Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mormon Book Bits #17: B. H. Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology, 5 Vols

Editor's note: This is # 17 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne about collectible books. The introduction is here.

Introducing this collectable set, Truman G. Madsen wrote of B. H. Roberts:


“During these same years (1907 through 1919) Roberts wrote, compiled and published four of his five manuals or course books titled Seventy's Course in Theology.

“These volumes represent the constant intrepid upreach of Roberts toward making the standard, the maturity, and the effectiveness of the quorums of seventy equal to their scriptural role. His heavy writing is symbolic of a crusade in his life. It was stepped up as he increased in sensitivity. He could never shirk his calling over a period of nearly forty-three years (from the time he was called as a President of the Seventy until his death in 1933). These challenging lessons ranged from an outline history of the seventy and an overview of the scriptures to a history of the major priesthood dispensations and the Mormon doctrine of deity, the atonement of Jesus Christ, and divine immanence and the Holy Ghost. They blend Roberts's double talent as historian and doctrinal expositor. During this period, attendance increased in the seventies quorums to 60 percent, and elders in the Church became eager to be called into the quorums of seventy” (Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith, 298-99).

            Incidentally, certain of Roberts’s doctrinal thinking as set forth in these books did not go unchallenged. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, specifically, pointed out in some detail what he felt to be error in Roberts’s writings on preexistent intelligences. Elder Roberts wrote:


“The Nature of Intelligencies: There is in that complex thing we call man, an intelligent entity, uncreated, self existent, indestructible, He—for that entity is a person; because as we shall see, he is possessed of powers that go with personality only, hence that entity is “he,” not “it,”—he is eternal as God is; co-existent, in fact, with God; of the same kind of substance or essence with deity, though confessedly inferior in degree of intelligence and power to God. One must needs think that the name of this eternal entity—what God calls him—conveys to the mind some idea of his nature. His is called an “intelligence,” and this I believe is descriptive of him. That is, intelligence is the entity’s chief characteristic. If this be a true deduction, then the entity must be self-conscious, and “others—conscious,” that is, he must have the power to distinguish himself from other things—the “me” from the “not me.” He must have the power of deliberation, by which he sets over one thing against another, with power also to form a judgment that this or that is a better thing or state than this or that. Also there goes with this idea of intelligence a power of choosing one thing instead of another, one state rather than another. These powers are inseparably connected with any idea that may be formed of an intelligence. One cannot conceive of intelligence existing without these qualities any more than he can conceive of an object existing in space without dimensions. The phrase “the light of truth” [D&C 93:29] is given in one of the revelations as the equivalent for an “intelligence” here discussed; by which is meant to be understood, as I think, that intelligent entities perceive the truth, are conscious of the truth, they know that which is, hence “the light of truth,” “intelligence.” Let it be observed that I say nothing as to the mode of the existence of these intelligences, beyond the fact of their eternity. But of their form, or the manner of their subsistence nothing, so far as I know, has been revealed, and hence we are without means of knowing anything about the modes of their existence beyond the fact of it, and the essential qualities they possess, which already have been pointed out” (The Seventy’s Course in Theology, Second Year, Outline History of the Dispensations of the Gospel [Salt Lake City: Skelton Publishing Co., 1908], 8; see also 10-12.).

            In response—really correction of—this teaching, Elder McConkie said:

            “What we have in eternity is this: there is something that is called intelligence. There is something that is called spirit element. And those two things are identical. They are different words for the same thing. In the account in Abraham, it says that the Lord showed unto Abraham the intelligences that were organized. And it says that they were souls, were spirits. This spirit element becomes spirits. What is involved is simply this by way of analogy. There is something that we will call spirit element in order to have a concept that we can crystallize in our minds. There comes a day when we are born the children of God. We did not always exist as the children of God. We were something else before we were born his offspring. Christ is the “firstborn” spirit son. There was a day when Christ was born the offspring of God. There was a day when this spirit element became a spirit man [or woman]. In other words, there was a day when this thing which is called intelligence was organized into intelligences. Intelligences are souls; they are spirits. The account uses intelligences as a synonym for spirits, and for souls; those two words. That is all that the revelations teach. That is just what the revelations say, period. They do not go beyond that. But there are some people who have written books and who have analyzed, and who have theorized and who have speculated, and their speculations are that there was something before spirit birth that had agency, and that they chose to be born as spirits. All I want to get over is that that’s not in the revelations and if you want to believe it, please have it firmly entrenched in your minds that you are making something up that has not been revealed. If you reason it out and it seems logical to you, go right ahead and believe it. I don’t happen to believe it. Some of these fellows at the BYU—I had fifteen or twenty of the professors in the religion department in my class this summer—some of them obviously believed it. They didn’t argue with me, but I could tell that they weren’t absorbing what they should have been absorbing while I was teaching these graduate classes. So I said to them, “All right now, brethren, if you want to believe it, that’s wonderful, feel free, you’ve got your agency. But I hope that you know it’s pure speculation.” And that’s all I’m saying to you now.

