The First Council of Nicea, fresco, Basilica of St. Nicholas in modern Demre, Turkey

For over a century, Latter-day Saints have had their mental map of the gospel selectively edited by committees appointed specifically for that purpose. The majority of this work has been reductive, with doctrines and concepts being removed until what remained seemed like a more or less cohesive and coherent system. In 1921, for instance, a committee removed an entire book of scripture from our canon by fiat; so, 100 years later, the Lectures on Faith and their saving doctrines are effectively absent from Latter-day Saint discourse and practice. Daymon Smith, drawing on his dissertation research, tells of a meeting between then-Apostle Harold B. Lee and members of his relatively new Correlation Committee:

Daymon: …During this meeting, they took 72 note cards on which they wrote important “ideas.”

Brad: Abstract principles, abstract nouns.

Daymon: “Faith,” “repentance,” “obedience,” these kinds of abstractions—he organizes them on a wall in his office. This organization becomes a kind of representation of the mind of God and of the mind of the Ideal Mormon. They’re supposed to have these ideas in their head hierarchically organized.

This group of hierarchically organized notecards formed the basis for the curriculum planning worksheets still used decades later to select and arrange acceptable subject matter for Church publications. Non-conforming material from past Church leaders and from the scriptures is edited for conformity or ignored. Rough edges have been sanded down, wrinkles have been ironed out, creating the appearance of a timeless, unchanging gospel.

So, in 2020, Latter-day Saints who pay close attention in Sunday School, Seminary, Institute, and General Conference, have a mental map of the Gospel with clear, fixed, and logical boundaries between true and false, possible and impossible.

Probing questions from outsiders

In the last year or so I’ve heard two people ask about Latter-day Saint views of the divinity of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. One was a Protestant scholar asking about any connections Mormons have drawn between Mary and Heavenly Mother. The other was a prospective convert from Catholicism who asked if it was okay for a Catholic convert to believe Mary is our Heavenly Mother.

Both received nearly uniform negative answers. The answers to the second questioner included explanations about why the idea was not correct. The reasons include:

  • “Is that what the church teaches? …no. The church teaches that Mary, albeit a very special woman, was just an ordinary human like any of the rest of us.”
  • “Your idea here really doesn’t fit in well with what we already understand about the plan of salvation and eternal progression”
  • “She can’t also be Heavenly Mother to Him or anyone on earth because in order for Him to be born with both the ability to die, and also resurrect Himself, He had to have both a Heavenly parent and a mortal parent.”
  • “Heavenly Mother is an exalted woman with a perfected body. We don’t have any doctrinal basis for exalted people being reborn, so Mary could not be Heavenly Mother.”
  • “No, because that’s complete false doctrine.”
  • “The Virgin Mary and Heavenly Mother are not the same being.”
  • “It doesn’t fit into the Plan of Salvation…If Mary was Heavenly Mother, that would mean that Heavenly Father became exalted without Heavenly Mother. Or that Heavenly Mother was once exalted then was born again into a mortal body. Doesn’t work.”

Behold the results of doctrinal correlation: Speaking without any personal knowledge, a chorus proclaims their absolute certainty about “what we understand.” It “could not be.” Mary “can’t be Heavenly Mother.” It simply “doesn’t work.” These are walls erected in members minds about what is and isn’t true about God. The walls are as sturdy as their trust in “what the Church teaches.”

The condescension of God

Objections to the Catholic’s idea rested on 1. the fact that it isn’t what the Church teaches today and is therefore a false belief unacceptable for a Latter-day Saint to hold and 2. the certainty that exalted beings cannot become mortal again. Both of these arguments can be put to the test by examining the teachings of Joseph Smith. If he held beliefs that the Church today teaches are false, then we know that holding such beliefs can’t keep anyone from salvation; and we can at least wonder if he may be correct while the Church’s teachings today be incorrect. If he specifically believed and taught that a resurrected, exalted being could re-enter mortality, then we can claim a firm doctrinal basis for the idea. After all, as D. Todd Christofferson wisely said

“Insofar as we can, we want to know what he knew; we want to understand what he understood; we want to draw near to God as he did, for as Nicodemus said of the Savior so we can say of Joseph, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.”

Source

From exaltation to exaltation

Here is a teaching only recently observed because the source was only recently published:

“Jan 30th [1841] Joseph the Seer taught the following principl that the God & father of our Lord Jesus Christ was once the same as the Son or Holy Ghost but having redeemed a world he had a son Jesus Christ who redeemed this earth the same as his father had a world which made them equal & the Holy Ghost would to the same when in his turn & so would all the Saints who inherited a Celestial glory so their would be Gods many & Lords many their were many mansions even 12 from the abode of Devils to the Celestial glory”

Wilford Woodruff book of revelations; https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=afa96a51-88e9-4c56-8300-a86e8da6ee5f&crate=0&index=4

This is a challenging yet very clearly written text. There is no mistaking what Wilford recalled of the day’s teaching. It prompts us to re-read other sermons and teachings from Joseph to see if they confirm or refute Woodruff’s claim. We could try reading the king Follett sermon in that light, rather than trying to force a reading that conforms to our much more recently formulated understanding of the Plan of Salvation. See what new meaning shines through when we try that reading:

“What did Jesus say–as the father hath power in himself even so hath the son power to do what[?] why what the father did, to lay down his body and took it up again. Jesus what are you going to do[?]–to lay down my life as my father did that I might take it up again. If you deny it you deny the bible. I defy the [learning?] and wisdom & all the combined powers of earth and hell to refute it. You have got to learn how to be a god yourself in order to save yourself– to be priests & kings as all Gods has done–by going from a small degree to another–from exaltation to ex[altation]–till they are able to sit in glory as with those who sit enthroned.”

