Well, now, Brother William, when the house of Israel begin to come into the glorious mysteries of the kingdom, and find that Jesus Christ, whose goings forth, as the prophets said, have been from of old, from eternity; and that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years…

So said William W. Phelps, the Prophet Joseph’s scribe, in a letter to the Prophet’s brother, William Smith, in 1844. Shortly thereafter, the Church’s official periodical published Phelps’ statement, with one small editorial addition:

… eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system (not the world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years… Times & Seasons 5 no. 24 (1 Jan. 1844), 758 (emphasis added).

What a bizarre and perplexing quote. “This system” has been around for 2,555,000,000 years? Whatever could this mean? I asked myself this question when I first came across Phelps’ comment 15 or so years ago. (I think I was on my mission, but I might have been a freshman at BYU). It was rather odd and unbelievable, yet at the same time it seemed to dare the reader to take it seriously. After all, why would an early church leader make this up, or casually assert such a claim if he didn’t have compelling evidence (scriptural, revelatory, or otherwise) to back it up? And that number … 2,555,000,000. It was so huge, and yet so precise! Phelps is talking in the billions, and yet he had pinpointed the age of the “system” within a few million years! The number was so alluring, so mysterious, it tempted one to imagine that some deep secret piece of cosmological trivia had truly been revealed to mankind…

Alas, no. I would later learn, thanks to Erich Robert Paul’s Science, Religion and Mormon Cosmology (U. of Illinois Press, 1992, p.183), that most likely, Phelps was merely engaging in good old-fashioned Biblical numerology. Consider the following explanation from Paul:

(1) Each creative period is the equivalent of 1,000 years of God’s time (not humankind’s) and because the Creation required seven periods (including one of rest), therefore the Creation required 7,000 years of God’s time:

or: 7,000 years (God)/creation (God) (C1)

(2) The reckoning for God’s time is similar to that of human’s time:

or: 365 days (God)/1 year (God) (C2)

(3) 1,000 years in human’s time is equivalent to one day in God’s time (Abr. 3:4, 2 Peter 3:8):

or: 1,000 years (humans)/1 day (God) (C3)

Finally, multiplying C1 by C2 by C3, or

[7,000 years (God)/creation (God)]
X [365 days (God)/1 year (God)]
X [1,000 years (humans)/1 day (God)]

we get: 2,555,000,000 years (humans)/creation (God)

Pretty compelling stuff, me thinks. It wasn’t completely clear to me why one should make the move at C1 (i.e., why think in terms of God’s years at all, rather than just Earth years), but no matter. 2,555 x 10 (to the whatever power) had officially lost its mystique. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.

However, one final mystery remains. Why hasn’t Phelps’ statement played a greater role in LDS arguments about the age of the earth or the cosmos? After all, Phelps’ claim is not exactly obscure. More than one religion teacher at BYU has included the quotation in a packet of materials disseminated to students. I distinctly recall a roommate and his friend expressing confidence in its truth, given its utterance by a high-ranking early Church leader. Even Bruce R. McConkie, in The Mortal Messiah, proclaimed Phelps’ comment an “authentic account, which can be accepted as true.” In short, many have been exposed to the quote, while few have recognized its more mundane and fanciful origins. So I want to know why Phelps’ comments haven’t been used as ammunition in battles over cosmic dating in light of science and scripture. Shouldn’t at least someone be announcing the prescience of Joseph Smith (Phelps was his scribe, after all) in indirectly revealing an age of the earth (solar system?) that is “remarkably close” to that declared by modern science (give or take a couple billion years)?

Yes, I know the arguments are bad, but I’m not asking you to believe them. I’m just wondering why I’ve never run across them. (It’s not like bad arguments haven’t circulated about lots of other church subjects, after all).


  1. 2.5 billion years? Doesn’t our scientific accounts have the earth at about 4.5 billion years? Not to mention the whole of the cosmos at about 14 billion years.

    I don’t think we still yet fully understand how to measure God’s time. I come up with too many contradictory things in how God’s time is measured.

  2. I ran into this in a sunday school lesson in the MTC. At the time, I thought it was interesting enough to write it down in the margins of my scriptures. I think it isn’t used much because it is not necassairly the best argument for or against anything. The only use I’ve seen it put to is basking Young Earth Creationism and promoting a “don’t worry about it” approach to the origin of man and earth.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, I think this number has been dredged out from time to time as an argument in favor of a Mormon consonance with science (in general terms of a very long time, not in specific terms of the exact number of billions of years, as you note) as against a young earth creationism, but I don’t have any such sources ready to hand.

  4. Hmm, I think there’s pretty good evidence photosynthesis evolved about 2.5 or 2.6 billion years ago. So, if photosynthesis is the system of which he speaks he’s exceptionally close on the timing. I think your numerology explanation is probably quite a bit closer to the truth, though. Dan–you’re right, the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old (or 4.5, depending on how your round).