            “I think I’ll go a little farther. I’ll tell you who invented this speculation. It was B. H. Roberts who invented it. He was the author of this speculation. And in order to do it he had to invent a word which is not in the English language. He invented the word “intelligencies” which is the same as intelligences, but with an i in front of the e. He introduced some things which were called intelligencies before spirit birth, and they were born as intelligences. It was so speculative that there aren’t any words in the English language to describe it, so [he] invented a word.

            “But what counts as far as we are concerned is that there was a day when we were born the spirit children of God, and when we became entities, and had laws given to us and were permitted to obey or disobey. As far as we are concerned that is when preexistence started. That is not to be construed to mean that element doesn’t always exist. This analogy is the same as in this life. Here we live in the world, and all around us is temporal element—the dust of the earth. However many elements there are. This element exits. A mother conceives and brings forth a child. That child is made of the dust of the earth in the literal sense of the word. What that means is that child has a body that is composed of the various natural elements that make up mortality…. These natural elements get organized into bodies, and the bodies are the natural bodies we have that house the eternal spirit. The element has always existed, but it didn’t always exist as an organized body that would house a spirit. Likewise, this spirit element always existed, but it didn’t always exist as an organized intelligence. It didn’t always exist as a spirit child of God. It had to be born to get into either one of these states. I’m suggesting that that is as far as we can go in the revelations.

            “Our conscious identity began at spirit birth and we didn’t have a conscious identity before that as far as the revelations say. If we had a conscious identity before that (which I do not happen to believe), it is not revealed and we are in the realm of the ethereal blue. If you want to believe that, just put a great big red flag on it and in capital letters write, “this is pure unadulterated speculation” exclamation point. The fact is that there is so much we can’t understand that I don’t think we need to get off in that realm, but some people love to get off in that realm and they are welcome to it” (“Pre-existence,” unpublished lecture transcript, University of Utah Institute, October 9, 1967, n.p.).

            Further review of Elder McConkie’s explanation of B. H. Roberts’s writings is found in a letter written to answer an inquiry:

            “As far as I know the ideas in this field originated with B. H. Roberts who wrote the first series of lessons ever used on a church-wide basis for priesthood quorums. In these lessons he came up with the idea that there were intelligencies, a word which he created for the purpose of describing the entities that supposedly existed as such before they were clothed with spirit bodies. This was pure fantasy and pure speculation. It caught on and has been bobbing to the top now and then ever since, except that the word that he created is no longer used. It is this doctrine that the Brethren have described as pure speculation. In my judgment, spirit element exists and it was organized into spirit beings, or in other words intelligence exists and it became the intelligences that were organized. In my judgment there was no agency prior to spirit birth and we did not exist as entities until that time. I do know that this matter has arisen perhaps six or eight times in the years that I have been here and have been involved in reading and approving priesthood or auxiliary lessons. In each of these instances, the matter was ordered deleted from the lesson. In each case it was expressly stated that we have no knowledge of any existence earlier than our existence as the spirit children of God. The views in this field were described as pure speculation. President Joseph Fielding Smith personally, on more than one occasion directed that material not be published and said that he did not believe it, and of course, as you have indicated I do not believe it either.” (Bruce R. McConkie Correspondence, 1974.)

            Further, Elder McConkie, after reviewing a proposed church manual internally, wrote this in a memo to then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball:

            “The material relative to man being eternal and becoming at some point in his progression a child of God, seems to be teaching the speculative view that there was a pre-existence to pre-existence. Would it not be better to teach that spirit element always existed and that man became a child of God when he was born in pre-existence as a spirit? It seems to me that the not uncommon teaching in the Church that spirits existed as entities or egos prior to their birth as spirit children is wholly speculative and probably totally false.” (Memo to Elder Spencer W. Kimball, July 23, 1958.)

            On this same subject are these entries from the diary of President Anthon H. Lund:

“Today we had Bro. Brigham H. Roberts read his article on the Philosophy of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Bro. Charles W. Penrose made a splendid speech on eternalism opposing the view of Bro. Roberts who holds that intelligences were self-existent entities before they entered into the organization of the spirit.” (August 25, 1911)


“Bro. Charles W. Penrose and I listened to Bro. Brigham H. Roberts’s reading his concluding chapter on the Prophet Joseph Smith. We got him to eliminate his theories in regard to intelligences as conscious, self-existing beings or entities before being organized into spirits. This doctrine has raised much discussion and the inference on which he builds his theory is very vague. The Prophet’s speech delivered as a funeral sermon over King Follett, is the basis of Bro. Roberts’s doctrine; namely, where he speaks of man’s eternity claim. Roberts wants to prove that man there is co-equal with God. He no doubt felt bad to have us eliminate his pet theory….” (August 29, 1911)

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