The History of Intelligence in Latter-day Saint Thought

By Kenneth W. Godfrey

Kenneth W. Godfrey, “The History of Intelligence in Latter-day Saint Thought,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 213–36.

Chapter 11: The History of Intelligence in Latter-day Saint Thought

Kenneth W. Godfrey


Kenneth W. Godfrey was the northern Utah–southern Idaho area director for the Church Education System when this was published.


Recently, I listened to a remarkably successful administrator of a correctional institution tell of an experience she had had with what she described as an incorrigible young man. In the course of the confrontation, he angrily declared, “Go ahead, kick me out of school, I don’t care. I wish I were dead!” Sensing that he was serious, the administrator asked, “How would you kill yourself?” The boy replied, “Not with pills; I tried that once. It did not work. This time I would do it with a gun.” “Do you have a gun?” she asked. “Yes,” he said. “Where is it?” “In the drawer next to my bed.” “Do you have shells?” “Yes.” Then perceptively, the principal queried, “And if you were able to kill yourself, then what?” The boy retorted, “I’d be dead.” “Then what?” the administrator asked. “What do you mean, Then what?’” the boy responded. The principal said, “Can you think of yourself not existing?” The boy, somewhat angry, retorted, “I don’t want any preaching, or any of that religious stuff.” The administrator said, “I’m not going to preach. All that I ask is that you close your eyes and think hard for a moment and then answer this question: Can you think or imagine a time when you did not exist or when you will cease to exist?” The boy did as she requested and then said, “No, I can’t, and I see what you mean, suicide solves nothing because I will always be me.”

Regarding this fundamental principle of the Church, Lisa Bolin Hawkins, in her poem, “All My Silent Midnight Hours,” wrote:

Things just get worse

Which heavenly linoleum stripe

Leads to universal emergency?

The resident angel could scour my soul.

I’ll settle for a strong narcotic—

A few centuries of oblivion might be

just what the doctor ordered.

Wake me when Judgement Day is over;

the suspense is killing me.

By creating me eternal, you left me no escape.

So which way to intensive care

For a premature queen and priestess

With a testimony of all of it but herself? (9)


Such a powerful belief in the eternal nature of each person’s existence is fraught, as Lisa Hawkins rightly points out, with extraordinary implications.

Brigham Young University English professor Eugene England, in a fine essay entitled “Enduring,” writes of a time in his boyhood when he first felt his own “deepest, most hopeless, fear, the fear of being itself.” In spite of his safe childhood in a strong Mormon farming community, there came one evening “moving” into his mind “like a physical presence, the conviction that all was quite absurd. It made no sense at all that anything should exist.” Even as an adult, he tells us further, “. . . that extreme awareness of the better claim of nothingness, lies just beyond the barriers of my busy mind and will intrude when I let it” (195).

Professor England argues that his own deep feat seems unique, precisely because of those unique Mormon beliefs that [give him the] greatest joy and security. It is one thing to wonder, as traditional Christians do, why an absolute, perfectly self-sufficient God would bother to create [people and] this strange, painful universe out of nothing, to feel the proximate mysteries of this “vale of tears” but also an utter dependence on an ultimate being who can reduce [us] and the universe to nothingness and thus painlessness again—or to feel Albert Camus’ desperate bitterness about a universe that has produced beings like us, with our constant yearning for meaning and permanence, but which seems to answer with absurdity and annihilation (195–96).

Yet, for England and other Latter-day Saints, it is quite another thing to feel our “own separate, necessary, and unquenchable being. [We] had no beginning, not even in God,” he says, and though the restored Gospel gives us many answers to life’s basic questions, it does not answer “why and how [we] exist [as] essential being[s].” We always have existed, we are told, and we always will. England’s “mind balks in horror” at such doctrine and finds that he “cannot imagine how it could come to be that there is existence or essence—how there could be something instead of nothing.” The Prophet Joseph’s answer was that existence “did not come to be, but simply always was” (196).

It is the purpose of this essay to discuss the history of the teachings on intelligence in Latter-day Saint thought as found largely in the scriptures and in the writings of the Prophets. It is hoped that such a history will help church members better understand themselves, their past and their future destiny. It was Joseph Smith, himself, who declared, “All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 354; hereafter TPJS).

