Rehearing/Rereading Joseph Smith: Brigham and Brigham.

[I originally posted this over at By Common Consent. But I’ve now flattered myself into thinking that there are at least two people who read stuff here, that don’t go over there. Anyway since I like feedback on things that might make it into the sermon book in some form, I put it up again here.]

When Joseph Smith died, he left a many-pronged collection of doctrine and practice that had yet to be brought together and made coherent as message and marching order for the coming generation of Latter-day Saints. One small part of that thrust was Joseph’s teaching about the nature of man. Over the last near decade of Smith’s life he had developed ideas that led him several different directions with regard to the nature of human beings and their relationship to God.

Joseph found meaning in a truly heterodox notion, regarding men and women as eternal beings, each person having an infinite past, an uncreate past, a consciousness with punctuated equilibria but without beginning (or ending). Contextually, his sermons really leave little if any wiggle room on this point.

But this idea, while it was used by him to offer partial hope and reconciliation to the grieving survivors of the dead (your loved one still lives on of necessity) needed to be folded into other doctrines and practices that Joseph left behind. The most important of these, at least to his closest confidants, was the temple liturgy and its associated ideas.

Over a fairly short period, a fascinating synthesis, trailing from these two doctrinal patches, was developed by some inheritors of Joseph’s mantle. This interpretive synthesis took Joseph’s language (sometimes with a tweak or two) and reread it in a different way. When Joseph said the individual had no beginning, the new reading became that the process of salvation had no beginning. Where Joseph had offered temple liturgy to the privileged few who would then offer it to others when the temple was completed, this became a process of not only eternal significance to the individual, but a process that had no beginning or end, a process taking place throughout the infinite creation of God, on worlds without end. To put it another way, where Joseph postulated that the individual was eternal, always existing, never beginning or ending, the synthesis no longer focused on the isolated person, but on the salvific system. Instead of “there never was a time” when a man or woman (their spirits/minds) did not exist, the synthetic doctrine became, “there never was a time” when spirits somewhere, sometime did not exist as part of the universal eternal plan.

Mormonism became a *religion* without beginning or ending or bounds-the religion of the universe. The synthesis continued: the sealing of men and women portended the propagation of beings in eternity. Spirits, persons, could not be eternal and yet come into being, but the system could be eternal, always working, without beginning or end. Brigham and the apostles coming together over the combining of these two peaks of Joseph’s teaching made a place for both in a single synthetic powerhouse.

But the death of the first generation after Joseph led to a generation of historian-leaders.[1] And those leaders or at least some of them, were bound to see the seam in this synthesis when they took the documents of the past as their guide to the founder’s ideas. That seam became apparent as history, resurrected and universally available at the beginning of the twentieth century, took the place of that first generation of apostle witnesses in Utah.[2]

In the vanguard of that new/old knowledge was Brigham H. Roberts. Roberts, loyal to both his new understanding of Joseph but also Joseph’s successors whom he also regarded as prophetic leaders, sought and found his own synthesis. Man was both eternal, uncreate, and yet the literal child of God- the uncreate “intelligent being” was clothed in a spiritually begotten body of “spirit.” Eternal (Joseph) yet a spirit child of God (Brigham). Roberts became a missionary for the idea. Though not received with friendly smiles from all his colleagues, a nucleus of Church leaders took up the banner of this new synthesis.[3]

Any new idea with traction in an established movement, whether one that is very much top-down like Mormonism, or one that is loosely bound like separate congregations of some Protestant denominations, say, can cause interesting effects on the future of that organization. And in this case, several traditions developed in Mormon literature founded on both the two syntheses here and also the gradual maturation of historical studies of Mormonism.

Virtually every long-lived movement has such synthetic processes at work. This has been the story of a few in Mormonism. [And can you guess what TV program that line comes from?] [4]
[1] Mormonism finds much of its meaning in its founder’s experiences (along with the sacred texts that came with those experiences) – in his history and claims about that history. It is natural, when the eyewitnesses passed on, that people would look to and try to understand and derive meaning from a careful study of that history and the truth claims that surround it.

[2] One could see some parallels here with the print revolution and the Bible I suppose. Latter-day Saints are born (again ;)) with a natural tension in their lives. A loyalty to present prophetic leaders, and a loyalty to what past leaders have claimed as truth (I include sacred texts). This is perfectly natural and logical. Sometimes that loyalty leads to paradoxical results, in part because of synthetic processes like the one illustrated here. Mature believers have learned perhaps that while the prophetic voice is to be trusted, the people that give that voice are in fact human. They do display the tip of the iceberg that is God, but only the tip. And the synthesis of different views of that iceberg should be seen with some flexibility (one might say, the cloak of charity as Joseph put it). Perhaps in a sense, this is related to Nephi’s “likening.”

[3] The apostles were more or less of divided opinion on the idea. That division appears to remain.

[4] The above is brought to you by a synthesis of a small part of chapter 7 of an in-progress book.

9 Responses to Rehearing/Rereading Joseph Smith: Brigham and Brigham.

  1. Dane says:

    So did Joseph never teach that we are children of God? Is that a doctrine that finds its genesis in Brigham (and the surrounding Christian culture)? I’m aware of Joseph teaching the eternity of the human soul with the “ring” example (KFD, I think?), but beyond that I don’t know enough to support or refute the assertion that Joseph exclusively taught that the human soul is uncreated rather than a born creation of God.

    • WVS says:

      So did Joseph never teach that we are children of God?

      Not in the sense that Brigham and company led out with.

