The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology by Thomas G. Alexander of BYU

The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology by Thomas G. Alexander of BYU

The following are some excerpts from “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology” by Thomas G. Alexander which appeared in Sunstone, July-August 1980. Alexander teaches at BYU. His thoughts tie in well with my essay on the changing nature of God in LDS doctrine.

Perhaps the main barrier to understanding the development of Mormon theology is an underlying assumption by most Church members that there is a cumulative unity of doctrine. Mormons seem to believe that particular doctrines develop consistently, that ideas build on each other in hierarchical fashion. As a result, older revelations are interpreted by referring to current doctrinal positions. Thus, most members would suppose that a scripture or statement at any point in time has resulted from such orderly change. While this type of exegesis or interpretation may produce systematic theology and while it may satisfy those trying to understand and internalize current doctrine, it is bad history since it leaves an unwarranted impression of continuity and consistency.

Historians have long recognized the importance of the Nauvoo experience in the formulation of distinctive Latter-day Saint doctrines. What is not so apparent is that before about 1835 the LDS doctrines on God and man were quite close to those of contemporary Protestant denominations.

Of course the problem of understanding doctrine at particular times consists not only in determining what was disseminated but also in pinpointing how contemporary members perceived such beliefs. Diaries of Church leaders would be most helpful. Currently available evidence indicates that members of the First Presidency, particularly Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Frederick G. Williams, and Sidney Rigdon were the principal persons involved in doctrinal development prior to 1835. Unfortunately, the only available diary from among that group is Joseph Smith’s, which has been edited and published as History of the Church.

Church publications from this period are important sources of doctrine and doctrinal commentary, given the lack of diaries. After the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, the Church supported The Evening and the Morning Star in Independence (June 1832-July 1833) and Kirtland (December 1833-September 1834). In October 1834, the Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate (Kirtland, October 1834-September 1837) replaced the Star. Both monthlies published expositions on doctrine, letters from Church members, revelations, minutes of conferences, and other items of interest. William W. Phelps published a collection of Joseph Smith’s revelations in the 1833 Book of Commandments, but destruction of the press and most copies left the Star and Messenger virtually the only sources of these revelations until 1835. In that year, the Doctrine and Covenants, which included the Lectures on Faith and presented both revelation and doctrinal exposition, was published.

The doctrines of God and man revealed in these sources were not greatly different from those of some of the religious denominations of the time. Marvin Hill has argued that the Mormon doctrine of man in New York contained elements of both Calvinism and Arminianism, though tending toward the latter. The following evidence shows that it was much closer to the moderate Arminian position, particularly in rejecting the Calvinist emphasis on absolute and unconditional predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, and absolute perseverance of the elect. It will further demonstrate that the doctrine of God preached and believed before 1835 was essentially trinitarian, with God the Father seen as an absolute personage of Spirit, Jesus Christ as a personage of tabernacle, and the Holy Ghost as an impersonal spiritual member of the Godhead.

The Book of Mormon tended to define God as an absolute personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus Christ (Abinidi’s sermon to King Noah in Mosiah chapters 13-14 is a good example). The first issue of the Evening and Morning Star published a similar description of God, the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,” which was the Church’s first statement of faith and practice. With some additions, the “Articles” became section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The “Articles,” which according to correspondence in the Star was used with the Book of Mormon in proselytizing, indicated that “there is a God in heaven who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting, the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth and all things which are in them.” The Messenger and Advocate published numbers 5 and 6 of the Lectures on Faith, which defined the “Father” as “the only supreme governor, an independent being, in whom all fulness and perfection dwells; who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; without beginning of days or end of life.” In a letter published in the Messenger and Advocate, Warren A. Cowdery argues that “we have proven to the satisfaction of every intelligent being, that there is a great first cause, prime mover, self-existent, independent and all wise being whom we call God . . . immutable in his purposes and unchangeable in his nature.”

Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of the First Vision spoke only of one personage and did not make the explicit separation of God and Christ found in the 1838 version. The Book of Mormon declared that Mary “is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh,” which as James Allen and Richard Howard have pointed out was changed in 1837 to “mother of the Son of God.” Abinidi’s sermon in the Book of Mormon explored the relationship between God and Christ: “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son-The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son-And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.” (Mosiah 15:1-4.)

The Lectures on Faith differentiated between the Father and Son somewhat more explicitly, but even they did not define a materialistic, tritheistic Godhead. In announcing the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants which included the Lectures on Faith, the Messenger and Advocate commented editorially that it trusted the volume would give “the churches abroad … a perfect understanding of the doctrine believed by this society.” The Lectures declared that “there are two personages who constitute the great matchless, governing and supreme power over all things-by whom all things were created and made.” They are “the Father being a personage of spirit,” and “the Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle, made, or fashioned like unto man, or being in the form and likeness of man, or, rather, man war, formed after his likeness, and in his image.” The “Articles and Covenants” called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost “one God” rather than the Godhead, a term which Mormons generally use today to separate themselves from trinitarians.

