Although the Prophet Joseph Smith’s mortal ministry was relatively brief—little more than fifteen years—his accomplishments and influence are eternal. Not only did he restore both the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ, as directed by the Lord, he also introduced, through the revelations he received and through his teachings, most of the major doctrines, practices, and ordinances that characterize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Few things are more crucial to the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21) than the doctrines Joseph Smith taught. He spoke definitively and clearly on each of them, though his knowledge grew progressively. At times it came in leaps and bounds, as when he and Sidney Rigdon saw the Lord and the degrees of glory (see D&C 76); at other times, it came “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little” (2 Ne. 28:30).1
Sometimes the doctrines came quietly to him; other times they were riveted to his mind through galvanizing tribulations and remarkable manifestations. Sometimes they came in a logical sequence, expanding his knowledge from year to year; other times they came in seemingly disjointed segments. Generally, they came in response to questions Joseph Smith and his companions asked. No matter how the inspiration came, it is a marvelous work and a wonder how coherently all the pieces fit together.
The doctrines Joseph Smith taught do several things. They clarify scripture; they restore knowledge that had been revealed ages ago but had become lost or corrupted; they provide new knowledge; and they organize his many insights into a broad vision of eternity.
Many of the Prophet’s teachings amazed and surprised others, revealing things that they had never before supposed. Brigham Young, for example, noted how his ideas were transformed by the knowledge Joseph Smith received and recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76:
“You can understand, from the few remarks I make with regard to the Gospel, that many things which were revealed through Joseph came in contact with our own prejudices: We did not know how to understand them. I refer to myself for an instance. … My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was directly contrary and opposed to my former education.”2
The effects of time and familiarity lead us to forget how “directly contrary and opposed to” prevailing notions some of the revelations were. Joseph Smith, however, perceived their profound import. He said, “I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.”3 (See Dan. 2:44–45.)
A sampling of six of Joseph’s teachings will illustrate these points. This article will discuss the first three—the nature of God and the Godhead, man’s nature and his premortal existence, and the Creation. A follow-up article will discuss the next three—the priesthood of God, scripture, and temples and their ordinances. The doctrines in each of these important areas will be briefly summarized, and the development of these doctrines in the life and words of Joseph Smith will be explained and compared with the ideas and attitudes of his day. In some cases, the insights Joseph received were highly original for his time; in other cases, he reshaped or validated common ideas. In instances in which we know something about these teachings in previous dispensations, we find significant similarities. It is evident that the Prophet’s life was spent in learning more about these doctrines. They did not issue fully explained on the day of the First Vision—or on any other single occasion.
Though most people who believe the Bible accept the idea of a Godhead composed of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Joseph Smith revealed an understanding of the Godhead that differed from the views found in the creeds of his day. The main Christian sects of the nineteenth century taught of “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the persons: nor dividing the Substance” and of “one only living and true God, … a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible.”4 Although other churches and individuals held that the Father and the Son are separate entities,5 Joseph Smith uniquely taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct personages, with the Father and the Son having bodies of “flesh and bones as tangible as man’s,” and with the Holy Ghost being a “personage of Spirit.” (D&C 130:22.)6
God the Father. The truths about God that Joseph Smith restored are of paramount importance. In 1844, he taught that “it is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another.”7 Ten years earlier, the Lectures on Faith, which Joseph Smith directed and approved, taught that to acquire faith unto salvation one needs a correct idea of God’s character, perfections, and attributes, and that one needs to know that the course of life one is pursuing is according to God’s will.8 He also added, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”9
The Prophet explained that “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens”; that “he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did”; and that he “worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling.”10 Through the Prophet, we learn that we “are begotten sons and daughters unto God” and that Christ is the Firstborn. (D&C 76:24; see D&C 93:21–22; Heb. 12:7–9.) As God’s children, we may become gods ourselves through Christ’s atonement and the plan of salvation, being joint heirs of Christ of “all that [the] Father hath.” (D&C 84:38; see also Rom. 8:17; D&C 76:58–60; D&C 132:19–21.) Along with these concepts is the concept of divine parents, including an exalted Mother who stands beside God the Father.11
The LDS doctrine of Heavenly Father has led one recent commentator to write, “The Mormons espouse a radical, anthropomorphic conception of God that sets them far apart from other religions.”12 That concept includes the truth that man and woman are created in the image of God. (See Moses 6:9; Gen. 1:27.) These truths draw all men and women into a relationship with God built upon familial love, trust, feelings of self-worth, hope, and humility, all in proper balance.
Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith learned early of the distinctness of Jesus Christ and God the Father. In the Sacred Grove, fourteen-year-old Joseph saw “two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above [him] in the air.” He learned of their relationship when one of the personages declared, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS—H 1:17; italics in original.) He saw that the Father and the Son were two separate beings. He experienced the fact that a man could actually converse with Jesus Christ “as one man converses with another.” We do not know all that he learned during that marvelous vision; he later testified, “Many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” (JS—H 1:20.)
From his many translations13 and revelations from God, the Prophet received much more information about the Savior. While the Bible is full of information about Christ, the knowledge revealed to Joseph Smith affirms, clarifies, and offers even more. The following teachings of the Prophet describe the Lord in the context of history and the plan of salvation.
Premortal existence. Jesus was in the beginning with the Father and was the Father’s firstborn spirit child. (See D&C 93:21; John 17:1, 4–5; Col. 1:15–16.) He volunteered and was chosen, sustained, and foreordained in the premortal existence to be the Savior of the world. (See Ether 3:14; Moses 4:1–4; Abr. 3:22–28; 1 Pet. 1:20.) He created the earth and is thus called the “very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.” (Mosiah 15:4; see also Mosiah 3:8; Hel. 14:12; John 1:1–3.) He was Jehovah—the God of the Old Testament, the Holy One of Israel. As Jehovah, he “gave the law” of Moses and “covenanted with [his] people Israel.” (3 Ne. 15:5; see also 2 Ne. 25:29; D&C 110:1–4; 1 Cor. 10:1–4.)
Mortal existence. He was the Son of God, the “Only Begotten of the Father” in the flesh. (D&C 76:20–23.) He fulfilled all righteousness by demonstrating his obedience to his Father and by setting an example for the rest of mankind. (See 2 Ne. 31:5–9; Heb. 5:8–9.) In working out the Atonement, Christ took upon himself the sins of all mankind, suffering “more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” (Mosiah 3:7), trembling because of pain and bleeding at every pore (see D&C 19:18; Luke 22:44), so that “he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12; Heb. 4:8–9). He laid down his life and took it up again. These things he did that we “might not suffer if [we] would repent” (D&C 19:16), and that he might “bring to pass the resurrection of the dead” (2 Ne. 2:8). Because of these things, he is our advocate, pleading our cause before the Father. (See D&C 38:3–5; 1 Jn. 2:1.)
Postmortal existence. Between his death and resurrection, the Savior visited the world of departed spirits. There he taught the righteous and authorized faithful spirits to preach the gospel to all the dead, including the wicked, so that everyone would have the opportunity to accept the full gospel of salvation.14 He is now exalted and perfected like his Father. (See 3 Ne. 12:48; Acts 7:55.) Ultimately, he will take the role of the Father as the Father will “take a higher exaltation,” and God will be “thus glorified and exalted in the salvation and exaltation of all his children.”15
The Holy Ghost. The Bible gives little detail about the personage of the Holy Ghost. The Prophet, however, gave us a number of insights about that spirit being and his office. On several occasions, especially in Nauvoo in 1842–43, the Prophet spoke of the Holy Ghost as a being “in the form of a personage,”16 as a “spirit without tabernacle,” separate and distinct from the personages of the Father and the Son.17 According to the George Laub journal, on another occasion Joseph taught that “the Holy Ghost is yet a spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body.”18
Joseph Smith also explained the difference between a testimony from the Holy Ghost and the gift or right to the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost.19 In translating the Book of Mormon, he unfolded the meaning of the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost. (See 2 Ne. 31:13–14; Mosiah 27:24–26; Matt. 3:11.) Speaking to the Saints, Joseph distinguished between the roles of the First Comforter—the Holy Ghost—and the Second Comforter—the Savior himself.20 (See John 14:15–21.)
