Latter-day Saint History Theology

The King Follett Sermon: A Biography

The sermon would not (officially) rise from the dead until 1938. But even then it carried some suspicion.

The King Follett Sermon is one of Joseph Smith’s best-recorded and most controversial sermons. Records and memories of the sermon shaped many of the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but have also been partly rejected within the Church. This interview with William V. Smith discusses the King Follett Sermon and its history.

Read more about the King Follett Sermon in The King Follett Sermon: A Biography

Table of Contents

What was the King Follett Sermon?

The King Follett Sermon was a Latter-day Saint conference address delivered by Joseph Smith on April 7, 1844. It was a funeral sermon, partly for a friend, King Follett, at the request of Follett’s wife, Louisa Tanner Follett. Smith expanded the target audience of the address to others in his audience who had suffered the loss of a friend, spouse, child, or other loved person.

Sermons could be prolonged in that era, and this one lasted for over two hours. The earliest Latter-day Saint sermon records were generally brief notes. Only as church government systems grew as councils with the necessity of keeping records of their proceedings for future reference did teaching and instruction events start to have more extensive reports.

This extended to church conferences in the Nauvoo era, which were considered something like general councils. Two assigned clerks for the April 1844 conference left good reporting attempts at a verbatim record and several others left either less extensive reports or reports reconstructed from notes of the event.

Smith did not employ shorthand experts during his life, although at the end of his life, there were a few candidates. He chose not to do that for reasons of trust.

This was remarkable.

Unofficial auditors who left reports constructed after the sermon event are useful for several reasons. One important reason is the view it gives us of what an average Latter-day Saint may have taken away from the event.

For a variety of reasons, none of the reports can be considered a perfect representation of the event. For example, none are long enough; some only give small portions of the address. Some try to relate his exact words (this is useful in any reconstruction effort) and what we have left is enough to give some confidence of exact words here and there. Part of my work was such a reconstruction while showing the reader exactly whose report I used and to some degree, why.

Why did you feel it was important to write about the King Follett Sermon?

I became fascinated with the King Follett Sermon as a teenager, partly for what it said in the version I had and partly for what people I interacted with either knew or didn’t know, about it.

As a college student, I became interested in the way texts evolved in American literature, how the printing industry led to textual traditions, and naturally, how that worked in the Latter-day Saint universe.

As I started to look more closely at what was left of reports of Joseph Smith’s preaching I thought that someday I would like to look into how texts of his preaching originated and evolved over time both in form and interpretation. That clearly had foundational import for Mormonism in a number of directions.

I started that process then, but other obligations took precedence. I renewed my interest late in my academic career and began to collect more source documents and digital records of imprints that were derived from those sources. I made a special study of Smith’s funeral addresses and the King Follett Sermon work was so extensive it seemed like it could stand as a separate work. 

What are some of the key items Joseph Smith taught during the sermon?

Some of the major points are:

1. The sermon discusses the nature of God: God was not always God, but progressed to that state, Jesus is in that same process and would one day take the same kind of role, as would (based on his other teachings of the time) the Holy Spirit. This was the most noted aspect over time, especially in the world outside Mormonism.

2. The nature of man: Human souls/spirits are beings without beginning or end and have the capacity to follow in the footsteps of God, men and women of this world were adopted as children of God in the eternal world before their mortal birth, much like the Pauline teaching of gentiles being adopted into Israel but in the preexistent state (this was remarkable and also generated the most difficulty inside Utah’s Latter-day Saint movement).

3. The metaphysics of proxy ordinances for the dead: God teaches souls, and ignores embodiment where such rules are concerned. Therefore all, even the dead, must obey the ordinances of the gospel (baptism was the particular focus here but Smith extended this to other rituals and took the time to argue with one of his prominent Protestant critics, Alexander Campbell, over baptism). 

4. There will be those who are damned forever: Smith called out some apostates as being in this category. He makes this fate the explanation of the origin of Satan. Spirits (before the creation of the world) rebelled at the idea that God dictated that there could be mortal sins so serious that redemption was impossible, damnation permanent. Such rebels became devils, and their leader, Satan. Smith was not a universalist, though in some ways he came close. 

