Historical Inquiry on Mormon Theology
The Earliest Mormon Concept of God
by Dan Vogel
© 1989 by Signature Books, Inc. Used by permission of author.
Taken from Gary James Bergera, ed., Line Upon Line: Essays on Mormon Doctrine(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989), 17-33.
The founding document of Joseph
Smith's Church of
Christ--its "Articles and Covenants"--declared in June 1830 that the "Father, Son, and Holy
Ghost is one God, infinite and eternal, without end."1 Because of ambiguity in
this early "Mormon Creed" many outsiders concluded that the Mormon view of God was similar
to orthodox trinitarian creeds.2 A growing number of scholars today, recognizing
that the Mormon concept of God changed as revelations expanded and clarified previous beliefs,
have suggested that the earliest Mormon doctrine, at least before 1835, was "essentially
trinitarian."3 In contrast, I believe that Mormonism was never trinitarian but
consistently preferred heterodox definitions of God.
For the earliest Mormon view,
must turn first to the Book of
Mormon. According to Reformed Baptist preacher and early Mormon critic Alexander
Campbell, one of the "great controversies" which the Book of Mormon tried to decide was the
nature of "the trinity."4 Although Campbell did not discuss in detail the Book of
Mormon's position on the subject, he was aware of the various contemporary debates over the
nature of the Godhead.
Campbell and his
struggled over the same problems
about the Christian God which had plagued Christendom for centuries. Discussion especially
centered on the relationship between the Father and the Son. Were the Father and Son the same
being? Or two distinct persons? Were both gods? If so, in what sense could it be said that there
is only one god? If the Father alone was God, what was the status of the Son? The nature of
God was a serious
issue in early nineteenth-century America and sharply divided various religious groups.
The three major denominations
the United States--Presbyterian,
Methodist, and Baptist--were "orthodox" trinitarians, a doctrine they inherited from Catholicism.
As trinitarians they held that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost represented three persons but one
divine "substance." This was a non-rational way of explaining the threeness of the Godhead
without abandoning monotheism--the belief in one God only. The Father is God, the Son is God,
and the Holy Ghost is God; yet in some mystical manner there is only one God. The concept
may have been understood by theologians, but its subtleties escaped the layperson and preacher,
who sometimes gave definitions of God considered heretical by their own superiors.
Perhaps the most radical
the problem of God's nature was put
forward by the Unitarians and Universalists, who maintained that the Father only was God. In
his Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou rejected the orthodox belief in the deity
of Jesus and objected to the idea that "God himself; assumed a body of flesh and blood . . . and
suffered the penalty of the law by death, and arose from the dead."5 Thus Ballou
and other Unitarians not only denied Jesus' divinity but discarded the idea of a vicarious
Others, especially those who
attempted to "restore" Christianity to its
primitive condition--including Alexander Campbell, Baptist Abner Jones of Vermont, and
Presbyterian Barton W. Stone of Kentucky--sought solutions somewhere between the orthodoxy
of trinitarianism and the radicalism of Unitarianism.6 Primitivists in
nineteenth-century America avoided the term "Trinity" when describing the Godhead. Not only
was the word not found in the Bible (the term had been introduced by Theophilus, Bishop of
Antioch, in the second century), but it carried the connotation of Catholic creedalism. Most in
the primitive gospel movement were not trinitarians. Barton W. Stone, for example, confessed
that during his early days as a Presbyterian he had "stumbled at the doctrine of the Trinity as
taught in the Confession."7
David Millard, a binitarian, said
Primitivists in the "Christian
Connexion," "with very few exceptions, they are not Trinitarians, averring that they can neither
find the word nor the doctrine in the Bible." Instead, "they believe 'the Lord our Jehovah is
one Lord,' and purely one. That 'Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son
of God.' That the Holy Ghost is that divine unction with which our Saviour was anointed, (Acts
x. 38,) the effusion that was poured out on the day of Pentecost; and that it is a divine emanation
of God, by which he exerts an energy or influence on rational minds. While they believe that
Jesus Christ is the Son of God, they are not Socinians or Humanitarians. Their prevailing belief
is that Jesus Christ existed with the Father before all worlds."8 In other words, at
least some Primitivists, including Millard, were binitarian, believing that the Godhead consisted
of two persons but denying the person of the Holy Ghost, which was "a divine emanation of
Primitivists were not bitheists
(literally a belief in two distinct gods).
