Mormonism and the nature of God/Hinckley downplaying the King Follett Discourse

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PERSPECTIVES MEDIA QUESTIONS RESOURCES 2014 CONFERENCE

    Did Gordon B. Hinckley downplay the King Follett discourse?

QUESTIONS


Some Christians claim that, in an effort to appear more "mainline" Christian, the Church is downplaying the importance of some doctrines taught late in Joseph Smith's lifetime. Prominent among these is the doctrine of human deification. To bolster their argument, they usually quote from a 1997 Time magazine interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley.

On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he [Hinckley] sounded uncertain, "I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it ... I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it, and I don't think others know a lot about it.[1]
  • Did President Hinckley admit to altering LDS doctrine by discarding a teaching from the past?


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS RESPONDS TO THESE QUESTIONS

"Becoming Like God," Gospel Topics on LDS.org, (February 25, 2014)


Since that sermon, known as the King Follett discourse, the doctrine that humans can progress to exaltation and godliness has been taught within the Church. Lorenzo Snow, the Church’s fifth President, coined a well-known couplet: “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may be.”43 Little has been revealed about the first half of this couplet, and consequently little is taught. When asked about this topic, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley told a reporter in 1997, “That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” When asked about the belief in humans’ divine potential, President Hinckley responded, “Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.”
(Click here for full article)


CONCLUSION


A combination of an ambiguous question, a complicated and little-understood doctrine, and TIME's incomplete representation of both the question and the answer contributed to the confusion.

It is amusing, though, to see anti-Mormons scramble to find fault—as if President Hinckley would announce a change of doctrine in a magazine interview!

DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Question: What was Gordon B. Hinckley's opinion about the King Follett Discourse?
Answer: He considered it's subject a "grand and incomparable concept."

In 1994, Gordon B. Hinckley emphasized the importance of the King Follett Discourse:

On the other hand, the whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become!

Our enemies have criticized us for believing in this. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.
(Gordon B. Hinckley, “Don’t Drop the Ball,” Ensign, Nov 1994, 46)

Note that President Hinckley is talking about how man may become like God. Note also that he makes no comment about God once being a man. In this Ensign article, he does not comment on the statements made by Joseph Smith or Lorenzo Snow that God was once a man, but he does emphasize what these two men said about man becoming like God.

Question: Why does TIME's report make it appear the Pres. Hinckley is downplaying it?
Answer: Because TIME omitted the portion of his remarks that clarified what he was saying.

It is important to note thatTIME's report did not include the entire citation, and President Hinckley was not denying or downplaying Joseph Smith's statements in the King Follett Discourse. It is important to note which question was being asked. Lorenzo Snow's famous "couplet" on deification reads as follows: "As man is now, God once was; as God is now man may be."[2]

There are two parts of the couplet:

  • As man is now, God once was
  • As God is now, man may be.

President Hinckley was asked about the first part of the couplet, as the citation above demonstrates. (The second part of the couplet is typically the focus of LDS doctrine and practice, since it is something over which mortals have some degree of influence.)

The exact question asked was:

Q: Just another related question that comes up is the statements in the King Follet discourse by the Prophet.
A: Yeah.
Q: ...about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?

President Hinckley's complete response was:

A: I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it. I haven't heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don't know. I don't know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don't know a lot about it and I don't know that others know a lot about it.
[The portion in italics was omitted from TIME's reporting.]

He did not deny or renounce the doctrine. Quite simply, President Hinckley asserted that:

  • we don't emphasize it.
  • we don't tend to teach it much in public discourse.
  • he doesn't know much about this topic, though he understands the philosophical underpinnings.
  • no one else in the Church has much information on it either.

Ambiguity

The question is also somewhat ambiguous. TIME says they asked "whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man." But, the actual question was "Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?" {emphasis added)

"Teaching" can be understood in at least two senses:

  • "doctrine"/"belief," in the sense of "does the church still hold this belief?"
  • "something that is taught or preached," "actively taught"

The reporter seems to have meant the question in the first sense; President Hinckley seems to have responded in the second sense—the first part of his answer was "I don't know that we teach it" (emphasis added). That is, it is not topic upon which the Church or its leaders spend much time, simply because very little is known about it. This misunderstanding of the sense it which "teach" is understood is a good example of the logical fallacy of amphibology at work.

Furthermore, President Hinckley seems to have understood the question as he did because of the reporter's prelude to the question. The interviewer noted that "[t]his is something that Christian writers are always addressing." I suspect that he meant that "This is a point of LDS doctrine which always troubles non-LDS Christian authors, and they write a lot about it."

President Hinckley's reply that "I don't know that we emphasize it" seems a clear response to this idea—other writers or other denominations may spend a lot of time on the issue, but we don't. Again, this shows that he understood "teaching" in the second sense, and not the first.

Why didn't he say more?

Finally, it should be remembered that this doctrine requires a great deal of "background" to understand even the little that the Church does know. Providing that background in an interview for the general public is virtually impossible. Anti-Mormon authors are always quick to pounce on "strange" things they can use to alienate other Christians from LDS theology; one might suspect that President Hinckley did not want to confuse matters by attempting what probably would have been an unsatisfactory explanation of the doctrine.

Also the responses a reporter receives in an oral interview are, by the nature of the interview itself, unprepared and off-the-cuff. Frequently, interviewees will give hasty answers that reflect a misunderstanding of the question or are the result of not expecting certain questions in the first place. Had the reporter submitted his questions in writing and asked for written responses, it's quite likely that President Hinckley's response to this question would have been clearer.

President Hinckley responds

Clearly aware of the controversy that his comments had engendered, President Hinckley raised the subject in October 1997 General Conference:

The media have been kind and generous to us. This past year of pioneer celebrations has resulted in very extensive, favorable press coverage. There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that's to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.[3]

President Hinckley quotes Lorenzo Snow

Finally, any claim that President Hinckley did not believe the King Follett Discourse or the Lorenzo Snow couplet has to deal with this contemporary public statement from a talk he gave in October 1994 General Conference:

...[T]he whole design of the gospel is to lead us onward and upward to greater achievement, even, eventually, to godhood. This great possibility was enunciated by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the King Follet sermon and emphasized by President Lorenzo Snow. It is this grand and incomparable concept: As God now is, man may become! Our enemies have criticized us for believing in this. Our reply is that this lofty concept in no way diminishes God the Eternal Father. He is the Almighty. He is the Creator and Governor of the universe. He is the greatest of all and will always be so. But just as any earthly father wishes for his sons and daughters every success in life, so I believe our Father in Heaven wishes for his children that they might approach him in stature and stand beside him resplendent in godly strength and wisdom.[4]

Although he did not mention the other half of President Snow's statement ("As man is, God once was"), it's quite clear from the context that President Hinckley was aware of and agreed with it.

Endnotes

  1. [note] David van Biema, "Kingdom Come," TIME Magazine (4 August 1997): 56, ellipsis in original.
  2. [note] Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of Lorenzo Snow, compiled by Clyde J. Williams, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1984), 2. ISBN 0884945170.
  3. [note] Gordon B. Hinckley, "Drawing Nearer to the Lord," Ensign (November 1997), 4–6. off-site
  4. [note] Gordon B. Hinckley, "Don't Drop the Ball," Ensign (November 1994), 46–49.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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