Ending the Objectification of Exalted Women: Joseph Smith’s Antidote to Literal Offspring Theology

MANY LDS WOMEN WERE DISHEARTENED by the rhetoric heard during the recent Women’s Session of General Conference because they were warned against their personal interest in knowing Heavenly Mother. This post will address that, but it is also different from my usual writing because I will be analyzing and challenging the current theology of eternal procreation. Many will disagree with me, some may be offended, but I’ve decided to finally bring forward a fuller rendition of my thoughts on the hereafter, specifically concerning the exalted female body. To be blunt, LDS women like me deserve a better theology than the one we’ve been allotted. Joseph Smith offers us that.

On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith delivered what is known as the King Follet Discourse (KFD). He would be assassinated less than three months later. Two of his scribes collaborated to reproduce the sermon, publishing their reproduction in Times and Seasons during August of the same year. A portion of the KFD has reshaped everything I understand about the LDS paradigm for the divine feminine in the world to come.

While I recommend reading the entire discourse, the relevant portion is this:

…I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops, that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself: intelligence exists upon a self existent principle, it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. All the spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement. The first principles of man are self existent with God; that God himself finds himself in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was greater, and because he saw proper to institute laws, whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself, that they might have one glory upon another, in all that knowledge, power, and glory, &c., in order to save the world of spirits. I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life, that are given to me, I know you taste it and I know you believe it. (Jos. Smith Papers Project 615)

Most practicing LDS accept the current teaching that each human being is composed of flesh and spirit. The flesh is, of course, created through the physical union of mortal man and woman, while the spirit is created by the union of exalted (resurrected and perfected) man and woman in the Celestial Kingdom. We hear apostles frequently refer to us as “literal offspring of heavenly parents.” This is vastly different from the theology you just read in which Joseph Smith teaches that “God never had power to create the spirit of man.”

Yet, since the days of Brigham Young, the men who’ve led the Church have taught that each of us is a literal offspring of Heavenly Parents. How are we to reconcile what I’m calling their literal offspring theology with what Brother Joseph taught in the KFD?

You probably know the official answer. When I cited the above KFD passage for a male friend, expressing that it completely redefines for me the role of Heavenly Mother, he resisted my idea, claiming that D&C 93 clarifies KFD. He refers to this verse: 

29 Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.

He argues that v. 29 suggests that intelligence is something separate from spirit, and that intelligence, not the spirit itself, is co-eternal with God, having no moment of conception. Spirits, on the other hand, are born through the union of a Father and Mother God. This is, of course, what we’ve all been learning in church meetings.  

We find this same theological separation of intelligence and spirit in the church-published gospel topics essay, “King Follet Discourse.” It states that “Joseph also taught that a core part of each person is coeternal with God.” That “core part” would be the “intelligence” found in D&C 93. The essay ignores that pivotal line that states “God never had power to create the spirit of man.” I assume this is because the line is inconvenient for church leaders who want to forward the literal offspring theology. This is how LDS apology sometimes functions.  

The LDS Church’s long-standing effort to slice the spirit of man into a pre-procreation intelligence and a literal procreated spirit is an effort to harmonize the words of the Prophet with theology borne of Brigham Young’s need to justify polygamy.* Put plainly, Brigham Young and the Pratt brothers realized that the polygamy they’d hung their hats on had no purpose in the celestial kingdom unless literal procreation occured between exalted King and His Queens. With a little word play, the KFD no longer meant what it seems to me the Prophet clearly intended.

Here’s the problem with that word play: Joseph’s later theology must be a fuller theology than his earlier. Remember, the KFD was delivered nearly a full 11 years after the date on D&C 93. For this reason, I have to look to the 1844 KFD for clues to help me understand what Joseph meant in his 1833 revelation.

Take another look at the opening line of the KFD quotation offered above: 

I might with boldness proclaim from the house tops, that God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself: intelligence exists upon a self existent principle, it is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about.

In an earlier line in the KFD, Joseph Smith preaches, “The mind of man is as immortal as God himself.” 

It’s evident from these quotations that Joseph Smith uses the terms “spirit of man,” “spirit,” “intelligence,” and even “the mind of man” to mean the same thing–and none, he says, can be created, not even by God. Therefore, when Joseph Smith uses “intelligence” in the earlier D&C 93:29, he means our spirits. This is consistent with other sermons he taught.* Using these multiple terms is how Joseph Smith’s vernacular worked. 

