Thoughtful Sunday School

Lesson 2: Behold, I Am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World

This guide accompanies Lesson 2 in the LDS D&C/Church History Gospel Doctrine manual.

Assigned Readings


Lesson 2 focuses on the nature of Jesus Christ and the Atonement. It is not linked to any specific D&C section or event in LDS history, but pulls assorted verses from many sections.

I started off thinking this would be a quick addendum to write. Since the lesson isn’t centered on historical events, I didn’t think it would need much correction or nuance. But the quote from Lectures on Faith about needing a “correct idea” of God presented a difficult problem that demanded some hard thinking and research. I hope that you find it useful.


Which of God’s Attributes are Essential to Understand?

Though the Lectures on Faith are no longer part of the Doctrine and Covenants, some parts of them are still frequently taught in the church. Lesson 2 references these verses on the importance of understanding God’s nature:

2 Let us here observe, that three things are necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.

3 First, The idea that he actually exists.

4 Secondly, A correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes.

5 Thirdly, An actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing, is according to his will.—For without an acquaintance with these three important facts, the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive; but with this understanding, it can become perfect and fruitful, abounding in righteousness unto the praise and glory of God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.1

The second requirement, that we have a “correct idea” of what God is like, presents a difficult problem. If two people have conflicting ideas about what God is like, then they can’t both be correct. Is it impossible for both of them to still exercise faith? If not, then being mistaken about the nature of God could have eternally disastrous consequences.

I can think of three ways of dealing with this:

We can get closer to answering this question by understanding the various, sometimes-conflicting ideas about God that church leaders have taught at different times.

Early Trinitarian Teachings

During the early years of the LDS church (until the late 1830s), teachings from Joseph and other early church members sounded much like the doctrine of the Trinity taught in Protestant churches. BYU historian Thomas G. Alexander wrote the following about this period:

The Book of Mormon tended to define God as an absolute personage of spirit who, clothed in flesh, revealed himself in Jesus Christ (Abinadi’s sermon to King Noah, Mosiah 13-14, is a good example). The first issue of the Evening and Morning Star published a similar description of God, the “Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ,” which was the Church’s first statement of faith and practice. With some additions, the “Articles” became section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The “Articles,” which, according to correspondence in the Star; was used with the Book of Mormon in proselytizing, indicated that “there is a God in heaven who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting, the same unchangeable God, the framer of heaven and earth and all things which are in them.” The Messenger and Advocate published numbers 5 and 6 of the Lectures on Faith, which defined the “Father” as “the only supreme governor, an independent being, in whom all fulness and perfection dwells; who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient; without beginning of days or end of life…”

Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of the First Vision spoke of only one personage and did not make the explicit separation of God and Christ found in the 1838 version. The Book of Mormon declared that Mary “is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh,” which, as James Allen and Richard Howard have pointed out, was changed in 1837 to “mother of the Son of God.” Abinadi’s sermon in the Book of Mormon explored the relationship between God and Christ: “God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people. And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son-The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son-And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth (Mosiah 15: 1-4).”2

To summarize: The original Book of Mormon, 1832 First Vision account, and the church’s earliest published discourses on the nature of God described Him and Jesus Christ in an essentially Protestant, trinitarian way.

Two Personages

The teaching that God and Jesus Christ are two distinct people gained more influence in the late 1830s, as some earlier sources were updated with this doctrine.

Where the 1832 account of the First Vision told of Joseph seeing only “the Lord”, the now-official 1838 account instead spoke of “two personages”.

The Book of Mormon was likewise revised to reflect the new theology of God and Christ being separate physical beings. This table compares the 1830 and 1837 editions, with italics marking the words added in 1837.