      I’m aware of Joseph teaching the eternity of the human soul with the “ring” example (KFD, I think?), but beyond that I don’t know enough to support or refute the assertion that Joseph exclusively taught that the human soul is uncreated rather than a born creation of God.

      There is considerably more than King Follett in evidence. JS never taught that the human spirit was the result of procreation. The notion of procreation did not develop out of thin air, but it wasn’t preached by JS. Polygamy theology and the nascent temple liturgy played played a role in the extrapolations found in the literature following JS’s death.

  2. You can add me as a third person to your list of two.

  3. CWW says:

    I don’t even know how I found this sight but I guess I needed to read this. it seems like Joseph taught something that in my own ponderings I came to a partial understanding. I say “understanding” lightly because I don’t think I fully comprehend it. Thank you. It was most inspiring.

  4. Jakob J says:


    There has been a protracted argument about this in the bloggernacle over the last several years. The idea advanced here that the BHR’s theology of spirits was largely shaped as a synthesis of Brigham and Joseph has argued by Stapley, and from Kevin’s comment to this same post over at BCC you can see he has gained converts to this idea. I think there is something to this (people are always synthesizing), but I think the evidence is weak, it is mostly just a guess that this is what BHR was thinking. I have argued that the tensions resolved by BHR’s spirit theology were inherent in Joseph’s theology before Brigham ever got hold of it. Basically, I have argued that BHR might just as easily have been synthesizing Joseph with Joseph rather than Joseph with Brigham.

    See, for example, this post on Minds, Spirits and Bodies in Joseph’s thought. As a direct response to J’s post on Tripartite Existentialism Matt W posted this response trying to tease out some of the assumptions about spirits that seem to underlie many of Joseph’s statements and scriptures.

    I’d be interested in your comment as an expert in this field. If this is a chapter in a forthcoming book, I hope there is more evidence that it was synthesis of Joseph/Brigham other than the mere fact that this is a plausible assumption. The reason this is important to me is that many of the ideas evangelized by BHR have been lightly brushed aside as having their genesis in Brigham’s theology (which we obviously are much more ready to discount when it suits us) rather than in Joseph’s theology (which we take much more seriously), but I see the fundamental tensions which require a synthesis in Joseph’s thought on its own. I am annoyed when these theological issues are portrayed as being easily solved by simply jettisoning Brigham’s “additions.”

    • WVS says:

      Jakob J, thanks for recalling all the data here (“expert” is not what I am though). In the book, which is a textual study of JS’s funeral sermons (as you may guess, chap. 7 is KFD) I look at several issues regarding these sermons. Looking at the Roberts collection in the Church History Library, one gets a fairly clear idea about half-way through concerning his theological “upbringing” and its trajectory, I think. Roberts’ correspondence is especially useful here. His taking over the History of Joseph Smith project was a watershed moment for him. There is no doubt, I think, that Roberts read the Utah cosmology back into Nauvoo, using the same devices that Utah theologians used themselves. But his review of the sermon materials produced c1855 by the Utah clerks and historians, led him to the conclusion that the eternalism of current Mormonism which was corporate, was missing at least some of the point. His internal argument with fellow Church leaders for this centered around KFD, which is why it gets treated in the book.

      Roberts basically gets his own appendix because the struggle over human protology was driven by Roberts vs the status quo. Roberts achieved a kind of victory here which is underappreciated and it took up a fair chunk of his life from 1904 to 1933 off and on. He fought for a synthetic approach because he saw (not objectively) the necessity of retaining a notion of spirit birth – Mother – in -Heaven – goal – of – eternal – marriage idea (nearly all of which is post Joseph exegesis) and what he saw in JS’s sermons about the nature of man. So, was he attempting to reconcile Brigham with Joseph? No. He took what were by then foundational beliefs, read them back into the 1840s and sought his own resolution. I don’t think he saw a line in the sand between Nauvoo and Utah so much as exploration of the unused record. The available data however suggests that there was such a line in a discursive sense.

      So, while I agree that Joseph himself left a bit of a theological train-wreck behind, I also think it was characteristic of him to push out ideas, then move on without synchronizing them with later ideas. Hence we see created spirits in the Enoch text, and uncreated spirits in the Abraham text. The finer points here are up for grabs, but I think we do damage to JS if we try to reconcile him to himself too much. Whether you take the point of view that the latest is the greatest, or that the first was the best (as various splinter groups do) I think that’s a better way to see what he did than a correlation approach. There are of course, tensions to deal with there. I think JS simply saw himself as “seeing more clearly” in some respects later on. We admit this all the time about other issues in early Mormonism.

      As far as BY is concerned, there were large forces at work in the Utah move and establishment. I think these forces drove some of the theological issues that BY emphasized (like human spirits being recycled into new beings – waste not want not sort of thing about “native element”). I argue that there were good reasons for moving eternalism to a corporate level. Unwinding that, even in a small way was bound to create objections – which it did.

  5. Jakob J says:

    WVS, thanks for your very insightful response. Your point about not being too eager to synthesize Joseph with himself is well taken. It creates quite a difficult problem for those who (like Roberts) are interested in developing a coherent theology. At various points it becomes necessary to pitch certain ideas and add others, which is very uncomfortable given the confidence we place in Joseph’s ideas. It also makes it nearly impossible to imagine concensus gathering around a more comprehensive Mormon theology because the deletions/additions will always be so controversial.

    • WVS says:

      It also makes it nearly impossible to imagine concensus gathering around a more comprehensive Mormon theology because the deletions/additions will always be so controversial.


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