Ep 195 – King Follett Discourse pt. 3 A Legend that Never Dies
On this episode, now that we know the man behind the discourse, let’s finally discuss the King Follett Discourse. This is widely known as one of Joseph Smith’s greatest theological sermons culminating 14 years of an evolving and expanding doctrine. From the days of early Mormonism, based on the Book of Mormon and basic Protestant tenets, Joseph Smith had vacuumed up and acquired many fields of philosophy and religious studies and harmonized them with his own. The King Follett Discourse articulated the deepest points of his latest version of Mormon doctrine and taught mysteries which we kept secret from most by 1844. The long-term impact of this discourse has set Mormon doctrine into a class of its own and generated decades of speculative theology from generations of Mormon scholars and historians.
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King Follett Discourse source material
KFD: A Newly Amalgamated Text
Joseph Smith’s Greatest Sermon in Historical Perspective
The Queen Follett Discourse
Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah
Worlds Without End: The Cosmological Theodicy of Brigham Young by James
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Pre-roll: Hey listeners, since we’re talking fiction today in the form of Mormon theology, I thought you might be interested in helping generate some fiction of our own. Stick around after the main segment to hear about a new patreon goal blending history and fiction in a Mormon History-themed Dungeons and Dragons campaign run by yours truly. Details will follow our thorough deconstruction of the King Follett Discourse. Thanks, everybody!
We’ve now discussed the man behind the discourse, with great help from the biography of King Follett by the same name, now we can finally discuss the King Follett Discourse itself. What is it? Why is it important? What does it mean? What impact has it had on Mormon theology?
The King Follett discourse was a sermon Joseph Smith gave at the funeral of King Follett. Just like many pastors or religious leaders, Jo used the opportunity of King Follett’s death to preach and sermonize the captive audience. When this was given, Joseph Smith was one month away from his 14th anniversary as a religious leader. He’d spent those 14 years developing a unique and engaging theology, creating new scriptures, holding classes of theological instruction, fabricating his own history, and generally evolving Mormonism to stand out from its Protestant contemporaries.
We don’t discuss theology much on this show because its rarely relevant to the history, but today’s episode will focus heavily on theology. If you want to understand modern Mormon theology, the Book of Mormon provides little illumination. The King Follett Discourse is what makes Mormon theology Mormon. The beliefs system captured in the discourse had been evolving and revealing themselves in Jo’s sermons and letter exchanges for over half a decade, but no other sermon so fully captured his personal beliefs better than this discourse. It is also the most accurately recorded of all of Jo’s sermons. Many of his sermons contained in the History of the Church come from one or two lines in journals and are remembered from decades in the future by the compilers of the History of the Church, White-out Willard Richards or George A. Smith. This, however, was recorded by two scribes who took notes as the sermon was taking place, likely sitting in the front row or near Jo on the stand overlooking the temple grove where the sermon was given. It was also recalled in a few contemporary journals which shed further light on some slight discrepancies between the William Clayton account and the Thomas Bullock account.
After Jo gave the sermon, they knew it was a winner and it was immediately printed as a standalone pamphlet, copies of which sell for a few hundred dollars among Mormon document collectors today. Something notable here, Jo gave the sermon twice to two very large crowds. He spoke for over 2 hours both times. This discourse we have today can be read through in a little over 20 minutes so we know some of Jo’s bloviating didn’t make the cut.
We’re going to take on the King Follett Discourse from top to bottom today. We’ll discuss where the theology came from, the possible logic used to evolve Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, Doctrine and Covenants, and Book of Abraham theology into what’s presented in the discourse, the possible cultural geneses of the points of theology, and how to view these points within the larger context of contemporary and resultant events. I’ll do my best to make this a bit more stimulating than Sunday School classes on the plan of salvation.
Let’s get started:
I’ll be reading through the published version, which was an amalgamation of Thomas Bullocks and Quilliam Claypen’s accounts. I’ll pull straight from their notes where there are differences or ambiguities in what was said, but only when those clarifications are necessary and relevant. Jo took the stand with the springtime winds near the Mississippi blowing, probably an overcast day, and his lungs were close to giving out as he’d yet to rest off the many illnesses of the winter months and was probably very overworked and stressed.
The president then arose and called the attention of the congregation upon the subjects which were contemplated in the fore part of the conference. As the wind blows very hard, it will be hardly possible for me to make you all hear unless there is profound attention. It is of the greatest importance, and the most solemn of any that can occupy our attention, and that is, the subject of the dead; on the decease of our brother [King] Follett, who was crushed to death [p. 612] in a well, I have been requested to speak by his friends and relatives, and inasmuch as there are a great many in this congregation who live in this city, as well as elsewhere, and who have lost friends, I feel disposed to speak on the subject in general, and offer you my ideas so far as I have ability, and so far as I shall be inspired by the Holy Spirit to dwell on this subject. I want your prayers and faith, the instruction of Almighty God and the gift of the Holy Ghost, that I may set forth things that are true, that can easily be comprehended, and shall carry the testimony to your hearts; pray that the Lord may strengthen my lungs, stay the winds and let the prayers of the saints to heaven appear, that it may enter into the ear of the Lord of Sabaoth; for the effectual prayers of righteous men availeth much, and I verily believe that your prayers shall be heard before I enter into the investigation fully of the subject that is laying before me. Before entering fully into the investigation, I wish to pave the way: I will make a few preliminaries, in order that you may understand the subject when I come to it. I do not calculate to please your ears with superfluity of words or oratory, or with much learning; but I calculate to edify you with the simple truths from heaven.
Yeah Jo was known to be a bit of a windbag, not unlike yours truly, and he was kind to provide us a 5-minute introduction to him talking while telling everybody he won’t belabor them with too much learning or superfluous words. Now we finally get to some meat.
In the first place, I wish to go back to the beginning of creation; there is the starting point, in order to be fully acquainted with the mind, purposes, decrees, &c. of the great Eloheim, that sits in yonder heavens, it is necessary for us to have an understanding of God himself in the beginning.
This is the point that many Christians may begin to squirm because Jo is disentangling the singular god that made and populated earth from the Eloheim, the council of gods that exist from everlasting to everlasting. The concept of God and gods slowly evolved in Jo’s ministry. The Book of Mormon is distinctly trinitarian with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as 3 beings in one. The 1835 edition of the Book of Mormon was edited to read that Jesus was not god, but the son of god. Only 4 years later, when Jo was languishing in Liberty Jail after the Missouri-Mormon war, he sent a letter to the saints now canonized as Doctrine & Covenants section 121 in the Brighamite church.
O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea they pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of they servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries…
God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the word was until now;
Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;
A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest…
According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest.
This idea of a council of gods led by one Eternal God was slowly percolating in Jo’s mind. It’s hard to trace from where it actually came. Let’s continue to trace the idea and I’ll give some personal speculation as to where this council of gods idea began to invade Jo’s mind and actually take hold. There are many theologies which incorporate a council of gods, some of which are lead by an ultimate God. In Canaanite texts from Ugarit, El and Ba’al are considered presiding gods over a council. Marduk is a Babylonian god presiding over a divine council deciding fates. In ancient Egyptian theology, which Jo was very fascinated by, the leader of the pantheon of gods is Thoth or Ra and council meetings of the gods took place at Heliopolis. Ancient Sumerian, the earliest writings we have, contains in the Lament for Ur a pantheon of Annunaki led by a singular god An. Greek, Chinese, Celtic, Roman, Norse, a number of cultures include councils of gods. Most notably, the Hebrew Torah represents Yahweh as a presiding god over a council of gods termed an “assembly of heavenly hosts.” Psalms 82 states “God Standeth in the congregation of God; in the midst of the judges he judgeth.” The Hebrew word used here for god is Elohim and the exact interpretation of God and congregation or council of god here has been a source of debate among scholars for centuries, debates Jo was likely privy to as he’d been studying Hebrew since the mid 1830s and by the time the King Follett Discourse was given was heavily steeped in Kabbalah, the esoteric mystical Jewish tradition which gained traction in the 13th and 14th centuries.
