Brigham Young’s Couplet

We’re pleased to feature this guest post from John G. Turner, associate professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University and author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, in addition to other writings about Mormonism.

Terryl Givens ends his lucid and immensely informative Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought with a long chapter on theosis, the idea that human beings can progress toward and achieve godhood.

Givens presents Mormon thought as a recovery of “a Christian road not taken,” paths explored by early thinkers such as Origen and Pelagius and then rejected by subsequent definers and defenders of Christian orthodoxy. Mormonism as explicated by Givens insists upon human potentiality, freedom, responsibility, and affinity with the divine. Human beings, the spirit children of heavenly parents, embrace mortality as an ascent — sometimes a very difficult and gradual ascent — toward an exalted return to a heavenly family.

The idea of theosis, rooted in several New Testament passages (Second Peter promises that through Christ we may become “partakers of the divine nature”), stretched far beyond Origen. Clement of Alexandria wrote that “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become God.” As Givens observes, the Cappadocian Fathers (in particular Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus) discussed theosis in similar terms.

The Latter-day Saints talked of human potential in similarly lofty terms from a very early point. Joseph Smith’s 1832 vision of three tiers of heavenly glory promised that those who reach the celestial kingdom would be “gods, even the sons of Gods.” Six years later, as Givens notes, Parley Pratt defended the “doctrine of equality” between exalted human beings and God.

Joseph Smith’s ideas about human potential found their most striking expression in the well-known King Follett Discourse (I always make a point of informing my students that this has nothing to do with an obscure monarch), when Smith revealed that God “was once as we are now, and is an exalted man” and that men needed to “learn how to be gods.” Quite properly, given such ideas, Smith insisted that it was crucial for his listeners to understand who God was and who God is.

What does it mean for human beings to become gods? Per Givens, they would obtain “eternal relationships, a gradually acquired holiness of character, knowledge of all things, and co-participation in God’s ongoing work of creation, with an eternity of progression, stage by stage, into more perfect harmony with the divine nature.” (266) In keeping with recent statements by church leaders, Givens preserves considerable mystery about the exact character of and activity within those eternal relationships. Eternal procreation? Nineteenth-century Latter-day Saint leaders certainly taught this idea; contemporary leaders are “circumspect.” Eternal progression toward godhood, even for those who begin eternity short of the celestial kingdom? Perhaps. Givens quotes Joseph L. Anderson’s statement that “the Church has never announced a definitive doctrine on this point.”

Earlier in Wrestling with Angel, Givens quotes Lorenzo Snow’s oft-quoted “couplet” that “as man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may be.” As Givens also observes, Snow received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith Sr. in 1836 which promised that he would “become as great as you can possibly wish — EVEN AS GREAT AS God, and you cannot wish to be greater.”[1] Snow later recalled that on his way to England in 1840, he “saw as clear as the sun at noonday, with wonder and astonishment, the pathway of God and man.” He then formed the couplet, which he felt explained “Father Smith’s dark saying to me.”[2]

With all due respect to Lorenzo Snow, Brigham Young should receive at least partial credit for the formation of the “Mormon couplet.” In February 1849, at a meeting of “the Presidency, Twelve, & Seventies,” Lorenzo Snow “laid out his opinions as to Jesus Christ being of a different grade than prophets or more than our Bren [brother? — the word is unclear] he is God the father, & not our Elder Brother.”

Young responded — according to minutes kept by Robert Campbell — that “it came to me in England. As God was we shall be. As we are so God was.” Thomas Bullock’s minutes of the same meeting phrase Young’s response as follows:

“As he was, so are we now /

As he is now, so we shall be [become?].” [3]

The language of Young’s couplet is strikingly similar to Lorenzo Snow’s, and the source is apparently much earlier. It seems probable that Brigham Young brought forth Mormonism’s most famous theological couplet, and that Snow many decades later incorporated Young’s language into his own memory.

After his pithy couplet, Young continued: “He is the very eternal father, because of the creation of God. He is the son of God the only begotten. He is the only one God the father came down & begat.” Young then explained that the “spiritual wife doctrine” had also come to him in England by revelation, suggesting — as does Givens — that for early Latter-day Saints christology, plural marriage, and theosis were all very closely related. The conversation, and his role in the formation of a famous Mormon teaching, also suggest that Brigham Young played a still underappreciated role in the preservation and articulation of Joseph Smith’s most significant theological teachings.

 

[1] Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow… (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1884), 10.

[2] Snow, 46-47.

[3] Minutes of 16 Feb 1849 (two separate transcriptions), General Church Minutes, CR 100 318, Box 2, Folder 8, Church History Library.

Comments

  1. Eric Facer says:

    Thank you for your insights, Professor Turner. Most instructive. I was unaware of the extent to which other, more ancient, theologians and philosophers had embraced the idea of theosis; I thought it was pretty much peculiar to Mormonism.

    Givens’ book is the next one in the stack on my nightstand, right after I finish Professor Nye’s new book on evolution (which is very good, by the way). If Terryl’s book is half as good as your biography of Brigham Young, I will be pleased.

  2. John Turner, thank you for your piece here. I enjoyed reading the origins of the doctrine. Thank you also for your book regarding Brigham Young. Your work is fascinating and I like reading your careful scholarship from someone outside of the tradition.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    I wonder whether “Bren” might be “Brethren.” The preceding “than prophets or more than our Bren” suggests a parallelism with a plural term, “prophets,” and the archaic plural of your guess, “brother,” would be “brethren,” and “Bren” seems like it could be an attempted phonetic pronunciation of “brethren.”

