Joseph Smith and the Body, some thoughts

By April 20, 2009

I have been dealving into Nauvoo-era theology recently–a task not for the faint of heart. There are plenty of un-touched topics there just waiting to be analyzed, but one of the themes that has stood out to me the most, however, is Joseph Smith’s reconception of the state of the body–its nature, its potential, and even its inherent power. These are some preliminary thoughts on the topic; preliminary, because it only relies on sermons reproduced in Ehat and Cook’s Words of Joseph Smith (and only those before summer of ’43 at that), and engages very limited contemporary and secondary sources. (Also, since we have been getting quite a bit of discussion on Joseph Smith’s view of spirits lately, I thought we should even it out by also engaging his view of the body.)

In the last few decades, the scholarly study of religion has become more aware of the importance of the body in religious thought. Indeed, as William LaFleur notes, the body has ?moved from recognizing that religion involves the body to acknowledging? that it plays a major role in religion, even to the point that studies that do not involve the body in some way ?now seem out-of-date.?[1] Similarly, Richard H. Roberts writes that ?the body is?a core concern in world religious traditions, and the body as locus of experience, object of desire, source of metaphor, and icon of self representation is a pervasive preoccupation of Western?culture.?[2] This post will only go so far as engaging Joseph Smith’s views of the body, rather than influences or implications of bodily logistics in itself.

LaFleur explains further that ?cultures, subcultures, and religious institutions position themselves somewhere on a spectrum between one pole, where the body is considered a given, and its opposite, where somatic placity is regarded as not only allowed but even desirable, an index to religious identification and involvement.?[3] In the early Christian tradition, beginning with an exegesis of Paul, ?early Christians paradoxically at once devalued and reified the body.?[4] Since then, western Christianity has struggled with the importance and significance of the body, ranging from several attempts of sacralizing corporality to Origin?s self-castration, and since the Reformation has generally sided with a suspect view of the human body.[5] When Joseph Smith entered the scene, American Protestant views of the human tabernacle, largely influenced by traditional dualistic theology, were largely negative.

However, by the time the young LDS Church was settled in Nauvoo, Mormon theology already held a very positive outlook on the body. Joseph Smith?s ideas concerning the eternal?and divine?state of the body were equally bold. Though his response to the Methodist minister in 1843??There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter but is more fine or pure and can only be discerned by purer eyes”[6]?has become famous, he had been teaching this materialistic view for several years by then. Almost two and a half years earlier, in early January 1841, he taught that ?that which is without body or parts is nothing,? even going so far to deifying the body: ?There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones.?[7] Beyond just implying the eternal nature of the body, Joseph Smith taught that it was a crucial characteristic of God.

Further, Smith taught that gaining a body was a key component of mortality. He claimed that ?before the foundation of the Earth in the Grand Counsel that the Spirits of all men ware[sic] subject to oppression & the express purpose of God in Giving [them] a tabernacle[sic] was to arm [them] against the power of Darkness.?[8] Two months later, he similarly explained that ?God saw that those intelegences had Not power to Defend themselves against those that had a tabernicle therefore the Lord Calls them togather in Counsel & agrees to form them tabernicles so that he might [en]Gender the Spirit & the tabernicle together so as to create sympathy for their fellowman.?[9] Indeed, beyond just being a positive result of earthly existence, Smith believed that attaining a body was its primary objective?that ?no?person can have this Salvation except through a tabernacle.?[10] He summed up this thought in a discourse devoted to the subject in 1843:

The design of God before the foundation of the world was that we should take tabernacles that through faithfulness we should overcome & thereby obtain a resrection from the dead, in this wise obtain glory honor power and dominion for this thing is needful, inasmuch as the Spirits in the Eternal world, glory in bringing other Spirits in Subjection unto them, Striving continually for the mastery, He who rules in the heavens when he has a certain work to do calls the Spirits before him to organize them. They present themselves and offer their Services.[11]

