Parley Pratt’s Doctrine of Equality and the Question of Influence

By June 1, 2009

(Note: If you couldn’t from Ryan T’s last comment and this brief post, three of us JIers are currently taking part in an intense seminar on the Pratt brothers’ writings. Therefore, you may see quite a bit on good ol’ Parley and Orson; be advised.)

In 1838, Parley Pratt printed a pamphlet in response to a series of anti-Mormon articles written by L. R. Sunderland in the newspaper, Zion’s Watchman.[1] This pamphlet, specifically written in defense of the Church and reactionary against Sunderland’s accusations, offered some of the earliest formations of progressive Mormon theology. Continuing a common theme throughout his numerous writings, biblical interpretation, Parley Pratt attacked Sunderland?s accusation that the teachings in Joseph Smith?s revelations were ?nonsense and blasphemy.? ?This ?nonsense and blasphemy,? becomes good sense the moment it is found in the other Scriptures,? Pratt argued, hinting at his belief that Mormon theology was justified by a literal reading of the scriptures.[2] Pratt goes on to reason that if the ?ignoramus? were to actually read the bible, he would realize that the ancient scriptures taught the very things he was characterizing as Mormon nonsense. However, beyond just reinforcing Pratt?s common usage of Common Sense logic in scriptural interpretation, Pratt touches (briefly) on a significant Mormon doctrine that is often thought to not show up until the Nauvoo period.

The revelation in question was a portion that came from the “Olive Leaf”–know today as D&C 88. The verse: ?And the Saints shall be filled with glory, and be EQUAL with Him? (emphasis in original). This idea?one of the earliest hints of deification?garners some explanation from Pratt. What he described as the ?doctrine of equality,? Pratt offered defense for this idea from the Bible as well as the reasoning that God?s omnipotent power would result in nothing less than bringing perfection in all of his children. Further, he connects this possibility with another principle that would gain importance in Nauvoo: knowledge.

And again, the spirit should guide his saints into all truth, and if it does guide his saints into all truth, God is in possession of all truth, and no more; consequently, his saints will know what he knows; and it is an acknowledged principle, that ?knowledge is power;? consequently, if they have the same knowledge that God has, they will have the same power.[3]

This emphasis put on knowledge as a way of perfection is similar to Joseph Smith?s later teachings. For instance in April 1842, Smith taught that ?A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge,? similarly attaching knowledge to perfection.[4] Concerning knowledge as an integral part of eternal increase, the Mormon Prophet taught in 1843, ?knowledge is power & the man who has the most knowledge has the greatest power.?[5]

Opposing ministers quickly understood the significance of Pratt?s claim. One critic, after referencing this very passage, wrote in 1841 that ?the Mormon Church believe that they will have power to create worlds, and that those worlds will transgress the law given; consequently that they will become saviour?s to those worlds, and redeem them; and that never, until this is accomplished, will their glory be complete.?[6] The fear of deification is potent in this response, and it shows that contemporary ministers were not overlooking the implications of LDS scripture and reasoning.

What’s significant about this passage–beyond it being a very early hint to later Mormon deification–is that it comes before any public statement from Joseph Smith concerning the idea (beyond the original revelation, of course). So the question has to be asked: is Parley getting this idea from Joseph Smith, or from his own interpretation of the revelations? Is it possible that Parley was the first to come up with the idea of eternal progression, or must every doctrinal revelation come from the Prophet?

Of late, we have been quick to point out possible points of influence from the outside, but could Joseph Smith also have been influenced in his scriptural interpretation (even of his own revelations) by those in his inner circle?


[1] The title of this pamphlet was also one of the most creative of all Mormon pamphleteering: Mormonism Unveiled: Zion’s Watchman Unmasked, and its Editor, Mr. L. R. Sunderland, Exposed: Truth Vindicated: the Devil Mad, and Priestcraft in Danger! With a title like that, you don’t need to read the actual pamphlet.

[2] Pratt, Mormonism Unveiled, 26.

[3] Pratt, Mormonism Unveiled, 27.

[4] Joseph Smith Sermon, 10 April 1842, recorded in Wilford Woodruff Journal, Words of Joseph Smith, 113-114.

[5] Joseph Smith Sermon, 17 May 1843, William Clayton Diary, Words of Joseph Smith, 202.

[6] O Bacheler, ?Miscellaneous,? Christian Secretary (Dec 31, 1841): 4.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Methodology, Academic Issues Theology


  1. Great post, Ben. I don’t have answers to the questions you pose, but thought it might be interesting to note that La Roy Sunderland was a prominent Methodist minister and abolitionist in the 1830s, who then in the early 1840s left the MEC and helped form the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Ultimately, he became disenchanted with Methodism altogether and experimented with animal magentism and mesmerism. Taves discusses him at length in Fits, Trances, and Visions.

