrowed light” in the Abrahamic cosmology may mean latent heat from particles which originated near the presence of God (LDS D&C 88; RLDS D&C 85).

The statement in Abraham 3:5 that the moon is greater than the earth would hardly make sense if the moon were a desolate globe. Of course the pronouncements of Oliver Cowdery and Hyrum Smith that every star and planet was inhabited implied an inhabited moon. Like their contemporaries, Mormons were fascinated with possible inhabitants on the planet closest to earth. Encouraged by the recent spectroscopic discoveries which indicated that the moon had an atmosphere, Oliver B. Huntington related in 1892 an occasion on which Joseph Smith was purported to have expressed his belief that “the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this earth.” According to Huntington, Smith described the moon’s inhabitants, saying that “they lived to a greater age than we do—that they live generally to near the age of 1000 years,” that the men averaged “near six feet in height, and dres[sed] quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style.”81

Huntington received a blessing from his father, William, on 7 December 1836. As recorded in the Patriarchal Blessing Book, the text reads: “I lay my hands on thee & bless thee with a father’s blessing… Thou shalt be called to preach the gospel to this generation… Before thou art twenty one thou wilt be called to preach the fullness of the gospel, thou shalt have power with God even to translate thyself to Heaven, & preach to the inhabitants of the moon or planets, if it shall be expedient, if thou art faithful all these blessings will be given thee …”82 Other early Mormon blessings expressed similar sentiments. On 15 December 1836 Lorenzo Snow received a blessing under the hand of Joseph Smith, Sr.: “Thou shalt have great faith, even like the brother of Jared. Thou shalt have power to translate thyself from one planet to another, power to go to the moon if thou desire it, power to preach to the spirits in prison. Power like Enoch to translate thyself to heaven …”83 On 21 February 1836 Joseph Smith, Sr., blessed Jonathan Crosby, saying: “Thou shalt … Be caught up to the third heavens, and behold unspeakable things, whether in the body or out… And when thy [p.210] mission is full here, thou shalt visit other worlds.”84 Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal on 3 January 1837 that Zebedee Coltrin “Pronounced great blessings upon my head by the Spirit of Prophecy & Revelation.” Among other things the blessing said that he “should visit COLUB & Preach to the spirits in Prision & that I should bring all of my friends or relatives forth from the Terrestrial Kingdom.”85 These blessings are congruent with Joseph Smith’s conviction that translated beings were ordained by God “to be ministering angels unto many planets.”86 The literature of the day also described supernatural ways of going to the moon and other planets.87

Later in the nineteenth century, when science began replacing supposition regarding an inhabited moon, Mormons refused to give up their belief, which they believed was rooted in revelation. An article entitled “Are the Worlds Inhabited?” appeared in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star in 1882 to defend the Mormon position against the advances made by science: “To the question, is the moon inhabited? astronomers have returned a definite negative answer. It has been claimed that the moon is a dead world, without atmosphere, without vegetation, without moisture, and consequently without inhabitants… On this subject the Latter-day Saints have the advantage of a little definite information… ‘That by him and through him and of him the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God [LDS D&C 76:24; RLDS D&C 76:3h].’… The worlds are inhabited—millions of them. They form the abode of the offspring of Deity. Birthplaces, probation planets; prisonhouses; spirit spheres; paradises; gehennas; homes for the resurrected; glorified suns for perfected and celestialized intelligences; all moving in their respective orbits, governed by fixed laws adapted to their condition and that of their inhabitants.”88 First-generation Mormons resisted any changes in their cosmological concepts. To them these were not just ideas or theories; they explained reality as they knew it.

In time, however, the collective conscience of the Mormon community changed. We are now many years away from the environment of Joseph Smith, and arguments surrounding the multiplicity of worlds no longer impress us in the way they did Smith’s contemporaries. Our scientific age has modified the earlier view; we now believe that only some of the planets might possess life; it is no [p.211] longer a concern for theologians. We sometimes read certain passages from the scriptures unaware that we are coloring them with our modern views. As a result, much of the original historical context is obscured. When we read the scriptures, we need to keep in mind that they have come to us from a different time and cultural setting. An examination of Joseph Smith’s scriptural cosmology within the larger cultural setting reveals his concern with contemporary theological issues. Moreover, an analysis of Mormon scriptural texts considered with subsequent interpretations by Joseph Smith and his colleagues leads to the unavoidable conclusion that early Mormon theology included the contemporary concept that every planet and star in the universe was inhabited.

