Joseph Smith’s Revelations on Preexistence and Spirits
The doctrine of premortal life and spirits, like many revelations from the restoration, came not all at once, but rather “line upon line and precept upon precept.”
Outlining the historical development of the concept of preexistence can be a frustrating if not maddening enterprise. Fortunately, however, others have paved the way.1
From the outset, it’s important to note the religious environment at the time. Spirit was universally held to be immaterial. Early converts to Mormonism would have accepted the traditional worldview that God created all things, including souls, ex nihilo. There were, however, differing views among Christians as to when and how the soul was created. Among the variations, two are particularly important to note. Some believed that the soul was created at the moment of conception or birth (creationism). Others believed that the souls of all men were created during God’s initial creative act in the beginning (preexistencism).
Spiritual Creation, 1830-1832
In the Latter-day Saint tradition, the first inkling of a preexistence seems to appear in Joseph Smith’s re-translation of the Bible and particularly the Genesis account.2
For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. . . . And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air; But I, the Lord God, spake, and there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also; nevertheless, all things were before created; but spiritually were they created and made according to my word. (Book of Moses 3:5-7. June – October 1830) (emphasis added).
Readers most likely would have been understood this passage to represent a preexistencist view. That is, God creates ex nihilo all the souls of men at the beginning. Furthermore, the passage interestingly suggests a dual creation. Things are created spiritually before they are created naturally. Some commentators, pointing to definitions of “spiritual” in currency at the time, suggest that the term “spiritually” signifies a conceptual or intellectual (ideal) creation that existed in the mind of God.3 On September 26, 1830, Joseph received further revelations that discussed the spiritual and the temporal (D&C 29:30-35), and again in 1832 (D&C 77:2), but after this time, spiritual creation would disappear from Joseph’s recorded sermons and revelations.4
Uncreated Intelligence, Eternal Elements, 1833
At Kirtland Ohio, on May 6, 1833, Joseph received the following revelation:
Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. . . . For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy. (D&C 93:29, 33).
Givens describes the revelation as “almost cryptic philosophical brevity with hermetic undertones” but notes that at the heart of the revelation was the independent freedom of man.5 Indeed, it is unclear how the early saints understood this revelation.6 Ostler offers several reasons why the 1833 revelation seems to intend an ideal preexistence but at the same time acknowledges that other parts of the revelation seem to intend real preexistence.7
Scouring contemporaneous accounts, Harrell notes, “There is no recorded instance during the Prophet’s lifetime in which his associates ever used in the term intelligence to designate a personal preexistent spirit” rather, intelligence was understood by the early saints to “constitute God’s glory.”8 The revelation doesn’t state that man is “a” spirit, but that man is spirit; it doesn’t state that man is “an” intelligence, but rather that the “glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.” (D&C 93:36). A revelation given four months prior described this light, which “giveth life to all things” and “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space” (D&C 88:12-13).
Ostler observes that by asserting that the elements are eternal, Joseph “departed from the classical notion of creation ex nihilo.”9 Even so, the revelation isn’t yet explicit that spirit has a kind of substance, but seems to maintain the spirit-matter dichotomy.10
Book of Abraham and Uncreated Spirits, 1835-1841
Ambiguities in the meaning of intelligence and spirit would have to wait until the advent of the Abraham papyrus, acquired by Joseph in 1835. In the third chapter of the book, the ancient patriarch Abraham “receives a panoramic vision of occult cosmology.”11 Here, Givens explains, “we see an unambiguous Mormon doctrine of fully individualized, pre-mortal humans.”12 God explains to Abraham:
[I]f 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. . . . These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all. (Book of Abraham 3:18-19).
The Abrahamic account reveals that man is an eternal spirit, without beginning or end. Although the Book of Abraham would not be published in the Times and Seasons until in 1842, the import of the text was clear to Joseph Smith: spirits were uncreated. In fact, Joseph would consistently preach on the eternal nature of spirits.
c. August 1839: “The Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from eternity and will exist to eternity.”
February 1840: “I believe that the soul is eternal; and had no beginning.”
January 1841: “If the soul of man had a beginning it will surely have an end. . . . Spirits are eternal.”
March 1841: “The spirit or the inteligence of men are self Existent principles.”
April 1842: “the spirits of men are eternal.”13
But if man is eternal, what is the point of a tabernacle? In early 1841, on the 5th of January, Joseph further expounded his views on spirits and bodies.
