Monday, March 28, 2011

Hyrum Smith on the Plurality of Gods and Worlds

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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'.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. To be honest, I can't make heads or tails of the last few lines of what Laub recorded Hyrum as having said, particularly the references to Adam and the Savior and how this relates to the various worlds. I get the reference to "the meridian of time" (Moses 5:57; 6:62), but either I lack the necessary background to understand the rest, or Laub's recollection is obscure.
  11. At the very end, though, there does seem to be an expression of belief that the pattern on which God organized our world was provided by the 'spiritual' world that came before it. If memory serves me rightly, this is an idea also found in LDS scripture (Moses 3:5).

What are your thoughts about Hyrum's sermon? What do you get out of it?


  1. Can you explain why you believe this sermon evidences a belief in an infinite regression of Gods? For example, according to the sermon, Christ is God because he does what the Father does. Why not interpret this "a whole train and lineage of gods" as flowing after the Father, rather than before? The idea of plurality of Gods is well attested in Smith's sermons, but I don't think plurality of gods should be automatically equated with infinite regression. It may be the case that Hyrum believed in an infinite regression, but I don't think we can know that based on Laub's record, assuming we can rely on the date and content. On June 16, 1844 Thomas Bullock records Joseph as teaching "I bel. in these Gods that God reveals as Gods---to be Sons of God & all can cry Abba Father--Sons of God who exalt themselves to be Gods even from bef. the foundatn. of the world & are all the only Gods I have a reverence for." Here too, it still doesn't support your restatement of "a countless number of other gods before the Father." At the very least I don't know that Hyrum's sermon is clear enough to draw these conclusions.

  2. As usual, you raise a very valid point. Much of what's said in Laub's summary would be entirely consistent with a forward potentially infinite regression of gods, rather than one stretching back before the Father. I should have given that issue more attention in my post, and I thank you for calling it to my attention.

    Here, though, I think that a lengthy past regression of gods extending prior to the Father is a preferable reading, at least so far as Laub's recollection stands. As Laub has it, Hyrum stated that there currently is a lengthy 'train and lineage' of gods. I'd be hard-pressed to find ample place for this if the Father were at the head of the train. The notion of a 'train and lineage' would seem to imply several successive generations already in existence. This seems to go even beyond Bullock's recollection of Joseph's words (though some of Joseph's/Bullock's statement there is a bit obscure, and I'll have to remember to do a post on that passage sometime in the next month).

    I can allow that a post-Father set of gods is a possible reading of Hyrum's/Laub's words here, but the particular choice of words leads me to favor a pre-Father 'train and lineage'. This also coheres well with Bullock's recollection of Joseph teaching about "Gods above [the Father]" and about the Father having a Father ("hence if J. had a Far. can we not believe that he had a Fa.r also"), likewise on 16 June 1844. The sermon may not clearly proclaim one option or the other, but I think it does suggest the one I stated too firmly previously. I think the 16 June 1844 'sermon in the grove' by Joseph does strongly indicate a 'countless number of Gods before the Father' (though by way of strong inference not fully elucidated by Joseph in the sermon as recorded), and it seems most plausible to me to read the present discourse by Hyrum as referring to that teaching.

  3. I appreciate the response. Remember we only have one attestation for this sermon of Hyrum (see England, fn26). It doesn't appear anywhere else. Laub dates the sermon April 27, 1843 but doesn't even begin his diary until January 1, 1845. In addition he indicates he is writing down sermons by "Memery." By any standards of historiography, this brings its reliability into question. This is not to say we dismiss it summarily, but we must take these facts into account. It certainly gives us evidence of what Laub believed in 1845, but again this is after both Joseph and Hyrum have been killed. The material is still valuable, but it simply doesn't have a high degree of reliability standing alone, especially on a point not made explicit in the actual sermon, and on issues that are highly contested. On this point one must tread carefully.

    The idea of gods in existence before the creation of the world can be traced early to Smith's translation of the Bible (1830) but explicitly to the Book of Abraham (circa 1835). The Abrahamic text does not support an infinite regression model. On the contrary, the text speaks of God who is "more intelligent than they all." (Abr. 3:19). In the Abrahamic narrative we still have gods engaged in the creation of the world, without a infinite regression reading. In April 1844, Joseph goes back to the Genesis text and speaks of a Head God who brought forth all the gods, not into existence, but into council. Two months later he repeats this theme again in the June 16, 1844 sermon: "The Head one of the Gods said let us make man in our image" clearly referring to Genesis 1:27. Note that years earlier when Joseph translated Genesis his new translation read "I God said unto my only begotten which was with me from the beginning Let us make man in our image after our likeness." Joseph clearly is identifying God in the Genesis account as the Head God. We have several scribes, multiple attestations, who recorded the April 1844 sermon, and none of them have Joseph teaching an infinite regression of Gods. We are less fortunate with the June 1844 sermon. We only have one fragmented transcription by one scribe and this sermon, apparently, is the only contemporary source for the argument that Joseph taught an infinite regression of Gods. Yours isn't a completely unreasonable reading, it's clearly been read this way by many others. I argue, however, that the evidence is far from conclusive, especially taking a holistic approach and considering what Joseph had previously taught just two months earlier. In addition to what I've presented above, I outline my general argument on this issue here and here.