What are the implications of this for the nature of inspiration, revelation, and scripture? It should be clear that the revelatory process is more complex than simplistic verbal models allow. Some Mormon scholars have therefore suggested models of revelation which account for all the aspects encountered in scripture. In his study of the creation accounts in Genesis, Moses, and Abraham, Anthony Hutchinson recommended that the Mormon texts are Joseph Smith’s “midrash-like reworkings” of the King James Version of the Bible.89 Hutchinson’s midrash hypothesis allows him to account for nineteenth-century elements, which he finds woven into the books of Moses and Abraham. The historically anachronistic “theology of a plurality of worlds and creations,” for example, Hutchinson suggests is Joseph Smith’s midrashic reworking of the text “in part aimed at responding to deist attacks on biblical authority.” According to Hutchinson, “the presence of imaginative midrashic technique, pseudonymous authorship, and the reworking of doctrines and texts in Joseph Smith tends to ally him more with the ancient prophets of Israel and authors of the Bible than it separates him from them.”90

Another term to describe Joseph Smith’s methodology might be “prophetic eclecticism” or an inspired use of environment. “Prophetic eclecticism” allows for the dynamic, inspired, or creative exchange between a prophet and his cultural environment. It allows the prophet to reshape concepts from the wider cultural setting into a new whole and helps to explain the presence of both similar and unique elements encountered in prophetic utterance.

Where does this leave inspiration and revelation? Where [p.212] they have always been: in the realm of subjective judgment. We are free to explore the historical and human aspects of scripture, but determining whether a concept is “inspired” or the “word of God” must always remain purely individualistic. When we realize that there is no empirical evidence either for or against scriptural inspiration, we begin to avail ourselves of a more sensitive, responsible scholarship as well as a more honest faith.

Brent Lee Metcalfe is editor of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology. “Joseph Smith’s Scriptural Cosmology,” coauthored with Dan Vogel, is published here for the first time.


1. W. W. Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 10-11.

2. Joan O’Brien and Wilfred Major, In the Beginning: Creation Myths from Ancient Mesopotamia, Israel and Greece (Scholars Press, 1982), 38. For an analysis of the Semite creation myths in a broader cross-cultural context, see Charles H. Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation (Scholars Press, 1963). On biblical cosmology, see Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 1:702-9; 3:436-37; 4:463-65.

3. Luis I. J. Stadelmann, The Hebrew Conception of the World: A Philological and Literary Study, Analectica Biblica 39 (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970), 10, 12. E. A. Speiser in his seminal Genesis commentary similarly regards the creation accounts as “largely Mesopotamian in substance,” concluding that the “biblical authors were indebted to Mesopotamian models for these early chapters not only in matters of arrangement but also in some of the subject matter” (The Anchor Bible: Genesis [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964], 9). So stark are the similarities in the ancient literature that Old Testament professor Foster R. McCurley concluded: “[B]iblical writers quite intentionally used religious motifs and images from a variety of mythological sources,” specifically “the mythological systems of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan” (Ancient Myths and Biblical Faith: Scriptural Transformations [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983], 183).

4. See Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis: The Story of Creation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 139, who briefly discusses this literalistic approach. See also Charles F. Pfeiffer, Ras Shamra and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1962), 66.

5. Speiser, Genesis, 10; Heidel, Babylonian Genesis, 138. Heidel’s division of the creation narrative is antiquated. The current consensus among biblical scholars is that the Priestly narrative comprised Gen. 1:1-2:4a.

6. Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Plurality of Worlds Idea,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Summer 1986): 31-32.

7. On the ecclesiastical resistance to Copernicanism, see Robert S. [p.213]Westman, “The Copernicans and the Churches,” and William R. Shea, “Galileo and the Church,” in God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, eds. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 76-135; Ivan L. Zabilka, “Nineteenth-Century British and American Perspectives on the Plurality of Worlds: A Consideration of Scientific and Christian Attitudes,” Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1979, 17-20; and Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origin of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 61-69.

