Tripartite existentialism

If we were to survey American Church members, I imagine that a large segment, perhaps the majority, would indicate subscription to what I call the tripartite model of Mormon ontology. This concept is that in our most primordial existence we were sentient “intelligences” which were then transformed into spirits, typically by some form of spirit birth. Subsequently we receive a physical body destined for the resurrection. As far as I can tell, the popularity of this idea is a case study of grass roots doctrinal evolution.

Joseph Smith revealed the book of Abraham, which was published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons. In what we now have canonized as Abraham 3, the Lord describes a cosmological hierarchy of celestial bodies and then analogizes them to individual existence. He states “[I]f there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.”

I am unaware of any documented reaction to this bit, but the Prophet emphasized the idea in the last months of his life in his famous “King Follett Sermon” and his June 16 “Sermon in the Grove.” In one of the best documented sections of the KFD (see here for a textual history, introduction and link to sources) Joseph Smith defiantly preached: “God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself–Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it[.]“[1]

Less well documented is Joseph Smith’s teachings on the concept of a Mother-God. In fact, no contemporaneous documentation is extant. That he did teach the idea is attested by reliable witnesses; what he thought it meant, not so much.

In their expansions of Mother in Heaven doctrine, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt offered competing ontologies that each abandoned Joseph Smith’s teachings on the eternality of spirit existence. Each believed in viviparous spirit birth. That is, a resurrected and glorified man and women would somehow conceive a spirit which grew in the “womb of the celestial female” to use the Prattian parlance. Young believed that spirits were formed from spirit element which was analogical to physical matter. This spirit matter was not intelligent and if a spirit merited perdition, it was recycled to create new spirits.[2] While Young is documented to have checked-off on the “History of Joseph Smith” publication of the KFD, which included the doctrine that God could not create the spirit of man, it is not certain how or what he thought of it.

Pratt posited that each atom of spirit matter was intelligent and evolved into a higher being as it was transferred from making up variously, spirit vegetation, spirit animals and ultimately us. [3] Brigham Young fairly well trounced Pratt’s ideas and except for Cleon Skousen and Orson Scott Card, they haven’t really gotten much traction.

At the end of the nineteenth century and especially during the first two decades of the twentieth century, Church leaders vigorously sought to purge pioneer era doctrines that were no longer viewed as consistent with modern teachings and to systematize those modern ideas. At the forefront of this labor was B. H. Roberts. Something of a firebrand, he was extraordinarily influential and progressive in his ideas. As the editor of the History of the Church he was familiar with Joseph Smith’s teachings and he sought to alleviate the tension between Joseph’s teachings of eternal existence on one hand and Brigham Young’s spirit creationism on the other. His solution: the tripartite model.[4]

The First Presidency thought the synthesis from Roberts dialectic was baseless, and even went so far as removing the King Follett Sermon from the History of the Church. [see discussion in n4 for details. This is one to pull out when you hear people whining about how the Church doesn't emphasize the KFD like they used to – presentist hooey.] Roberts appears to have only found support in his tripartite ideas from John Widtsoe, who tried to incorporate them in his Rational Theology, which was used as a priesthood manual. The First presidency expressed discomfort with the sections, calling them speculation, and required that they be struck before publication.[5]

Perhaps the greatest contributor to the shift in institutional perspective regarding the KFD, and consequently spirit ontology, is Roberts’s erstwhile antagonist, Joseph Fielding Smith. Unlike his father, Joseph Fielding felt that the KFD was worth publishing and included an edited version in his very popular (and fairly historiographically flawed) Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, first published in 1938 and later used as a priesthood manual.

Joseph Fielding Smith, and folks like Bruce R. McConkie and Harold B. Lee after him, basically argued for Brigham Young’s position with a change in vocabulary. While B. H. Roberts invented “intelligences” as pre-spirit beings, JFSII used “intelligence” as a synonym for Young’s spirit element. This idea is most clearly explained by McConkie in his Mormon Doctrine:

True, as Joseph Smith taught, man “is a self-existent being,” for “the intelligence of spirits is immortal,” and “had no beginning.” (Teachings, pp. 352-354.) That is to say the bodies of Deity’s spirit children were created from the existing spirit element (pg. 84)

Any notion or theory that life, or ego, or agency, existed for each individual prior to the time of the spirit birth is pure speculation, wholly unsupported by any correctly understood and properly interpreted scripture. Life began for man and for all created things at the time of their respective spirit creations. Before that there were only the spirit elements from which the Almighty would in due course create life. (pg. 442)

This spirit element has always existed; it is co-eternal with God. (Teachings, pp. 352-354.) It is also called intelligence or the light of truth, which “was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” (D&C 93:29)

Speaking of pre-existent spirits, Abraham calls them “the intelligences that were organized before the world was.” (Abra. 3:22-24.) Thus, portions of the self-existent spirit element are born as spirit children, or in other words the intelligence which cannot be created or made, because it is self-existent, is organized into intelligences. (pg. 751)

As far as I can tell, the tripartite model has been publicly, though rarely, taught by a few living general authorities; but it is Truman Madsen, student and biographer of B. H. Roberts, that has been the most vocal proponent (surely to the consternation of Joseph Fielding McConkie).


  1. William Clayton account.
  2. See here.
  3. See here. On animal spirits in the eternities, see here.
  4. See here.
  5. John P. Hatch, ed., Danish Apostle: The Diaries of Anthon H. Lund, 1890-1921 (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with the Smith-Pettit Foundation, 2006), 558-9, December 7 and 11, 1914.


  1. Mark Brown says:

    Tripartite existentialism and Prattian parlance.

    J., I luvs ya.