    Comment by Christopher — June 1, 2009 @ 4:13 am

  2. Nice articulation of the influence issue, Ben, and an excellent example. That sentence in the pamphlet jumped out to me too and found its way into my marginalia. I wanted to ask today in our discussion if that was perhaps the beginnings of Parley’s doctrine of “equality” – looks like you would say so. I suppose the only way we can answer the important questions you pose about receipt of revelation and doctrinal originality is through careful dating – by showing conclusively that Parley’s (or whomever’s) insights temporally precede Joseph’s. This particular case gives a window of six years (between the revelation and Parley’s iteration), making the unfolding of the idea hard to see. Seems to me that that’s plenty long, even when not published or in open circulation, for the contents of the revelation to seep into Parley’s thought. I’ll be interested to see if any other instances crop up where the dating is tighter and the reverse flow of influence seems more likely.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 1, 2009 @ 8:52 am

  3. I think RyanT is on to the answer: a careful look at the chronology of sources is telling.

    D&C 76, published to the Church in July 1832–5 months before section 88 was even received–states of those who rise in the resurrection of the just to inherent a celestial glory that they have “received of his fulness, and of his glory” (v.56) and are “gods, even the sons of God” (v. 58).

    I think it is highly unlikely that Pratt had figured out or revealed this doctrine before Joseph really catches hold of it. If Smith did not have an inkling of the doctrine prior to 16 February 1832, he certainly knew it on that date when he was not merely “told” the doctrine but actually “saw” the glory of the celestial world and those in it.

    There are a number of other factors to consider. For instance, D&C 76:50-70 is a much more powerful and detailed pasage on this topic than D&C 88:107. It is therefore curious that Pratt does not use D&C 76 in his 1838 pamphlet. Why would this be? Does it speak to his awareness of the existing theology among his intended audience, that he is easing into the doctrine? Does it reflect his own possible reaction to and difficulties with “the Vision”? (We know it was difficult for many to accept. How long did this reluctance last within the Church? Could Pratt have had difficulties accepting it even as late as 1838? Unlikely, in my estimation, but possible.)

    Also, I think it can be argued–actually, you may be unintentionally making the point here–that Pratt is one of the “‘great big Elders’ as [Joseph Smith] called them who had caused him much trouble, whom he had taught in the private counsel; and they would go forth into the world and proclaim the things he had taught them; as their own revelations” (28 April 1842, The Words of Joseph Smith, 116). Is this evidence that Smith discussed the implications of D&C 76 privately before Pratt’s 1838 pamphlet, perhaps even with Pratt himself?

    These are just the questions that immediately arose in my mind when I read your post, and I’m sure persons more informed and intelligent than myself could add more.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 11:01 am

  4. I’ve been quietly pondering the same issue vis-a-vis William Phelps. More later.

    Comment by smb — June 1, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  5. Curtis: Thanks for the ideas and questions. A few thoughts:

    -Even with JS’s vision, I’m still not convinced he understood the full implications of possible Godhood portrayed there. D&C 76 made a big splash when it first appeared, but basically faded out of Mormon, and non-Mormon, memory for almost a decade. I think one could look at D&C 76:50-70 and interpret it very similarly to how contemporary religionists interpreted similar passages in the Bible. For seven years after this revelation, Joseph Smith still incorporated a saved/damned rhetoric in his teachings as if D&C 76 was never revealed. (Grant Underwood has an article on that in the 90s)

    -Regarding the “Great Big Elders,” and you may have meant this and I didn’t catch it, but Parley was specified as one who JS thought was guilty of this. This was five years later, though, and after JS trusted PP and others listed to head the mission to Britain, so I think his frustration might have been with something that occurred after they got home.

    Lots of good questions.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 11:18 am

  6. I don’t believe Joseph missed the theological implications of his vision and Pratt or someone else opened it up to his view. D&C 76 is only a text describing what was revealed and cannot fully convey what was actually experienced and learned in the course of the Vision. That Joseph’s public rhetoric appears to receed to a saved/damned dichotomy may reflect the willingness of the audience to receive the doctrine of the Vision and not Joseph’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of it. But I’m interested in what evidence Underwood brings to bear in his arguement. Do you have a ref to the Underwood article? I would love to read it.

    And I was indeed suggesting that Pratt not only was one of (if not the biggest of) the “great big Elders” but may have been from very early on in his writing career. That the first documented instance of Joseph semi-publicly lodging this complaint is in April 1842 does not force us to conclude that this feeling was a recent development or yet that it wasn’t a long-standing or slow-developing issue. So I think the 1838 pamphlet may be evidence of the validity Joseph’s complaint. We only have glimpses of the relationship dynamics at play among the brethren in the highest quorums in Joseph’s lifetime and this may be one more piece of evidence in that puzzle.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  7. #4 – What a tease! C’mon, brother, spill it!

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  8. Curtis: the article is ??Saved or Damned?: Tracing a Persistent Protestantism in Early Mormon Thought.? BYU Studies 25 (Summer 1985): 85-103. (Received the ?T. Edgar Lyon Best Article? award from the Mormon History Association.) I can see where you are coming from on thinking JS just held back, but I would think we would have some hinting at it from his rhetoric. Perhaps he just wasn’t ready to receive it himself.

    Another great example from this very same pamphlet of Parley perhaps running before JS was his statement that God “has both body and parts: who has eyes, mouth, and ears.” This is clearly before any of JS’s teachings regarding the corporeal nature of deity, especially when juxtaposed to Lectures on Faith (I’m in the camp that believes JS wasn’t the author of these, but that he still approved of it).

