I don’t know that we teach it
In case you don’t recognize the title of this post, it is part of President Hinckley’s answer to a reporter’s question that appeared in the August 4 1997 issue of Time magazine. The reporter referenced the King Follett discourse. The answer supplied and the manner in which it was delivered caused the reporter to draw some false conclusions about a very important doctrine.
In that discourse, the prophet Joseph Smith said, “If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man.” (See also D&C 130:22)
The article referred to Lorenzo Snow’s couplet, “As man is now, God once was; as God now is, man may become.” The reporter said, “God the Father was once a man as we are. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing.” President Hinckley was then asked, “Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?”
The bothersome reply
“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 think others know a lot about it.”
The reporter wrote, “On whether his church still holds that God the Father was once a man, he sounded uncertain.” That’s an unfortunate conclusion. Of course I wasn’t at the interview and neither were you but I’ll bet the reporter mistook careful thoughtfulness for uncertainty. This doctrine is indeed deep territory and not something that is taught outside the LDS Church.
An earlier and similar interview
The San Francisco Chronicle, published an interview with President Hinckley in April of 1997. The reporter asked, “There are some significant differences in your beliefs. For instance, don’t Mormon’s believe that God was once a man?” President Hinckley responded, “I wouldn’t say that. There is a little couplet coined, ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.’”
He then said, “Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.” The reporter pounced on this. “So you’re saying that the church is still struggling to understand this? ” President Hinckley responded, “Well, as God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly.”
President Hinckley’s response
President Hinckley said in 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.” And there lies the whole point of my post today. Some members did indeed become a little concerned by the exchanges they read in the press reports of those interviews.
Does the Church still teach this?
I know this is old news but it still bothers some people when they discover the anti-Mormon attacks floating around on the Internet. President Hinckley was right. We really don’t know much about how our Heavenly Father became a God. The idea that he passed through a mortal probationary state like you and me is certainly not documented in any scripture of which I know.
However, it is still taught. In the Gospel Principles manual in the chapter on exaltation we read, “Joseph Smith taught: “It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the character of God. . . . He was once a man like us; . . . God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345-46).”
Summary and conclusion
I don’t know why this should bother anyone. The doctrine is true. Joseph Smith knew a whole lot more about this than I do. President Hinckley also knew a whole lot more about this doctrine than he was willing to share with reporters who did not have the background to understand it. It must have been difficult for President Hinckley to hold back and not teach it in those interviews.
It didn’t bother me when I read the interviews back in 1997 and it doesn’t bother me today. However, I know it does bother some people. We each have trials of our faith. I have never depended on an intellectual understanding of the gospel in order to accept it and live it. There are some things that just can’t be fully comprehended without the temple, prayer and faith.