Evolution and Self-Existing Spirits

As I mentioned in the previous post there are other, currently less popular, versions of the preexistence which we would do well to not ignore in our discussion. Here we should consider the following doctrines, both of which were believed by Joseph Smith during periods of his life: 1) that our we as spiritual being always existed without beginning, and 2) that we merely preexisted in God's mind.

The idea that our we as spirits always existed in explained best in Joseph's King Follet discourse wherein he compares our spiritual existence with a ring; there is neither a beginning, nor an end. "I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops, that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all."
Smith's.. doctrinal teaching was that the human spirit as a conscious entity is eternal--as eternal as God. It has no beginning and has no end. It was not created; it is self-existing. God, being more advanced than the other spirits, organized them and instituted laws to give them the privilege to advance like himself. He presides and will preside over them throughout eternity. Smith used the terms "spirit," "soul," "intelligence," and "mind" synonymously to describe the inchoate, indestructible essence of life.
This summary is drawn from eight documentary sources--dating from 6 May 1833 to 7 April 1844. None of them suggest that God presides over the spirits because they are his begotten offspring, but because he was more intelligent, more advanced, than they and because he organized them into a premortal council. -Van Hale in Line Upon Line
How does this picture measure up to the difficulties we mentioned before? It's a bit difficult to tell.

After all, what, under this model, is a spirit? Does it have a spirit body? Does this spirit body look like the organisms they would later become? What kinds of intelligences are there? Human? Cro-magnon? Jelly fish? Trees? Dirt? While its clear that Joseph believed that we were autonomous agents, such that we could choose a savior and be organized by God, it is not clear at all how far "down" we can extend this.

As we noticed before, evolution would seem to call for a somewhat vague idea of a spiritual identity, devoid of our current familial resemblances and traits which are inherited genetically. Do to historical contigency, randomness and free will we would not know for sure who our earth spouses would be or who our exact children would be. This model of the preexistence works quite well in this area.

There is also the issue of essentialism, some spirits were literally begotten of God and others were not. Under this model, noboby was literally begotten of God. They were only organized by God, analogous, I imagine, to adoption. This does leave a bit more space for gradualness. After all, when is something a member of your family? When they are a parent, a sibling, an aunt, a fouth cousin twice removed on your mother's side, a pet dog, a pet gold fish, a box of silk worms, intenstinal worms, a cold, the mildew under the sink?

This question of where to draw the line may be difficult for some, especially cat lovers (pause for shudder), but the question only gets that much more difficult when we ask "when is somebody in the human family?" Is it possible to be partially adopted into the family of God? I answer, "Why not?"

We could speculate as to the possibility of generational adoption, where certain individuals (not just humans mind you) are adopted to individuals other than God. But again we must not commit ourselves to too much detail. But we must remember, that this model insists on a vague notion of each person's preexistent spiritual identity. The more details we insist on applying to our preexistet selves, the more difficult it will be to harmonize with the utter randomness of evolution.

This lead us Joseph's first notion of the preexistence, namely that we preexisted in God's mind. This is what the Book of Mormon means that when Adam fell, all of mankind fell, for we all existed "in" Adam. This is what is referred to in the Books of Genesis as well as Mose by the spiritual creation. It does not mean spirit as in "finer matter", but spirit as in God's pre-knowledge of sorts.

We can see this is that in the Book of Abraham as well as in the temple depiction there is no mention of a spirit creation, only planning sessions. These planning sessions where what the Book of Moses meant by "spiritual creation." While people can insist that the Lord knew what He was talking about, we should remember that he was speaking to Moses in Genesis and Joseph Smith and the earliest saints in the Book of Moses. They did not believe the same things then as we do now. We should stop trying to attribute things to the Lord which have no contextual credibility.

This first notion is very easy to reconcile with evolution, for it involves little more than God's foreknowledge. Again, we must consider Mormonism's unique limitations which are placed on God, but I doubt many Mormons would be comfortable fully adopting this model. Modern day revelation regarding the preexistence originally came in the context of this belief, because it was the belief held by most Christian churchs from which the early Saints came. The revelations were corrections of this view, not endorsements.

It would seem to me that Joseph's doctrine of self-existent intelligences would be the best path to take in persuing a reconciliation of evolution with the preexistence. It also opens up other questions, which we probably cannot do other than speculate upon. Can intelligences evolve? I would answer yes it that they can become more or less intelligent, but I would say no to their evolving from one "kind" of intelligence to another.

