The real issue with Mormonism: “God is an exalted man”

“God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man. . . . That is the great secret. . . . We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea. . . . [H]e was once a man like us.” ~Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” Psalm 90:1?2

“God is not a man” Numbers 23:19; Cf. 1 Samuel 15:29

“Ye are my witnesses, saith the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.” Isaiah 43:10; Cf. 44:6, 8

The following words are the most often quoted non-Scriptural teaching of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) — most often quoted, that is, in LDS Church literature itself:

    God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible, — I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form — like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.

    In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.

    These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.

These words come from the infamous “King Follett Funeral Discourse,” delivered by Smith on April 7, 1844. They represent the final, developed form of Smith’s theology of God, a theology that underwent massive change between the founding of the Church almost exactly fourteen years earlier. In fact, it is quite plain that Smith did not hold to this radical denial of historic Christian doctrine when he founded the LDS Church in 1830. But sometime in the mid 1830s his views became more and more radical until they reached this final stage shortly before his murder in the Carthage City jail June 27th, 1844. These words, though never canonized, obtained quasi-canonical status by their constant repetition in the teachings of the LDS leadership over the next decades. A quick review of the writings of the LDS leaders all the way up to the modern period will find these words repeated more often than any other teaching of Joseph Smith.

In postmodern times, where fuzziness of thinking and inaccuracy of thought has become the hallmark of so much dialogue, and in particular, in the realm of religion, clear delineation of belief and doctrine has become outdated and unpopular. There is an automatic suspicion of anyone who seeks clarity in confession and doctrine. Such persons must be insecure or, even worse, may be on the road to some kind of fundamentalism — closed-minded individuals holding old-fashioned ideas of universal or objective truths. So with the recent resurgence of Mormonism in the United States, spurred partly by an aggressive, if less-than-doctrinally-oriented advertising campaign on billboards and the Internet, partly by the rise to national prominence of Mormon bishop and returned missionary Willard Mitt Romney, the public discourse on the nature of Mormonism and its teachings has been anything but focused upon accuracy of definition. In fact, the idea that the LDS faith is simply a somewhat odd variant of Christianity has been accepted widely without much fuss or bother. Only those most radically out-of-step with the modern world would actually ask, “But, what is the core of the LDS faith and its teachings? Is it really an expression of Christian faith, or a radical departure from it?”

Until recent times, dialogues with Mormons did not focus upon establishing that Mormonism had a radically different doctrine of God than Christianity: that was a given. But over the past thirty years a definite move toward ecumenism and “mainstreaming” has been present, and Mormonism now seeks to redefine “Christian” so that it can be stretched to encompass the complete negation of its own most central assertion: that there is one true and eternal God, unchanging, without beginning and without end, unique, without dependence upon prior forces or powers.

The deity of Mormonism is, in fact, an exalted man, one who comes in a long line of previously exalted beings, each dependent upon the one before. In fact, as we will see, in Mormonism, God and man are of the same species, with God simply being further advanced in exaltation. In fact, in orthodox Mormon belief, God is not eternal. Matter is eternal; the Mormon God is one god amongst an infinite pantheon of gods existing in unlimited universes. In fact, Mormonism may well be the most polytheistic religion ever devised by man, for while it teaches an increasing number of deities (any worthy Mormon man who is married in the LDS temple and who remains faithful to the end of his life can be exalted as a god, hence increasing the number of gods) it likewise asserts that no number can be placed upon the already existing gods. Modern proponents of this embodiment of Smith’s idea have adopted it primarily out of a recognition that if the number of gods is finite, then we should be able to tract the line back in time to the first god and then ask if he was a man before he became a god, and if so, how did creation come into existence? To avoid this, many Mormons assert an infinite number of deities, just avoiding the “first god” conundrum.