Nor did they believe Jesus was merely human as did Socinians, Humanitarians, and Unitarians.
Millard held the Primitivist belief that the Son was divine in the sense that his Father was God.
Human fathers have sons who are separate beings from themselves but have the same human
nature. In the same way, the Son of God is a separate being from the Father but with the same
divine nature and therefore may be called the Father's "proper son."9 Some have
associated this view of God with Unitarianism, but Primitivists in the Christian Connection
would have seen their position as distinct.10 More precisely, the Primitivists'
view of God was closest to "dynamic" monarchianism: Jesus was divine only in the sense that he
shared God's power, but he was not a god himself.11
As a Primitivist, Alexander
Campbell also objected to the "Calvinistic
doctrine of the Trinity," as well as to the use of the term "Trinity."12 But
although he attacked the "unintelligible jargon, the unmeaning language of the orthodox creeds
on this subject" of the Trinity, he nevertheless held that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were
"three Divine persons in one Divine nature."13 Despite this trinitarian-sounding
statement, some of Campbell's contemporaries accused him of having a bitheistic view of
God.14 And one scholar of Campbell's theology concluded that Campbell held a
position "consistent with binitarian ideas."15
The heterodox view of God
theologians refer to as modalism (or
Sabellianism) was also included in the theological discussion preoccupying early
nineteenth-century America. Sabellius was a third-century heretic who held that "the Son
Himself is the Father, and vise versa."16 Modalists
conceived the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three modes or expressions of the one God. A
favorite illustration is taken from the sun: just as the sun is round and bright and hot but is
actually one sun, not three realities, so we perceive a certain threeness in God, although in
actuality he is one being.17 Modalism thus differs from orthodox definitions of
the Godhead in that it does not distinguish between the "person" of the Father and the "person"
of the Son. In other words, the Father not only begets the Son but becomes the Son; Jesus is
literally both Son and Father. This position is also sometimes called "patripassianism," because
the Father in the person of the Son suffers on the cross.
David Millard, who spent a
deal of time combatting trinitarianism
in western New York, described in 1818 "some Trinitarians" who "reject the term person,
and instead of this, use the term mode, or office: and hold that
the Trinity consists in one God, acting in three distinct offices."18
In 1823 Millard's well-known book, The True Messiah, was published in
Canandaigna, New York. This 214-page treatise on the Godhead not only presents Millard's
binitarian views but also contains his reasons for rejecting trinitarianism, including
"Sabellianism." After describing the position of the ancient Sabellians, Millard noted: "A great
part of Trinitarians are now on the same ground, viz. that one God only acts in three distinct
offices. They sometimes indeed call those offices persons, as they say for want of
a better term, but when confuted upon the ground of three persons,
they immediately assert that God acts in three offices, which is direct
Sabellianism. It is therefore worthy of remark, how near many Trinitarians approach to the old
doctrine of Sabellianism."19
The Book of Mormon appeared
March 1830 against this backdrop of
theological debate. The book's express purpose was to correct false doctrine current in
nineteenth-century America (2 Ne. 3:12). It is therefore impossible to understand the earliest
Mormon concept of God without reconstructing the social and theological context in which
Mormonism emerged. How does the Book of Mormon's theology compare with the various
views of God being debated at the time of its publication? How did the Book of Mormon's first
readers interpret its position on the subject? How was the Book of Mormon's theology viewed
by its opponents? Was its theology orthodox, heterodox, or unique?
Those in the early nineteenth
century who took the time to closely
examine the Book of Mormon recognized that its theology was far from orthodox. Joseph
Smith's mother, Lucy, recalled that shortly after the Book of Mormon was published the
Methodists "rage[d]" at its concept of God because it conflicted with their
creed.20 As late as 1837, one outsider commented on the Book of Mormon's
unorthodox view of God.21 There were legitimate reasons for the first readers of
the Book of Mormon to conclude that its theology conflicted with orthodox creeds.
