In Radio Free Mormon's recent podcast, Making Doctrine Out of Nothing at All, he points out the tension between JS' teaching that "spirits are eternal" and the idea of spirit birth (1/5/1841). RFM is not the first to point out this tension. Scholars of Mormonism have debated whether JS taught spirit birth or some form of spirit adoption (for example, see here, here, here, and here). Multiple statements by Joseph Smith appear to negate the idea of literal spirit birth, but on the other hand, D&C 132's "continuation of the seed" perpetuated only by couples sealed in the new and everlasting covenant infers some kind of eternal progeny in a traditional family setting. However, these two contradictory ideas can be surprisingly and satisfactorily reconciled when viewed through the lens of multiple mortal probations.
God Never Did Have Power to Create the Spirit of Man at All
For those unfamiliar with the idea that JS didn't teach or believe in literal spirit birth, Following is a list of teachings and texts cited to support the idea of no spirit birth:
- "Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal." See Abraham 3:18.
- "Spirits are eternal." & "If the soul of man had a beginning it will surely have an end." See JS' comments on 1/5/1841.
- "spirit is a substance; that it is material, but that it is more pure, elastic and refined matter than the body; that it existed before the body, can exist in the body... Without attempting to describe this mysterious connection, and the laws that govern the body and the spirit of man, their relationship to each other, and the design of God in relation to the human body and spirit, I would just remark, that the spirits of men are eternal," See Times and Seasons article on 4/1/1842.
- "He says the spirit or the intelligence of men are self Existent principles before the foundation this Earth--& quotes the Lords question to Job "where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the Earth" Evidence that Job was in Existing somewhere at that time he says God is Good & all his acts is for the benifit of infereir intelligences-- God saw that those inteligences had Not power to Defend themselves against those that had a tabernicle therefore the Lord Calls them togather in Counsel & agrees to form them tabernicles so that he might Gender the Spirit & the tabernicle togather so as to create sympathy for their fellowman." See JS' comments on 3/28/1841.
- "God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself--Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle--is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it." See William Clayton's notes on JS' King Follett Sermon.
- "Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal, and yet have a beginning? Because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end; good logic... I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning. Suppose you cut it in two; but as the Lord lives there would be an end... God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself: intelligence exists upon a self existent principle, it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it." See Times and Season's report of JS' King Follett Sermon.
- "How came spirits? Why they are and were self existing as all eternity and our spirits are as eternal as the very God is himself." See George Laub's summary of JS' King Follett Sermon.
The above quotes contradict the modern LDS understanding that spirits are born of heavenly parents, in which process, intelligence as an eternal substance is clothed on with spirit and becomes a spirit son or daughter of God, and as mentioned earlier, they also run counter to D&C 132's inference of a traditional family setting in exaltation with parents and children. However, D&C 132 does not specify that the "continuation of the seed" consists of literal spirit children, and when viewed in context with JS' other teachings in the 1840s, it very possibly instead refers to mortal children.
JS' Multiple Mortal Probations
In order to understand how progeny in the eternal worlds would start with mortal birth instead of spiritual birth, we need to understand the concept of multiple mortal probations. There is evidence that JS taught that those who would go onto exaltation would experience at least one additional mortal existence, as a Savior like Jesus Christ. In 1841 JS taught, "that the God & father of our Lord Jesus Christ was once the same as the Son or Holy Ghost but having redeemed a world he had a son Jesus Christ who redeemed this earth the same as his father had a world which made them equal & the Holy Ghost would to the same when in his turn & so would all the Saints who inherited a Celestial glory so their would be Gods many & Lords many their were many mansions even 12 from the abode of Devils to the Celestial glory" (see citations and discussion here). JS apparently believed in a regress of Gods, that Heavenly Father "redeemed a world" similar to Christ's redemptive acts for this world, and that the Holy Ghost would one day do the same (see additional evidence here). The key phrase in the quote above comes at the end when it states that "so would all the Saints who inherited a Celestial glory so their would be Gods many." According to JS, somehow the path of exaltation for celestial heirs includes an additional mortality as a Christ or the Son (see additional discussion and evidence here).