In the beginning, Adam, Seth, and other ancient patriarchs knew these truths about the Godhead because the gospel was declared to them “by holy angels sent forth from the presence of God, and by his own voice, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Moses 5:58.) Joseph Smith testified that prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, John, and Paul were among those taught “face to face,” who had the heavens opened to them, had “the personage of Jesus Christ to attend [them] … from time to time,” and even had the Father manifest himself unto them.21
Not only Paul, but also the early Christians understood the true nature of God.22 For example, they were often charged with abandoning monotheism and worshiping two Gods. They did not deny this. “We reasonably worship Jesus,” wrote Justin Martyr in the second century A.D., “having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in second place, and the prophetic spirit in the third.”23
With the apostasy and the loss of many plain and precious truths that were once part of the gospel (see 1 Ne. 13:26), the true knowledge of God was lost. The surviving fragments of truth were subsequently interpreted into mystery, and those who continued to believe in the basic truths about God were denounced as heretics. By the fourth century A.D., little remained of mankind’s original understanding of God.24
It is not surprising that the true knowledge of God would be one of Satan’s prime targets and one of the first fundamental doctrines to be lost. With the loss of the priesthood held by the original Apostles, the “key of the knowledge of God” (D&C 84:19), or “the fulness of the scriptures” (JST, Luke 11:53), was gone. That key was restored through Joseph Smith.
Another major doctrine that Joseph Smith restored tells us about our eternal roots. All people are different from one another, with varying talents, interests, and inclinations. Why do such differences exist? Can they be adequately explained in terms of biological and environmental factors? The doctrine of man’s premortal existence answers these questions.
From 1829 through 1844, the Prophet learned much about the pre-earth life. As early as 1830, while working on the inspired translation of the Bible, it was revealed to him that “all the children of men” were created “spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” (Moses 3:5.) Some years later, while translating the Book of Abraham, he learned that Abraham saw in vision “the intelligences that were organized before the world was”—the spirits who stood in God’s presence in that pre-earth existence. Abraham saw that there “were many of the noble and great ones” among those spirits. (Abr. 3:22–23.)
Speaking of these things, Joseph Smith said, “At the first organization in heaven, we were all present and saw the Savior chosen and appointed and the plan of salvation made, and we sanctioned it.”25
There were others, however, who were less noble. Many of the spirits, exercising their agency, chose to follow Lucifer in rebellion against God. (See D&C 29:36; Jude 1:6.) Lucifer, as the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith, was once “an angel of God who was in authority in the presence of God, who rebelled against the Only Begotten Son” and “sought to take the kingdom of our God and his Christ.” (D&C 76:25, 28; see Isa. 14:12–15.) Lucifer’s proposals that “one soul shall not be lost” (tempting as it sounds, it would nevertheless suspend our agency to choose) and that he be given God’s place and glory were rejected. (See Moses 4:1–3.) War followed, and because of his rebellion, Lucifer “was thrust down from the presence of God and the Son, and was called Perdition.” (D&C 76:25–26; see Rev. 12:7–9.)
Some spirits who sanctioned our Heavenly Father’s plan were foreordained to special callings on earth. Such spirits come to earth not predetermined but predisposed to recognize and obey the voice of truth. Not only were Abraham and Jeremiah called in this way (see Abr. 3:23; Jer. 1:5), but also, as Joseph Smith taught, “every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the grand Council of Heaven before this world was—I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in that grand council.”26
Joseph Smith taught that “all the spirits that God ever sent into this world are susceptible of enlargement.”27 In the Doctrine and Covenants, he said that the Spirit gives light to everyone who is born and that it enlightens everyone who hearkens to its voice. (See D&C 84:46; John 1:9.) Those who continue in obedience to God receive more light, and that light can grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day.” (D&C 50:24; see also Alma 12:9–11; John 8:12.) With such assistance, men and women are able to rise above the negative aspects of their earthly training and environment. Thus, it is possible for everyone to receive the blessings of heaven.
