Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Becoming Gods: What Mormons Won’t Hear in This Weekend’s General Conference

The Oct 2 issue of Christian Century explores "Mormons on the Move"

This week, the cover story in the Christian Century is one I was asked to write about the “Mormon Moment” in America today, and all the attention given to the LDS faith in the wake of Broadway’s Book of Mormon musical, the presidential runs of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, and the polygamous family of the TLC reality show Sister Wives.


In it, I make the point that sometimes it is difficult for those on the outside of Mormonism to realize just how much change is happening, not just socially in the form of political success or cultural assimilation, but theologically too:


Many of Mormonism’s critics fail to appreciate the ways that Mormon theology has changed through the years, often by way of the guidance that the LDS president claims to receive from God through “continuing revelation.” (The teachings of a previous era are almost never explicitly repudiated, however.) For example, the doctrine that African Americans bear the “curse of Cain” is certainly not LDS doctrine today, though it was in the days of Brigham Young.


Some theological teachings are more opaque. For example, Mormon theology has traditionally dictated that human beings will become gods and that God himself was once human. An apparent disclaimer of this early Mormon teaching came when LDS prophet Gordon B. Hinckley appeared on Larry King Live in 1998 and, when asked whether Mormons believe that God was once a man, answered, “I wouldn’t say that.” He had given similarly vague denials the previous year to reporters from Time and the San Francisco Chronicle.

But what one LDS leader says to the media is not as reliable a gauge of the changing winds of LDS theology as the wording used in the LDS Church’s twice-annual General Conference, when many worldwide Mormon leaders address the faithful by satellite or streaming Internet. In that forum, it’s been rare to hear leaders talk about godhood recently unless they are quoting earlier leaders on the subject—and even that happens less frequently than it used to.


An investigation of the official LDS website confirms this trend. From 2006 to 2011, the word godhood appeared only ten times in official General Conference talks, church magazines and manuals. Of those cases, two quoted former LDS prophet Spencer W. Kimball about human beings becoming gods; one quoted former prophet David O. McKay on the subject; one cited midcentury leader Hugh B. Brown; and two drew from former apostle Marion G. Romney (a cousin of George Romney, Mitt’s father). Two others referred to the “godhood” of Jesus Christ. Only one magazine piece—written anonymously—asserted that human beings “have within us the seeds of godhood,” while an article about recovering from romantic breakups mentioned godhood twice as a goal for righteous human beings. Interestingly, that article was not written by a high-ranking international leader.


By comparison, church talks and materials from the 1970s and 1980s employed the concept freely in relation to the eternal destiny of men and women. As then-prophet Spencer W. Kimball said in 1976, “Our Heavenly Father has a plan for man’s growth from infancy to godhood.”

Does that mean that Mormons no longer believe that they can become gods? It is difficult to say. Many Mormons no longer think about the topic at all; it has become an insignificant aspect of contemporary theological expression. The idea may someday fade away, just as the church’s encouragement of plural marriage—once a cornerstone not just of Mormon practice but of its belief system—has faded away.


After doing this research, I’ll be interested to hear whether any general authorities refer to godhood in any way during this weekend’s semiannual General Conference. I seriously doubt it. It’s not just that the apotheosis doctrines of the Mormon past are disappearing from rhetoric, but from the worldview of many Mormons.  Here is how I explained it to a reader who requested more clarification:

The example I used in the article about godhood is especially difficult. This year at Sunstone I was part of an interesting panel called “Do They Still Teach That?” — pinging off the Book of Mormon musical’s song “I Believe.” The person there who presented on the godhood question made a strong case that the concept is still mentioned in church manuals and seminary materials. I see her point, but I think it’s even more important to focus on what’s going on in General Conference because church curriculum frankly doesn’t change very often. :-)  I was surprised to find so little attention to the question of godhood in conference talks and church magazines. Language such as is used in the excellent Newsroom piece you reference below has morphed to more delicate and vague phrasing like “seeds of divinity” and “divine potential.” The actual specifics of godhood that were so important in GC talks of old — building new worlds, having dominion over planets, etc. — is almost nonexistent. With anti-Mormon rhetoric abounding more than ever, it’s not difficult to see why this is no longer emphasized even if our leaders still adhere to it as doctrine. Still, words — or the lack of them — are powerful in shaping belief and practice. It’s more than a question of semantics. When something is no longer taught openly or explained, it’s not long before it’s no longer even thought about.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ben

    “The actual specifics of godhood that were so important in GC talks of old — building new worlds, having dominion over planets”

    Do you have actual GC examples of these? I think that kind of specific language and elucidation of what theosis means has always been quite rare, though certainly moreso now than in the past.

