The King Follett Discourse is one of Joseph Smith’s most well-known sermons. Many consider it the pinnacle of the Prophet’s teachings, although Joseph had previously taught most of the ideas. Interestingly, the King Follett Sermon rarely makes an appearance in general conference or other official sources. In this interview, James Faulconer says that the sermon’s role in Latter-day Saint theology is an open question.
Read the full article about the King Follett Discourse by James Faulconer.
What is the King Follett Discourse?
The King Follett Discourse is a sermon delivered in April of 1844 by Joseph Smith, during a General Conference, as a memorial for an early convert to the Church, King Follett. Follett had been killed almost two months earlier in a well-digging accident.
What is the difference between the King Follett Discourse and the Sermon in the Grove?
The Sermon in the Grove is a sermon that Joseph Smith gave approximately 3 ½ months after the King Follett Discourse. It was Joseph Smith’s last large public sermon. In it he repeated several of the teachings of the King Follett Discourse, in particular he taught the plurality of gods.
Is there a transcript of the King Follett Discourse? What problems does that present?
We know of four transcripts. However, since they were not stenographic transcripts, they differ from one another, sometimes significantly. They are more like what we would think of as notes taken by those in attendance, some of them much fuller than the others. So, because they are not stenographic transcripts, we do not know exactly what Joseph Smith taught, word for word.
In places the transcripts are close enough that we can be quite certain. In other places we have to compare one to the other and try to reconstruct missing text by doing that comparison. Sometimes we have to guess at what the writers’ abbreviations mean. Finally, there may be parts of the sermon that are simply lost because none of those taking notes captured them.
In spite of the difficulties, we have a reasonably good reconstruction of his sermon, that of Stan Larson: “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” published in BYU Studies in 1978.
Where do we get the King Follett Sermon transcript found in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith?
The transcript that is in Teachings appears to be a version of the amalgamation of the four transcripts made by Jonathan Grimshaw in 1855 and published in the Deseret News in 1857. It is very close to the Larson version.
What are the most important teachings found in the King Follett Discourse?
- “God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto yourselves.”
- The Father once dwelt on an earth as Jesus Christ and we do; so Jesus Christ did what he saw the Father do before him.
- The Father “found Himself in the midst of spirits and glory. Because He was greater He saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest . . . could have a privilege to advance like Himself and be exalted with Him.”
- The world was not created ex nihilo.
- “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as . . . God himself”; it “exists upon a self-existent principle.”
- We have an obligation to do proxy religious rites for those who have passed away.
- To commit the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, a person must “deny the plan of salvation; he has got to say that the sun does not shine while he sees it with his eyes open.”
- Children who die young will be resurrected as they were when they died and remain that way eternally, though they will sit on thrones of glory.
- Baptism is required for salvation.
How many of those are unique to the King Follett Discourse?
At the time of the sermon, probably only the idea that the Father was once a human being and has progressed to be the God he is.
The plurality of gods was preached publicly later in the Sermon in the Grove, and had been taught to individuals and in groups before, but this doctrine about the Father’s past history is unique to the King Follett Discourse—though it was anticipated by the earlier discussion of Lorenzo Snow’s couplet (“As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may become”) among some of the Saints.
How did Brigham Young interpret the Lorenzo Snow couplet, “As man now is, God once was: As God now is, man may become”?
For President Young, both halves were equally weighted in importance and equally literal. One the one hand:
There never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals that we are now passing through. That course has been from all eternity, and it is and will be to all eternity.
On the other hand:
[Eternal matter] is brought together, organized, and capacitated to receive knowledge and intelligence, to be enthroned in glory, to be made angels, Gods . . . . This is what you and I are created for.
What did Gordon B. Hinckley say about the couplet in a 1997 interview?
President Gordon B. Hinckley 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. . . . As God is, man may become. We believe in eternal progression. Very strongly. We believe that the glory of God is intelligence and whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the Resurrection. Knowledge, learning, is an eternal thing. And for that reason, we stress education.
We’re trying to do all we can to make of our people the ablest, best, brightest people that we can.”
At the time, some members of the Church were bothered by what they saw as President Hinckley’s repudiation of Joseph Smith’s teaching, but he was doing what Latter-day Saints had been doing for most of our history, though perhaps he was more frank.