Eternal life is also possible, in part, because an element of every human being is divine and eternal. Joseph Smith used several different terms to refer to that eternal essence—spirit, soul, mind, and intelligence. He received the knowledge that “man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” (D&C 93:29.) He taught that “the mind of man is as immortal as God himself”28 and that “the Spirit of Man [meaning intelligence] is not a created being.”29
He did not define, however, this element’s form and substance, nor did he identify its attributes, other than its eternal nature. This eternal element of intelligence or light of truth is something other than the spirit bodies God created later; these later entities were “the intelligences that were organized” and were the spirits that Abraham saw.
From revelations given to Joseph Smith (see D&C 131–32) and from his own comments about them, plus subsequent statements from later prophets,30 we know that spirit bodies are procreated by resurrected, exalted couples who have “a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.” (D&C 132:19.) Spirits are “begotten and born of heavenly parents, and reared to maturity in the eternal mansions of the Father.”31 In our own primeval births, the eternal intelligence part of us was “organized” and provided opportunity to become part of God’s plan of salvation—with the potential to become like him. This doctrine is ennobling and intriguing—a subject that we hope will be among the many great and important things about which God will yet reveal more. (See A of F 1:9.)
That the ancient prophets knew of the doctrine of man’s premortal existence is clear. (See Abr. 3; Moses 3–4; Gen. 2:4–5; Jer. 1:5.) The doctrine also circulated among early Christians but was declared anathema in the fifth century A.D.32 An early Christian poem known as “The Pearl,” for example, begins: “In my first primeval childhood … I was nurtured in the royal house of my Father. … Then my parents sent me forth from our home in the East (the source of light), supplied with all necessities. … They removed from me the garment of light … and they made a Covenant with me, and wrote in my heart, lest I go astray.”33
Nevertheless, at the time of Joseph Smith, little trace of the doctrine had survived. No part of man was thought to have existed eternally, for God was said to have created all things out of nothing. Most Christian churches today do not teach that mortals existed as spirits prior to their mortal births. They generally acknowledge that Christ existed before his birth and that God created other beings who exist in the universe but who do not become mortal. The most common view is that God creates a person’s spirit at the time of his or her mortal birth. This view interprets biblical passages that suggest premortal existence as referring to Christ or saying that all things existed only in the mind and plans of God before their actual creation.34
Joseph Smith, however, restored the doctrine of man’s premortal existence. The doctrine can be both comforting and unsettling—comforting in that it tells us we are literally of the family of God with unlimited potential; unsettling because it tells us that we are responsible for what we are now and for what we will become.
Hand in hand with the doctrine that man is eternal came Joseph Smith’s teachings about the creation of the world. While others taught that God created the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), he taught that God formed the earth from material that already existed. In defining creation as “organization,” the Prophet made a distinct contribution to our understanding of the nature of physical matter and bodies, the attributes of God, and the purposes of this mortal existence. Understanding the creation helps us to see that God is a God of order and of laws who is not capricious. The universe truly has system and order.
An examination of Joseph Smith’s teachings about the Creation shows that he gradually learned a great deal between 1820 and 1844. In 1820, in the Sacred Grove, he received a new understanding of the fact that “God created man in his own image.” (Gen. 1:27; see JS—H 1:16–17.) Man literally was created in the image of God. In 1830, the infinite number of God’s creations became apparent as the Lord told Joseph, “Worlds without number have I created.” (Moses 1:33.) That year, in another revelation, Joseph was also informed that all things were created twice by the Lord: the first time spiritually, the second time physically. (See D&C 29:31–32; Moses 3:5.)
In 1830, Joseph Smith had learned clearly that God the Father created “this heaven, and this earth” through his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ. (See Moses 2:1; John 1:10–14.) But in 1835, the Prophet translated a record that revealed more concerning who created the earth and how it was done. He learned from the book of Abraham that Jesus Christ acted in concert with other Gods to create our world: “Then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.” (Abr. 4:1.)