The doctrine of the Holy Ghost presented in these early sources is even more striking compared to the point of view defended in our time. The Lectures on Faith defined the Holy Ghost as the mind of the Father and the Son, a member of the Godhead, but not a personage, who binds the Father and Son together. This view of the Holy Ghost reinforced trinitarian doctrine by explaining how personal beings like the Father and Son become one God through the noncorporeal presence of a shared mind.

As Marvin Hill and Timothy Smith have argued, much of the doctrine that early investigators found in Mormonism was similar to contemporary Protestant churches. The section on the nature of God in the “Articles and Covenants,” now Doctrine and Covenants 20:17-28, was similar to the creeds of other churches. In fact, what is now verses 23 and 24 is similar to passages in the Apostle’s Creed.

… between 1842 and 1844 Joseph Smith spoke on and published doctrines such as the plurality of gods, the tangibility of God’s body, the distinct separation of God and Christ, the potential of man to become and function as a god, the explicit rejection of ex nihilo creation, and the materiality of everything including spirit. These ideas were perhaps most clearly stated in the King Follett discourse of April 1844.

Because doctrine and practice changed as the result of new revelation and exegesis, some members who had been converted under the doctrines of the early 1830s left the Church. John Corrill exhibited disappointment rather than rancor and defended the Church against outside attack, but left because of the introduction of doctrine which he thought contradicted those of the Book of Mormon and the Bible.

It seems clear that certain ideas which developed between 1832 and 1844 were internalized after 1835 and accepted by the Latter-day Saints. This was particularly true of the material anthropomorphism of God and Jesus Christ, advanced perfectionism as elaborated in the doctrine of eternal progression, and the potential godhood of man.

Between 1845 and 1890, however, certain doctrines were proposed which were later rejected or modified. In an address to rulers of the world in 1845, for instance, the Council of the Twelve wrote of the “great Eloheem Jehovah” as though the two names were synonymous, indicating that the identification of Jehovah with Christ had little meaning to contemporaries. In addition, Brigham Young preached that Adam was not only the first man, but that he was the god of this world. Acceptance of the King Follett doctrine would have granted the possibility of Adam being a god, but the idea that he was god of this world conflicted with the later Jehovah-Christ doctrine. Doctrines such as those preached by Orson Pratt, harking back to the Lectures on Faith and emphasizing the absolute nature of God, and Amasa Lyman, stressing radical perfectionism which denied the necessity of Christ’s atonement, were variously questioned by the First Presidency and Twelve. In Lyman’s case, his beliefs, contributed to his excommunication.

The newer and older doctrines thus coexisted, and all competed with novel positions spelled out by various Church leaders. The Lectures on Faith continued to appear as part of the Doctrine and Covenants in a section entitled “Doctrine and Covenants,” as distinguished from the “Covenants and Commandments” which constitute the current Doctrine and Covenants. The Pearl of Great Price containing the Book of Abraham was published in England in 1851 as a missionary tract and was accepted as authoritative in 1880. The earliest versions of Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology and Brigham H. Roberts’s The Gospel both emphasized an omnipresent, nonpersonal Holy Ghost, though Pratt’s emphasis was radically materialistic and Roberts’s more allegorical. Both were elaborating ideas addressed in the King Follett sermon. Such fluidity of doctrine, unusual from a twentieth-century perspective, characterized the nineteenth-century Church.

By 1890 the doctrines preached in the Church combined what would seem today both familiar and strange. Yet, between 1890 and 1925 these doctrines were reconstructed principally on the basis of works by three European immigrants, James E. Talmage, Brigham H. Roberts, and John A. Widtsoe. Widtsoe and Talmage did much of their writing before they became Apostles, but Roberts served as a member of the First Council of the Seventy during the entire period.

Perhaps the most important doctrine addressed was the doctrine of the Godhead, which was reconstructed beginning in 1893 and 1894. During that year James E. Talmage, president of Latter-day Saints University and later president and professor of geology at the University of Utah, gave a series of lectures on the Articles of Faith to the theological class of LDSU. In the fall of 1898 the First Presidency asked him to rewrite the lectures and present them for approval as an exposition of Church doctrines. In the process, Talmage reconsidered and reconstructed the doctrine of the Holy Ghost. In response to questions raised by Talmage’s lectures, George Q. Cannon, “commenting on the ambiguity existing in our printed works concerning the nature or character of the Holy Ghost, expressed his opinion that the Holy Ghost was in reality a person, in the image of the other members of the Godhead-a man in form and figure; and that what we often speak of as the Holy Ghost is in reality but the power or influence of the spirit.” The First Presidency on that occasion, however, “deemed it wise to say as little as possible on this as on other disputed subjects.”

