The most recent edition of the Journal of Mormon History contains an article by Brian Hales entitled “’A Continuation of the Seeds’: Joseph Smith and Spirit Birth,” in which he argues that Joseph Smith taught that God and his wife created spirits through a viviparous process. Hales has done a lot of good work in bringing new sources to discussions like polygamy, but I think that this article is fundamentally flawed. I think the best thing to do is wait for W. V. Smith’s magnum opus on JS’s funeral sermons as the standard to which this article should be compared. I will say, however, that I view one of the most important flaws to be Hales’ jettisoning statements of JS’s that were consistently taught over years, and that were foundational and completely integral to his theological message when delivered (see WVS), labeling them instead as prevarications calculated to minimize controversy. Odd.
Here, I would like to discuss a small section of the article which quotes (by permission) some correspondence between Hales and I. On page 109, Hales wrote:
Stapley asserts even more strongly that Joseph Smith did not teach of spirit birth. Calling “viviparous spirit birth” a “wildly popular folk belief,” he explains, “Regarding a ‘continuation of the seeds,’ I think Joseph Smith is talking about retaining kinship, as opposed to being separate and single.”
While I do assert that JS did not teach the idea of viviparous spirit birth or spirit creationism (because I don’t think that there is any good evidence that he did, and that there is demonstrable evidence that he believed otherwise), I want to clarify something that may not be clear from this short excerpt. I think that the idea of viviparous spirit birth is a wildly popular folk belief today; but I am not calling it a folk belief as a means of denigration. I have used terms like “folk liturgy” to describe very important and legitimate trends in Mormon history.
I realize that viviparous spirit birth was at one time taught by church leaders—in the case of Brigham Young, in association with his Adam-God beliefs, and in the case of Orson Pratt, in association with his intelligent atomism. By folk belief I mean to clarify that viviparous spirit birth is not taught by the current church leaders. So while it is currently a folk belief, it was not in 1869 when Brigham Young lectured the Salt Lake School of the Prophets on the details of it in relation to Adam-God. [n1] To add a measure of complexity, while it wasn’t a “folk belief” at that time, it was generally disseminated through folk channels of communication, because that is all there was.
I should also point out that I really have no solid data about the popularity of the belief today. It may be that non-viviparous spirit creation is more dominant in the current church. I will also say that I have heard Joseph Smith’s teachings on uncreated spirits being quoted over the Sunday pulpit, so that may be more popular than some might think as well.
- See the accounts and minutes of the December 11, 1869 Salt Lake City School of the Prophets. Frederick Kesler’s and Wilford Woodruff’s diaries are probably the most accessible.