My overall point, a council of gods and the term Elohim are certainly not unique to Joseph Smith as these debates existed among his Protestant contemporaries as they studied Hebrew, Greek, German, and alternate translations of the Bible in conjunction with other ancient languages and texts. People who view Jo’s King Follett Discourse theology about a council of gods as unique are choosing to view him as a single island while ignoring the thousands of island surrounding his theological ecosystem and never acknowledging the main land of Christian theology off which the island of Joseph Smith resides.
Notably, the Book of Moses, which Jo translated as part of his bible translation project with Hingepin Sidney Rigdon beginning in 1830, talks about Genesis and the God Moses speaks to face to face claims “I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years, and is not this endless?” This isn’t irreconcilable with a council of gods and a singular God at the head. The passage from the King Follett Discourse that spawned this tangent merely talks about God at the beginning, which could be interpreted as just the god who made earth, who sits as an inferior member of the council of gods led by an ultimate God. However, Jo doesn’t make that point clear and whether the council of gods are led by a Head God is a yet to be settled aspect of deeper Mormon theology. A little more context is provided in Jo’s last actual scripture before his death, the Book of Abraham, where in chapter 2 verse 7 and 8 it says:
For I am the Lord thy God; I dwell in heaven; the earth is my footstool; I stretch my hand over the sea, and it obeys my voice; I cause the wind and the fire to be my chariot; I say to the mountains—Depart hence—and behold, they are taken away by a whirlwind, in an instant, suddenly.
My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.
This starkly says Jehovah knows the end from the beginning, without saying he is from everlasting to everlasting. This is where the concept of Jehovah forming the planet at the direction of Elohim, the council of gods, is ensconced in Mormon scripture and serves as the foundation for the modern endowment ceremony where this passion narrative plays out hundreds of times a day across more than a hundred temples worldwide.
The takeaway is that Jo’s personal theology evolved from trinitarian monotheism to a pantheism or polytheism with a council of gods. He reconciled that within the biblical context that the Jehovah god was the God of the Bible and creator of earth, but that God is merely a participant in a council of equally intelligent gods who create worlds without end. It’s a logical evolution that serves as a necessary predicate for what Jo will be talking about later in the discourse, the ability for men to become gods. Jehovah was once a human who organized matter into earth, working at the direction of Elohim, the council of gods, comprised of fellow gods who were all once mortal men. How did they get from human to gods? Let’s continue.
If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong, it is a hard matter to get right. There are a very few beings in the world who understand rightly the character of God. They do not comprehend any thing, that which is past, or that which is to come; and consequently, but little above the brute beast. If a man learns nothing more than to eat, drink, sleep, and does not comprehend any of the designs of God, the beast comprehends the same thing; it eats, drinks, sleeps, knows nothing more; yet knows as much as we, unless WE are able to comprehend by the inspiration of Almighty God.
I’ll briefly comment that this provides a window into Jo’s charisma. He’s about to drop some knowledge on the people sitting or standing in the biting cold wind of early spring on the Mississippi. This knowledge will set these people apart from all other beasts on the earth. It will allow them to comprehend the designs of God and only those listening to Jo’s words are able to do so. It creates a sense of exceptionalism and superiority in the mind of every single attendee.
I want to go back to the beginning, and so lift your minds into a more lofty sphere, a more exalted understanding; that what the human mind generally understands. I want to ask this congregation, every man, woman and child, to answer the question in their own heart, what kind of a being is God? ask yourselves. I again repeat the question, what kind of a being is God? Does any man or woman know? have any of you seen him, heard him, communed with him? Here is the question that will peradventure from this time henceforth, occupy your attention.
What is God? That’s one of the deepest questions human have been struggling to understand and have been asking themselves for millennia. Very few beings comprehend the designs of God, most people are no better than beasts, eating, drinking, and sleeping. But, I will provide for you lattice around which you can construct your knowledge, to lift yourself to more lofty spheres and gain a more exalted understanding. I’m going to put you into an existential crisis, but don’t worry because I’m going to lift you out of it. Next, Jo puts up a wager that he is telling the truth.
The apostle says this is eternal life, to know God and Jesus Christ, who he has sent. If any man enquire what kind of a being is God, if he will search diligently his own heart, if the declaration of the apostle be true, he will realize that he has not eternal life, there can be eternal life on no other principle. My first object is, to find out the character of the only wise and true God, and if I should be the man to comprehend God, and explain or convey the principles to your hearts so that the spirit seals it upon you, let every man and woman henceforth put their hand on their mouth and never say any thing against the man of God again; but if I fail, it becomes my duty to renounce all my pretensions to revelations, inspirations, &c., and if all are pretensions to God, they will all be as bad off as I am at any rate. There is not a man but would breathe out an anathema, if they knew I was a false prophet; and some would feel authorized to take away my life. If any man is authorized to take away my life, who says I am a false teacher; then upon the same principle am I authorized to take away the life of every false teacher, and where would be the end of blood, and who would not be the sufferer.
Yeah, thus, the foundations of most wars among humans. You’re teaching the wrong religion, now it’s time for you to die. I agree with him. We shouldn’t have license to kill each other on religious basis because that concept has done more to stifle peace and human innovation than any other concept humans have devised.
But no man is authorized to take away life in consequence of their religion; which all laws and governments ought to tolerate, right or wrong. If I show verily, that I have the truth of God, and show that ninety-nine out of a hundred are false teachers while they pretend to hold the keys of God, and to kill them because they are false teachers, it would deluge the whole world with blood. I want you all to know God, to be familiar with him, and if I can bring you to him, all persecutions against me will cease; you will know that I am his servant, for I speak as one having authority.— What sort of a being was God in the beginning? Open your ears and hear all ye ends of the earth; for I am going to prove it to you by the Bible, and am going to tell you the designs of God to the human race, and why he interferes with the affairs of man.
Notably, William Clayton’s account of the discourse varies a little bit here. Clayton has it recorded that Jo, instead of saying “why he [God] interferes with the affairs of man” actually said “I am going to prove it by the bible & the relation the human family sustains with God.” The officially published version also didn’t even talk about the bible but it was recorded by both Bullock and Clayton. The Wilford Woodruff journal version is what was the officially published version.
As for the actual content of that passage, Jo is still setting up his audience to be super stoked on the knowledge he’s going to drop. He is confined to the Bible originally, but he had a litany of other scriptures available to him from which he could pull. But, notably, Jo didn’t talk about the Book of Abraham, his translation of the Bible, any of the Doctrine and Covenants revelations, or anything else he’d produced in this entire discourse. He sticks with the bible, his translations from the Hebrew, and half a dozen other schools of thought to articulate his theology. This reveals to us that even Joseph Smith didn’t venerate his own revelations to the pedestal Mormons do today. Jo starts the next section with boldness and reckless abandon.
First, God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heavens, is a man like unto one of yourselves, that is the great secret. If the vail was rent to-day, and the great God, who holds this world in its orbit, and upholds all things by his power; if you were to see him to-day, you would see him in all the person, image and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion and image of God; Adam received instruction, walked, talked and [p. 613] conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.
Okay so maybe it wasn’t THAT bold because everybody knows god is a dude, right? Well that was a source of contention among Protestants then as it is now. Does god himself have corporeal form? Through the Trinitarianistic lens, God in the form of Jesus is a mortal body imbued with an immortal spirit, but Jo’s late theology is clearly not Trinitarian. For Joseph Smith, Jesus has a body he got when he came to earth in 1 A.D., but then how did God get a body because they both supposedly appeared to Jo in corporeal form in the Sacred Grove, as the story had been developed and widely disseminated by this point? He’ll get to that right now.