The great principle of happiness consists in having a body. The Devil has no body, and herein is his punishment. . . . All beings who have bodies have power over those who have not. The devil has no power over us only as we permit him.14
That same month, William Patterson McIntire, briefly sketched the following in his notebook: “Next Meeting-Joseph said that before foundation of the Earth in the Grand Counsel that the Spirits of all Men ware subject to opression & the express purpose of God in Giveing it a tabernicle was to arm it against the power of Darkness-for instance Jesus said Get behind me Satan. Also the apostle said Resist the Devil & he will flee from you” (January 19, 1841).15
Spirit is Substance and Social Organization, 1842-1843
Revelations continued. Joseph explained in March 1, 1842: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”16
In a Times and Seasons editorial “Try the Spirits” April 1842, Joseph further explicated the nature of spirits and taught, against traditional understandings, that spirit is not immaterial, but material.17 How early Joseph held this view is not clear.
[T]he body is supposed to be organized matter, and the spirit by many is thought to be immaterial, without substance. With this latter statement we should beg leave to differ-and state that 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, and will exist separate from the body, when the body will be mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it.18
While the spirit is a substance, it seems clear that Joseph believed a spirit isn’t a tabernacle and that without one spirits are vulnerable against the power of darkness. There is something unique in a tabernacle, not only for protection, but also in experiencing happiness and joy.19
After the death of Joseph Smith, many would understand Joseph’s statements to mean that if the body is organized matter, the spirit is also organized matter. Yet, Joseph declines to draw this connection and despite teaching that spirit has substance, Joseph persists to teach that spirits are uncreated. “Joseph Smith,” Harrell insists, “makes no mention of these uncreated spirits ever undergoing a change of state, such as spirit birth, prior to entering the physical body.”20 Indeed, Joseph seems to have understood the Book of Abraham to teach not a material organization, but a social one.
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. (Abraham 3:22-23).
Consistent with the Abrahamic account, Joseph taught in 1839, “The Father called all spirits before him at the creation of Man & organized them.”21 Even after revealing that spirit is substance, Joseph would continue to teach that God calls the spirits and then organizes them.22
It is a Spirit from Age to Age; There is no Creation About it, 1844
Up to this point, the reader may wonder what Joseph thought about the creation account given in the Book of Moses. If Joseph insists that the spirit of man is uncreated, did he view this as inconsistent with his 1830 retranslation that stated God “created all the children of men. . . in heaven”?
How did he interpret the Book of Moses? While, to my knowledge, we have no record of anyone asking Joseph this specific question, we have the record of his sermons and revelations after 1830. We have seen that Joseph taught that from the foundation of the world, it was God’s purpose to provide tabernacles for man and that it was there that he called the spirits forth to organize them.
On April 7, 1844, Joseph revisits the creation account, the same events discussed in the Book of Moses, and preaches on the eternal nature of man.
[S]o I must come to the resurrection of the dead, the soul, the mind of man, the immortal spirit. All men say God created it in the beginning. The very idea lessens man in my estimation; I do not believe the doctrine, I know better. Hear it all ye ends of the world, for God has told me so. . . . [W]e say that God himself is a self existing God; who told you so? it is correct enough, but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles? (refers to the old Bible,) how does it read in the Hebrew? It dont say so in the Hebrew, it says God made man out of the earth, and put into him Adam’s spirit, and so became a living body. The mind of man is as immortal as God himself.23
To defend his idea, Joseph goes back to the creation account in Genesis and explains that the Hebrew says the body is created out of the earth, but since the account says God puts the spirit into Adam, Joseph argues, it does not teach that the spirit is created. He continued even more emphatically:
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 want to reason more on the spirit of man, for I am dwelling on the body of man, on the subject of the dead. 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.-All the fools, learned and wise men, from the beginning of creation, who say that man had a beginning, proves that he must have an end and then the doctrine of annihilation would be true. But, if I am right I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops, that 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. . . . I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life, that are given to me, I know you taste it and I know you believe it. You say honey is sweet and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life; I know it is good, and when I tell you of these things, that were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive it as sweet, and I rejoice more and more.24
The doctrines of the Restoration came to the early saints in a successive series of revelations gradually “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” It is easy for modern readers of Joseph Smith to overlook some of these details, being far removed from the theological ecosystem from which Joseph worked, and from which the saints would have understood these developments. By taking a chronological approach and placing the revelations and sermons in their proper order, the nature of the Restoration seems to come into relief with a greater clarity.
1. Essential reading in this area is Blake Ostler, “The idea of pre-existence in the development of Mormon thought.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15:1 (Spring 1982): 59-78 and Charles Harrell. “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies. (Spring 1988) 28:2. See also Charles Harrell, Development of Mormon Theology. Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books (forthcoming 2010). For a discussion of pre-existence in Western thought generally see Terryl Givens. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Life in Western Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Givens briefly touches on Joseph Smith pp. 212-220.