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  9. “Of late, we have been quick to point out possible points of influence from the outside, but could Joseph Smith also have been influenced in his scriptural interpretation (even of his own revelations) by those in his inner circle?”

    I don’t think it’s a question of if this happened. JS was a sponge and he soaked up all sorts of cultural and personal cues that, depending upon one’s point of view, he either a) melded together into new religious ideas and spat back or b) used as the kindling for fires of divine revelation. So it seems impossible to me that he would not have been influenced by any number of individuals around him. The problem, as you are aware, is attempting to demonstrate the sources and impact of those influences.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 1, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  10. Yes, what Taysom just said.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 1, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  11. Amen, Taysom.

    In the seminar today, we discussed this idea and the development of Mormon scripture exegesis. It is fascinating to think that certain doctrinal developments may have come in some fashion like this: Joseph Smith receives the revelation, S. R. Sunderland picks out a verse from a revelation to accuse Mormonism as “nonsense and blasphemy,” this forces Parley Pratt to deeply consider the implications of the verse and expound on its possibilities, and eventually Joseph Smith takes off with it in Nauvoo.

    A lot more “dialectic” approach than we often think.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

  12. “Another great example from this very same pamphlet of Parley perhaps running before JS was his statement that God ?has both body and parts: who has eyes, mouth, and ears.?

    Could Joseph have gone through the First Vision and fail to mentally process that God was a man? To me it seems quite a stretch to claim that he must of gotten that idea from Parley in Nauvoo. Do you think that perhaps a hazard of focusing so long and hard on the Pratts is that you may get “Pratt vision” and start seeing the Pratts everywhere, but lose the bigger picture in your conclusions?

    First Vision aside, if we’re going to posit a source for an anthropomorphic Father that informed Joseph, why start with PPP? Why not go back to Zebedee Coltin?

    Zebedee Coltrin (regarding the Kirtland School of the Prophets):

    . . . on the 23rd [of] January, 1833, when we were all together, Joseph having given instructions, and while engaged in silent prayer . . .a personage walked through the room from East to West, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him and suppose the others did, and Joseph answered that is Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother. Afterward . . . another person came through; He was surrounded as with a flame of fire. . . . The Prophet Joseph said this was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I saw Him.
    (Salt Lake City 1883 School of the Prophets Minute Book, 3 October 1883)

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  13. continuing the Coltrin quote:

    I saw His hands, His legs, His feet, His eyes, nose, mouth, head and body in the shape and form of a perfect man. He sat in a chair as a man would sit in a chair, but This appearance was so grand and overwhelming that it seemed I should melt down in His presence, and the sensation was so powerful that it thrilled through my whole system and I felt it in the marrow of my bones. The Prophet Joseph said: Brethren, now you are prepared to be the Apostles of Jesus Christ, for you have seen both the Father and the Son, and know that They exist and that They are two separate Personages.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  14. Matt: thanks for your comment. I agree that from the first vision on JS believed in a God who had human personage, but the idea that God had a physical body did not appear until Nauvoo–that’s pretty well accepted by Mormon scholars, including most faithful historians.

    A lot of contemporaries understood God as someone who appears as a man, but Mormonism later claimed that he was physically embodied. The Lectures on Faith are pretty clear in the belief in God as a spiritual personage.

    And remember: Coltrin’s quote is coming fifty years after the event, so he might be remembering later doctrinal innovations into the past.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  15. Pratt’s pamphlet trumps Smith’s earlier visions and revelations? Even IF Smith never had experienced visions of Christ or the Father (what, for instance, was the Father pointing to and with what was He pointing?), and even IF he passively dictated revelations and never studied or read them again afterward, showing that Pratt’s writings predate Joseph’s documented public discussions of the same themes later in Nauvoo does not come close to showing what the Prophet believed or taught prior to Pratt. It’s argument from a lack of evidence at best, and that only when you dismiss the revelations of and visitations to the Prophet recorded prior to Pratt’s writing.

    What, for instance, do we make of Joseph’s 1835 First Vision description wherein he says he saw a “personage” and even a second “personage” if Joseph was to wait three more years for Parley to tell him that God–either one–is indeed a personage, like man in form, and actually has a mouth? Or what should we do about the 1832 diary account of Christ saying His “anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth” if Joseph did not believe God had passions until 6 years later when Pratt made it obvious to him?

    Again, I think you are making Smith’s point for him: “his” doctrines, the truths he learned through his own experience, through revelations to himself, things he discussed and shared in private, were being shared in public by others without proper attribution. Else we should find him saying “The only way to obtain truth and wisdom, is not to ask it from books, but to go to Pratt and get it from his pamphlets.” 😉

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  16. Ok, I think we are talking past each other here. I am not saying that JS didn’t believe God was a personage–there is just a big difference in God being a personage and having a physical body.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  17. Coltrin?s quote is coming fifty years after the event, so he might be remembering later doctrinal innovations into the past.

    To be fair, he’s remembering a specific, personal manifestation of the Father and Son, not just “a doctrinal innovation.” It’s obviously not just an abstract belief for him, but a very significant life event (reinforced by the fact that he knows the the exact date that it happened 50 years prior).

    Also, does Pratt’s 1838 pamphlet say anything innovative about the flesh and bones embodiment of God? The quote you gave speaks to his human form and parts, though I don’t see that it adds much more to what Joseph and others already knew from 1820 onward about His physical appearance, whether in spirit or in flesh. Is there more on subject in the pamphlet? (I really don’t know.)