In order to understand the subject of the dead, for the consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary they should understand the character and being of God, for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are the simple and first principles of the gospel, to know for a certainty the character of God, that we may converse with him as one man with another, and 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.
There’s the big drop. God was once a man who dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ. Now he’s going to use the Bible to prove it.
I wish I had the trump of an arch angel, I could tell the story in such a manner that persecution would cease forever; what did Jesus say? (mark it elder [Sidney] Rigdon;) Jesus said, as the Father hath power in himself, even so hath the Son power; to do what? why what the Father did, that 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.—
A little anecdote for you, dear listeners. I remember being a kid and asking some critical questions about the belief system I was born into. I was in my parents bedroom talking to my mom while she was folding laundry or something. We were talking about Jesus sacrificing himself for our sins, the atonement, the Garden of Gethsemane, all that stuff. Somehow the conversation turned to God once being a man just like Jesus was and that God needed to get a body just like his son, Jesus. I distinctly remember thinking… wait, so God was once a man, who made the earth God lived on when he got his body? Can I become a god too? Do gods masturbate? It was at this time that I first heard the name of God. Not Jesus, not Jehovah, but Elohim. My mom whispered it to me like it was plans to break into the church historical vault or something. I thought I was so privileged to know the name of god. I wondered how many of my friends knew. Was it a sin to ask them if they knew God’s name like I did? It was a rite of passage and I’d be willing to bet a number of you listeners had similar experiences when you first learned the name of god. It was the secret. God was once a man who probably had to die for the sins of the world in which he grew up but chose to sacrifice himself so he could get a mortal body and become a god. Now, as a kid this stuff blew my mind. I felt like an insider now. Imagine what this was like for the people in attendance hearing this straight from the white horse’s mouth. Also consider the context. This was a sermon given at the funeral of a man who died as a general authority of the church, one of the elect. Not only was King Follett going to enjoy salvation, but his death was just one necessary step for him to eventually become a god. People may balk at the idea that Jo used a funeral to sermonize about things not really related to the person at question just like most pastors or preachers. While that is true, what he did give the people in attendance was far greater than platitudes about King Follett now dwelling in the presence of Jesus; King Follett was one step closer to becoming a god just like Jesus Christ. Not only that, but everybody here listening to my voice can do the same if they just believe what I’m saying is true. Besides, I’m using the Bible as the foundation for everything I’m telling you, and we all believe the Bible is true, right?! Jo was a master at his craft.
If you do not believe it, you do not believe the Bible; the scriptures say it, and I defy all the learning and wisdom, 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. You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves; to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done; by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as doth 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; it is the first principles of consolation. How consoling to the mourner, when they are called to part with a husband, wife, father, mother, child or dear relative, to know, that although the earthly tabernacle shall be dissolved, that they shall rise in immortal glory, not to sorrow, suffer or die any more, but they shall be heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. What is it? to inherit the same glory, the same power and the same exaltation, until you ascend the throne of eternal power the same as those who are gone before. What did Jesus do? why I do the things I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence. I saw my Father work 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 obtains kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt his glory, so that Jesus treads in his tracks to inherit what God did before; it is plain beyond disputation, and you thus learn some of the first principles of the gospel, about which so much hath been said.
If you don’t believe what I’m telling you now, you don’t believe the Bible. Let’s talk about the foundation for this because it has Greek roots and it’s a concept known as Apotheosis, or divinization. A lot of discussion happens among Christian sects about whether or not Jesus was born as god or god’s spirit came into Jesus when he was baptized. Was Jesus born God or was he deified at some point in his life? Similarly, the idea of God once being a human has roots in Greek mythology and is infused into early proto-Christian and Christian mystery sects. That concept is called Euhemerism. The two concepts of Apotheosis and Euhemerism go hand in hand. Jesus was a deified man who achieved godhood through Apotheosis or divinization. In Jo’s system of theology, he extends that deification concept to the god who had the power to deify Jesus; Jo euhemerizes the god of the Old Testament by claiming he was once a man. Beyond that, we can follow that same path of apotheosis by ascending to the highest degree of glory. Both of these concepts have roots long before Christianity and the bible. For example, Pharaohs were all deified upon their deaths. Even ancient Rome had a system of apotheosis where a new ruler could uphold the previous ruler as being divine and therefore would be worshipped as a god. This happened in the case of Quirinus for his syncretism with Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. Even members of royal families could be deified. Whether by these ancient names with entire bodies of literature, ancient and modern, or by the name ascribed by Mormonism of exaltation, the concept is the same. Gods were once humans, euhemerization of gods, people can become gods, apotheosis. Conversations about these concepts and public debates about them were constant around Joseph Smith, especially as he began to curry a circle of friends with higher education in his later years. There’s an interesting presentation given at the FAIRMormon conference a few years ago by John A. Tvedtnes where he discusses ancient texts and concepts present in the King Follett Discourse, this section being one of them. My only response to his scholarship is that it would be truly remarkable and hard to explain if Joseph Smith was raised by a pack of wolves in the mountains with absolutely no human contact and descended from a mountain in 1844 with all of these concepts fully formed, but that’s not Jo’s history. Sure, he was light on formal education but he was surrounded by people who were educated in these ancient theologies and philosophies and in some cases, we can trace his King Follett Discourse theology to specific people in his inner-circle from whom he most-likely acquired his personal theology. Joseph Smith wasn’t revelatory; he was a synthesizer with an eclectic group of friends and they all spent a lot of time talking about religion. He next provides a deeper peak into the window of his charisma that’s at the heart of every worthwhile endeavor, unending ascendency and chasing perfection and a brief allusion to the fact that he was not solely in control of his own words.
When you climb a ladder, you must begin at the bottom and go on until you learn the last principle; it will be a great while before you have learned the last. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it is a great thing to learn salvation beyong the grave. I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of any thing that is not contained in the Bible, and I think there are so many wise men here, who would put me to death for treason; so I shall turn commentator to-day; I shall comment on the very first Hebrew word in the Bible; I will make a comment on the very first sentence of the history of creation in the Bible, Berosheit. I want to analyze the word; baith, in, by, through, in, and every thing else. Rosh, the head. Sheit, gramatical termination. When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the *baith *there. A man, a Jew without any authority, thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head. It read first, ‘The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods,’ that is the true meaning of the words. Baurau, signifies to bring forth. If you do not believe it, you do not believe the learned man of God. No man can learn you more than what I have told you. Thus the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand council. I will simplify it in the English language. Oh ye lawyers! ye doctors! who have persecuted me; I want to let you know that the Holy Ghost knows something as well as you do. The head God called together the Gods, and set in grand council. The grand counsellors sat in yonder heavens, and contemplated the creation of the worlds that were created at that time.
Alright, lets discuss this because this is largely where Jo based his ideas of a council of gods and a god at the head of that council. From where did he get this stuff? Well, he’d been studying Hebrew off and on since 1835 when the School of the Elders first employed Joshua Seixas, a Jewish scholar, to come teach them Hebrew in Kirtland. However, Jo’s translation here of the first words of Genesis are very unconventional in that majority of Hebrew translations and Torah scholarship. We do, however, have a perfect candidate to point to which most likely informed this interpretation. Not only do we have the source, we have the person who most-likely transferred that knowledge to Joseph Smith, Alexander Neibaur. We discussed this all the way back in episode 155 where we dove briefly into Alexander Neibaur and the Kabbalah, but I’m going to read an extract from Lance Owen’s article, Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah to teach us about Jo’s interpretation. Yes, this comes directly from the foundational text of Kabbalah, the Zohar. In Owens’s groundbreaking 1994 article, he reprints the portion I just read about Roshith, Bara Elohim, Bereshith, Rosh, and these other Hebrew words. This is what follows, which you’ll find in the show notes. It’s a long reading, but trust me, it’s worth every word.
