Joseph Smith Teaching Spirit Birth? Or Something Like It?

I was asked to teach the Elder’s quorum Lesson yesterday.  We were on lesson 42 of the manual which can be viewed here.  Right off the bat there is a very interesting paragraph:

By 1843, although the Nauvoo Temple was not yet finished, the Prophet had announced the doctrine of salvation for the dead, and he had administered the temple endowment to a group of faithful Saints. But an important part of the sacred work of temples had yet to be put in place. On May 16, 1843, the Prophet traveled from Nauvoo to Ramus, Illinois, where he stayed at the home of his close friend Benjamin F. Johnson. That evening, he taught Brother and Sister Johnson and a few close friends about the “new and everlasting covenant of marriage.” He explained that this covenant was the “order of the priesthood” necessary to obtain the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. (See D&C 131:1–4.) He also taught that unless a man and a woman enter into the covenant of eternal marriage, “they will cease to increase when they die; that is, they will not have any children after the resurrection.” Those who do enter into this covenant and remain faithful “will continue to increase and have children in the celestial glory.”  (HC 5:391)

I have been told a few times in blog debates over spirit birth that Joseph Smith never taught anything about spirit birth, and I have been a little surprised by that.  But this quotation (From History of the Church) is pretty interesting and may bring some evidence about his thoughts on the topic.   The money line in this quote is ‘they will not have any children after the resurrection’.

So, if we assume that Joseph did teach something along these lines, and that it was recorded properly.  What are we to make of such after-resurrection child bearing by exalted, sealed married couples?  I am not sure there are very many possibilities:

1 – This was Joseph’s opinion – and he was wrong.  (Not very satisfying, especially given D&C 131)

2 – Exalted couples giving birth to …. resurrected, exalted beings?  (Not very satisfying either.  Seems a short circuit of the Plan of Salvation.)

3 – Exalted couples giving birth to spirit body offspring.  (This sounds more like it.)

Now, I realize that the quote from above speaks only to the eternal future, and not directly to the eternal past.  But given some statements from the KFD, would we not suppose that the same pattern also went on before?

Does this quote not provide some evidence of Joseph teaching something along the lines of spirit birth?

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36 Responses to “Joseph Smith Teaching Spirit Birth? Or Something Like It?”


  1. 1 Matt W. October 19, 2009 at 11:03 am

    Eric: Here is the BOAP source for this, as I know there is some occasional Skepticism for using HoC as a Source.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson October 19, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Thanks Matt. The source does not seem that different to me.

  3. 3 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Matt knows me well, here is the Clayton diary entry:

    He said that except a man and his wife enter into an everlasting covenant and be married for eternity while in this probation by the power and authority of the Holy priesthood they will cease to increase when they die (ie. they will not have any children in the resurrection), but those who are married by the power & authority of the priesthood in this life & continue without committing the sin against the Holy Ghost will continue to increase & have children in the celestial glory.

    It is very important to contextualize this entry with the balance of Joseph Smith’s teachings. JS emphatically taught that unless you were sealed to your spouse or sealed to parents, then you would be alone, separate and single. It seems to me that the clarification that “they will not have any children in the resurrection” relates to this concept that if one’s children are not born in the covenant (due to eternal marriage covenant) or sealed to them, then when a person is resurrected, s/he will be without children. This is the whole point of JS’s temple and all the effort to seal children to parents.

  4. 4 Matt W. October 19, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    J. – I’m not sure we can interpret “increase” to mean remain with the children you already have. I was tempted to make the same statement you did, but Eric has a good point here. For Eric, I guess it would be interesting to look through Smith’s statements for other instances where he uses “Have Children” and “Increase” to see if the nature he used those terms is consistent and refers to ownership or reproduction.

    Eric-
    Good points-

    In any case, my main worry with spirit birth has been figuring out which characteristics of ours are eternal/pre-mortal and which characteristcs of ours are natural/due to our need to survive on earth. It seems to me that every possible indicator would be that sexual reproduction falls into the latter category.

    Would you allow for this quote to be read with an adoptive interpretation?

  5. 5 Last Lemming October 19, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    If there weren’t this quasi-orthodox notion of spirit birth in the Mormon consciousness, I would never read possibility #3 into that quote. Some version of possibility #2 seems muchmore straightforward as an interpretation of what Joseph meant.

    Furthermore, I don’t see possibility #2 as necessarily short-circuiting the plan of salvation. I suspect that children born of exalted parents would be physically superior to the telestial children we give birth to, and instantly resurrectable (but not pre-resurrected). But I see no reason to believe that they would be born in a spiritual state that equates to instant exaltation. The plan of salvation might look different under those circumstances, but one would still be necessary.

