Of all the sermons preached by Joseph Smith, perhaps no other sermon has been more instrumental in reshaping the doctrines of Mormonism than what is commonly known as the King Follett Discourse. Given only a few short months prior to Joseph’s murder, this talk fundamentally changed how Mormons view the Godhead and each of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In it, Joseph, introduces the notion that God the Father was once a man as we are who lived upon an earth similar to ours. Over time He was able to attain to Godhood under the direction of some other God in one eternal round of multiple Gods. This discourse introduced to the members the idea that they too could become Gods under the direction of our Father and His Son.
Following Joseph’s death, the temple theology that supports this doctrine was implemented under the direction of Brigham Young and continues in the church today. When one understands that by this time the church had already “been rejected as a church with [their] dead” (D&C 124:32) and that Joseph was providing an intercessory offering on behalf of the saints who had rejected the fulness, it is easier to understand how the Lord could use Joseph to test his people and fulfill his words in The Book of Commandments, chapter 4:
5 And thus, if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a reformation among them, and I will put down all lyings, and deceivings, and priestcrafts, and envying, and strifes, and idolatries, and sorceries, and all manner of iniquities, and I will establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old.
6 And now if this generation do harden their hearts against my word, behold I will deliver them up unto satan…
What could be more apropos than for the Lord to fulfill his promise to turn them over to satan for a period of chastisement than to introduce a concept of God that is inconsistent with the scriptures and which recreates God in the image of man?
A FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT
To fully comprehend just how earth shattering this doctrinal shift was you have to go back to the “doctrine” portion of the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, which we know today as the Lectures on Faith (“Lectures”). Despite being accepted as scripture by the church in 1835, the Lectures were removed from the canon in 1921 by a church committee without any vote of the membership. The reason the Lectures had to be removed was because they taught doctrine inconsistent and incompatible with the view of the Godhead taught by Joseph in the King Follett Discourse and which had made it into the canonized revelations as Section 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
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. (D&C 130:22)
Of note is that this section (130) was placed in the D&C in 1877 under the direction of Brigham Young and it does not purport to be a revelation, rather just instruction given by Joseph in 1843.
Consider some of the teachings found in the Lectures:
- There are 2 personages in the Godhead, not 3.
- God, the Father, is a personage of spirit, glory and power.
- Jesus Christ, the Son, is in the bosom of the Father, a personage of tabernacle in the form and likeness of man and after the image of his Father. He is called the Son because of the Flesh, possessing the mind with the Father.
- The Holy Spirit is the mind of God.
If these concepts sound alien to you, it is because the Lectures describe a concept of God completely different from how you were raised in the church. However, this was what was taught in the School of the Prophets to men who had been ordained to the highest priesthood. It is an almost trinitarian view that is surprisingly consistent with the Book of Mormon (see Mosiah 15).
The Lectures are also very clear that one must know the true character of God in order to exercise faith in Him unto salvation.
19 An acquaintance with these attributes in the divine character, is essentially necessary, in order that the faith of any rational being can center in him for life and salvation. For if he did not, in the first instance, believe him to be God, that is, the creator and upholder of all things, he could not center his faith in him for life and salvation, for fear there should be a greater than he, who would thwart all his plans, and he, like the gods of the heathen, would be unable to fulfill his promises; but seeing he is God over all, from everlasting to everlasting, the creator and upholder of all things, no such fear can exist in the minds of those who put their trust in him, so that in this respect their faith can be without wavering.
20 But secondly: Unless he was merciful, and gracious, slow to anger, long suffering, and full of goodness, such is the weakness of human nature, and so great the frailties and imperfections of men, that unless they believed that these excellencies existed in the divine character, the faith necessary to salvation could not exist; for doubt would take the place of faith, and those who know their weakness and liability to sin, would be in constant doubt of salvation, if it were not for the idea which they have of the excellency of the character of God, that he is slow to anger, and long suffering, and of a forgiving disposition, and does forgive iniquity, transgression and sin. An idea of these facts does away doubt, and makes faith exceedingly strong.
21 But it is equally as necessary that men should have the idea that he is a God who changes not, in order to have faith in him, as it is to have the idea that he is gracious and long suffering. For without the idea of unchangeableness in the character if the Deity, doubt would take the place of faith. But with the idea that he changes not, faith lays hold upon the excellencies in his character with unshaken confidence, believing he is the same yesterday, to-day and forever, and that his course is one eternal round. (Lecture 3:19-21)
When Joseph introduced the concept of God once being a man, he was doing so on very flimsy scriptural grounds during a time when his eyes were being covered because of the iniquity of the people (2 Nephi 27:5). This doesn’t mean that we dismiss everything he said. Rather, greater scriptural scrutiny is required to determine whether or not he is acting as the Lord’s right arm to “test” the people to see whether they will be true to His gospel or whether he is acting in the capacity of a prophet teaching a true principle. Unrealized by many is the fact that there is precedent in the Old Testament for the Lord to use prophets to test his people.
3 Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
A reading of the discourse reveals a somewhat defiant Joseph who at one point says: “Mark it, Elder Rigdon!” with reference to the scripture Joseph is using to justify his position. Considering the fact that one of Sidney’s roles was to “call upon the holy prophets to prove his words” (D&C 35:23) and that Sidney had largely ceased to act in that capacity for many years, Joseph appears to be expressing frustration that he is not getting that support.