Reference 1830 Edition 1837 Edition
1 Nephi 11:18 Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh. Behold, the virgin whom thou seest, is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
1 Nephi 11:21 And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?
1 Nephi 11:32 And it came to pass the angel spake unto me again, saying, look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record. And it came to pass the angel spake unto me again, saying, look! And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the Everlasting God, was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record.
1 Nephi 13:40 And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which is of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain the precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Saviour of the world; and that all men must come unto Him, or they cannot be saved; And the angel spake unto me, saying: These last records which thou hast seen among the Gentiles, shall establish the truth of the first, which are of the twelve apostles of the Lamb, and shall make known the plain the precious things which have been taken away from them; and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father and the Saviour of the world; and that all men must come unto Him, or they cannot be saved;

God’s Progression

Early church teachings emphasized the eternal unchangeability of God, as was common in Protestant churches of the time. Lecture on Faith 3:15 includes this description of God:

Thirdly, That he changes not, neither is there variableness with him; but that he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday to-day and forever; and that his course is one eternal round, without variation.3

Years later, Joseph Smith would part from this doctrine and teach that God had developed from a lower form of being. From Wilford Woodruff’s account of the King Follett Sermon:

In order to understand the dead for the Consolation of those that mourn, I want you to understand God and how he comes to to be God. We suppose that God was God from Eternity, I will refute that Idea, or I will do away or take away the veil so you may see. It is the first principle to know that we may convers with him and that he once was [a] man like us, and the Father was once on an earth like us…4

Lorenzo Snow would later summarize Joseph’s teaching in the King Follett Sermon with the famous couplet “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.”

Though controversial and often avoided, the doctrine of man becoming like God still receives much more emphasis in the church than the doctrine of God having once been a man. “Becoming Like God” is the topic of one of the new Gospel Topics essays.5 It contains only a glancing reference to Joseph’s teaching that God “was once as one of us”. The essay on “God the Father” makes no mention of this doctrine at all.6


In General Conference of April 1852, Brigham Young taught a radical new doctrine:

Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and Sinner! When our Father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is MICHAEL, the Archangel, the ANCIENT OF DAYS! about whom holy men have written and spoken—He is our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do. Every man upon the earth, professing Christians and non-professing must hear it, and will know it sooner or later.7

Brigham’s teaching that Adam was actually God the Father would become known as the “Adam-God doctrine”. Some church members treated the doctrine with fascination. Others, like Orson Pratt, staunchly opposed it. Brigham gave repeated sermons in Utah reinforcing the doctrine, and the Latter-Day Saints’ Millenial Star published repeated defenses of the doctrine in Britain to persuade the startled and skeptical saints there.

Brigham’s advocacy of the doctrine was insufficient to quell the controversy surrounding it, which persisted until 1861 when Brigham stopped publicly teaching the doctrine. It would resume in 1877, however, when Brigham led an effort to have the text of the temple ceremonies written down and standardized. Brigham took this opportunity to add the Adam-God doctrine to a part of the temple ceremony known as the “lecture at the veil”. Scribe John Nuttall recorded the relevant portions of the lecture in his journal:

Adam was an immortal being when he came, on this earth he had lived on an earth similiar [sic] to ours he had received his Priesthood and the Keys thereof, and had been faithful in all things and gained his resurrection and his exaltation and was crowned with glory immortality and eternal lives and was numbered with the Gods for such he became through his faithfulness, and had begotten all the spirit that was to come to this earth, and Eve our common Mother who is the mother of all living bore those spirits in the celestial world, and when this earth was organized by Elohim. Jehovah & Michael who is Adam our common Father.

Adam & Eve had the privilege to continue the work of Progression, consequently came to this earth and commenced the great work of forming tabernacles for those spirits to dwell in. and when Adam and those that assisted him had completed this Kingdom our earth he came toil, and slept and forgot all and became like an infant child … Adam & Eve when they were placed on this earth were immortal beings with flesh, bones and sinues [sic] With respect to the parentage of Jesus Christ, Father Adam’s oldest son (Jesus the Saviour) who is the heir of the family is Father Adams first begotten in the spirit World, who according to the flesh is the only begotten in the spirit World, who according to the flesh is the only begotten as it is written. (In his divinity he haveing [sic] gone back into the spirit world, and come in the spirit to Mary and she conceived for when Adam and Eve got through with their work in this earth, they did not lay their bodies down in the dust, but returned to the spirit World from whence they came.8

These additions to the lecture do not appear to have been consistently used in the temple endowment, though there is record of a similar speech being given in the Logan temple a few months later.9