  2. Yeah, it was in Truman Madsen’s Eternal Man that I came across the lengthy intelligence-spirit-body/spirit discussion. He made the idea of the Preexistence sound so reasonable.

    But doesn’t the plural use of the term “intelligences” in Abraham seem inconsistent with the idea of undifferentiated spirit element? The term “intelligences” is a strange way to refer to spirit unorganized.

  3. FWIW, a few years ago, in leading the high priest group discussion about a lesson on the pre-existence (from the Harold B. Lee manual), this issue arose–the tri-partite model versus the BRM-BY model of pre-existence.

    When leading a discussion about disputed theological issues, my method of resolution is to take a vote (I keep meaning to send the results to SLC for the correlation committee–but I have always forgotten).

    The vote was 14 to 1 in favor of the tripartite model (I abstained, as I usually do).

    Also, my mother believed and taught me the tripartite model.

    There you have it.

  4. Very nice J.

    I’m sure it will come as a shock to many people to learn the sandy foundations upon which the tri-partite model rests.

    It seems pretty clear to me that the tri-partite model is the de-facto assumption of most in CES and the church at large these days though. I recently saw a seminary room where the tri-partite model was displayed permanently on a wall as if it were simply the way things are.

  5. J, thanks for your post. I really enjoy your work.

  6. J, it’s ironic that you posted this today, since I was just working on this very topic (only concerning JS’s teachings, though).

    Well done.

  7. Thanks all. Ben, as this is an area I’ve worked on off and on for a while, I’d be very interested in what you come up with.

    Geoff and DavidH make comments that reinforce my perception that this is very popular on the folk level. I don’t think I could come up with a doctrine that has the same folk genesis. Really fascinating stuff.

    Dave, I agree, but when you are systematizing post hoc, you have to work with what you got.

  8. J, this is great stuff! I was wondering how panpsychism fits into this. My understanding of Pratt was that he thought not only each particle of spirit was intelligent, but that every particle of matter (including both spirit and gross matter) was intelligent. The reason I ask is I still see latent panpsychism in talk about the matter of the universe obeying God, though intelligent action, e.g., matter obeys God and in so doing honors the Creator’s command. Any thoughts on this or could you point me towards some sources on this?

  9. Nice Summary J. I don’t personally think Brigham Young’s notion of the way things are is still held up as much as it was in the JFSII, McConkie era. And of course, I still like the tripartite model, though I am probably making so many concessions in it that it truly wouldn’t be recognizable as the model which Roberts taught (dumping Spirit Birth for Adoption, etc.)

    Jacob J and I are working on a post in relation to this, I’ll have to hurry up and get it posted.

  10. Oh, and awesome find from the Diaries of Lund. I’ll have to check that out.

  11. SteveP, my perspective is that the idea you describe was popularized by Skousen and is derived from Pratt. It is the idea that every bit of physical matter also has a spirit and it is the spirit that obeys. The Seer (first link in n3) is available digitally from the BYU Archives and may be worth reading. The bit about matter obeying God originated, I believe, from Skousen’s talk “The Atonement” or something like that (talk about atonement stew!). I imagine that it is easy enough to find on teh internets.

  12. Matt, here are the entries:

    [Decembr 7, 1914] I had a telegram from Pres. Smith to stop the publication of Widtsoe’s manual [Rational Theology] for priesthood. I called E. H. Anderson over, and he furnished me with a proof copy of the Manual. I believe it is [his] idea of the origin of God, which he makes an evolution from intelligences and being superior to the orthers He became God. I do not like to think of a time when there was no God. I read several chapters.

    [December 11, 1914] Bro. Widtsoe who wrote the manual for Priesthood, came and we went over the manuscript and eliminated from it all that pertained to intelligence before they became begotten spirits as that would only be speculation.

  13. Good stuff, Staps.
    What do you think of the argument that a useful way to fully understand Joseph’s teachings would be to look at early Utah theology, given that it is closest chronologically?
    And, all things being equal, who is the most Smithian, Young or Pratt and why?

  14. I think that the argument is crap. I think the best way to understand how Early Utah saints viewed Joseph’s teachings is to look at their theology. And to the question of which is more Smithian, probably neither.

  15. Simple me. I’ve never thought at all about any of this (my standard excuse — that it predates 24 July 1847 — seems on point, somehow), and I can’t recall ever hearing it discussed in a church or school class — if so, it went right over my head while I was daydreaming about what Wilford Woodruff would look like beardless, or whatever.

    I wonder why it occurs to some of us not only to think about these things, to the point of becoming so certain of the conclusions that we can be shocked, as Geoff J says, to find out that speculations are just that, while it doesn’t occur to some of us even to wonder.

    I guess I’d rather be at the end of the spectrum who can still look forward to learning something, rather than at the end who has to unlearn something. Ignorance is bliss. Or something.

  16. Beardless WW…dreamy.

  17. If it gives Joseph Fielding McConkie consternation, I’m all for it.

  18. For selfish reasons, I’m wondering what the implications of all of this are. What “lesson(s)” should I be taking away from this particular post? (Sincere question)

  19. Rameumptom says:

    I tend to agree with Blake Ostler’s version, which premises off of Pratt’s view. While I don’t think we generate up through plants, lower animal forms, and then finally humans; I do believe each particle is “intelligent” and that as atoms are combined into higher forms, they obtain their old capabilities, as well as develop new abilities.
    Eventually, such intelligences obtain to individuality: the spirit.

  20. Like Ardis, I cling desperately to my total lack of certainty regarding any such thing. And also to my charcoal sketches (search eBay!) of beardless Woodruff…

  21. Actually, Rameumptom, Ostler’s view, which is close to my own, is that spirits are uncreated and eternal. I am unaware of any spiritual atomism in his writing.

