For anyone who has studied the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, listening to talk radio of any kind during this political season is proving painful. Being even a conservative talk show host obviously does not impart to you even the slightest bit of theological or historical knowledge. The flood of utter ignorance of LDS beliefs that I have heard flying out of my radio speakers has been breathtaking. “Mormons are just a different kind of Christian” seems to be about as deep as most people want to go, and one thing is for sure: if you dare try to address the fundamental differences between Mormonism and Christianity, you will not be given the time of day. No one is interested. Now, I must admit, I have heard a few make the attempt who never should have, either. You need to know what you are talking about if you are going to try to make the case with clarity
It is to that end that I would like to provide you with some basic information regarding the LDS doctrine of God. My sources will be LDS. I am drawing from my book, Is the Mormon My Brother, which we are seeking to put back into print. The current political campaign has opened up the opportunity for dialogue. The door is not wide open, but, if the Christian is prepared, knowledgable, and has a clear direction in mind, he or she has an opportunity to speak a word in due season, to God’s glory.
The First Vision
Without question the key revelation in Mormon Scripture regarding the nature of God is to be found in what is known as the First Vision of Joseph Smith. The vision itself is fundamental to all of LDS theology. Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie described the vision:
That glorious theophany which took place in the spring of 1820 and which marked the opening of the dispensation of the fulness of times is called the First Vision. It is rated as first both from the standpoint of time and of pre-eminent importance. In it Joseph Smith saw and conversed with the Father and the Son, both of which exalted personages were personally present before him as he lay enwrapped in the Spirit and overshadowed by the Holy Ghost.
This transcendent vision was the beginning of latter day revelation; it marked the opening of the heavens after the long night of apostate darkness; with it was ushered in the great era of restoration, the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began. (Acts 3:21.) Through it the creeds of Christendom were shattered to smithereens, and because of it the truth about those Beings whom it is life eternal to know began again to be taught among men. (John 17:3.) With this vision came the call of that Prophet who, save Jesus only, was destined to do more for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. (D. & C. 135:3.) This vision was the most important event that had taken place in all world history from the day of Christ’s ministry to the glorious hour when it occurred.(1)
And Mormon Prophet Ezra Taft Benson said,
Joseph Smith, a prophet of God, restored the knowledge of God. Joseph’s first vision clearly revealed that the Father and Son are separate personages, having bodies as tangible as mans. Later it was also revealed that the Holy Ghost is a personage of Spirit, separate and distinct from the personalities of the Father and the Son. (See D&C 130:22.) This all-important truth shocked the world even though sustained by the Bible. (2)
How is it that the creeds of Christendom were shattered to smithereens and the knowledge of God was restored by this one vision? While the story is as familiar to Mormons as John 3:16 is to Christians, we present Joseph Smith’s own recounting of the story in full, taken from the LDS Scriptures (and hence carrying canonical authority). However, we note that the account that appears in the LDS Scriptures was written in 1838, eighteen years after the events described:
14 So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.
15 After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon bysome power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
16 But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the powerof some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any beingjust at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, callingme by name and said, pointing to the otherThis is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
18 My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)–and which I should join.
19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong;(3) and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.
20 He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, Never mind, all is wellI am well enough off. I then said to my mother, I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true. It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy? (Joseph Smith History 1:14-20).
What does this vision, recorded in LDS Scripture, teach concerning God? First and foremost, it presents to us the concept of a plurality of gods. This arises from the fact that God the Father is a separate and distinct physical entity from Jesus Christ, His Son. God the Father is possessed of a physical body, as is the Son. This is why McConkie can claim the creeds of Christendom were smashed to smithereens, for the vision has always been interpreted by the LDS leadership to teach that God the Father is a separate and distinct person and being from the Son. The unity of Being that is central to Christian theology is completely denied by Joseph Smith in the First Vision. Hence, you have one God, the Father, directing Smith to another God, the Son.
While it is not our intention to critique these teachings at this point, it should be noted that there are a number of problems with the First Vision, and with the entire development of the LDS concept of God as well. As we noted, this version of the First Vision was not written until 1838. Previous versions, however, differed in substantial details from this final and official account. Most significantly, the presence of both the Father and the Son as separate and distinct gods is not a part of the earlier accounts.(4)
(1) Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine,2nd ed., rev. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), pp. 284-285, LDSCL.
(2) Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), p. 4, LDSCL. On page 101 of the same book, we read this strong statement:
The first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith is bedrock theology to the Church. The adversary knows this and has attacked Joseph Smith’s credibility from the day he announced the visitation of the Father and the Son. You should always bear testimony to thetruth of the First Vision. Joseph Smith did see the Father and the Son. They conversed with him as he said they did. Any leader who, without reservation, cannot declare his testimony that God and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith can never be a true leader, a true shepherd. If we do not accept this truthif we have not received a witness about this great revelationwe cannot inspire faith in those whom we lead.
(3) One of Mormonism’s leading scholars, James Talmage (and a General Authority), said the following in the General Conference of April, 1920:
This Church, therefore, from its beginning, has been unique, for the organization of the Church was forecasted in this declaration that at the time of Joseph Smiths first vision there was no Church of Jesus Christ upon the earth; and I do not see why people should take issue with us for making that statement (CR1920Apr:103).
(4) I noted a number of the historical problems with Mormonism in Letters to a Mormon Elder, pp. 88-106. For a fuller treatment of this issue, see H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism (Salt Lake: Smith Research Associates, 1994), pp.1-41, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1982), pp. 143-162.