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I don't know that we teach it

In case you don't recognize the title of this post, it is part of President Hinckley's answer to a reporter's question that appeared in the August 4 1997 issue of Time magazine. The reporter referenced the King Follett discourse. The answer supplied and the manner in which it was delivered caused the reporter to draw some false conclusions about a very important doctrine.

In that discourse, the prophet Joseph Smith said, "If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man." (See also D&C 130:22)

The article referred to Lorenzo Snow's couplet, "As man is now, God once was; as God now is, man may become." The reporter said, "God the Father was once a man as we are. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing." President Hinckley was then asked, "Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?"

The bothersome reply

"I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it."

The reporter wrote, "On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain." That's an unfortunate conclusion. Of course I wasn't at the interview and neither were you but I'll bet the reporter mistook careful thoughtfulness for uncertainty. This doctrine is indeed deep territory and not something that is taught outside the LDS Church.

An earlier and similar interview

The San Francisco Chronicle, published an interview with President Hinckley in April of 1997. The reporter asked, "There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don't Mormon's believe that God was once a man?" President Hinckley responded, "I wouldn't say that. There is a little couplet coined, 'As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.'"

He then said, "Now that's more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don't know very much about." The reporter pounced on this. "So you're saying that the church is still struggling to understand this? " President Hinckley responded, "Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly."

President Hinckley's response

President Hinckley said in October 1997 General Conference: "I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that's to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine.

"I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church." And there lies the whole point of my post today. Some members did indeed become a little concerned by the exchanges they read in the press reports of those interviews.

Does the Church still teach this?

I know this is old news but it still bothers some people when they discover the anti-Mormon attacks floating around on the Internet. President Hinckley was right. We really don't know much about how our Heavenly Father became a God. The idea that he passed through a mortal probationary state like you and me is certainly not documented in any scripture of which I know.

However, it is still taught. In the Gospel Principles manual in the chapter on exaltation we read, "Joseph Smith taught: "It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the character of God. . . . He was once a man like us; . . . God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345-46)."

Summary and conclusion

I don't know why this should bother anyone. The doctrine is true. Joseph Smith knew a whole lot more about this than I do. President Hinckley also knew a whole lot more about this doctrine than he was willing to share with reporters who did not have the background to understand it. It must have been difficult for President Hinckley to hold back and not teach it in those interviews.

It didn't bother me when I read the interviews back in 1997 and it doesn't bother me today. However, I know it does bother some people. We each have trials of our faith. I have never depended on an intellectual understanding of the gospel in order to accept it and live it. There are some things that just can't be fully comprehended without the temple, prayer and faith.


S.Faux said…
Great post. Your essay pretty well covers the issues. About all we really know is Joseph Smith's statement. Going beyond that statement is mere speculation. Consequently, President Hinckley needed to be careful in talking with reporters. Further, he needed to be honest that we don't know much about it and we don't talk about it much.

The emphasis in the Church is clearly on eternal progression, which is the idea that humans can become like our Father in Heaven. I have posted an essay on theosis, a very ancient Christian doctrine that is very similar to our current belief.

The recent official Church publication Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith quotes Joseph saying (p.40): "God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man... ." Importantly, this quote was placed in the chapter entitled "God the Father," and not in the following chapter entitled "Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the World." Sometimes I hear people interpret the Joseph Smith quote as making reference to Jesus. I think that is false. Regardless, there is just much we do not know.
Clean Cut said…
I guess I just find of find it interesting that some people not of our faith (and perhaps even inside the Church) have the erroneous idea that this is really a huge, primary part of our Church's teachings. The amount of time we spend thinking or talking about this is really quite minimal, however it is often one of the first things we are asked by people of other faiths. It's obviously not the ideal place to start a discussion about the Church or even the Gospel because it's not at the heart or the crux of Christ's teachings. The core of everything we believe and teach should be centered on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. All other things, as the Prophet Joseph said, are "peripherals".
Bob Dixon said…
I am one of those people who was extremely bothered by President Hinckley's comment. His apparent evasiveness bothered me more than the doctrinal issue. We clearly still teach this, and it seemed dishonest to me not to admit it.

He could have said, "this is a challenging doctrine for many that we don't fully understand". He could have used his prophetic mantle and explained it. But to waver on whether or not it was taught seemed more like a "deer in the headlights" reaction.

In general I guess I have put this back up on 'the shelf', and I'm glad I'm not in a position where people are rehashing things I said on the internet a decade after I said them. Still, it was challenging.
R. Gary said…
I have 1995 and 1997 copies of Gospel Principles. Both versions answer the question "What Kind of Being Is God?" The revised 1997 text was approved in June 1996, more than a year before the Time magazine article was published.

English approval: 5/95 — 1995 printing:

-------------- quote --------------
The Prophet Joseph Smith said: "If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible — I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345). God is a glorified and perfected man, a personage of flesh and bones (see D&C 130:22). Inside his tangible body is an eternal spirit. (p.9.)
-------------- end quote --------------

English approval: 6/96 — 1997 printing:

-------------- quote --------------
Because we are made in his image (see Moses 6:9), we know that God has a body that looks like ours. His eternal spirit is housed in a tangible body of flesh and bones (see D&C 130:22). God's body, however, is perfected and glorified, with a glory beyond all description. (p.9.)
-------------- end quote --------------

In light of his response to Time magazine, I think we can safely say President Hinckley was involved in the process that led to the 1996 textual changes on p. 9 in Gospel Principles. Those changes support exactly what he said to Time senior correspondent Richard Ostling:

-------------- quote --------------
I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it.
-------------- end quote --------------

In 1997, it had been twenty years since the phrase "as man is, God once was" had even been mentioned in General Conference. The most recent General Conference quotation of that part of the couplet was in Spencer W. Kimball's talk, "Our Great Potential," (Ensign, May 1977, pp. 49 & 50) which emphasizes the second half of the couplet, "and as God is, man may become." President Kimball didn't elaborate on the first part of the couplet at all.