    Clean Cut, I didn’t necessarily have a lesson in mind when I posted this. Mormon cosmology is just something that interests me.

  22. That’s fine J. Still, what do you see as the implications of all of this? “Therefore, what?” Could it be that we’re simply all entitled to our own opinions as to the speculations involving spirit birth versus eternality of spirits?

    Furthermore, what implications would you say it has in the debate/accusation I hear from evangelicals that “Jesus is a created God” in Mormon thought. (Perhaps simply that it’s still a “mystery” since our scriptures teach that Jesus is the “Eternal God”, “from everlasting to everlasting”, and that Mormons don’t (officially?) teach/believe that Jesus’ spirit was “created”? (Make sense?)

  23. Blake’s view is wrapped up with Process Theology. So there’s no atomism in it. Rather an ontology based on Whitehead’s thought. It’s close to atomism but not quite the same thing.

  24. Clean Cut, yeah, basically as Mormons we can believe whatever we want about spirit creation. Personally, I believe that spirits are uncreated. Like Ostler, I also think that Jesus was uncreated and, to quote the introduction to the Book of Mormon, “is the Christ, the Eternal God[.]“

  25. Stapes, you know I love you, but I think you’re ignoring Phelps at your own interpretive peril. We have someone who was closely involved with Smith throughout the relevant period, often ghostwrote for him, and who had a way of drawing Smith out on these fascinating topics, and he twice pretty clearly indicates MiH within just a few months to a year of Smith’s death. You could argue that Phelps was driving Smith on this point, but the KFD and SiG are reasonably consonant and public. And you’d have to account for everybody loyal to Brigham who knew Smith closely confirming the MiH view. Phelps in Dec 1844 pretty clearly ties MiH to the temple rites by correspondence as well.

    As for the spirit birth motif, I agree, we don’t know what that means on the basis of earliest Mormonism. In a sense what matters most in Smithian Nauvoo Mormonism is birth as creation of relationship rather than birth as a physicospiritual gestation, and I think you can make an argument from Correspondence for the former, with the latter being a later extrapolation.

  26. smb, I actually agree completely with your comments. Phelps is the first witness – his hymn and his letter to William. As I said in the post, we have good evidence that he taught it, but the evidence just isn’t contemporaneous (close, but not quite).

  27. I’m for anything that includes an uncreated, eternal concept of the self, and makes us necessary rather than contingent. Mostly to bug the evangelicals, of course.

    This phrase caught my attention: “spirit matter was not intelligent and if a spirit merited perdition, it was recycled to create new spirits”.

    I remember well being taught in my home that sons of perdition would have their spirits recycled, and have another shot at mortality. I don’t think I thought much about it until I was an adult, and it came up in PH lesson. I think I remember, Stapley, that you wrote about this somewhere else in passing on a similar topic, and Brigham Young espousing it. It doesn’t fit my current theological viewpoint anymore, anyway.

  28. Rough Cut says:

    Could someone expand upon, if only briefly, the concept of “uncreated”? I’m intrigued by the idea, but having trouble getting my mind around it.

  29. Rough Cut, it is the idea that spirits were never created or made.

  30. #24 – “basically as Mormons we can believe whatever we want about spirit creation.”

    That pretty much sums up my feelings about spirit creation – that I don’t have a clue. I don’t think it involves sexual activity as we know it now, but I really have no clue.

    I figure I’ll find out at some point.

    Clean Cut, as to your question about the argument about Jesus, my simple response to someone who insists one way or the other is essentially your question to J:

    “So what?”

    I like to contemplate the possibilities as much as anyone, but in the end, I really don’t give a flying fig one way or the other. Frankly, that’s true of more things than not.

  31. Aaron Brown says:

    J., I’d be curious to have you elaborate on the historiographical flaws of TPJS, or point me to a post where someone has already done so. Thanks.


  32. Rough Cut, the big thing to grasp here about the “uncreated” is the fundamental division between LDS Christians and Traditional Christians. Traditional Christians believe in creatio ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing. For them, God is the only thing that was “uncreated”, and he created everything else out of nothing. Thus, he’s a “one of a kind” being, all to himself.

    However, Joseph Smith taught (as recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants) that this isn’t the case. God didn’t create everything out of nothing, but rather He took eternally existing matter and organized it. The current post speculates where we fit into that “creation/organization”.

    Since we know that spirit is matter, and that spirit has always existed (as intelligence), the case can be made that we are technically “uncreated”, or eternally existent in some shape or form–co-eternal with God. One can also argue that we at one point were at least spiritually created/formed as spirit children of our Heavenly Father. We’re short on details, so there’s plenty of room for speculation.

    The question also arises, where does Christ (as a separate being from God the Father) fit into all of this?

    He was technically the “Firstborn”, but really, what does that mean? The scriptures also say He is “eternal”, and “from everlasting to everlasting”–so the case can also be made that He has always existed and was never “created”–thus “uncreated”–but always eternally part of the Godhead, or as the title page of the Book of Mormon says, “the Eternal God”.

    I’m trying to help but perhaps I’m only confusing issues for you more. (I’ve certainly not even begun to mention the debate over the word “eternal” and the various interpretations that exist about its meaning).

  33. #30, Ray–ditto to that. :)

  34. Clean Cut, after having typed #30 and read #33, let me add one qualifier (*grin*):

    I do care about the idea that we are eternal – that we are “uncreated” in the sense that we were not created ex nihilo. There is something in me that yearns to believe I am connected to or “of God” in some way other than just a poofed entity. I really want to believe that I have a divine, eternal something in my nature.

    It’s the mechanics about which I really don’t care at the moment.

  35. #34 Ray, agreed. Ditto to that as well.

