Does Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet no longer have a functioning place in LDS theology?

By Bill McKeever 

“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
General Conference, April 1921

“From President Snow’s understanding of the teachings of the Prophet on this doctrinal point, he coined the familiar couplet: ‘As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.’ This teaching is peculiar to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Marion Romney (1st Presidency)
General Conference, October 1964

“The Lorenzo Snow couplet expresses a true statement: ‘As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.'”
Seventy Bruce C. Hafen
The Broken Heart: Applying the Atonement to Life’s Experiences, 1989, p.133

“This process known as eternal progression is succinctly expressed in the LDS aphorism, ‘As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.'”
Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:1474

For much of its history, the LDS Church has defended and taught the concept that God was once a man and that faithful Mormon men have the capacity to become Gods. This teaching was capsulated in what has become popularly known as the “Lorenzo Snow couplet.”

Lorenzo Snow joined the LDS Church in 1836 at the age of 21. He was ordained an apostle in 1849. When Wilford Woodruff died in 1898, he became Mormonism’s fifth president. Snow claims that his couplet came to him by revelation just prior to leaving on a mission to England in 1840. When Snow returned from his mission three years later, he spoke to Joseph Smith about what he felt God had revealed to him. Joseph Smith’s reply was, “Brother Snow, that is a true gospel doctrine, and it is a revelation from God to you” (LeRoi C. Snow, “Devotion to a Divine Inspiration,” Improvement Era, June 1919, p.656).

Smith himself would teach this concept in his famous King Follett discourse given in 1844; since that time, LDS leaders have alluded to “this true gospel doctrine” in numerous conference messages, books, and periodicals.

November 14, 2004

In November of 2004, Christian apologist/philosopher Ravi Zacharias addressed a packed house in the Mormon Tabernacle. To have a Christian of Zacharias’ caliber speak in such a venue was certainly unusual; however, due to a controversial apology made by Dr. Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary in California, much of what Dr. Zacharias had to say has been pushed into the background.

Dr. Mouw’s short speech preceded Zacharias, but it will be long remembered for the way it impugned the integrity of Christian pastors and ministries who make a concerted effort to bring the gospel to the Mormon people. In his remarks he apologized for the way evangelicals have borne “false witness” when it comes to the teachings of the LDS Church. He added, “We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe.”

Much could be said about Dr. Mouw’s use of a stereotype to apologize for a stereotype, but in keeping with the title of this article, I would like to address a comment Dr. Mouw made when he was asked to clarify his statement. In doing so Dr. Mouw wrote, “I have received emails in the past few days where evangelicals have said that Mormonism teaches that God was once a human being like us, and we can become gods just like God now is. Mormon leaders have specifically stated that such a teaching, while stated by past leaders, is something they don’t understand and has no functioning place in present day Mormon doctrine.”

Dr. Mouw offered no evidence from LDS leaders to support his claim. Considering how often LDS leaders have taught on this subject, it seems nonsensical to insist that they are confused about what Lorenzo Snow or Joseph Smith meant.

Dr. Mouw instead solicited the help of BYU professors Robert Millet and Stephen Robinson in his defense: “Bob Millet has made the same point to many of us, and Stephen Robinson insisted, in the book he co-authored with Craig Blomberg, that this is not an official Mormon teaching, even though it can be found in non-canonical Mormon writings.” If Dr. Mouw is accurately relating what he was told, then we must ask why Dr. Millet would make such a comment when he himself supported Lorenzo Snow’s couplet in a July 1996 Ensign article titled, “The Eternal Gospel.”

On page 53 Dr. Millet wrote, “Knowing what we know concerning God our Father—that he is a personal being; that he has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as our own; that he is an exalted and glorified being; that he was once a man and dwelt on an earth—and knowing that this knowledge was had by many of the ancients, should we be surprised to find legends and myths throughout the cultures of the earth concerning gods who have divine power but human attributes and passions?”

It should also be pointed out that in the book Dr. Mouw mentions above (How Wide the Divide?); co-author Stephen Robinson does not at all discount the significance of Snow’s couplet. In fact he calls this teaching “normative” in LDS thought. On page 87 of How Wide the Divide he wrote, “…it is the official teaching of the LDS Church that God the Father has a physical body (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). The belief that God the Father was once a human being rests mainly on two technically uncanonized sources (sermons of Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow) which have, however, in effect become normative.”

