Of a More Divine Origin: Joseph Smith’s Teachings on the Nature and Fatherhood of God

Joshua Bills, “Of a More Divine Origin: Joseph Smith’s Teachings on the Nature and Fatherhood of God,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2003 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 1–5.

Of a More Divine Origin: Joseph Smith’s Teachings on the Nature and Fatherhood of God

Joshua Bills

To this day Latter-day Saints are often accused of preaching an anthropomorphic God. The idea of a God who resembles man in any form repulses many philosophers and theologians. In 1820, when the light descended upon the young boy Joseph, the future prophet instantly learned some important things about the nature and being of the Godhead. These initial ideas were revealed line upon line until they found their consummation during the Nauvoo period of Church history. As the light and truth distilled upon Joseph Smith over this brief period of twenty-four years, he was able to controvert thousands of years of false belief and instill in the Saints a “correct idea of [God’s] character, perfections, and attributes.” [1] These learned teachings have been confounded by the Prophet’s revolutionary doctrine that proclaimed the theomorphism [2] of man and the fatherhood of God.

The first anti-anthropomorphic ideas of God were formulated by the Greek philosopher Xenophanes. “Mortals suppose,” he said, “that the gods are born and have clothes and voices and shapes like their own. But if oxen, horses, and lions had hands or could paint . . . and fashion works as men do, horses would paint horselike images of gods and oxen oxlike ones.” Xenophanes concluded this part of his critique by saying, “There is one god, among gods and men the greatest, not at all like mortals in body or mind.” [3]

As the apostasy took place and the priesthood was lost, views similar to that of Xenophanes crept into Christian theology. By the time of Joseph Smith, the God of classical theism had become an immaterial being without body, parts, or passions. The Godhead appeared so different from man that when Joseph Smith commented on the state of the Christian Godhead during his life he called it “a strange God anyhow” and “a curious organization.” [4]

Because of the strange views many Christians held, the Prophet felt it necessary to correct the beliefs of the Christian world. In the King Follett Discourse (hereafter the Follett Discourse), given on 7 April 1844, Joseph advanced his grievances against the theologians and philosophers of the day: “Oh, ye lawyers, ye doctors, and ye priests, who have persecuted me, I want to let you know that the Holy Ghost knows something as well as you do.” [5] The Prophet further announced that he knew “more than all the world put together. The Holy Ghost does, anyhow, and He is within me.” [6] The Prophet had been taught by his visions of the Almighty and was confident in his knowledge of God.

The first and most basic truth that Joseph Smith had learned in the First Vision and other experiences was that God the Father had a body. “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (D&C 130:22), he declared at Ramus, Illinois, in 1843. Joseph’s proclamation immediately dispelled the notion that God was immaterial and dwelt outside time and space.

This first point of separation from classical trinitarianism was only the beginning, though. In the Follett Discourse the Prophet declared, “There are but a very few beings in the world who understand rightly the character of God. ... If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” [7] Why couldn’t men comprehend themselves without comprehending God? The Prophet had come to know that in God the Father and in Jesus Christ was the revelation of what men could become. The potential of every child of our Father in Heaven is to become like Him.

Two years earlier, in 1842, Joseph had taught that for a man “to go where God is,” he “must be like God.” [8] His intention was to teach the Saints exactly who it was that they were to become like. That lesson came later in the Follett Discourse when the Prophet proclaimed: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit ... was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God.” [9] Thus, God is “like a man in form.” However, Joseph’s intent was not to teach that God was in the image of men, but rather to show that man was in the image of God. In effect, his answer to Xenophanes and any other philosopher or theologian was, “If the Gods could create and fashion as men do, they would fashion bodies like their own.” The change is simple: man had not created God in his image, but God had created man in His image. Such truth had been stated in the Bible (see Genesis 1:26–27), but it had long been lost to reason and theology. For instance, many of the learned men of the day believed that man had been created only in God’s moral image and not in His physical image as well.

Joseph Smith also refuted the idea that God had always been God and had created mankind ex nihilo, or out of nothing. “We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea. ... These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple.” [10] The Prophet asked the Saints where they had learned that God is a self-existent being: “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? Man does exist upon the same principles.” [11] The great and simple truth was that man had been created in God’s image and would eventually “learn how to be Gods ... and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you.” [12] The puzzle was coming together: man and God exist on the same principles, are alike in form, and share in the same process of progression. Joseph Smith, a simple farm boy from Palmyra, had refuted centuries of learning.

Over a month later Joseph Smith again spoke frankly to the Saints in regard to their divine theomorphism: “Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way.” [13] Mankind had not simply sprung into existence but was tied by genealogical lineage to the Great Parent of the universe. This doctrine represented the culmination of the Prophet’s teachings on mankind and mankind’s relationship to Deity.

All of these teachings were calculated to bring a change within the Saints. If they could comprehend God, then they would comprehend themselves and be filled with love for all things. Benjamin F. Johnson, who had been closely associated with Joseph Smith, penned the following many years after the Prophet’s death: “And in teaching us the ‘fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,’ we could begin to see why we should ‘Love God supremely, and our brother as ourselves’—He taught us that God was the great head of human procreation—was really and truly the Father of both our spirits and our bodies.” [14]

These teachings were sweet to those whose hearts were touched by the Spirit and bitter to those whose hearts were hardened to the work of the Lord. If we could engrain this doctrine in our hearts, we would be filled with love—the same love by which “the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men.” [15] An understanding that we are literally—not metaphorically—the children of God should help us to remove those “contracted feelings” and allow us to love not only our brothers and sisters, but also ourselves.

Joseph Smith’s simple teachings have provided the Latter-day Saints with a unique heritage and understanding. Of all people in the world, we should be the most capable of striving to love God, our fellowmen, and ourselves. It is our divine theomorphism, and not God’s anthropomorphism, that brings strength to the Latter-day Saints’ hope of better things both in this world and in the next.

Notes

[1] Joseph Smith, Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 38.

[2] Theomorphism may best be defined as the creation of man in the image of God. This is the opposite of anthropomorphism, or the image of man being reflected upon God.

[3] Walter Kaufmann, ed., Philosophic Classics: Vol. 1: Thales to Ockham, 2d ed. (Englewood, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 13.

[4] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 372.

[5] Smith, Teachings, 348.

[6] Smith, Teachings, 350.

[7] Smith, Teachings, 343.

[8] Smith, Teachings, 216.

[9] Smith, Teachings, 345.

[10] Smith, Teachings, 345.

[11] Smith, Teachings, 352.

[12] Smith, Teachings, 346.

[13] Smith, Teachings, 373; emphasis added.

[14] Fred C. Collier, comp., Unpublished Revelations of the Prophets and Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Collier’s, 1981), 98.

[15] Smith, Teachings, 218.