    Very interesting about Brigham’s influence on the couplet. His Adam-God doctrine may give the concept an interesting gloss.

  4. Thanks for a very interesting read. I too didn’t realize how far back theosis went in Christian theology.

  5. John Turner says:

    Kevin, my initial thought was that “Bren” was an abbreviation for “Brethren,” and you are correct that it would be parallel to prophets.

  6. The couplet seems a natural concept for Brigham Young; as Kevin mentions, the Adam-God concept lends itself nicely to the couplet.

  7. John Turner says:

    Absolutely, Steve (and Kevin).

  8. Out of curiosity, on the spectrum of “theosis is linked to AG doctrine and therefore theosis is equally as suspect” or “theosis having early linking to AG doctrine makes AG potentially more credible” where do others fall?

    I realize we can say one theosis is right and AG is wrong as a third option, but when I read a lot of early teachings I can’t escape its underlying linking, even in the temple drama and why we’d be so consistently focused on Adam the first of all mankind on many worlds and considering us each as Adam, who was named lord of the earth and who D&C refers to as the Father of us all, etc.

    I realize there are good counter narratives, chief among them simply that it’s just not being taught by those in authority. But the concept has never bothered me one way or another. Some seem to go to awkward lengths to overlook this theological elephant anytime Brigham is discussed (far more than polygamy is avoided) which in some ways reminds me of the way we almost selfcensored ourselves for nearly a generation be use of the godmakers being bashed over our heads.

    I’ve got no worries on this issue but just the comments caused some reflections as it turned in this direction.

  9. Anyone who has wandered through old graveyards has run across the oft-used epitaph —

    Remember me as you pass by,
    As you are now, so once was I.
    As I am now, so you will be.
    Prepare for death and follow me.

    Brigham may have been the one who transferred the sentiment from death to thesis, but I don’t think any Mormon gets credit for originality in the couplet. Consciously or subconsciously — and my money is on consciously — they were drawing on a verse that was famIliad to Brigham, Lorenzo, and virtually everyone who heard them.

    *familiar to … The set-up of the iPad screen doesn’t let me make corrections.

  10. Random musings:

    I had the same thought about the abbreviation of “Brethren,” especially given the capitalization. Granted, capitalizing a noun like that is more common in early 19th century writing than today, but the emphasis given in the Church then and today to “The Brethren” (as opposed to “just us brethren”) lends credence to that interpretation. I’ve plowed through a lot of 19th century handwriting; enough to drive myself crazy correcting errors while indexing on FamilySearch. :)

    That said, I’m very glad to see this. It’s good to see more of something that careful scholars and their readers, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill critics of Mormon doctrine, have known for some time – namely, that theosis is an ancient Christian idea lost over centuries, not a recent invention of Joseph Smith. If it didn’t buck the standard usages of a couple of millennia, I’d call that belief “orthodox” Christianity, and the later idea that humans are a separate and lesser form of creation the aberration. (I sometimes like to rock my fellow Christians’ boats – I work for a Lutheran organization, and will occasionally remark that I hold very orthodox Christian views, so all these newfangled Nicaean ideas about the Trinity don’t sit well with me.)

    Ardis’s connection of the famous couplet to the ubiquitous tombstone verse is interesting. I’ve certainly read it hundreds of times, and never made that connection. I find that connection compelling, since this was a very popular verse and probably appeared on a number of pre-manufactured/engraved headstones. Its earliest American appearance dates to about 1750.

    As to Adam-God, I always wondered (and have never explored extensively) what the temple endowment was like in BY’s time. It would be difficult to accept Adam as literally God the Father, I think, with the initial parts of the endowment as currently laid out.

  11. Thanks, Ardis. I’d never made that connection, but it’s certainly not unlikely.

    One must stick up for one’s biographical subject, however. I do think that Brigham’s formulation (and reference to receiving a revelation in England) predates Lorenzo Snow’s.

  12. This was a good read. As was your book on Brigham Young, Prof. Turner. Thanks.

  13. John, I read BY’s thing a few years ago, but never went back to deconstruct it. Nice job.

  14. I swear I read this in a recent issue of Journal of Mormon History. Anybody else remember it?

  15. Thank you for the insightful post!

    I am rather persuaded by arguments connecting the periodic surfacing of theosis with neoplatonic and gnostic frames of thought, and their vehicles — alchemy, hermeticism, etc. Is that what others have found in this area of research?

  16. John Turner says:

    jpv, let me know if you find this quotation anywhere. I found it in the General Minutes a few years ago. I had it in an earlier draft of my BY biography, moved it around a bit within the manuscript, and then lost track of it!

  17. Dennis Horne says:

    Turners post should be viewed in light of the counter arguments in Appendix 1 of Latter Leaves in the Life of Lorenzo Snow.

  18. If you have a counter argument, Dennis Horne, please share a summary. Otherwise, this seems a blatant sales pitch for your own book.

  19. Question: Regarding Lorenzo Snow’s opinion as to “Jesus Christ being of a different grade than prophets” is the idea that Jesus Christ was more of a prophet than a God or the God a distinctly Mormon belief at the time? Or was it common among other 19th-century protestants? I recently came across a similar idea from Orson Pratt: “The most eminent and distinguished prophets who have laid down their lives for their testimony (Jesus among the rest), will be crowned at the head of the largest kingdoms under the Father…”