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- Critics claim that Latter-day Saints believe Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse between God the Father and Mary, therefore Mary was not a virgin when Jesus was born. As evidence they point to a handful statements from early LDS leaders that directly or indirectly say so.
- It is claimed that Latter-day Saints reject the "Evangelical belief" that "Christ was born of the virgin Mary, who, when the Holy Ghost came upon her, miraculously conceived the promised messiah."
- "This is not to say that Christ was conceived in any way that might be considered supernatural. He was not miraculously begotten, for instance, by the Holy Ghost, as Christianity teaches."
Critics of the Church like to dig up quotes like those from Brigham Young for their shock value, but such statements do not represent the official doctrine of the Church. Furthermore, critics often read statements through their own theological lenses, and ignore the key distinctions which LDS theology is attempting to make by these statements. Instead, they try to put a salacious spin on the teaching, when this is far from the speakers' intent. The key, official doctrine of the Church is that Jesus is literally the son of God (i.e., this is not a symbolic or figurative expression), and Mary was a virgin before and after Christ's conception.
Latter-day Saints believe in the virgin birth.
As the Church responded to this question posed by Fox News:
- The Church does not claim to know how Jesus was conceived but believes the Bible and Book of Mormon references to Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary.
This answer has a long history. In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:
- Question 10: Do you believe that Jesus Christ was begotten by the Holy Ghost, as described in Matthew 1:18-20; Luke 1:35?
- Answer: We believe that Jesus of Nazareth "was the only begotten of the Father." It is not stated in either text cited that he was "begotten of the Holy Ghost," and the contrary is described in Luke 1:35. It was the "power of the Highest" that overshadowed Mary, and Jesus was "the Son of the Highest." The Holy Ghost came upon her, she "conceived" under the influence of that divine Spirit, but Jesus is nowhere declared as the Son of the Holy Ghost, but as "the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:14; Hebrews 1:5.) Even the sectarian creeds do not fall into the error that beclouds the minds of some apostates, but say of Jesus that He is the Son of God, "conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary," etc.
At the annunciation, Mary questioned the angel about how she could bear a child: "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34; the expression "know" in the Greek text is a euphemism for sexual relations). Nephi likewise described Mary as a virgin (1 Nephi 11:13-20), as did Alma1 (Alma 7:10).
Latter-day Saints believe Jesus was the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh (e.g., 2 Nephi 25:12; D&C 93:11). He was literally the Son of God, not the son of Joseph or even the son of the Holy Ghost.
What the Church has not taken a position on is how the conception took place, despite speculations by various early Church leaders. The canonized scriptures are silent on how the conception took place—even Nephi's detailed vision of then-future Messiah is veiled during the part where Mary conceives (1 Nephi 11:19).
Some early leaders of the Church felt free to express their beliefs on the literal nature of God's Fatherhood of Jesus' physical body. For example, Brigham Young said the following in a discourse given 8 July 1860:
- "...[T]here is no act, no principle, no power belonging to the Deity that is not purely philosophical. The birth of the Saviour was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood—was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers."
But are these types of statements official Church doctrine, required for all believing Latter-day Saints to accept? No—they were never submitted to the Church for ratification or canonization. (See General authorities' statements as scripture.)
Critics have noted that this statement, and others like it, can be read to indicate there was sexual intercourse involved in the conception of Jesus. Regardless of this speculation--which goes beyond the textual data--Brigham Young's view may be seen by some contemporary Latter-day Saints as correct in that Jesus was literally physically the Son of God, just as much as any children are "of our fathers." Modern science has discovered alternative methods of conceiving children--e.g., in vitro "test tube" babies--that don't involve sexual intercourse. Thus, though processes such as artificial insemination were unknown to Brigham and thus likely not referenced by his statements, it does not necessarily follow from a modern perspective that the conception had to come about as the result of a literal sexual union. It is certainly not outside of God's power to conceive Christ by other means, while remaining his literal father. (Put another way, Jesus shared God's genetic inheritance, if you will, without necessarily requiring a sexual act to combine that inheritance with Mary's mortal contribution).
Ezra Taft Benson taught:
- He was the Only Begotten Son of our Heavenly Father in the flesh—the only child whose mortal body was begotten by our Heavenly Father. His mortal mother, Mary, was called a virgin, both before and after she gave birth. (See 1 Nephi 11:20.)
Benson's emphasis is on both the literalness of Jesus' divine birth, and the fact that Mary's virginal status persisted even immediately after conceiving and bearing Jesus.
Leaders' statements on the literal paternity of Christ were often a reaction to various ideas which are false:
- they disagreed with the tendency of conventional Christianity to deny the corporeality of God. They thus insisted that God the Father had a "natural," physical form. There was no need, in LDS theology, for a non-physical, wholly spirit God to resort to a mysterious process to conceive a Son.
- they disagreed with efforts to "allegorize" or "spiritualize" the virgin birth; they wished it understood that Christ is the literal Son of God in a physical, "natural" sense of sharing both human and divine traits in His makeup. This can be seen to be a reaction against more "liberal" strains in Christianity that saw Jesus as the literal son of Mary and Joseph, but someone endowed with God's power at some point in His life.
