Darwinism’s Influence on the Mormon View of Spirits – Part II
This is Part Two in a series. Part One briefly describes the history leading up to the Nov. 1909 Doctrinal Exposition, The Origin of Man. This post will cover the Exposition itself.
In November 1909, Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund issued one of the first doctrinal statements of the time titled The Origin of Man.1 This doctrinal exposition was forged in the polemic fires of religious America’s inevitable confrontation with Darwin’s Origin of the Species, published 50 years earlier on November 24, 1859.
Given the history leading up to the Exposition and the developments at Brigham Young University at the time (see Part One), it is clear that the Exposition’s main purpose was to demonstrate the complete incompatibility of Darwin’s theory of evolution with revealed truth:
It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men.
How did the Exposition go about achieving its purpose? Like Protestants and Catholics in America at the time, the authors of the statement pointed to the biblical creation account and stressed that the answer was clear: “Man was created in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:27).
Preexistence Meet Darwin
However, the Church had something that other Christians did not possess in their theological arsenal: the doctrine of a premortal existence.
In his survey of preexistence in Western thought, Terryl Givens makes the following observation: “the Mormon doctrine of preexistence is, in many regards, unique. Its origin certainly is, insofar as, unlike virtually all other versions, it did not arise out of Smith’s engagement with any particular moral, theological, or philosophical dilemma. In that regard, it is as if Mormonism propounds the solution, but isn’t sure what the question is.”2
If the preexistence was a solution seeking a theological problem, it appears to have found it in Darwinism and the battle over the origin of man. The Exposition explains:
The doctrine of the preexistence—revealed so plainly, particularly in latter days—pours a wonderful flood of light upon the otherwise mysterious problem of man’s origin. It shows that man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father, prior to coming upon the earth in a temporal body to undergo an experience in mortality.
A structural analysis reveals that the Exposition sought to attack Darwinism on two fronts; first, by appealing to the physical creation of man, and second, by appealing to the spiritual creation of man. Not only did God create the body of man in his image, but God also created the spirit of man in his image as well. Ergo, Darwin’s theory cannot be true.
The first argument was shared with fellow Protestants and Catholics; the second argument seemed to be uniquely Mormon.
Making the Case
To make this later argument, the Exposition marshaled the strongest scripture for the notion that God created the spirits of man in his image. The Exposition would hark back to the spiritual creation passages in the 1830 Book of Moses (Moses 3:5) which passages were consistent with a preexistencist view of spirits and compatible with creation out of nothing. It isn’t surprising that this would be the scripture of choice.
In addition to the 1830 Book of Moses account, the Exposition followed Orson Pratt’s 1872 suggestion that the Book of Ether (in the Book of Mormon) teaches that God creates the spirit of man in the image of God.3 Before Pratt, there is no record of any Mormon reading the Book of Ether in this manner.
Pratt’s reasoning was as follows: Jesus Christ explains to the Brother of Jared that men are created in his image, and because Jesus Christ appears as spirit before the Incarnation, then Jesus Christ must be referring to the creation of the spirit of man in the image of the spirit of God.
After employing Moses and Ether, the Exposition further bolstered Whitney’s biological terms found in his 1882 article, Man’s Origin and Destiny, in describing man’s spiritual origins by making the link between man and God even more direct.4 Man is the “direct and lineal offspring of Deity” and “literally the sons and daughters” of God. James E. Talmage had stressed the “literal relationship” in 1901 and 1905. Talmage, along with John A. Widtsoe, and George H. Brimhall reviewed the draft of The Origin of Man, and the language of the draft is consistent with his views.
Joseph, the Book of Abraham and Uncreated Spirits
Notably absent from the Exposition is any reference to the Book of Abraham which greatly influenced Joseph’s religious thought from 1835 to his death in 1844. Furthermore, no reference would be made to Joseph’s Nauvoo revelations on the spirit of man.
In April 1844, Joseph took a ring from his finger and observed that the ring has no beginning and no ending. Joseph likened this to the immortal spirit:
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.5
Joseph was repeating the doctrine taught in the Book of Abraham: “if there be two spirits,” God told Abraham, “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.” (Book of Abraham 3:18).
The Gospel of John taught that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In 1833, Joseph revealed that “Man was also in the beginning with God.” Joseph rocked the Christian world by suggesting that man and God were both uncreated and eternal, thus shattering God’s monopoly on eternality. This point, however, was mooted in the Darwinian controversy. Over 75 years later, Joseph’s initial revelation on God and man’s uncreated nature, was set aside to make way for the argument that spirits are created by God, essentially reconfiguring man’s relationship through a spiritual biology.
Joseph’s teachings would not serve the Doctrinal Exposition’s purposes of arguing that God creates the spirit of man in his image, and could not support its assertion that all men women are “literally the sons and daughters of Deity.” If Joseph is right and the spirit is eternal and cannot be created, it is difficult to see how a literal son and daughter relationship could be possible. For Joseph, mankind becomes sons and daughters through covenant, not through biology.
Children of God by Covenant
On January 16, 1843, one year and five months before the martyrdom of the prophet, and after Joseph revealed that spirit has substance, the Times and Seasons ran an article titled “Sons of God.”