    And that’s the heart of the issue between LDS Christians and Traditional Christians. For us, we believe we truly are “of God”, that we are of the same kind as He is. He is literally our Father and we really are His children. For us there is obviously still a big difference between us and our Heavenly Father, but it isn’t that bright line of separation that Traditional Christians place between us and God. Creatio ex nihilo forces them to take that position, of course, keeping distance between the “uncreated” God and the “created” us, as if we really are an entirely different species.

  36. The Proclamation on the Family states: “Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”

    I wonder what that means under either interpretation.

    Have we eternally been spirits, assigned to heavenly parents through relationship (rather than spiritual procreation)? If so, have we eternally been male or female spirits–is that what gender is eternal means? Or does eternal in this phrase refer to the period after mortality?

    Or were we pre-existing autonomous intelligences, clothed in a spirit body through some sort of spiritual pro-creation of heavenly parents? Is that the point at which sex/ender was assigned? Or were we male or female intelligences before our spirit “births”?

  37. There’s something about this statement from smb (above) that I really like, or at least that’s worth pondering on: “creation of relationship rather than birth as a physiospiritual gestation”.

  38. Wow. Really compelling stuff, J. Lots to think about.

  39. DavidH: Have we eternally been spirits, assigned to heavenly parents through relationship

    Well our scriptures teach pretty clearly that we are supposed to be the children of Christ. So I’d say a better guess is that we become children of God via covenant.

    BTW – We have spent gobs of time discussing these subjects with Stapley and others over at NCT.

  40. Nice write up J. I remain committed to the idea that the theological discord is inherent in Joseph Smith’s teachings. Throw out all the later harmonizing and theological innovations and you are still left with problems that are hard to sort out if all of Joseph’s statements are taken into consideration. Also, I appreciate seeing smb’s #25.

  41. He is literally our Father and we really are His children.

    Uhhh…can someone explain to be how God is our Father AND we are uncreated at the same time?

  42. creation of relationship rather than birth as a physicospiritual gestation

    Is that it?

  43. CJ Douglass, yes, the argument is that a father who adopts a son is accurately called a “literal” father. It seems clear to me that many former church leaders who emphasized the “literalness” of God’s fatherhood had in mind viviparous spirit birth, but the words themselves do not require it.

  44. Nameless says:

    DavidH, I have been thinking of this subject in just the context you mention. Where does gender fit with in the context of our spirits. Do our physical bodies reflect that “gender”? I hope I can be articulate in my musings here…it is still gelling for me but…
    We believe that our physical bodies will be perfected after resurrection–so for example a person born with Down’s Syndrome will no longer be mentally or physically handicapped. I think most would say that we believe these handicaps were the result of a genetic mishap in that person’s physical make up and not a reflection of their spiritual self–right? Or what about spina bifida–a mechanical issue in the womb and again not a reflection of that person’s spiritual persona. So, can this also be extended to gender? Maybe a wash of the wrong combination of hormones during the first couple of weeks after fertilization and a body is formed that doesn’t necessarily reflect the eternal and spiritual gender make up of that person?

    Like I said I am just rolling this around a bit…

  45. Rough Cut says:

    #32 Clean Cut, Thank you for taking the time to explain this. I found your interpretation extremely helpful. My head is spinning in relation to the overall topic, but I understand this part of it much better. Either way, I’m fascinated by the subject matter.

    On a general note; I don’t know if the comments in this post are representative of the kind of dialogue that typically occurs here, but if so, I’m impressed. I’m relatively new to the “bloggernacle” as it were, but have read enough to know that things can get ugly in pretty short order. There seems to be a very respectful tone amongst the contributors, despite whatever differences of opinion might exist. I like this. Thanks.

  46. Rough Cut says:

    PS. Clean Cut, my name was inspired by yours and hastily put into use, but I’ll try to come up with something more of my own making and reemerge with it in the near future.

  47. #44 Sounds possible to me but I don’t think it will meet with popular approval.

  48. Jacob J. (#40) I think I agree with you; Joseph’s vision was expansive with time and words had dynamic meaning. I think he had a cohesive vision, even if all the kinks were not yet worked out yet, in the final years though.

    Aaron, on the TPJS, see for example the Parallel Joseph’s brief discussion and the two posts linked in the original post on the textual history of the KFD.

  49. Would someone be so kind as to flesh out these acronyms for me? Thanks.


  50. For what it’s worth
    Bruce R. McConkie-Brigham Young
    Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith

  51. The tripartite model rocks. BH Roberts was dead on. It is the best way to have an eternal something, and be a begotten spirit child of God.

  52. I have made several posts about this as well. If you have nothing better to do check here

  53. SteelBlaidd says:

    I ran across Sckousen’s talk on this on my mission.

    The idea that all matter has will and God’s power is his Honor struck me as very powerful.

    If God is God because he is obedient to the Law with such perfect integrity that all creation trusts him implicitly that he will ask for no unrighteous thing, then creation the Earth was accomplished not by “power and authority” but “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.”

  54. BH Roberts was dead on.

    We all know you can’t defend this claim Eric. (You are free to think his theory rocks though.)

  55. J. what is the issue here? Was someone wrong and someone else right? Was Joseph Smith wrong or right? Do we really know what Joseph Smith taught about these things? Is what Joseph Smith taught about these things doctrine? Is it in the Doctrine and Covenants?

    Geoff J., in what ways is B.H. Roberts’ synthesis/solution indefensible? What about Truman Madsen’s explanations — are they defensible or indefensible?

    J., Geoff J., and others: is there something wrong with a majority of Mormons subscribing to a model of “tripartite existentialism” (let me register my doubts that this phrase carries any meaning whatsoever with 99% of Mormons) as a preferred speculation as to the beginning of our existence? If some other speculation (your speculation?) about this topic seems closer to what Joseph Smith is thought to have taught (speculated?) in the KFD/SiG, then does that mean that Mormons today ought to be favoring that speculation instead?