8. In Dick, Plurality of Worlds, 61.

9. Patrick Moore, New Guide to the Moon (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976), 128. See also Steven Kawaler and J. Veverka, “The Habitable Sun: One of William Herschel’s Stranger Ideas,” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 75 (Jan. 1981): 46-55; and Simon Schaffer, “‘The Great Laboratories of the Universe’: William Herschel on Matter Theory and Planetary Life,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (June 1980): 81-111.

10. Moore, New Guide to the Moon, 128.

11. Philosophical Transactions 85:63-66, in George Lyman Kittredge, The Old Farmer and His Almanack (New York: Benjamin Bloom, 1967), 252. For a contemporary of Herschel’s who speculated about the sun’s inhabitants, see Robert Harrington, grew System of Fire and Planetary Life: Shewing That the Sun and Planets Are Inhabited, and That They Enjoy the Same Temperament as Our Earth (London, 1796).

12. In Kittredge, Old Farmer and His Almanack, 251.

13. Review of David Brewster, ed., Ferguson’s Astronomy, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1817), in North American Review (Jan. 1818): 220-21.

14. William Enfield, Institutes Natural Philosophy, Theoretical and Practical (Boston, 1802), 355, 356.

15. Retrospect of Western Travel (London, 1838), 2:22-24, in Kittredge, Old Farmer and His Almanack, 260-61.

16. Timothy Harley, Moon Lore (London, 1885), 43, in Van Hale, “Mormons and Moonmen,” Sunstone 7 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): 17.

17. See Kittredge, 251-61. See also William N. Griggs, The Celebrated ‘Moon Story’: Its Origin and Incidents with a Memoir of the Author (New York, 1852); and Joseph L. Morrison, “A View of the Moon from the Sun: 1835,” American Heritage 20 (April 1969): 80-82.

18. In Moore, New Guide to the Moon, 132.

19. Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible … With a Commentary and Critical Notes, 7 vols. (New York, 1811), 1:36. “Clarke’s Commentary” went through many editions and enjoyed great popularity in the early nineteenth century.

20. Ibid., 1:766-67.

21. Bernard de Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes, trans.

[p.214]John Glanvill (London, 1929), 25, originally published in 1686; Christian Huygens, Cosmotheoros, or The Celestial Worlds Discovered (London, 1968), 141, originally published in 1698.

22. Clarke, Holy Bible, 1:36.

23. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 3 vols. (London, 1932), 1:15; 2:55. This edition of Burton’s work follows the text of his fifth edition of 1638 and is collated with the sixth edition of 1651.

24. Amos Pettengill, A View of the Heavens, or Familiar Lessons on Astronomy (New Haven, 1826), 64. Cf. LDS 1 Ne. 17:36 (RLDS 1 Ne. 5:126).

25. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (New York, 1828), unpaginated, s.v. “worlds.”

26. It is evident that the author of Hebrews did not intend multiple inhabited extraterrestrial worlds. The term aionas which the KJV renders “worlds” has both a material and a temporal sense and has been associated with the tous aionas (literally, “the ages”) of Heb. 11:3. George Wesley Buchanan notes: “In 11:3 the claim is made that tous aionas’ have been put in order by [the] word of God.’ This clearly refers to the creation, coming first in order of events listed in Genesis, followed by the Cain and Abel story (11:40), Enoch (11:5-6), Noah (11:7), etc. … Many scholars think the temporal force of aionas governs here.… It is probably with this concept of time and creation in mind that the author wrote both Heb. 1:2 and 11:3. He was clearly referring to the creation of ‘all’ over which the Son was established heir, but ‘all’ included not only substance and material; the first of God’s creation was light, which was separated from darkness to begin units of time. The author here chose to emphasize the temporal sequence, the periods or ages ranging from Adam until Christ” (The Anchor Bible: To the Hebrews [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972], 5-6).