I’ve written before of polygamy culture, or the culture surrounding the LDS Church that willingly harms women in an effort to protect historic and eternal polygamy. By redefining “intelligence” as something other than “spirit,” every LDS Church president and apostle after Joseph Smith has supported the literal offspring theology, knowing it doesn’t harmonize with the teaching of the Prophet in KFD. This, to my mind, is the great doctrinal drift within Mormonism, not prayers sent from the hearts of women to their Mother God.

It’s a drift that reduces, even corrupts, the sacred nature of the divine feminine in ways far beyond any purported concern that Her name might be taken in vain. The literal offspring theology reduces Heavenly Mother to an eternal, functioning uterus, whose purpose is to generate seed for her God husband. It reads like a dystopian novel. 

I can hear those who favor a literal offspring theology state that we don’t yet know the mechanism by which literal offspring are created. I wouldn’t be the first to point to Joseph Fielding Smith, an apostle and eventual church president, who taught that only those in the Celestial Kingdom will have sex organs because only they will procreate using those body parts. LDS women who aren’t excited about an obligation to endless vaginal penetration and birth aren’t being hysterical. The idea has cloud trails all over the Mormon sky. 

To pretend otherwise is to gaslight women who’ve had to live in fear that they’ll spend their eternity bedded–and sometimes to a stranger to whom they are given. Traditional LDS women may say they have faith that what is to come will be marvelous, but that hope is very likely skimming the surface of deep-seated dread, even if they are sealed to a man and enjoy mutual affection with him. After all, such a happy, faithful wife might become just one of her husband’s many brood mares.

The reality is, Mormonism is weirdly wired for sex and male domination, which is what patriarchy is, and no one in the hierarchy wants that widely known or discussed. The men who lead the LDS Church have always known that women aren’t uplifted by eternal polygamy. They know women look to it with resignation rather than joy. And yet these men in their power suits fail to create any other theological outlook for LDS women. 

Instead, they direct us away from one that teaches the co-equality and co-divinity of all spirits in order to maintain that polygamy-based, literal offspring theology. I’m struck that, at Women’s Session, an apostle cautioned females against speculating about Heavenly Mother’s eternal role. I ask you, when has an apostle or church president ever cautioned men against speculating about their role in the conception of spirit children? Answer: never. It’s women they don’t want thinking about the eternal procreation of literal offspring. 

By never expressing that caution, they confirm to my mind that they believe exactly as Joseph Fielding Smith believed and do not believe the doctrine of the Prophet they sustain as foreordained to usher in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. They will circle their wagons around the literal offspring theology, women be damned. And that’s exactly what it feels like to me. Damnation. They’d rather see LDS women mired in dread than elevate a theology that would acknowledge all spirits as co-eternal co-equals, one that would free women from the obligation of a patriarchal, hypersexualized, celestial bedroom.

Too harsh? Try being an LDS woman subjected to this theology and then we can talk about harsh. And remember, not all LDS women are straight and happily married. Many of us are single. Many are lesbian or bisexual. Many of us are sealed to men we don’t want to be sealed to. Many of us have experienced sexual and physical abuse. Many have spent our adult lives trying to matter half as much as our husbands. Many of us are tired of the never-ending ways the LDS patriarchy limits us because of our gender. And many of us are walking away from the church because the version of exaltation women are offered is that of a silent, distant, uninvolved being whose great glory will come only insofar as she uses her body to create seed for her exalted husband in the third bedroom, situated at the right hand of His throne. Eternity as part of a harem isn’t my idea of heaven.

This is a very bitter fruit for so many LDS women–and it ought to be for any man who has deeply and thoroughly loved his wife and held in his heart a hope for an eternity of continued relationship. 

I think about the positive things that could come to women (and men) if LDS doctrine returns to the view that “God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all” and that ‘[a]ll the spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” in equal ways. 

First, if the LDS Church ended literal offspring theology, it’d be free to classify earthly LDS polygamy as a mostly failed experiment, much like the United Order or even the Kirtland bank. However, it could also maintain a polygamous eternal outlook, one that allowed for multiple configurations of male and female united in their effort to mentor less developed spirits, both pre-mortally and mortally. Hence, men currently sealed to more than one woman wouldn’t inherently be deprived of that continued union, depending on the genuine, full consent of their spouses. If the law of adoption (or adoptive sealing) is true, LDS already accept that non-traditional families will exist in the world to come. 