  56. john f.

    Geoff is very good a dismissing anything he chooses to and declaring himself the winner in any debate. If he doesn’t agree, your case is indefensible by default.

    I find Roberts’/Madsen’s expanations better than the alternatives.

  57. J, if I didn’t know you, you would intimidate the hell out of me. This post is a vocabulary, history and theology lesson for me all at once. So much to study and think about. Yum!

    Tripartate Existentialism and Prattian Parliance. I’m with Mark- Luvs ya, J.

  58. John F., I agree that there’s sometimes no reason to prefer Joseph Smith’s noncanonical ideas to anyone else’s. I would also guess that the three-stage theory of existence doesn’t do much harm, although it does create the murky puzzle of what it means to be a “non-spirit-embodied intelligence.” But this is all third-order story-telling, and not a primary-colored issue. That said, it might be useful for people to know where these ideas come from, don’t you think?

  59. JNS, I certainly agree with you but I can’t shake the feeling that there is something prescriptive about this post and I am very interested in J. stating what it is more straightforwardly for the sake of transparency. I didn’t read the post as a history lesson and don’t think it was written as such.

    The truth is, every single one of these theories, even the one that is imputed to Joseph Smith, however shaky the source foundation, goes to a certain point and leaves the observer saying, “okay, what now?” In other words, at a certain point in all of these theories (and all other theories of any kind) we are left with a murky puzzle of some kind in the end.

    Instead of calling it a “tripartite existentialism” perhaps we can just call it the “Spirit Children of our Heavenly Father” theory. It seems to be amply supported by scripture (the idea that we were spirit children of God in the pre-existence before being born into mortality). It is in the nitty-gritty mechanical details of how this all works (all of which is pure speculation and entirely irrelevant to our spiritual lives as followers of Jesus Christ) that this debate exists. Suffice it to say, however, that endorsing this model does not require endorsement of a sexual theory of “spiritual procreation” or a belief in actual spiritual vaginal birth. Being created as a spirit from existing intelligences could be the result of an entirely different process of being “born”. But it seems to be the theory that makes the most practical sense when analogizing from what we observe of matter and its function as a building block of more organized structures in this world, so it works as a theory of spiritual creation and pre-existence for most Mormons these days, as well as Mormons such as B.H. Roberts back in the day and Truman Madsen, among others. Bruce R. McKonkie’s description of it doesn’t seem all that different and yet in the original post it seems to be contrasted with the “tripartite existentialism” of B.H. Roberts. It would be interesting to see an elaboration of how McKonkie is thought to have differed on this from the popular folk conception (particularly given that it is likely attributable to him and his book Mormon Doctrine that the current popular folk conception of this theory exists).

  60. That should be “McConkie” — no reason to correct it Bryce, misspelling his name does not indicate inadequate orthodoxy or apostacy.

  61. Kristine says:

    “am very interested in J. stating what it is more straightforwardly for the sake of transparency.”

    Ha!! Don’t you know J. better than that by now? ;)

  62. John, in my queue after about 7 or 8 other projects, is a paper on the development of various Mormon Cosmologies. I was thinking about some aspects of that and decided to post a brief summary of the tripartite model’s history. I think the popularity of it is surprising considering the history. Don’t you? I think you misread the model though, Fowles. With McConkie and Young, there is no individual existence before “spirit birth”; whereas the tripartite model asserts that the individual existed before s/he was a spirit.

    Regarding JS, besides the non-canonized sermons, there is Abraham 3, as noted in the original post.

  63. With McConkie and Young, there is no individual existence before “spirit birth”; whereas the tripartite model asserts that the individual existed before s/he was a spirit.

    So the tripartite model is closer to Joseph Smith than the Young/McConkie model — so what is Geoff J. arguing about?

  64. I don’t find it surprising considering the sway that Roberts, Widtsoe, and Talmage had over the teaching of the church for a very long period of time (up til today even). Of course, Talmage is the outlier here, in terms of acceptance of tripartite existence (I am still unclear on his theological position on this).

  65. I think he is arguing that the idea is basically an ad hoc fix, though he is free to clarify.

  66. John F., I’m not sure that I agree that the “spirit children of Heavenly Father” is amply supported by scripture. Which passages do you have in mind? I don’t have a conviction either way on this issue, but it seems possible to me that the “spirit children” conception is non-canonical, as well. The best text I can find is the Hebrews 12:9 reference to the “Father of spirits,” but that’s quite indirect and would be a very weak textual basis for the theory. Are there better texts in the canon?

  67. A few examples are as follows:

    Moses 3:5

    Moses 6:36

    Abraham 3:22

    Are you saying that if there are no scriptures that actually say “Spirit Children of God” then the concept is not supported by scripture?

  68. Just a note that Abraham 3:22 isn’t talking about creation, it is talking about getting already existing spirits together.

  69. John F., I appreciate you seeking out the following clarification, albeit terse, from J. Stapley: “With McConkie and Young, there is no individual existence before “spirit birth”; whereas the tripartite model asserts that the individual existed before s/he was a spirit.”

    This somehow eluded me in the original post as well. J. Stapley, Matt W., and others: How would you respond to someone who asks you about your view that we are “uncreated” when scriptures (such as the links just provided by John F) clearly state that God “created” us spiritually–or others which simply state that He is our “Creator”. How do you reconcile this seeming contradiction of words with the models above?

  70. Clean Cut, I personally reconcile it the same way we reconcile teachings about heaven. For example, the Book of Mormon teaches a heaven and hell duality; yet we have later teaching and revelation that teaches something more expansive. Moses was written in 1830 whereas Abraham was much later, so too were Joseph Smith non-canonical sermons (1844).

