B. H. Roberts and a Tripartite Model: Why Not?

I have been thinking about, and involved in, several discussions dealing with the nature of our pre-earth life. The discussion seems to center around an apparent contradiction between what Joseph Smith taught and what Brigham Young taught regarding the preexistence. Joseph Smith taught that the spirit and mind of man are eternal and were not created nor made. Brigham Young taught that we are the literal children of God and had a spirit birth to Heavenly Parents. There are some who would say this is a clear contradiction and that one, or the other, or both are wrong. Personally I think that conclusion is unwise for the following reasons:

– Revelation regarding the preexistence is quite limited. I would imagine that what revelation or inspiration was given to these prophets of God was a glimpse of things as they really are. Perhaps Joseph was shown a glimpse of one aspect and Brigham another aspect. Regardless, it seems clear that we are all dealing with partial revelation.

– Words used to describe completely new concepts will always be inadequate. New terms and ideas needed to be communicated to people who are not well prepared to receive such communication. Much like trying to describe salt to someone who has never tasted it.

– Our ability to interpret these words, and to understand the details and implications is scant. Without the spirit of revelation for ourselves we can never hope to have it all fit together nicely.

It does not make much sense to me to take an absolute stand on the details of our pre-mortal life when we are dealing with partial revelation, inadequately explained and likely improperly interpreted. If this is the case then, what shall we do?

Well, we may not be able to force more revelation. That wind tends to bloweth where it listeth. We can try to agree on the definitions of some of the terms we use, although that can be quite debatable itself. Mainly we can intentionally be somewhat generous in our interpretations of these teachings. How can we expect precision in such things? Until we can get more thorough and specific revelation we can not really expect thorough and specific knowledge of things.

I believe that this approach has been taken by some of our church leaders as well. From what little I have read it appears that in more recent years leaders such as Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie have attempted to interpret these teachings in a similar way. They seem to believe that it is the spirit elements that are eternal, and are organized into a spirit body by God. Terms like literal offspring of God are frequently used. They seem hesitant to grant the spirit element a mind and will of its own. In this way it appears to me that they are trying faithfully to combine the teachings of Joseph and Brigham on the matter, and are perhaps leaning somewhat towards Brigham. But at a certain level are saying that Joseph and Brigham are both right.

This finally brings me to B. H. Roberts. Matt W. provided me a link to ‘The Immortality of Man’ which is a good explanation of the views of Elder Roberts. This paper was published in the Improvement Era in 1906. It was reviewed by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve prior to its publication. He expresses a model of our existence which some have called a tripartite model. Tripartite referring to three aspects of our being, that of mind, spirit, and body.

I had never heard of this paper before and was thrilled to read it. This post is already long, and so will not review it significantly at this time. His take appears to be that the mind and will are eternal and might be called intelligences, that there is a begotten spirit body provided for them, and a flesh and bone body provided for the spirit. Thus the term tripartite, mind -> spirit -> body.

I tend to want my prophets to agree on things, so I am very sympathetic towards explanations that provide that possibility. I find the B. H. Roberts explanation to be the most consistent of all the explanations I have come across so far. It seems to keep the best of both Joseph’s and Brigham’s teachings and generously interprets certain aspects to make both prophets right.

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14 Responses to “B. H. Roberts and a Tripartite Model: Why Not?”


  1. 1 J. Stapley February 28, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Interesting write-up. I have a few criticisms though:

    1. Joseph was remarkably consistent in his teachings about the eternal un-created nature of the spirits (which was codified by revelation in Abraham). Consequently, your phrase, “but at a certain level are saying that Joseph and Brigham are both right” is demonstrably false.

    2. Brigham had a cosmology that included spirit birth (among other things). We as a people have declared that Brigham was simply wrong on his cosmology. If you like to have your prophets in agreement then you have already lost the war.

  2. 2 Eric Nielson March 1, 2007 at 7:13 am

    J.,

    Thanks for reading this and leaving your comment.

    I simply disagree with your conclusion in statement number 1. Your conclusion may be right, but is not necessarily right. I believe it all comes down to just what did Joseph ‘see’, were the words and terms he used precise, and are we interpreting that properly. To me those are fairly bit ‘ifs’.

    I am a bit ignorant of your claims in #2. What references can you give about this cosmolgy, and our declaration that he was wrong. I also don’t much like the last sentence much. Wanting some general agreement among the prophets seems fair and reasonable. I also believe it is quite possible. All we need is some generosity in our interpretations, and an understanding that they were dealing with partial glimpses of things.

  3. 3 larryco_ March 1, 2007 at 5:14 pm

    Truman Madsen also followed Roberts outline in his marvelous little book “Eternal Man”. I suppose this is no big surprise since Madsen is a big fan of B. H. and wrote a wonderful biography about him.

  4. 4 Eric Nielson March 1, 2007 at 5:15 pm

    larryco_:

    Thanks for the reference. I would like to read more about BH Roberts. I don’t feel like I know him very well.

  5. 5 larryco_ March 1, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    The biography is titled “Defender of the Faith”. And you will not believe the things Br. Roberts went through during his childhood.
    Fascinating stuff.

  6. 6 Matt W. March 2, 2007 at 11:31 am

    For a Brief Intro of Madsen on Roberts, check this out.

  7. 7 Eric Nielson March 2, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you so much for the link Matt. I have already printed it out and read it. Do you have a link for everything that interests me?

    Very thoughtful of you.

  8. 8 Matt W. March 8, 2007 at 11:28 am

    Give me a list of what interests you, and I’ll work on it 🙂

  9. 9 Robert July 8, 2007 at 4:07 am

    Elder Roberts’ work has been very enlightening and eye-opening in helping to ‘bridge the gap’ that seems to surround some of the differences between ‘spirit bodies’, ‘the uncreated ‘spirit/mind/intelligence’, and the human, Earthly body – with the ‘eternal’ of man being identified as the ‘uncreated mind/spirit’ that ‘takes on’ and ‘operates through’ manifestated forms. It can get somewhat confusing because we are also informed in some sources that ‘matter’ is, somehow, also linked to this uncreated intelligence – matter not necessarily being ‘eternal’ … but ever present in some state as the ‘uncreated intelligence’ manifests through it – which seems like matter arises directly in relationship to the mind or spirit ‘observing’ itself – which automatically manifests some ‘form’.

    My own thinking lies along the lines that the initial ‘form’ of man, taken on by the uncreated intelligence or ‘spirit’, was defined as a ‘spirit body’ created, begotten, procreated by Heavenly Father/Mother in the celestial realms. It would be termed a ‘spirit body’ because the form in those ‘higher realms’ would, obviously, be different according to the context. When the ‘Fall’ of man enters the picture, we are also looking at a ‘secondary’ creation of form – the Earthly human body – which the ‘spirit body’ ‘mutates’ into, so to speak. The uncreated intelligence/spirit, then, operates through this more ‘diminished’ body, then — which also contains the ‘recessive traits’ of the spirit body we originally manifested through in the higher realms in the presence of Heavenly Father. The rest, as they say, is ‘salvation history’… 🙂

  10. 11 Katharyn Ruppel August 29, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    I share the same belief as the author. Very helpful and I feel that the majority of people would agree with myself with regards to the report. Amazing Stuff and many thanks for such an informative read!

  11. 12 Eric Nielson August 29, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    You are welcome Katharyn! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

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  1. 1 Adventures in Mormonism » Blog Archive » The arc of individual existence Trackback on May 14, 2007 at 4:59 am

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