2. Commentators seem agreed that early Latter-day Saints did not generally understand the Book of Mormon or the Bible to teach of a premortal existence. This would be a later development. Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 77; Ostler, The idea of Pre-Existence, 60; Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 360 fn. 21.
3. Ostler, The idea of Pre-Existence, 61.
4. Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 80.
5. Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 215.
6. Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 83. Harrell provides a couple examples of contemporaneous statements by Thomas Ward and Olivery Cowdery that seemed to suggest the saints understood intelligence to be a “the conscious quickening principle in man.”
7. Ostler, The idea of Pre-Existence, 75 fn. 9.
8. Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 83.
9. Ostler, Blake. Exploring Mormon Thought Vol. 1: The Attributes of God. Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2001, 77. Later, Joseph would explicitly teach (January 5, 1841): “God did not make the earth out of Nothing; for it is contrary to a Rashanall [rational] mind & Reason. that a something could be Brought from a Nothing.” Ehat, Andrew F. and Lyndon W. Cook. (eds). The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1980, 60-61.
10. See Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 83.
11. Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 215.
12. Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 215.
13. Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 85-86 (footnotes omitted).
14. Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 60. Reported by William Clayton. This sermon reveals as early as January 1841 that Joseph understood God the Father to possess a resurrected body: “There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones. John 5-26, ‘As the father hath life in himself, even so hath he given the son to have life in himself’. God the father took life unto himself precisely as Jesus did.”
15. Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 62. The McIntire Notebook also records Joseph to have taught on March 28, 1841: “Good & all his acts is for the benifit of infereir inteligences-God saw that those intelegences 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-for it is a Natureal thing with those spirits that has the most power to bore down on those of Lesser power so we see the Devil is without a tabernicle” (68). Joseph repeats many of the same teachings, but the language of this entry seems to suggest the existence of tabernacled spirits that oppressed untabernacled spirits before the creation. If accurate, the implications of such a statement are far-reaching. This idea doesn’t seem to be present in any other sermons, and in his published revelations Joseph seems to only contemplate evil spirits without a tabernacle. (D&C 129:8).
16. “Church History” Times and Seasons, Vol. 3 No. 9, March 1, 1842, p.710.
17. Harrell provides some evidence that there were some Protestant writers who saw the soul as having some kind of substance, or being “quasimaterial,” Development of the Doctrine, 85.
18. “Try the Spirits.” Times and Seasons, Vol. 3 No. 11, April 1, 1842, p.745. The editorial is unnamed but its authorship is consistently attributed to Joseph Smith. Joseph repeats the idea May 17, 1843 (“There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” D&C 131:7).
19. However, Joseph did not require gods to be tabernacled. The Son lacked a tabernacle before the incarnation and the Holy Spirit lacks a tabernacle. On June 16, 1844, Thomas Bullock recorded Joseph to teach: “I have always decld. God to be a distinct personage-J.C. a sep. & distinct pers from God the Far. the H.G was a distinct personage & or Sp[irit] & these 3 constit. 3 distinct personages & 3 Gods” (Ehat and Cook, 378, italics added, spelling modified). Ultimately, however, Joseph considered a tabernacle to be the destiny of each member of the Godhead (See Ehat and Cook, 245).
20. Harrell, Development of the Doctrine, 86. See also Van Hale, “The Origin of the Human Spirit in Early Mormon Thought,” in Gary James Bergera, ed., Line upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 116. Hale concludes, “What is surprising, however, is that none of Joseph Smith’s recorded sermons–including those delivered in Nauvoo–teach the doctrine [of spirit birth]. In fact, several seem to teach a doctrine logically at odds with the belief that spirits are the literal offspring of God through premortal birth.”
21. Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 9.
22. For more statements see Harrell, 86. Givens points to a 1908 Improvement Era article as possible evidence that Joseph taught of a “familial organization that precedes mortality.” According to Brigham Young’s daughter, Brigham had a “dream-vision” where Joseph told him: “‘Our Father in heaven organized the human family, but they are all disorganized and in great confusion’ Joseph then showed me the pattern, how they were in the beginning. This I cannot describe.” Givens, When Souls Had Wings, 217-218, 361, fn 40. Despite problems with source reliability, the idea of a social organization does seem consistent with Joseph’s thought. Pushing the social organization into the eternities Joseph would later teach “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” April 2, 1843 (D&C 130:2).
23. Conference Minutes. Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, No. 15. Nauvoo, Illinois, Aug. 15, 1844. Whole No. 99, p. 615.