The impact of the Articles of Faith on doctrinal exposition within the Church seems to have been enormous. Some doctrinal works like B. H. Roberts’s 1888 volume The Gospel were quite allegorical on the nature of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost. In the 1901 edition, after the publication of the Articles of Faith, Roberts explicitly revised his view of the Godhead, modifying his discussion and incorporating Talmage’s more literal interpretation of the Holy Ghost.

By 1900 it was impossible to consider the doctrines of God and man without dealing with evolution. Darwin‘s Origin of Species had been in print for four decades, and scientific advances together with changing attitudes had introduced many secular-rational ideas. James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe had confronted these ideas as they studied at universities in the United States and abroad. As early as 1881 Talmage had resolved to “do good among the young,” possibly by lecturing on the “harmony between geology and the Bible.” In 1898 Talmage urged George Q. Cannon to have the General Authorities give, careful, and perhaps official consideration to the scientific questions on which there is at least a strong appearance of antagonism with religious creeds.” Cannon agreed, and Talmage recorded a number of interviews with the First Presidency on the subject. In a February 1900 article Talmage argued that science and religion had to be reconciled since “faith is not blind submission, passive obedience, with no effort at thought or reason. Faith, if worthy of its name, rests upon truth; and truth is the foundation of science.”

Even though the publications of Talmage, Roberts, and Widtsoe had established the Church’s basic doctrines of the Godhead, members and nonmembers were still confused. In 1911, George F. Richards spoke in the Tabernacle on the nature of God. Afterward, a member challenged him, arguing that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were one God rather than three distinct beings. Richards disagreed and cited scriptural references including Joseph Smith’s first vision.

In February 1912, detractors confronted elders in the Central States Mission with the Adam-God theory. In a letter to President Samuel O. Bennion, the First Presidency argued that Brigham Young did not mean to say that Adam was God, and at a special priesthood meeting during the April 1912 general conference, they presented and secured approval for a declaration that Mormons worship God the Father, not Adam.

Reconsideration of the doctrine of God and the ambiguity in discourse and printed works over the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ pointed to the need for an authoritative statement on the nature and mission of Christ.

Official statements were required to canonize doctrines on the Father and the Son, ideas which were elaborated by the progressive theologians. A clarification was particularly necessary because of the ambiguity in the scriptures and in authoritative statements about the unity of the Father and the Son, the role of Jesus Christ as Father, and the roles of the Father and Son in creation. A statement for the Church membership prepared by the First Presidency and the Twelve, apparently first drafted by Talmage, was published in 1916. The statement made clear the separate corporeal nature of the two beings and delineated their roles in the creation of the earth and their continued relationships with this creation. The statement was congruent with the King Follett discourse and the work of Talmage, Widtsoe, and Roberts.

This elaboration, together with the revised doctrine of the Holy Ghost, made necessary the revision and redefinition of work previously used.

The clarification of the doctrine of the Holy Ghost and the relationship between the three members of the Godhead also made necessary the revision of the Lectures on Faith. A meeting of the Twelve and First Presidency in November 1917 considered the question of the lectures, particularly lecture five. At that time, they agreed to append a footnote in the next edition. This proved unnecessary when the First Presidency appointed a committee consisting of George F. Richards, Anthony W. Ivins, James E. Talmage, and Melvin J. Ballard to review and revise the entire Doctrine and Covenants. The initial reason for the committee was the worn condition of the printer’s plates and the discrepancies which existed between the current edition and Roberts’s edition of the History of the Church.

Revision continued through July and August 1921, and the Church printed the new edition in late 1921. The committee proposed to delete the Lectures on Faith on the grounds that they were “lessons prepared for use in the School of the Elders, conducted in Kirtland, Ohio, during the winter of 1834-35; but they were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons.” How the committee came to this conclusion is uncertain. The general conference of the Church in April 1835 had accepted the entire volume, including the Lectures, not simply the portion entitled “Covenants and Commandments,” as authoritative and binding upon Church members. What seems certain, however, is that the interpretive exegesis of 1916 based upon the reconstructed doctrine of the Godhead had superseded the Lectures.

If the 1916 statement essentially resolved the Latter-day Saint doctrine of God along the lines suggested by Talmage, Widtsoe, and Roberts, the work of these three men, while suggesting a doctrine of man, did not lead to a similar authoritative statement, except on the question of the relation of the creation to natural selection. Still, the work of these progressive theologians provided a framework for understanding man which went relatively unchallenged until the recent development of Mormon neo-orthodoxy.

The entire essay is excellent. I’ve extracted just the portions that apply to the subject I discussed.