What If Joseph Smith Had Lived Longer?

Near the end of his life, Joseph Smith delivered one of his most powerful eulogies:  The King Follett discourse.  In it, he further developed the Mormon theology of theosis.  According to Google (“Divination”):

Mormonism teaches a very literal divination doctrine called exaltation.  In contrast to Trinitarian theosis, Mormons believe that humanity may not only achieve God’s holiness and perfection, but also his divinity or godhood in essence.  This doctrine stems from the movement’s founder Joseph Smith, Jr. who taught that God the Father is an advanced and glorified man.  According to Smith, through obedience to Christ and the gradual acquisition of knowledge, the faithful may eventually become gods in the afterlife.

The divinization process is part of the Mormon doctrine of “eternal progression.”  And it has always been my understanding, that “etermal progression” applies to God as well as man.  Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915-1985)–in a speech given at BYU titled “Seven Deadly Heresies”–alleged that my understanding is incorrect:

Heresy number one:  There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.  This is false–utterly, totally, and completely.  There is not one sliver of truth in it.  It grows out of a wholly twisted and incorrect view of the King Follett Sermon and what is meant by eternal progression.

God progresses in the sense that his kingdoms increase and his dominions multiply–not in the sense that he learns new truths and discovers new laws.  God is not a student.  He is not a laboratory technician.  He is not postulating new theories on the basis of past experiences.  He has indeed graduated to that state of exaltation which consists of knowing all things and having all power.

What I was taught in the 1960s growing up in East Lansing, Michigan, (and what I still believe today) is that eternal progression is for everyone, including God.  Brigham Young stated that the God he worships is progressing in knowledge.  That is my belief also, although Elder McConkie makes me a bit of an agnostic.

Had Joseph Smith lived longer, I wonder how his doctrine of “eternal progression” and the relationship between man and God might have evolved, or been refined.  Historians love to play “What if” games.  And this one has always stirred my imagination.  Had he lived longer, I suspect that the doctrines of “eternal progression” and theosis would have a higher emphasis in the LDS Church today.  We–as mortals–would have a better understanding of man’s and God’s role in the universe.  We would have a better understanding of the on-going creation, and our role in it.

Benjamin E. Park writing in Dialogue (Summer 2012, p. 61) comes to the following conclusion:

. . . [Joseph] Smith’s theology is difficult to determine . . .  His premature death at age 38 prevented the completion of his religious revolution.  Though he had been the recognized prophet and leader for nearly a decade and a half, the explosive theological development during his last three years showed no sign of slackening, and it can be assumed that much of his religious vision was left inchoate and unfulfilled.  Indeed, it was not until the last three months of his life that Smith’s sermons started to peice together what had previously been only theological fragments; and in his private teachings, he began to expound these ideas to his closest followers. 

theosis (noun):  I haven’t been able to find a good “official” definition of theosis.  The two Christian religions that have the greatest connection to the doctrine are the Eastern Orthodox and LDS Churches.  Each has its own definition of theosis and I’m sure they don’t come close to agreeing.  One dictionary definition “deification, participation in the nature of God” seems to fit the Eastern tradition better than the Mormon.

This entry was posted in Creation, mormonism, Religion, transhumanism, Vocabulary. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What If Joseph Smith Had Lived Longer?

  1. This is so fascinating. In my cynical moments I view perfection as a form of damnation – in that the flow of that which leads to eternal improvement is stopped and comes to an end. Yet are we commanded to be ye therefore perfect, as as our father in heaven is perfect. So, He has reached an epoch of perfection and can therefore no longer expand in wisdom, knowledge, potency, priesthood. I want to rebel against such perfection.

  2. Lincoln Cannon says:

    Only if perfection is understood in dynamic terms am I a theist. Otherwise, I’m as atheistic as Richard Dawkins.

  3. rogerdhansen says:

    I have always viewed God as an evolving entity. He is perfect (knows everything) only when compared to mankind. Eternity doesn’t make much sense to me unless there is some form of eternal progression.

  4. roger hansen says:

    According to John W. Gardner writing in his book “Self -Renewal”:

    “This brings us to the modern emphasis on process, an emphasis suggested, in the broadest implications, by Arnold Toynbee when he said, “Civilization is a movement . . . and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.”

    Emphasis on process–and the complex interweaving of continuity and change–plays havoc with old-fashioned conceptions of liberalism and conservatism. As Peter Drucker has pointed out, in a world buffeted by change, faced daily with new threats to its safety, the only way to conserve is by innovating. The only stability possible is stability in motion.”

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