    Maybe living in university wards leads me to a skewed idea of what other Mormons believe about the age of the Earth (though my habit of ignoring those who do believe in a young Earth probably doesn’t help), but I don’t get the impression most Mormons get too hung up on the age of the Earth. That may be why this isn’t quoted too much.

  5. Yea, it’s a good question. It seems just like the kind of juicy worthless tidbit that people would latch onto and pass around like crazy. I don’t know why it has never taken off, but I’m glad it hasn’t. Seems like BRM is the only one I can think of who was really excited about this.

  6. Like Kristine I always found it interesting thaqt about 2.5 billion years ago was when complex life began even if life proper was pushed back to around 4 billion 15 years ago.

  7. Clark–the most recent stuff I’ve heard is that people don’t believe the earlier emergence stuff anymore. There were a couple of lines of evidence suggesting a very early emergence of life, primary among them being Bill Schopf’s Apex chert microfossils, but people are questioning the evidence. About four or five years ago there was quite the debate between Schopf and another guy named Martin Brasier over whether the microfossils from the apex chert were actually fossils or were just impurities in the rock.

  8. That’s really interesting Kristine. I’d somehow managed to miss that controversy entirely. So are some putting the date back to 2.5 billion as it was in the 80’s?

  9. Phelps pretty clearly means the age of the galactic system (what we would probably term “our” universe in modern parlance) rather than the world in this excerpt. That may be another reason why the letter is not often quoted.

    The whole letter is worth reading, as it is exuberant and fascinating, even if it would not pass muster scientifically now.

  10. Incidentally, Duane Jeffrey, it turns out, disagrees with this reading. He has not apparently read the KEP, which I think support the view that Phelps had in mind an interlocking system of planets all governed by the selection of Jesus. This system would likely combine all the distinctively-named heavenly objects of the Egyptian project, in their interconnections.

  11. The idea of several collected planets with a single savior was a popular view in the 19th century among some. Orson Hyde interprets D&C 88’s parable in those terms as I recall.

    What’s most interesting about the quote is, of course, not probably futile attempts to link it to science, but what it says rhetorically. That is “eternity” isn’t seen as how we normally interpret it but is an undefined period which, for us, is only 2.5 billion years. Quite radical if applied to many traditional scriptures.

    The idea probably can be seen in the dispensational view of Revelation and the seven seals. Each was 1000 years of a kind of temporal history. While some literalists read this as an absolute issue of time – (i.e. Young Earth Creationism) – it seems the more interesting take is that it’s periods of a meaningful aspect of history. Taking Eternity in this sense is quite interesting.

  12. BTW – I agree that the full text is interesting. Especially the paragraph before. There it has Mother in Heaven being quite proud of her son Jesus. Phelps then records this doozey…

    In fact the Jews thought so much of his coronation among Gods and Goddesses; Kings and Queens of heaven, that they broke over all restraints and actually began to worship the “Queen of heaven,” according to Jeremiah.

    Quite an interesting reading of Jeremiah, no?

  13. John Mansfield says:

    So, besides Battlestar Galactica, that Stargate show was also based on Mormon cosmology?

  14. I should note that this cyclical view of time was popular in Judaism and also in various forms of Hinduism. I can’t recall but I believe it was discussed in commentaries that were “potentially” available to Joseph.

  15. I agree. I thought the invocation of Mother in Heaven was stunning, and not one that I see much in the standard treatments. Jeremiah was talking about Asherah idolatery as I recall. Fascinating to reclaim nuggets of religious truth from prior heresies.

    I think of the numerological bookends to epochs as an indication of God’s influence on the shape of human history, however little we’re willing to consider it. In light of the KEP, Phelps intended that these time spans actually represented something about the physical nature of the universe, particularly by the biblicized metric of cubits of orbital distance to time to gravity in a celestial network.

  16. What’s interesting is that it exposes a recognition of the idea of a mother in heaven. I think as exegesis it makes little sense. (The Jews at 600 BC suddenly discovered then that Jesus was Jesus and started worshipping Asherah because of that? What?) But it does reflect the kind of discussions that were probably going on. That in turn suggests that more commentary on the scriptures was being examined than often is assumed.

    (Although obviously critics tend to go a bit off the deep end the other direction)

  17. Clark–most people I know are just more agnostic on the issue anymore. 2.5 Ga is sort of a, “we know it happened by now” date, with plenty of people arguing for earlier but most people agreeing it’s really hard to say.

  18. I should mention I’ve been out of astrobiology circles for the last three years or so, and things could have changed in that time.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Jeremiah’s Queen of Heaven is traditionally taken to be Astarte, but William Dever in his Did God Have a Wife? argues that it was indeed Asherah.

  20. Matt B and I are working on a paper together that begins to look at ways that Smith used Christian heresy to reconstruct and validate the LDS Restoration. This Jeremiah citation is a fairly typical example of how Smith and Phelps and others in the inner circle exploited these chinks in the armor of evangelical Protestantism.

    Incidentally, Jared’s current post on inspired “error”s seems quite relevant here.

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