As you may recall, a week ago I posted a sermon preached by Joseph Smith and recorded by George Laub in his journal. Today I'd like to present another sermon, this one by Joseph's brother Hyrum, which also appears in the recollections of George Laub. According to Laub's notoriously unreliable dating, it was delivered on 27 April 1843; with Eugene England, I think it's more likely to have been preached around that time the next year, after the King Follett Discourse. As before, I give the text of the sermon summary with modernized punctuation, spelling, and grammar where appropriate; for the original, please see Eugene England, ed., "George Laub's Nauvoo Journal", BYU Studies 18/2 (1978): 27.
Brother Hyrum Smith - April 27th, 1843 - Concerning the plurality of gods and worlds:
Now I say unto you that there are "gods many and lords many" [1 Corinthians 8:5]. But to us there is one God the Father and Jesus Christ the first-begotten [cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6], who is made equal with God so that he himself is a god. And now the work that the Father has done, did he do also - and so there is a whole train and lineage of gods. And this world was created by faith and works, the same as if a man would build a house: he knows where the materials are and believes he could do the work of that building, for he understood the science of building and by faith he gained the work with his own hands and completed that building. The same way was this world by faith and works and by understanding the principle. It was made by the hands of God or gods. It was made of element - or, in other words, of chaos. It was in chaotic form from all eternity and will be to all eternity, and again they held counsel together that they might roll this world into form as all others are made, showing you by the building of a house as a sample or as figure, "in my Father's house are many mansions" [John 14:2] - or 'in my Father's world are many worlds'. "I will go and prepare a place for you" [John 14:3] - and then if there are many worlds, there must be many gods, for every star that we see is a world and is inhabited the same as this world is peopled. The sun and moon are inhabited and the stars, and Jesus Christ is the light of the sun, etc. The stars are inhabited the same as this earth. But any of them are larger than this earth, and many that we cannot see without a telescope are larger than this earth. They are under the same order as this earth is undergoing, and undergoing the same change. There was and is a first man, Adam, and also a Saviour in the meridian 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 this world was patterned after the former world or after mansions above.
So here are a few things I get out of Hyrum's sermon as Laub has recorded its substance for us:
- Hyrum seems to believe, as did his brother, that the 'gods many and lords many' of 1 Corinthians 8:5 are not pagan deities but are rather real deities with whom we have no dealings; they are, in other words, ontologically on par with the proper objects of our worship, but are nevertheless of no relevance to us religiously.
- Note the way Hyrum analyzes Christ's equality with God the Father. He says that this equality with God - which Christ does indeed have, in Hyrum's view - makes Jesus "a god", though apparently a second god separate from the Father, so that they are two gods rather than one God in the basic sense of the term.
- Hyrum talks about "a whole train and lineage of gods", which seems to allude to the teaching - found also in Joseph's preaching, unless the records are massively unfaithful to his historical teaching - that there were a countless number of other gods before the Father, so that while the Father is the greatest god of religious importance to us, this has to do with our unique relationship to him rather than with his actual status as the highest entity in all of reality. The Father and the Son are not 'the first and the last' in any more than a local sense here; there are, indeed, a vast line of gods who come before them.
- Edit to add: This interpretation is somewhat controversial; see discussion in the comments. Another possibility is that the "whole train and lineage of gods" are all in generations subsequent to our Heavenly Father, in which case the Father would remain the first and supreme deity, which coheres well with certain contemporary strands of LDS thought. I nevertheless think that the previous reading is to be preferred. Grammatically, the present tense presented by Laub indicates that there already are this vast number of deities. On the alternative understanding, these would presumably all be descended from our Heavenly Father in some way. Furthermore, the phrase "train and lineage" seems to me to indicate that the concept of successive generations, successive iterations of the plan of salvation narrative, is in play. I struggle to see exactly where one might accommodate this within any clearly attested early LDS theological cosmology. Furthermore, we do have corroboration in Joseph Smith's sermons - for instance, in his famed message on 16 June 1844 - for the idea that our Heavenly Father himself had a father of his spirit (who by the reasoning there articulated presumably likewise had a father of his spirit, and so forth ad infinitum in an endless regress). The combination of these factors leads me to see a "train and lineage of gods" prior to our Father as being a somewhat more likely sense of Hyrum's message, though this is not so conclusive as I initially presented it. Further study needs to be done on possible background information to Hyrum's message.
- Hyrum goes on to posit - just as his brother Joseph did - that the world was not made ex nihilo ('out of nothing') but rather ex materia ('out of material'). He thus compares God's act of creation very closely to the act of constructing a building; both involve pre-existing materials not produced by or in any way dependent upon the craftsman.
- Furthermore, Hyrum says that the entire world we know to have been created by God was made from chaotic 'element', some basic material that was initially in a chaotic state and then had order imposed upon it by God (see Doctrine and Covenants 93:33). This discourse doesn't seem to give enough detail, however, to further reconstruct the details of Hyrum's comprehensive view, if he had one, of the ontological status of this 'element' and this 'chaos'.
- In the course of sketching his very close analogy between the work of a craftsman building a house and the work of God in 'building' the world, Hyrum elaborates on his curious remark that this involved "faith and works". By 'faith', Hyrum here means - if I understand his usage rightly - both the how-to knowledge and the belief in one's own capacity to carry out the task; without either, no labor could be done. These alone are not sufficient; the labor itself, the 'works', is also essential. 'Faith' here is thus the necessary prerequisite for engaging in the 'works' at all. (Compare to Mosiah 8:18.) Hyrum's presentation of this sort of faith differs markedly from scriptural notions of faith, which have an outward focus of belief/trust/loyalty in someone else.
- Note well that Hyrum says that our world was made "by the hands of God or gods", indicating the possibility that our world was the product of a multiplicity of deities; in short, this is a denial of what has sometimes been called 'creational monotheism', or at least a reduction of it to one epistemic possibility among several.
- Hyrum maintains quite firmly here that each star we see is itself inhabited, constituting each one as a discrete world. He believes that the sun and the moon are also each inhabited - a not uncommon opinion in those days, but one that Laub present Hyrum as expounding with a great degree of confidence and utilizing to develop his theological cosmology.
- Hyrum furthermore maintains that to each world in our universe, there must be a different corresponding deity. This allows us to get greater insight on what Hyrum means by 'world'. On one reading, then, it seems that our God was responsible only for the earth and its immediate environs. His domain of "the heavens and the earth" would thus be a local subsection - and a comparatively small one at that - of the total universe, which is under the segmented jurisdiction of numerous deities. (How Hyrum or anyone else holding this view would have reconciled this localist perspective with the LDS canonical positioning of God's base of power in the vicinity of Kolob is not here addressed but would be an interesting subject to investigate - see Abraham 3:2-3, 9.)
- Alternatively, however, note Hyrum's gloss of John 14:2 as 'in my Father's world are many worlds'. This can give rise to yet another reading: namely, that the Father's domain is truly cosmic and maximal, but that the universe - the Father's world - is further segmented into the discrete domains of numerous subordinate deities. In this reading, 'world' can refer either to a local subsection of the cosmos or to the cosmos itself, with the Father standing in relation to the other lesser gods like an emperor to his provincial governors.
What are your thoughts about Hyrum's sermon? What do you get out of it?