Modern students of the Book
Mormon have reached the same
conclusion, even if they differ on what exactly the Book of Mormon proposes. Perhaps the least
likely comparison has been between Book of Mormon theology and
Unitarianism22--least likely, because the Book of Mormon is Christ-centered and
repeatedly affirms the deity ofJesus (title page; 1 Ne. 11:13-21; Mos. 15:1; Eth. 2:12) and the
doctrine of vicarious atonement (Mos. 3:11, 15-16). No one has so far considered a comparison
to the binitarianism or "dynamic" monarchianism of the Christian Connection. These
Primitivists, unlike Unitarians, would have agreed with the Book of Mormon's position on Jesus'
atonement but rejected its outspoken assertion that Jesus is God.
As suggested, most modern
scholars have concluded that both the Book
of Mormon and the early Mormon concept of God was closest to trinitarianism. Those who see
trinitarianism in the Book of Mormon usually refer to 3 Nephi, where the resurrected Jesus
declares to the Nephites: "I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and
the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me . . . for the Father, and I, and the Holy Ghost
are one" (11:32, 36; compare l Jn. 5:7).23 However, all theological
positions on the Godhead include the concept of oneness. Trinitarians and modalists interpret
unity passages literally, while binitarians, bitheists, and Unitarians interpret them allegorically.
Thus the important question becomes in what sense the Book of Mormon speaks of the oneness
of the Godhead. That the Book of Mormon includes passages about the oneness of God does not
necessarily establish it as trinitarian.24
A major difficulty in defining
Book of Mormon as trinitarian is its
failure to clearly distinguish between the person of the Father and the person of the Son. This is
especially apparent when the book declares thatjesus is both Father and Son. Passages which
speak of the Father sending the Son (Al. 14:5; 3 Ne. 27:13-14; 26:5) do not necessarily support a
trinitarian view and should be understood in light of Ether 4:12: "He that will not believe me will
not believe the Father who sent me. For behold, I am the Father." In other words, Jesus as the
Father sent himself into the world to redeem his people. Nor do passages which speak of the
Son being prepared from before the foundation of the earth (Mos. 18:13) necessarily imply two
persons existing before the incarnation. Consider the following: "I am he who was prepared
from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the
Father and the Son" (Eth. 3:14). The Book of Mormon therefore violates a major tenet of
trinitarianism by confusing the persons of the Father and Son and by referring to Jesus as the
However, such ambiguities do
suggest that the view of God which comes
closest to that of the Book of Mormon is modalism or Sabellianism.25
Modalistic elements such as the literal oneness of the Godhead, the Father becoming the Son,
and patripassianism are clearly expressed in the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon's
of the incarnation is congruent with
the patripassianism of modalism. King Benjamin, for example, tells his people that "the time
cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and
is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and
shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay. . . . And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the
Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning" (Mos. 3:5, 8).
Other passages make it clear
Jesus is literally the Father. As a
pre-mortal spirit being, Jesus appeared to the brother of Jared and declared: "I am the Father and
the Son" (Eth. 3:14) and "He that will not believe me will not believe the Father who sent me.
For behold, I am the Father" (4:12). Jesus further explained, "This body, which ye now behold,
is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear
unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh" (3:16).
Similarly, Nephi's experience
the time of Jesus' birth suggested the
same identity between Jesus and the Father. Samuel the Lamanite had predicted the signs which
would precede Jesus' birth, that his people "might know of the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son
of God, the Father of heaven and of earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning" (He.
14:12). On the day previous to Jesus' birth, the "voice of the Lord" came to Nephi: "I come . . .
to do the will, both of the Father and of the Son--of the Father because of me, and of the Son
because of my flesh" (3 Ne. 1:14, my emphasis).
The first part of the Book of
Mormon describes the "condescension of
God" (1 Ne. 11:16, 26). But the first edition of the book gives a much more literal reading of the
incarnation than do later editions. Nephi, for example, is told that the "virgin" which he saw in
vision was "the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh."26 When Nephi
sees the virgin "bearing a child in her arms," the angel declares, "Behold the Lamb of God, yea,
even the Eternal Father."27
The Book of Mormon
the literal oneness demanded by
modalism. Zeerom, for example, asked Amulek two important questions on the nature of the
Godhead. First: "Is there more than one God?", to which Amulek answered, "No." Second: "Is
the Son of God the very Eternal Father?", to which Amulek answered, "Yea, he is the very
Eternal Father of heaven and of earth . . . and he shall come into the world to redeem his people"
(Al. 11:28-29, 38-39). Thus the Book of Mormon was written to prove that "JESUS is the
CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD" (title page).