  71. Okay, but do you mind being a little more explicit?

  72. Clean Cut, I am a bit hesitant to lay out my personal cosmological belief in the comments to a historical post. However, as you asked, I generally don’t accept some of the most radical pioneer expansions: adam-god, viviparous spirit birth. I generally accept JS’s final sermons KFD and the “Sermon in the Grove” (which I think is our best exegesis on the Temple). That is to say I personally take the position that spirits are not created or made. I consequently believe that we are children of God the Father (and of Jesus Christ as the scriptures say) in an adoptive sense.

  73. I appreciate that. That you.

  74. Rather, “Thank” you.

  75. John F., the Abraham passage doesn’t fit well with your argument — God there isn’t said to “create” but rather to “organize.” I think this suggests different ideas, and at the very best is an anomaly in need of smoothing over rather than affirmative evidence for the position.

    The two Moses passages are perhaps better, but still pretty flimsy. In Moses 6:36, Enoch sees spirits created by God, but it isn’t clear what spirits; the text doesn’t even explain whether they were human spirits. Moses 3:5 talks about spiritual creation, but it’s an extrapolation to conclude that this means that God is talking about creating spirits; spiritual creation might mean something like a blueprint or an image in God’s mind, for example. One of the latter sorts of readings might have something to be said for it, because 3:5 explains that God created “all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually,” including according to the previous chapter: light, the firmament, dry land, plants, stars, the sun and the moon, birds, whales, etc. If we conclude that “spiritual creation of” means “creating the spirits of,” then we have to conclude that continents, stars, light, grass, and so forth all have spirits. That might be right, but it’s certainly very speculative, reminding us that the spirit-creation reading of Moses 3:5 is equally speculative.

  76. J., what makes you reject B.H. Roberts’ explanation of the opaque Joseph Smith statement, that our spirits consist of intelligences that were organized into spirits, i.e. created, i.e. God created us spiritually?

  77. re # 76, the phrase starting with “that our spirits” is meant as a reference to Roberts’ explanation, not the original JS statement, obviously.

  78. Heb. 12:9 is pretty good as well.

    Clean Cut (69) The ‘created’ wording could refer to our spirit bodies rather than an eternal intelligence. That is part of what is attractive about the tripartite model.

    I do believe as Stapely points out that Joseph was consistent with the eternal nature of all of us. But he was not consistent with the terms used. He used ‘intelligence’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’ interchangeably. I don’t think it is because these terms are always synonyms, but because of a lack of precise definitions for these terms.

  79. John, mostly because Joseph Smith didn’t say that. BTW, did you read the original post? I thought this point was very clear. More explicitly, JS said (KFD, Clayton report):

    The mind of man–the intelligent part is coequal with God himself… Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet have a beginning because if a spirit have a beginning it will have an end–good logic–illustrated by his ring. All the fools learned & wise men that comes and tells that man has a beginning proves that he must have an end and if that doctrine is true then the doctrine of annihilation is true. But if I am right then I might be bold to say that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself–Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it[.]

    Then you have the bit in Abraham 3 from the original post. Doesn’t seem so opaque to me. Furthermore, you are using post hoc anachronistic definitions of “intelligence.”

  80. “The ‘created’ wording could refer to our spirit bodies rather than an eternal intelligence. That is part of what is attractive about the tripartite model.”

    Thanks Eric. That feels good to me.

  81. I don’t think that equating “organizing” with “creating” in this context is much of a stretch or violates what Joseph Smith is thought to have taught in the KFD, especially given Abraham 3.

    I am not making a strong argument in favor of BH Roberts over JS; frankly, I don’t think they are all that contradictory.

  82. john f.: I am not making a strong argument in favor of BH Roberts over JS; frankly, I don’t think they are all that contradictory.

    I’m not saying that they are. However, we could just as easily add a transformation from mind to intelligence and create a quadripartite existence. What would be the reason to do so? And by what basis would we make such a claim?

  83. John F., invoking Abraham 3 to prove that Abraham 3 says what you think it says is a circular argument. Just saying…

  84. JNS, ? I’m not proving anything about Abraham 3, am I?

  85. The mind of man–the intelligent part is coequal with God himself

    Of course, this is a statement about the intelligent part of man, not specifically about the physical part of man. And so, naturally we have to ask about the relationship between spirit (as a kind of matter) and intelligence. But, sadly, Joseph didn’t help us out there, so all attempts to sort it out are to one degree or another ad hoc.

  86. John F., then what text are you referring to when you argue that “organizing” equals “creating”? At any rate, you can’t use Abraham to make that case; the Abraham text never explains what the “organizing” consists of, but the context of a conference suggests social organization.

  87. Clean Cut, I am pretty inline with Jonathon on this. Creator could be anything from creator of our spiritual family, creator of our ability to progress by creating the system in which we come to earth. It could be creator of our physical bodies.

    My view is that if spiritual death is strictly defined in scripture as separation from God, and not literal death, then why would spiritual birth not be the opposite of that, ie- connection to God, and not literal birth?

    J. 82- I think tripartite creation keeps all the canonized scriptures, from Moses and Abraham, thus it’s appeal.

  88. John F #63: So the tripartite model is closer to Joseph Smith than the Young/McConkie model — so what is Geoff J. arguing about?

    Arguing about? I don’t know which of my comments you are referring to here so I’ll try to cover the possible bases.

    Eric stated that BH Roberts theory (the now-popular tripartite model with spirits not being the same as intelligences) was “dead on” as if it were a fact. I simply pointed out that we don’t know if it is true or not but he is free to buy it if he wants.

    As for the models I think Stapley did a nice job of laying them out in the post.