That JS was generally flirting with the idea of multiple mortal probations is evidenced by the following (many of these don't point to a specific theology of multiple mortal probations, but instead just suggest that it was somehow part of JS' thoughts and teachings in the 1840s):
- Joseph reportedly believed in reincarnation in this period. "Apostle Lorenzo Snow said that "his sister, the late Eliza R. Snow Smith, was a firm believer in the principle of reincarnation and that she claimed to have received it from Joseph the Prophet, her husband." Prescendia Huntington Buell (later Kimball) also affirmed her belief in "plural probations," referring to a statement "in confirmation" by her polyandrous husband Joseph Smith." See the Multiple Mortal Probations: LDS Related Quotes document found at Brian Hales' mormonpolygamydocuments.org.
- Heber C. Kimball, who taught some version of multiple mortal probations at various times, claimed that JS, in the Nauvoo period, had declared Kimball's multiple mortal probation doctrine as true: "I frequently talk about the clay in the hands of the potter. The Lord said to Jeremiah, "I will show you a thing that I cannot tell you. Go down to the potter's house, and I will be there, but you shall not see me; and I will make that potter mar a vessel." Jeremiah went down to the potter's house, and the Lord showed him the very thing he had promised; for the potter undertook to make a vessel, and the clay marred in his hands, and he cut it off the wheel and threw it into the mill; "and now," says he, "take it out again and shape it into a ball, and turn it into a vessel of honour." He did that very thing, though it is not written. The Scriptures say that out of the same lump he made a vessel first unto dishonour, and then unto honour. I USED TO PREACH UPON THAT IN NAUVOO, AND JOSEPH SAID IT WAS THE TRUE INTERPRETATION. Now, Jeremiah was a man like brother Brigham, brother Heber, Amasa, and thousands of the servants of God that were valiant. There are thousands here that have never seen a potter's house. But if I was in one, I could take a lump of clay and show you; and perhaps, being out of practice, it would mar in my hands: then I would throw it back into the mill and grind it, and afterwards I would take it up again and make a vessel unto honour. And thus the Lord said to Jeremiah, "As you see that clay mar in the hands of the potter, so shall it be with the house of Israel. They shall go and be in prison till I bring them out and make them vessels unto honour." That is to be done in the latter days, when the Lord is to say to the dry bones, "Come forth," and so on. Go and read the Bible, and you will learn about it. It will be just so with thousands and tens of thousands who will embrace "Mormonism:" they will go back into the mill again, through disobedience." (Heber C. Kimball, JOURNAL OF DISCOURSES, 5:271f)
- Multiple mortal probations can be inferred from George Laub's summary of the King Follett sermon, or at least the specific version in which celestial heirs and godhood complete a mortal probation as a Christ. Laub wrote "Jesus Christ spoke in this manner; I do as my Father before me did. Well what did the Father do? Why he went and took a body and went to redeem a world in the flesh and had power to lay down his life and to take it up again... For we are to go from glory to glory and as one is raised to a higher, so the next under him may take his degree and so to take the exaltation through the regular channel. When we get to where Jesus is, he will be just as far ahead of us again in exaltation." See Laub's Summary.
- EDIT: This bullet point is less relevant as I've learned that William Clayton's journal notes the appearance of Peter, James, and John in the endowment after JS' death. The endowment appears to show beings as physical that we would normally assume to only be spirits because they have mortal existences yet to live out. As the endowment was specifically intended to help the Saints decipher true messengers from false messengers (see JS' comments on 5/1/1842 and his comments on the "keys of the kingdom" on 4/28/1842), it appears that these beings are meant to be taken as literally physical when considered in conjunction with JS' repeated instructions that righteous spirits don’t shake hands (see JS' comments on 6/27/1839, 8/8/1939, 12/1840, 3/21/1841, and 4/9/1843). Taken together this all infers some kind of general MMP mechanism.
