A couple of years ago (Nov. 2017), Terry Givens (now with the Neal A. Maxwell Institute) was interviewed for an LDS Perspectives podcast, giving his views on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ gospel topic essay “Becoming Like God.” As he answered questions, he made a concerted effort to diminish or weaken or dilute the long-standing settled doctrine of the Church that man (men and women) can become like God; can become gods themselves.
Some of Mr. Givens’ disturbing comments are these:
There is a good deal of folk theology that has developed around this notion, especially during the Brigham Young years. Because of the theologizing of people like Orson Pratt and others, the emphasis was often on world creation. Joseph Smith, of course, in section 132 referred to the possibility that men and women sealed in the everlasting covenant of marriage would produce seed eternally. That was extrapolated to mean that men and women who were exalted would create their own worlds and people them with their own spirits, then preside over those planets as God does over His. There isn’t, as far as I can find, any authoritative scriptural or prophetic pronouncements with that degree of specificity. I think it’s an unfortunate misdirection that serves the church poorly, both because of the delusions of grandeur which it can lead to and because the last thing we want to be known for to an outside community is the aspiration to have planets of our own.
Setting aside the troubling issue of discounting the teachings of such inspired apostolic timber as Elder Orson Pratt and President Brigham Young, not to mention their contemporaries; and forgetting for a moment the temerity of labeling of their teachings as “theologizing” and “folk theology”; and setting aside for a moment that the Book of Abraham and modern apostles have taught that in the pre-existence the “noble and great ones” already helped create this earth as practice; the most startling comment found in this narration is that Mr. Givens has been unable to find “any authoritative scriptural or prophetic pronouncements” that directly speak of or teach that exalted men and women would one day become gods and preside over worlds/planets, “as God does over His.” And further that Mr. Givens states as a reason that Latter-day Saints don’t want to be known to “outsiders” (also known as non-members) as aspiring to have planets of their own.
May I be pardoned at my incredulity that this supposedly educated individual couldn’t name a number of such items off the top of his head, but that he says they actually do not exist. Again, setting aside our collective gasp of astonishment, let us now assist Mr. Givens in his apparent stupor of thought, taking several from off the top of my head.
1. Mr. Givens mentioned the King Follet discourse, so let us quote from it; the Prophet Joseph Smith speaking: “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 form—like 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.” And: “These ideas are incomprehensible 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 finally: “Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.” These quotations should be satisfactory to get the point across. Mr. Givens does quibble over whether we should accept the Prophet’s discourse as doctrine; I hope the fact that our quotations here come from the Ensign can help him with that issue.
2. Now we present some scripture: JST, Revelation 2:26-27, including the summary: “Those who overcome the world by obedience to Christ’s commandments will rule kingdoms in the world to come with faith, equity, and justice.”
26 And to him who overcometh, and keepeth my commandments unto the end, will I give power over many kingdoms [worlds];
27 And he shall rule them with the word of God; and they shall be in his hands as the vessels of clay in the hands of a potter; and he shall govern them by faith, with equity and justice, even as I received of my Father.
I include the summary because there are those who might desire to willfully misinterpret the plain meaning of these inspired words. I also suggest that notice be taken of some other passages from the book of Revelation that explain the reward God gives to those who overcome the world (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 21:7).
3. There are many verses in D&C 130 and 131 that strongly imply that righteous men and women, that are eventually exalted, will become gods, but the best verses bluntly stating that such is the doctrine are from section 132:17, 20, and 37, which say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods.” Seeing that Mr. Givens referenced this section, it is hard to see how he missed the direct wording about becoming gods. Perhaps he wants to hedge on what will be done by the exalted as gods; if so, he has but to read the section a little more carefully. If he doesn’t like what the apostles and prophets of this dispensation have taught about this section (or “extrapolated” as he put it) then he has set himself above them as a doctrinal and scriptural interpreter unto himself. The chapter summary could help him with his interpretations: “Celestial marriage and a continuation of the family unit enable men to become gods” and “Promises of eternal increase and exaltation are made to prophets and Saints in all ages.” This is pretty specific doctrine, something Mr. Givens indicates in the interview that he doesn’t like and wishes the church would cease teaching and believing. He says it gives us delusions of grandeur and serves the Church poorly. Such thinking causes me to wonder: is he ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
4. The teaching and testimony of President Lorenzo Snow, regarding his famous couplet (see below). In the interview, Mr. Givens tries to get around President Snow’s doctrine by saying it is not canonized and therefore is not official doctrine that is binding on him to believe. I suppose this is the best and only method at his disposal for discounting the teachings of a president of the Church in General Conference (although the couplet is in church manuals and has passed modern Correlation review). Seeking such a loophole to rationalize disbelief in doctrine so personal and sacred to him would have deeply offended this prophet of God. To the conference assembled President Snow testified:
That exalted position was made manifest to me at a very early day. I had a direct revelation of this. It was most perfect and complete. If there ever was a thing revealed to man perfectly, clearly, so that there could be no doubt or dubiety, this was revealed to me, and it came in these words: "As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be." This may appear to some minds as something very strange and remarkable, but it is in perfect harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ and with His promises. … This is the high destiny of the sons of God, they who overcome, who are obedient to His commandments, who purify themselves even as He is pure. They are to become like Him; they will see Him as He is; they will behold His face and reign with Him in His glory, becoming like unto Him in every particular.
At a General Conference priesthood meeting he again bore witness: “He [Pres. Snow] appreciated the fact that he was standing before men who would in time be gods; but our glory, after all, would depend entirely upon ourselves and our faithfulness. If we fail to magnify our Priesthood it would have been better if it had never been conferred upon us. He had not been long in the Church before the Lord revealed to him this grand and mighty principle, and he expressed it in a couplet composed by himself. ‘As man now is, God once was; as God now is man may be.’”