    JS taught that spirits are uncreated, beginningless and eternal. All of the other models disagree.

    - The Young/McConkie model says there are was a time before we existed at all before God took particles and created a spirit for us.
    - The Pratt model assumes there was a time before we existed because “we” are really a colony of intelligent spirit particles that have decided to band together and that our current minds emerge from that union. (Although he may have meant that we are really a single particle that attracted others to follow us and the current us is the single particle as the head of the organization)
    - Roberts came along later as said our spirits do in fact have a beginning (contra JS) but before we got spirits our minds existed anyway in a pre-spirit form.

    JNS says that there is “no reason to prefer Joseph Smith’s noncanonical ideas to anyone else’s” and that is a reasonable point. But when given a choice between the theological opinions of Joseph Smith and most any other person after him I tend to side with Joseph.

  89. #87 Matt, thanks for sharing your view. I like that insight.

  90. JS taught that spirits are uncreated, beginningless and eternal. All of the other models disagree.

    This is exactly the kind of statement I find to be bogus. Since JS was not clear about what a “spirit” was (does he mean mind, spirit body, both?) his insistence that the spirit is uncreated remains ambiguous. The statement itself is rock solid, he did claim spirits are uncreated, but if the words that make up the statement are contested then that clouds the whole thing. In that sense, it is entirely possible that the tripartite model is in line with JS and is just a clarification of terms.

  91. Jacob: The statement itself is rock solid, he did claim spirits are uncreated, but if the words that make up the statement are contested then that clouds the whole thing

    I hear this from time to time but I don’t get it. If spirits are eternal and can’t be created as JS unambiguously taught, how could any of the other model work? The Young/McConkie and O. Pratt models are clearly out in that case. And the only way the Roberts tri-partite model could jibe with that is if Joseph really meant pre-spirits. But I don’t see any evidence that Joseph meant pre-spirits. It seems like all we have is people much later who wish he meant that.

  92. Geoff, you don’t get it because you have not been paying close enough attention to the opposing point of view in the interminable debates of this subject. You use the term “pre-spirit” above because you have made an assumption about what constitutes a spirit. But, since your assumption about what constitutes a spirit is not explicitly taught by JS, you are ruling out the B.H. Roberts theory due to it not jibing with _you_ as opposed to not jibing with JS.

  93. One physics theory is that intelligence comes into being spontaneously as the “<a href=”” Boltzmann Brain “. Just as quantum fluctuations can create the conditions for the Big Bang, so they can create the conditions for the spontaneous generation of intelligence.

    I have thought that this is an intriguing connection to Mormon theology. Imagine God going out into the blackness of space and collecting these “uncreated” intelligences and giving them spirit and physical bodies. I realize this is not a prophetic idea, but never-the-less interesting.

    In the generalization, it speaks for the fact that no universe can ever exist without intelligence being in it.

  94. I see you linked to the post I was trying to remember over at NCT so I will respond over there Jacob

  95. Steve Fleming says:

    I agree with Jacob, let’s not get too hung up on the semantics. Perhaps it would be better to use another term like “spirit body.” That way “spirits,” whatever JS meant by that, can be eternal while “spirit bodies” can be created/organized.

    I really like your adoption model J. (the first I’ve heard of such a thing) but that could apply to a level of being prior to having a spirit body (again, let’s not get hung up on semantics). I guess I just see spirit bodies as being fairly “organized.”

  96. JacobJ (92)

    I’m glad I am not the only one.

  97. Don’t get too excited Eric. Jacob has only shown that we can’t prove exactly what JS meant when he use the word “spirit” — only that JS clearly though spirits could not be created. All that defensive move does is keep the tripartite model from being completely dismissed based on the teachings of JS. It does so by creating the possibility that what we generally think a spirit is these days does not match what JS thought a spirit was in his day.

  98. Geoff J., isn’t that enough? If we can’t be sure what Smith thought about (in modern relatively technical Mormon theological terms) when he said things like “spirit” and “intelligence,” doesn’t that really tell us that Smith’s claims can’t decide the issue? But what else have we got in terms of really solid evidence against the “tripartite” view? If that view is not demonstrably incompatible with Smith’s views, and if it isn’t clear who else would be the authoritative “decider” on this point, then we really can’t rule out the “tripartite” view any more than we can rule out the “eternal uncreated spirit” view, right?

  99. JNS: we really can’t rule out the “tripartite” view any more than we can rule out the “eternal uncreated spirit” view, right?

    We obviously can’t rule the tripartite out completely. Thus it thrives today.

    It seems to me that a plain reading of JS indicates he didn’t support it. The tripartite crowd must argue for something other than a plain reading of JS in order to work around humdingers like this one:

    God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself–Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it

    I just think those workarounds are too strained. (And I speak as someone who tried for a long time to work around them myself — see here.) I may be wrong though.

  100. BobW (93), I was just thinking about links to physics concepts also.

    For one thing it strikes me that 4th-great uncle Orson was talking about emergent phenomena in the middle of the 18th century, though now I see (thanks, Wikipedia!) that the general concept of emergence has been around since at least Aristotle. Never mind.

    Like someone else in the thread, I read Skousen’s atonement talk on my mission. At the time I was mostly convinced, but it bothered me that here was this supposed system of atonement mechanics and yet President Hinckley had recently stated something to effect that the mechanics of the atonement were beyond comprehension.

    When I read OSC’s later Ender books I immediately recognized the ideas as those of Skousen and Orson.

    In the meantime I’ve not given it much thought, so I appreciate this post and thread, J.

  101. Geoff, I agree that you reading is the easiest for the text. But (a) the text in question isn’t canonized, and (b) the terms just aren’t defined. So the need for a workaround may just be less pressing than you suggest.

