Alternate Perceptions Magazine, May 2018
by: Raymond A. Keller
On the Plurality of Gods in Joseph Smith, Junior’s Book of Abraham Introduction
While the Book of Abraham has never been considered as a scripture by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or its successor, the Community of Christ, it is credited as having been written by the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., during the years of 1835-1842. As such, it has inestimable value to both the historian of church history and the theologian of restoration thought and the emerging religious consciousness of frontier America. Interestingly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Salt Lake City, Utah, did canonize the Book of Abraham as one of their sacred texts in 1880. For these reasons, Richard P. Howard, the historian of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1966 to 1994, headquartered in Independence, Missouri, has stated that, “These two factors alone make this subject a suitable matter for inquiry here.”1
Book of Abraham History
In the summer of 1835, an entrepreneur named Michael Chandler arrived at the church’s headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, with four mummies and multiple rolls of papyrus. Due in part to the exploits of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the antiquities unearthed in the catacombs of Egypt evoked quite a fascination throughout the Western world. Chandler capitalized on this interest by taking some of these appropriated Egyptian artifacts on a road show, charging visitors a fee to view them.2
Naturally, the arrival of these artifacts in the world center of Mormonism caused quite a stir. The Mormons themselves believed that the Native Americans scattered throughout the entire Western Hemisphere were descended from the ancient Israelites who, once they arrived in the Americas, split into two warring factions, the Nephites and the Lamanites. With the help of special optical and auditory aids given to him by an angel, the young prophet Smith was able to translate the golden plates he had dug up in the woods outside his Palmyra, New York, home, purportedly written originally in “Reformed Egyptian” into the Book of Mormon that we have today in the restoration churches. The enthusiastic members of Smith’s new church were hoping that the discovery of the Egyptian papyri would shed new light and knowledge on the already existing scriptures found in the Book of Mormon. What they discovered, however, would have a much greater, yet unforeseen impact, significantly shaping the theology of the restoration churches and the religious movement that would one day attract millions upon millions more believers, clearly placing it in the Gnostic camp, whether the Mormon adherents and leadership, then or now, recognized this or not.
It was Antonio Lebolo, a former cavalryman in the Italian army, who oversaw some of the Egyptian excavations at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the conduct of his archaeological investigations, Lebolo pulled 11 mummies from a tomb not far from the ancient city of Thebes, whence he shipped the artifacts to Italy to be processed and catalogued. After his untimely death, however, Lebolo’s Egyptian collection found its way to New York; and at some point the mummies and cryptic scrolls came into Chandler’s custody.3
However, it should be noted that by the time the collection arrived in Kirtland, all but four of the mummies and several papyrus scrolls had already been sold. At an emergency meeting of the Presiding Elders convened at Kirtland, Ohio, a decision was reached that the remaining artifacts would be purchased by the church, to be turned over to their leader, Joseph Smith, Jr. Of course, Smith was delighted to take possession of the artifacts. And upon examining the papyri, the prophet noted that in the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, “much to our joy we found that one of the scrolls contained the writings of Abraham.”4
Book of Abraham on the Plurality of Gods
The Book of Abraham has become the most controversial of latter-day scriptures insofar as it asserts the existence of many gods. And what is more, it maintains that the gods had not created the Earth ex-nihilo, or literally “out of nothing.” These exalted beings accomplished this creative process through the use of pre-existent materials, composed of pre-existent but eternal matter.5
Most restoration historians concur that Smith’s move away from monotheism and towards polytheism took place during the period of 1838-39, when the prophet was held prisoner in Clay County, Missouri’s Liberty Jail. While most of the Book of Abraham had already been translated, it had not yet been published. Smith felt confident in his translation of the papyri and noted that a time would come when nothing would be withheld from the saints; and they would know for themselves whether or not “there be one god or many gods.”6 This knowledge would become plainly manifest to all who diligently waited upon the word of the Lord. Brother Joseph did confide to the leadership of his church that he personally had visions of the One Eternal God presiding in a council with “all other gods before the world was.”7 What one can garner from this is that Smith clearly believed in the existence of One Eternal God; but it remains doubtful that he granted equal status to the lesser referenced deities. Thus we perceive a hierarchy of gods in the celestial realms.
While the historic leadership of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the contemporary leadership of the Community of Christ has never taken the steps to canonize the Book of Abraham as their Salt Lake brethren have done, there have, nevertheless, been many in the ranks of these ecclesiastical organizations who have pushed for such recognition all along. The primary opposition to canonization has come from those holding to the more traditional Christian Trinitarian viewpoint with respect to the nature of God.