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  18. Is Pratt really saying anything about a tangible, physical body, or are you reading later doctrinal innovations into his pamphlet?

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

  19. Matt: in the quote above, Pratt specifically said God had a body; show me any writing from Joseph Smith pre-1838 that says something like that.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  20. A serious question is what did Joseph Smith mean by “personage” in 1835? Does he think God merely appeared to be in the form of a person and was really just a spirit (broadly defined)? Or does “personage” contemplate a being with body and parts? And does “tangible” even come into play at this point? What is the doctrine of a God without body, parts and passions meant to contradict other than the idea of a God who does in fact have a body, parts, and passions?

    Can it seriously be argued that Joseph thought of God as a “personage” and yet thought He was a being without body, parts, and passions until Pratt opened his eyes? I rather think this occured for Joseph when the Father touched his eyes with His finger and opened the heavens to his view whereupon he saw the Savior.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

  21. Curtis: find me one reliable contemporary source for God touching JS’s eyes.

    And it is possible for Joseph to believe in God to be a personage without a physical body–a lot of his contemporaries did.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  22. Pratt specifically said God had a body

    I don’t know what else one would call the parts of a personage with hands and face, who gestures and speaks– those visible body parts which are described by Joseph and others. A body is the sum of parts, and Joseph clearly describes those parts. The question isn’t whether Joseph knew and taught that God had a body — it’s whether he knew and taught that God had a physical body versus a spirit body only, and when. I’m not sure that Parley’s 1838 quote is necessarily conclusive on that point. I’m not saying that Parley ISN’T thinking of a corporeal body–just that his phrasing doesn’t make that any more clear than prior physical descriptions of God’s personage.

    show me any writing from Joseph Smith pre-1838 that says something like that.

    How about the Book of Mormon?

    Ether 3:16:

    Behold this body which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  23. I agree with Taysom’s comments. I think that sometimes Latter-day Saints get this erroneous idea that somehow Joseph learned differently than every other person who has ever lived on the planet, and that nobody but God influenced Joseph’s understanding of matters of faith and doctrine. Why should there be any problem with the idea that Joseph did not completely comprehend the full implications of the revelations he received at the time he received them, but instead came to see them more clearly in discussion with those around him? I think it is a little too much to expect that Joseph never learned anything of value from any other person about God. Such an idea runs completely contrary to the overriding principle of learning in the School of the Prophets that “all may be edified of all” (D&C 88:122).

    Comment by Brett D. — June 1, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

  24. Curtis & Matt (since you guys are writing from the same IP address I’ll just refer to you two in tandem): here is the 1828 Websters Dictionary definition for personage:

    PER’SONAGE, n. A man or woman of distinction; as an illustrious personage.
    1. Exterior appearance; stature; air; as a tall personage; a stately personage.
    2. Character assumed.
    The Venetians,naturally grave,love to give in to the follies of such seasons, when disguised in a false personage.
    3. Character represented.
    Some persons must be found, already known in history,whom we may make the actors and personages of this fable.

    The Ether quote is good, but it does specify the body as spirit, while Pratt does not.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

  25. The Ether quote is good, but it does specify the body as spirit, while Pratt does not.

    That’s really my only point–that the word “body” could be and was used to describe the “personage” of a spirit in the form of a man.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  26. Matt (#12)

    Could Joseph have gone through the First Vision and fail to mentally process that God was a man?


    Matt (#17)

    To be fair, he?s remembering a specific, personal manifestation of the Father and Son, not just ?a doctrinal innovation.? It?s obviously not just an abstract belief for him, but a very significant life event (reinforced by the fact that he knows the the exact date that it happened 50 years prior).

    So what? He’s still remembering 50 years in the past. Unless you can find an earlier quote, I’d say the burden of proof is still on you to demonstrate that Coltrin understood the event at the time it occurred just as he did 50 years later.

    Curtis (#20)

    Can it seriously be argued that Joseph thought of God as a ?personage? and yet thought He was a being without body, parts, and passions[?]


    Comment by Christopher — June 1, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

  27. You appear to be reading Pratt’s “body” as meaning “physical, tangible body” while disallowing Smith that definition when he uses “personage” to describe God. Is Pratt really talking about a physical body with interior parts while Joseph is speaking only of exterior appearence? “Body” is not necesarily more specific than “personage” to me, and Joseph has a personage speaking to Him and pointing to another personage who has passions well before 1838.

    Perhaps Pratt is really getting his concept of “body” from Joseph’s 1832 revelation where those who die “shall rise again, a spiritual body” and receive “the same body which was a natural body” and inherit celestial glory like God (D&C 88:27-28). Or maybe Pratt is reading the 1833 revelation that the “elements are the tabernacle of God” and that “spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy” and views this as relating to the embodiment of God (by extention). And in order for Pratt to be introducig this concept to the world, Joseph has to miss the meaning of these texts.

    Considering the defintions of “fulness” in D&C 76 and 88 and 93, I find nothing particularly groundbreaking in Pratt’s writing other than that he is the first to directly apply the revelations and experiences of Joseph Smith to address the idea of a God without body, parts or passions (which he already disbelieved before hearing of Mormonism).