    There are other problems with the uncreated spirit view. In my opinion, a particularly serious one is that this view makes it difficult to explain why God should be seen as having moral authority over people.

  102. On re-reading the KFD, I’m again amazed by Joseph Smith.

    I am not usually a fan of hermeneutics, but in this case I see Joseph Smith using the word “spirit” to refer to a composition, and then various other statements referring to different parts of the composition. So, unless you already know what he is trying to say, it is almost unintelligible.

    Also, Joseph was both a prophet and a man. A couple of times he uses phrases like “infer” and “in my estimation”. In those cases, he seems to be trying to reconcile his worldly experiences with revelation. I think too much weight is placed on those statements.

    As to reasons why this is so important, the sermon itself gives several.

  103. JNS,

    There is no question that accepting the uncreated spirit model (I used to call it the “whole cloth model of spirits”) has far reaching theological implications. That is why I argued against it for so long. But I now am not so worried about those implications even if it leads to surprising places.

  104. Stapes, you’re leaving out Paracletes.
    I agree with you that the language of adoption is probably the most apt description of what JSJ was teaching.

    This does leave the tricky question, which JSJ may or may not have worked out, of what the Sonship of Jesus represents. JSJ would have held that we follow Jesus in broad terms, so that may provide a clue about where JSJ thought we came from.

  105. John Tvedtnes says:

    Check Webster’s 1828 dictionary and you’ll see that the term “intelligence” is defined as a “spirit.” This is in complete accord with Abraham 3:22-23, where the terms “intelligences,” “souls,’ and “spirits” are used interchangeably. The concept of us being thinking entities called “intelligences” before we became spirit is false.

  106. John,

    As much as we all love to appeal to the 1828 Webster’s, I think many of the JS statements in question clearly use the word “intelligence” to mean “something that is intelligent” rather than “spirit.” Look at the quote in #79 (above) from the KFD:

    The mind of man–the intelligent part is coequal with God himself

    Here it is explicit that he is referring to the part of us that is intelligent. The part that thinks. He calls it “the mind” and then “the intelligent part” and then he goes on to refer to it as the spirit of man. But, what does our eternal mind consist of? Does his statement require that our spirit body existed from all eternity? No. Even if we took it that way, is there a distinction between spirit body and mind, or is mind an emergent property of a spirit brain, or what? We simply have no guidance from JS on how to answer that question. Thus, your dogmatic statement about what “is false” is stronger than the evidence you can marshal to back it up.

  107. Mark A. Clifford says:

    I know that this is a little late coming.
    I am a fan of “co-equal” meaning, “the same as” in substance. I like the idea that the glory of God, which proceeds forth from his presence and fills the immensity of space, which is called “intelligence”, is the stuff out of which I am made. Thus, I am “co-equal with God (out of the same stuff), I am also his child, and I am ontologically necessary (as He is). God did not have power to create Himself, indeed; and so did not create us out of nothing but rather out of Himself.
    My children are not ontologically inferior to me just because they were made out of part of me. And part of my wife. Instead, because they are the product of both of us, they are “selves” and “our children” and persons in thier own right.
    I do not like the idea of the eternal uncreated self. I think it is oddball. It fails the monad test: why then are we all one kind of thing? How is the family of God related? Why does He get to tell us all what to do?
    But if I am created from His light (and Hers, do not get me wrong on that point, do not take my Mother in Heaven away from me, oh no no) then I understand how it is that:
    We are his offspring
    That we are the glory (shekinah) of God
    That we are Gods.
    If I have just been floating around the effluvium forever, and God somehow “scooped me up”, and is now bossing me around because He can, I feel lonely and icky. I know that this idea that we eminate from the Godhead is a minority view in Mormonism. But aint it grand? How about if all of the material creation also emanates from God? Yee Haw.

  108. I hesitate to jump into this as a total outsider, but I think much of your problems with these ideas has to do with the lack of language (by Joseph Smith or all of the leaders who came after him) to conceptualize the concepts Joseph was seeing. In the 1830′s people thought of preexistence as meaning before physical life and resurrection as after physical life.

    But we’ve known since the beginning of the 20th Century that “before” and “after” are entirely physical attributes. There are places in our physical universe (event horizons of any black hole) where time might as well be described as running sideways. Time, space, matter, and energy are all intimately involved in each other’s existence, and we have no way of describing “a time before time was created”. Even the term “creation” carries the notion that there was a TIME when TIME did not exist and then a TIME when TIME existed.

    Beings from within time like us can no more describe conditions of eternity than the blind can describe the sensation of seeing. You’re trapped trying to answer the senseless question, “What’s the difference between a duck?

  109. I’ve often felt that religion lost something when it became acceptable to write and say the word “God”. That makes it too easy to project qualities into “God”.

    In the KFD:

    But if I am right then I might be bold to say that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. He could not create himself–Intelligence exists upon a self existent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it.

    I see this as Joseph Smith trying to explain revelation in words that just can’t express the understanding he was given. He’s trying to use the words “spirit”, “man”, “intelligences”, “creation”, and “God” to describe something that we have no words to describe.

    Still, the concept that a “man” has other — essentially undefined — aspects is a useful concept. It leaves open the possibility that statements made about “man” may only apply to particular aspects of man at particular times and under particular circumstances. (And perhaps not all “man”)

    Thus, man can both experience death as we know it and be immortal — a seeming contradiction.

  110. >That we are the glory (shekinah) of God.

    Mark, This is an interesting point. It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “the glory of God is intelligence” (the meaning of which is nearly always misconstrued by Mormons).

  111. Tony, note that the KFD was in response to people that were claiming that he was a fallen prophet. The whole discourse is set against that proposition and consequently the phrases like, “if I am right” should be viewed from that context.


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