Theologian James R. White of the Christian Research Institute of Charlotte, North Carolina, has posited the following definition of the Trinity, one that he believes adequately communicates what needs to be said with the greatest clarity: “Within the one Being that is God, there exist eternally three coequal and coeternal Persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each word of this definition is important. Each term carries weight and cannot be ignored. These few words present the three great foundations of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: monotheism, the existence of three divine Persons, and the equality of those Persons.”8
White has succeeded in expressing the traditional Christian view of the Trinity. This Trinitarian belief is also shared by the current priesthood hierarchy of the Community of Christ and forms an integral brick in the theological wall that separates this ecclesiastical organization from the larger restoration religious denomination in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This theological wall has largely come to be known as the “Mormon Boundary.”
Here is the official Trinitarian doctrine espoused by the leadership in the Community of Christ and duly expressed as their basic belief about the nature of God:
“We believe in one living God who meets us in the testimony of Israel, is revealed in Jesus Christ, and moves through all creation as the Holy Spirit. We affirm the Trinity—God who is a community of three persons. All things that exist owe their being to God: mystery beyond understanding and love beyond imagination. This God alone is worthy of our worship.”9
In light of this clearly defined Trinitarian doctrinal statement, it surprised me to discover that such a strong belief in the unitary nature of God in three persons has not always been so emphasized in the history of the Community of Christ. Before this church began to call itself the Community of Christ in April 2001, it was widely known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Both the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the larger Salt Lake City church, commonly referred to as the Mormon Church, claim Joseph Smith, Jr., as their founding prophet. Smith restored the church to the Earth on 6 April 1830, incorporating it in Fayette, New York. The split between the two ecclesiastical organizations did not take place until 6 April 1860, in Amboy, Illinois, where many of those saints who did not follow the pioneering Apostle Brigham Young to Utah, reorganized the scattered remnant that went on to support the murdered prophet’s son, Joseph Smith, III, to take the reigns as church president and carry on the gospel work initiated by his illustrious father.
Until the Community of Christ came about in 2001, with its emphasis on a more Christ-centered and Trinitarian doctrine, the members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints subscribed to a basic belief set as outlined in its Epitome of Faith and Doctrine.10 It was originally delivered by the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., with the first article declaring that, “We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.”
Frankly, this statement is very nebulous. Since it was not overtly Trinitarian, it left a lot of room for conjecture and speculation. Was Smith referring to a belief in three gods or was an acceptance of the Trinity implied? From my personal experiences as a baptized member of the Reorganized Church, I would have to say that most members did not particularly care one way or another. Not so much concerned about the theological aspects of the religion, what they wanted most of all from their religion was the knowledge essential for establishing a personal relationship with Jesus. Subscribing to the notion that I would “rather see a sermon than hear one any day,” I suppose that if I had to slot myself at some point along this theological continuum, I would side with the group that just wanted to see Jesus Christ at work in the lives of the saints and their respective communities.
As the Mormon Church also adopted a similar doctrinal statement, known as the Articles of Faith,11 and based on the same Times and Seasons article by Smith cited below in the footnotes, it is no wonder that so much controversy emerged in the bodies of both churches as to just what the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., really taught about the nature of God and the Trinity. The first article of the Mormon Church’s version reads exactly the same as the first statement in the Epitome of Faith. Since the word “Trinity” does not even appear in the pages of the Bible, the topic of the plurality of gods was bound to arise sooner or later as one of the hot button issues among the saints in both restoration churches. Canonization of Scripture in the Latter Days
1860 marked the first year for Joseph Smith, III, as president of the Reorganized Church. In that year, Isaac Sheen was serving as the editor of the church’s official publication, the Latter Day Saints’ Herald. The following is an extract from a groundbreaking article by Sheen, “A Plurality of Gods,” that appeared in the December 186o edition of that monthly periodical:
By the quotations of our Utah correspondent from the new translation of the Bible and from the Book of Abraham, it will be perceived that a plurality of Gods is a doctrine of those books. Although it is an unpopular doctrine, it is a doctrine of the common versions of the Bible…. In Genesis 1:9 we read that “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The words “us” and “our” signify more than one person, and those persons must have been Gods, for the work of creation belongs only to Deity…. These scriptural evidences, concerning the order of the Kingdom in the exaltation of the sons of God, show that the revelations in the New Testament of the Bible, and in the Book of Abraham, concerning the gods, all harmonize together. When the doctrine came forth in these books, it became a stumbling block to some people. We hope that the evidence that we have presented on this subject will be advantageous in the removal of their stumbling block out of the way.12
From the archives of various publications that I have personally seen in the temple library of the Reorganized Church at Independence, Missouri, it is clear that there was an intense interest in and acceptance of the Book of Abraham and its advocacy for the doctrine of the plurality of gods. Howard, however, notes that the Book of Abraham continually declined in popularity among the saints of the reorganization throughout the waning years of the nineteenth century largely because Joseph Smith, III, the son of the assassinated prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., said very little about the book, one way or the other. In addition, the Latter-day Saints in Utah, under the leadership of their charismatic prophet Brigham Young (1801-1877), were constantly referencing and preaching from the book as if it were a scripture; and three years after Young’s death had finally canonized the Book of Abraham to the status of a scripture in the church.