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  28. Curtis: compare the 1828 definition of “personage” above and the definition for “body”: “The frame of an animal; the material substance of an animal, in distinction from the living principle of beasts, and the soul of man.” If you don’t see a difference there, I don’t know what to say.

    Your comment on the revelation’s use of “body” also assumes the idea that God is a resurrected person–not an idea present in the 1830s.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

  29. It is far too easy to read 150 plus years of the systematization of Mormon doctrine back into these documents. Just because a phrase contains obvious references to points of Mormon doctrine for us now does not mean that it contained those same obvious implications for Joseph and Parley when they first read them. Is it possible that they understood these passages in the same way that we would understand them? Sure. But I think we ought to be careful about claiming to know exactly how Joseph would have interpreted a passage in the 1830s. I tend to prefer the idea of a Joseph who didn’t grasp the full meaning of things the first time he saw them because I can identify with that kind of a person more than I can identify with somebody who sees the whole picture the first time he looks at it.

    Comment by Brett D. — June 1, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  30. #26: You’ve proven me wrong. It can be argued. Apparently. 😉

    #21: Ben, you know that not one reliable, contemporary source for the First Vision is known to exist. That would be quite the find of the century! But you can, quite reasonably, read all of the major accounts and piece together a rather coherent idea of event. I take Alger’s very late recollection as valid for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it finds support in two earlier sources not published in his lifetime and to which he likely had no access or even knowledge of (Joseph’s 1835 diary entry and Neibaur’s 1844 entry) while specifically explaining the language of Joseph’s 1832 diary account.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

  31. While I know there are no fully reliable sources, that still doesn’t mean you can rely on a 50 year, third(fourth?) person account. Show me something in the 1832, 35, 38, 39, 42, 42, 44 account that shows it, and I’ll concede. I don’t care how you justify it, the “eye-touching” account cannot be logically defended.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

  32. Ben, don’t you dare bring logic into this discussion. That would ruin everything.

    Comment by Christopher — June 1, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  33. I don?t care how you justify it, the ?eye-touching? account cannot be logically defended.

    I have to agree here. Also, any attempt at harmonization of the FV accounts in an effort to create a synthetic whole does a good deal of violence to the existing accounts.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 1, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

  34. Taysom is a wise (old) man.

    Comment by Christopher — June 1, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

  35. I find nothing particularly groundbreaking in Pratt?s writing other than that he is the first to directly apply…

    Curtis: I don’t know that we can say he’s the “first” to do this. Maybe it would be better to say that he’s the first that we know of to do this so explicitly in published form. I’m still holding out for the possibility of other pre-1838 Mormon quotes on the possible corporeality of God, as I’m not sure we’ve exhausted all available possibilities. And of course we CAN’T know what was being spoken and taught before this that WASN’T written down.

    …since you guys are writing from the same IP address I?ll just refer to you two in tandem

    It would not be a safe assumption (in fact, in this case it happens to be an utterly incorrect assumption) that two posters from the same IP address are the same person, even if they happen to agree with each other–especially if it’s the IP address for the network of a very large corporation on the Wasatch Front that employs countless Mormons. I bet this blog gets a decent amount of posters from this exact same IP.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

  36. Uh, Joe, we have been discussing the First Vision for some time now. There is no reason to assume that Joseph Smith knew God had a physical body simply because he saw him. I think this also might be an appropriate time to suggest that Smith’s changing definition of the Holy Ghost might say something about the ambiguity of his position on God’s corporeality.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 1, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  37. And it is possible for Joseph to believe in God to be a personage without a physical body?a lot of his contemporaries did.

    Absolutely. Look at Finney and a slew of other visionaries – visionaries who did not believe that God had a body – and yet saw in vision an embodied Christ.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 1, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  38. Coltrin’s recollections, while fun, are not what I would consider quality evidence. I think there is more than a little bit of the anachronistic reading going on here. The Lectures on Faith’s description of God the Father, while probably not written by Smith, were part of the official priesthood catechism. If there were serious issues with it, I can’t imagine that it would have remained.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 1, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  39. #29: I agree. I just think this is happening when reading Pratt as the innovator (“body” does not imply “resurrected, tangible body” any more than D&C 76, 88, and 93 do). I think Joseph’s complaint in 1842 was clearly justified and applies in this instance as well as in others.

    #28: I understand the dictionary distinction, but we can’t demonstrate decisively either Joseph’s meaning behind “personage” nor Pratt’s behind “body.” It seems a very fine point upon which to posit that Pratt is the innovator and that Joseph is just taking his theological ball, so to speak, and running with it in Nauvoo. It is just as likely–well, much more so, in my opinion–that Pratt is running with the ball that Joseph had purchased, brought to the game, and knew how to handle well before 1838. I know this is speculation to a degree, but not any more so than proposing Pratt as the revelator and Joseph as his disciple. Again, this suposes from a lack of evidence that Joseph is the passive receipient of words and experiences whose meaning he does not comprehend at a fundamental level. “did I build on anotr. mans foundtn. but my own?I have got all the truth & an indepent. rev[elatio]n. in the bargain” (WJS, 382)–a bold statement, one which Pratt never makes–an arguement from lack of evidence, I know! 😉

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  40. SC: Joe was this punk sitting right next to me trying to be funny 🙂

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

  41. Matt: I agree with your first point (there is always that possibility, of course), and apologize to you as a result of the second.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  42. Tell him to try harder.

