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

By Aaron Shafovaloff

“As man is God once was, as God is man may be.”

Many non-Mormons make the mistake of either stereotyping Mormons as those who firmly believe in the entirety of the Lorenzo Snow couplet or over-generalizing Mormonism as strongly abandoning the belief. Based on the collective experience of myself and those in the ministry with me, here are some thoughts on the issue that I hope will be helpful to anyone trying to sort this out.

  • Even the Mormons who disaffirm it find it an acceptable position for a Mormon to hold. Affirming the first half of the couplet (and even that God possibly was, probably was, or certainly was a sinner) isn’t seen as cause for a disciplinary council, disfellowship, or excommunication.
  • Past leaders have explicitly affirmed it and their authoritative remarks on the issue have never been formally repudiated with the same degree of authoritativeness.
  • Among those who take a position on the issue, it is still the dominant position over any minority readings of the King Follett Discourse (which the couplet has traditionally functioned to summarize).
  • A large number of Mormons take no position on the matter and don’t find the issue important enough to take a position on.
  • Some Mormons see Hinckley’s public hedging/ambivalence on the issue as a license to back away from the traditional position and then learn toward having no position or having a minority, non-traditional position. Others see it as a justifiable public relations move, and see Hinckley’s subsequent Conference remarks (which referenced the famous interview) as innuendo that it is still doctrine.
  • According to the more robust definitions of what constitutes “official” doctrine, such as the standard of Robert Millet which was recently endorsed on the LDS Newsroom, the first half of the Lorenzo Snow couplet fails the test of what constitutes official doctrine. However, since it is not an “official declaration” or “proclamation”, this Newsroom article fails its own test. Also, using the article’s standard of what constitutes official doctrine, many other basic, widely-held Mormon beliefs that are promoted in church-published, correlated literature are neither “official.” Since Mormonism has no official position on what constitutes an absolutely official position, this issue is messy and probably not worth tackling in a context with few words available.
  • Many Mormons are not aware of the more robust definitions suggested for what constitutes “official” doctrine, and simply assume the first half of the couplet is official doctrine. Many others, in the context of being challenged with the historic teaching, will take recourse in the fact that it isn’t official, even though they personally believe it (compare this with a common Mormon response when challenged over whether they believe in the existence of Heavenly Mother).
  • What Gerald N. Lund wrote in a 1982 Ensign is still relevant for today: “To my knowledge there has been no ‘official’ pronouncement by the First Presidency declaring that President Snow’s couplet is to be accepted as doctrine. But that is not a valid criteria for determining whether or not it is doctrine. Generally, the First Presidency issues official doctrinal declarations when there is a general misunderstanding of the doctrine on the part of many people. Therefore, the Church teaches many principles which are accepted as doctrines but which the First Presidency has seen no need to declare in an official pronouncement. This particular doctrine has been taught not only by Lorenzo Snow, fifth President of the Church, but also by others of the Brethren before and since that time… [T]his doctrine is accepted and taught by the Brethren… 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, February 1982, p. 38)
  • The recently published church manual, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, which will be widely used as official church curriculum in 2008, has a key quote from the King Follett Discourse in chapter 2: “God Himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!” Given how this quote is understood within the traditional interpretative framework and worldview of Mormonism, for many Mormons it affirms the first half of the Lorenzo Snow couplet.
  • The most significant non-traditional stance is as follows: the parallel in the King Follett Discourse and John 5:19made between the mortal experience of the Father and the Son is stronger than the parallel between our mortal experience and that of the Father. Thus the parallel commonly perceived in the Lorenzo Snow couplet is too strong and unwarranted. Unlike us, the Father never was a sinner, never himself received forgiveness or benefited from an atonement, and probably was in a mortal experience to play the role of a savior like Jesus did.

Here is some concise language that is probably warranted in describing the status of the first half of the Lorenzo Snow couplet:

  • It is the majority, dominant position.
  • With some exceptions, many Mormons can be generalized as affirming/believing it, while many others would take a non-committal stance even while recognizing that the larger history and system of Mormon doctrine suggest that it is true.
  • Mormons unanimously find the position acceptable to hold, i.e. not warranting any church disciplinary action.
  • It is a traditional doctrine that has strong, continued life within Mormonism.

We at Mormonism Research Ministry encourage Christians to continue to lovingly question and challenge their Mormon neighbors over the traditional Mormon theology expressed by the Lorenzo Snow couplet. We also encourage Christians to contrast it with passages like Isaiah 43:10: “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.” If, in the past 2000 years, a person went from believing that Jesus Christ was a sinner to taking a non-committal stance on the matter, would authentic Christendom have at any point seen this as a sufficient departure from gross heresy? Neither should we Christians find it acceptable that any Mormon takes a non-committal stance on whether God the Father once participated in a mortal probation to progress unto a godhood not already fully possessed by nature. Furthermore, it is not sufficient for a Mormon to merely take a non-traditional position. True repentance demands that a person be willing to publicly renounce the traditional doctrine of the Lorenzo Snow couplet as tragic and heinous heresy. We call upon Mormons of public influence to do this, as “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). We pray for the Mormon people, whom we dearly love, that one day we may say of them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8). “For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

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