Joseph Smith’s​ Teachings Regarding Intelligence

It was in the spring of 1833, while residing in Kirtland, Ohio, that the Prophet received a revelation now known as Section ninety-three of the Doctrine and Covenants. In the twenty-ninth verse we read that “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” This, it appears, was the first reference in modern scripture to something in or about the idea that man was not created or made, nor could he be. It seems that Joseph Smith did not provide the Saints with additional information at that time as to just what this scripture meant or what additional implications he saw in the Lord’s pronouncement. It is also not entirely clear whether intelligence is something individual or collective, or an attribute or principle. In fact, it is not clear what this verse means when the Lord says, “Man was also in the beginning with [Him].” Most of those we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators, who have commented upon this scriptural passage, have agreed that Doctrine and Covenants 93:23–29 clearly teaches the pre-existence of man. We had an existence before we were born into this life, and we will exist after we die. Joseph Smith, in an address delivered in Commerce, Illinois, on 2 June 1839, said, “The spirit of man is not a created being: it existed from eternity, and will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be eternal. . . .” (Journal of Discourses 6:238; hereafter JD). The Prophet here appears to use intelligence and spirit synonymously, perhaps in part, because of his translation of the Book of Abraham.

In the summer of 1835, Joseph Smith records that with the help of W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery, he “commenced the translation of some of the characters of hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham. . .” (History of the Church 2:236; hereafter HC; see also Peterson 163). As the prophet continued his translation of the characters, he discovered a reference to the word intelligence. In Abraham 3:18–19, we read that where there are two spirits, one will be more intelligent than the other and that “the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” In commenting on these verses, Elder B. H. Roberts concluded that God was not only “more intelligent than all of the other intelligences,” but that he was “more intelligent than all the other intelligences combined. His intelligence is greater than that of the mass” (Hunter, 58). Another scholar who analyzed these passages concluded that the spirits or intelligences of men were not equal in the endowments and attributes of life they possessed at the time of their primeval birth, although each . . . had the potential of becoming like God. If the . . . primal intelligence of man was independent in its sphere before the time it was organized in union with other elements of spirits to become a spirit personage, this state of independence strongly argues that the central primal intelligence of one person . . . may have varied in its development from another before they were organized as spirits (Andrus 118).

The Lord is clear in his declaration to Abraham that spirits “have no beginning” and that they, therefore, shall have no end. They are, in God’s own words, “Eternal” (Abr. 3:18).

It was 16 June 1844, only eleven days before he was martyred, when Joseph Smith made his own commentary on these verses in Abraham. He said:

I learned it [That we shall be as God, as He is like His Father] by translating the papyrus now in my house—I learned a test, concerning Abraham & he reasoned concerng the God of Heaven—in order to do that sd. he—suppose we have two facts that supposes that anotr. fact may exist . . . one above anotr. that there is no end to it—if Abra. reasoned thus—if J. C was the Son of God & John discd. that god the Far. of J. C had a far. you may suppose that he had a far. also—where was ther ever a Son witht. a faR . . . [sic] (Ehat and Cook 380).

Elder Milton R. Hunter, after quoting this portion of the Prophet’s discourse, writes that we learn from it that God, the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ, “were eternal in nature and superior in intelligence, wisdom and prudence” (Hunter 59).

On Sunday afternoon, 7 April 1844, Joseph Smith delivered what has been called his greatest sermon, the King Follett address. In this marvelous speech, for which we now have an “Amalgamated Text,” (Larsen 193–208) we find the clearest and most complete analysis of what the Prophet Joseph Smith meant when he referred to that part of man which was eternal. He said, “Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age and there is no creation about it. The first principles of man are self-existent with God” (204). In another part of the speech, he also said, “Man existed in Spirit; the mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as, and is co-equal with, God Himself. I know that my testimony is true” (203). It is perhaps significant that the 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language defines intelligence as, “A spiritual being; as a created intelligence. It is believed that the universe is peopled with innumerable superior intelligences.” We learn, then, from the Prophet that the first principles of men, and the mind of man, the intelligent part, are immortal and co-equal with God. Elder B. H. Roberts, in editing the text of the King Follett address for publication in the History of the Church, inserted co-eternal in brackets next to co-equal with the approval of the First Presidency, believing it more accurately reflected Joseph Smith’s intended meaning (HC 6:310–11).

The word “mind” was defined in Joseph Smith’s day to mean the intellectual or intelligent power in man, the power that conceives, judges or reasons. But it could also mean the heart or seat of affection, as well as man’s will. It is clear, however, that all of these usages lean in the direction of individualism rather than being collective in nature, although in the King Follett address it is not that clear or concise; however, the journal of Wilford Woodruff, as Truman Madsen points out, shows that the Prophet’s phrase “A spirit from age to age,” as used in the King Follett address, refers to “an entity, a person, an individual” (TPJS 354; see also Madsen 24, fn. 5). Moreover, it is clear that Joseph Smith firmly believed from 1833 until his death in 1844 that there was something about man that was not dependent upon God for its being, and that something was intelligence, mind, first principle, or spirit.