  6. 6 Eric Nielson October 19, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    J:

    Excellent point, and as Matt points out, I would say that the term ‘increase’ is an important one, particularly when one considers ‘continuation of the seeds’ in D&C 132.

    Matt:

    Would I allow?? Who the heck am I to allow or not allow? Why bother with gender or marriage if adoption is all there is to it? A god could be single and adopt spirit children I suppose. Gods could be genderless and adopt as well. Why bother with marriage then, or gender? Calling such adopted spirits ‘children’ even seems misleading to me.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson October 19, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    LL:

    I suppose that if the quote was all one had to go on, then I would probably agree with you. I don’t quite get your last two sentences.

  8. 8 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    The “increase” language is very much associated with sealings in this life during the Nauvoo era. E.g., check out the “Kingdom of God” diagram in the Millennial Star.

    The plural of things like “continuation of seeds” and “eternal lives” that JS (and folks like Phelps picked up on) is interesting, and I’m not sure that I am exactly clear on the denotation at this point.

  9. 9 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    …of course for those that like #2 of the original post, BY and many other church leaders into the 20th century (including, it would appear, JFSII) believed that Adam had a body before coming to earth.

  10. 10 Eric Nielson October 19, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    J:

    Thanks again. And I did think about BY and AG in #2.

  11. 11 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 6:04 pm

    .

    Re: Increase.

    “D&C 131:1-4. Increase of what? Increase of posterity.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p.16.)

    Posterity: Future generations. All of a person’s descendants.

  12. 12 Eric Nielson October 19, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    R. Gary:

    Thanks for the reference. Sometimes it is good to keep in mind that there have been prophets since Joseph Smith. (Even though he seems to get more weight).

  13. 13 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    R. Gary, that aligns very well with adoption theology in Nauvoo. Hopefully within the year, Sam and I will have published our paper on the “Law of Adoption.” But simply put, folks generally believed that one’s exaltation and glory were a function of one’s mortal posterity, either biological or by adoption.

  14. 14 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    J. Stapley, are you saying Harold B. Lee didn’t understand the Prophet Joseph Smith’s words? Or that he intentionally explained D&C 131:4 contrary to Joseph’s intent?

  15. 15 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 6:54 pm

    I’m saying that President Lee’s words don’t necessarily exclude the reading in my previous comment.

  16. 16 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    J. Stapley said, “The ‘increase’ language is very much associated with sealings in this life.”

    “In this life.” President Lee’s words exclude that reading.

  17. 17 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    “In other words, through obedience to His divine command, we here as human beings are given power to cooperate with God in the creation of a human soul here, and then beyond the grave to have eternal increase in a family relationship after this earth has concluded its work.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p.16.)

  18. 18 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    R. Gary, President Lee very well may have viewed “eternal increase” as being some sort of spirit birth. It wouldn’t surprise me. He is on record as believing in spirit birth. At the same time, spirit birth is not something that Joseph Smith taught (he taught that spirits were never created or made). As I mentioned in an earlier comment “increase” didn’t seem to have the meaning that you seem to want it to in the 1840s.

  19. 19 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    …let me clarify the previous comment by stating that when I wrote “spirit birth” I should have written “non-adoptive or viviparous spirit birth.”

  20. 20 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    “In the 1840s.” Wait. I thought we were talking about the current study guide for Priesthood and Relief Society. How about the year 2009? Are 21st century Mormons being taught post-resurrection adoption or reproduction?

  21. 21 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    R. Gary, I don’t think it is clear whether 21st century Mormons are being taught post-resurrection adoption or viviparous reproduction (or another alternative). I tend to think this is one where the General Authorities are generally content to let members believe what they want.

  22. 22 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    There are only a very few areas where the General Authorities are NOT generally content to let members believe what they want. But that notwithstanding, they clearly teach that “we will have the blessing of being sealed in a family forever with the promise of eternal increase [and] offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, or the sands of the sea shore.” (Henry B. Eying, Ensign, May 2008, pp. 61-64.)

  23. 23 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    R. Gary, those are the same promises made to Abraham and are intimately associated (as you note) with the temple. I tend to view this as a promise of earthly posterity.

  24. 24 J. Stapley October 19, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    ..and of course that earthly posterity is sealed in both earth and heaven, so it is heavenly as well.

  25. 25 R. Gary October 19, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    J. Stapley, due in part to an official statement of the First Presidency and Twelve, I tend to view it as a promise of heavenly posterity:

    “So far as the stages of eternal progression and attainment have been made known through divine revelation, we are to understand that only resurrected and glorified beings can become parents of spirit offspring. Only such exalted souls have reached maturity in the appointed course of eternal life; and the spirits born to them in the eternal worlds will pass in due sequence through the several stages or estates by which the glorified parents have attained exaltation.”

