Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Mormonism 101: The First Vision Continued
05/19/2007 - James WhiteThe absence of the concept of a plurality of gods from the earlier accounts of the First Vision leads us to an important point in our examination of LDS doctrinal material: Joseph Smith's development of what is today orthodox LDS belief concerning God. We are again faced with a factor that complicates our task, in that it is almost self-evident that Joseph Smith's theology evolved radically between 1829 and his death in 1844. In fact, the reason we can find passage after passage in the earlier writings of Smith (such as the Book of Mormon and the earlier sections of the Doctrine and Covenants) that consistently affirm the truth that there is only one true God is that Joseph Smith, in those early years, believed in only one true God. However, somewhere between 1834 and 1836 or so, this changed, and by June of 1844, Smith was saying,
I will preach on the plurality of Gods. I have selected this text for that express purpose. I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years.
Yet, we find in the Book of Mormon statement after statement that does not even begin to fit in the mold of preaching a plurality of gods. The Testimony of the Three Witnesses (Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer) printed in the front of theBook of Mormon records them saying, And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen. Here are just a few representative samples from the text of the Book of Mormon itself:
. . . wherefore they both shall be established in one; for there is one God and one Shepherd over all the earth. (1 Nephi 13:41)
And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen. (2 Nephi 31:21)
And he hath brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises with the choirs above, unto the Father, and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Ghost, which are one God, in a state of happiness which hath no end. (Mormon 7:7)
In the same manner, the early revelations of Joseph Smith speak of there being only one true God. The 20th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, given April, 1830, speaks often of this fact:
By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth, and all things which are in them. (D&C 20:17)
Which Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God, infinite and eternal, without end. Amen. (D&C 20:28)
In fact, it seems Smith tried to explain God in trinitarian categories even in the Book of Mormon. However, he, like many Christians today, erred, and ended up presenting the ancient error known as modalism, the idea that the Father is the Son, the Son is the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Father. Note this section from the Book of Mormon, Mosiah 15:1-5:
AND now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. 2 And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son--3 The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son--4 And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth. 5 And thus the flesh becoming subject to the Spirit, or the Son to the Father, being one God, suffereth temptation, and yieldeth not to the temptation, but suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people.
Studies have been published which address the issue of the development of Joseph Smiths concept of God over time. A clear example of this can be found by accessing the book, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith. This work compiles doctrinal teachings of Smith in chronological order. The fair investigator cannot help but be struck by the fact that if one starts at the beginning and reads through to the end, the progression and evolution of Smith's thought is clear and striking. What he teaches in 1829 is not what he is teaching in 1844. But a scriptural example is provided by comparing the above cited story of the First Vision with a section from a revelation given in September of 1832 in Kirtland, Ohio, D&C 84:21-22:
And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.
This section describes the authority of the priesthood and insists that no man can see God the Father without the priesthood and live. Yet, according to Mormon theology, Joseph did not receive the priesthood until 1829, yet the First Vision story says he saw God the Father in 1820. Why didn't Joseph Smith see a conflict in 1832 when he claimed that no man can see God the Father without the priesthood and live? The answer is simple: he had not claimed to have seen God the Father at that time. The First Vision story had not yet evolved to the point where two separate and distinct gods are presented, hence, there was no contradiction to be had in making the statement he did. Only later, as he developed his concept of a plurality of gods, does this section require some very intriguing explanation.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Press, 1938), p. 370, LDSCL.
 These include G.B. Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932), Boyd Kirklands article, Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 19 : 77-93, and Van Hales article The Doctrinal Impact of the King Follet Discourse in BYU Studies, 18  Number 2, 213ff, LDSCL.
 A concept that likewise developed over time in Smith's theology, it being absent from the time period encompassing the founding of the Church itself.
 For example, Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957-1963), 3:155, LDSCL.