It was not until the administration of Lorenzo Snow, the third president of the Mormon Church, that the doctrine of the plurality of gods began to really gain more adherents. Lorenzo Snow, hailing from Mantua, Ohio, and being the brother to one of Joseph Smith, Junior’s plural wives, Eliza R. Snow Smith, once spoke of our cosmic evolution, declaring that, “As man now is, God once was; and as God now is, man may be.”
Of course, I was duly impressed by this statement. It was so in line with my Theosophical belief system. Since taking this class, I revisited the history of this statement by Lorenzo Snow, and discovered that at the time he made it, in the spring of 1840, he was in Nauvoo, Illinois, and preparing to embark on a mission in the British Isles. Snow was visiting the home of his friend, Henry G. Sherwood, when he asked him if he could please explain a passage of scripture about man being created in the image and likeness of God. “While attentively listening to his explanation,” President Snow later recalled, “the Spirit of the Lord rested mightily upon me—the eyes of my understanding were opened, and I saw as clear as the sun at noonday, with wonder and astonishment, the pathway of God and man. I formed the following couplet which expresses the revelation, as it was shown me, that being ‘As man now is….’”
Snow noted that he was feeling as if he had received some kind of a “sacred communication,” but one that he should guard carefully and not teach as doctrine publicly until such a time as he knew, for a surety, that the Prophet Joseph Smith, Junior, himself had taught it. And once he knew that Joseph Smith did, in fact, teach this as doctrine, and not just speculation or theory, then Lorenzo Snow began to testify of it, and frequently at that.13 At the time that Snow began to publicly declare this doctrine, we have to keep in mind that he was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with his tenure being from 7 April 1889 through 13 September 1898, when he succeeded Wilford W. Woodruff as the Prophet, Seer and Revelator for the entire church until his death on 10 October 1901. Taking this into consideration, we come to understand that this doctrine was no casual one, easily and early arrived at. That being the case, the demarcation of any Mormon boundary on this doctrine of god man and the plurality of gods cannot really be affixed until Snow’s declaration of it as recorded in the Deseret Semi-Weekly News of 30 October 1894, as this newspaper was designated as an official organ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Therefore, in my opinion, all other statements by lesser authorities of that church could only be considered as speculations, and not canon.
The rivalry between the church at Independence, Missouri, and the one at Salt Lake City, Utah, put the two religious bodies constantly at odds with one another. Sadly, whatever the priesthood of the larger Utah church proclaimed as doctrine or put into action was immediately rejected by the general authorities of the Missouri church.14 This competitive versus cooperative spirit contributed substantially to the erection of the so-called “Mormon Boundary” in the hierarchy of the reorganization.
It should be pointed out that the prophet’s son, Joseph Smith, III, while he never outright embraced the Book of Abraham, never disparaged it. In an official four-volume history of the church that he co-authored with the church historian, Herman C. Smith, Joseph Smith, III, declared, “The church has never to our knowledge taken any action on this work, either to endorse or condemn; so it cannot be said to be a church publication nor can the church be held to answer for the correctness of its teachings. Joseph Smith, as the translator, is committed of course to the correctness of the translation, but not necessarily to the endorsement of its historical or doctrinal contents.”15
Howard signals that perhaps this is an easy cop out for the church. If Joseph Smith, Jr., is to be considered as having acted only as a scholarly translator of the Egyptian hieroglyphs comprising the Book of Abraham, then any doctrinal teachings of the book that one may find any objection to, cannot be laid at the feet of Joseph Smith, Jr., as either a religious leader or a latter-day prophet of God.16
Having provided so much illumination with respect to life on other planets, many are asking, “Was Smith a contactee, or perhaps a “walk-in” extraterrestrial?” See http://www.mormonthink.com/glossary/joseph-smith-consent.htm.
