February 8, 2008

Becoming Saints before gods

Heber C. Kimball
June 29, 1856

Much criticism of Joseph Smith and the LDS Church in general stems from the doctrine regarding the eternal potential of mankind. The Church believes that men and women are the "offspring" of Heavenly Parents (see Acts 17:28-29) composed of the same eternal substance (see D&C 93:33-35), and as such, have divine possibilities. However, there are many names for and many interpretations of the doctrine in and out of the Church. Describing the various schools of thought on the subject is not the purpose of this post, however.[1] In this discourse, President Heber C. Kimball tangentially referred to deification, not as a glorious declaration that we can become gods, or godlike, but to remind his listeners not to put the cart before the horse; we ought to consider becoming true Saints before focusing too much on being gods:

Many think that they are going right into the celestial kingdom of God, in their present ignorance, to at once receive glories and powers; that they are going to be Gods, while many of them are so ignorant, that they can see or know scarcely anything. Such people talk of becoming Gods, when they do not know anything of God, or of His works; such persons have to learn repentance, and obedience to the law of God; they have got to learn to understand angels, and to comprehend and stick to the principles of this Church.
…I bear testimony of this, and I wish you would listen to counsel and lay aside every sin that doth so easily beset you, and turn to the Lord with full purpose of heart.

Similarly, during the King Follett discourse, Joseph Smith taught:
When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel--you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil [died] before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave (History of the Church, 6:306–7).
Christ said "be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (see Matthew 5:48) and Mormons tend take that charge literally; perhaps sometimes a little too literally for the time being. The trouble is, some Saints might feel they can, or even must achieve this impossible goal through their own efforts. In conversations about grace and works Mormons are quick to quote: "faith without works is dead," (see James 2:20). We would do well to remember that works without faith is also dead, and I believe Heber is trying in the discourse to express that message.

Here we see an early example of a Church leader expressing grace, though he still maintains a "work-heavy" perspective. It is for us, today, to focus on today, and retain a remission of sins relying on Christ, as the light grows brighter and brighter until the perfect day. In the meantime, probation continues, and Heber has a few pieces of advice to impart:
We cannot become perfect, without we are assisted by our heavenly Father. We must be faithful and of one heart, and one mind, and let every man and woman take course to build up and not pull down. See that you save your grain, that you may save yourselves from the wicked of the world. Try to take care of every thing that is good to eat, for this is the work of the Lord God Almighty, and we shall have times that will test the integrity of this people, that will test who is honest and who is not.
Omitting prayer is calculated to lead the mind away from those duties which are incumbent upon us; then let us attend to our prayers and all our duties, and you will know that brother Brigham and his brethren have told you of these things...

There are trying times ahead of you, do you not begin to feel and see them? If you do not, I say you are asleep. I wish that the spirit which rests upon a few individuals could be upon you, everyone of you, it would be one of the most joyful times that brother Brigham and I ever saw with the Saints of God upon this earth.

We have enough on our plates to worry about today without being presumptuous about our future estate. Certainly we can have the end in mind, remembering the relationship of Father to child is crucial. He will always, through all eternity, be our Father and our God. Still, it would be unwise to jump the gun and assume we are practically almost there; we have plenty to do in the meantime.
We believe we can become gods, but can that belief interfere with our probation?


