The King Follett Discourse

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:

  1. “God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto yourselves.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. The world was not created ex nihilo.
  5. “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as . . . God himself”; it “exists upon a self-existent principle.”
  6. We have an obligation to do proxy religious rites for those who have passed away.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

15 comments for “The King Follett Discourse

  1. One thing that always amazed me about the religion I was born into is our inability to get a clear picture of the God(s) we worship. The questions that remain are numerous, and many of the conundrums tie back to Follett and Grove:
    1. Are we polytheist? For me, the answer is yes. And that doesn’t bother me. We believe in a HF, HM, Christ, and HG. And how about HF’s Father? Or HF’s exalted children? I have an acquaintance who says he is a Mormon trinitarian.
    2. Is God all of the Omni’s? For me, the answer is no. Omni-benevolent yes. But that’s it. God is continuing to progress, as in eternal progression. BY believed that God is progressing, but BRM didn’t. For me, God is perfect only in comparison to us.
    3. Can we become Gods? For me, this is a qualified yes. We can progress eternally, but the ultimate goal may not be to hold dominion over our own planet. I reject any idea that involves me singing in the MoTab forever. But music may be progression for some.
    4. What is the role of Satan? I don’t believe in a literal Satan. God and Satan are like hot and cold. Cold is the absence of heat. Evil is the absence of good. I believe the war in heaven is an allegory.
    5. Is God actively stirring the pot? For me, no. He doesn’t help you find your keys or decide which college to go to? God rarely, if ever, answers prayers. Prayer is more meditative than communicative.
    Some of my beliefs are clearly heretical. But it points out Mormon’s struggle with describing God.

  2. Chad, perhaps you’re already aware of this video–but here’s an excellent presentation by Jim Faulconer on the history and development of the doctrine of intelligences:

  3. I took a quick gander at the four transcripts of the discourse found at the JSPP site. And of those four only one — Wilford Woodruff’s — states in explicit terms that resurrected children will never grow into their full stature–and that they will remain so even as gods.

    This is only conjecture on my part — I can’t help but be a little suspicious — but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn (one day) that Woodruff misheard, misunderstood, or misremembered, some of the vital details surrounding this idea. It could very well be that children *will* (instead of won’t) grow into their full stature even though they’re resurrected as they were when they left their mother’s arms. And that their small frame will not impede they’re progression–in the sense that the steady incremental growth of their bodies will not prevent them from getting an the fast track vis-a-vis knowledge and power and so forth.

    Here’s a link to the transcripts: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-king-follett-sermon

  4. rogerdhansen, those are fun questions.

    Re: God’s Omniscience: I’d say that God knows everything that can be known–which implies that 1) somethings are not knowable and 2) knowledge increases as a product of God’s creative enterprise–in that the enlargement of his kingdom increases the quantity of that which is knowable.

  5. To Jack’s point about children in the resurrection, as I remember, we do have records of another sermon where Joseph Smith taught the same thing and Willard Richards continued to advocate for the idea of children not growing after the resurrection. Joseph F. Smith was the big advocate for the idea that people (including babies) are resurrected in the state that they died and then continue to grow and develop. That idea seems to have stuck when it comes to children, but not adults (Joseph Fielding Smith advocated for belief in a resurrection to a perfect, ideal state).
    Ultimately, I think what we can take away from this is that just because Joseph Smith said something doesn’t make it true or even make it official doctrine.

    Also, thanks for sharing the video.

  6. Roger, I’ve thought about how little we know or agree on about God as a religion too. In my case, I agree with most of the positions you’ve stated (the main one I might disagree with is the Satan one). I recognize that it depends a lot on what assumptions you bring to the table about what makes a belief doctrine and who your beliefs are influenced by. In my case, I owe a lot to Stirling McMurrin, Terryl Givens, and B.H. Roberts in my personal theology and have largely stepped away from Bruce McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith’s line of thinking at this point.

  7. Chad, I’m not that familiar with the work of McMurrin. So I can’t comment on him. My understanding of Robert’s work “Jesus the Christ” is that it is seriously dated. But I’m not a biblical scholar. I agree with him on evolution. His doubts about the historicity of the BofM are interesting. Givens is a much more complicated individual. The one book of his I tried to read seemed unnecessarily dense. Like he was trying to prove his chops as acdeep thinker. His screeds on abortion have turned me off. And I don’t care about “radical orthodoxy.”

    I find Mother Teresa interesting. Pope Francis wants her canonized a saint even though she had serious doubts about the existence of God. Given the life she chose to live, her doubts are certainly understandable, and a very human emotion.

    My own personal LDS hero is Apostle John A. Widtsoe. He was the last GA to speak intelligently about science and religion. After he died in 1952, all hell broke loose.

    I’d gladly trade the pomposity of Terryl for simple message of Sharon Eubanks. My favorite image is that while a couple of GAs were hobnobbing in Great Britain and Dubai, sister Eubanks was visiting a Syrian refugee camp in the Middle East.

  8. That’s fair Roger D. Hansen, especially when it comes to Sharon Eubanks and Givens. I am a fan of John A. Widtsoe as well, though I haven’t spent as much time reading his works yet. I did also appreciate that they leaned heavily on him in Saints 3.
    You are right that a lot of Roberts’s works are dated (including his understandings of evolution and attempts at reconciliation of evolution with Mormon theology), though there is still a lot of ideas that have value and interest in his writings. Jesus the Christ is actually by James E. Talmage, one of the three main scientist apostles of the first half of the twentieth century (John Widtsoe and Joseph Merrill being the others. Merrill died the same year as Widtsoe which is part of why JFS though it was opportune time to publish Man, His Origin and Destiny two years later), though Talmage is also very dated when it comes to Biblical studies.

  9. Chad, did I offend? Sorry–I can be clumsy at times.

    My take on the Faulconer article is that he seems to agree with Roberts–who believed it was more a matter of the “doctrine” being copied erroneously by the transcribers than Joseph being wrong.

  10. Chad, thanks for the very polite correction, I must have had a senior moment. Ugh. Also, I should have mentioned Merrill.

    My ongoing frustration is with Prez Eyring. His father was a brilliant scientist, yet the son refuses to deal with important science/religion issues. In fact, his talks are mostly forgettable. Nobody quotes him, and for good reason. I wish he would speak up. But maybe he really doesn’t have anything to say.

  11. Latter-day Saints seem to have a lot of folklore mingled with doctrine, and there is little consensus on which topics fall into which categories. Some matters which are doctrine to some are folklore to others. This applies to.much of the KFD.

    The KFD was not transcribed at the time of its delivery, and Joseph Smith never approved the transcribed text. And clearly, the transcripts are only partial recollections, and really shouldn’t be thought of as transcripts at all.

    I am satisfied to think of the KFD as some of the threads in the rich tapestry of Mormon thought, but stopping short of calling it doctrinal or canonical. [I use the word “Mormon” in a sociological sense, and not to refer to any institution or any particular people.]

  12. ji, I think you make a good point–that we should be careful not to assume that the KFD carries the weight of “hard” doctrine.

    Re: The transcriptions being recollections: It’s super important that we allow room for mistakes in the transcriptions. And as I’ve mentioned above–I believe some of the ideas having to do with the resurrection of children to be faulty. Even so, I think we can look at those points where the various transcripts intersect and agree with each other and make a fair assumption that those particular points are correct.

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