Book of Mormon prophet
also explained the oneness of the
Father and the Son in words that modalists would easily understand: "God himself shall come
down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in
flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father,
being the Father and the Son--the Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and
the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son--and they are one God, yea, the
very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or
the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation,
but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people. . . .
Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the
will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father" (Mos. 15:1-5,7).
One student of the Book of
Mormon, although recognizing modalism in
the passages cited above, has expressed caution about
reaching that conclusion since there are "other passages which contradict the oneness demanded
by modalism."28 The passages to which he refers--the voice of the Father
introducing the Son, the subjection of the Son unto the Father, the Son ascending to the Father (3
Ne. 11:6-8, 32; 15:1,18-19; 18:27; 26:2, 5, 15)--all have parallels in the New Testament (Matt.
3:13-17; Jn. 14:28; 15:10; 16:28; 20:17). But such passages never dissuaded modalists. In view
of the explicit modalistic passages in the Book of Mormon, the presence of apparent
contradictions does not necessarily detract from a modalistic
A modalistic interpretation of
Book of Mormon fits well with other
contemporary sources. In 1845 Lucy Smith recalled that shortly after the publication of the
Book of Mormon, she had a discussion with some of her neighbors about the new scripture.
During the conversation she "proceeded to relate the substance of what is contained in the book
of Mormon, dwelling particularly upon the principles of religion therein contained." She also
told the group that all the denominations were opposed to Mormonism and that the Methodists
particularly "rage, for they worship a God without body or parts, and they know that our faith
comes in contact with this principle."30
In context this statement does
mean that in 1830 Mormons were
teaching that the Father has a body like the Son's--this concept was not introduced into
Mormonism until much later. Nor does it necessarily imply that Lucy was reading a later
Mormon concept into an earlier time. She was more likely contrasting the Book of Mormon's
teaching that God the Father had become flesh with the orthodox creeds which distinguished
between the persons of the Son and Father and described the Father as spirit essence. According
to Lucy Smith, the Methodists thus objected to the Book of Mormon's modalistic view of God
because it made the Father into a corporeal being.
Some of the revelations which
Joseph Smith dictated between 1829 and
1831 similarly blur the distinction between the Father and the Son (D&C 11:2, 10,28;
29:1,42,46; 49:5,28)31 Also in the early 1830s Smith revised the Bible, changing
a number of passages to more explicitly identify the Son with the Father. For example, he
changed Luke 10:22, in which Jesus declares that "no man
knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the
Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him." In the revised version Jesus says that "no man
knoweth that the Son is the Father, and the Father is the Son, but him to whom the Son will
A public interpretation of the
of Mormon's view of God appeared
in an exchange of letters in 1837-38 between Mormon elder Stephen Post and Oliver Barr of the
Christian Connection. The letters were published in the Christian Palladium
(Union Mills, New York). Barr, a binitarian, criticized the Book of Mormon for not
distinguishing between the person of the Father and the person of the Son. What Barr objected
to most was the idea that the Father entered the world as Jesus and that Jesus was thus both
Father and Son. It appalled Barr to think that "God the Creator, the Eternal Father had a mother;
was a child, was born at Jerusalem, was spit upon, nailed to the cross, slain, and buried in a
sepulchre."33 "If the Father and Son are one person,' Barr continued, "then part
of his [Post's] God is material!" He concluded, "The Mormon God . . . [is] a
complex, compound God!! part matter, part spirit, and yet eternal!"34 Like the
Methodists who confronted Lucy Smith in 1830, Barr attacked the book's modalistic view of
God, especially its anthropomorphization of God the Father.