Indeed, Joseph Smith?s theology defined corporality as a position of power rather than a trait of existence, and was a tool to position them over the devil and he legions. ?All men have power to resist the devil,? he explained in 1841, because ?they who have tabernacles have power over those who have not.?[12] ?The greatness of [the devil?s] punishment,? he taught two years later, ?is that he shall not have a tabernacle[.] this is his punishment.?[13] Franklin D. Richards remembered him calling it the ?mortification of satan,? and that he and his demons often make it a goal to take possession of bodies, but are forced to leave ?when the proven authorities turn him out of Doors.?[14] The Mormon Prophet even used a corporality-based test?that of shaking hands?as a way of detecting true angels from false spirits: ?If an Angel or spirit appears offer him your hand; if he is a spirit from God he will stand still and not offer you his hand. If from the Devil he will either shrink back from you or offer his hand, which if he does you will feel nothing, but be deceived?Angels are beings who have bodies and appear to men in the form of man.?[15]

What observations have you made concerning Joseph Smith’s–or for that matter early Mormonism’s–view of the body? Sadly, as with many of Smith’s teachings, we are not able to get a full view of his ideas due to his premature death and the sporadic nature of his recorded sermons. Further, as Richard Bushman notes, Smith ?never presented his ideas systematically in clear, logical order,? but rather they ?came in flashes and bursts.? Therefore, ?assembling a coherent picture out of many bits and pieces leaves room for misinterpretations and forced logic.?[16] One thing that I am continuing to notice–and be frustrated by–is how rarely he followed his theological innovations to their logical end or contemplated philosophical implications. Thus, it is probably impossible to confidently determine the full meaning in the Prophet’s mind. However, there is more than enough to generate discussion and contemplation.


[1] William Lafleur, ?Body,? in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, Mark C. Taylor, ed. (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 36.
[2] Richard H. Roberts, ?Body,? in The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion, Robert A. Segal, ed. (Malden, MA & Oxford: Blackwell Publications, 2006), 213.
[3] LaFleur, ?Body,? 38.
[4] Roberts, ?Body,? 216.
[5] Roberts, ?Body,? 217-221.
[6] Joseph Smith Sermon, 17 May 1843, recorded by William Clayton, in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph, Religious Studies Monograph Series, no. 6 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 203.
[7] Joseph Smith Sermon, 5 January 1841, recorded in William Clayton?s Private Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 60.
[8] Joseph Smith Sermon, 19 January 1841, recorded in McIntire Minute Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 62.
[9] Joseph Smith Sermon, 28 March 1841, recorded in McIntire Minute Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 68.
[10] Joseph Smith Sermon, 14 May 1843, recorded in Wilford Woodruff Journal, in Words of Joseph Smith, 200.
[11] Joseph Smith Sermon, 21 May 1843, recorded in Howard and Martha Coray Notebook, in Words of Joseph Smith, 207.
[12] Joseph Smith Sermon, 16 May 1841, recorded in William Clayton?s Private Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 74.
[13] Joseph Smith Sermon, 14 May 1843, recorded in Wilford Woodruff Journal, in Words of Joseph Smith, 201.
[14] Joseph Smith Sermon, 21 May 1843, recorded in Franklin D. Richard?s ?Scriptural Items,? in Words of Joseph Smith, 208.
[15] Joseph Smith, December 1840, recorded in William Clayton?s Private Book, in Words of Joseph Smith, 44.
[16] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knoft, 2005), xxi.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Current Events Intellectual History Theology


  1. I agree he never finished laying this out.
    I think that the notion of correspondence and sacred mimesis of Christ is part of what pushed him to the conclusion–if Christ as a God had to acquire a body, that had to mean something eternal. In 1844 at times the divine anthropology seems to be a particularly literal and strident imitatio Christi.
    I also think it has something to do with the hunger for the persistence of earthly sociality, that death could threaten nothing if it could not even strip us of our bodies.
    This also provides a workaround for the eternal problem of trying the spirits which both met the demands of Common Sense and secured a happy afterlife for people.

