Major Doctrines of Joseph Smith: The Preexistence


“If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, we may go wrong, and it be a hard matter to get right.” – Joseph Smith Jr. (TPJS p.342)
This quotation is part of the header of The Blogger of Jared, and it fits in well with what I would like to post about – the premortal existence. I am beginning to believe that the doctrine of the premortal existence is one of the most underrated doctrines of the church. It is very unique among all major religions, and so fundamental to a proper understanding of the way things really are.

A few of my recent posts and comments have involved my understanding of the doctrine of the premortal existence. And when things have stalled out in the discussion, or in some cases started the discussion, it was based in part on differences of opinion as to just what the doctrine was. In an effort to gain a better understanding for myself as to what the important parts of this doctrine are, I did a search at lds.org. I was able to find a great article from the January 1989 Ensign titled ‘The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith: The Godhead, Mankind, and the Creation’ by Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, and John W. Welch. It can be found here. It is about 8 pages long, and I would like to review the major points of the article as they relate to the doctrine of the preexistence.
One of the first things that caught my eye was the doctine of the pre-mortal existence of Jesus Christ. The article contains the following:

Premortal existence. Jesus was in the beginning with the Father and was the Father’s firstborn spirit child. (See D&C 93:21; John 17:1, 4–5; Col. 1:15–16.) He volunteered and was chosen, sustained, and foreordained in the premortal existence to be the Savior of the world. (See Ether 3:14; Moses 4:1–4; Abr. 3:22–28; 1 Pet. 1:20.) He created the earth and is thus called the “very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.” (Mosiah 15:4; see also Mosiah 3:8; Hel. 14:12; John 1:1–3.) He was Jehovah—the God of the Old Testament, the Holy One of Israel. As Jehovah, he “gave the law” of Moses and “covenanted with [his] people Israel.” (3 Ne. 15:5; see also 2 Ne. 25:29; D&C 110:1–4; 1 Cor. 10:1–4.)

One interesting point in this paragraph was Jesus being in the beginning with the Father AND was the Father’s firstborn spirit child. Is there a contradiction here? My take on this is that Christ has an eternal intelligence just like everyone else, and was in the permortal existence as a spirit child of Heavenly Father for such a long time that we may consider it to be from the beginning. But I personally believe that the spirit body of Jesus was a created spirit child of heavenly parents just like all of us were. Later on in the article the authors pointed out that Joseph received knowledge that ‘man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be’ (D&C 93:29). So the fact that Jesus was in the beginning with God, does not necessarily make him different from us on it’s own.

Another point of interest for me was a quotation that I had never seen regarding the preexistence of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith was quoted as saying ‘the Holy Ghost is yet a spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body’ (Ehat and Cook ‘The Words of Joseph Smith’ p. 382). I wish I would have found that for my Holy Ghost speculation post. Perhaps I will add that as a comment on that post.

This is getting a little long. One last paragraph that strengthens my belief in a literal spirit birth in the preexistence:

From revelations given to Joseph Smith (see D&C 131–32) and from his own comments about them, plus subsequent statements from later prophets, (Teachings 300, Origin of Man, Doctrines of Salvation 2:68-69) we know that spirit bodies are procreated by resurrected, exalted couples who have “a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” (D&C 132:19.) Spirits are “begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father.” (Origin of Man) In our own primeval births, the eternal intelligence part of us was “organized” and provided opportunity to become part of God’s plan of salvation—with the potential to become like him. This doctrine is ennobling and intriguing—a subject that we hope will be among the many great and important things about which God will yet reveal more. (See A of F 1:9.)

The doctrine of the preexistence is a critical one, and very important to everything that comes after. I consider it one of the great contributions of the restoration of the gospel. I would be glad to hear your comments on this article and my little review of it.

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17 Responses to “Major Doctrines of Joseph Smith: The Preexistence”


  1. 1 J. Stapley March 27, 2006 at 10:49 pm

    🙂

    Well, we have discussed this several times and I realize that I will likely not dissabuse you of your conviction of “celestial procreation.”

    So, I will simply state that Joseph Smith was rather clear that spirits are eternal and uncreated and I would be happy to furnish documentation.

    The concept of celestial procreation for spirit creation, while popular, is later inovation and isn’t exlicitly tought in scripture or revelation.

  2. 2 Eric March 28, 2006 at 5:46 am

    J.

    🙂

    I have to believe that the references to eternal spirits were either in regard to intelligences or the word eternal referring to a very very long period of time.

    As far as ‘celestial procreation’ not explicitly being taught in the scriptures, I might float a few out:

    Hebrews 12:9 – Being in subjection to the father of spirits.

    Romans 8:16 – The spirit bearing witness to our spirit that we are the children of God, heirs of God, joint heirs with Jesus.

    John 21:17 – Touch me not, I ascent to my father and your father, my God and your God.

    I don’t have my scriptures with me and I am on break at work so I’m paraphrasing here. But to say this idea is not taught in the scriptures is not being very objective. What is all this father talk about? All you really need to do is read what the scriptures SAY with a literal spin and you have all the scriptural evidence you need. When I combine that with the proclamation on the Family, Origin of Man, and the Life before Birth article in the February Ensign it seems that I have a good hand here. (Although I haven’t seen the turn or the river yet) Can I give poker references here?

