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The Bible and reincarnation

Joseph Smith and reincarnation
Joseph Smith and Reincarnation

Introduction

There are thousands of people who have never attended a "Mormon" church, and yet they believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet. How is this? Many of these closet believers hold "New Age" beliefs. Some of them have told me that Joseph Smith believed in reincarnation. Did he? Let's look at the evidence.

By the way, I have found "New Agers" to be a very pleasant and polite bunch (on the whole). I do not want to attack them. I just want to get at the truth.

In brief, it appears that a small minority of members did speculate on reincarnation as well as other issues around the 1850s, but the prophets always condemned the theory, and it soon died out in the church.


Claims and responses

[Original claims are in green. These were taken from an email I received on the keys of knowledge mailing list (accessible from "spirit web"). I have added my own subtitles (in bold).]

My responses, as usual, are indented, and I have edited the original text for length. For example, I have missed out lengthy quotations that simply illustrate a point on which we both agree.

Is reincarnation the only sensible theory?

Did you know that he [Joseph Smith] believed in reincarnation and the church has taught that he did NOT? I submit the following: In G. A. Gaskell's Dictionary Of All Scriptures And Myths he has made the following observation about reincarnation:

'Nevertheless, to deny the fact of reincarnation is on the face of it absurd, because without it any theory of the gradual evolution of the immortal soul through time, past, present and future, is inexplicable.'

Joseph's teachings of eternal progression makes perfect sense to me, whereas I find reincarnation (as it has been explained to me) inexplicable.

All the sacred books teach involution and evolution through vast periods, and never hint at special creations of souls, or other things, taking place. Yet such special creations must be assumed if the doctrine of evolution of souls [i.e., reincarnation] is denied. (Dictionary Of All Scriptures And Myths, pp. 619-620)

I have good news for G. A. Gaskell! The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that we were born in the pre-existence as spirit children of God. That is why we call him our heavenly father!

The two positions

Reincarnation is simply a rebirth into a new body, but there are many variations to this theme. What does Mormonism say regarding this doctrine?

I think that the doctrine of reincarnation is probably just as close to the truth as the doctrines of traditional Christianity (which reject a pre-existence and have a very simplistic view of the afterlife).

Mormonism teaches that:

  1. We existed forever as intelligences.
  2. We are born in human form as spirits.
  3. We accepted God's plan for progression, which involved being born (once) in physical form.
  4. We will ultimately be resurrected, and for to the place we most want/deserve to be, never to die again.

Did Joseph Smith keep the truth to himself?

On Sunday, May 21, 1843, Joseph Smith said that our organization which will "prepare us for the eternal worlds" had not yet been revealed by him:

That is not true. He simply said he would not reveal it in that particular sermon. He often said similar things - that he would preach on a particular doctrine and not get sidetracked. This particular sermon was on the subject of 2nd Peter chapter 1, and not about the heavens.

It is true that in May 1843, Joseph chose to keep certain things in his bosom. Then in April 1844 - no doubt aware of his impending death - he chose to unburden himself in the famous "King Follett Sermon." Here he explained all the great issues that he had only hinted at. It is the most famous sermon he ever gave, and includes many elements (such as baptism for the dead) that completely oppose the concept of reincarnation.

A statement attributed to Joseph Lee Robinson

Speaking of our probation here on earth, Joseph Lee Robinson recorded the comments of Joseph in his journal as follows:

'We also heard him [Joseph] say that God had revealed unto him that any man who ever committed adultery in either of his probations that that man could never be raised to the highest exaltation in the celestial glory and that he [Joseph] felt anxious with regard to himself and he inquired of the Lord and the Lord told him that he, Joseph, had never committed adultery [see D&C 132:41].'

The word "probation," though often applied to this lifetime, simply means a test. It sounds to me that Joseph was referring to each of his plural marriages as a test, or probation. It sounds like Joseph Lee Robinson misunderstood him. I know from experience that even the simplest sermon can be misunderstood.

Heber C. Kimball's teachings on progression after this life

Heber C. Kimball made mention of this doctrine on numerous occasions.

The sermon quoted simply refers to the time between death and resurrection. Believers in reincarnation rightly point out that many people do not have the opportunity to repent while in this life. But reincarnation is not the answer. God has provided that these people can be taught the gospel while in the spirit world, between death and resurrection.

Clearly, Heber C. Kimball understood that "you will have to go into another state of existence, and bring your spirits into subjection there... or you will never obtain your resurrected bodies."

Yes. he is talking about the spirit world, after death, but before resurrection.

Orson Hyde's statement about receiving a curse

Orson Hyde received a revelation in about February 1839 which was recorded in the diary of Joseph Allen Stout: [quotes a statement that if he remained apostate he would receive the curse of Cain]. How could "the curse of Cain" be placed upon Orson Hyde? There is only one way in which Orson Hyde could have received this curse: In his next life Orson Hyde would have to be born into the lineage of Cain, the black race.