Barr did not confuse the
view of God with orthodox
trinitarianism. Rather he distinguished between the "triune God" of the Catholics and "another"
God, "consisting of a Father, Son and a created tabernacle in which the Father and Son dwelt,"
which "Mormons have manufactured."35 Barr did refer to the "Mormon Trinity,"
but as a binitarian he would have naturally classified most opposing views of the Godhead as
trinitarian.36 In Barr's view the Father and Son "were two distinct personages"
but not "two Gods."37 The Son is Lord and Savior but not God. The Father
alone is God. "There is but one God the Father, and there is one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of
the Father," wrote Barr. "The Father is the one God, and Jesus Christ the Mediator
between him and us."38
Post's task was to explain how
"there is but one God" while at the same
time maintaining that the Father is God and that the Son, as a separate personage, is also
God.39 Post quoted various scriptures to prove the view that the Son was merely
"a personage of tabernacle" in which dwelt "all the fulness of the Father," that "the Godhead was
concentrated in the Lord Jesus Christ, whose tabernacle contained the fulness of the spirit of the
everlasting God, the
Almighty."40 Thus, according to Post, "Christ was not only God, possessing all
the fulness of the Father, he being the Father and the Father in him, he and the Father being one;
the Father because he gave the Son of his fulness, and Son because he was in the world and
made flesh his tabernacle, and dwelt among the sons of men."41 "The Father and
Son [were] united in the same person," and thus Jesus was literally Father and
Son.42 The Father dwelling in Jesus "would truly be God manifest in the flesh,"
Post also attacked what he
was Barr's bitheism, stating that if
Jesus was more than "a personage of tabernacle," if the Father and Son "were two distinct
personages, with similar bodies and minds . . . [it] would assuredly make two Gods; whereas the
Scriptures plainly declare that there is but one."44 Barr, however, deflected this
criticism by denying Jesus' deity, asserting that the Father only was God.45 The
exchange is not only one example of how Mormonism differed from other versions of Christian
primitivism but demonstrates the modalistic interpretation that some early Mormons placed on
the Book of Mormon.46
If the earliest Mormon concept
God was unlike orthodox creeds, it
also differed from what Joseph Smith later taught on the subject. Various scholars have noticed
a shift in the Mormon concept of God in the mid-1830s. One writer, for example, remarked that
"revelations Joseph [Smith] received after 1833 contain less crossover in the roles and titles of
the Father and the Son. In fact, it appears that after May of 1833, Joseph never again referred to
Jesus as the Father in any of his writings."47 Although the distinction between
the Father and Son initially was mostly implied in Mormon theology, it was soon to become an
express article of belief.
What are commonly called the
"Lectures on Faith" were delivered at the
School of the Elders in 1834 and were included in all LDS editions of the Doctrine of Covenants
between 1835 and 1921. These lectures described the Godhead as consisting of "two
personages": "the Father being a personage of spirit, . . . the Son, who was in the bosom of the
Father, a personage of tabernacle, . . . possessing the same mind with the Father, which mind is
the Holy spirit, that bears record of the Father and the Son, and these three are
one."48 Because the fifth lecture clearly distinguished between the persons of
the Father and Son but not the Holy Spirit, some have concluded that this description of the
Godhead represents a shift to
Sidney Rigdon, an early
convert from Campbellism, helped
Joseph Smith prepare the lectures for publication. Consequently, the binitarian formulation of
the Godhead in the lectures may reflect Rigdon's Primitivistic background.50 In
fact, several characteristics of the fifth lecture seem to reflect the "dynamic" monarchianism of
the Christian Connection. The lecture never affirms the deity of Jesus but rather reflects a view
expressed by Millard and other Primitivists that Jesus "possess[es] all the ful ness of the Father .
. . being begotten of him," that he shares the divine nature through the "Holy Spirit," and that
through the same Spirit the saints can become one with the Father "as the Father and Son are
one." The lecture declares "salvation, through the atonement and mediation of Jesus Christ," but
he is no longer the Father.51 The lecture is consistent in its use of the term "Holy
Spirit," a favorite with Campbell's movement, rather than the Mormon use of "Holy Ghost."
About the same time the
were being delivered, Joseph Smith's
recitals of his first vision began to reflect the same view of the Godhead. In his 1832 history,
Smith described only one personage appearing to him: "I saw the Lord [presumably Jesus Christ]
and he spake unto me saying . . . behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the
world."52 This version was congruent with the Book of Mormon's theology.
