I can’t get enough of these Mormon ‘Fakebook’ status updates.
As always, I’ll explain the picture if you’re not in on the joke.
In a 1997 Time Magazine interview, President Hinckley seemed to dismiss one of the most distinctly Mormon beliefs—that god was once a man as we are now.
Question: Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
Hinckley: 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. …
He told the San Francisco Chronicle something similar in 1997 as well:
Question: “Don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man?”
Hinckley: “I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else.”
The couplet to which Hinckley alludes in the above quote is attributed to LDS President Lorenzo Snow. That men may become gods is certainly a Mormon teaching. At issue is whether the first part of the couplet—”As man is, God once was.”—is doctrinal.
While Hinckley is right that this aspect isn’t as emphasized as the latter part of the couplet, the teaching that god was once a man nonetheless enjoys a long history in Mormonism. It was first articulated by Joseph Smith in the King Follett discourse, and has since been affirmed in numerous church publications and conference talks. Here are just a few examples:
“It is a Mormon truism that is current among us and we all accept it that as man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become.” – Elder Melvin J. Ballard, April 1921 General Conference
“Many religions teach that human beings are children of God, but often their conception of Him precludes any kind of bond resembling a parent-child relationship. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught of a much simpler and more sensible relationship: “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret.” – “Strengthening the Family: Created in the Image of God, Male and Female”, January 2005 Ensign
“The doctrine that God was once a man and has progressed to become a God is unique to this church.” – Official LDS Lesson Manual, “The Teachings of Brigham Young”, 1997
But doctrinal or no, the idea that god was once a man remains a popular belief among Mormons. Hinckley’s comments to Time and the Chronicle confused and upset some members, so he spoke to their concerns in the October 1997 General Conference:
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.
What Hinckley told the press, in my view, was intentionally disingenuous. For good or ill, Hinckley was a very PR-conscious church president whose goal was to make Mormonism mainstream. And to that end, he sometimes downplayed Mormonism’s peculiar beliefs, like god-as-exalted-man.
In a 1998 interview with Larry King, Hinckley similarly downplayed Mormonism’s relationship with polygamy. He claimed that the church merely “permitted it on a restricted scale” when Mormons came West, with only two to five percent of members ever participating in it. He also said that in 1890, a revelation was received to end the practice.
Hinckley was wrong on all counts. Polygamy was first practiced in Nauvoo, over a decade before the Saints fled to the West. And when Mormons did settle in Utah where they could practice it openly, it was hardly restricted. The late historian Richard S. Van Wagoner estimated that about 25% of Mormon adults in the 19th century were in polygamous relationships. And as for Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto, it only ostensibly ended polygamy. It was primarily a political document to get the federal government off the church’s back. In fact, the First Presidency continued to quietly approve post-Manifesto polygamous marriages for years, until Joseph F. Smith issued the Second Manifesto in 1904. Even today, the LDS Church teaches that there will be polygamy in the afterlife.
The LDS Church has always wrestled with the tension of being ‘in the world, but not of it’. “Full admission into the religious mainstream may require that Mormonism lose its uniqueness”, I wrote in a previous post. Brigham Young wasn’t willing to incur that cost of admission. In one sermon, he said, “I would rather pass through all the misery and sorrow, the troubles and trials of the Saints, than to have the religion of Christ become popular with the world.” Hinckley, if his public statements are any indication, was of the opposite opinion—having been far quicker to sacrifice peculiarity at the altar of popularity.