Resurrection and What’s *that* in Your Veins?

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reads (15:50) “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” That together with other statements in the same chapter suggest one of many clear differences in the resurrected body and the mortal body. Combining this with the account of the gospels and the resurrected Jesus, visible, touchable, etc. (“not a spirit”) led, essentially from the beginnings of post-apostolic Christianity, to lots of explosive argument about the nature of a resurrected body. Those arguments are still on the side-burner today, and they formed a prominent place in the religion of Joseph Smith’s era.

What exactly is the nature of the resurrected body? Does it have anything to do with the material world humans experience? The questions are exacerbated by modern physics. What is matter anyway? Don’t answer too quickly on that one. What you feel is not necessarily what you’ve got.[1]

During JS’s time, science was divided (among educated Americans) into two broad groupings: “natural philosophy (and history)” and “natural theology.” The former was essentially a classification game. The basic arsenal of medicine, beyond the things that often killed you like bloodletting (which killed George Washington), blistering and mercury poisoning, consisted of stuff that made you poop or throw up. The common people, including Joseph Smith, spoke in terms of Aristotelian ideas (the “elements” were earth, air, fire, water – the word “elements,” as we use the term in modern chemistry was a long way off – however, JS was familiar with the language of 2 Pet.3:12. The meaning of “elements” there is contested, but my money is on the Greeks). And electrons…… forget it. The point here is that we must be careful not to overlay 21st century understanding on 19th century terminology. I apologize if this seems like pedantry. Just trying to set the stage a little. The point is that understandings of body, matter, blood and its purpose and nature, sickness and indeed the fundamental nature of physical reality were far simpler and yet far more mysterious in Joseph’s day. The gross anatomy of reality was certainly advanced beyond medieval understandings, but not too much else.[2]

The Corinthian dictum noted above (and other statements in the same chapter) seemed paradoxical to many American Protestants and they were not alone. St. Augustine had struggled with the same issues.[3]

The way out for many, including Joseph Smith, was the idea of a resurrection of flesh without blood. Blood was symbolic both in biblical literature and in the folk medicine/language of early 19th century America. Blood was known to be necessary for life, but folklore assigned it a corrupting influence and made it synonymous with the carnal nature of man. It was also assigned the role we moderns give to DNA. Hence the common use of biblically inspired statements like “the blood of Ephraim,” etc.

1st Corinthians 15 implied that the soma (body) would be infused with “spirit” (which brings up another very long discussion I won’t do now).[4]

Finally, there is a connection to one of Joseph’s funeral sermons. In 1842, Joseph was married to a number of currently married women. Two of these women were Patty Bartlett Sessions and her daughter, Sylvia Porter Lyon. On March 19, 1842 (the marriages had taken place a a month or two prior to this by some accounts, but Sylvia’s may have been the following year), Sylvia’s daughter, Marian (or Maryann) Lyon died at the age of 2. March 20, 1842 was a Sunday and though the weather was chilly, people gathered at the preaching stand west of the rising Nauvoo temple. The Sessions/Lyon women had the child’s body brought to the stand before the meeting began, and Joseph, intending to speak on another subject altogether, naturally felt compelled to offer some thoughts on death, resurrection and the place of children in that complex.

Wilford Woodruff reported excerpts of the address for the church magazine, Times and Seasons. The relevant portion is:

“As concerning the resurrection I will merely say that all men will come from the grave as they lie down, whether old or young, there will not be ‘added unto their stature one cubit;’ neither taken from it; all will be raised by the power of God, having spirit in their bodies, and not blood.” [Emphasis added.]

Woodruff’s journal report is slightly different:

“As concerning the resurrection I will merely say that all men will come from the grave as they lie down, whether old or young their will not be added unto their stature one cubit neither taken from it. All being raised by the power of God having the spirit of God in their bodies & not Blood ” [Emphasis added.][5]

The idea is extended somewhat in two other funeral sermons, appealing apparently to Isaiah 33:14 together with the Corinthians passage and the idea that blood=corruption/mortality. (James Adams funeral on October 9, 1843, and an extension of the Follett sermon on May 12, 1844).

Joseph never claims a particular revelation on the spirit/blood issue and he was most certainly aware of this Protestant hot-button.[6] It follows that his interpretation of scripture is at the bottom of the passage above. The resolution of the Corinthian Conundrum (sorry for that), which appears three times in JS’s funeral discourses, is often thought of as uniquely Mormon. But in fact it is an idea that we Latter-day Saints hold in common with many (but not all) Christians out there, at least on the surface of things.