- D&C 132:22-25, which dates from the Nauvoo period, can easily be interpreted as some form of reincarnation or multiple mortal probations: "For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know. But if ye receive me in the world, then shall ye know me, and shall receive your exaltation; that where I am ye shall be also. This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law. Broad is the gate, and wide the way that leadeth to the deaths; and many there are that go in thereat, because they receive me not, neither do they abide in my law."
- In 1846 “Brigham Young laid hands on Heber C. Kimball and "Ordained him to the Godhead, and that he would act as the Savior to a world or worlds." This was part of a long prayer. Promised wives, seed without number, be full partaker with Abraham, Isaac., and Jacob. The Godhead was a different blessing from Godhood. (Some received only Godhood.) Heber C. Kimball then did the same to Brigham Young, i.e., ordained him to The Godhead. They in turn did it by proxy for Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Other saints (W.W. Phelps) were blessed to act in Trinities (or Presidencies of worlds)." See Hale’s Multiple mortal probations document.
- An interesting account by Joseph Lee Robinson: "We also heard him (Joseph) say that God had revealed unto him that any man who ever committed adultery in either of his probations that that man could never be raised to the highest exaltation in the celestial glory and that he (Joseph) felt anxious with regard to himself and he inquired of the Lord and the Lord told him that he, Joseph, had never committed adultery (D&C 132:41). This saying of the Prophet astonished me very much. It opened up to me a very wide field of reflection. The idea that we had passed through probations prior to this and that we must have been married and given in marriage in those probations or there would be no propriety in making such an assertion and that there were several exaltations in the servants to the Gods. Be this as it may, this is what he said." See Journal of Joseph Lee Robinson, http://planetnielsen.com/joseph_lee_robinson/jlr_basic_journal.pdf, pp. 40-41. Some people have argued that JS's phrase, "either probation," could refer to our mortal probation and preexistence (1st and 2nd estates), and frankly, this seems like a plausible understanding of the quote, which in that scenario it at least infers that spirits were married in the preexistence. However, obviously Robinson understood Joseph as referring to some version of multiple mortal probations, which makes us wonder if there was more than what Robinson reported or if he was piecing together other things he'd heard Joseph say. No matter, he understood JS to mean multiple mortal probations, and the date of the quote is just shy of the Woodruff's notes about progression of the Godhead, being the fall of 1841.
Joseph Smith and Adam-God
Another evidence that JS taught and believed in some version of multiple mortal probations is Brigham's and others' claims that JS taught Adam-God. Here are a few references:
- "It was Joseph's doctrine that Adam was God ... God comes to earth and partakes of the fruit. Joseph could not reveal what was revealed to him." Brigham Young Papers, Meeting of Quorum of Twelve, 4 April 1860.
- "President Young said Adam was Michael the Archangel and he was the Father of Jesus Christ and is our God and that Joseph taught this principle." 16 December 1876, Meeting of School of Prophets, Wilford Woodruff Journal.
- "Joseph said that Adam was our Father and God." Brigham Young Papers, 14 May 1876.
- "I heard Joseph say...”Adam is the Father of our bodies. Who is to say He is not the Father of our spirits.”" John Taylor, 13 January 1880, L. John Nuttall Papers.
- "Now regarding Adam: He came here from another planet - an immortalized being and brought his wife Eve with him - and by eating of the fruit of the earth, became subject to death and decay - was made mortal and subject to death." Joseph Smith to Anson Call, John M. Whitaker Papers. This is a late remembrance apparently filtered through the memory of Brigham's 1852 Adam-God sermon.