Having found problems with the notion of a literal spirit birth, we must consider Joseph's doctrine of self-existing spirits. This doctrine, though currently not endorsed by most church members, was able to address many of the problems raised by the other preexistence doctrines rather successfully.


Lectures on Faith - I believe that some recent scholarship attributes many, if not most of the ideas in these to Sidney Rigdon. I used to like the Lectures on Faith so much that I memorized their outline and read them at least once a year. I give them less credence now and this feels better to me.

3/20/2005 06:16:00 PM  

Are you referring to the LoF comments in the "place at the table" post? If not could you explain what your thinking is?

3/20/2005 06:21:00 PM  

Hi Jeff - that anonymous was me. My small point is only that the link between LoF and Joseph Smith's own thinking has been weakened somewhat. I will have to take some time see if this affects your Place at the Table post. LoF

3/20/2005 08:36:00 PM  

Jeff - Hi. Gosh – I am getting better “doctrinal history” summaries here than I have seen in quite a while. Last time I investigated the “intelligence” issue, it was summarized in a book I have from a “Pearl of Great Price” symposium. The “unsolved doctrinal issue” addressed there was whether “pre-spirit birth” intelligences were individual entities, or part of an intelligent and self-existing mass-substance. Different views of various authorities were reviewed, without consensus. Since the Doctrine and Covenants states that intelligence cannot exist without “agency,” (D&C 93:30) I tend to personally lean towards the “individual” hypothesis.

What I find compelling, in light of your latest post, is that the doctrine of God creating spirit bodies for “intelligences” in an act of “procreation” was so well established as not to be addressed or deconstructed at the syposium. Here are a couple of scriptural references

“And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the FIRSTBORN. “ D&C 93:21

“. . . for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may BEAR THE SOULS OF MEN; for herein is the work of my Father continued, that he may be glorified.” D&C 132:63

Now from a Prophet, Pres. Spencer W. Kimball in General Priesthood meeting:

“. . . and when our spirits receive our bodies, and through our faithfulness we are worthy to be crowned, we will then receive authority to produce both SPIRIT body. But these keys we cannot receive in the flesh . . .
* * *

God has taken these intelligences, given to them SPIRIT bodies, and given them instructions and training. Then he proceeded to create a world for them and sent them as spirits to obtain a mortal body, for which he made preparation
* * *
Then came the periods of time when souls were to be placed upon the earth and born to parents who were permitted to furnish the bodies. But no parent has ever yet on this earth been the parent of a SPIRIT, because we are so far yet from perfection. Remember what was said a while ago, that “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”They came with the definite understanding that they could return to become like God and go forward in their great development and progress.
Could you produce a SPIRIT Has anyone whom you know ever produced a SPIRIT? This is a power not given to mortal man, so there is much for us to learn.”

One of my pet but passionate disagreements with the Creeds of Christendom is the mythologizing of the anthropomorphic familial relationship between ourselves and God as his children: deconstructing us to “creature” status.

I am very interested to see how Joseph’s idea of us as “self-existing” spirits harmonizes and perhaps “doctrinally enables" Evolution. If it does, while I may then be able to accurately place Fred Flintstone, Kong, Dumbo,, ONE OF THE CROWS,and even Jimminy Cricket on my family group sheet, Elohim will not be my Father in any real sense, either physically or spiritually. Only Jesus could claim him (plus his descendants if he was married). Thus, the Lord’s prayer would have to be changed. No more “Our Father.” Then, there are salutations in both Sacrament Prayers. Looking towards the future; no more Abrahamic covenant, with its talk of posterity and grains of sand and stars and such. (By the way, I think it was pointed out by Elder Maxwell in Conference that the lastest cosmology numerically equates stars in the heaven with grains of on terrestrial seashores)

To this, someone might yell “Stop THAT crow.”

3/20/2005 08:56:00 PM  

Listen to you, using Dennett lines;)

Here are some more quotes from Van Hale which might help a bit:

"In Mormon scripture the one passage used to support the spirit birth doctrine is Doctrine and Covenants 76:24 in which the inhabitants of the different worlds are referred to as "begotten sons and daughters unto God." However, the context of this passage is that the inhabitants of the worlds are begotten sons and daughters unto God through Jesus Christ. The reference to sons and daughters clearly means "adopted" spiritual children-not spirit children--and does not refer to the idea of literal procreation by God. The doctrine clearly did not originate in scripture...