By any literate interpretation of Hebrew, this is an impossible reading. Joseph takes Elohim, the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object, the thing which received the action of creation. Bereshith ("in the beginning") is reinterpreted to become Roshith, the "head" or "Head Father of the Gods," who is the subject-actor creating Elohim.134 And Elohim he interprets not as God, but as "the Gods." Louis C. Zucker, who published an insightful examination of Smith's study and use of Hebrew, notes that this translation deviates entirely from the interpretative convention Joseph had learned as a student of Hebrew in Kirtland. Joshua Seixas, the professor who had instructed Joseph and the School of the Prophets in early 1836, used in his classes a textbook he had written, Hebrew grammar for the Use of Beginners.135 In the Seixas manual (p. 85), this Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 is given along with a "correct" word-for-word translation: "In the beginning, he created, God, the heavens, and the earth." Seixas would not have introduced in his oral instruction a translation entirely alien to the conventions of his own textbook. Zucker comments on Smith's strange translation of the verse: "Joseph, with audacious independence, changes the meaning of the first word, and takes the third word `Eloheem' as literally plural. He ignores the rest of the verse, and the syntax he imposes on his artificial three-word statement is impossible."136
But Zucker (along with Mormon historians generally) ignored another exegesis of this verse—an exegesis which was a basic precept of Jewish Kabbalah from the thirteenth century on and which agrees, word for word, with Joseph's reading.137 In the tradition of Kabbalah, Bereshith bara Elohim was most emphatically not an "artificial three-word statement," as Zucker implied. Gershom Scholem, in the middle of a long discussion, explains this other view:
The Zohar, and indeed the majority of the older Kabbalists, questioned the meaning of the first verse of the Torah: Bereshith bara Elohim, "In the beginning created God"; what actually does this mean? The answer is fairly surprising. We are told that it means Bereshith—through the medium of the "beginning," [Hokhmah, or "Wisdom," the primordial image of the Father God in the Kabbalistic Sefiroth]—bara, created, that is to say, the hidden Nothing which constitutes the grammatical subject of the word bara, emanated or unfolded,—Elohim, that is to say, its emanation is Elohim. It [Elohim] is the object, and not the subject of the sentence.138
Scholem's point is perhaps made clearer by restatement. In the Zohar, and in the commentaries of the majority of older (that is, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Kabbalists), the verse Bereshith bara Elohim is grammatically turned around. Bereshith is understood to refer to the Sefirah of Hokhmah, translated as "Wisdom" and identified in Kabbalistic theosophy as the Supernal Father—the figure who is usually interpreted in Kabbalah as the First of the Godhead. Hokhmah then emanates, or "creates" in the sense of unfolding, the Elohim.139 As Scholem notes, the interesting thing here is that Elohim has become the object of the sentence, and is no longer the subject. This is precisely Joseph Smith's reading.
This interpretation of Genesis 1:1 is not deeply hidden in the Zohar, but constitutes its opening paragraphs, and is the central concern of the entire first section of this long book. The Zohar begins with a commentary on Bereshith bara Elohim:
It is written: And the intelligent shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever. There was indeed a "brightness" [Zohar].140 The Most Mysterious struck its void, and caused this point to shine. This "beginning" [Reshith] then extended, and made for itself a palace for its honour and glory. . . . Thus by means of this "beginning" [Reshith] the Mysterious Unknown made this palace. This palace is called Elohim, and this doctrine is contained in the words, "By means of a beginning [Reshith, it,] created Elohim."141
So far this is exactly Joseph Smith's reading. In his exegesis Joseph takes Elohim, the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object which received the action of creation from the first god-image (here called Reshith), just as does the Zohar. Indeed, his words as transcribed by William Clayton, "Rosheet signifies to bring forth the Eloheim," are almost identical with the Zohar's phrasing of the interpretation.142
In his next step of translation, Smith interprets Bereshith to become Rosh, the "head" or head God. As Zucker objected, orthodox standards of translations do not yield the word Rosh, or "head," from Bereshith. But it was not "audacious independence" alone that led Smith to changed the meaning. A basis for this reading is actually found in the next verse of the Zohar: By a Kabbalistic cipher of letters—a technique used in Kabbalah to conceal deeper esoteric meanings—the Zohar explains that the word Reshith "is anagrammatically Rosh (head), the beginning which issues from Reshith."143 (To understand the fuller intent of this phrase, one must again remember that Rosh or reshith is here interpreted by Kabbalah to be Hokhmah, the first god-image, the Supernal Father.) Thus in this text Reshith has been interposed as an anagram for Rosh—who is understood to be the "Head God," Hokhmah. Could this be what Joseph means when he says "a man, a Jew without authority" changed the reading of the word, perhaps by failing to understand this ancient Kabbalistic anagram?
Finally, Smith translates Elohim in the plural, as "the Gods." The word is indeed in a plural Hebrew form, but by the orthodox interpretative conventions Joseph was taught in his Kirtland Hebrew class (which remain the norm) it is read as singular. In the Zohar, however, it is interpreted in the plural. This is witnessed throughout the Zohar and appears clearly in the following paragraph from the opening sections of the work, where the phrase "Let us make man" (Gen. 1:26) is used as the basis for a discussion on the plurality of the gods:
"Us" certainly refers to two, of which one said to the other above it, "let us make," nor did it do anything save with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague. But that which is called "the Cause above all causes," which has no superior or even equal, as it is written, "To whom shall ye liken me, that I should be equal?" (Is. 40:25), said, "See now that I, I am he, and Elohim is not with me," from whom he should take counsel. . . . Withal the colleagues explained the word Elohim in this verse as referring to other gods.144
Within this passage is both the concept of plurality and of the hierarchy of Gods acting "with the permission and direction of the one above it, while the one above did nothing without consulting its colleague." This interpretation is of course echoed in the King Follett discourse and became a foundation for all subsequent Mormon theosophy.
This is super important! These are foundational points in Jo’s theology of men becoming gods and god once being a man, and it was all taken directly from the Zohar and Kabbalah, most likely taught to him by Alexander Neibaur. This point bears repeating, Joseph Smith was not a revelator; he was a synthesizer. He gathered ideas, philosophies, points of theology together from many sources, harmonized it with his own conception of god and theology, then considered it his own. If he came up with these concepts on his own it would require a lot of work to understand how he got there and we could consider him a genius of sorts. But, when we understand that he was constantly surrounded by people having deep conversations about these topics, many people who were highly educated by American and European universities, Joseph Smith’s theology simply didn’t come from nowhere. It was a gradual evolution. Even more notable is how the theology captured here through his interpretations of Hebrew Pentateuch passages differs from his theology when his ministry began. David Michael read through the Book of Mormon on MyBookofMormon podcast. Once Marie and I took over the feed we read through the lectures on faith, the first school of instruction in the church. We’ve read through all of Joseph Smith’s revelations, published and unpublished. These concepts don’t begin to make their appearance anywhere in his corpus of scriptures until very late in his life.
As a kid I was always torn by this concept. If the church was restored through Joseph Smith, why did it have to be such a process? Why don’t we learn about men becoming gods, polygamy, the word of wisdom, sacrament blessings, the temple endowment, and dozens of other unique concepts in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is supposed to be the scripture that restored the church from its ancient heritage after the true gospel had been lost during the great apostasy. Why is it that everything we do every Sunday and every fireside lecture isn’t based on anything in the Book of Mormon and very little is based on stuff in the Doctrine and Covenants? Where is the stuff about apostolic and prophetic succession in the Doctrine and Covenants or Book of Mormon?