Unfortunately, Christian literature through the third century A.D. does not refer much to the Creation. The tradition of divine beings participating in the work of creation, however, was well established among the gnostic Christians.35 Whether this was an extrapolation or a perversion of the more orthodox Christian belief concerning the Creation is impossible to discern. Clearly, though, Joseph Smith was conveying something known to Abraham but lost since then.
Joseph Smith also discovered that the Creation was the result of organization. During the Nauvoo period, he continued to speak about the Creation in terms of organization. William Clayton, the Prophet’s private secretary, reported Joseph Smith as saying in 1841, “This earth was organized or formed out of other planets which were broke up and remodeled and made into the one on which we live.”36 In the famed King Follett discourse, delivered at general conference in April 1844, Joseph Smith presented an extensive treatise on creation as organization. He told the Saints that the word create comes from the Hebrew word baurau [bara], which means to organize, and that “God had materials to organize the world out of chaos … [which] may be organized and reorganized but not destroyed.”37
Although these teachings were new for his time, Joseph Smith’s ideas received little attention from his non-LDS contemporaries. Members of other sects in the nineteenth century accepted the idea of ex nihilo creation without reservation. Consequently, Christians dismissed any alternative as irrelevant. Most accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith, which stated that God made the world “of nothing.”38 To the people of his day, steeped in such traditions, Joseph Smith’s ideas on creation must have seemed implausible.
In contrast to nineteenth-century Christians, the early Christians believed in a concept of creation through organization similar to that Joseph Smith taught. The Christians in the first two centuries after Christ indeed believed that God created the earth by organizing it from material that had existed eternally. Justin Martyr, for example, wrote about A.D. 165 that “[God] in the beginning did create all things out of unformed matter.”39
Two currents of thought may be largely responsible for the change in traditional Christian doctrine: gnostic ideas and Greek philosophy. Both gnostics and Greek philosophers taught that only the spirit is pure, and that body and matter are corrupt. It was therefore inconceivable for them to believe that material things could proceed from spiritual things. Because of such ideas, ex nihilo creation became a pillar of faith in traditional Christianity.40 This commonly accepted view of creation was what Joseph Smith challenged as he initiated a return to the view of earlier Christians.
Since the time of Peter, the Saints have looked forward to “the times of restitution of all things.” (Acts 3:21.) For centuries, mankind was tossed to and fro among the multitude of differing doctrines on the nature and being of God and man. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Lord Jesus Christ and his latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith, for revealing to us in the present-day world the true nature of God, man, and the Creation, that we may know who and what we worship and what our relationship to God is.
Recorded in 1831, 1835, 1839, 1840, 1843, 1844. It has been published in many places and at many times. For a summary see Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980).
An early Church minute book containing the proceedings of many Church meetings and councils. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Far West Record (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983).
A Church newspaper published in Ohio, similar to the Deseret News. It was later published under a slightly different title and in a larger size in Missouri (see note 6).
A collection of diaries, letters, and other written documents from Joseph Smith. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984).
This newspaper was a sequel to the earlier newspaper in Ohio. It was published in 1969 (Basel, Switzerland: Eugene Wagner, 1969) but is now out of print.
This paper was published in Ohio and contained mostly doctrinal matters. It was similar to today’s Church News.
These lectures were given by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in Kirtland, Ohio. They were published in the Doctrine and Covenants in each edition until 1921. More recently they have been published separately. N. B. Lundwall, Comp., Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, n.d.).
An LDS publication at Kirtland, Ohio. It was a priesthood publication. Indexes to the journal are available at the Harold B. Lee Library, BYU, but the journal has not been published.
An LDS newspaper devoted to Church matters, similar to the Church News, published in Nauvoo. Times and Seasons (Independence, Missouri, 1986).
A collection of available reports of Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo sermons. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980).
This periodical was published in England and eventually became the longest-running Church periodical. It had a largely doctrinal content.
To be continued.