  • Christopher Bigelow

    For me, taking God’s past humanity and humanity’s potential godhood out of Mormonism would make it much like any other Christian faith. After all, that was Joseph Smith’s “great secret” revealed in his King Follett discourse. Just because modern-day PR-driven Mormonism has become doctrinally insipid doesn’t mean true believers don’t still hold to the core unique doctrines.

    I thought the article was very intelligent and accurate for the most part, Jana (I didn’t notice your name when I first read it, and I thought, “Wow, they found someone who got so many nuances right”). But I have to admit that I sometimes wonder what you see in Mormonism, if you think gay marriage could ever be compatible with it and if you seem hopeful that the very most core doctrine will just somehow fade away?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Derek

    Interesting observation about the trend in GC to reduce the frequency of talking about godhood. Do Mormon doctrines expire unless reaffirmed in GC? Until new “revelation” overturns what previous prophets have said on the subject, I would think that the notion of godhood would remain part of a standard Mormon interpretation of their faith.

    Re: Christopher’s comment, I agree that the doctrine of man becoming as god is a fundamental and defining Mormon belief. Removing it would seem to take the soul out of Mormonism.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Britt

    “When something is no longer taught openly or explained, it’s not long before it’s no longer even thought about.” BUT if it’s never addressed, then those of us searching for answers are just left with more questions :(

  • Jana Riess

    Ben — excellent question. I don’t have anything spectacularly juicy for you here at hand, but here are a couple of quotations from 19th-century GCs:

    “To inherit the same power, the same glory, and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of God, and ascend the throne of eternal power . . . . What did Jesus do? Why, I do the things I saw my father do when worlds came rolling into existence. My father worked out his kingdom with fear and trembling, and I must do the same; and when I get my kingdom, I shall present it to my Father, so that he may obtain kingdom upon kingdom, and it will exalt him in glory. He will then take a higher exaltation, and I will take his place, and thereby become exalted myself. . . .Here, then, is eternal life–to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead . . . .” –Joseph Smith in General Conference, April 7 1844

    And here’s one from his nephew JFS’s “Doctrines of Salvation”:

    “The Father has promised us that through our faithfulness we shall be blessed with the fulness of his kingdom. In other words we will have the privilege of becoming like him. To become like him we must have all the powers of godhood; thus a man and his wife when glorified will have spirit children who eventually will go on an earth like this one we are on and pass through the same kind of experiences, being subject to mortal conditions, and if faithful, then they also will receive the fulness of exaltation and partake of the same blessings. There is no end to this development; it will go on forever. We will become gods and have jurisdiction over worlds, and these worlds will be peopled by our own offspring. We will have an endless eternity for this.”

    One thing in JS’s quote that you would never hear today is the concept of a human being replacing God and essentially kicking him upstairs to an even higher glory. What tickles me about this is that it manages to be simultaneously hierarchical and democratic. So very Mormon!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Latter-day Guy

    As usual, Christopher Bigelow, your presentation of “the very most core doctrine” presupposes that spirit bodies are created via exalted penises and vaginas. In fact, the notion of spirit birth has never been particularly well defined. Of course, certain of the Mormon GAs have taken just your position over the years, but Heber C. Kimball also taught that planets are made by a mommy planet and a daddy planet who love each other very much (not in those words, sadly), so… there’s been a definite tendency to project human functions on deity and the cosmos.

    In any case, I think you may be underestimating the doctrinal flexibility of Mormonism. I think it could probably accommodate such a change (while I also think it highly unlikely such a change will occur re gay marriage, or at least gay sealings, as there may be some argument to be made for the Church permitting gay marriage ‘for time’).

    On a slightly different note, I just love it when anti-Mormon materials mention the whole ‘celestial sex’ concept. Are they really trying to get people not to join? ‘Cause talk like that sounds like they could be writing the brochure!

  • Jana Riess

    Chris, thanks for the compliment about the writing of the article. But I’m going to press you here. You’re completely right about my views on homosexuality and my belief that a church that follows Jesus and embraces justice will have to welcome faithful gay and lesbian people as equal children of God. I don’t want to argue that with you here. We already know that we disagree profoundly about this issue.

    I don’t understand, however, how you could have gotten the erroneous impression based on what I wrote above that I am hoping that a core doctrine of Mormonism will fade away. I don’t recall making my personal views on this subject known in an article that I was commissioned to write about the cultural assimilation of Mormonism. It was never intended to convey my personal theological views. So if it gives you some measure of comfort, let me clarify that you will be happy to know that I am just as intrigued and curious about this doctrine as you may be, and that I find it a tremendously hopeful aspect of Mormonism’s key teachings, however many questions I have about the specifics. But aside from my personal views, what I said in the article was that this is a teaching about which Latter-day Saints today receive comparatively little instruction and discourse. Britt is quite correct. The absence of teaching on this subject only raises further questions.

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