Teachings Regarding Intelligence from Joseph Smith to B. H. Roberts

After the Saints had arrived in the Salt Lake Valley under the leadership of Brigham Young, instruction was given from time to time that included comments regarding intelligence. Elder Parley P. Pratt, for example made reference to this subject in the April 1853 General Conference. He told the assembled Saints that man at death did not cease “to exist, to think, act, live, move, or have a being; never ceased to exercise those sympathies, affections, hopes, and aspirations, which are founded in the very nature of intelligences, being the inherent and invaluable principles of their eternal existence.” Continuing, he rhetorically asked, “What are they? Why, they are organized intelligences. What are they made of? They are made of the element which we call spirit, which is as much an element of material existence, as earth, air, electricity, or any other tangible substance recognized by man.” Concluding, he said, “we would call it a spiritual body, an individual intelligence, an agent endowed with life, with a degree of independence, or inherent will, with the power of motion, of thought, and with the attributes of moral, intellectual, and sympathetic affections and emotions” (JD 1:7–8).

Later at that same general conference, Elder Pratt stated that some may wonder why God made one [intelligence or spirit] unequal to another, or inferior in intellect or capacity. [He then answered that] He [God] did not create their intelligence at all. It never was created, being an inherent attribute of the eternal element called spirit, which element composes each individual spirit, and which element exists in an infinitude of degrees in the scale of intellect, in all the varieties manifested in the eternal God . . . to the lowest agent, which acts by its own will (JD 1:258).

Brother Pratt then said: “It is a fixed law of nature that the higher intelligence presides over, or has more or less influence over, or control of, that which is less” (258). Rulers were chosen by God, based upon their intelligence and innocence. It is clear from studying these talks that Elder Pratt makes no clear distinction between intelligences and spirits. He does speak of intelligences as having been organized, being composed of an element called spirit, and possessing individuality, agency, and independence. Furthermore, superior intelligence gives one the right to rule over lesser intelligences. These qualities, as enumerated by him, are consistent with the teachings of other church authorities regarding the pre-earth spiritual children of the Eternal Father. Elder Pratt is consistent, also, in his comments that God “did not create . . . intelligence at all” (258).

President Brigham Young, in that same 1853 General Conference, said, “If this congregation could comprehend that the intelligence that is in them is eternal in its nature and existence; if they could realize that when [they] pass through the vail [sic], they are not dead, but have been laying the foundation to become Gods, even the sons of God” (JD 1:5). For Brigham Young, understanding intelligence was not only important in knowing who we are, but also in knowing what our destiny is to be. Joseph Smith, in 1844, taught that God possesses the “power to institute laws [whereby] the weaker intelligences . . . may be exalted with Himself (JD 6:7). Thus, all persons born on this earth, if they will abide by the principles of the Gospel, can achieve the same glory, knowledge, and power as their Heavenly Father (7).

Elder Orson Pratt, in July of 1853, wrote that “the materials of which our spirits are composed, must have been capable of thinking, moving, willing, &c, before they were organized in the womb of the celestial female. Preceding that period there was an endless . . . existence . . . of eternal capacities” (102).

While serving a mission in England in the 1850s, Orson became embroiled in a vigorous debate with the noted British theologian T. W. P. Taylder, who had written a pamphlet entitled, “The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-day Saints Examined and Exposed.” In reply to Taylder’s work, Elder Pratt, himself, wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Absurdities of Immaterialism, Or, A Reply to T. W. P. Taylder’s Pamphlet.” In this essay Pratt does not share “the skepticism of materialists about the existence of ‘unembodied intelligence.’” In contrast to their position, he said that spirit material “possesses certain attributes of matter—extension, location, and duration.” Continuing, he said that the Saints believe in the existence of immense numbers of intelligent atoms that are conscious, intelligent, and have the capacity to think as well. His views were grounded in the basic “premise that all matter is inherently active, self-moving and therefore ‘intelligent in its sphere’” (Breck England 150–52).

In his later writings, Orson Pratt “objected to the notion that God ‘formed’ matter in the absolute sense, [and] inferred . . . the existence of ‘ultimate atoms’ which cannot be subdivided [which] points to a universe that is ‘intelligent in all its parts,’ and [is] eternally indestructible” (B. England 154). If Elder Pratt is correct in his views, then we have discovered that intelligence can think, is self-moving, and possesses the capability of extension and direction. Such ideas certainly move our knowledge of that which is eternal beyond the information found in the scriptures.