    Comment by smb — April 20, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

  2. Nice work, Ben. Despite not being systematic in his ideas, you have shown that this was at least consistent and important. I love it. It seems to me that I have heard a lot of modern Mormons contrast JS’s corporeal theology against Greek conceptions. Haven’t followed those conversations really. However, I think it is reasonable that it was, in part, his views of the body that made rejecting standard Protestant notions of “afflictive providence” so easy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 20, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

  3. From Dr. Good’s popular Book of Nature (1826, with some twenty editions in England and America before 1840, including editions for children) . . .

    The idea that the essence or texture of the soul consists either wholly or in part of spiritualized, ethereal, gaseous, or radiant matter, capable of combining with the grosser matter of the body, and of becoming an object of sense, seems to avoid the difficulties inherent to both systems. It says to the materialist, matter is not necessarily corruptible; . . . It says to the immaterialist, the term immaterial conveys no determinate idea; . . . it is a term not to be found in the Scriptures, which, so far from opposing the belief that the soul, spirit, or immortal part of man, is either wholly or in combination, a system of radiant or ethereal matter, seem rather, on the contrary, to countenance it . . .

    [John Mason Good, The Book of Nature. By John Mason Good, M.D. F.R.S. F.R.S.L., Mem. Am. Phil. Soc. and F.L.S. of Philadelphia. From the Last London Edition. To Which is Now Prefixed, a Sketch of the Author’s Life. Complete in One Volume. New=York: Printed and Published by J. & J. Harper, 1830 (Harper’s Stereotype Edition; copyright 3 January 1831), 331]

    Ironically, Orson Pratt referred to this book in the opening remarks of his pamphlet, Absurdities of Immaterialism (Liverpool: R. James, 1849), p. 1, but only in argument with Dr. Good’s definition of “truth.”

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 20, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

  4. Thanks, y’all, for the comments and suggestions.

    Sam, I was hoping you’d come on and say something, since I know this is related to your research.

    J, I was not aware of the parallels with the Greeks–I’ll have to check it out.

    Rick, as always, thanks for the helpful source.

    Now I better get my body some sleep so I can take a final in the morning.

    Comment by Ben — April 21, 2009 @ 1:07 am

  5. At the risk of becoming like the ward choir director and making everyone run when they see me coming, let me throw out something I’m working on for Dialogue–I really want to do an issue focused around theology and the body. If you have time or interest in expanding these ideas, let’s talk!

    Comment by Kristine — April 21, 2009 @ 7:38 am

  6. Kristine,
    You might want to read This Republic of Suffering. It delves pretty deeply into the influence that the Civil War had on the way we view death and the theology of the body and the after life.

    Comment by mmiles — April 21, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

  7. I know one of the presenters at the recent Faith and Knowledge Conference for LDS grad students delivered a paper on Confucian-Mormon perspectives on the body. If I remember correctly he was saying that the full piece is being published in Element.

    Comment by IKD — April 21, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

  8. This is a great post. FWIW, I’d advise staying away from “the Greeks.” I’ve spent years on precisely the topic of the body in antiquity, and it is huge. Besides, there is little payout historically for you. I’d tell you my new idea with regard to how to study the “body” in religion, but you’ll have to wait til the book!

    Comment by TT — April 21, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  9. Yeah, the Confucianism paper was Mike Ing’s and it’s good–if Brian Birch weren’t so nice, I’d try to steal it 🙂

    mmiles–agreed. This Republic… is harrowing and wonderful.

    Comment by Kristine — April 21, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  10. TT: I’m on pins and needles 😉

    Comment by Ben — April 21, 2009 @ 3:17 pm

  11. Ask taysom about his mha 09 paper. Looks to be quite good.

    Comment by Smb — April 21, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  12. […] Joseph Smith on the Body […]

    Pingback by Joseph & the Body : Mormon Metaphysics — April 22, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  13. It seems to me that I have heard a lot of modern Mormons contrast JS?s corporeal theology against Greek conceptions.