27. Thomas Dick, Philosophy of a Future State (2nd ed.; Brookfield, MA, 1830), 48, 101, 176, 230, 241, 249.

28. Emanuel Swedenborg, The Earths in Our Solar System, in Miscellaneous Theological Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1951), 402, 465. Swedenborg’s 12-volume Arcana Coelestia, which outlines his cosmological views, was published in Boston serially between 1808 and 1840. Swedenborgians established the New Jerusalem Church Society at Baltimore in 1792 and organized the General Convention of the New Jerusalem in the United States in 1817 and published periodicals at Philadelphia (New Jerusalem Repository, 1817-18; New Jerusalem Record, 1820) and New York (New Jerusalem Missionary and Intellectual Repository, 1823-24).

29. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (New York, 1794), 121, 123, 126.

30. Andrew Fuller, The Gospel Its Own Witness, or The Holy Nature and Divine Harmony of the Christian Religion Contrasted With the Immorality and Absurdity of Deism (2nd ed.; New York, 1800), 232.

[p.215]31. See Brent Lee Metcalfe, “Extraterrestrials: An Example of Environmentalism in Early Mormon Thought,” Seventh East Press, 22 July 1982, 8, 12; 24 Aug. 1982, 8, 12.

32. Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason … Part the Second (New York, 1796), 47. Lucy Smith mentioned that her husband’s father gave him a copy of Paine’s Age of Reason and “bade him [to] read that until he believed it.” “Preliminary Draft,” archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; hereafter LDS archives.

33. Clarke, Holy Bible, 2:48.

34. Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis: Clayton Publishing House, 1980), 153.

35. Brigham Young 1854 (Scottsdale, AZ: Stakes West Publishing Co., 1980), 33.

36. John Wilkins, for example, argued that the reticence of Genesis regarding other worlds did not discount their existence any more than its silence of planets. See The Discovery of a New World, or a Discourse tending to prove, that ’tis probable there may be another habitable world in the Moon, with a discourse concerning the possibility of a passage thither (London, 1638), proposition 2.

37. Josiah Priest, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West (2nd ed.; Albany, 1834), 397-98.

38. Ibid., 398-99.

39. The Evening and the Morning Star 2 (Dec. 1833): 116.

40. Eugene England, ed., “George Laub’s Nauvoo Journal,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978): 177.

41. Journal of Discourses 13:271; hereafter JD.

42. Ibid. 19:293.

43. Ibid. 17:330.

44. Webster, American Dictionary, s.v. “worlds.”

45. Pettengill, View of the Heavens, 67-68.

46. Timothy Dwight, Theology Explained and Defended, 5 vols. (Middletown, CT, 1818), 5:508.

47. Times and Seasons 4 (1 Feb. 1843): 82-83; cf. LDS D&C 76:42-43; RLDS D&C 76:4h; N. B. Lundwall, comp., Masterful Discourses and Writings of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1962), 361-62.

48. In Dick, Plurality of Worlds, 88.

49. Ibid., 89.

50. Edward Nares, An Attempt to Shew How Far the Philosophical Notion of a Plurality of Worlds Is Consistent, or Not So, with the Language of the Holy Scripture (London, 1801), 18. See also Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial [p.216]Life Debate, 1750-1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds From Kant to Lowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 173.

51. Fuller, Gospel Its Own Witness, 229-62.

52. JD 5:71.

53. A. Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, 2 vols. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 1:423; see also JD 13:371. LDS apostle Orson Pratt dissented from Brigham Young’s view, arguing: “I doubt very much, whether any of these worlds are celestial. I do not think we could behold them, unless by vision, if they were celestial” (JD 19:291).

54. Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 49.

55. This revelation also connected spiritual/physical light with the “Comforter … even the Holy Spirit of promise” (LDS D&C 88:3; RLDS D&C 85:1). It is likely that this revelation was in part responsible for the definition of the Godhead in the “Lectures on Faith”: “There are two personages who constitute the great, matchless, governing and supreme power over all things—… They are the Father and the Son: The Father being a personage of spirit.… The Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle … possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is the Holy Spirit … and these three are one” (D&C 1835 ed., 52-53). See also Dan Vogel, “The Earliest Mormon Concept of God,” Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine, ed. Gary James Bergera (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 17-33.