However, Edward Stevenson recalled hearing Smith describe to "large congregations" in 1834
"the visit of the Father and the Son, and the conversation he had with them."53
When Smith related his experience in 1835, he not only said that "a personage appeared in the
midst of [a] pillar of flame" but that "another personage soon appeared like unto the
first."54 After this Smith's recitals of his first vision--his 1838 history, his 1842
letter to John Wentworth, and various public statements--conformed to the definition of the
Godhead outlined in the lectures.55
When Joseph Smith was
to publish a second edition of the
Book of Mormon in 1837, he revised several passages to reflect this new understanding of the
Godhead. Mary was no longer the "mother of God" but rather the "mother of the Son of
God" (1 Ne. 11:18). Passages referring to Jesus as the "Eternal Father" and "Everlasting
God" were also modified with the addition of "Son of" (1
Ne. 11:21, 32; 13:40). Although these changes were not systematically made throughout the
entire Book of Mormon, they nevertheless indicate that Mormon thinking had undergone
If some Christians were unclear
about the definition of the trinity,
Mormons during the 1830s also held differing positions on the nature of God. It is probable, as
some have suggested, that some early Mormon converts might have retained their former
trinitarian views.56 It is also probable, as has been suggested, that Sidney
Rigdon and other Primitivists continued in their binitarianism. W. W. Phelps, for instance,
recalled that even before his conversion to Mormonism, he had rejected trinitarianism and
apparently saw no conflict between Mormonism and his belief "in God, and the Son of God, as
two distinct characters."57 Still others such as Stephen Post, apparently unaware
of the shift in the mid-1830s, continued to defend the Book of Mormon's modalism. However,
until clearly defined in the 1840s, the nature of God seems not to have been a major concern for
most early Mormons, and shifts in teachings on the subject probably went unnoticed by the
By the 1840s the Mormon
of the Godhead had developed to a
clearly defined tritheistic (literally, "three gods") position.58 On 16 February
1841 Joseph Smith explained that "the Godhead . . . was
Not as many imagined--three Heads & but one body, . . . [but rather] the three were separate
bodys--God the first & Jesus the Mediator the 2d & the Holy Ghost & these three
agree in one."59 In September 1842 he further explained that "the Father, and
the Son are persons of Tabernacle; and the Holy Ghost [is] a spirit." Also at this time he
reportedly declared, "We believe in three Gods"60--a position he formulated in
April 1843 into the following creed: "The Father has a body of flesh & bone as tangible as
mans the Son also, but the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit"61
Few subjects in Mormonism
been so affected by continuing
revelation as the nature of God. Mormonism began with modalism, switched in the mid-1830s
to a binitarian position similar to the Christian Connection, and finally moved in the early 1840s
to tritheism. This shift--coupled with the related doctrine that in the universe there is a
multitude of gods--eventually brought criticism upon the Mormon prophet from some of his own
followers. On Sunday morning, l6 June 1844, amid accusations that he was a fallen
prophet because he had introduced "false and damnable doctrines . . .
such as plurality of Gods,"62 Smith publicly declared: "I have always and in all
congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of
Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years. I have always declared God to be a
distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that
the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct
personages and three Gods."63
Evidently not appreciating the
that rhetoric and even memory,
especially during periods of crisis, may not always reflect historical reality, some writers have
tried to defend Smith's statement by harmonizing the Book of Mormon with Smith's later
teachings.64 However, the historical inaccuracies of the statement--the most
glaring of which concerns the Holy Ghost--should be apparent. The "Lectures on Faith" had
declared that there were only "two personages" in the Godhead--the Father and Son--the "Holy
Spirit" being "the Mind . . . [and] the Spirit of the Father." Not until the 1840s did Joseph Smith
teach that the Holy Ghost was a "personage" of spirit.65 Also, while the Father
was described in the lectures as a personage of spirit, the Son was a personage of flesh only and
hence not separate from the Father. Moreover, the literal oneness of the Book of Mormon's
modalistic view of God precludes Smith's claim that he had always taught that there were three
Although the earliest Mormon
concept of God differed from the belief
Joseph Smith outlined in his sermons in the 1840s, later Mormon theology does not trace its
roots to trinitarianism or any other orthodox creed. Rather Mormon theology consistently
rejected orthodox definitions of God, developing in an increasingly heterodox direction.