A Plausible Theology
Though the modern LDS understanding of Elohim as God the Father and Jehovah as God the Son wasn't articulated in JS' time, the godhead presented in the endowment can be inferred to reflect this understanding if Elohim is taken as God the Father, Jehovah as the Son and second in authority, and Adam/Michael as third in authority, which would be consistent with JS' explicit statement about Adam acting under the direction of Christ. This apparently creates a new version of the Godhead replacing the Holy Ghost with Adam or even equating the two. Extremely relevant here are JS' several statements that Christ did what the Father had already done and that the Holy Ghost was to eventually follow in their footsteps (see Wilford Woodruff's notes on 12/30/1841 referenced above, JS's comments on the Holy Ghost being in a probationary state on 8/27/1843, and his comments on the Holy Ghost on 6/16/1844). If the endowment is interpreted to indicate that Michael/Adam is the Holy Ghost, and we apply this progression of God from Holy Ghost to Christ to Father, one of the possible models of exaltation would run as follows:
- Exalted being enters a Godhead.
- During his first role as Michael/Adam, he becomes mortal by eating of the tree of knowledge.
- Adam dies and is the Holy Ghost.
- If he passes his probationary state as the Holy Ghost, he goes on to "redeem a world" as a Christ, like the Son and the Father before him.
- Eventually he reaches the stage of Elohim and becomes the head of a godhead.
A possible inspiration for the metaphor of seed as mortal progeny, can be found in 1st Corinthians 15, certainly known to JS as it is the same chapter that inspired D&C 76. The pertinent section reads:
In the metaphor the seed is the mortal body and the full grown plant is the resurrected body, and can be easily applied to an exaltation that consists of siring mortal children which are later resurrected. The last verse is of particular note, which calls Christ the "last Adam." This explicit connection between Christ and Adam may have inspired JS.36 Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die:37 And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:38 But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.39 All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
Another passage from D&C 132 that should be considered states that polygamous wives enter into the new and everlasting covenant "for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men." According to a revelation by JS the soul of man is not his spirit but, "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C 88:15). Again, this is consistent with a model in which exalted beings have mortal children.
Not only does this theology solve the issue of spirit adoption vs. birth, but it also provides an interesting interpretation of the endowment. The participant's taking on the role of Adam or Eve and then taking on symbols of Christ would be a representation of future roles of exaltation or "eternal lives."
Also of note, is the easy solution the theology provides to Brigham's teachings about Jehovah being the father of Adam and Elohim being Adam's grandfather. Brigham's thoughts run counter to our modern understanding of Elohim being the Father of Christ's and Adam's spirits, but in the proposed theology things work a differently from our modern understanding in an interesting way. The current Christ would have previously been an Adam, and the current Adam presumably would have been one of the righteous mortal men of the former Adam's lineage lineage. That would make Christ the patriarchal father of Adam, and if the pattern is continued upstream, that would make Elohim Adam's grandfather. While clearly Brigham wasn't envisioning things this way, if Elohim as grandfather and Jehovah as father originated with JS, then it's easy to see how it may have originally fit.
This theory is not without it's problems and holes. I don't have contemporary recorded statements from JS on important issues like Adam being the father of our spirits or being a resurrected being. I also don't have any statements at all by JS equating Adam with the Holy Ghost or indicating that heirs of exaltation would fill a role like Adam's. There is also the issue of the endowment portraying the moment when Micheal's spirit enters Adam's body. However, I believe this should be considered less problematic, since Brigham Young was tasked with organizing the endowment, and he apparently didn't alter that part of the endowment despite his ardent belief that Adam was already a resurrected belief when he first came to the garden of Eden.
Despite the weaknesses I've presented and likely others I haven't thought of, the strengths of this theory are clear. It resolves the question whether JS taught spirit birth or adoption, gives a plausible explanation for the various claims that connect JS with elements of Adam-God, and it provides a fairly coherent theology for JS' teachings from the late 1830s through the end of his life. I hope that others will chime in with insights, and I'm sure the new documents that are being made available will shed further light and knowledge on this mysterious chapter of Mormon history.