The Future of the King Follett Discourse

Three months before his assassination in 1844, Joseph Smith gave a speech that is referred to today as the King Follett discourse (named after an Elder Follett). In that speech, Smith laid out the idea that God was once a man and that all human beings have the potential to become gods and goddesses themselves. As someone with Buddhist tendencies, I actually quite like this idea of understanding the divine at the human level, because it makes the divine accessible. It would be great if Smith’s speech were coupled with the gnostic gospels of early Christianity that also point to human divinity, but this would probably require Mormonism to consider women as capable of being prophets as they were in the gnostic period. (See, for example, Mary 9:2-4, where Peter gets pretty annoyed at the idea of Jesus confiding in her things that he didn’t tell his male apostles.)

Anyway, my understanding is that the King Follett discourse was indispensable to Mormon identity for several decades, but was used by evangelicals to point to “how crazy those Mormons are” because “they actually believe they can become gods.” Thus, the Church toned down its use of the doctrine by also suggesting to the membership that it’s not really important to think about potential divinity at this moment — since most of us have a long way to go. Armaud Mauss suggests that this will continue to be the case as the Church moves more into an assimilative period, as the teaching of human divinity is “traditional,” but not “essential.” A question I have, though, is whether Mauss is assuming that Mormons are assimilating to only Christianity in America, or if they are trying to make sense of themselves on a global stage (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews) — in which case, why not maintain the King Follett discourse?

Also, in terms of the “essentialness” of the discourse to Mormon identity, is it not the case that the Church’s gender roles and stance against same-sex marriage are directly related to the notion of men being imaged like Heavenly Father and women being imaged like [a barely mentioned] Heavenly Mother, a divine procreation of deities Whom we will someday emulate as gods ourselves? I don’t exactly see how the Church can downplay its doctrine of potential godhood without also downplaying its justifications for no female ordination or same-sex marriage.

11 thoughts on “The Future of the King Follett Discourse

  1. if they are trying to make sense of themselves on a global stage (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews) in which case, why not maintain the King Follett discourse?

    I’m sorry to be a broken record, but I don’t think it’s about assimilation with anyone so much as it is a program of de-emphasizing (deleting) all doctrine/theology except a small handful of primary concepts.

    This isn’t the only one. I had been thinking of writing a post on “dispensationalism” — the belief that the history of the world is divided into a series of thousand-year-long “dispensations” (which correspond to Heavenly Father’s “days” on Kolob). I remember this doctrine as being important when I was growing up. (Remember “the millenium” and all the stuff that will happen then? Or the reason behind the title of “Saturday’s Warrior”?)

    I think it would be fun to do a series here at MSP: “Remembering our favorite lost/de-emphasized doctrines of Mormonism.” 😀

  2. Hi chanson.

    There’s a good chance it’s an assimilation/de-emphasizing combo; the line “traditional” but not “essential” rings a bell.

    The one who introduced me to Mormonism would usually deflect questions about gods and deification and blood atonement by saying “well whatever the case is, it’s not really important for our salvation, so don’t worry too much about it.”

    Sounded like a parroted response to me, but that was fairly expected when she couldn’t look up anything I was talking about aside from asking other church members.

  3. I’ve always been disappointed that this King Follett doctrine was already lost long before my turn on Earth:

    A question may be asked”Will mothers have their children in eternity?” Yes! yes! Mothers, you shall have your children; for they shall have eternal life; for their debt is paid. There is no damnation awaits them, for they are in the spirit. But as the child dies, so shall it rise from the dead, and be for ever living in the learning of God. It will never grow: it will still be the child, in the same precise form as it appeared before it died out of its mother’s arms, but possessing all the intelligence of a God. Children dwell in the mansions of glory and exercise power, but appear in the same form as when on earth. Eternity is full of thrones, upon which dwell thousands of children reigning on thrones of glory, with not one cubit added to their stature.

    Earlier discussion here and here.

  4. I always liked the idea of eternal progress and the divinity of every human being. Only last week did I figure out that Brigham Young’s Adam-God theory appears to perform an essential function for this doctrine.

    If God once was as man is then there might be an infinite regress because an unending chain of men has to precede the Gods. Brigham Young short-circuited the never ending chain by making Adam God, the Father.

    That was a brilliant move by Brigham Young.

    How is that Seth?

  5. chanson @ 1:

    I dont think its about assimilation with anyone so much as it is a program of de-emphasizing (deleting) all doctrine/theology except a small handful of primary concepts.

    Well, even if this is true, it’s interesting to think of that project in light of today’s media proliferation. Consider Kristine Haglund’s assessment:

    The driving motivation for Correlation — to make the church portable and streamlined enough to fit on the back of a camel (in Elder Packers memorable formulation) no longer exists. Lesson manuals are augmented (or encumbered) by multiplicities of blogs with lesson plans, notes, clip art, musical compositions, and multiple translations of scriptures portable enough to fit in the palm of ones hand, no camel required.

    Seems to me that “primary concepts” are not enough to sustain Mormonism these days, and that more likely, the Church will have to get used to a sustained discourse concerning its entire history. The question is how to bring this discourse to the level of the membership, because the Church can’t have the outside world knowing more about Mormonism than Mormons themselves.

  6. Alan — exactly.

    Honestly, I think it was a questionable idea even back then. According to Daymon’s book, another part of the motivation was to make it simple enough that even foreigners won’t mess it up. And the result has been to marginalize scholars, theologians, and even well-meaning discussion among members about “what we believe.” Now, with the modern state of information technology, the strategy of “primary concepts only” fits that much more poorly.

  7. The KFD is to well known to become forgotten . One thing that is never brought up is that what Joseph Smith had to say fits into what we would call in modern times western Left Hand Path teachings. Gnostic LHP groups who see Lucifer as a role model believe almost the same thing but exclude the Christian white wash of the subject. The LDS church is apostate from itself because it wants to be accepted as Christian only.
    My big question is, if they want to get rid of the KFD why do they not just go join the main line churches ? Also, what is wrong with us taking what they throw away and teaching it to others from our own POV? I know of some LHP people who do this but none of them were raised LDS as I was. The LDS want to get there man in the white house. They want money and power on earth because they confuse that with being a god.
    To be a god no longer means eternal progression , it’s all about follow the $$$$ profit instead of Prophet . The Q12 miss the point Smith made in KFD. We are a prophetic people. We will outlast any church and it’s herd mentality . Mormonism is free. If a Hindu or a Sufi can tap into that same vibe then it proves the teaching is not church property. It is property of all human kind.
    I say that anyone can believe we are all gods in waiting ! 10,000 people heard JS give the KFD. The internet means millions can now get to know it.
    As for the issue of same sex unions and women in priesthood I urge you to read about James Strang. He was a Mormon leader back in the 1840’s who’s sect was much more progressive then the LDS or Brighamites. To this day a small group is active in Wisconsin . There are hundreds of Mormon sects that have no respect to the rules the LDS try to make for all.

  8. My big question is, if they want to get rid of the KFD why do they not just go join the main line churches ? Also, what is wrong with us taking what they throw away and teaching it to others from our own POV? I know of some LHP people who do this but none of them were raised LDS as I was.

    A lot of people raised LDS aren’t happy to see significant points of LDS theology treated as optional — particularly considering that the members are expected to take a strong stand on other points like obedience to the hierarchy and opposition to gay marriage. As a result, the CoJCoL-dS loses some Mormons who care about Mormon theology (who may go join other Restoration sects) and gains some people who think Proposition 8 was the bee’s knees — and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints slowly transforms into the Church of the Right-wing Authoritarians.

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