56. Paine, Age of Reason, 121-22.

57. Pettengill, View of the Heavens, 69.

58. The Evening and the Morning Star 2 (Dec. 1833): 116.

59. Compare Hyrum’s statement with section 88: “The Sun & Moon is inhabited & the Stars [cf. 88:45, 61] & (Jesus Christ is the light of the Sun, etc.) [cf. 88:7]. The Stars are inhabited the same as this Earth.… They are under the same order as this Earth is undergoing & undergoing the same change [implied in 88:51-61].” See England, “George Laub’s Nauvoo Journal,” 177.

60. JD 19:293.

61. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), 2:286.

62. “Grammar & Alphabet of the Egyptian Language,” 23, LDS archives; hereafter A-G. The following sources indicate Joseph Smith authorship of the A-G: Smith, History of the Church, 2:238, 286, 316; Times and Seasons 4 (1 Nov. 1843): 373.

63. A-G, 24.

[p.217]64. Joseph Smith’s description of the solar system varies from the scientific community of his day. Whereas the sun was generally seen as a “fixed star,” Smith repeatedly refers to it as one of the “moving planets.” Smith, for example, defines “Flo-ees” to mean “the moon, the earth and the sun in their annual revolutions” (A-G, 25; see also 24, 30, 32, 34; but see LDS He. 12:15 [RLDS He. 4:62], where it says, “surely it is the earth that moveth and not the sun”). See Pettengilt, View of the Heavens. Astronomers in Joseph Smith’s day recognized seven planets and twelve moons. See Marjorie Nicolson and Nora Mohler, “The Scientific Background of the Voyage to Laputa,” Annuals of Science (1937), discussed in S. H. Gould, “Gulliver and the Moons of Mars,” Journal of the History of Ideas 6 (Jan. 1945): 91-101. Astronomers currently recognize at least thirty-two moons in the solar system.

65. A-G, 24.

66. See Dan Vogel, Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), esp. 97-121, 143-53.

67. While it is certain that Abraham chaps. 1 and 2 were dictated by Joseph Smith sometime in 1835-36, it is uncertain if chap. 3 was dictated at that time as well or in the early 1840s when chaps. 4 and 5 were dictated. On the dating of Abr. 1-2, see Edward H. Ashment, “Reducing Dissonance: The Book of Abraham as a Case Study,” in this collection of essays.

68. The Book of Abraham’s juxtaposition of worlds with intelligences/gods reflects the pluralists’ concern that an infinity of worlds necessitated an infinity of redeemers or of Adams and Eves. In 1728 Benjamin Franklin similarly paralleled the existence of multiple worlds with multiple gods. “I CONCEIVE then,” Franklin speculated, “that the INFINITE has created many Beings or Gods … [and] that each of these is exceeding wise, and very powerful; and that Each has made for himself, one glorious Sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable System of Planets” (The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959], 1:102-103).

69. Dick, Philosophy of a Future State, 103. Dick’s works were used by early Mormons like Oliver Cowdery who discussed Dick’s Philosophy of a Future State in the Messenger and Advocate 3 (Nov. 1836): 423. The “throne of God” motif emerges gradually in Mormon scripture and does not always have cosmological meaning. For example, Book of Mormon theophonies—”he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw [‘methought I saw’ in LDS Al. 36:22; RLDS Al. 17:20] God sitting upon his throne” (LDS 1 Ne. 1:8; RLDS 1 Ne. 1:7)—more closely echo the visionary rhetoric of revivalists like George Whitefield who sermonized, “Methinks I see the heavens opened, [and] the Judge sitting on his throne” (George Whitefield, Eighteen Sermons Preached by the Late George Whitefield [Newport, 1797], 233).

The first intimation that the phrase could be interpreted cosmo-[p.218]logically in Mormon scripture is either 1 Nephi 1:14 (RLDS 1 Ne. 1:13) or Moroni 9:26 (RLDS Moro. 9:28) where Lehi refers to “Thy throne is high in the heavens” and Mormon to “the grace of God the Father, whose throne is high in the heavens.” In Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible, the prophet Enoch hints at an astronomical interpretation: “And thou hast taken Zion to thine own bosom, from all thy creations … and naught but peace, justice, and truth is the habitation of thy throne” (Moses 7:31; RLDS D&C 36:6f). Smith’s 1832 “Olive Leaf” revelation more directly refers to “the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things” (LDS D&C 88:13; RLDS D&C 85:3b). With the Book of Abraham, the throne of God was explicitly defined as the cosmological center and residence of deity (Abr. 3:2ff; Fac. 2:1, 7). The fact that a cosmological interpetation of the throne of God is detectible early in Smith’s theology does not preclude environmental dependency since both Adam Clarke and Thomas Dick had published their conception of the motif prior to 1829. Furthermore, Clarke and Dick used the biblical “heaven of heavens” (Deut. 10:14) and “throne of God” (Heb. 12:2) interchangeably, as does Smith’s Book of Abraham literature. In the document “Egyptian Alphabet” (in LDS archives), page D E beth Ka is defined as “The heaven of heavens, wher[e] God resides,” whereas in the Book of Abraham the throne of God is the residence of deity (Abr. 3:2-3, 9; Fac. 2:1, 7).

