I have to admit that I have had an ongoing fascination with the King Follett Sermon. I had been acquainted with bits and pieces of it here and there, but only really became familiar with the full text early on in my mission. But it has shaped a lot of my theology and views in the years since then. Apparently, I’m not alone – William V. Smith just published an entire book about the sermon (The King Follett Sermon: A Biography [BCC Press, 2023]) and talked about his research in a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview.
To catch up readers who might not be as familiar with the King Follett Sermon, William V. Smith explained some background.
The King Follett Sermon was a Latter-day Saint conference address delivered by Joseph Smith on April 7, 1844. It was a funeral sermon, partly for a friend, King Follett, at the request of Follett’s wife, Louisa Tanner Follett. Smith expanded the target audience of the address to others in his audience who had suffered the loss of a friend, spouse, child, or other loved person.
Sermons could be prolonged in that era, and this one lasted for over two hours. The earliest Latter-day Saint sermon records were generally brief notes. Only as church government systems grew as councils with the necessity of keeping records of their proceedings for future reference did teaching and instruction events start to have more extensive reports.
This extended to church conferences in the Nauvoo era, which were considered something like general councils. Two assigned clerks for the April 1844 conference left good reporting attempts at a verbatim record and several others left either less extensive reports or reports reconstructed from notes of the event. …
Some of the major points are:
1. The sermon discusses the nature of God: God was not always God, but progressed to that state, Jesus is in that same process and would one day take the same kind of role, as would (based on his other teachings of the time) the Holy Spirit. This was the most noted aspect over time, especially in the world outside Mormonism.
2. The nature of man: Human souls/spirits are beings without beginning or end and have the capacity to follow in the footsteps of God, men and women of this world were adopted as children of God in the eternal world before their mortal birth, much like the Pauline teaching of gentiles being adopted into Israel but in the preexistent state (this was remarkable and also generated the most difficulty inside Utah’s Latter-day Saint movement).
3. The metaphysics of proxy ordinances for the dead: God teaches souls, and ignores embodiment where such rules are concerned. Therefore all, even the dead, must obey the ordinances of the gospel (baptism was the particular focus here but Smith extended this to other rituals and took the time to argue with one of his prominent Protestant critics, Alexander Campbell, over baptism).
4. There will be those who are damned forever: Smith called out some apostates as being in this category. He makes this fate the explanation of the origin of Satan. Spirits (before the creation of the world) rebelled at the idea that God dictated that there could be mortal sins so serious that redemption was impossible, damnation permanent. Such rebels became devils, and their leader, Satan. Smith was not a universalist, though in some ways he came close.
None of these points were new in Joseph Smith’s teachings. He had preached them all before (some many times, like points 2 and 4) but never all together and never before an audience of this size (upwards of 10,000).
It is, perhaps, the best known and best documented sermon of Joseph’s life.
What I think I’ve underestimated in the past is that the King Follett Sermon presents ideas that haven’t stuck in our doctrine. For example, William explained that a polygamy-based cosmology led to a different point of view than the ideas of adoption presented in the King Follett Sermon, which Richard Bushman summarized as: “Those gods take us lesser intelligences, swimming about like fish in the sea, under their tutelage, saying they will teach us how to achieve intelligence and glory.” (Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 60–61.) As William V. Smith put it:
Two Saints had answers: Eliza R. Snow and William W. Phelps. Both wrote poetry and fiction (1845) to the effect that heavenly couples had “spirits” born to them. Snow in her famous poem, “My Father in Heaven,” later named “Oh My Father,” Brigham Young’s favorite hymn, Phelps in poems and stories around the same time.
Pratt saw polygamy in heaven as a solution to a real problem. First, the glory of divine beings was the work of tutoring spirits to be like them and if spirits, as Pratt put it, were to be produced in the wombs of exalted females, there had to be a gestation time (Pratt had an Aristotelian dislike of the idea of no “cause” for spirits).
How to overcome this? You needed many, perhaps millions, of wives for each exalted man. Such was the metaphysics of polygamy and the reasons why it had to not only be on earth (bringing more divinely sired spirits to earth to become Latter-day Saints as scions of faithful patriarchs), but in heaven for the same work (some of this still echoes in declarations like “you are the *literal* children of God”).
Smith’s uncreated spirits were discarded in favor of the spirit babies of the exalted. That, however, was not the end of the story. People did notice the problem of disagreement between Joseph Smith and the Utah teaching. It came up in American religious encyclopedias and Latter-day Saint literature.
Another example that I’ve discussed before is the idea of children growing after the resurrection, something that William also discusses.
B. H. Roberts worked to reconcile some of these discrepancies in belief. For example, on the creation of human souls, he took a middle road that used both the uncreated fish swimming in the sea and adopted by God and the idea of Celestial sexual reproduction that became normative in the Utah era:
He posited that scripture could be seen as offering a solution: a two-phase preexistence:
- Phase one: souls (he preferred the Book of Abraham term, intelligences or intelligencies—both appeared in the original printing in Nauvoo and were legitimate words of the day) had no beginning.
- Phase two: these intelligences were placed into the spirits born in heaven in perfect analog to spirits placed in physical human bodies at birth in Latter-day Saint teaching.
His teaching on this was consistent from the 1890s until his death and it became a more or less default view by the 1950s. Later, it became controversial.
Part of the controversy came from disagreements about this reconciliation. For example, two members of the First Presidency – Joseph F. Smith and Charles Penrose – disagreed with Roberts’s interpretation:
By the 1880s Penrose was preaching the polygamy metaphysics about spirits. He came in contact with Roberts’s ideas in 1905 and thought it was disturbing. Since Roberts was using the King Follett Sermon as a proof text for his two-phase preexistence, Penrose became suspicious of the text in much the same way as Joseph F. Smith—but for a different reason.
When Roberts published his 1909 text of the Follett sermon, Penrose was in England as the apostle assigned to supervise European mission work. He avoided publishing Roberts’s text in the Star and later published a kind of rejoinder to it.
In 1911, Penrose became the second counselor to Joseph F. Smith in the church presidency. The presidency decided to halt publication of any version of the King Follett Sermon. Both Smith and Penrose saw it as a corrupted text produced by incompetent clerks. Penrose would later even claim that Joseph Smith had repudiated the Follett sermon.
Roberts’s sixth volume of the history was typeset and about to be published in 1912. But The presidency told the Chicago printers to hold printing, excise the Follett sermon, alter the table of contents to reflect the change, and then move forward with the printing.
Notably, they did not tell Roberts. When he found out, he was depressed and gave up on the history project (it was initially projected by Cannon to be ten volumes). The sermon would not (officially) rise from the dead until 1938, but even then, it carried some suspicion with it. It was restored to volume 6 of the history in 1952.
They worked to suppress both the sermon and Elder Roberts’s theories about how to reconcile it with common belief among the Latter-day Saints. They had mixed results in that endeavor, with the debate between Roberts and Penrose on how to understand spirit creation and the implications on the possibility of human souls continuing to echo in conversations about our doctrine to this day.