Only a few years later, Charles W. Penrose, not yet a General Authority, declared in General Conference:

But if God is an individual spirit and dwells in a body, the question will arise, “Is He the Eternal Father?” Yes, He is the Eternal Father. ‘Is it a fact that He never had a beginning?” In the elementary particles of His organism, He did not. But if He is an organized Being, there must have been a time when that being was organized. This, some one will say, would infer that God had a beginning. This spirit which pervades all things, which is the light and life of all things, by which our Heavenly Father operates, by which He is omnipotent, never had a beginning and never will have an end. It is the light of truth; it is the spirit of intelligence. We are told in the revelations of God to us that, “Intelligence or the light of truth never was created, neither indeed can be” (JD 26:23).

Here Brother Penrose uses for the first time the term “spirit of intelligence,” rather than intelligence itself, and says that it is the spirit of intelligence that allows one to truthfully say that God the Father is Eternal, because that is what is everlasting about Him.

The Teachin​gs of B. H. Roberts and Nels L. Nelson Regarding Intelligence

Shortly after the turn of the century, the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association published a course of study based on Elder B. H. Robert’s book New Witness for God. In the chapter which dealt with internal evidences for the divinity of the Book of Mormon, Roberts had written that there was in man an uncreated entity called Intelligence that was eternal. This intelligence, he said further, was an uncumbered, self-existing being (YMMIA 2:390–91). It was not very long until at least one church member raised some concerns regarding the views expressed in this course of study.

In the May 1906 Improvement Era, the editors promised their readers that Elder B. H. Roberts would, in the near future, publish an article “on the immortality of the soul as taught in the Book of Mormon” (553) in response to questions that had been raised respecting this subject. Because of church business and a tour of the Eastern and Southern States missions, in company with George Albert Smith, Roberts was unable to finish the article as early as he had promised (“Immortality of Man” 401).

What Elder Roberts did not tell his readers was that a Brother A. L. McDermott from St. Thomas, Nevada, had discussed some of his concerns regarding intelligence as found in the YMMIA manual with Dr. James E. Talmage and that Elder Talmage had written about these concerns, together with some of his own, to President Joseph F. Smith (letters in possession of the writer). His letter refers to a book by an L. A. Wilson, which, he says, “proclaims an absolute limitation as to the children of our Heavenly Father, and denies the possibility of eternal increase and development, both as God and man.” Wilson arrived at this conclusion through his belief that intelligence was individual and, therefore, could not be infinite in number.

Elder Robert’s reply to the objections raised by Brother McDermott and Elder Talmage was further delayed because he had submitted his manuscript to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Both of these quorums found nothing contrary to the revealed word of God therein, and no one objected to his publishing it. In the preface to the essay, Elder Roberts makes it clear that the ideas in it are his own and are not given as doctrines of the church. Because of the number and variety of questions that had been posed regarding this subject, Roberts decided not to draw his answers only from the Book of Mormon, as was his original intent, but to enlarge the scope of the evidence to include all that had been revealed regarding this matter in modern times (“Immortality of Man” 402–03).

Meanwhile, 1904 had seen a secular press publish the first scientific treatment of Mormonism written by a faithful Latter-day Saint, Professor Nels L. Nelson’s Scientific Aspects of Mormonism. In a chapter entitled, “Man Co-Eternal with God,” he states that man’s “ultimate principle, the ego, or principle of self-consciousness,” that which Joseph Smith called intelligence, was co-eternal with God and the universe. He then assumes that intelligence had the “ability to distinguish between the self and the not-self, [and that] there never was a time when man could not say, This is I, this is the universe.’ Respecting the physical form . . . since form it must have had . . . there is little to be gained by speculation.” Then, using an analogy as his judge, Nelson writes that its form is “perhaps a fainter type of the spirit, as the spirit is a fainter type of the body” (80–81).

Professor Nelson then postulates that “this ultimate uncreated being was a free agent.” He reached his conclusion by the following reasoning: Being eternal, and therefore co-eternal with the universe, it was beholden to no power whatever for its existence; and being indestructible, it might, in a negative way, defy all the powers outside of itself combined. That is, if all the forces of the universe and of all other intelligent beings beside itself should combine to make it say yes, it might still say no, and maintain its attitude. This is the real meaning of free agency; without such ultimate negative power, no being can be said to be free (81).

While man has free agency, his is different in the sense that he has now something to lose. He has the same right as ever to oppose the powers not himself; but he does so at the risk of being stripped of all that those powers have put upon him; his mortal body, his spiritual body, and all . . . [that] obedience to law has invested him with. But after being again reduced to the primal state of naked ego, he could maintain his negative attitude indefinitely and without fear of further changes (81–82).