None of these points were new in Joseph Smith’s teachings. He had preached them all before (some many times, like points 2 and 4) but never all together and never before an audience of this size (upwards of 10,000).

His repetition of teachings wasn’t new. In some ways, he was a version of the great “extemporaneous” preacher George Whitefield. Various topics would reappear in his preaching over time. His preaching was like stepping in the Hericletian stream. Nearly every time he preached, especially in Nauvoo, a significant fraction of his listeners might be new. Repeating ideas was the way he could bring those ideas to the church.

BYU professor Anthony Sweat discusses the King Follett Sermon in its Nauvoo context.

How was Joseph Smith influenced by people like Lorenzo Dow and Thomas Dick?

Everyone knew of Lorenzo Dow. Probably the best-known—and somewhat of a rebel—Methodist preacher, many American boys of Joseph Smith’s time bore his name (Latter-day Saints will know Lorenzo Snow, and perhaps one of the most prolific of Latter-day Saint missionaries, Lorenzo Dow Barnes, as examples).

Few preachers cited sources and Smith was no exception. But he clearly quoted Dow in several spots in the King Follett Sermon.

Pratt saw polygamy in heaven as a solution to a real problem.

Scottish minister/philosopher Thomas Dick’s book, Philosophy of a Future State was known to Smith in Kirtland, and his language and thought appeared in Smith’s words (perhaps most obviously in the terminology of his Book of Abraham in Nauvoo). Dick’s ideas about man becoming God-like in the future were echoed in the King Follett Discourse in a number of ways.

Dick’s ideas about the human soul, like Dow’s, were close to Joseph Smith’s—though not so stark in terms of souls with no beginning. Dow and Dick saw God as the soul’s creator. Smith preached in his latter years as he did in the King Follett Sermon, “Anything that has a beginning, has an ending”—one of his quotations from Dow (but turned on its head from Dow’s use). Dick was troubled by the idea of created souls and neither preacher liked the somewhat popular notion of the annihilation of wicked souls. Smith gave the latter a pejorative mention in the sermon himself (Brigham Young and Heber Kimball, brought back the idea of annihilation in their Utah teaching).

What is the relationship between the King Follett Sermon and the plural marriage revelation (D&C 132)?

This is a complex question. One easy answer is that D&C 132 does bring forward the idea of becoming like God (however, the revelation was more or less a secret document until 1852). The King Follett Sermon paints this as a process: You have to learn to be like God and it is not just entering the pearly gates. Long learning takes place after death; D&C 132 rests the idea, at least in part, on the fulfillment of ritual.

The sermon does not connect with plural marriage and D&C 132 makes no reference to God being a polygamist—that was a negotiation that appeared some years later. However, the sermon does make reference to the idea of becoming Kings and Priests, something already in Latter-day Saint scripture by 1832 (D&C 76)—something not present in D&C 132 but later joined to it.

The revelation most directly connects with the King Follett Discourse in the portion where Joseph Smith speaks about damnation. In verses 19 and 26 (especially of the current Latter-day Saint Doctrine and Covenants), an everlasting hell is cited as a fate for some and that completes a sort of doctrinal triangle: D&C 76, D&C 132, and the Follett sermon. There is more here but I think it’s more easily discussed in terms of one of your later questions. 

What do you see as different eras of Latter-day Saint thought? 

In the context of the sermon you can easily divide things up as:

  • 1830 to 1844 (Joseph Smith),
  • 1845 to 1890 (the era of polygamy),
  • 1891 to 1912 (the return to Joseph Smith’s history),
  • 1912 to 1938 (the ban of the Follett sermon),
  • 1938 to 1971 (a renewal of interest in the ideas of the sermon), and then
  • To the present.

He felt uncomfortable with the idea that he would not see those children grow.

One can see the Book of Mormon in the King Follett Sermon, especially in the discussion on resurrection, while the Book of Abraham appears in the discussion of souls (Abr. 3:17-18).