"Do Mormons believe they can become Gods" is a question that requires much more than a yes or no answer, to be sure. When members of the Church are reluctant to answer with "yes" or "no", they may seem to be trying to hide something, or to be unversed on the subject. This circumstance was reflected in an oft-cited response by President Hinckley in several interviews. Pres. Hinckley has been accused of being dishonest or evasive on the subject of deification; whether we can become gods. He is depicted by critics as saying something to the effect of "we don't know anything about that." Actually, Pres. Hinckley was saying we don't know much about Heavenly Father's past. Here is the selection from the interview in the San Fransisco Gate, wherein Pres. Hinckley affirms the divine potential of men and women:
Q: There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don't Mormons believe that God was once a man?
A: I wouldn't say that. There was a little couplet coined, "As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.'' Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about.
Q: So you're saying the church is still struggling to understand this?
A: Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education. We're trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.
And from TIME Magazine:
Q: ... about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.
For more on the issue, see FAIR's article Does President Hinckley Understand LDS Doctrine? and for more on deification, see FAIR, "Deification of man." (See especially the references they cite.) See also Robert L. Millet, Noel B. Reynolds, "Do Latter-day Saints believe that men and women can become gods?" Latter-day Christianity: 10 Basic Issues. Theosis as understood by the Orthodox Church has differing distinctions as to what godhood means. See the wikipedia article on theosis. Finally, Pres. Hinckley may be much closer to the truth than Latter-day Saints who affirm an eternal regression of gods. Blake Ostler makes the argument that God the Father is literally the Most High God. See his chapter "God the Eternal Father" in Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 2: The Problems of Theism and the Love of God, Kofford Books. 

February 6, 2008

Guest blogging for Juvenile Instructor

See Juvenile Instructor

"I wish to give you one text to preach upon: 'From this time henceforth do not fret thy gizzard'" (Brigham Young, JD 3:1).

Colloquialisms such as this kindled my interest in the Journal of Discourses, sparking a personal project to document the most interesting parts of the 26-volume work on my blog. I appreciate JI allowing me to share some of my findings here. For my introductory post, I'll describe the purpose of my blog.

Few members of the Church of Jesus Christ have time (or perhaps even the interest) to read all 1,438 sermons given between 1854 and 1886. Additionally, I believe the JD has suffered in reputation due to some speculative ideas expressed by some early Church leaders; many of which are often quoted by critics of the Church as bona fide Mormon doctrine. The JD is largely a product of its time; a Utah Territory, a struggling and growing Church torn between exclusion and assimilation; where politics, religion, agricultural advice, homespun parables and ethics were all mixed together. More...

Accuracy is an issue; we have to rely on the stenographers themselves who recorded sermons in shorthand. Additionally, sermons were almost always given extemporaneously; speakers took the scripture seriously when it said: "Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man" (D&C 84:85). It was deemed a sign of true religion; discourses being delivered “by the Spirit”. Most of the sermons follow the loose train of thought of the speaker with no real structure. The scattered nature of many of the discourses led one observer to describe them as “strange ramblings”.[1]

For these reasons among others, the official stance of the Church has declared the JD to be non-binding.[2]

Perhaps in part because Church membership generally is encouraged to give priority to the Standard Works, the JD has taken on somewhat of an apocryphal status. That being said, I am reminded of the counsel given to Joseph Smith when he asked if the Apocrypha should be included in his inspired translation of the Bible, that despite containing things that are “not true,” “interpolations of the hands of men,” the Spirit can manifest truth, and benefit can be gained therein (see D&C 91).

Attempting to read the JD “by the Spirit” has been beneficial to me; the sermons reveal interesting, uplifting information, and give insight into what the early Saints might have heard over the pulpit.

Many of the sermons have been quite fascinating, some strange and some spiritual, and I’ve wondered why the JD has been largely neglected by members of the Church.

The JD blog project has also made me wonder how different General Conference might be today without the aid of teleprompters. Perhaps the last of the ramblings was heard when we lost LeGrand Richards.


[1] Davis Bitton discussed the trends of early Mormon preaching in “‘Strange Ramblings’: The Ideal and Practice of Sermons in Early Mormonism,” BYU Studies (2002) 41:1, p. 4-28. (.pdf file)

[2] "The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… It includes practical advice as well as doctrinal discussion, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest. ... Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some transcriptions. Modern technology and processes were not available for verifying the accuracy of transcriptions, and some significant mistakes have been documented. The Journal of Discourses includes interesting and insightful teachings by early Church leaders; however, by itself it is not an authoritative source of Church doctrine" (from LDS.org, Gospel Topics: The Journal of Discourses, accessed November, 2007, no longer available).

February 4, 2008

Announcement: Guest Blogging

This week I will be a guest blogger on the Juvenile Instructor blog. We will be starting on volume 4 of the JD this week, as well. The posts will begin Wednesday, and be displayed both here and there.