    Anyway if I am out to lunch on this issue, it seems to be with GBH and Joseph F Smith, the good folks at the Ensign, so I have some good company.

    By the way, all I know about poker is from watching espn.

  3. 3 Eric March 28, 2006 at 8:35 am

    And also J, how explicit do you expect the scriptures to be on this? A Celestial version of the birds and the bees? I don’t quite see that, even if the ‘celestial procreation’ when taken to literal exteems were true.

    Of course I do not know the expilcit details, but a literal parent/child relationship with God, and a literal spiritual sibling relationship with Christ seems to be what we were intended to believe.

  4. 4 C Jones March 28, 2006 at 9:07 am

    Eric- I just started re-reading a favorite book Eternal Man by Truman G. Madsen.
    Here’s the first few lines:

    “Modern revelation, said the Prophet Joseph Smith, establishes ‘a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.’
    No insights, no set of flashes, are more revolutionary to the axioms of religion in the Western world that these three:
    A. Man and woman are not derived from a void. They are beginningless. Their primal existance, as uncreated and indestructible intelligences, is everlasting.
    B. The creation of spirit or soul is not a fiat act at the time of mortal conception or birth. It is really Divine procreation in a world of glory.
    C. Physical birth in mortality is not totally at the initiative of God the Father. It is in part the result of premortal, individual election and foresight which are in harmony with uncreated law.”

    You may have been the only person who read my last post about the Instructor magazine (thanks :>) Anyway, apparently this book began when Madsen was asked to write one essay in that magazine sketching out the Mormon ideas about the preexistance as compared to the present-day philosophical approaches to mankind. The response was so great that the Instructor asked him to write follow-up chapters to explore his ideas in more detail.

    Madsen seems to agree with you that Joseph Smith taught some kind of divine procreation.

  5. 5 Eric March 28, 2006 at 9:33 am

    C Jones.

    Thank you for that, I don’t think I’m alone in this. It is interesting how this links to your Instructor magazine article. Small world.

    And yes, this whole preexistence thing is big time doctrine.

  6. 6 J. Stapley March 28, 2006 at 10:50 am

    I guess I would say that the scriptures teach us the same thing about Christ being our father. I also am very interested in any documentation that Joseph taught that spirits are not eternal.

    I do believe that we have heavenly parents and that there is a process of spiritual birth. I just believe that spirits existed before they are literally born to God (though not physically concieved), and you think that they were intelligences and are spiritually concieved by some act of celestial copulation. I have Joseph Smith on my side and am content with that.

  7. 7 Eric March 28, 2006 at 11:44 am

    So in your view, can you explain to me what the difference is between a spirit that already exists, and one that has been literally born of God? I admit to being confused by this.

  8. 8 J. Stapley March 28, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    Well, I imagine that it is a covenant relationship. Scripturally, we are spiritually begotten by Christ:

    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.

  9. 9 Eric March 28, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you J., now I understand where you are coming from much better. It may have seemed like an obvious simple answer to give me, but it was very helpful.

    I was flipping through my copy of Teachings this evening and reading the prophets address to the twelve on July 2, 1839. During this address he makes the following statement, ‘The spirit of man is not a created being; it existed from all eternity, and will exist to eternity.’ There is a footnote given (I assume by Joseph F. Smith) which says, ‘In saying the spirit of man is not created the Prophet without any doubt had in mind the intelligence as explained in the D&C 93:29 …’ (p. 158) It is interesting that he felt strongly enough about this to put this footnote in, thus ‘correcting’ the Prophet.

    A similar footnote is given in the King Follet discourse by BH Roberts on page 352. He says, ‘It appears to be very clear that the Prophet had in mind the intelligence when he said the soul – the mind of man – the immortal spirit was not created or made, and he did not have reference to the spirit as a begotten child of God. It was the doctrine of the Prophet, and is of the church, that the spirits of men are begotten sons and daughters of God….’ Again it is interesting that BH Roberts felt strongly enough to provide this footnote thus ‘correcting’ the prophet.

    Is it possible that Joseph Smith at times used ‘Spirit’ and ‘Intelligence’ interchangeably?

    From what I understand about your covenant approach, is the parent/child relationship between God and man just symbolic? I will say that the Mosiah 5:7 scripture is somewhat symbolic to me.

  10. 10 J. Stapley March 28, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Indeed, belief in spirit birth was popularized by Brigham’s Adam-God teachings. That obviously fell out of favor, but some popularizations remained. It was folks like Roberts that made the first attempts at bringing together the Teaching of Joseph with the later additions. There is no question that both BH and JFS were believers in physical spirit procreation. As I mentioned, Brigham popularized it quite well.

    Joseph, however, equated the spirit of man, the intelligence of man and the mind of man.