While it seems certain that Smith taught that gods procreate, he did not specify that their offspring are necessarily spirits. And it is equally unclear if the alternative possibility, that the offspring of the gods are physical children, would be any more plausible in the prophet's thinking...

Based on a careful reading of the documentary sources, it seems clear that Smith taught the doctrine that God organized a group of eternal spirits who were less advanced than he. To enable them to progress as he had done, he organized the earth. He came here with his wife and, by begetting the first physical children himself, began the process which now provides physical bodies for the spirits he formerly organized. Those from this earth who gain exaltation will do likewise. While this view harmonizes Smith's statements, it has two weaknesses. First, there is no explicit statement in support of this view from Joseph Smith. Second, none of his close associates taught it; in fact, I have found no Mormon who has ever advocated it, even though it seems to be the most plausible explanation of Smith's meaning."

I would also highly recommend reading the link Jared posted at times and seasons along with Ostler's comments (there are lots of them so just keep scrolling down, but trust me, its worth the time):


As to some of your other doubts, if I may call them that:

Yes, every organism could, in principle, be on your family group sheet, but very, very far away. Contrary to some creationist characatures, evolutionists do not claim that chimpanzees should be regarded as actual cousins.

Also, we should mention what those group sheets are for, being sealed together in the celestial kingdom. But the vast majority of humanity will not be in the celestial kingdom so animals being there with us is a concern that fades in comparison.

As I intimated above, our having eternal progeny need not refer to spiritual progeny in the literal sense. It could mean adoption, physical descendants or something else entirely. There are lots of ways of making sense of this that do not require essentialism.

3/21/2005 12:13:00 AM  

Jeff - I continue to find these doctrinal "threads" facinating. Before jumping to Ostler, I would like to ask you to please refresh me as to who "Dennit" is? I know He pubished, but I forget who, where and why, if I ever knew.

I would disagree thatD&C 76:24 is the only scriptural referrence for "spirit birth." The doctrine is strongly implied in the 2 scriptures I cited. Jesus cannot be a "firstborn" adopted/begotten through himself. Also, when teaching D&C 132 last year, I struggled to "justify" the practice of Polygamy. (I know there is a whole movement of you who reject D&C 132 as far a plural marriage goes). But, I came to believe, based upon 132:63, that exalted females will continue to "bear the souls of men," as their defining characteristic, in the eternal worlds.

I don't know if you are married or a father. I don't want to ever "demean" or insult my wife by taking another wife. However, she and I would agree that her motherhood is an indispensable, crowning creative achievement, and she would not want a worthy sister to be denied this defining role because of a shortage of exalted Priesthood holders - which is a real possiblilty due to agency.

Dennet's deconstruction of D&C 76:24 is weakened by the supporting Scriptures he omits. While he could probably dissemble the two I have mentioned - I'm sure I could find more. However, other than claiming not to find a sufficient "paper trail" to support Pres. Kimball's "beliefs", he would have difficulty recasting it towards this theory.

In my experience, "doctrinal truth" is not discovered by tracing its historical roots. It seems more to "distill" over long periods of time, with "mistakes" along the way (i.e., "Adam-God, which, by the way. Pres. Kimball also formally rejected, in the name of the First Presidency, during his administration, in Conference). This distilled "doctrinal truth," in my view, should be discernable to faithful Saints who study the Scriptures and talks and messages of the Prophets and Apostles,be confirmed by the Holy Ghost, and be sufficiently clear to be taught in Primary. (See 3 Neph 11:38)

For now, though, on to Bro. Ostler, ESq.

3/21/2005 02:06:00 PM  

Greg, Daniel Dennett is the guy I have been quoting in almost every post. He's the guy who invented "stop that crow", "cranes vs. skyhooks" and the llike. He wrote Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and is one of my favorite authors.

I too agree that the sec. 76 reference is the only one that might imply spiritual birth, but we must admit the references are more scarce than many MOrmons imagine. I think scripturally speaking, the idea of a literal spirit birth is not that well backed.

By the way, the article on the preexistence was written by Van Hale in Line Upon Line. If you like these doctrinal over views, you will love, and I mean love that book.