After 1844, thinkers and leaders like Eliza Snow, Lorenzo Snow, Orson Pratt, Parley Pratt, and others spent a lot of energy trying to build a theology and metaphysics of polygamy.

One aspect of Joseph Smith’s thought seemed to place heaven within the same cosmos as the earth, with Kolob, reifying spirit as material in some way, and so forth. Orson Pratt especially took this so seriously that he preached about wagons, buckboards, and carriages in heaven, with the celestial un-exalted being his stable boys and wagon wheel axle greasers. 

How did polygamy lead to a different idea about the creation of human spirits?

Orson Pratt (and he was not alone among the apostles in his thinking) found that the materiality of resurrection demanded that celestially-exalted humans be equipped with the same reproductive organs as mortals and that they should be useful in the same way. But how should that work?

Two Saints had answers: Eliza R. Snow and William W. Phelps. Both wrote poetry and fiction (1845) to the effect that heavenly couples had “spirits” born to them. Snow in her famous poem, “My Father in Heaven,” later named “Oh My Father,” Brigham Young’s favorite hymn, Phelps in poems and stories around the same time.

Pratt saw polygamy in heaven as a solution to a real problem. First, the glory of divine beings was the work of tutoring spirits to be like them and if spirits, as Pratt put it, were to be produced in the wombs of exalted females, there had to be a gestation time (Pratt had an Aristotelian dislike of the idea of no “cause” for spirits).

How to overcome this? You needed many, perhaps millions, of wives for each exalted man. Such was the metaphysics of polygamy and the reasons why it had to not only be on earth (bringing more divinely sired spirits to earth to become Latter-day Saints as scions of faithful patriarchs), but in heaven for the same work (some of this still echoes in declarations like “you are the *literal* children of God”).

Smith’s uncreated spirits were discarded in favor of the spirit babies of the exalted. That, however, was not the end of the story. People did notice the problem of disagreement between Joseph Smith and the Utah teaching. It came up in American religious encyclopedias and Latter-day Saint literature. 

How did Joseph F. Smith’s beliefs revise what Joseph Smith taught?

In the King Follett Sermon, and in other sermons before it, Joseph Smith voiced what today might seem peculiar ideas about resurrection. This was true of children in particular. Smith taught that infants and children who died at those ages would be resurrected in the same form as they died. In the Follett sermon, it was styled as comfort to mothers: your child would come back to you in the same form as you lost it. But those children would remain children forever. Not as mental children, but as exalted powerful beings on heavenly thrones as it were.

After Smith’s death, others weighed in to say they thought he was wrong (or right!). The first generation leaders like the Pratts and Young could do this. It became more difficult as time passed and a new generation came in. How to critique Joseph Smith then? It was dangerous ground by the 1880s. People came in on both sides of the argument: the default option was that Joseph was right. But what if he was misquoted?

Joseph F. Smith lost 13 children in death. He felt uncomfortable with the idea that he would not see those children grow, and become exalted in the D&C 132 model. Joseph F. saw the King Follett Sermon not as an error by his uncle, but rather as the result of a poor job by clerks.

He worked to find witnesses from his uncle’s time to the effect that Joseph Smith said children would be resurrected as children but later grow to adult form. He found no contemporary textual witnesses but he did find some relatives who volunteered to verify his claims (though perhaps he did not notice that Joseph Smith’s sermons to the opposite effect bracketed the supposed timing of his witnesses). Moreover, Joseph F. was a doctrinal student of Orson Pratt, who did not blanch at saying Joseph Smith was just wrong on this point. Joseph F.’s suspicions of the sermon would multiply.

What role does B. H. Roberts play in the King Follett Sermon’s history?

B. H. Robert became a general authority in 1888. Roberts was an avid student of Joseph Smith’s life and teachings and he noted early on that Smith’s teachings required souls without beginning or end. Yet Roberts was raised in the nineteenth-century notions of polygamy (and was a polygamist himself).