Advanced Doctrinal Teachings
This is in juxtaposition to the official stance of the Salt Lake City Mormon hierarchy down through history. Of the Book of Abraham, the official Latter-day Saints’ website (Salt Lake City, Utah), notes that:
The Book of Abraham clarifies several teachings that are obscure in the Bible. Life did not begin at birth, as is commonly believed. Prior to coming to Earth, individuals existed as spirits. In a vision, Abraham saw that one of the spirits was “like unto God” (Abraham 3:24). This divine being, Jesus Christ, led other spirits in organizing the Earth out of “materials” or preexisting matter, not ex nihilo or out of nothing, as many Christians later came to believe (Abraham 3:24; 4:1, 12, 14-16). Abraham further learned that mortal life was crucial to the plan of happiness God would provide for his children: “We will prove them herewith,” God stated, “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them,” adding a promise to add glory forever upon the faithful (Abraham 3:25-26). Nowhere in the Bible is the purpose and potential of Earth life stated so clearly as in the Book of Abraham.17
New Age Interpretation
Of course, the Christian Gnostics of the first four centuries of the Common Era held similar beliefs. They, like their Greek progenitors, believed in reincarnation, i.e. that our spirits came into being eons before our current birth, and probably have undergone countless incarnations along the way. That Abraham took note of one spirit as “like unto God” is indicative of his identification of the Angel of the LORD, or Theophanic Angel, Who is none other than the archangel Michael, also known to us as Jesus Christ, the First Born in the Fullness of Time.18 And as we now understand, the Gnostic Christians believed that the first Aeon to emerge from the Pleroma was Michael/Jesus Christ. These same Christian Gnostics also maintained that we live our lives in this material world as a sort of schooling, wherein we acquire the knowledge necessary to work good deeds on behalf of our fellow beings and then advance to the next grade in our universal education program. Hence the reference in the Book of Abraham for the gods to “prove them herewith,” meaning that all must be put to the test and pass it before moving on to some more exalted and higher sphere. This is also in accordance with the teachings of the Swedish scientist and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, with respect to the souls on various stages of Venus in its cosmic evolution. Nevertheless, because traditional Christians do not accept these tenets, Mormonism refers to itself as a religion of “restoration.” In other words, it brings back, to reestablish the fullness of the Gospel as it was accepted and practiced by the early Christians, to include the Gnostics. The only difference in interpretation of the Gospel between a Gnostic and a Mormon is that while the latter believes in the pre-existence of the soul, he or she does not accept the doctrine of reincarnation. Additionally, while the Mormon does believe that Michael was Jesus Christ in His pre-Earth form, he or she does not accept Him as God incarnate, but only as one of the Eternal Father’s many spirit children.19
“Re-symbolization” or Re-imagining in the Community of Christ
That the Book of Abraham is no longer utilized in the Community of Christ is symptomatic of an ongoing trend of demythologizing our history and traditions in the church. The period of 1960-1989 was indicative of a theological deconstruction in the Reorganized Church that left the denomination shattered into a "jumble of pieces" where members had to determine, on their own accord, what was important for reestablishing the foundation of their faith. In other words, it became an excruciating chore for members to distinguish what was crucial to Christian belief versus what was incidental. By 1990 and forward to the present day, many members were upset in having the proverbial theological rug pulled out from under them. A goodly portion of these just walked away from the church, with some joining other restoration groups remaining loyal to the testimony and legacy of Joseph Smith, Jr.
In the Utah church, for example, Brigham Young is often quoted as saying, “He (Adam) was the person who brought the animals and the seeds from other planets to this world. He brought a wife with him and stayed here.”20 In this case, the Mormon prophet Brigham Young was providing his interpretation of the Book of Abraham, Chapter 5. The space age religion preached by Young continues very strong even unto this day. Many elements of traditional Mormonism have even made their way into science fiction. Mormon television program producer Glen A. Larson, the creator of Battle Star Galactica,21 incorporates a Council of the Twelve presided over by Commander Adama. The home of the gods is the planet “Kobol,” which is an inversion of the letters that spell out Kolob, the planet of the gods presiding over our galaxy in the Book of Abraham. The citizens of the allied planets can marry for “time and eternity.” And the uniforms and motif for the Galactic Federation are decidedly “reformed Egyptian” in character. Additionally, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers sees soldiers dispatched from Earth to defend Mormon colonists on distant worlds where their settlements have been overrun by the indigenous insect inhabitants trying to protect their home turf.22
The philosophical theologian W. Paul Jones suggests that the Reorganized Church/Community of Christ, to stem its drift toward Protestant assimilation, might initiate a "re-symbolization of the RLDS23 tradition."24 Jones believes that the church has already started to undergo this process, having already passed through the periods of restoration and demythologizing. What Jones fears is that the second period, that of demythologizing, went too far. So far did this process go, that unless the church as a whole can find an "imaginative application of its tradition's uniqueness," then it will just go the way of other liberal Protestant denominations, of which there are already too many, with many now defunct.25 When Jones wrote the article in 1996, he prayed for a new prophet to "be imbued with a massive dose of imagination" sufficient to rectify these problems. What he got was President Grant McMurray, who merely accelerated the process of demythologizing by throwing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and the restoration legacy under the wheels of the proverbial bus.