However, he would forfeit all of the positive aspects associated with obedience to Heavenly Father and His son, Jesus Christ. He would not, it appears, be “added upon” nor would his intelligence reach its full potential.

Nelson next argues that “This uncreated being, though negatively omnipotent . . . (that is, able to resist the coercion of all other forces combined) was nevertheless devoid, perhaps, of all positive power. . . . By positive power, I mean the ability to react upon spirit or upon matter so as to create what one may invent.” Unlike God, intelligence itself was not capable of creating form and shape from “the formless and limitless.” Ego had not yet obeyed any “being outside of itself. It [had] . . . no creative power whatever” (82). It was dependent upon God for this creative power and only by becoming subordinate to Deity could that power be given. The ego, Professor Nelson tells us, did have the power or capacity for faith and repentance, to the extent that it could “receive these powers from God . . . . Probably the first important occasion presented to the ego for saying, ‘I will,’ was that of being born into a spiritual tabernacle” (83–84).

It is evident that Nelson engaged in a good deal of speculation as he built one or two verses in scripture and a sermon of the Prophet Joseph Smith into a whole theological construct involving an entire chapter in his book. However, his speculations do give to the Latter-day Saint religion a fundamental foundation involving a sort of ultimate free agency that many have found rather attractive. Furthermore, it should also be noted here that Professor Nelson’s book was published“with the financial and moral support of the church. In a circular sent around to advertise this book, Nelson quoted from Anthon Lund of the First Presidency a letter lavishly praising [it]” (Sherlock 49). Moreover, President Joseph F. Smith approved this book, so much so that he allowed Nelson to deduct the cost of the books he gave to his non-Mormon friends from the loan the First Presidency had given him to help him publish his own book (Sherlock 50). This does not mean that the content of Scientific Aspects of Mormonism accurately reflects in all instances Church doctrine, but it does indicate that the First Presidency had no serious reservations regarding it.

There were at least six objections and questions raised regarding what Nelson and Elder Roberts had written, and Elder Roberts summarized them as follows. One, “The pre-existence of the spirit of man is now extended back beyond the ‘beginning’that is so often” taught in the scriptures, and includes “the doctrine that we are co-eternal with the Father.” Two, why are we “so far behind in the order of eternal progression, if . . . we . . . started from the same plane of intelligence as he did?” Three, “the Manual doctrine of immortality must lead to the idea that the number of intelligences that could eventually become . . . human beings, must be limited, that is, all that can ever come into existence as human beings already exist, and have always existed, and when they have all concluded . . . to progress by obeying law, then there will be an end to creation; to the works (new works) of God.” It could have been added that you could take the position that there would always be intelligence because they were infinite in number; therefore, some would never have the opportunity to be begotten spiritually and eventually become like their Heavenly Father. Four, “‘I don’t know,’ says the objector, ‘how the fact that our mortal bodies, which most certainly had a beginning as bodies, will be made immortal and have no end as bodies, can be made to harmonize with [the] axiom,’ that anything that has a beginning must have an end.” Five, “If an individual cannot be produced without the union of two other separate individuals, I do not see how we can deny the beginning of the begotten individual.” And six, “It is tentatively suggested as a counter theory … ‘that the life of the parent is imparted to the offspring, and that while it is still a part of the same life or spirit of the parent, and as such did not have a beginning at the time of birth, yet as a separate individual it did have a beginning at the time of birth or conception.’ This is thought to be a solution of spirit existence ‘both reasonable, and more in accordance with the apparent, plain meaning of many passages both of ancient and modern scripture’” (“Immortality of Man” 403–05).

In attempting both to answer the objections listed above and to clarify his own position on the matter, Elder B. H. Roberts continues as follows:

There is in that complex thing we call man an intelligent entity, uncreated, self existent, indestructible. He—for that entity is a person, because, as we shall see, he is possessed of powers that go with personality only, hence that entity is “he,” not “it,”—he is eternal as God is; co-existent, in fact, with God; of the same kind of substance or essence with deity, though confessedly inferior in degree of intelligence and power to God (406).

Elder Roberts then states that the reason this entity is called an intelligence is that intelligence is its chief characteristic. Continuing, he declares that the intelligence is self-conscious, can “distinguish himself from other things—the ‘me’ from the ‘not me’”—and it has the “power of deliberation” (407). He concludes that this entity also has the power to set “one thing against another; with power also to form a judgment that this or that is a better thing or state than this or that” (407).