    As to a symbollic vs literal reading of any text. I take Mosiah to be quite literal, which reading is consistent with our christian and mormon theology. Another example of no physical covenant kinships would be JFSII’s explanation of exaltation in Answers to Gospel Questions (which was rooted in Joseph’s teachings):

    Moreover, we discover that the promises of exaltation to become joint heirs with him and to become sons of God…

  11. 11 Ryan March 28, 2006 at 10:38 pm

    If I could be so bold as to jump into the discussion here and add a thought I had:

    I have sometimes heard discussions on topics like this criticized because in the end, knowing which answer is correct will not alter my relationship with the Savior and my trying to learn to love Him and my neighbor.

    This criticism, fallacious or not, brings us to an interesting process for solving the puzzle. Namely, if this truly is a doctrine necessary for my salvation, how can I use it to my advantage during this life?

    That is, if Jonathan is correct, what does that mean for me in terms of applicability of the doctrine? Is there a relationship to my salvation in his interpretation of the revelations?

    Likewise for Eric’s interpretation.

    Perhaps if we can find the link between this knowledge and our mortal probation, we can better nail down the correct doctrine, or at least exclude the one that seems to have no viable relationship to our progression on earth.

    I think that doesn’t really make sense but it works out in my head and that’s the best way I know how to explain it.

  12. 12 Eric March 29, 2006 at 5:45 am

    Ryan –

    I don’t believe that eternal salvation itself is at stake here. If we had clear explicit revelation on this maybe, but it seems that we don’t.

    What does this discussion mean? Well, it comes down to first priciples of religion. To know the character and attributes of God, and to know what we worship. This isn’t if the pealy gates swing or slide stuff IMO.

    For me it is important to think of myself as the same ‘spiritual race’ as God. If I am not then my ideas of how things really are would crumble down. I have enough anchors to my testimony that I’ll be ok either way, but I think the quality of my worship is what may be at stake.

    My need to think of being the same ‘spirit race’ as God leads me to favor what I consider current church doctrine and Joseph F. Smiths take on some of the statements of Josepf Smith, regarding a literal spirit birth.

    On the other hand, the covenenat model J. suggests combined with the original statements of Joseph Smith, and added to by Mosiah 5:7 gives me a much deeper understanding of J.’s opinion, and a much higher respect for it. I still don’t agree with it, but I understand and respect it more.

    What may come of this? I hope for a day in my future when I have reached a level of ‘study it out in my own mind’ and then seeking some personal revelation regarding the nature of God and my relationship to Him. I have great hope for an eventual satisfying result. Such discussions as this are an important part of my effort to ‘study it out’ in preparation for seeking personal revelation.

  13. 13 Wade March 29, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Eric,

    Your last comment to Ryan is brilliant!

    As for my view: scripture, prophetic writings, and discourses confirm Eric’s view is correct. J definitly does have an interesting slant on the issue. But this is something entirely new and never preached before.

    J can argue Joseph taught it, but he never taught it explicitely enough to resolve the debate. On the other hand, virtually every prophet has sided with Eric’s view (the majority view) on the issue. Saying that Brigham “popularized” the current belief is not persuasive. Brigham was very closely tutored by Joseph in regard to doctrine. If Joseph taught the lack of an actual physical fatherhood of God, this would have come across to Brigham. It didn’t. Instead, what came across to Brigham was what he preached – the current belief system today.

    Scripture plainly teaches that we are the literal offspring of God.

  14. 14 Wade March 29, 2006 at 4:35 pm

    Also,

    I think getting into the game of semantics is counterproductive when attempting to understand scripture or prophetic teachings, such as the King Follet Discourse. There are many anomolies in word usage that could throw people off if they take them on as their “pet doctrines”.

    One example of this is the usage of the word SOUL. The common usuage of this word is clearly a reference to the premortal spirits of men and women. This is taught in Abraham ch. 3. There Abraham teaches that our intelligences which existed before we were born here are called souls. This is an unmistakable teaching.

    However, DC 88:15 teaches that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man”.

    So which is it? Well, obviously the word soul is interchangeable to mean both. It’s the only explanation. The same is true when we think about Joseph’s usage of the word Spirit when he was actually referring to premortal intelligence. We shouldn’t get too caught up in this seemingly trivial usage of a word and automatically come to the conclusion that we really aren’t the actual offspring of God.

  15. 15 Eric March 29, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    Thanks Wade.

    I hope everyone understands that my purpose in all of this is to seek truth, not to debate. No way do I pretend to know all the answers. I also agree that perhaps a big part of debate on this is due to terms and definitions.

    J. I sincerely see where you are coming from more than I did before. I still believe in a literal spirit birth, but I appreciate your help in gaining additional understanding.

  16. 16 Tigersue March 29, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    I’m going to jump in this discussion and simply say…
    We don’t know what intelligence is, we know it is eternal, we know it exists, but what is it that gives intelligence identity, makes it distinguishable from one to another. How is gender desided, those are so many of my questions, things that I’m not sure are answered. I happen to believe it is different from our spirits. Can it even be comparable to what our spirit is to our bodies. Something needed for the spirit to exist and function on a higher plane?

  17. 17 Eric March 30, 2006 at 8:28 am

    Very interesting questions Tigersue. I agree that there are probably not sure answers to you questions here. I’m not even really comfortable guessing at this point.


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