The simple fact is that Jo’s theology was in a constant state of expansion during his life. Trouble arises when we try to harmonize contradictions between his early Book of Mormon theology and what’s present in the King Follett Discourse because Jo had grown up so much. He’d learned a lot in his 14 years of ministry. If he were to have written the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon before his death, we can rest assured that these concepts would be present. But, because he wrote the Book of Mormon as an ignorant 24-year-old who didn’t know much about anything, the captured theology is simplistic and dogmatic. 14 years later, Jo’s nearing 40 years old and he’s had nearly a decade and a half of wisdom as a religious leader to draw on, and the result is a fascinating piece of American religious culture with deep concepts coming from rich heritages of ancient and medieval biblical scholarship and philosophy. If I wanted to have a fascinating conversation with Joseph Smith about religion and the concept of god, I’d quickly rage quit a conversation with Book of Mormon Joseph Smith because he was painfully ignorant. King Follett Discourse Joseph Smith, however, he and I could engage in conversation for hours and never bore of each other’s company the way I do today with my Mormon historian friends who believe in the church. I digress… let’s continue.
When I say doctors and lawyers, I mean the doctors and lawyers of the scripture. I have done so hitherto, to let the lawyers flutter, and every body laugh at them. Some learned doctor might take a notion to say, the scriptures say thus and so, and are not to be altered, and I am going to show you an error. I have an old book of the New Testament in the Hebrew, Latin, German and Greek. I have been reading the German and find it to be the most correct, and it corresponds nearest to the revelations I have given for the last fourteen years. It tells about Jachoboy the son of Zebedee; it means Jacob; in the English New Testament it is James.— Now if Jacob had the keys, you might talk about James through all eternity, and never get the keys. In the 21st verse of the 4th chapter Mathew, it gives the word Jacob instead of James. How can we escape the damnation of [p. 614] hell except reveal to us; men bind us with chains; Latin says Jachabod mean Jacob;—Hebrew says it means Jacob; Greek says Jacob; German says Jacob. I thank God I have got this book, and thank him more for the gift of the Holy Ghost. I have got the oldest book in the world, but I have got the oldest book in my heart. I have all the four testaments, come here ye learned men, and read if you can.
Very briefly, this goes to the point that Mormons will often claim that the Bible is not translated correctly. That concept is present in the articles of faith. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. Jo’s legacy rests on that point, the Bible is incomplete, partially because it wasn’t translated correctly, therefore we have the Book of Mormon as a second witness to the Bible. Braden and I talked about this on the most recent Glass Box Podcast because we’re reading through Tad R. Callister’s Case for the Book of Mormon. Scratch that, I’m reading through the Case for the Book of Mormon and Braden is laughing at my pain. Regardless, I also find it interesting that the church doesn’t use Jo’s “inspired translation” of the Bible. As far as it is translated correctly, but Jo translated the Bible incorrectly so we don’t use it. But, all the other scriptures he made, no… of course… those were from god.
I should not have introduced this testimony were it not to back up the word Rosh, the head, Father of the Gods. I should not have brought it up only to show that I am right. When we begin to learn in this way, we begin to learn the only true God, and what kind of a being we have got to worship. When we know how to come to him, begins to unfold the heavens to us and tell us all about it. When we are ready to come to him, he is ready to come to us. Now I ask all the learned men who hear me, why the learned men who are preaching salvation say, that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing, and the reason is they are unlearned; they account it blasphemy to contradict the idea, they will call you a fool.— I know more than all the world put together, and the Holy Ghost within me comprehends more than all the world, and I will associate with it. The word create came from the word baurau; it does not mean so; it means to organize; the same as a man would organize a ship. Hence we infer that God had materials to organize the world out of chaos; chaotic matter, which is element, and in which dwells all the glory. Element had an existence from the time he had. The pure principles of element, are principles that can never be destroyed. They may be organized and re-organized; but not destroyed.
Alright, this is also super important in Mormon theology and it also helps with explaining all those dinosaur bones. God didn’t create us and this earth, he merely organized it from existing matter. I’ve literally heard this apologetic against evolution and I assume some of you have as well. The dinosaur bones got there because they were part of the floating chaotic matter that god formed into earth. I’m serious. Intact dinosaur bones were floating around out in space and god put them in tar pits because he apparently ran out of rocks. How did the dinosaur bones get into space to begin with? You need to stop masturbating, Bryce. Fundamentally, though, this is an argument that pervades Christian sects today just as much as in Jo’s time. These conversations, and arguing about how the universe was created, long predates Christianity and was certainly a relevant conversation in Jo’s day. It’s that old creatio ex nihilo where matter isn’t created but just chaotic and organized by an omnipotent force. That’s contrasted with ex nihilo nihil fit where everything was created by god at once including matter and spacetime. Jo planted his flag on ex nihilo and that same idea is extrapolated to the belief that when we become gods we’ll go to some indeterminate place in the cosmos to create our own planet out of unorganized chaotic matter with random dinosaur bones floating around in space.
I have another subject to dwell upon and it is impossible for me to say much, but I shall just touch upon them; for time will not permit me to say all; so I must come to the resurrection of the dead, the soul, the mind of man, the immortal spirit. All men say God created it in the beginning. The very idea lessens man in my estimation; I do not believe the doctrine, I know better. Hear it all ye ends of the world, for God has told me so. I will make a man appear a fool before I get through, if you dont believe it. I am going to tell of things more noble—we say that God himself is a self existing God; who told you so? it is correct enough but how did it get into your heads? Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles? (refers to the old Bible,) how does it read in the Hebrew? It dont say so in the Hebrew, it says God made man out of the earth, and put into him Adam’s spirit, and so became a living body.
This is Jo’s biblical justification for premortal existence, also not unique to Mormonism as the concept exists to some extent in Ancient Greek mythology, Islam, Hinduism, and many sects of Christianity. It’s a logical step from one of the creation myths. God breathed the spirit into the body he’d created. Whether the spirit of Adam was created at that moment or Adam’s spirit existed before and god just transferred it into the vessel he’d formed from dirt, it’s a question that’s pervaded Christian philosophy for centuries. It does, however, mesh perfectly with Jo’s theology captured in D&C 76 about the kingdoms of heaven and the plan of salvation. Nothing of the sort is present in the Book of Mormon, but hey, that was 14 years ago in Jo’s life, who cares about that troublemaker of a book.
The mind of man is as immortal as God himself. I know that my testimony is true, hence when I talk to these mourners; what have they lost, they are only separated from their bodies for a short season; their spirits existed co-equal with God, and they now exist in a place where they converse together, the same as we do on the earth. Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal, and yet have a beginning? Because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end; good logic. I want to reason more on the spirit of man, for I am dwelling on the body of man, on the subject of the dead. I take my ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the immortal spirit, because it has no beginning. Suppose you cut it in two; but as the Lord lives there would be an end.— All the fools, learned and wise men, from the beginning of creation, who say that man had a beginning, proves that he must have an end and then the doctrine of annihilation would be true.
Yeah, that’s reasonable. Or, as Jo put it, that is good logic. You cut a circle in half then it has a beginning and end. What he goes to next, though, is where many Christians have problems with Mormon theology because it admits that the God of the Bible is not omnipotent. God can only organize matter, not create it. So it is with spirits. To put it crassly, celestial sex is not spiritual procreation so much as proorganization. Try that as a pick-up line at your next stake dance. Hey girl, did you come from the celestial kingdom? It looks like your matter came from outer space. Wanna come to my parents house when they’re at the temple next week so we can proorganize? Let me know how well it goes over if you try it.
But, if I am right I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops, that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself: intelligence exists upon a self existent principle, it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. All the spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement. The first principles of man are self existent with God; that God himself finds himself in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was greater, and because he saw proper to institute laws, whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself, that they might have one glory upon another, in all that knowledge, power, and glory, &c., in order to save the world of spirits. I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life, that are given to me, I know you taste it and I know you believe it. You say honey is sweet and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life; I know it is good, and when I tell you of these things, that were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive it as sweet, and I rejoice more and more.