Furthermore, any “extra” women in the celestial kingdom wouldn’t need to be assigned to a man in order to fulfill the measure of their creation, though they could be if all parties so desired. A single, exalted woman, whether she be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual, would be perfectly like God and able to parent lesser spirits toward Godhood just as well as a couple could. And, of course, without literal offspring theology, gay and lesbian couples could access all the ordinances of the temple, creating for themselves holy families that are ordained of God. 

Under a theology in which gender is eternal but not eternally procreative, gender becomes just another aspect of our individual natures, not the factor that defines (or limits) our role–not in this life or the next. Though a topic for another day, it strikes me that the KFD statement that “all spirits are susceptible of enlargement” could be interpreted to mean all of us, regardless of gender, should be enlarged through priesthood ordination and service, something some say Joseph Smith accepted. Regardless, the impact of ending literal offspring theology and embracing priesthood for mortal women would have a positive impact on LDS transgender individuals who are suffering under literal offspring theology.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could resolve so many doctrinal woes by fully embracing all that its founder taught in the KFD. I don’t expect our all male church hierarchy to ever view literal offspring theology as anything but big T-truth. The highest LDS church leaders have proven averse to admitting that any church president has ever erred, which seems to me to be a great misfortune for the LDS people. But their tight hold on literal offspring theology doesn’t mean I must subscribe to it. I don’t. I claim the privilege of believing differently, of believing Joseph Smith’s vision of the natures of God and the spirits within us, and of living authentically as a heterodox Latter-day Saint. I believe LDS women deserve a better theology. We all do. 

~~
*NOTE: LDS historian and apologist Brian Hales has argued a position contrary to the one I take here. For a deeper discussion of this topic, please click here to read Mormon historian Jonathan Stapley’s rebuttal to Hales, published by By Common Consent. Stapley’s rebuttal includes evidence beyond what I’m able to include here.

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8 thoughts on “Ending the Objectification of Exalted Women: Joseph Smith’s Antidote to Literal Offspring Theology

  1. Lily

    Excellent! Very thoughtful. My dad once asked my why Father and Mother in Heaven, with perfect physical bodies, are only having body-less spirit babies. I couldn’t answer him.

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    1. Even within the view of literal offspring theology, the notion that it takes perfected, exalted bodies to create spirit babies is silly. At the very least, LDS leaders could put an end to the speculation that physical intercourse is the means by which spirit babies are created. But they won’t even toss us that bone. (Here I’m resisting making a very tempting wisecrack.) What else can I think but that they want to believe endless sex is required of women? And the dumb thing is, even if they eliminated the physical side of eternal procreation, they wouldn’t necessarily have to give up divine orgasm. (Mormonism is so weird on this.) They’d just have to agree that consent and mutuality matters eternally. They’d have to remove female obligation as part of their eternal vision. Go figure. It sure seems that it isn’t simple eternal orgasm they want. Sheez.

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  2. Solid scholarship here. Thank you for assessing the underpinnings of a highly suspect and oppressive narrative. It takes courage to let yourself go there intellectually, and a whole lot more courage to share it with us. I stand with you (and I still think JS has a lot to answer for, and BY has even more to answer for).

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  3. Jack

    “Therefore, when Joseph Smith uses “intelligence” in the earlier D&C 93:29, he means our spirits.”

    I’m certain that you already know what I’m about to say–but I’ll say it anyway: that idea can easily inverted. When he uses the word “spirits” he could be referring to our intelligence.

    I’d add that because Joseph also taught that spirit is matter — albeit more refined — there may have been a distinction in his own mind between premortal spirits and what we might term as “mind” or “consciousness.”

    That said, according to B. H. Roberts those terms, i.e., spirit, mind, intelligence, etc., were used interchangeably in those days. And so, when Joseph uses that word “spirit” in the KFD it could very well be that he’s talking about “mind” in the same way we refer to the spirit when we feel its influence or when we sense its presence at an event. There’s no sense of shape or form when we speak of it in those terms–the salient point being that we are able to make a distinction between “the spirit” and “a spirit” even today in our theological discourse.