1. A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church
of Christ (Zion [Independence, MO]: W. W. Phelps, 1833), 24:18. This passage was
altered in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C): "Father, Son, and Holy
Ghost are one God" (20:28). On the dating of D&C 20, see Lyndon W. Cook,
The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary
of the Doctrine and Covenants
(Provo, UT: Seventy's Mission Bookstore, 1981), 31.
2. On 19 April 1831, the Painesville Telegraph published D&C 20, referring to it as the "Mormon Creed."
3. Thomas G. Alexander, "The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology," Sunstone 5 (July-Aug. 1980): 25. See also Boyd Kirkland, 'Jehovah as the Father: The Development of the Mormon Jehovah Doctrine," Sunstone 9 (Autumn 1984): 37; Kirkland, "Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Spring 1986): 77; Van Hale, "Trinitarianism and the Earliest Mormon Concept of God," May 1983; and Gregory L. Kofford, "The First Vision: Doctrinal Development and Analysis," 1988. Van Hale, for example, has noted that "doctrinal development . . . was not simply an adding to, or expanding of early ideas, but also the weeding out of inconsistencies and the refining of both thought and terminology" (p.13). Hale subsequently reconsidered his position on trinitarianism, stating that "Mormon doctrine has never been trinitarian" ("Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," Sunstone 10 [Jan. 1985]: 27). Re-edited versions of Alexander's and Kirkland's essays appear in the present compilation.
4. Millennial Harbinger, Feb. 1831,93.
5. Hosea Ballou, A Treatise on Atonement (Randolph, VT, 1805), 67.
6. For treatments of the primitive gospel movement and its affinity to early Mormonism, see Marvin S. Hill, "The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844," Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968; Hill, "The Shaping of the Mormon Mind in New England and New York," Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 351-72; and my Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988).
7. John Rogers, The Biography of Eld. Barton Warren Stone, Written by Himself With Additions and Reflections, 5th ed. (Cincinnati, 1847), 29.
8. In I. Daniel Rupp, comp., He Pasa Ekklesia. An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States (Philadelphia, 1844), 169.
9. David Millard, The True Messiah (Canandaigua, NY, 1823), 78-122.
10.James DeForest Murch, Christians Only: A History of the Restoration Movement (Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1962), 114-15. See also Christian Palladium, 1 Sept. 1837, 138-39; l5 Jan. 1838, 275.
11. See Van Hale, "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," 27.
12. Royal Humbert, ed., A Compend of Alexanaer Campbell's Theology (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), 95.
13. Millennial Harbinger, 1833, 155.
14. See Observer and Telegraph [Hudson], 11 Nov. 1830, and 17 March 1831.
15. Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, 116n4.
16. According to Dionysius, bishop of Rome in the mid-third century, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 7:365. The third-century heretic Noetus also believed that "Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died" (5:223).
17. The example of the sun comes from Sabellius himself. See, for example, John McClintock and James Strong, eds., Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), 9:202. See also David Millard, The True Messiah Exalted (Canandaigna, NY, 1818), 36.
18. Millard, True Messiah Exalted (1818), 8.
19. Millard, True Messiah (1823), 36.
20. Lucy [Mack] Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 146.
21. See Christian Palladium, l6 Jan. 1837; 1 Sept. 1837; l5 Jan. 1838.
22. George B. Arbaugh, "Evolution of Mormon Doctrine," Church History 9 June 1940), 158, 169; Robert N. Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon (St. Louis: Clayton Publishing House, 1980), 153.
23. The passage in 1 John 5:7 does not appear in any of the early manuscripts of the New Testament and is believed to have been added after the second century by advocates of trinitarianism. See George Arthur Buttrick, et al., The Interpreter's Bible, 12 vols. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), 12:293-94.
24. In addition, as Van Hale has pointed out, the Book of Mormon never describes the Godhead using trinitarian definitions such as three persons or one "substance" ("Trinitarianism and the Earliest Mormon Concept of God," 7).