    Comment by SC Taysom — June 1, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  43. Curtis: I’m not trying to say definitively that Parley influenced JS on this idea (and nowhere did I write that he was a “revelator,” only that he was interpreting JS’s revelations), I’m just trying to raise the possibility.

    I think JS must have drawn from those around him in his theological innovation, be it Rigdon, P Pratt, Phelps, etc. He was too much a lover of truth to think only truth could come through him.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  44. I should note that it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest if Joseph really didn’t understand the revelations God gave him until Pratt or some other mortal explained it to him or gave him the key to unlock their mysteries. (I certainly think he didn’t understand everything the instant it was revealed to him.) I responded to this particular theory because it is really no more sound–though it is more in vogue at present–than saying Joseph understood everything immedately. Showing that Pratt is the first to put anything in writing (or in particular language) is not showing that Pratt is the originator of the idea, nor yet that Joseph was not the originator of the idea, nor yet that both Pratt and Smith are deriving the idea from yet another party.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  45. #38: I agree, Zebedee’s remembrances are not quality evidence to establish a timeline on the Mormon understanding of the corporeality of God’s body; in fact they don’t even speak to that issue at all. However, they are useful in discussing the timeline with respect to God’s anthropomorphism. I think everyone here agrees that early Mormon’s thought of God the Father as a being with human form, long before 1838. However, it turns out that what we are really debating is not when JS taught that God had a human body, but rather when he taught that that body was a physical one and not just spiritual; and whether PPP was the source for that idea or the second-hand recipient of it.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

  46. How is it no more sound than another theory that has no shred of evidence? Wouldn’t you agree that it takes a certain paradigm to assume otherwise? Again, I’m not saying that this certain theory is true, but that it has a possibility. As a historian, I am forced to go where the sources take me, and you have proved that you cannot prove sources that show otherwise.

    Religiously, sure, you can make that argument. But if you are making it historically, show me how you would do it. Again, I think you can historically argue against the theory presented here (I am not a full believer in it, that’s why I posed it as a question), but you have yet to give a historical argument.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 5:12 pm

  47. #43: Generally, I have no problem with the idea that Smith was influenced by those around him, and I think it can easily be demonstrated that he was at times; but in this case, I thought a litle caution was in order considering Pratt’s specific history of preempting Joseph doctrinally and Joseph’s documented complaint over it. I’m sure it was not (and is not) something that came between them much.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  48. However, it turns out that what we are really debating is not when JS taught that God had a human body, but rather when he taught that that body was a physical one and not just spiritual; and whether PPP was the source for that idea or the second-hand recipient of it.

    That is what many of us have been trying to say.

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  49. #43, #48: I think there’s little doubt that these men discussed doctrinal ideas like these in private at length. I doubt that they weren’t waiting for one or the other to publish a pamphlet or deliver a sermon in order to learn from each other–they were close friends and ecclesiastical associates who counseled a great deal on matters doctrinal. That Parley or others may have said things or framed perspective in the process of counseling and discussing doctrine that informed Joseph’s ideas or perspectives on the revelations, I suspect is likely true. At least I’m not opposed to the possibility. However, I have a hard time believing that the ’38 pamphlet would have genesis of the ideas for Joseph. I think that Joseph would likely be in possession of such important ideas himself by the time Parley understood them clearly enough to publish them to the world on behalf of the Church–regardless of who said what to whom in private counsel or teaching beforehand.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  50. *I doubt that they WERE, rather.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  51. #46: What? The evidence is D&C 76, 88 and 93. One would have to dismiss these texts as sources of Joseph’s knowledge–and of Pratt’s knowledge–in order to posit that Pratt is the “interpreter” or “innovator” and Joseph is just following his lead or picking up where Pratt left off. You would also have to assume that Joseph never discussed or explained these things in private, and especially not to Pratt directly. Then you’d have to assume that Joseph’s 1842 complaint has no bearing on Pratt’s writings prior to a certain cut-off date. (What is the staute of limitations on unattributed doctrinal appropriation anyway?) And that’s just about deification. Then throw in the concept of God’s body and you’ve got more of a nightmare, in my mind. It cannot be demonstrated when Joseph came to view God as a “person”, as a “being” with form, or what that form consisted of, beyond showing that he referred to personages who have feelings (notably love and anger) and could speak and point to one another (ok, I assuming Joseph saw Christ with arms and could point back to the Father, I admit). And Pratt isn’t any more explict than to say he has a body, and bodies are both spiritual and physical in the Book of Mormon and D&C revelations which predate Pratt’s pamphlet, so we can’t for sure say Pratt means a tangible, resurrected body. It just seems so tenuos to me to say “Pratt uses the words ‘equal’ and ‘body’ first so maybe Joseph got his ideas about deification and the embodiment of God from Pratt.” Again, it’s arguing from a lack of evidence when we say Joseph did not give these ideas or fully-formed teachings to Pratt himself, especially in light of the revelations and Joseph’s later complaint about the “great big Elders.” I would think the 1838 pamphlet could easily be an exhibit for the prosecution in Joseph’s complaint just as easily as it could be taken as evidence that Pratt is the spark to Joseph’s doctrinal exposition in Nauvoo.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 5:33 pm

  52. I thought a litle caution was in order considering Pratt?s specific history of preempting Joseph doctrinally and Joseph?s documented complaint over it. I?m sure it was not (and is not) something that came between them much.

