Monday, March 21, 2011

Joseph Smith on the Godhead and Mortal Probation: A Little-Known Sermon

I've been glancing through the Nauvoo journal of an early Latter-day Saint named George Laub, as transcribed and edited by Eugene England. In it, he records a number of sermons of early LDS leaders, including some that don't appear to have been recorded elsewhere. (One of them, in fact, appears to perhaps be a little-known recounting of the King Follett Discourse.) Unfortunately, George Laub's memory of the dates is faulty, but I wanted to present here a discourse of Joseph Smith that Laub recorded as having been given on 20 April 1843 (though it probably occurred a year later). Rather than preserve Laub's original punctuation and spelling as England does, I'm going to modernize things here to an extent. The sermon summary I'll be sharing this time around is on the subject of threeness and oneness in the Godhead and on entering into mortality. For the original text of this sermon as Laub recorded it, please see Eugene England, ed., "George Laub's Nauvoo Journal", BYU Studies 18/2 (1978): 26-27; I highly recommend it and commend the late Dr. England for his provision of this valuable document.

By Joseph Smith - April 20, 1843:

The Scripture says, "I and my Father are one" [John 10:30] and that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one - 1 John 5:7. But these three agree in the same thing, and did the Saviour pray to the Father, "I pray not for the world but those whom he gave me out of the world that we might be one", or to say 'be of one mind in the unity of the faith' [John 17:9, 22]?

But every one being a different or separate persons, and so is God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. Separate persons. But they all agree in one or the self-same thing. But the Holy Ghost is yet a spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body, as the Savior did or as God did or the gods before them took bodies. For the Saviour says the work that my Father did do I also [John 5:19], and these are the works. He took himself as a body and then laid down his life that he might take it up again, and the Scripture say those who will obey the commandments shall be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ. We then also took bodies to lay them down, to take them up again, and 'the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirits that we are the children of God and if children then heirs and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ if so be that we suffer with him in the flesh that we may be also glorified together' - see Romans 8:16-17.

Here are some key points I pick up from this:

  1. Joseph Smith stresses here that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three "separate persons". Slight quibbles of nuance aside (the word 'distinct' would be less prone to misunderstanding than 'separate'), he may not be fully aware that this is what Trinitarians teach. The difference is in whether or not they are 'one God' in terms of the more basic concept of 'god', and this is where Joseph Smith's later teaching has deviated from the Trinitarian faith.
  2. Joseph Smith emphasizes that his concept of the 'oneness' of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is merely agreement of intent, perspective, and purpose between them; there is no robust sense of fundamental or ontological oneness to be found here. This has been a dominant trend in LDS thought ever since.
  3. Joseph Smith stresses that there is something valuable in having, not merely a 'spiritual body', but a 'body' (here Joseph does not qualify it further). He notes that the Holy Spirit is still in the 'spiritual body' stage, whereas both the Father and the Son have obtained bodies of flesh beyond that. (Whether or not the Holy Spirit is yet a god is a subject that Joseph Smith has not broached in this particular message, so far as Laub records its substance.)
  4. Joseph Smith mentions here that there are gods before the Father and the Son, and that these unnumbered additional gods have also gone through an experience in mortality. Given the corroboration of other recorded sermons and lectures of the mature Joseph Smith, it seems extremely probable that he did teach that the number of gods in existence was in excess of three, and that there are indeed gods above the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This stress on 'the plurality of gods' must be classified as a form of polytheism.
  5. In discussing the mortal experience, Joseph Smith stresses the repeated pattern of assuming a mortal life/body in the first place, then setting it aside, and then taking it back up again. Joseph Smith reads this into the Gospel of John, inferring as he often did that the Father must have undergone this experience; and here Joseph Smith casts our own experience in the same mold.
  6. Joseph Smith ends on a fairly unobjectionable note to the effect that, by cleaving to Christ, we are joint-heirs with him and will be glorified with him after our suffering with him. He takes this almost verbatim from Paul, but adds "in the flesh" after "suffer with him", or at least that's how Laub jotted it down. But why? Perhaps to emphasize the connection that Joseph wishes to draw with our mortal probation. It seems that Joseph is saying that Christ came to take up a body, surrender it through suffering, and regain it in glory, and we have been summoned to take up a body in order to share in that suffering and surrender, and it is through our participation in such that we are able to obtain the glory of being joint-heirs with Christ. I imagine that from this link, one could craft a very fascinating LDS theology of suffering: the purpose of our mortal probation is to afford us an opportunity to participate in Christ's own sufferings and be conformed to his image; exaltation comes only through the vale of tears that Christ himself trod, and only if we tread that ground with him. The purpose of our life here, then, is to share in Christ's suffering now so as to share in his glory later. I'll leave for later how to integrate commandment-keeping into this as part of a more cohesive vision.

What are your thoughts on what we have of this sermon?


  1. Thanks for the post. I think you've articulated well the import of the material and I appreciate your careful summary of key points. I recommend David Paulsen and Brett McDonald. "Joseph Smith and the Trinity: An Analysis and Defense of the Social Model of the Godhead." Faith and Philosophy 25.1 (2008): 47-74. Paulsen and McDonald write: "Smith obviously did not understand biblical oneness scriptures as asserting numerical unity. . . Rather than understanding their oneness as an identity of being, Smith saw the oneness of the Godhead as, amongst other things, a unity in heart, mind, will, attributes and nature. Smith understood this unity to be a result of the willing and free choice of the divine persons to align their distinct wills. Indeed, Smith specifically taught that an 'everlasting covenant was made between three personages [Father, Son and Holy Ghost] before the organization of this earth, and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth'" (54). My understanding is that traditional Christian theologians reject allotting a distinct will to each of the three persons of the Trinity out of concerns for what amounts of a war or battle of wills. However, it could be said that under Smith's understanding, each of the three persons must have a distinct will in order to have the capacity to enter into a covenant relationship one with another.

    A couple of clarifications. I don't think that you can say that Joseph Smith definitively taught of the existence of "gods above the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." Although this was the view of many after Joseph Smith (and also the charge of the Nauvoo Expositor), it is still unclear whether Smith himself actually held this view. I regard this as a contested issue not rendered moot by the Laub material. Although Laub presents this material as part of a sermon dated April 27, 1834, Ehat and Cook understand this to be a version of the June 16, 1844 sermon (the correspondence is still somewhat fragmented). Either way, it's late recording (1845) can raise some reliability issues. For competing interpretations see here and here.

    In regards to the teaching that the Holy Ghost is waiting to take on a physical body, this is corroborated by other statements of Smith (Aug. 27, 1843, recorded by Franklin D. Richards. See Ehat and Cook, 305n26). However, note that the Holy Ghost is still God prior to taking on a physical body, and thus one does not become divine by taking on a physical body. Under Smith's view, each member of the Godhead was divine prior to taking on a physical body.

  2. Very interesting thoughts, including your comment, Aquinas.