“These intelligences,” Roberts then says, “. . . were begotten spirits.” This means to him that “a spirit body was provided for them, of which God is the Father.” Roberts deliberately used the term begotten rather than created, because he believed “that the ‘begetting’ of spirit bodies for ‘intelligences’ is an act of generation rather than of creation.” But he did admit that “more has been revealed upon this spirit state than the one that precedes it” (407–08). Elder Roberts then shows his readers that the position he had taken was consistent with those things the Lord had revealed to man. Concluding his arguments, he states that Jesus became our elder brother because he was the first born of the Father in the spirit life (413), and the reason that our bodies will forever exist, in spite of the fact that they do have a beginning, is that the substance or matter from which they are composed is itself eternal (416). Elder Roberts realized that because more had not been revealed regarding this subject, there were difficulties with it, or questions left unanswered. Still he was grateful for the knowledge we did have regarding this aspect of man’s existence (423).

Three years later, in 1910, when Elder Roberts wrote the fourth year of The Seventy’s Course in Theology, he included a section on “Intelligence, Intelligences.” In his discussion he clearly spells out his thinking regarding what to him was a very important subject. He writes that when he uses the term intelligence, he means, a being that is intelligent, capable of apprehending facts or ideas; possessed of power to think. . . . ‘Intelligence is that which sees itself, or is at once both subject and object.’ It knows itself as thinking, that is, as subject; thinking of its self, it knows itself as an object of thought—of its own thought. And it knows itself as distinct from a vast universe of things which are not self; itself the while remaining constant as a distinct individuality amid the great universe of things not self (2:26).

In an April 1910 article that appeared in the Improvement Era entitled, “Joseph Smith’s Doctrines Vindicated: The Existence of Plurality of Divine Intelligences,” Elder Roberts saw the great professors of the day coming down more and more on the side of a pluralistic universe. He cites the great Henry James as attempting to establish, “that the unity one discovers in the laws and forces of our universe, grows out of a ‘free harmony of individual entities,’” and says that James “concludes the world to be ‘a pluralistic universe.’” Roberts then ends by saying, “And so this doctrine of a plurality of divine Intelligences existing in the universe, as taught by our prophet, is receiving confirmation by the works and the philosophizing of some of the foremost learned men of our age and country, and, for that matter, of the world” (481–83).

Further Rea​ctions to B. H. Roberts’s Views

Because so little had been revealed regarding the nature of intelligence, not all of the authorities of the church were comfortable with what was being speculated upon regarding this essence and its capabilities. In 1911, as B. H. Roberts prepared an article on the philosophy of Joseph Smith, he read his manuscript to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. A discussion took place between Elder Roberts and Charles W. Penrose, a member of the First Presidency, regarding intelligence and what Brother Roberts called eternalism. Elder Roberts continued to hold the view that intelligences were self-existent entities before they entered into spirit bodies. President Penrose spoke against this position, and the meeting adjourned with no definite conclusions having been reached (Lund, 25 August 1911). On August 29, Elder Roberts once again read his chapter on eternalism to the Twelve, and they persuaded him to delete sections that indicated that intelligences were self-existing entities before becoming spirits. Many of the Twelve believed that the idea of intelligence being individual, if pushed too far, made man equal with God, and finally were able to convince Roberts to remove the questionable passages from his manuscript. Yet Elder Lund, in writing about this meeting, said that undoubtedly B. H. Roberts “felt bad” (Lund, 29 August 1911).

Years earlier President Penrose, who wondered whether the King Follett discourse had been correctly reported, had insisted in Elder Robert’s absence that the First Presidency delete it from the 1902 edition of Roberts’ History of the Church (Alexander 14). When Elder Roberts returned from his eastern mission, he had 25,000 copies of this address privately printed and sent them at his own expense to ward and stake leaders. In later editions of his history, the address was printed as Roberts had planned (Lyon).

There was difficulty with these teachings again in 1914. Elder John A. Widtsoe was engaged in writing a priesthood manual for the Church. President Anthon H. Lund received a telegram from President Joseph F. Smith, who was in Missouri, to stop publication of this volume. The First Presidency objected to Elder Widtsoe’s idea that God evolved from superior intelligence into the supreme Deity. This notion reflected, to a great extent, the position postulated by Orson Pratt. In his journal, President Lund, on the night of 7 December 1914, wrote, “I do not like to think of a time when there was no God.” By 11 December, Joseph F. Smith had returned and approved the deletion of some portions from the priesthood manual. This was done on the grounds that what Elder Widtsoe had said about intelligence was merely speculation (Lund, 11 December 1914). Elder Widtsoe was, however, approved to publish the following:

The Gospel teaches that, associated with the universal energy that vivifies universal matter, and possibly identified with it, is universal intelligence, a force which is felt wherever matter and energy are found, which is everywhere. The forces of the universe do not act blindly, but are expressions of a universal intelligence. That a degree of intelligence is possessed by every particle of energized matter cannot be said; nor is it important. . . . “Man was also in the beginning with God.” The doctrine that man is an eternal being leads to untold possibilities. Eternal man lived a personal life before the earth-life began, and he continues a personal existence hereafter (A Rational Theology 13–14).