We will look more at the evidence supporting this view of Mormonism below, but it must first be insisted that on any meaningful analysis of religious faith, Mormonism is far, far removed from Christianity. In fact, if one takes as one’s starting point the belief of a religion relating to God’s nature and God’s relationship to the universe, Mormonism is about as far removed on the theological spectrum from Christianity as any religion could be. Whether a religious movement believes in monotheism or polytheism is the first indicator of its nature and categorization, and on this point, Joseph Smith separated his followers for all time from Christianity when he made the statement, quoted above, “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.” In refuting this idea, Smith made it possible for me accurately and forthrightly to say today: Islamic theology of Allah is significantly closer to Christianity in its affirmation of God’s uniqueness, creatorship, and eternality, than Mormonism ever could be. This is a fact known to anyone who takes seriously the teachings of the General Authorities of the LDS Church.

More from Joseph Smith

The LDS Scriptures contain many affirmations that there is only one true God. These come, primarily, from the period before Smith developed his final theology. In fact, it is clear from the early evidence that Smith began his prophetic career as a monotheist of the confused variety: he attempted to affirm the Trinity, but did so in a modalistic fashion. The original form of the Book of Mormon confuses the Father and the Son, and clearly Smith’s brief attendance in Methodist Sunday School was insufficient to communicate to him a robust understanding of Christian theology on the matter. It was not until Smith claimed to be able to translate some Egyptian papyri that the LDS Church purchased from a traveling showman in the mid 1830s that Smith’s views began to change. Though Mormons today think that as early as 1820 Smith was teaching a “plurality of Gods” as found in his famous First Vision, the reality is that the First Vision took shape many years later, and there is strong evidence of its later fabrication on Smith’s part. This “vision,” which in its earliest forms did not mention two beings, or spoke only of angels, today includes these words:

    17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other — This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!

Later portions of the LDS Scriptures reflect the major evolution in Smith’s thinking that took place somewhere in the mid to late 1830s. By April of 1843, we find Smith having moved all the way to an assertion that God the Father is corporeal in nature, that is, that He has a physical body. In a revelation dated April 2, 1843, Smith provides one of the classic LDS formulations concerning God, D&C 130:22:

    22 The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.

All of this led to the radical statements Smith made toward the end of his life, such as those contained in the King Follet Discourse, quoted earlier. It seems quite clear that if he had lived, the wild extremes of his swing in theology would have produced such a mass of incoherent material that no one could have ever made any sense out of it, and the Mormon religion as we know it today would, in all likelihood, have never come into existence. At best, it would have remained a small sect, never to gain national prominence. But the murder of Smith ended the development of his theology, and the move of the church to Utah, where it could flourish unhindered under the often times brutal leadership of men like Brigham Young, allowed it to survive.

A scant eleven days before his murder, Smith returned to the topic of the nature of God. His words should be given their due weight:

    It is altogether correct in the translation. Now, you know that of late some malicious and corrupt men have sprung up and apostatized from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and they declare that the Prophet believes in a plurality of Gods, and, lo and behold! we have discovered a very great secret, they cry — “The Prophet says there are many Gods, and this proves that he has fallen.”

The passage of Scripture to which Smith makes reference is Revelation 1:6 in the King James Version of the Bible, which reads, “And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” From this passage Smith will derive the concept of the plurality of Gods. He was confused by the less than clear rendering of the KJV, “unto God and his Father,” as if a second divine person is in view (it is better rendered, “unto God, the Father,” or “God, even the Father”) as Smith himself declares:

    I will preach on the plurality of Gods. I have selected this text for that express purpose. I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years.

    I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural; and who can contradict it?

Few today are impressed by Smith’s exegetical prowess, to be sure, but until recent days Mormons were not overly concerned about such things, as “the Prophet” was beyond criticism on that level. His authority did not come from being an accurate student of the Bible, but from being the direct recipient of divine revelation. In any case, his teachings are clear, and he included in this presentation a disparaging section on the “sectarian god” of Christianity:

    Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow — three in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization. “Father, I pray not for the world, but I pray for them which thou hast given me.” “Holy Father, keep through Thine own name those whom thou has given me, that they may be one as we are.” All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God — he would be a giant or a monster.

Thus, at the very final days of his life, Joseph Smith Jr. stood unalterably opposed to the Christian proclamation of one true and eternal God, Triune in nature, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.