I'm not sure I would personally be willing to place too many of my eggs in the distillation theory you put forth. Should the 19th century saints who heard so much about Adam-God from BY have adopted it? What about BR Mc Conkie and others justification of Blacks and the Priesthood? One quote of Elder Mc Conkie's that I definitely agree with is when he said (this is from memory but is pretty accurate):

"I do not understand all of the provinences of the Lord, but I do know that the Lord allows false doctrine to be taught in His Church. It is part of the sifting process."

My philosophy, when trying to disentangle contrary doctrinal statements has been to see who claims revelation for their opinons. After all, we say "a prophet is only a prophet when he says he is" when we want to allow for what have turned out to be rediculous teachings which are in turn used to write anti-mormon books. Shouldn't we turn this logic on ourselves? A prophet is only a prophet when he claims to be.

With regards to Ostler's comments in the link, Times and Seasons is having problems right now, so I'm not sure you can access the post right now. You might have to give it a day or two.

3/21/2005 11:35:00 PM  

Jeff - I WAS able to access the thread and Times and Seasons, and am about half-way through. Thank you so much for the referrence. I am learning a lot about how these blogs work - as well as "19th Century Doctrine." I am also learning more about Clark. One thing - had that thread included the 1977 Conference Talk by Pres. Kimball, the "literal spirit birth" crowd would have had much more ammunition. Especially since several participants give weight to current doctrinal clarifications by Prophets. I would be interested to see Blake Ostler's response to it. Since that thread is 2 months old, it there any way I could post something that would get attention?

Regarding doctrine, all I will say is that when my personal views were as "independant" as yours, when I was only a few years younger than you, I was much more "radical" than you are. My reasons for accepting "mainstream doctrine" do not spring from my being sheltered, or naive, trust me me on that one. This blog site is also saving me from ignorance. For the past several years I have been studying the Blacks and Priesthood Issue; Evolution, and Joseph Smith's moral character. I don't know if you have yet had the experience of placing all of your faith and trust in something or someone, and found it to be false. It's happened to me several times, and I don't want it to ever happen again.

Thanks for refreshing me on Dennett. I guess I should scan his book if I am going to be able to understand your thinking as well as I desire to. Thanks again for contributing to my quest to learn all I can about "Mormons and Evolution."

3/22/2005 09:12:00 AM  

I apologize if I came off as saying that you are too orthodox or ignorant, for I intended neither. I just think that the idea that the level of truthfulness in the church only goes up isn't true.

3/22/2005 10:06:00 AM  

Hey Jeff - this keeps getting more exciting for me. You must be on spring break or something to have time for this. Thanks for the apology, but you have never hinted that I was too orthodox or any such thing. I was just sort of "preempting in a general way." Also, it is my habit to add personal experiences when I express my views.

I finished the thread at times and seasons. You were extremely inspired to send me there. I learned a lot more about Blake Oster's thinking, and pretty well understand the mechanisms of his approach to doctrine. This will save a lot of "foundational" exchanges here. Is saved me months of "graduate work" on these issues. Thanks again.

I will be spending the day traveling. One more thing - how can one post an effective (meaning it might be read) late "post" on an old Times and Seasons thread? Thanks again.

3/23/2005 10:12:00 AM  

Greg, if you simply post a comment, it will show up in the recent comments column over at times and seasons. Now if somebody will respond to it or not is a different matter, I don't know. Maybe I will respond to it to help draw attention there or something. Another option is commenting in another current post.

At http://www.ldsblogs.org/
you can see that there are a lot of topic very similar to that one going on right now. See especially:


3/23/2005 10:23:00 AM  

If you are learning more about me, I hope it is all good things. (grin)

3/23/2005 07:27:00 PM  

I actually find that the non-essentialism required by evolution is also required in the Mormon doctrines of self-existent spirit, a spectrum of intelligence and pre-existent animals. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

5/03/2005 03:13:00 PM  

Just out of curiosity, has anyone else read the Ender's series by Orson Scot Card? After waiting for two entire books for him to use LDS theology in the story (he lets many potential situations pass by), he pulls out this concept of aiua  which are essentially souls (or in LDS terminology, intelligences). These intelligences are existant in some nether region in the universe and are called or summoned by deity-like individuals to assume an existance. I thought it was very interesting and gave me opportunity to explore this aspect of theology with an atheistic friend with whom I was discussing the book. I think it fits with this post.


Posted by Mike Wilson

5/05/2005 07:15:00 PM  



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