    And yet in offering your caution, you have shown that you don’t have a full grasp of early Mormonism. Your connection of JS’s 1842 denouncement of PP as a “big elder” to this 1838 pamphlet lacks way more credulity that the theory Ben presented here, yet you state it as fact. Also, your other statements concerning the First Vision, as well as the distinction between “personage” and “body” in antebellum thought, make me seriously question your analytical skills.

    Comment by James S — June 1, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  53. #52: That’s a little more ad hominem than is necessary. methinks. The tone of that post message makes me seriously question your civil discussion skills. If you read the thread, you’ll see that the question isn’t a distinction between “personage” and “body” alone — it’s about how the word “body” was used by early Mormons in the context of spirits and gods. According to this usage, all personages have a body of one sort or another. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants are “antebellum” works which both refer to the “bodies” of spiritual personages.

    Comment by Matt — June 1, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  54. Curtis: I don’t know how to respond to you beyond what I have already said, so I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree 🙂

    (I also agree with Matt’s comment that James’ ad hominem statement is out of place–I’m glad that our discussion has remained civil.)

    Comment by Ben — June 1, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

  55. #52: I’ll not take this as some type of personal insult, as I care not one whit whether it was meant that way or not, though your comment makes me seriously question your interpersonal skills. 😉

    The theory originally posted suggests that Joseph understand neither the 17 Feb 1832 text nor the experience of the Vision (D&C 76) given 6 years bfore Pratt’s pamphlet; I cautioned that the pamphlet may be something Joseph is specifically complaining about only 4 years after it’s published; and I’m not the analytical one?

    Joseph is recording and publishing to the world revelations on these subjects as much as 6 years before Pratt’s 1838 pamphlet; then, 4 years after the pamphlet, Joseph says “great big Elders are taking my revelations and passing them off to the world as their own.” Those aren’t hard dots to connect. All of these dates are established.

    On the other hand, we could say Joseph receives revelations and publishes them, but that he does not understand them (admittedly unprovable); that Pratt comes to a fuller understanding of them than Joseph (again, unprovable) and publishes an interpretation of said revelations; then Joseph takes what Pratt has written, decides or is told by God that Pratt is right (unprovable); then develops those ideas in Nauvoo while covering his doctrinal tracks–and injured pride, perhaps–by claiming that others have taken *his* ideas and passed them off as their own.

    Of course, this also leads to the theory that Joseph is actually the “great big elder” lifting doctrinal ideas from others and intentionally dissembling when he claims they are his own ideas revealed to him directly from God and not learned from reading books (boy, I wish he had said “pamphlets and books”–surely he knew the 1828 Webster’s definition of books could be debated)!

    Now, lest my comments and intentions be mistaken here, I am not saying Ben is an idiot for posting this theory, nor that it has no support (I get the impression that some have interpreted it that way, but I am hopefully mistaken). I am arguing that there is a larger context for the introduction of these doctrines and even for the specific issue of “doctrinal borrowing” between Smith and Pratt that should give us caution as we explore the theory (which is what I thought we were doing here anyway–exploring a theory). I am not offended by Ben’s theory nor by any argument for or against it.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  56. #54: I can kindly agree to disagree and leave it at that but I’d prefer to continue respectful discussion any day. Since you have my IP address, I’ll assume you also have my email address. Send me an email. I have a question that might be taken wrong in the context here.

    Comment by Curtis — June 1, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  57. I personally think that JSJ believed God was embodied from childhood. My own sense is that many lay believers thought that was true, which was part of why the orthodox evangelicals had to keep hammering away at the “superstition” of the masses. Until you get high-falutin’, I don’t think people really sort out Trinitarianism in the way that is implied here. This is really at the level of impression, though.

    I’m continually impressed at what the Egyptian project points toward in terms of later developments, and that’s largely 1835-1836. (How, e.g., would God “dwell” near Kolob if he did not have a physical being?) I personally think LoF are Rigdon, an actual theologian of sorts, arguing for a Protestant view, while all around him the lay prophets of the LDS are believing in an embodied God.

    That said, it is notoriously difficult to get theologians or educated people on record in favor of a physical God. Even Swedenborg believed in a disembodied God, for heaven’s sake.

    It’s interesting to me to observe how uncomfortable we are with Smith drawing from his followers. I tried to sneak in a single quiet reference to this phenomenon in the KEP paper, but I suspect that it’s relatively common. I think it’s important to consider how best to interpret it for believing LDS, as it is a notion that comes to be in a rather noxious context.

    Comment by smb — June 1, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  58. Oh, also:
    1) anyone curious about antebellum intellectual history should track La Roy Sunderland’s circuitous path to enlightenment as detailed in Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, & Visions.
    2) where did you get that groovy Origen Bacheler quotation? he’s a fascinating figure as well, teaming up with JCB in 1842 to compare the Saints to sects outlined in Buck’s (including the Anabaptists).