King Follett Sermon; Clayton Record; http://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1844/7Apr44.html

We see that not only is the King Follett sermon perfectly consistent with the 1841 journal entry, but in fact Woodruff’s journal entry clarifies and welds together the ideas of the later sermon: Christ had power to lay his body down and take it up again, as the Father had before him. You must do the same if you hope to be like him. It is by his power, not your own, that you will be resurrected in this creation (as the Book of Mormon so abundantly testifies). If you are so blessed as to be granted exaltation after Christ conquers death for you, Joseph claims that you must yet go on to further exaltations. To be fully saved you must learn to be a god yourself, just “as all Gods has done.”

If you plan to do it differently, you will not be able to claim to be exactly as Christ is, and therefore you do not aim to be a saved being as he is (Lecture on Faith 7). You may be exalted, but it will not yet be with Christ’s exaltation.

There is another teaching from Joseph that is unlocked by the 1841 journal entry:

¶ salvation is for a man to be saved from all his enemies.–until a man can triumph over death. he is not saved. knowledge will do this.

Ques. What is it for a man to obtain salvation Ans, It is to triumph over every foe or ascend far above all enemies for the last enimey to conquor is death and untill that is done you have not obtained salvation

Sermon, 21 May 1841; Smith Diary and Burgess Notebook; http://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1843/21May43.html

To restate what Joseph said: We are not fully saved until we put all enemies under our feet, the last enemy being death. Multiple sources record Joseph saying that each saved man must do this. Christ conquering death in this creation is not the same thing as you conquering death. Until you gain the knowledge needed to triumph over death, you have not obtained the salvation that Christ has. Since you won’t do it in this creation, you must do in some future creation as Christ did here.

Reexamining the scriptures

Now, given the evidence that Joseph believed and taught this, I suggest re-examining the scriptures he gave us and testing how well it conforms to them. Not how well it conforms to a correlated understanding of them, but how well it conforms to what the words actually say. For instance, we know that Christ was “full of grace and truth” before this world was created (Moses 1:30). We also know that grace is gained by offering grace (therefore Christ grew “grace for grace” – D&C 93:12). We also know that light and truth are only gained through diligence and obedience in the face of opposition and temptation (D&C 130:19). Therefore, we know that before this world Christ was in a state where grace was demanded of him and he offered it, where his diligence and obedience were tested by opposition and temptation and he passed all tests and gained the knowledge and intelligence that were essential for him in the world which was to come (which is this, our world). In other words, as Joseph says, the scriptures lead me to conclude that before this life Christ was in a probationary state and was exalted as a God; He then chose to venture from exaltation to exaltation, and here in our round of creation he put all enemies under his feet.

How would this change one’s understanding of Abraham chapter 3 and the various groups described there? The party Abraham belongs to is called “noble and great” but they are also called “the gods”. There is another group who’s obedience and nobility is not yet proved, for whom the world was created to see if they would obey God. What an act of profound mercy for a god like Abraham to condescend into the danger of a probationary state in the hope of rescuing some few souls. He possessed an exaltation that was his by right, a body which was his by right into eternity; but in the interest of climbing the ladder to a higher exaltation he began, as Joseph Smith said we must, at the bottom. So he was born into apostasy, the son of an idol carver, a stranger and pilgrim on Earth yearning for a city whose builder and maker was God.

Tear down your walls

Considering these texts, there is clear evidence that Joseph taught that exalted people can and do voluntarily choose to be reborn as mortals in successive creative periods. The scriptures he gave us also allude to, or even require, the idea. Therefore I can’t reject the idea that while Christ represents the prototype of the saved man (Lecture on Faith 7), so also Mary his Mother may represent the prototype of the saved woman: The consort of the Most High; a goddess condescended to be the mother of God in the flesh. Every objection raised by the Latter-day Saints who answered that young Catholic rests on a foundation built by men less inspired than Joseph Smith.

Joseph clearly did not live or believe within the bounds of doctrine defined by today’s Correlation Committee. Nor did he expect other people to do so. Knowing the salvation of his flock rested on correct beliefs about God, he did not trifle with their souls by repeating vain traditions. Possessing firsthand knowledge as one who had seen into heaven, he taught a radically different concept of “exaltation” than is taught today.

There are questions that demand your answer:

What other teachings of Joseph Smith have been edited out of the record by correlation?

Would Joseph’s answer to the question “how am I to be saved?” be the same as the Church’s answer today? Was Joseph saved?

Why would newly discovered journal entries show Joseph to be teaching a different gospel than the Church today?

If leaders of the Church since Joseph possessed his prophetic gifts and had the same access to God, why can’t they reproduce his teachings in the absence of those journal entries?

What things do you think you “know” about God which are actually just things you were taught by a committee doing their best with the texts they had available?

What things do you think you “know” about how to be saved which are actually just things you were taught by a committee doing their best with the texts they had available?

What saving truths are you blinded to because you have allowed yourself to posture certainty about things you actually don’t know?