In chapter 4, under a heading entitled, ‘The Intelligence of Man,” Elder Widtsoe was also approved to write:

To speculate upon the condition of man when conscious life was just dawning is most interesting, but so little is known about that far-off day that such speculation is profitless. Nevertheless, of some things pertaining to the beginning we are fairly certain. The being which later became man, even in the first day possessed intelligence. That is, he was able to become aware of the external universe, to learn, and by adding knowledge to knowledge, to learn more. . . . And an intelligent being in the midst of the interaction of forces and matter, must have become aware, measurably, of what was going on. From the beginning, the ego of man has been a conscious being, saying to itself, ‘This is I; that is not I. This life is apart from the life of all the rest of the universe” (16–17).

He also contends that intelligence from the beginning had “an independent and individual will” (17). What the First Presidency had specifically asked Elder Widtsoe to take out of his book was the statement that “God himself must be finite and may not always have been God or have existed eternally in the same state.” Elder Widtsoe had “included an explicit statement that there was a time when there was no God” (Alexander 15).

Modern Views​ Regarding Intelligence

In the years that followed, when official declarations of the First Presidency appeared regarding the origin of man or upon evolutionary theory, no statement was made on the doctrine of intelligences; rather, they simply wrote that “by his Almighty power God organized the earth, and all that it contains, from spirit and element, which exist co-eternally with himself (Alexander 15).

In the summer of 1917, President Charles W. Penrose, still a counselor in the First Presidency, published an article which he had written 30 years previously, clarifying somewhat his views regarding intelligence. President Penrose stated that “the uncreated spirit of intelligence . . . [was] without beginning and without end” ( Why I am a ‘Mormon’ 8). In another article President Penrose said, “that which is spirit was in the beginning with God” (“Duality and Unity of Man” 41). In June 1918, in an Ensign Stake priesthood meeting, he concluded his talk by saying, after citing Abraham 3:18–22:

Now don’t confound, as some of our brethren have done, the expression “intelligences,” referring to individual spirits, and that intelligence that is an attribute of those spirits, “that never was created, neither indeed can be.” What is that uncreated intelligence? Why it is “the light of truth. . . It always existed and always will persist. . . Intelligences . . . had a beginning when they were born of God as the sons or daughters of God . . .” (“Religious Problems Solved” 1029–30).

During this same time period when President Penrose was clarifying what the leading brethren considered to be church doctrine regarding the subject of intelligences, Elder James E. Talmage was also speaking and writing about this matter. In a 16 July 1918 Liahona article entitled “Man is Eternal—Successive Stages of Development,” he declared that the stages of the soul were four fold: One, that which was unembodied. Two, that which was embodied. Three, that which was disembodied, and four, that which was resurrected. He said, ‘The Spirit lived as an organized intelligence before it became [an] embodied child” (867).

Reflecting President Penrose’s view regarding intelligence, Elder Melvin J. Ballard said:

I proclaim it is the word of God that we all lived as separate individuals before we came into earth; that the intelligence dwelling in each of us is co-eternal with God; that it always existed and never was created or made; that in due time that intelligence was given a spirit body, which is the very child of God, our eternal Father and his beloved companion, our eternal mother. This spirit, inhabited by the eternal intelligence, took the form of its creator and is in his image (Hinckley 140).

In 1936, Joseph Fielding Smith quoted D&C 93:29, 33 in his book, The Progress of Man, and then explained that, “Some of our writers have endeavored to explain what an intelligence is.” Noting that because there had been so little revealed regarding the subject that their attempts had been futile, he said “We know, however, that there is something called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which was not created or made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual” (11; see also Answers to Gospel Questions 4:127).

When a Church member wrote to him and asked, “why does not God create intelligence and prevent evil?” he wrote,

If the Lord declares that intelligence, something which we do not fully understand, was co-eternal with him and always existed, there is no argument that we can or should present to contradict it. Why he cannot create intelligence is simply because intelligence, like time and space, always existed, and therefore did not have to be created (Answers 3:125).

In 1930, Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote in In Search of Truth, ‘The Church, by its own methods of winning truth . .. declares that man is an eternal being. That which he is, is everlasting. It had no beginning; it cannot end. . . . From the beginning, man has been man” (78–79). When compared with his writings of almost fifty years earlier, this represents a modest, conservative position.

