God is an Exalted Man
God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in formlike yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another. Ibid., p. 345. Italics in the printed edition.
There are few passages in all of LDS literature more often cited, quoted, and discussed, than this one. This, and the two paragraphs that follow, rank right next to the First Vision in their impact upon LDS theology to this very day. The first phrase, God himself was once as we are now, has been so often repeated that it has become a given in LDS teaching. This, and the saying of Lorenzo Snow that we will examine later, “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become,” have attained a status in Mormon theology that ranks them as carrying as much authority as any other statement about God.
God himself was once as we are now. The full impact of this statement must be understood. Here we have a man who is claiming to stand as a prophet of God, as a Christian prophet, who is proclaiming that God once existed in a corporeal, human state. “God was once a man like us” (see below). A number of things must then be true. First, God has not eternally been God. From this we develop the idea of exaltation, a process that even God Himself has undergone. Secondly, if God has not eternally been God, then obviously there must have been a God or gods before Him (unless one embraces the idea that the universe sprang into existence without divine assistance). Many Christian philosophers have pointed out the obvious flaw in such a concept: if every God was once a man, then, what about the first God? If the law is inviolable, did not this God have to be a man before becoming a God? Some LDS have said that there was never a first,but that the regression is eternal. But such an argument is irrational on many grounds. The simplest means of demonstrating this is to point out that the number of exalted beings is increasing as time passes. If the number increases with the passing of time, and cannot then decrease (Gods don’t cease to be Gods, do they?), then as we go back in time the number decreases.Eventually, one must come to the first God who began the process. That this idea has been found in LDS writings is fairly simple to document. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt noted in his book, The Seer, p. 132 (from September of 1853):
We were begotten by our Father in Heaven; the person of our Father in Heaven was begotten by a still moreancient Father and so on, from generation to generation, from one heavenly world to another still more ancient, until our minds are wearied and lost in the multiplicity of generations and successive worlds, and as a last resort, we wonder in our minds, how far back the genealogy extends, and how the first world was formed, and the first father was begotten. But why does man seek for a first, when revelation informs him that Gods works are without beginning? Do you still seek for a first link where the chain is endless? Can you conceive of a firstyear in endless duration? . . . The Fulness of Truth, dwelling in an endless succession of past generations, would produce an endless succession of personal Gods, each possessing equal wisdom, power, and glory with all the rest. In worshipping any one of these Gods we worship the whole, and in worshipping the whole, we still worship but one God; for it is the same God who dwells in them all; the personages are only His different dwelling places.
It seems to me that Pratt here goes well into the realm of speculation, though again, the Mormon is left to deal with the difficulty of an Apostle teaching on religious truth and yet, in so doing, not providing authoritative counsel and doctrine.
God is an exalted man. From this assertion we see the coming together of the thought process we observed in the earlier sections of the Doctrine and Covenants,that being the exaltation of man to a high status. God and man are the same species, the same kind of being, differing in level of exaltation. We are not yet exalted; God has undergone this process, and this is why He differs from us. But, since He was once where we are, obviously the door is opened for us to undergo the same process and hence, someday, become a God as He is.
God has a physical body, for He is an exalted man, just as the 1838 edition of the First Vision had asserted. This physical body is not just an unnecessary addition or accessory. It is definitional of God Himself, just as our body is vital to what it means to be a human.
These statements would have been enough, but Joseph Smith was just warming up. He leaves us with no room for misunderstanding his intent.
In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.
These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.Ibid., pp. 345-346. Italics in printed edition.
When speaking of the character of God, Smith insists that God came to be God. This continues the idea that God was once something other than what He is today. Smith then strikes directly at the heart of Christian orthodoxy–at a belief held by Christians from the very beginning–in saying that he will refute the idea that God has been God from all eternity (Psalm 90:2). Obviously, then, it is perfectly permissible to understand Smith as positively saying that God has not eternally been God. Hence, when one sees LDS writers referring to God as eternal, they are normally referring to Gods existence en toto, that is, on the same level as being able to say, as Mormons do, that man is eternal as well. How else could it be? The drive to make it possible for man to become exalted must of necessity result in this kind of assertion about God Himself. The God of Christian orthodoxy, because He is eternal, unchanging, and exhaustive of every category of perfection, power, and being, simply leaves no room for the kind of future Smith envisioned for man. Hence, the God of Christian orthodoxy had to be refuted.
We cannot lightly pass over Smith’s assertion that it is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know . . . that he was once a man like us. I have often heard LDS say that we shouldn’t discuss such deep issues as exaltation to godhood, yet Smith says it is the first principle of the Gospel. It is clear that Joseph Smith did not view this as an optional belief at this point in his life and teaching. This is not just a side-issue upon which we may or may not agree with him. This is doctrine, pure and simple, and it is not something upon which a person can disagree and remain a follower of the Prophet.
Further, we cannot miss the emphasis upon the similarity of the pre-exaltation existence of God with our own current earthly lot. Smith insists that God’s time as a man is parallel to the life of Christ here upon earth. Obviously, then, Smith means what he says: God was a man like we are men, human beings, going through the same experiences of life that we are. Some modern LDS are uncomfortable with the clarity and force of such statements. Some wish to pull the veil back across the Prophets teachings so as to not have to defend such doctrine. But this is his teaching, without question. [continued]