    Comment by smb — June 1, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

  59. Very interesting post Ben. I have always been interested in Parley Pratt. Thank you for the discussion.

    I found this in “Messenger and Advocate” Feb. 1835, vol. 2, num. 5, page 265. The author, who is probably Warren Cowdery, is making a similar case Pratt is making in “Mormonism Unveiled” about the Protestant God. The reasoning is quite similar including using the word “body” to describe God. As I read both Pratt and M&A I see no doctrinal problem with Lectures on Faith 5.

    “Neither do we believe that it would be our privilege to claim a seat in the celestial kingdom of God with the apostles and those who have come up through much tribulation, when we have feasted upon the riches of the earth, and spent our days in idleness and vanity, by worshiping a God of imagination without body or parts, or any substance, or our own formation. It is a fact, that there are as many Gods worshipped as there are denominations, for instance, the Universalists worship a God that embraces all the workmanship of his hands in mercy, consequently saves all in his kingdom, good bad or indifferent. The Presbyterians worship a God that has created some for happiness and others for misery. The Methodists worship a God without body or parts: and thus one differs from another.”

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 2, 2009 @ 12:46 am

  60. Great excerpt Joe! Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Ben — June 2, 2009 @ 12:52 am

  61. Origin is just quoting Wm Harris’s pamphlet, which many believe was ghostwritten by Tom Sharp.
    Re-reading the Olive Leaf though just solved the problem of Lorenzo Snow’s divine anthropology couplet, so I’m glad you made me re-read it.

    Comment by smb — June 2, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  62. Can’t find my original copy of Harris, and my source for the quote is Bennett, HoS. Does anyone have the Harris pamphlet to confirm this:

    Harris, Mormonism Portrayed, 20-3 says that ?they believe that they will have power to create worlds, and that these worlds will transgress the law given? meaning will recapitulate the fortunate fall.FNBennett, History of the Saints, 130.

    Comment by smb — June 2, 2009 @ 8:26 am

  63. Uncle Dale’s got excerpts from it:

    Comment by David G. — June 2, 2009 @ 8:50 am

  64. RE: #61, “. . . Wm Harris?s pamphlet, which many believe was ghostwritten by Tom Sharp.”

    In the Warsaw Signal for September 11, 1844, editor Thomas C. Sharp wrote an extensive front-page review and summary (4 full columns) of Mormon content in Frederick Marrayat’s Narrative of the Travels and Adventures of Monsieur Violet . . . (London, 1843, 3 vols., Flake 5280). Sharp commented about how Marrayat had lifted material from William Harris’ Mormonism Portrayed . . . (Warsaw, IL, 1841, Flake 3868). Sharp also described the degree to which he himself ghost-wrote Harris’ book, and he complains of Marrayat’s plagiarism.

    Sadly, when I had that issue of the Warsaw Signal here, I don’t believe I photographed or photocopied the article in question. During an embarrassment of such ephemeral riches, even an antiquarian cataloger can become jaded or fatigued.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 2, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

  65. I think Pratt should not be underestimated for his influence on early Mormonism. Peter Crawley has pointed out many of Pratt’s “firsts” and they are extensive. If Pratt was the one who initiated the idea of man being equal with God, it should not surprise any of us. Crawley seems to hedge his bet as Jordon’s quote indicates. Maybe more information will surface. Thanks Ben for making me think about this.

    In BYU Studies 17:3 pages 347-355 Milt Backman gives a great introduction and publishes the letter of Kirtland Presbyterian minister, Rev. Truman Coe. Backman writes, Coe’s “work was one of the most accurate articles on the Latter-day Saints written by a non-Mormon in the 1830s”.

    “They contend that the God worshipped by the Presbyterians and all other sectarians is no better than a wooden god. They believe that the true God is a material being, composed of body and parts; and that when the Creator formed Adam in his own image, he made him about the size and shape of God himself.”
    (The Ohio Observer, August 11, 1836, Hudson, Ohio, p. 1)

    Comment by Joe Geisner — June 2, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

  66. Taking the idea of an embodied God seriously is so radical that in Mormonism it is at best a theological revolution half complete. There is no coherent explanation for a single, instrinsically embodied person to come close to approximating the many of the capacities we ascribe to God as an individual.

    Many maintain that God is the source/maintainer of the laws of physics, for example. How then does his own body operate if it is the source of the very laws by which it functions? Indeed if God is the source of those laws, he hardly needs a body at all.

    Comment by Mark D. — June 2, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  67. Joe: another fantastic source; thanks.

    Comment by Ben — June 2, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  68. Out of curiosity, how it one supposed to give historical precedence to Pratt or Smith when there are verses like this:

    “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (KJV Luke 24:39).

    Comment by Mark D. — June 2, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  69. Mark D #68, I think you’re much closer to the point here. I believe that these lay sensibilities about scripture with marvelously literal exegesis of Bible verses is so familiar that you’ll be hard pressed to prove that anyone suddenly brought this thought to their minds.

    People may want to look at blasphemy trials in early 19th-century Britain. Several claim a bodily God is the claim of the Hebrew Bible, contrary to Calvinist orthodoxy.

    Comment by smb — June 2, 2009 @ 9:41 pm


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