I wish I was in a suitable place to tell it, and that I had the trump of an archangel, so that I could tell the story in such a manner that persecution would cease forever. What did Jesus say? (Mark it, Elder Rigdon!) The scriptures inform us that Jesus said, as the Father hath power in himself, even so hath the Son power—to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious—in a manner to lay down his body and take it up again. Jesus, what are you going to do? To lay down my life as my Father did, and take it up again. Do you believe it? If you do not believe it you do not believe the Bible. The scriptures say it, and I defy all the learning and wisdom and all the combined powers of earth and hell together to refute it. Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power. And I want you to know that God, in the last days, while certain individuals are proclaiming His name, is not trifling with you or me.
What did Jesus do? Why, I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My Father worked out His kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to My Father, so that He may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt Him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take His place, and thereby become exalted myself. So that Jesus treads in the tracks of His Father, and inherits what God did before; and God is thus glorified and exalted in the salvation and exaltation of all His children. It is plain beyond disputation, and you thus learn some of the first principles of the gospel, about which so much hath been said.
Although Joseph doesn’t quote the reference to the scripture he is using to draw his conclusions it appears that he is talking about John 5:
v 19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.
v 21 For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.
v 26 For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself;
The problem is that while somewhat logical, Joseph’s reasoning is not consistent with numerous other scriptures. Also, if you think about it, his logic implies that to ascend the ladder to godhood one must become a savior, such as Jesus Christ, of another world sometime down the line because if Jesus had to do what he had seen his father do to become a god, then we must tread that same path.
Interestingly, the editors of the Nauvoo Expositor cite the plurality of Gods doctrine as one of the “many items of false doctrine” in the church:
Among the many items of false doctrine that are taught the Church, is the doctrine of many Gods, one of the most direful in its effects that has characterized the world for many centuries. We know not what to call it other than blasphemy, for it is most unquestionably , speaking of God in an impious and irreverent manner. It is contended that there are innumerable gods as much above the God that presides over this universe, as he is above us; and if he varies from the law unto which he is subjected, he, with all his creatures, will be cast down as was Lucifer: thus holding forth a doctrine which is effectually calculated to sap the very foundation of our faith, and now, O Lord! shall we set still and be silent, while thy name is thus blasphemed, and thine Honor, power and glory , brought into disrepute? See Isaiah c 43, v 10; 44, 6-8; 45, 5,6, 21, 22; and book of Covenants, page 26 and 39. (Nauvoo Expositor, June 7, 1844)
Notice how the Expositor identifies the fact that the false doctrine of multiple Gods ultimately undermines and enervates faith in God, because as the Lectures clearly demonstrate, we have to believe in his true character as an unchangeable being from everlasting to everlasting in order to have confidence and faith in him. There are a plethora of scriptures supporting the view of God described in the Lectures.
2 Nephi 27:23 For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith.
Mormon 8:8 For I know that God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.
Moroni 9:9 For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?
D&C 20:12 Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever.
D&C 35:1 Listen to the voice of the Lord your God, even Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, whose course is one eternal round, the same today as yesterday, and forever.
Deuteronomy 4:35 …the LORD he is God; there is none else beside him.
Isaiah 46:9 For I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me.
Mark 12:29-34 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these. And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.
This is an extremely small sample to verify the point — there are literally pages more if you look for them. Elder Bruce R. McConkie had this to say about the lectures:
In my judgment, it is the most comprehensive, inspired utterance that now exists in the English language–that exists in one place defining, interpreting, expounding, announcing, and testifying what kind of being God is. It was written by the power of the Holy Ghost, by the the spirit of inspiration. It is, in effect, eternal scripture; it is true. (Bruce R. McConkie, “The Lord God of Joseph Smith,” January 4, 1972, in Speeches of the Year (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1972).
How Elder McConkie reconciles the above statement about the Lectures on Faith with the doctrines from the King Follett Discourse that have fully infiltrated the Church I have not a clue. You cannot, in my humble opinion, believe both simultaneously. They are mutual exclusive doctrines. Either you believe one or you believe the other. No amount of tortured logic gets you to a place where they are compatible.
What I believe we have done in modern Mormonism is bring God down to our level by believing in a God who was once a man. In the process we have downgraded Jesus Christ to our “elder brother” — a term never used in the scriptures and which was introduced by Joseph in the sermon. Instead we should be focused on the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh and understand the fact that “God himself [came] down among the children of men, and [redeemed] his people” (Mosiah 15:1) This is a God who condescended through His Son to take on flesh in order to save us from the effects of sin on condition of repentance. Christ is in the bosom of the Father. These things were all taught in the Lectures on Faith, belief in the God taught there was good enough for the high priests who received their calling and election — the promise of eternal life — long before a single brick was laid in the city of Nauvoo where Joseph gave the discourse.
We need to repent of changing “the glory of the incorruptible God into an image like to corruptible men.” (Romans 1:23) Reading and understanding the true doctrine as contained in the Lectures is a first step which I highly recommend. You can access a copy online here. May the Holy Spirit (the mind of God) guide you along the way.