He didn’t deny the first half of the couplet, but implicitly offered the same advice that Brigham Young had more than 100 years earlier:
Instead of inquiring after the origin of the Gods . . . , let [the members of the Church] seek to know the object of their present existence, and how to apply, in the most profitable manner for their mutual good and salvation, the intelligence they possess.
Have Latter-day Saint leaders similarly expressed different opinions in regards to any other teachings from the King Follett Sermon?
There are any number of doctrines about which Latter-day Saints have different opinions. One important example is our understanding of what intelligence (as the word is used in scripture) is.
Given the teaching of Doctrine and Covenants 93:29, we agree that intelligence was neither made nor created. But has intelligence eternally been individual, in Joseph Smith’s terms, “self-existent”? Or does “intelligence” refer to a raw material, comparable to the raw material of matter, a mass of substance, as it were, from which the plurality of individual spirits/intelligences were formed?
On one side, Brigham Young took the latter position:
[W]e had nothing to do with the origin of our being—. . . we were produced by a superior Power, without either the knowledge or the exercise of the agency we now possess.
In his mind, intelligence was analogous to ordinary matter: “The matter composing our bodies and spirits has been organized from the eternity of matter that fills the universe.”
Bruce R. McConkie appears to have taken a similar position, saying “We did not exist as entities until [our spirit birth].”
Yet, on the other side, today the more common belief seems to the first position, that individual intelligences have always existed. B. H. Roberts believed that intelligences “were self-existent entities before they entered into the organization of the spirit,” to quote President Charles W. Penrose’s synopsis of Roberts’s view.
The 1995 “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” seems to take the Roberts view of intelligence. It says, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
Other readings are possible, but the most obvious one is the view that individual identity is eternal. That view was also taught by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in 2015: “Prophets have revealed that we first existed as intelligences and that we were given form, or spirit bodies, by God, thus becoming His spirit children.”
How often does the King Follett Sermon show up in official Latter-day Saint teachings, such as general conference addresses or Church manuals? Are there any theories explaining why?
Not often. One reason is probably the fragmentary, somewhat speculative character of any reconstruction of the original sermon. For that reason, the Church did not include the sermon in B. H. Roberts’s History of the Church until 1950.
The more important reason, however, is probably that all but one of the doctrines taught in the sermon can be found elsewhere and sometimes more clearly in the other revelations of Joseph Smith. And the one doctrine unique to the Discourse (that God was once a man like us) is generally agreed not to be understood well enough for us to say anything about it.
Is the King Follett Sermon the pinnacle of Joseph Smith’s teaching—or peripheral to it?
That depends on what we mean by “pinnacle” and “peripheral.” It is one of Joseph Smith’s last sermons, in which he brought together some of his most radical and new teachings. In that sense, it may be the pinnacle.
But, since there is only one teaching of the King Follett Discourse that we would not have without it—since without it we know almost everything it teaches—it could also be understood as peripheral.
About James Faulconer
James Faulconer is the co-author of The King Follett Discourse: Pinnacle or Peripheral published in BYU Studies. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. In addition to philosophical work, he has written on Latter-day Saint themes in such books as Faith, Philosophy, Scripture; The Life of Holiness: Romans 1, 5-8; Mosiah: a brief theological introduction; and Thinking Otherwise: Theological Explorations of Joseph Smith’s Revelations. Faulconer is presently working on a book exploring faith, hope, and charity and looking forward to writing a volume on embodiment.
Did you enjoy this interview?
- A Biography of the Follett Sermon
- Eugene England and the King Follett Sermon
- ‘You Never Knew My Heart’: Joseph Smith and the King Follett Sermon
- Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology
- Truman Madsen’s Joseph Smith Lectures
Yet to Be Revealed interviews
- Open Questions in Latter-day Saint Theology
- What’s the Relationship Between Women and the Priesthood?
- Was Jesus Married?
- Is the Song of Solomon Scripture?
- How Are Grace and Works Connected?
The King Follett Discourse resources
- The King Follett Discourse: Pinnacle or Peripheral? (James Faulconer)
- King Follett Discourse (Church History Topics)
- Accounts of the King Follett Sermon (Joseph Smith Papers)
- The Doctrinal Impact of the King Follett Discourse (BYU Studies)
- King Follett Biography (Joseph Smith Papers)
- Researching the King Follett Discourse (Church History Library)
- King Follett Site and Well (Kenneth R. Mays Photograph Collection)