This introduces a concept concerning the organization of spirits by god. Our spirits are just organized matter and we come to earth to gain a physical body, which we need to ascend to godhood. However, there are degrees of resurrection resulting from our mortal choices. We do the best and be the best Mormons possible, we achieve the third degree within the third degree of Mormon heaven. We’re wishy washy Mormons or super good members of other religions, we get the Terrestrial kingdom, which is still pretty great. Liars, murders, thieves, sex-workers, atheists, they all go to the telestial kingdom, the lowest of the low and synonymous with hell in D&C 76. However, there exists a fourth degree we don’t talk much about, Outer Darkness. Those who know the gospel and deny it, their inheritance is outer darkness. What is Outer Darkness? Well, we don’t know because Jo didn’t talk much about it. He was much more about the carrots than sticks when it came to his theology. However, one of his successors, Bloody Brigham Young, had plenty to say about Mormon damnation, and no it isn’t a spooky hell dream with dancing coffee cups and a Nazi giving fellatio to a missionary. Bloody Brigham talked about the disorganization of spirit matter extensively when times were tough in Utah. A masters thesis you’ll find in the show notes from 2012 discusses this extensively.
Young gauged Jesus and Satan as champions of two truths or two realities: “The Lord Jesus Christ works upon a plan of eternal increase, of wisdom, intelligence, honor, excellence, power, glory, might, and dominion, and the attributes that fill eternity.” (JoD 1:116) Conversely, “Satan is the way, the truth, and the death; or the way and the falsehood” who endeavors “to destroy, dissolve, decompose, and tear in pieces” (ibid) In the cosmos, then, there exist two truths or realities: a being—Jesus—who builds and a being—Satan—who destroys: “The principle of separation, or disorganization, is as much an eternal principle, as much a truth, as that of organization.”
So, when you sin bad enough to be condemned to Outer Darkness by saying that Mormonism is false, you commit yourself to the powers of Satan who exists to disorganize spiritual matter. The great thing about this is that there’s nothing saying disorganization is permanent. Right, so you can be condemned and your spirit matter disorganized but that, in turn, allows your spirit material to be reorganized by a different god. At that point, you can have another attempt at gaining a body and making better choices to become a god. Within the context of spirit matter organization and disorganization, reincarnation is the ultimate result, but only if you go really bold in your sinning against god. So, live it up.
This isn’t a crazy interpretation of what Jo said and what Bloody Brigham Young expounded upon in the Journal of Discourses. In fact, according to D. Michael Quinn in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View:
By the time of his death in 1844, Joseph Smith had also reversed his prior rejection of the Cabala's doctrine of "transmigration of the souls." Two of the women Smith secretly married as plural wives in the 1840s said that he privately affirmed reincarnation. Apostle Lorenzo Snow said that "his sister, the late Eliza R. Snow Smith, was a firm believer in the principle of reincarnation and that she claimed to have received it from Joseph the Prophet, her husband." Prescendia Huntington Buell (later Kimball) also affirmed her belief in "plural probations," referring to a statement "in confirmation" by her polyandrous husband Joseph Smiths. In the 1840s their polygamous relationship to the Mormon prophet was as secret as his conversion to reincarnation.
So, yes, Mormons believe in reincarnation, even if they don’t readily understand the spiritual mechanism by which it happens. It’s all sex. It’s all gods having sex with each other that makes Mormon reincarnation true. Jo gets a little more into it in the next paragraph after he talks about the need for baptisms for the dead, which, remember, he was holding over the Mormons’ heads until they finished the Temple construction project.
I want to talk more of the relation of man to God. I will open your eyes in relation to your dead; all things whatsoever God of his infinite wisdom has seen proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract and independent of affinity of this mortal tabernacle; but are revealed to us as if we had no bodies at all, and those revelations which wil[l] save our dead will save our bodies; and God reveals them to us in view of no eternal dissolution of the body; hence the responsibility, the [p. 615] awful responsibility, that rests upon us in relation to our dead: for all the spirits who have not obeyed the gospel in the flesh, must either obey the gospel or be damned. Solemn thought, dreadful thought. Is there nothing to be done; no salvation for our fathers and friends who have died and not obeyed the decrees of the Son of Man? Would to God that I had forty days and nights to tell you all, I would let you know that I am not a fallen prophet. What kind of characters are those who can be saved although their bodies are decaying in the grave? When his commandments teach us, it is in view of eternity. The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us, is to seek after our dead.— The apostle says, they without us cannot be made perfect. Now I will speak of them:—I say to you Paul, you cannot be perfect without us: (That was pretty arrogant. Yes, Joseph Smith is going give Paul of the Bible exaltation. Paul, the guy responsible for the majority of the New Testament, needs Jo to live in the presence of God.) it is necessary that those who are gone before, and those who come after us should have salvation in common with us, and thus hath God made it obligatory to man. Hence God said he should send Elijah, &c.; I have a declaration to make as to the provisions which God hath made to suit the conditions of man; made from before the foundation of the world, What has Jesus said? All sins and all blasphemies, every transgression, except one, that man can be guilty of, there is a salvation for him either in this world, or the world to come. Hence God hath made a provision, that every spirit in the eternal world can be ferreted out and saved, unless he has commited that unpardonable sin, which can not be remitted to him. That God has wrought out a salvation for all men, unless they have committed a certain sin. Every man who has got a friend in in the eternal world can save him unless he has committed the unpardonable sin, and so you can see how far you can be a savior.
Yes, we Mormons are saviors just by doing baptisms for the dead. I mean, members feel like it’s a duty to do baptisms and endowments for the dead but there’s also an element of self-aggrandizement to all of it. I remember when I was a kid watching my older sister go do baptisms for the dead and learning about how lucky I am that I’ll be able to do baptisms for the dead in a few years. Every person we do baptisms for will be eternally thankful to us because we made it possible for them to accept the gospel ordinances in the spiritual probation. If not for me, a twelve-year-old Bryce, going to the temple and getting dunked 20 times in a row, those people would continue to languish in spirit prison. I’m their literal savior. Then I was always plagued with thoughts of whether or not I was worthy to do the ordinances and if I did them without being worthy were they still valid? Like, sure all the hundreds of people would come and thank me for saving them, but what about the hundreds of people stuck in spirit prison because temple records showed their ordinances were done but none of that temple work was valid because I masturbated the night before? See, these are the hard questions we gotta ask ourselves everyday when we’re members of the ONE TRUE church.
A man can not commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, and there is a way possible for escape. Knowledge saves a man, and in the world of spirits a man cannot be exalted but by knowledge; so long as a man will not give heed to the commandments, he must abide without salvation. A man is his own tormenter, and is his own condemner: hence the saying they shall go into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. The torment of the mind of man is as exsquisite as a lake burning with fire and brimstone—so is the torment of man. I know the scriptures; I understand them. I said no man can commit the unpardonable sin after the dissolution of the body, but they must do it in this world: hence the salvation of Jesus Christ was wrought out for all men in order to triumph over the devil: for if it did not catch him in one place, it would in another, for he stood up as a Savior.