In 1974, Lorenzo Snow was quoted in the Ensign saying, "As man is, God once was—even the babe of Bethlehem" which quite obviously doesn't even refer to God the Father.

I think what we teach and emphasize is that God is a glorified and perfected man — what God IS. The doctrine we don't teach and emphasize so much is "as man is, God once was" — what God WAS. Really now, how much has been revealed about what God was, about the earth he lived on or the conditions of his life there? Personally, I think President Hinckley was absolutely correct. I think we "understand the philosophical background behind it" but, as he said, "I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it."
Tim Malone said…
Hi ChristFollower,

I've written to S. Faux, Clean Cut and R. Gary before. They are regular readers. I visited your blog and would like to post a comment there as well. I like your user name by the way.

First let me say that I have no problem with what you wrote. I can emphasize completely. Without detracting from anything I wrote in my post and hopefully without being in any way disrespectful to President Hinckley, may I say that yes, the response could have been better worded. I wish it had been.

Put yourself in the place of President Hinckley. It must have taken a lot of courage and faith to do as many press interviews as he did in those years. Frankly, I think he learned from these experiences and did better in later interviews. I'm not so sure that he was speaking as a prophet when he was doing these interviews.

The prophet Joseph reminded us that he was not perfect and that we should not expect perfection from him. If we did, he said, then he could expect it from us. In the case of these interviews, I think President Hinckley was speaking as a man, and in this and several other cases, as an imperfect man.

I'll give you one example that was very distressing to me. In one of his Larry King interviews, Larry asked President Hinckley what he thought about President Clinton's guilt or innocence in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The Starr commission report was scheduled to come out the very next day.

President Hinckley responded, "Let's wait and see what the Starr report has to say." Damn! I'll bet he regretted saying that when it was revealed what was in the report. It was like reading porn. I'm sure he was embarrassed. I know I was embarrassed for him when I started to read the report before I put it down as trash.

Your point about "deer in the headlights" is probably accurate. I think he was broadsided several times in those interviews. Although he was experienced in public affairs, he was being interviewed by reporters whose sworn duty is to find and report controversy. If they can find it, they make it up. That's what sells advertising.

I love President Hinckley. I revere him as a prophet. He has blessed my life in so many ways over the years. But yes, he could have handled some of the public press interviews a little better. I'm sure Elder Oaks or Elder Holland or any of the other lawyers or educators in our current Quorum of the Twelve would have handled the questions differently.

But President Hinckley's humility shines even though he was taken advantage of by these reporters. That's why I love him and felt my heart going out to him when he was made to look bad in those articles. He was a humble prophet that did his best to bring the Church out into the light a little more. It is unfortunate that He was misunderstood and taken advantage of because he was meek and humble.

Remember how respectful he was to Larry King all the time? He always said yes, sir and no, sir. I thought that was remarkable. I'm not so sure I would have been so respectful and deferential. But then when he spoke in General Conference I felt clearly that this was a man speaking for the Lord. he was in his element there.

Sorry for the long comment but this is my blog so I'll be shorter when I post my comment on your blog. I sense that you were disappointed in the leadership skills exhibited by this wonderful prophet of the Lord. Don't judge a man by how well he does in an interview. I know I have had some terrible interviews in my lifetime. But then, I've had some great one as well. Cheers.
Bob Dixon said…
Thanks for the nice comment. FWIW I found your blog because I realize that my attitude is sometimes negatively affected by the amount of time I spend in the DAMU. I was looking for something more positive and was pleased to find a blog that seems to discuss all the same issues as the more "disaffected" sites, but from a different viewpoint. When reading my blog I hope you appreciate that I'm in no way "anti". I've been struggling with many of the issues you address here. They just hit me all at once, and I had never heard of anything outside what is presented in church before. Still trying to figure all this out, but no matter what I always seem to end up on the "LDS" side of the line.
evangelical said…
Sounds to me like he was trying to answer the question without really lying but not really telling the truth either. It is like asking a missionary if they believe in only one God and they say yes (but then whisper to the stage, "for OUR planet, anyway").

I do not see what is so deep about this doctrine. An uneducated farmboy understood it. Everybody knows what, "God was once a man but became God," means don't they?

Hinkley came very close to contradicting himself. It seems when he was talking to the secular media he wanted to say, "I don't know anything about this," but when talking to the faithful LDS he wanted to say, "I totally understand it."

As an outsider, Tim, I hope you can appreciate my confusion when the Mormons claim to be the one true church sometimes, but, at other times, intentionally obscure, it seems, their true beliefs.

Am I misunderstanding what is really going on here Tim?

Shalom out!
Dr. Shades said…
President Hinckley could've just answered "yes" and been truthful.

Would've saved a lot of confusion.
Jim Mortensen said…
I communicate cross-culturally on a daily basis and have learned through painful experience that answering a simple question is far from being a simple matter. Simple answers are often more misleading than qualified ones.

How often did the Savior answer simple questions with a straightforward "Yes" or "No" answer? He often responded with elliptical parables or provided an answer that was tangential to the original intent of the question. Yet what faithful, modern Christian would accuse the Truth and Light of being evasive or less than truthful?
Dr. Shades said…
When did Jesus ever answer a question with, "I don't know that we teach that. I don't know that we practice it. I know the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't know that others know a lot about it" . . . ?

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