How to negotiate this contradiction? Roberts found a way. He posited that scripture could be seen as offering a solution: a two-phase preexistence:

  • Phase one: souls (he preferred the Book of Abraham term, intelligences or intelligencies—both appeared in the original printing in Nauvoo and were legitimate words of the day) had no beginning.
  • Phase two: these intelligences were placed into the spirits born in heaven in perfect analog to spirits placed in physical human bodies at birth in Latter-day Saint teaching.

His teaching on this was consistent from the 1890s until his death and it became a more or less default view by the 1950s. Later, it became controversial. 

By 1901, Roberts was appointed to helm a long-dormant project to publish a history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The history, already planned by George Q. Cannon, was to start with 1839 and continue into the Utah period. 

After many starts and stops, Joseph had turned his history project over to his secretary, Willard Richards. After Joseph’s death, Richards did not work on the history and he died in Utah (1854) without starting it again.

After Richards’s death, George A. Smith took up the project. George A. faced the problem of reproducing Joseph Smith’s sermons as part of the history. In some cases, there were published versions. In others, there was no imprint to guide the writers of Joseph’s history.

In the case of the King Follett Sermon—and others of the last years of Joseph’s life—there were a number of audits for a given sermon. George A. decided to use one of the office clerks, a fairly recent British convert, Jonathan Grimshaw, to take the reports that had surfaced and make a coherent record.

George A. wanted long “reports” if he could get them and Grimshaw often just used most every report, sometimes making it appear that Joseph Smith repeated himself.

In the case of the King Follett Sermon, there was a handy imprint. The year after Joseph Smith died (1845), the church’s printers, John Taylor and William Phelps, produced 12,000 copies of the sermon text that had been constructed by Thomas Bullock from his own report and the other official clerk for the sermon, William Clayton.

It appeared in the church paper, Times and Seasons in September 1844. While Bullock’s text was remarkably true to the two official audits, Taylor and Phelps added some smoothing and introductory text.

Grimshaw used the Taylor-Phelps text as his base text, adding material from two other reports that mostly needlessly inflated the text. Grimshaw’s text was edited by George A., Brigham Young, and other clerks. At some points, the sermon text was altered or expanded beyond Grimshaw’s sources to reflect some Utah theological points and expand others (1856).

The Grimshaw version of the sermon became the official text and was published as part of the history, itself appearing as a serial in church magazines and newspapers. The historians in Nauvoo and Utah wrote the history in Joseph’s name, in the first person, as though he had composed it himself.

The technique was not unusual at the time, but it would trip up later users of the history who did not realize the history was the product of others and not Joseph himself. (I should add that all these texts of the sermon appear in the book in its appendices.)

Many church writers took his arguments and made them their own.

Roberts was to take these scattered imprints and make books from them, doing the historian’s work of annotating, editing, and writing other liminal text for the volumes. For Joseph Smith’s sermons, Roberts merely used the text he found in the imprints (Roberts used the text that was published in the church magazine of Great Britain, The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star (late 1850s early 1860s) based on the original imprint in Utah in the church newspaper, The Deseret News).

For the King Follett Discourse, Roberts did not use the Star text directly. Instead, he used a version he published in January 1909 in the Utah church magazine, The Improvement Era. This text created its own text tradition (still based on the Star imprint but with Roberts’s extensive annotation)—and its own controversy.

How did Charles Penrose’s teachings about the King Follett Sermon compare to B. H. Roberts’s writings?

Like B. H. Roberts, Charles William Penrose was a British convert. He was a long-time missionary in the British Isles. Penrose was an advocate for Parley Pratt’s writings. And Pratt, like his brother, had his own ideas about points of Joseph Smith’s teaching. Pratt’s thought was panpsychism: spirits were born from celestial wombs (as in his brother’s theology), but the material of creation had its own aspect of undifferentiated intelligence. It’s not easy to discern Pratt’s full thought, but Penrose developed his own version.

By the 1880s Penrose was preaching the polygamy metaphysics about spirits. He came in contact with Roberts’s ideas in 1905 and thought it was disturbing. Since Roberts was using the King Follett Sermon as a proof text for his two-phase preexistence, Penrose became suspicious of the text in much the same way as Joseph F. Smith—but for a different reason.