- they did not accept that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were of one "essence," but rather believed that they are distinct Personages. Thus, it is key to LDS theology that Jesus is the Son of the Father, not the Holy Ghost. To a creedal, trinitarian Christian, this might be a distinction without a difference; for an LDS Christian it is crucial.
Bruce R. McConkie said this about the birth of Christ:
- God the Father is a perfected, glorified, holy Man, an immortal Personage. And Christ was born into the world as the literal Son of this Holy Being; he was born in the same personal, real, and literal sense that any mortal son is born to a mortal father. There is nothing figurative about his paternity; he was begotten, conceived and born in the normal and natural course of events, for he is the Son of God, and that designation means what it says.
In the same volume, Elder McConkie explained his reason for his emphasis:
- "Our Lord is the only mortal person ever born to a virgin, because he is the only person who ever had an immortal Father. Mary, his mother, "was carried away in the Spirit" (1 Ne. 11:13-21), was "overshadowed" by the Holy Ghost, and the conception which took place "by the power of the Holy Ghost" resulted in the bringing forth of the literal and personal Son of God the Father. (Alma 7:10; 2 Ne. 17:14; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38.) Christ is not the Son of the Holy Ghost, but of the Father. (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, pp. 18-20.) Modernistic teachings denying the virgin birth are utterly and completely apostate and false.
Note that McConkie emphasized the literal nature of Christ's divinity, his direct descent from the Father, and the fact that the Holy Ghost was a tool, but not the source of Jesus' divine Parenthood.
Church leaders reject the critics' interpretation
Harold B. Lee was clear that the method of Jesus' conception had not been revealed, and discouraged speculation on the matter:
- We are very much concerned that some of our Church teachers seem to be obsessed of the idea of teaching doctrine which cannot be substantiated and making comments beyond what the Lord has actually said.
- You asked about the birth of the Savior. Never have I talked about sexual intercourse between Deity and the mother of the Savior. If teachers were wise in speaking of this matter about which the Lord has said but very little, they would rest their discussion on this subject with merely the words which are recorded on this subject in Luke 1:34-35: "Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
- Remember that the being who was brought about by [Mary's] conception was a divine personage. We need not question His method to accomplish His purposes. Perhaps we would do well to remember the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
- Let the Lord rest His case with this declaration and wait until He sees fit to tell us more.
The Church does not take an official position on this issue
This is one of many issues about which the Church has no official position. As President J. Reuben Clark taught under assignment from the First Presidency:
- Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church....
- When any man, except the President of the Church, undertakes to proclaim one unsettled doctrine, as among two or more doctrines in dispute, as the settled doctrine of the Church, we may know that he is not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," unless he is acting under the direction and by the authority of the President.
- Of these things we may have a confident assurance without chance for doubt or quibbling.
- —J. Reuben Clark, Jr., "Church Leaders and the Scriptures," [original title "When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?"] Immortality and Eternal Life: Reflections from the Writings and Messages of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Vol, 2, (1969-70): 221; address to Seminary and Institute Teachers, BYU (7 July 1954); reproduced in Church News (31 July 1954); also reprinted in Dialogue 12/2 (Summer 1979): 68–81.
Harold B. Lee was emphatic that only one person can speak for the Church:
- All over the Church you're being asked this: "What does the Church think about this or that?" Have you ever heard anybody ask that question? "What does the Church think about the civil rights legislation?" "What do they think about the war?" "What do they think about drinking Coca-Cola or Sanka coffee?" Did you ever hear that? "What do they think about the Democratic Party or ticket or the Republican ticket?" Did you ever hear that? "How should we vote in this forthcoming election?" Now, with most all of those questions, if you answer them, you're going to be in trouble. Most all of them. Now, it's the smart man that will say, "There's only one man in this church that speaks for the Church, and I'm not that one man."
- I think nothing could get you into deep water quicker than to answer people on these things, when they say, "What does the Church think?" and you want to be smart, so you try to answer what the Church's policy is. Well, you're not the one to make the policies for the Church. You just remember what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He said, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well now, as teachers of our youth, you're not supposed to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. On that subject you're expected to be an expert. You're expected to know your subject. You're expected to have a testimony. And in that you'll have great strength. If the President of the Church has not declared the position of the Church, then you shouldn't go shopping for the answer. (Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 445. GospeLink (requires subscrip.))
This was recently reiterated by the First Presidency (who now approves all statements published on the Church's official website):
- Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency...and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles...counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
- —LDS Newsroom, "Approaching Mormon Doctrine," lds.org (4 May 2007) off-site]
In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:
- Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
- Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility. — Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
- [note] Fox News, "21 Questions Answered About Mormon Faith," (18 December 2007). off-site
- [note] Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
- [note] Brigham Young, "Character of God and Christ, etc.," (8 July 1860) Journal of Discourses 8:115. (See also Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 1:238.; Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 4:218.; Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 11:268..
- [note] Ezra Taft Benson, "Joy in Christ," Ensign (March 1986), 3–4. (emphasis added) off-site
- [note] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 742. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 822. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- [note] Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1996), 14. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)