The irony of the King Follett Discourse is that it is the most famous discourse given by the Prophet Joseph Smith, but still rarely quoted in general conference or other official publications of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a recent From the Desk interview, James Falcouner discussed some of the reasons why that may be. What follows here is a copost (a shorter post with excerpts and some commentary).
In the interview, James Falcouner explained what the sermon was:
The King Follett Discourse is a sermon delivered in April of 1844 by Joseph Smith, during a General Conference, as a memorial for an early convert to the Church, King Follett.
It was a lengthy sermon, and one in which the Prophet touched on many doctrines which had become important in recent years. The main topics were the following concepts:
- “God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto yourselves.”
- The Father once dwelt on an earth as Jesus Christ and we do; so Jesus Christ did what he saw the Father do before him.
- The Father “found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest . . . could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him.”
- The world was not created ex nihilo.
- “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as . . . God himself”; it “exists upon a self-existent principle.”
- We have an obligation to do proxy religious rites for those who have passed away.
- To commit the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, a person must “deny the plan of salvation; he has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it with his eyes open.”
- Children who die young will be resurrected as they were when they died and remain that way eternally, though they will sit on thrones of glory.
- Baptism is required for salvation.
While these are important concepts in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo-era theology, “at the time of the sermon, probably only the idea that the Father was once a human being and has progressed to be the God he is,” which may partially explain why it isn’t frequently quoted–other sources are available, some of which state the concept more clearly. As Falcouner put it: “All but one of the doctrines taught in the sermon can be found elsewhere and sometimes more clearly in the other revelations of Joseph Smith. And the one doctrine unique to the Discourse (that God was once a man like us) is generally agreed not to be understood well enough for us to say anything about it.”
Speaking of that concept of God once being human, Falcouner noted that Lorenzo Snow’s couplet actually may predate the King Follett Discourse.
The plurality of gods was preached publicly later in the Sermon in the Grove, and had been taught to individuals and in groups before, but this doctrine about the Father’s past history is unique to the King Follett Discourse—though it was anticipated by the earlier discussion of Lorenzo Snow’s couplet (“As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may become”) among some of the Saints.
This is at least what Lorenzo Snow claimed in a 1901 sermon, stating that he initially encountered the idea during a discussion with Joseph Smith, Senior in Kirtland, then he stated that:
I have told you what Father Smith said to me, that I should become as great as I could want to be, even as great as God Himself. About two years and a half after, in Nauvoo, I asked Elder Sherwood to explain a certain passage of Scripture, and while he was endeavoring to give an explanation the Spirit of God fell upon me to a marked extent, and the Lord revealed to me, just as plainly as the sun at noonday, this principle, which I put in a couplet:
As man now is, God once was;
As God now is, man may be.
That fulfilled Father Smith’s declaration.
In the interview, Falcouner added that Brigham Young did teach and value this idea as well during his tenure as president of the Church:
For President Young, both halves were equally weighted in importance and equally literal. One the one hand:
“There never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals that we are now passing through. That course has been from all eternity, and it is and will be to all eternity.”
On the other hand:
“[Eternal matter] is brought together, organized, and capacitated to receive knowledge and intelligence, to be enthroned in glory, to be made angels, Gods . . . . This is what you and I are created for.”
I would love to find the earliest known reference to Lorenzo Snow’s couplet (I swear I recently read an earlier reference by another general authority, but couldn’t find it while writing this), but the ideas it encapsulates have been around for a long time in Mormonism.
There’s a lot more to read in the full interview, so I recommend taking the time to go read through it here. Some other moments that stand out include a discussion of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s take on the Snow couplet, a discussion of a few ideas of what intelligences might be, and thoughts on whether the King Follett Discourse is the pinnacle of Joseph Smith’s teachings or peripheral.