    Of course, I could be wrong about all of this–but even if I’m right that’s not to say that women will be consigned to some dreadful eternity wherein their sole duty is to give viviparous birth–worlds without end.

    God is not only great–he’s good.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Jack. It’s an interesting addition to this discussion.

      Yes, God is not only great, but good. I ask you, however, to which (or what) God are you referring? I see your male pronoun so I know the answer. God the Father is the only God within Mormonism that matters–Him with a side helping of Jesus. Can you understand why such a line, coming at the end of a post like this, is problematic? Once again, I’m being reminded that a) the female God is without power or influence in my life, and b) by extention, my eternity (should I succeed in the LDS way, which many think I’m not) will also be without power or influence. Once again, I find myself having to point out that, by “power and influence,” I’m really suggesting women matter in the eternities for something other than our vaginas and uteruses. If we all know that “God is not only great–he’s good,” why are women not provided a better theology?

      But I’m nipping at you for ending with a line I know is well-intentioned and also correct. I agree that God is both great and good. I don’t think literal off-spring theology is made in His image; it’s a lens through which I’m shown a misogynistic God.

      So on to your point that Joseph Smith used the words spirit, mind, and intelligence interchangeably as B.H. Roberts points out. I, also, demonstrate that here; no one needs to go to B.H. Roberts to see that he uses each interchangeably. No where is that more clear than in this section of the King Follet address. If JS uses them interchangeably, they mean the same thing. For instance, we wouldn’t use “dog,” “cat,” and “horse” interchangeably. We wouldn’t say, “The horse barked” when we mean either “the cat barked” or, more reasonably, “the dog barked.” The interchangeable nature of the words requires they be synonyms. Either they all bark, or the horse and cat are not interchangeable with a dog.

      In addressing my claim that, when JS used “intelligence” in D&C 93, he meant spirits, you write “that idea can easily inverted. When he uses the word “spirits” he could be referring to our intelligence.” I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “inverted.” I think you are suggesting that spirit and intelligence are not the same thing, an idea that is the core assumption of literal offspring theology, but an idea that contradicts the interchangeability of the words mind, spirit, and intelligence. In other words, the only way an inversion undermines my position is if we hold tight to literal offspring theology, which I do not. I’m awaiting the appearance of something that can directly attribute literal offspring theology to Joseph Smith, but, right now, I think it’d take another Mark Hoffman for that to rise to the surface. Still, if I’ve missed this (and I may have: I’m no JS scholar), I want to see it.

      Not that it matters to me. I don’t really defer my beliefs to anyone. If something rings a sour note to my spirit, mind, and intelligence, I discard it. Why?

      Because my divine nature is linked to the divine nature of the my Heavenly Parent/s. We are the same, except in progress, and, in order for me to grow spiritually, I must rely on my compass.

      Do come back. I enjoy people who challenge me.

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  4. Jack

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Lisa.

    I believe the terms are synonymous in the sense that, notwithstanding they are without form, they possess some degree of intelligence. That’s why I believe when Joseph Smith speaks of spirit being comprised of a finer matter he’s referring to a different category of “spirit” then that which he employs in the KFD.

    If we look here we can find a wide variety of usages for the word “spirit” from JS’s day–some of which refer to the mind or intelligent aspect of a person:

    https://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/spirit

    While I believe in eternal increase I can’t say that I know precisely what the process looks like–other than we will be involved in the people business. But this much I can say with a high degree of confidence–that the Savior’s atonement will ultimately triumph over all of the effects of the Fall. The time will come when we will no longer eat bread by the sweat of our brow. Nor will women suffer through child birth or sorrow as they work along side their husbands.

    So even though there is some kind of “life giving” happening in eternity we can at least be assured that it won’t come with the pains that we associate with it in mortality. I like to imagine that we’ll spend most of our “eternity” as doting grandparents, spoiling our progeny rotten.

    “Because my divine nature is linked to the divine nature of the my Heavenly Parent/s. We are the same, except in progress, and, in order for me to grow spiritually, I must rely on my compass.”

    I like that. I would just add–as important as it is for us to learn how to us our own compass it is vital that we calibrate our instrument against theirs as they’ve already successfully travelled the course we’re on. IMO, if we check in regularly we cannot go amiss.

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