When Roberts published his 1909 text of the Follett sermon, Penrose was in England as the apostle assigned to supervise European mission work. He avoided publishing Roberts’s text in the Star and later published a kind of rejoinder to it.

A black and white photograph of Joseph F. Smith, Anthon Lund, and Charles Penrose as members of the First Presidency.
Charles Penrose (right) served in the First Presidency, along with Joseph F. Smith (middle) and Anthon Lund (left).

In 1911, Penrose became the second counselor to Joseph F. Smith in the church presidency. The presidency decided to halt publication of any version of the King Follett Sermon. Both Smith and Penrose saw it as a corrupted text produced by incompetent clerks. Penrose would later even claim that Joseph Smith had repudiated the Follett sermon.

Roberts’s sixth volume of the history was typeset and about to be published in 1912. But The presidency told the Chicago printers to hold printing, excise the Follett sermon, alter the table of contents to reflect the change, and then move forward with the printing.

Notably, they did not tell Roberts. When he found out, he was depressed and gave up on the history project (it was initially projected by Cannon to be ten volumes). The sermon would not (officially) rise from the dead until 1938, but even then, it carried some suspicion with it. It was restored to volume 6 of the history in 1952.

How has Roberts-Penrose debate continued to today?

Even after 1952, the King Follett Discourse was seen as a difficult text. Not in the sense of incompetent clerks, but in terms of its teaching—both for the public and the Saints. Joseph Fielding Smith, the son of Joseph F. Smith, restored the sermon to good graces, but he saw the text as “too advanced” for the church and feared it would become a stumbling block. He was prophetic in both senses.

For the non-Latter-day Saint, the sermon became an issue in the counter-cult industry in 1970s. Internally, church writers generally favored Roberts’s two-phase interpretation, though Roberts was rarely recognized as the source. His work was successful in that sense since many church writers took his arguments and made them their own. This was especially true in the church’s Institute of Religion programs where teachers gravitated to Roberts’s text and footnotes, seeing strong hints of a positive theology—human beings are true miracles, in the sense that they are a self-existent part of an eternal cosmos. But there were counterpoints.

One was Bruce R. McConkie, a general authority who saw ideas like Penrose’s as the sure footing for Latter-day Saint doctrine along with other world polygamy. In 1958, Elder McConkie wrote Mormon Doctrine—an encyclopedic work that called out Roberts’s (not by name) interpretation of Follett as false and said that the sermon’s record was incomplete and needed proper interpretation (his).

Later, McConkie would give speeches to gatherings of church teachers to that effect. His viewpoint became a church standard when he became an apostle in 1972 and the church’s vetting body, Correlation, accepted his work as dogma for a time. With his death, the tension lessened.

When Church president Gordon B. Hinckley was questioned about God having progressed to his Godhood, he side-stepped the question, saying that it wasn’t currently taught. At the same time, he stated in 1995 that the King Follett Sermon was “a doctrinal document.”

How have other branches of the Restoration viewed the King Follett sermon?

Most of the early schismatic movements rejected or ignored Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo cosmology. Joseph Smith’s oldest son, who eventually led the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1860), saw the Follett sermon as nothing when compared to the accepted scripture of the church (that did not include the Book of Abraham), therefore believing it could be safely ignored as a source of doctrine. He advised fellow church leaders to let it alone, indicating that it would go away.

Other movements of the same era did not accept the sermon. For example, Sidney Rigdon’s Church of Christ (1845) in Pittsburgh rejected the sermon as uninspired. Mormon fundamentalist movements that preserve the practice of polygamy have generally accepted the sermon, though there are various interpretations.

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About the interview participant

William Victor Smith has a PhD in mathematics from the University of Utah. His work has appeared in various scientific and mathematics journals and Latter-day Saint themed works like Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and several academic edited volumes. He previously published Textual Studies in the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Kofford, 2018).

Further Reading

The King Follett Sermon Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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