The contention in heaven was, Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved, and the devil said he could save them all; the grand council gave in for Jesus Christ: so the devil rebelled against God and fell, and all who put up their heads for him. All sins shall be forgiven except the sin against the Holy Ghost: after a man has sinned against the Holy Ghost there is no repentance for him, he has got to say that the sun does not shine, while he sees it, he has got to deny Jesus Christ when the heavens were open to him, and from that time they begin to be enemies, like many of the apostates of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. When a man begins to be an enemy, he hunts me. They seek to kill me; they thirst for my blood; they never cease. He has the same spirit that they had who crucified the Lord of Life: the same spirit that sins against the Holy Ghost. You cannot bring them to repentance. Awful is the consequence. I advise all of you to be careful what you do, you may by and bye find out that you have been deceived. Stay yourselves, do not give way. You may find out that some one has laid a snare for you. Be cautious; await! when you find a spirit that wants bloodshed, murder, the same is not of God, but is of the devil. Out of the abundance of the heart man speaketh. The man that tells you words of life, is the man that can save you. I warn you against all evil characters, who sin against the Holy Ghost, for there is no redemption for them in this world, or in the world to come.
Mostly this reiterated the ideas we’ve discussed up to this point. The dissolution of spirits and bodies comes as the ultimate punishment for denying the gospel. Also, anybody trying to kill Jo, they are evil apostates and deserve their damnation because the prophet Joseph Smith can’t be wrong. He did give voice to the concepts captured in the Books of Moses and Abraham, the plan of salvation being proposed by Jesus, the plan of autonomous human with no sin or illness proposed by Lucifer, and god choosing Jesus’ plan resulting in the fall of Lucifer when he became Satan, the Adversary. However, it is notable that in the Book of Abraham and the Book of Moses, it is God, not the grand council of gods, who approved of Jesus’s plan. Even though that detail specifically comes from the Book of Abraham, which only predated the King Follett Discourse by 2 years, it illustrates that Jo’s theology was constantly in a state of evolution and adaptation. Next he expounds further on the plan of salvation or exaltation as it becomes in this discourse.
I can enter into the mysteries; I can enter largely into the eternal worlds: for Jesus said, in my father’s house there are many mansions, &c. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars, &c. We have reason to have the greatest hope and consolations for our dead, for we have aided them in the first principles; for we have seen them walk in our midst, and seen them sink asleep in the arms of Jesus. And hence is the glory of the sun. You mourners have occasion to rejoice; (speaking of the death of Elder King Follett,) for your husband is gone to wait until the resurrection; and your expectations and hope are far above what man can conceive: for why has God revealed it to us? I am authorised to say by the authority of the Holy Ghost, that you have no occasion to fear, for he is gone to the home of the just. Don’t mourn: don’t weep. I know it by the testimony of the Holy Ghost that is within me. Rejoice O Israel! your friends shall triumph gloriously, while their murderers [p. 616] shall welter for ages. I say this for the benefit of strangers. I have a father, brothers, and friends who are gone to a world of spirits. They are only absent for a moment; they are in the spirit, and when we depart we shall hail our mothers, fathers, friends, and all whom we love.— There will be no fear of mobs, &c., but all will be an eternity of felicity. Mothers you shall have your children, for they shall have eternal life; for their debt is paid, there is no damnation awaits them, for they are in the spirit.— As the child dies, so shall it rise from the dead and be forever living in the learning of God, it shall be the child, the same as it was before it died out of your arms. Children dwell and exercise power in the same form as they laid them down.
Very brief point to make here, this is the infants on thrones quote, but it isn’t from the published version we’re reading. We take that concept from Wilford Woodruff’s account of the discourse. Here’s how he wrote it:
A question, will Mothers have their children in Eternity yes, yes, you will have the children But as it falls, so it will rise, It will never grow, It will be in its precise form as it fell in its mothers arms. 3 Eternity is full of thrones upon which dwell thousands of children reigning on thrones of glory not one cubit added to their stature
Yes, eternity is full of infants ruling from thrones without a cubit added to their stature. I don’t know how you’d hear this in the congregation and not burst out laughing. Understandably, that part was cut from the published version and only survives in Wilford Woodruff’s journal.
The baptism of water without the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost attending it is of no use: they are necessary. He must be born of water and the spirit in order to get into the kingdom of God.
Very briefly, this is a concept debated hotly among Protestant sects even today, and certainly in the early to mid-1800s. Infant baptism and damnation of unbaptized people, if we believe early Smith family folklore, was what caused Jo to hate organized religion in his late teens. His older brother, Alvin, died in 1823 and a preacher told the Smiths that he was damned. The Book of Mormon comes along and infant baptism isn’t necessary because we’re not damned by original sins. We’re punished for our own sins, and not Adam’s transgression. Disagreement on baptism and confirmation drove Hingepin Sidney Rigdon away from his mentor, Alexander Campbell, around the same time Alvin died in the early 1820s. This is one of the very few points in the King Follett Discourse where Jo’s late theology is actually consistent with the theology of the Book of Mormon. Also, confirmation after baptism is necessary, interpreted in Mormon theology as a separate blessing after the baptism, but it’s an ordinance with a great degree of variability among Christian sects.
In the German, the text bears me out the same as the revelations which I have given for the last fourteen years. I have the testimony to put in their teeth; my testimony has been true all the time. You will find it in the declaration of John the Baptist, (reads from the German), John says I baptize you with water, but when Jesus comes, who has the power, he shall administer the baptism of fire, and the Holy Ghost. Great God! where is now all the sectarian world! and if this testimony is true, they are all damned as clearly as anathema can do it. I know the text is true. I call upon all you Germans, who know that it is true, to say aye, (loud shouts of aye.) Alexander Campbell, how are you going to save them with water alone? for John said his baptism was nothing without the baptism of Jesus Christ. There is one God, one Father, one Jesus, one hope of our calling, one baptism—all these three baptisms only make one. I have the truth and am at the defiance of the world to contradict me, if they can. I have now preached a little Latin, a little Hebrew, Greek and German, and I have fulfilled all.— I am not so big a fool as many have taken me to be. The Germans know that I read the German correct.
Now, we’re in the final rally cry of the King Follett Discourse. I have a few thoughts to wrap up everything we’ve discussed today and I know this episode went a bit longer than usual but I just couldn’t justify splitting it into two shows. Let’s allow Jo to finish in proper pulpit pounding glory where he sells the sickness and the cure in expert form he’d been honing for nearly a decade and a half.
Hear it all ye ends of the earth—all ye sinners, repent! repent! turn to God, for your religion wont save you, and you will be damned; I do not say how long; but those who sin against the Holy Ghost cannot be forgiven in this world, or in the world to come; they shall die the second death; as they concoct scenes of bloodshed in this world so they shall rise to that resurrection, which is as the lake of fire and brimstone: some shall rise to the everlasting burning of God, and some shall rise to the damnation of their own filthliness—as exquisite as the lake of fire and brimstone.
I have intended my remarks to all; both rich and poor, bond and free, great and small. I have no enmity against any man. I love you all. I am your best friend, and if persons miss their mark, it is their own fault. If I reprove a man and he hates me, he is a fool, for I love all men, especially these my brethren and sisters. I rejoice in bearing the testimony of my aged friends. You never knew my heart; no man knows my history; I cannot tell it. I shall never undertake it; if I had not experienced what I have, I should not have known it myself. I never did harm any man since I have been born in the world. My voice is always for peace, I cannot lie down until all my work is finished. I never think any evil, nor any thing to the harm of my fellow man.— When I am called at the trump of the ark-angel, and weighed in the balance you will all know me then… God bless you all. Amen.
That is the King Follett Discourse. A man who joined the church and suffered through thick and thin of everything the world threw at the religion, and just a few months before the great schism crisis resulting from the deaths of the Prophet and Patriarch, King Follett was laid to rest and his funeral became the grandest theater of Jo’s theology for his entire 14-year ministry. Fawn Brodie put it well on page 366 of No Man Knows My History, and now that we know from where she got the title of her book, I think it’s only fitting to read her summary.
Almost never in these days did Joseph step outside himself and look with surprise and humility upon what he had become. But once in this spring of 1844, at the funeral of a certain King Follett, he delivered one of the most profound sermons of his whole career. For the first time he proclaimed in a unified discourse the themes he had been inculcating in fragments and frequently in secret to his most favored saints: the glory of knowledge, the multiplicity of gods, the eternal progression of the human soul.