25. This is also the conclusion of at least two other researchers: Hale, "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," 27; and Mark Thomas, "Scholarship and the Future of the Book of Mormon," Sunstone 5 (May-June 1980): 25, 26, 28n5.
26. Joseph Smith, Jr., The Book of Mormon (Palmyra, NY: E. B. Grandin, 1830), 25. This passage was changed in the 1837 edition to read "the mother of the Son of God" (1 Ne. 11:18).
27. Ibid. This passage was changed in the 1837 edition to read: "the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father" (1 Ne. 11:21).
28. Hale, "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," 27.
29. Boyd Kirkland has similarly argued that "the more specific Book of Mormon statements on the relationship between the Father and the Son should serve as the framework for understanding the theology of 3 Nephi rather than vice-versa" ("Jehovah as Father," 43n7).
30. Smith, Biographical Sketches, 146.
31. See Kirkland, "Jehovah as the Father," 37.
32. Some have referred to Smith's revision of Genesis as evidence that as early as June 1830 he conceived the Father and Son as distinct persons in the Godhead (Moses 1:6; 2:26-27; 4:1-3). However, Smith's revision does not necessarily imply that there were two "personages" in the Godhead before the incarnation. Rather consider the following: "By the word of my power, have I created them [the inhabitants of earth], which is mine Only Begotten Son" (Moses 1:32). See also Alexander's discussion in "Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine," 33n23.
33. Christian Palladium, l6 Jan. 1837, 275; 1 Sept. 1837, 138.
34. Ibid., l5 Jan. 1838, 275.
35. Ibid., 1 Sept. 1837, 139.
36. Christian Palladium, 15 Jan. 1838, 275. David Millard, for instance, described modalists as "Trinitarians" (True Messiah Exalted , 8).
37. Christian Palladium, l5 Jan. 1838, 275.
38. Ibid.; compare 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:5-6; 1 Tim. 2:5.
39. Ibid., 1 Aug. 1837, 99.
40. Ibid., 1 Aug. 1837,99; 1 Dec. 1837, 230; compare Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:19; 2:9.
41. Ibid., 1 Aug. 1837, 99.
42. Ibid., 1 Aug. 1837, 99; 1 Dec. 1837, 230.
43. Ibid., 1 Aug. 1837, 99; compare 1 Tim. 3:16.
44. Ibid., 1 Dec. 1837, 230.
45. Ibid., l5 Jan. 1838, 275.
46. For differences between early Mormonism and other primitive gospel movements, see Vogel, Religious Seekers.
47. Kirkland, "Jehovah as the Father," 37.
48.Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints: Carefully Selected From the Revelations of God (Kirtland, OH: Printed by F. G. Williams & Co., 1835), 52-53.
49. Hale, "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," 26; Kirkland, "Jehovah as the Father," 37.
50. Evidence for Rigdon's possible influence on the "Lectures on Faith" has been considered in Leland H. Gentry, "What of the Lectures on Faith?" Brigham Young University Studies 19 (Fall 1978): 13-19.
51. Smith, Doctrine and Covenants, 53-54.
52. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 6; compare Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 5-6.
53. Edward Stevenson, Reminiscences of Joseph, The Prophet, and the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, 1893), 4.
54. Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 159.
55. For various accounts of the first vision, see ibid., 155-81.
56. Hale, "Trinitarianism and the Earliest Mormon Concept of God," 16; Kofford, "The First Vision," 16.
57. Messenger and Advocate, April 1835,1:115, quoted in Robert L. Millet, "To Be Learned Is Good If...": A Response by Mormon Educators to Controversial Religious Questions (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987), 70.
58. Hale, "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity," 25.
59. In Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, comps. and eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 63.
60. Time and Seasons, 15 Sept. 1842, 926. Although this article appears under Smith's editorship, it is not certain he authored it. Apostle John Taylor was also doing some of the editing at this time.
61. In Ehat and Cook, 173, 268-69n5; see also Faulring, 341; D&C 130:22.
62. Nauvoo Expositor, 7 June 1844, 2.
63. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols., 2nd rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1964), 6:474; compare Ehat and Cook, 378.
64. Millet, "To Be Learned Is Good If...," 73.
65. Ehat and Cook, 63; Times and Seasons, 15 Sept. 1842, 926.