    Unfortunately most of these discussions take a rather naive view of Greek conceptions. Rather what is usually a problem is the conception of Christian philosophy during the medieval era which persisted into the modern era via its transformation by Descartes (whose concept of mind is actually quite close in many ways to Aquinas’ substantial souls).

    The Greek conceptions were, in my view, much more palatable. Especially the Greek materialists such as the Stoics.

    Comment by Clark — April 22, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

  14. From Dr. Good?s popular Book of Nature (1826, with some twenty editions in England and America before 1840, including editions for children) . . .

    Note that this view of spirits as analogous to a gas rather than really immaterial goes back to the early Renaissance. I’ve not done enough reading on the history of this but philosophers like Telesio were into that. And of course in popular speech immaterial spirits were actually interpreted in a material way. (Think of how ghosts are conceived – it’s as a vaporous substance rather than being truly without place)

    My guess is that some of the rediscovery of the Stoics aided here but I don’t know for sure. Typically the Stoics were looked to just for moral theory but they had some interesting physics and ontology as well.

    FWIW, I?d advise staying away from ?the Greeks.? I?ve spent years on precisely the topic of the body in antiquity, and it is huge. Besides, there is little payout historically for you.

    I think this right. That said there is plenty of indirect influence on Joseph from more esoteric aspects of the Renaissance. (i.e. in Masonry) I spent a few years looking into this but even there one doesn’t find as much as one would hope.

    Interestingly where I think the most compelling parallels arise is in cognitive science analyzing people intuitive approaches to things and how spirits are naturally conceived of. In a sense Joseph returns to a more natural cognitive view of spirits as opposed to the formal theology that had developed over the centuries. I suspect one could fruitfully argue that Joseph is doing phenomenology of a sort rather than traditional theology.

    Comment by Clark — April 22, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  15. Hi Ben,

    I just saw this article–very interesting post! My first comps area was on religion and the body in Christianity. R. Marie Griffiths’s 2004 work, Born Again Bodies, briefly covers the era of Smith’s life as it speeds towards connections between evangelicals and New Thought adherents in the late 19th century. It’s a fantastic read! Also, Sarah Coakley’s introduction to her edited work Religion and the Body (Oxford UP, 1997?)is, in my opinion, the best summary on the religion and the body questions out there. I was a bit miffed with some of LeFleur’s characterizations of Christianity’s relationship to the body in his short piece that you quoted–he sees it far too dualistically and negatively than other authors I have read (such as Caroline Walker Bynum). Le Fleur does not specialize in Christianity and studies Buddhism in Asia. His work is understandably not nuanced when he talks about another tradition. (Personally, I think that Christianity quickly becomes the whipping boy on the question of the body for scholars of other traditions to take out their fury.)

    In my opinion, Joseph is not so much a systematizer as he is an artist who specializes in bricolage. In some ways, Joseph is like an emotion-driven Luther as opposed to a systematic Calvin. (However, Luther, who is not known as a systematic thinker, is far more consistent than Joseph–reflecting their different trainings, too.) This is just an analogy that personally helps me give Joseph some slack when his thoughts tend to get a bit disjointed or even, well, speculative. This must be my Community of Christ bias coming through, too.

    Comment by David Howlett — April 23, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

  16. David, thanks so much for your comment. This is a very new field for me (ie the body), so I really appreciate the critique of La Fleur and the suggestions of other good books. Your thoughts on JS are also very helpful.

    Your wisdom is always more than welcome here.

    Comment by Ben — April 23, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  17. I’m not sure I buy the artist vs. systematizer opposition. I think it clear Joseph attempted systemization (thus things like Lectures on Faith, which he supported and at least significantly influenced). I think though that his view of continuing inquiry (either through academic study or revelation) entailed that you never reached a static presentation of theology. That is his view of theology is closer to the perspective one has in the sciences. (Although in the 19th century the apparent stability of mechanics in physics made one think all that left were details rather than significant reconfigurations)

    Comment by Clark — April 24, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  18. I was just going over some old posts and realized that I had written something on this topic that may be of interest:

    Comment by TT — May 7, 2009 @ 12:53 pm


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