This was the penultimate of Jo’s notable theological sermons before his death in June 1844, just a mere 2 months ahead of our current place in the historical timeline. It’s a good one! It damn well better be; Jo had been honing his skills and personal theology for 14 years when he took the stand on this day this should stand out as one of his greatest achievements of his legacy. I also can’t help but feel a little disappointed, and there are a few reasons for that.
First, what we have is far from complete. I mean it took us about an hour and a half to get through this from top to bottom with plenty of extra commentary and I don’t think I was reading it at a pace much faster than Jo gave it in the first place but he was talking for like 2 hours. If we had the audio from this sermon, a full and accurate account of everything he said that day, I feel like deconstructing the sermon would be a 3-part series standalone from the life of King Follett. Instead, we only have the scant history of 4 accounts synthesized together; that’s all we have to work with.
Second reason I’m a little disappointed, straight up, this should be canonized. There’s so much of modern Mormon theology present in this sermon that’s nowhere to be found or only somewhat alluded to in other Mormon scripture. These teachings were super-secret for the majority of the Mormons in attendance that day, but this is much closer to modern Mormon beliefs than anything in the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. If you want to know Mormon theology, the foundational text, the Book of Mormon, should be the last place you look. The King Follett Discourse shines a light on a cohesive narrative of Mormon theology than any of the available Mormon canon.
Third and final reason I’m disappointed today… Mormons are spiritually starving. Members attend every Sunday only to have rehashed lessons they’ve heard a hundred times told by a different person from manuals that are reprinted every year with only the copyright date changed. When Mormons are looking for their god, they feel like there’s nothing but an empty stare in return. An occasional good feeling when somebody with a good voice sings a solo in sacrament meeting of a favorite hymn doesn’t feed a hungry mind. It only pacifies the pain of wanting more. Members today are surviving on those little hits of spiritual crank and the highs are diminishing. We don’t talk Mormon theology on this show because I think it’s overall a pointless exercise unless it’s strictly relevant like today, but I can bet dollars to donuts most Mormon are completely ignorant of almost everything we’ve discussed today, and that’s through no fault of their own. The ancient and esoteric arts Joseph Smith was tapped into near the end of his life are so stimulating but every Sunday Mormon are sheltered from this information; there is no excuse and no reason for this. If people are hungry for intellectual and spiritual stimulation, teach them about the history of the real Joseph Smith and his personal philosophies.
The sad truth is, the god of Joseph Smith died the day he was shot. The bullet which killed him took two entities’ lives that fateful day. Joseph Smith as a person was an insufferable scoundrel but no person could argue that the philosophy he created isn’t interesting and hasn’t served as a source of exploration and further study far outliving the man. The kiss of fire that caused the first prophet of Mormonism to breathe his last sent the potential of his many decades of theological expansion floating into the darkness of mystery. Jo’s contemporary he loved to call out repeatedly, Alexander Campbell, lived for 77 years and spent half a century publishing theological discourses, holding public debates, and establishing a unique theology which has lasted to this day as Disciples of Christ. Jo had barely a quarter of the time and devised a radically inventive and intellectually compelling theology that has overshadowed anything Campbell left behind who had twice the lifespan of Joseph Smith. Who knows what Jo would have come up with, or what he would have accomplished, if he had another 45 years to carry out his designs and further develop his doctrine…
This just makes the point all the more relevant. A few weeks ago, I was gaming with a friend of mine from my past life. He’s a happily-married temple-attending guy a year younger than me and we’ve been friends for over a decade. He knows what I do for a living, I know what he believes, those paths never cross. I thought I might venture out on a limb and bring up King Follett because I’d just finished the book and I was jazzed up about the guy. I told him about King Follett buying Books of Mormon from Hyrum Smith, being chased out of Jackson County Missouri, being locked up twice and subsequently breaking out of prison, his career as bodyguard of the prophet, and a few other details of the guy’s life, of course, putting my usual storytelling shine on the information. My friend had no idea. He’d heard about the King Follett discourse and could remember that it was important, but he had no idea that King Follett was a person or why the funeral discourse is so important. He was rivetted. He ate it up, even though he knows I’m filled with so-called anti-Mormon propaganda. Maybe the next week at church he told some friends in elder’s quorum what he’d learned about King Follett, maybe he just has an internal deeper appreciation of one small person in Mormon history, or maybe he forgot about it immediately after the conversation because we were shooting zombies. I don’t know. But I got the distinct feeling he enjoyed learning about it, maybe he even felt spiritually edified by how profoundly committed to the faith King was; maybe he was moved by how much the Follett family sacrificed and still held true to their testimonies. We didn’t even discuss the discourse but that would have been another source for good conversation and we could’ve gone for another hour or two. I use my friend here as an indicator of the average Mormon populace even though it’s clearly a singular datum and anecdotal at best and recalled weeks later. He feels hungry and I’d be willing to bet many others sitting in the same sacrament meeting feel just like my friend.
The church has a rich heritage and history from which to formulate their lesson manuals but they choose to reprint the same stuff because it’s tried and true and completely in their control. I want nothing more than for the church to keep bleeding members but there will always be people who believe. The less the church stimulates their dying membership, the less those hearts are committed and the more they turn elsewhere to be nourished and strengthened. If the current leadership doesn’t take a new approach, someone else will.
I have a proposal for you, dear listener.
Do you like Mormon history? Of course you do because you’re listening to this show. How about Dungeons and Dragons? Do you know what D&D is? In case you don’t, Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop RPG where a Game Master weaves together a universe and other players interact with that world. Well, here’s the proposal.
Bring figures of early Mormon history to life, unlock the keys to the celestial kingdom, and learn mysteries of the universe!
How? Hit our next goal and Patron subscribers of $2+/episode get a monthly Mormon history Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign, DM'd by yours truly, joined by players who are Mormon history junkies
Join the NaMo Outer Darkness family to blend magic and history, have a few laughs, and experience a side of humanity only fiction can reveal.
If you want a Mormon History D&D campaign, all you have to do is go to patreon.com/nakedmormonism and sign up for $2/episode that’s less than two coffees a month, and if we reach our next goal we’ll do a monthly campaign. I already have the players lined up and let’s just say they’re extremely motivated to make this happen. Plus, Mormon history with Joseph Smith’s magic and occult practices is the perfect playground.
So you, yeah you, driving your car right now, mowing the lawn, working out, on your way home from work, shopping, I’m talking to you. Pledge to support the show at patreon.com/nakedmormonism. You’re funding content creation and you get lots of goodies, like a Mormon D&D campaign and early Mormon books as a bonus!
Long time… and I mean LOOOONG time listeners of this show will remember when I used to do stories for new supporters of the show. I stopped doing them because quite frankly I was spending more time on the stories than I was researching the script. Well, here’s your chance to become a living and breathing figure of early Mormon history because those who pledge at the highest levels will be written into the campaign as prominent figures of the early church.
If that sounds like fun to you, head on over to patreon.com/nakedmormonism and sign up for the exclusive feed and comment threads right now just like our newest patron, Lewis and our newest pledge increase, Tanner Barker. To our newest patron, to our pledge edit, and to all of our patrons, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for supporting the research that goes into the show and keeping the mics powered over here at Ground Gnomes Studios.
On a personal note, I had a fantastic lunch with a listener here local in Tacoma who also gave a very generous one-time donation. Brandon and I sat and talked Mormon history and cars for a few hours and it was an absolute pleasure so I wanted to thank him on-air.
Let’s call it a day. My apologies for making this such a long episode but we’ll be back to our historical timeline next week. Thank you so much, dear listener, for lending me your ear.
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