Notice that Dr. Robinson fully acknowledges that this was taught by both Smith and Snow. Why in the world should it matter if the teachings are “uncanonized” if they are, in fact, normative in Mormon thought? To downplay the teaching’s significance with such a game of semantics seems like an incredible display of intellectual dishonesty.

On page 91 of How Wide the Divide, Dr. Robinson goes on to state, “Nothing I say here should be interpreted as denying the importance for Mormonism of God’s corporality and God’s nature as an exalted man. Neither am I denying the importance of LDS belief that we humans are literally God’s children and can become what God is. These are lynchpins in LDS theology.”

Consider also that the July 1982 edition of Ensign, Elder Gerald Lund (now serving as an LDS Seventy) stated, “It is clear that the teaching of President Lorenzo Snow is both acceptable and accepted doctrine in the Church today” (“I have a question,” Ensign, p.38)” To my knowledge this statement has never been rescinded by the First Presidency.

Notice carefully the word “doctrine” in the above quote. Mormon apologists love to hide behind the phrase “official doctrine,” but as I have said more than once, none of them can come up with a definition of “official doctrine” that has been used consistently throughout LDS Church history. Like it or not, many LDS leaders with much more authority than a BYU professor have referred to this teaching as doctrine — this includes Joseph Smith!

Ask, don’t tell

Dr. Mouw accuses evangelicals of telling Mormons what they believe rather than asking them. While I am sure some Christians have unfortunately approached Mormons in that manner, I don’t think it is wise to elevate a Mormon’s unique and personal views to the level of LDS leaders.

For instance, Dr. Mouw claims he was told by Robert Millet that Lorenzo Snow’s couplet has no functioning place in present-day Mormonism. I contacted the LDS Church public relations department and asked if Dr. Millet “was expressing an official church position.” It wasn’t a trick question, but I did ask with the hope that I would get an “official” answer. On November 30, 2004, I received the following from LDS spokesman Dale Bills: “Dr. Millet does not speak for the Church. Church doctrine is established by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”

While he made it clear that Dr. Millet has no authority to speak for the church (no surprise here), he really didn’t clarify whether or not the couplet was still considered a part of the LDS faith.

Since my question wasn’t really answered, I sent a follow up email on December 2nd. In this post I wrote, “Mr. Bills, Thank you for your reply. May I then conclude that Lorenzo’s Snow’s couplet still has a vital role in LDS teaching?”

After patiently waiting a month and a half for a response, I sent another post on January 17, 2005. Once again I asked Mr. Bills if the Snow couplet was a functional teaching in the LDS Church. As of this writing, he has not seen fit to reply. I found his silence quite baffling. Why can’t the LDS Church PR department answer a simple yes or no question? After all, the January 2005 issue of the Ensign magazine had no problem supporting at least half of Snow’s couplet in an article titled, “Created in the Image of God, Male and Female.” On pages 48-49 it stated, “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.”

Conclusion

Much can be deduced from all of this. First of all, it is a mistake to assume that BYU professors are always a good source for correct interpretations of LDS teaching. Many times they are, but it is not uncommon to find such individuals being out of doctrinal harmony with the church that pays their salaries.

Second, since lay members in the LDS Church do not speak for the church, it is wrong for Christians to criticize fellow Christians who understand this concept better than they do.

Third, sometimes asking our Mormon friends for answers to our questions doesn’t always yield an accurate answer. Sometimes, as in the case with Dale Bills, it yields virtually no answer.

In the summer of 2004 I was doing research for a couple of articles I was asked to write for two magazines. I went to church headquarters to see if I might have an audience with a church spokesman “whom I could quote.” At first this didn’t seem to be a problem, but when I called back to confirm I was met with a lack of enthusiasm. Despite the fact that I demonstrated to them that I was a published author and that my request was legitimate, my request was ignored.

As Mr. Bills has correctly pointed out, only the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve have the authority to establish LDS doctrine. However, when those who speak authoritatively for the church refuse to do so, they only increase the suspicion many outsiders have for their church.


Check out What is the Status of the First Half of the Lorenzo Snow Couplet in Mormonism?

For more on the topic of God and the nature of the Godhead, click here.