As part of his second major discourse (given in Brigham City, Utah) after becoming President of the Church: “President Snow spoke of the destiny of man. The time will come, he said, when we shall be like our Father in Heaven. This had been revealed to him early in his experience. He referred to the saying of John, that when Christ shall appear we shall be like Him; also to the angel that John the Revelator fell down to worship. We are told that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are Gods in eternity. We can attain to this condition by purifying ourselves as God is pure.”
I think it more than interesting that the next man who became president of the Church after President Snow, when talking about the disbelief that some people have in this doctrine, this couplet, that men can become gods, virtually prophesied of the things said by Mr. Givens, as he followed President Snow speaking on an occasion when this doctrine was taught. It was at a reunion of stale priesthood leaders, on June 12, 1901, that President Joseph F. Smith said the following:
Beloved brethren and sisters, It is with feelings of humility that I arise before you. I have listened to many interesting things this morning, among them the early experiences of President Lorenzo Snow and the moving influence of his life, the Holy Ghost, which has directed his efforts in assisting to establish Zion. … It is impossible at this moment to speak upon any particular subject, but I call your attention to the man who took down his patriarchal blessing and to the remark of the Patriarch when the blessing was read over that he, this brother, had been so long steeped in the traditions and prejudices of the sectarian world that it was difficult for him to comprehend what was said. I’m sorry to say that I have witnessed the same thing in many men connected with the Church, but who have been born, reared and educated in the sectarian world, to such an extent that notwithstanding they have become Latter-day Saints, have been born again under the new covenant, they were yet so imbued with the traditions of the fathers that it was difficult to get the truth fully into their minds. I had an old friend, for many years a Bishop. We buried him a few days ago. There was no better man according to his understanding and according to the desires of his heart, but when he preached and how he prayed, whether at home or in public, you could see the horns of sectarianism sticking out all over him and bristling in him. There is too much of this among us. We have heard the remarks of President Snow, of the revelation that came to him in respect to our relationship to God, and His to us, as expressed by President Snow in the words, “As man now is, God once was, and as God now is man may be.” It is hard to get this idea into the heads of many of the Latter-day Saints, and it is almost an impossibility to get it into the minds of the people of the so-called Christian world. . . .
What is more natural than that as God is man may become if we take Jesus Christ as an example. We are like Him now, but in embryo, while He has developed and advanced and sits upon His throne and reigns. This truth has been revealed to President Snow and it ought to appeal to every human being on earth, and particularly should it appeal to us because of the greater light that has been received by revelation through the Prophet Joseph. . . .
When Jesus was on earth He had a mother there as we have. We are built on the same plan as God our Father. our destiny is the same as His, for we are formed in His likeness, and nothing is more natural than that as He is we may become. For this the world calls us blasphemous, because they worship a nonentity, a nondescript, without body, parts and passions, whose circumference is everywhere and whose center is nowhere. Yet there is no truth that has been revealed to us that is more simple and plain than this. God grant that we may all understand this principle and cling to it and never yield it while life shall last.
Could President Joseph F. Smith have described what Mr. Givens said in the interview any more clearly—well over 100 years before he said it? It seems that President Smith would also have been offended, or at least saddened and disappointed at the weakening and marginalization of this doctrine as sought by Mr. Givens.
Time and again President Snow taught this doctrine to the Church (I have counted more than 13 recorded instances), having had it revealed to him by vision under the power of the Holy Ghost. If someone doesn’t want to believe it, and wants to quibble and intellectualize about it with the philosophies and theories of men, they may, but perhaps they ought more carefully consider their venue.
5. The First Presidency of Joseph F. Smith, John R. Winder, and Anthon H. Lund, issued an “official” statement to the Church on the “Origin of Man.” In that declaration, which although not canonized as scripture still represents the position of the Church, they declared: “Man is the child of God, formed in the divine image and endowed with divine attributes, and even as the infant son of an earthly father and mother is capable in due time of becoming a man, so the undeveloped offspring of celestial parentage is capable, by experience through ages and aeons, of evolving into a God.” Such direct and specific language is unmistakable in meaning.
6. Lastly, I quote from the current President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson. It is true that this was taught after Mr. Givens’ interview, but is quoted here to reinforce all that has previously been stated (above). Speaking for the First Presidency, he taught: “When the Father offers us everlasting life, He is saying in essence, ‘If you choose to follow my Son—if your desire is really to become more like Him—then in time you may live as we live and preside over worlds and kingdoms as we do.’”
I have left out many modern prophets’ and apostles’ teachings on this subject, quickly locating and sharing these six items that Mr. Givens should have had occur to him. With a little more time and effort I could easily come up with a host of quotations from scores of other church leaders teaching this doctrine. How Mr. Givens could say what he did escapes me—unless he doesn’t believe it himself and doesn’t want to, but instead desires to make the gospel more palatable to an unbelieving world.
The doctrine of the Church is what it is and no amount of hedging and vacillating and worrying about what critics or non-members think of our doctrine is going to change it. If we determined our doctrine by what the world thinks of it we would soon become no different than the rest of the Christian world, and soon thereafter no different than the secular humanist world, with our doctrine being blown about by the whims of anyone with a loud enough voice.
Let us hope that this “LDS Perspectives” podcast’s influence will be meager and soon forgotten. Instead let us inform ourselves of true gospel doctrine and gain a knowledge for ourselves of the truthfulness of it by the power of the Holy Spirit.