    As quoted by Jeffrey R. Holland in Christ and the New Covenant, 1997, p.369. Alsp published in Ensign, April 2002, p.18, and Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p.92.

  26. 26 Eric Nielson October 20, 2009 at 8:46 am

    R. Gary:

    Thanks for these quotes. I think if we accept statements on spirit birth from prophets subsequent to Joseph Smith then spirit birth becomes something of a non-issue slam dunk.

    J:

    I was browsing through RSR, particularly around page 444. Bushman seemed to think that there was something to a spirit posterity connected with Joseph’s thoughts on polygamy.

  27. 27 Last Lemming October 20, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I don’t quite get your last two sentences.

    Well, I haven’t thought it all through very carefully, but consider the fact that those who believe in spirit birth believe that perfect beings are giving birth to imperfect spirits. Why, then, would it be a stretch for perfect beings to give birth to spiritually imperfect physical children?

    As for the plan of salvation being different under those circumstances, I am referring mostly to the greatly reduced (if not eliminated) role of physical death and the spirit world. Any more precision than that, however, would get me into speculative territory I am not prepared to defend.

  28. 28 J. Stapley October 20, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Eric, I don’t think there is much question that Church leaders starting with Brigham Young and Orson Pratt believed in viviparous spirit birth.

    RE: Bushman. Well, no book is perfect (grin).

  29. 29 Eric Nielson October 20, 2009 at 11:32 am

    J:

    That’s funny.

    LL:

    I think that line of thinking is probably what lead to the Adam-God speculations.

  30. 30 Matt W. October 20, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    Eric:

    In your opinion, does spirit birth require spirit sex? spirit sperm and eggs? spirit fetuses? spirit uturuses? spirit gestation periods?

    I think those are the type of things which lead me toward adoption.

    I know to you it is a matter of spirit-dna making us a child of God that is important to you, right?

  31. 31 Eric Nielson October 20, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    Mostly I want to maintain the literal parent/child relationship that one only has with offspring, and remove the great divide between God and man. I really don’t care much about the details. Although if I want to defend this idea better I probably should. So to give my worthless speculations to your questions:

    Q: In your opinion, does spirit birth require spirit sex?

    A: I don’t know, and I don’t care. I don’t think it requires it, but I sort of suspect that is how it works. I think at least Widtsoe and Young thought this way.

    Q: spirit sperm and eggs?

    A: Same answer as above. Actually same for all I think. I am quite agnostic as to the details.

  32. 32 J. Stapley October 20, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Eric, I would be very interested in hearing what would be necessary, in your opinion, for this “literal parent/child relationship.” If God created our spirits asexually, would it still work for you? Would you accept the idea that God willed our spirits into existence? I’ve not really heard a solid delineation of your position, and I think the ramifications of your position are fascinating.

  33. 33 Eric Nielson October 21, 2009 at 6:58 am

    J:

    I am not sure that ‘necessary’ is the right word, but for me I prefer an offspring relationship – regardless of the method. When I think of adoption, the model quickly losses that offspring relationship and all that goes with it. If we are adopted, might God be a radically different … species from us? Maybe. If we are adopted, might exaltation be radically different from the type of life God lives? Maybe. Adoption seems to potentially compromise, in fundamental ways, much of how I view my eternal past, and my eternal future, and the nature of my relationship with God. I don’t like it at all.

    So for me I want it to be ‘necessary’ that a literal offspring relationship is maintained – which I feel is potentially lost in an adoption model. I don’t care very much how this is acomplished, but with ideas of eternal marriage, eternal purpose in gender, resurrected bodies, etc., something like sexual reproduction seems like the ‘best’ explanation. It is what I prefer – but I really don’t feel all that strongly about the method. Which is also to say I have not thought as deeply about it as others probably have.

  34. 34 Eric Nielson October 21, 2009 at 8:32 am

    And also, I feel that discussion such details has such potential for … irreverence, that I hesitate to do so. That is one of the reasons why I often (but not always) keep some distance from the details.

  35. 35 Mark D. April 4, 2010 at 3:16 am

    “Increase” can certainly mean to spiritually preside over an increasing lineal and adopted posterity. If that spiritual presidency is no established, one’s kingdom does not increase, but has an end, and his / her posterity is adopted into the kingdom or presidency of another.

    Heber C. Kimball specifically taught this concept. He complained once about members who were reluctant to allow exalted beings to preside over their own earthy posterity.

    In my view, spirit birth is not the origin of the spirit, but rather the establishment of a spiritual association or communion with those beyond the veil. Compare Mosiah 5:7:

    “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters”

    That doesn’t sound like VSB to me.


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