[1] It doesn’t feel right somehow that resurrected bodies are subject to proton decay, say. The ancients might be viewed as offering creatio ex nihilo as a potential solution to such problems. Mormons can’t go there. See for example James Hubler, “Creatio ex Nihilo: Creation, and the Body in Classical and Christian Philosophy Through Aquinas,” Ph.D. diss. Univ. of Penn. 1997.

[2] Okay, overdoing it a bit. Electricity and magnetism were partially understood, and basic optics. The telegraph was shortly to arrive. In Joseph’s day, white Americans were nearly all Christian by self description, except for the minority of deists. No atheists allowed. American Protestants viewed the advances in transportation, communication and other technical things as an arrow pointing to the Millennium.
Science and Christianity enjoyed a harmony that was not shaken for many years. Indeed, scientists thought of themselves as “doing” religion and in a sense, many LDS scientists think of it this way still, with some justification.

[3] See his thought in Ench. 28.91. Augustine does not share JS’s idea of bodies rising as they are laid down. Here JS does have revelation at his back, claiming a very realistic vision of mass resurrection taking place. (Also compare Alma 11. Does Ezekiel contradict this? I don’t think so, even though some exegetes have taken it literally. The resurrection of Jesus supplies some background to JS’s view.)

[4] That is, what precisely did JS mean by saying spirit is matter? JS’s idea of “matter” is very problematic. The statement addressed a position among religions of the time, but today the notion that “spirit” is just more “fine or pure” matter is poetic, but otherwise difficult to place in the physical world. Does “spirit matter” have atomic structure? The contextual window has driven by the theological landmark.

[5] For some reason the idea that the Woodruff report mentions “spirit in veins” has been passed around. See “Resurrection” in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism for example. The idea of circulating spirit does not come from JS [to be fair, there is a reminiscent account that mentions "veins" but it is a gloss]. Indeed, one wonders what a resurrected spleen is for – if such a thing exists. One hopes that like the lion and lamb, resurrected mosquitos have something else to do. The physiology of resurrected bodies is puzzling and waits for some further light. Given the difficulty Alma experienced in getting information on the general subject, we may have to wait awhile. Woodruff makes the change from “spirit of God” to “spirit” in his two versions. Spirit of God might possibly open up another meaning to the passage.
Among all the funeral sermons in the book, this one is perhaps unique in that JS might have reviewed the copy before printing. JS had become editor of the Times and Seasons a few weeks previous to the publication Woodruff’s account. There is a little more on this in the book.

[6] Witness for example his repeated reference to “the kingdom of God” and the John the Baptist debate (dispensationalists).

4 Responses to Resurrection and What’s *that* in Your Veins?

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I think your cautious framing of the issue is accurate and important. The folk explanation (based on a JS Sermon) that resurrected have spirit instead of blood and consequently procreate to yield spirits is, I believe, one of the most peculiar bits of religion making we have.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    …also, isn’t it Parley P. Pratt that goes on to posit spirit organs for spirits? I want to say it is in Key to the Science of Theology. I think such ideas go a long way to illustrate the analogical perspective within which many of the early Saints worked.

  3. boaporg says:

    Right, PPP posits that all the organs are there in spirit. Both the Pratts were very literal in their views about pre and post mortal bodies. For them the analogy was perfect. In some ways JS was a theological brake. When he was gone, the twelve felt a sort of freedom to develop and express their views.

    Woodruff shows this in a journal entry during the first trip to the Salt Lake valley. OP and A. Carrington were walking along with WW. OP proceeds to tell his idea, as a speculation, about atomic intelligence. Then it appears years later in print without apology. Compression of spirits makes them forget. Stuff like that. Taking a step from spirit (instead of blood) to spirit babies as an explanation is not a big leap comparatively.

    The idea of spirit babies of course is much more entrenched and you can get severe looks for suggesting it is metaphorical or adoptive say – so never do that in Sunday School. I almost got my head singed for suggesting that the Marsh strippings story was not anything like the real reason behind the break.

    Anyway, important point.

  4. Pingback: Resurrection and Blood – Joseph Smith’s Take «'s Blog

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