Truman G. Madsen, in 1970, in Eternal Man, argues that intelligence has four characteristics: one, individuality: “Man as self had a beginningless beginning. He has never been identified wholly with any other being. Nor is he the product of nothing.” Two, autonomy: ‘The self is free.” Three, consciousness:” There is no inanimate intelligence or unconscious mind. . . . Selfhood and individual consciousness are unending.” Four, capacity for development: “All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” (24–25). With the appearance of Professor Madsen’s book, we have been brought back to the position of B. H. Roberts and Nels Nelson. Still, this position, again, is not without its modern opponents.

While President Hugh B. Brown espoused B. H. Robert’s position regarding intelligence, other General Authorities have been very cautious in what they have said regarding the matter. In fact, Elder Bruce R. McConkie, in a 1974 letter to Walter Home, made the following points: It was his judgment that spirit element exists and was organized into spirit beings; or in other words, “intelligence exists and it became those intelligences that were organized.” There was no agency prior to spirit birth and we did not exist as entities unto that time. Continuing in the same letter, he wrote:

I do know that this matter has arisen perhaps six or eight times in the years that I have been here and have been involved in reading and approving priesthood and auxiliary lessons. In each of these instances, the matter was ordered deleted from the lesson. In each case it was expressly stated that we have no knowledge of any existence earlier than our existence as the spirit children of God. The views in this field were described as pure speculation. President Joseph Fielding Smith personally, on more than one occasion, directed this material not be published and said that he did not believe it, and of course . . . I do not believe it either.

Brother McConkie went on to say that the term intelligence was used by B. H. Roberts to describe entities that supposedly existed before they were clothed with spiritual bodies. Such a notion, Elder McConkie says, was “pure fantasy and pure speculation.” In his judgment the 93rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, which speaks of intelligence, is simply a summary statement of what Lehi is talking about in 2 Nephi 2 where he presents an argument that if such and such does not exist then something else does not, and finally reaches the conclusion for argument’s sake that “all things must have vanished away” (v. 13). ‘This, of course, is merely a form of reasoning not intended to mean that all things have or could vanish away. . . .” Finally, in the last paragraph of the letter, Elder McConkie stated that this subject is not something he got very excited about.

In Mormon Doctrine, Elder McConkie writes that “Intelligence or spirit element became intelligences after the spirits were born as individual entities. Use of this name designates both the primal element from which the spirit offspring were created and also their inherited capacity to grow in grace . . .” (387). This view seems to consider intelligence, or pure element, as collective and not individual in its nature, and is consistent with the views expressed by President Penrose. If this is true, then we have not always existed as individual entities, but only as a collective something.

Perhaps, as President Smith and Elder McConkie have counseled us, we, as a people, could make better use of our time in studying subjects about which we have had more revealed. Still, as we bring this essay to a close, let us hazard a few additional speculative thoughts.

Perhaps God has told us that there is something about us which is eternal, while at the same time placing us upon an earth where we all experience death, to remind us how precious existence really is. The fact that there is something rather than nothing should cause us, at least for a few moments in the span of our lives, to be grateful that we, in fact, exist. We should remind ourselves that each person is important to God, and we should be special to each other. We will all, even the wicked, according to the Gospel plan, exist forever as individuals. There is no such thing as spiritual or resurrected suicide.

It is also possible that we have been told through the scriptures that we are eternal to keep us cognizant of how much we need each other. Whenever I get depressed or discouraged and, like Alma of old, want to cease to exist, I think of how much the existence of my wife, my children, and my fellow ward members mean to me. Then I become conscious once more, or at least hope once more, that there are some people who need me as much as I need them.

Perhaps we are also taught that we are not totally the creation of God, so we cannot blame Him for what we are or what we become. We are morally responsible for that which is us. With God’s help we can become as He is, but if we fail it is our own fault.

It is also possible that he has revealed so much more about our spiritual existence so as to teach us how much we really do owe Him. Most, if not all, of what we are that is important we can credit to our Heavenly Father.

It is possible, further, that because we are individuals, at least as far back as we know, this is one of the reasons Jesus talked so much about unity and love. In the universe there are many; so He preached unity. Moreover, through his atonement, the many may in a powerful sense become one. The last great sermon he gave, as recorded in John 17, speaks again and again about love and unity, which seemed to be utmost in his mind as he drew closer to his own death as noted by Phillip Barlow in an unpublished talk at the 1985 Church Education System New Testament Symposium.

Finally, it is nice to know that we are something and not nothing; that we have existed, we do exist, and we will continue to exist, because intelligence, whatever it might be, was not created, neither indeed can be.


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