I wholeheartedly agree with the objective observer of the church, W. Paul Jones, in his estimation of the situation. For my part, I would like to see, as Jones, the Joseph Smith, Jr., saga re-imagined in the context of the metaphysical and paranormal worlds. I truly believe that Brother Joseph Smith, Jr., was a true visionary and prophet of God who communed with celestial beings on many occasions. I am heartbroken that he is not so recognized in the very church that he established. We all interact with unseen realms on a daily basis, tapping into powers of the Spirit that have hitherto remained latent within us. Brother Joseph gave us the key to reach higher dimensional planes. Let’s use it.
And if Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow were correct in their interpretations of the Book of Abraham, then a materialist conception of the universe would follow, much as contemporary astrobiologists posit a process of cosmic evolution. In other words, only with the hypothesis of a special and arbitrary act of creation can we suppose that the Earth is the only planet on which sentient life has come into existence. Other planets have decidedly been proved to have been formed from the same elements and under the same physical conditions as the Earth. Therefore, it logically follows that life is a normal and inevitable consequence of the development of matter; and intelligence must, ergo, be considered as a normal consequence of the existence of life.
To find the gods from outer space we need but take a good look in the mirror.
Howard, Richard P. Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development, 2nd edition (Independence, Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1995)
Keller, Raymond A. Venus Rising: A Concise History of the Second Planet (Terra Alta, West Virginia: Headline Books, 2015)
Peterson, H. D. Story of the Book of Abraham: Mummies, Manuscripts, and Mormonism (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1995)
Ritner, Robert K. Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books)
Smith, Herman C. and Joseph Smith, III, History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Lamoni, Iowa: Herald House, 1896), 2:569.
Jones, W. Paul, “Theological Re-Symbolization of the RLDS Tradition: The Call to a Stage Beyond Demythologizing,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Vol. 16, No. 6 (November-December, 1996), 3-14.
White, James R., “Loving the Trinity,” Christian Research Journal, Volume 21, Number 4 (July-August 1998), Charlotte, North Carolina, reprinted as Statement DT 250 of the Christian Research Institute, Charlotte, North Carolina, 10 June 2009.
Movies Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers (New York City: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959).
Newsletters Smith, Brian L. interview by Philip R. Webb, “Mystery of the Mummies: An Update on the Joseph Smith Collection,” Religious Studies Center Newsletter, vol. 20, no. 2 (2005): 1-5
“Brigham Young versus Joseph Smith, Sen.” True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, Isaac Sheen, editor, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1860, Cincinnati, Ohio, page 284.
Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, 46–47; “Glory Awaiting the Saints,” Deseret Semi-Weekly News, Salt Lake City, Utah, 30 October 1894, 1.
Sheen, Isaac, “A Plurality of Gods,” Latter Day Saints’ Herald, vol. 1, no. 12 (December 1860), Cincinnati, Ohio Television
Larson, Glen A., producer, Battlestar Galactica, original television series 1978-1979, ABC Network, New York, New York Websites
“Basic Beliefs,” Community of Christ, 2018, http://www.cofchrist.org/basic-beliefs (Accessed 18 April 2018).
Joseph Smith History, 1838-1856, vol. B-1, 596, available at jospehsmithpapers.org (Accessed 19 April 2018).
Smith, Jr., Joseph, “Articles of Faith,” Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013, https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/a-of-f/1 (Accessed 18 April 2018)
Smith, Jr., Joseph, “Epitome of Faith and Doctrine,” Times and Seasons, Volume 3, pages 709-710, Nauvoo, Illinois, 1942, as republished in “Our Beliefs,” Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, 2011, http://reorganizedchurch.org/beliefs.html (Accessed 18 April 2018).
“Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham,” author unspecified, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2014, https://www.lds.org/topics/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng (Accessed 19 April 2019).