Mormon pronouncements on the meaning of “spirit” (I’m thinking of statements like D&C 131:7) are interesting, but for the most part seem to be jousting at thin air these days. Latter-day Saints are mostly ignorant (in my limited experience) of the issues that make the tone of this passage seem just a little combative.

The idea that man consists of two parts, body and spirit, one material, the other not, has a long history and I’m not trying to trace that here, or even argue about biblical references to the idea (which is a whole discussion unto itself). Chain of Being ideas influenced such people as Descartes and Leibniz and in these notions man is the fulcrum point between God and rocks: existence divides into two varieties, that of matter and of spirit. Matter is changeable, mutable. Spirit is stable, immutable, unchangeable. The ideas are manifested in the Divine world (spirit) and the physical world (matter). God and angels are of spirit (you get angelic rankings and so on). Man is the one being who is both spirit and flesh (matter). One foot in the world of spirit, one in the material world.

Of course the question gets interesting when you speak of death. It may be obvious that this would involve a disentanglement of spirit and matter (and how are they entangled anyway?). What is this “spirit?” In biblical religion, this gets mixed with the notion of soul and the question where the soul comes from, or goes to, is a vital one with all kinds of nuance. And one has to be careful in religious contexts about these words.[1]

Joseph Smith’s instruction that “all spirit is matter” is a complete violation of the idea of spirit in the above senses. It turns the whole issue on its head. What then, is the point? If you make all material, where is the sacred space?[2]

Well, it turns out that if we explore this, and early Latter-day Saints did explore it (the Pratts and others), you wind up with the verbal violation of historical meaning, but it’s not so clear that you get a truly practical difference. Joseph’s statement might be contextualized, but does its canonical status prevent us taking a critical approach to its source? We are often cautioned about basing doctrine on a single statement. Would it be acceptable to create canon from otherwise unattested word strings (from Joseph Smith)?

In asking the question, I should make clear that I have no objection to canonicity itself. But I think it was a curious choice by Orson Pratt. For Orson, of course it may have seemed critical, given his own thoughts on the subject.

Moreover, the data for Pratt’s selection is from William Clayton’s diary. Not a source readily available in the original. After working with Clayton texts a little, I say with some confidence that his notes are not verbatim here. His text is a summary of what went on at the Ramus meeting. Indeed, they are not only a summary, they are interpretive. However, Joseph, probably in consultation with John Tayor (and likely, Charles Buck’s dictionary ;)) dictated an essay on spirits in which he had already made the claim of “spirit is matter” in a much more interesting way:

In tracing the thing to the foundation, and looking at it philosophically, we shall find a very material difference between the body and the spirit; the 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;[3] 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. 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

At least here we get an acknowledgement by Smith/Taylor of the complexity of the issue. Joseph’s discussion of spirit here has another important idea submerged within it. Spirit is not just some sort of stuff that floats around in puffy balls everywhere you look (with spiritual eyes); when Joseph says “spirit” here, he’s making reference to individual beings.[4]

[1] Spirit of God is usually conceived of as the essence of God or his power, an inspiring influence.

[2] At various points, Mormons have been less concerned about the sacred division between earth and heaven. At other points, much more concerned, perhaps nearly Protestant-like. Maybe a partial motivation for the latter is the impulse for meaning that the historical need for transcendence seemed to satisfy.

[3] The technical distinctions are not really in evidence but the statement is still clear.

[4] Another point here is that Joseph never makes clear his anxiety to drive home the idea of a material spirit (ugh, writing that almost feels like swimming in paradox). If you ask me . . . well, you didn’t.

5 Responses to Spirit

  1. Dustin says:

    I would say Joseph is already at odds with the whole idea historically of spirit and matter when he says God has a real tabernacle of flesh. Once you go there, the world in which God resides is no longer purely a spiritual, immaterial world and the whole difference between “spirit” and “matter” must have some different meaning altogether.

    • WVS says:

      The timing is interesting. Which came first? D&C 77 hints at the spirit is material thing. The material God could be dragged along with this in a sense, but not exactly in the way you suggest with a “physical” body.

      • Dustin says:

        Its true. Its hard to say which he taught first, and even when Joseph might have understood God as a physical being. Even though he saw a vision of the Father and the Son at an early age, that clearly doesn’t mean he understood God as a physical being of actual flesh and bone. He certainly didn’t publicly comment on this vision a great deal (although he may have privately, as your post on James Adams points out).

        I was more commenting on how this idea of the physical God makes the idea of spirit as matter less of a “single statement”. Both ideas support one another when basing doctrine and establishing canon.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Nice write up. I constantly wonder about Pratt’s inclusions and exclusions. And it is clear that the editing of some of the Nauvoo doctrines for inclusion doesn’t really fit modern documentary practice (viz., section 130 – wowza).

  3. WVS says:

    I think most of Pratt’s interesting additions were motivated by the coming of the St. George temple. But the texts he selected for that purpose are, well, puzzling sometimes.

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