70. A-G, 25.

71. Ibid., 24, 25, 26.

72. This fact is discussed in Ashment, “Reducing Dissonance.”

73. Huygens, Cosmotheoros, 112.

74. Immanuel Kant, Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels (Berlin, 1955), Part III, 202, originally published in 1755, as in William C. Heffernan, “The Singularity of Our Inhabited World: William Whewell and A. R. Wallace in Dissent,” Journal of the History of Ideas 39 (Jan.-Mar. 1978): 86.

75. Although Joseph Smith is sometimes imprecise in his definitions, he clearly intends his governing “planets” to mean suns or “stars.” Note that in Fig. 5 the “Sun” is called a “governing planet”; note also the use of the phrase “fixed planets or stars.”

76. Paine, Age of Reason, 121.

77. A-G, 25.

78. For examples of Mormon astronomers’ inability to harmonize Abrahamic cosmology with modern understanding, see R. Grant Athay, “Worlds Without Number: The Astronomy of Enoch, Abraham, and Moses,” Brigham Young University Studies 8 (Spring 1968): 255-69, and “Astrophysics and the Gospel,” New Era 2 (Sept. 1972): 14-19; and especially H. Kimball Hansen (“Astronomy and the Scriptures,” in Science and Religion: Toward a [p.219]More Useful Dialogue, eds. Raymond T. Matheny and Wilford M. Hess [Geneva, IL: Paladin House Publishers, 1979], 1:181-96), who admits that “Abraham does not rate very high as an astronomer” (184). Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley has attempted to place the multiplicity of worlds idea in an ancient context but misunderstands the debate surrounding the concept in an ancient setting. Compare Nibley, “Treasures in the Heavens: Some Early Christian Insights into the Organizing of Worlds,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 [1973]: 3, 4; 76-98, to Dick, Plurality of Worlds, 6ff.

79. Clarke, Holy Bible, 1:33.

80. Ibid. 36.

81. Young Woman’s Journal 3 (Mar. 1892): 263. See also Young Woman’s Journal 5 (April 1894): 346, where Huntington repeated this statement. Huntington recorded in his journal for January 1881 that he heard Philo Dibble relate Smith’s statement about the moon, so his account probably stems from Dibble’s memory or at least was influenced by it. See Oliver B. Huntington Journal, typescript, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

82. Patriarchal Blessing Book, 9:294-95, LDS archives.

83. Lorenzo Snow Papers, 1836-1844, LDS archives.

84. Caroline Barnes Crosby Journal, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City.

85. Scott G. Kenney ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983-1985), 1:119.

86. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 41.

87. See Marjorie H. Nicolson, “Supernatural Voyages,” Voyages to the Moon (New York, 1948), 40; Richard G. Barlow, “Infinite Worlds: Robert Burton’s Cosmic Voyage,” Journal of the History of Ideas 34 (April-June 1973): 294; and John Campbell, Worlds Displayed, For the Benefit of Young People, by a Familiar History of Some of Their Inhabitants (Newburyport, MA, 1802), 5-6, 7, 53, 80.

88. Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 44 (10 July 1882): 437-39.

89. Anthony A. Hutchinson, “A Mormon Midrash?: LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Winter 1988): 31.

90. Ibid., 61, 70. For examples of Mormon scholars who have attempted alternative models of revelation, see Edward H. Ashment, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham: A Reappraisal,” Sunstone 4 (Dec. 1979): 33; and Blake T. Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 66-123.