If we do assume that the curse of Cain is a black skin (which is not strictly true, but that is an issue for another time), the Book of Mormon teaches that a similar curse was given to the Lamanites. The Lamanites did not need to be reborn and neither would brother Hyde.

Statements about Joseph Smith's resurrection

Joseph Smith himself will "stand in due time on the earth, in the flesh, and fulfill that to which he is appointed." How will he come? How will we recognize him?

As a resurrected being, just as we will all be resurrected.

In the 1850s, a few members did speculate about reincarnation

George D. Smith, the editor of An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals Of William Clayton, comments upon an entry in William Clayton's journal, and says that resurrection will literally be fulfilled by our again being born "by literal rebirth through a woman" (Sunstone Dec. 1991, p.35).

The full quotation refers to "controversial doctrines which dealt with plural gods, God as a man, God as Adam, and resurrection by literal rebirth through a woman." The footnote refers to "Journal, 28 September 1852." In other words, eight years after Joseph Smith died. It appears that a small number of church members did speculate about reincarnation at about this time. But it was condemned by all the prophets and the vast majority of apostles - mainly because it contradicted what had been clearly taught with regard to the spirit world, resurrection, and baptism for the dead. The idea soon died out.

In The Journals of William Clayton, edited by George D. Smith, we find the following entry:

'It was finally moved and carried viva voce [by word of mouth], that the doctrine of the Resurrection be the subject to commence with, and the following Brethren expressed their views in regard to it viz. Charles Smith, Jesse Turpin, George Mayer, James Park, David Wilkin, Edward Stevenson, and Edward Bunker. The views of these Brethren seemed to vary materially on the subject, and there was very little or no light manifested by any one. It appears that the great difference in the views, is in regard to what is commonly called the baby resurrection, which idea is, that instead of the bodies being raised out of the ground &c. we shall again be born of a woman, as we were when we came into this world. Brother James Park agreed very strongly in favor of this kind of doctrine. This was a matter of astonishment to me, as I had never before heard of such a doctrine to understand it. (An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals Of William Clayton, pp.429-430)'

William Clayton was very close to Joseph Smith, and understood his teachings. So, no wonder he was astonished at these ideas! He was correct when he noted that "there was very little or no light manifested by any one."

In the Diary of Orson F. Whitney we find considerable support to substantiate this new doctrine, although Wilford Woodruff publicly claimed it to be false

If the quotation is correct, it does seem that Orson F. Witney believed in reincarnation of some kind at this time. But as noted, Wilford Woodruff preached against it. So did Brigham Young. So did Joseph Smith (see below). In other words, the occasional member may have speculated, but the majority of members, led by the prophets, always opposed the theory of reincarnation.

Orson F. Whitney entered the following comments about Lorenzo Snow in his diary:

'[Lorenzo Snow said that] Eliza R. Snow Smith was a firm believer in the principle of reincarnation and that she claimed to have received it from Joseph the Prophet, her husband.'

So, you say that Orson said that Lorenzo said that Eliza said that Joseph said... ? I think we should be very careful about fourth-hand accounts, especially many years after the event. It is very easy to confuse the doctrine of eternal progression with the doctrine of reincarnation - both speak of more than one birth, or a pre-existence, of "eternal lives" (plural), of continuing to learn in "the next life," etc. Technically, resurrection could even be called a form of re-incarnation (i.e. returning to a physical body), though it is not reincarnation by today's common definition.

About Joseph Smith's statement that Robert Matthais' teachings were "the doctrine of the Devil"

[This] can be traced to an incident in which Joseph conversed with a certain Robert Matthias. Matthias had his own brand of reincarnation which he was teaching ... Joseph says nothing here to show that he did not believe in reincarnation, only that the particular teachings of this Matthias were "of the devil."

It is possible that Joseph only meant Matthias' particular teachings. But it is more likely that he was referring to reincarnation in general, because reincarnation contradicts many points that are fundamental to the gospel as taught by Joseph Smith. For example:

The Book of Mormon teaches that if we procrastinate our repentance until death, it is then "everlastingly too late" (Alma 34:32-35).


Conclusion

That's probably enough for now. As I have said, I find reincarnation to be a particularly vague philosophy, and not supported by any evidence. Its great power seems to be that you can believe almost anything you want, and you don't have to obey any commandments. It is thus a great comforter, because it teaches that everyone is going to heaven eventually.

2 Nephi 28:22
"And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none--and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance."

2 Nephi 28:8
"And there shall also be many which shall say... if it so be that we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God."

Alma 34:35
For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.

 

These scriptures may sound rather harsh, but I think they are the real reason why Joseph Smith called reincarnation "a doctrine of the devil."

 

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