To be a son of God, is to be born of God, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh but of God: to be related to, and be the son of God. Paul says in writing to the Galatians, “now ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus6; for as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ7 … and if ye be Christs, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”8 We may here pause-and ask, what we inherit? says Paul, “ye are heirs of God, and joint heirs with Jesus Christ our Lord.”9 … and hence in Gal, iv: 4-7, it is written, “But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his son made of a woman-made under the law10, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.11 And because ye are sons. God hath sent forth the spirit of his son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.12 Wherefore thou art no more a servant but a son; and if a son. then an heir of God through Christ.”13 …
There is a depth, a dignity and glory connected with this subject that very few have had any idea of; but when rightly understood it has a tendency to enlarge the heart, expand the capacity, to give us just, and comprehensive views of the plans of Jehovah, and it justifies the ways of God to man. Narrow prejudice and bigotry flees at its approach, and haggard superstition hides its head in shame. It was a subject upon which the apostles loved to dwell; and Paul in writing to the Galatians concerning their departure from the simplicity of the gospel,-portrays the dignity, the freedom, the blessings, and the glory of the sonship in striking and vivid colors….14
This had been Joseph’s model from the beginning.15 We become sons and daughters of God by entering into covenant with God. In fact, in the very same chapter that Orson Pratt cites to prove the spirits are created, the Lord says: “In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.” (Ether 3:4).
In the Book of Moses as well, God tells Moses “Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons. Amen.” (Moses 6:68). Joseph has the prophet Enoch exclaiming “Behold, our father Adam taught these things, and many have believed and become sons of God. (Moses 7:1).
The doctrine of becoming children of God through covenant pervades the Book of Mormon narrative. King Benjamin explains:
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. (Mosiah 5:7)
The notion that we become children of God through covenant gave way to an emphasis on a kind of spiritual biology where spirits are begotten in the image of God in a premortal realm.16
Orthodoxy Forged in the Battle Over Heresy
In this way, the Origin of Man sought out elements in the Mormon corpus of scripture that would be most useful in the battle against the theory of evolution. Joseph Smith’s theology based on the Abrahamic account would not provide the necessary ammunition. The Church did not create new doctrine ex nihilo to battle the Darwinian heresy, rather it drew upon certain concepts and ideas in the wellspring of Mormon thought, bolstered and refined them, and as a result, such ideas became dominant.
The doctrine of uncreated spirits, and the doctrine of becoming sons and daughters by covenant became recessive genes in Mormonism, not extinct but decidedly dormant.
While many observers have understood the doctrinal exposition as setting forth the Church’s view on evolution, perhaps the real lasting effect of the doctrinal exposition was not to present one coherent and unified understanding of evolution, but rather to configure the Mormon understanding of the nature of spirits for generations to come.
In the next post, we will examine what happened after the Exposition.
1. “The Origin of Man.” Improvement Era, Vol. 13, No. 1. November 1909. Reprinted in the “Gospel Classics: The Origin of Man.” Ensign. February 2002.
2. Terryl Givens. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Life in Western Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 217. (italics added).
3. Orson Pratt, “Pre-existence of our Spirits.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 15, p. 250. December 15, 1872.
4. Orson F. Whitney, “Man’s Origin and Destiny” Contributor, Vol. 3, No. 9. June 1882.
5. Conference Minutes. Times and Seasons, Vol. 5, No. 15. Nauvoo, Illinois, Aug. 15, 1844. Whole No. 99, p. 615.
6. Galatians 3:26
7. Galatians 3:27
8. Galatians 3:29
9. Romans 8:17
10. Galatians 4:4
11. Galatians 4:5
12. Galatians 4:6; See also Romans 8:15 “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”
13. Galatians 4:7
14. “Sons of God.” Times and Seasons, Vol. 4 No. 5, January 16, 1843, p. 74. Like many articles in the Times and Seasons the article is not signed. Joseph was in Springfield on January 5, 1843 for an appeals before the United States Circuit Court, receiving a favorable decision. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 479. Joseph arrived back in Nauvoo on January 10, 1843 and was therefore in Nauvoo at the time of publication. History of the Church, 5:247-248. The author cites approvingly from Galatians 3:26-27, 29; Romans 8:17; Galatians 4:4-7, including the term “adoption of sons.” Joseph retained this language in the JST and nothing is inconsistent with Joseph’s thought.
15. Mosiah 27:25 “yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters”; Moroni 7:26 “and by faith, they become the sons of God. 48 that ye may become the sons.”
The theme is repeated several times in the Doctrine and Covenants. D&C 11:30 “But verily, verily, I say unto you, that as many as receive me, to them will I give power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on my name. Amen”; D&C 34:3 “that as many as would believe might become the sons of God”; D&C 35:2 “I am Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified for the sins of the world, even as many as will believe on my name, that they may become the sons of God”; D&C 45:8 “but unto as many as received me gave I power to do many miracles, and to become the sons of God; and even unto them that believed on my name gave I power to obtain eternal life”; D&C 42:52 “And they who have not faith to do these things, but believe in me, have power to become my sons.”
16. It is beyond the scope of this post to detail the development of this doctrine in Mormon thought. For a good overview of this topic see 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. 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), 115-125.