Brigham died several months later in 1877. In the following decades the doctrine retained some adherents among church leaders, but was without a champion. By the turn of the centuries, former adherents had begun to distance themselves from the doctrine. In 1912, the First Presidency wrote:

Speculations as to the career of Adam before he came to the earth are of no real value … Dogmatic assertions do not take the place of revelation, and we should be satisfied with that which is accepted as doctrine, and not discuss matters that, after all disputes, are merely matters of theory. 10

In 1938, John A. Widtsoe would deny that the doctrine had ever been taught:

Certain statements there are made confusing if read superficially, but very clear if read with their context. Enemies of President Brigham Young and of the Church have taken advantage of the opportunity and have used these statements repeatedly and widely to do injury to the reputation of President Young and the Mormon people. An honest reading of this sermon and of other reported discourses of President Brigham Young proves that the great second President of the Church held no such views as have been put into his mouth in the form of the Adam-God myth.11

By 1980, Bruce R. McConkie would condemn the doctrine as a heresy that would damn anyone who believed in it:

There are those who believe, or say they believe, that Adam is our Father and our God, that he is the Father of our spirits and our bodies and that he is the one we worship. The devil keeps this heresy alive as a means of obtaining converts to cultism. It is contrary to the whole plan of salvation set forth in the scriptures. Anyone who has read the Book of Moses, and anyone who has received the temple endowment and who yet believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.12

The Godhead

In the late 1800s and early 1900s James E. Talmage, B.H. Roberts, and John A. Widtsoe developed the doctrine that today’s Mormons would recognize as the Godhead, with particular innovations on the nature of the Holy Ghost. Thomas Alexander described the previous doctrine this way in The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine:

The doctrine of the Holy Ghost presented in these early sources is even more striking compared to the point of view defended in our time. The Lectures on Faith defined the Holy Ghost as the mind of the Father and the Son, a member of the Godhead, but not a personage, who binds the Father and Son together. This view of the Holy Ghost reinforced trinitarian doctrine by explaining how personal beings like the Father and Son become one God through the noncorporeal presence of a shared mind.13

This would change in the Talmage/Roberts/Widtsoe era. Again from Thomas Alexander:

Perhaps the most important doctrine addressed was the doctrine of the Godhead, which was reconstructed beginning in 1893 and 1894. During the latter year, James E. Talmage, president of Latter-day Saints University and later president and professor of geology at the University of Utah, gave a series of lectures on the Articles of Faith to the theological class of LDSU. In the fall of 1898, the First Presidency asked him to rewrite the lectures and present them for approval as an exposition of Church doctrines. In the process, Talmage reconsidered and reconstructed the doctrine of the Holy Ghost. In response to questions raised by Talmage’s lectures, First Presidency Counselor George Q. Cannon, “commenting on the ambiguity existing in our printed works concerning the nature or character of the Holy Ghost, expressed his opinion that the Holy Ghost was in reality a person, in the image of the other members of the Godhead-a man in form and figure; and that what we often speak of as the Holy Ghost is in reality but the power or influence of the spirit.” The First Presidency on that occasion, however, “deemed it wise to say as little as possible on this as on other disputed subject.”

In 1894, Talmage published an article in the Juvenile Instructor; elaborating on his and Cannon’s views. He incorporated the article almost verbatim into his manuscript for the Articles of Faith, and the First Presidency approved the article virtually without change in 1898.14

With the doctrine of the Holy Ghost as a separate person, but without a body, the LDS church completed the conception of the Godhead that most members hold today.

Jesus as Jehovah

The King James translation of the Old Testament uses two different words for deity: “God” and “Lord”. In the Hebrew bible, these correspond to the names “Elohim” (sometimes “El”) and “Jehovah”, respectively. In a 1986 article for Dialogue, Boyd Kirkland explains how the two were both used to identify the same deity:

While Elohim and Jehovah appear very frequently in the Old Testament, these divine names do not designate two different gods with a Father-Son relationship as they do in Mormonism. Depending upon the intentions of the author, God may be referred to as Elohim, Jehovah, or Jehovah-Elohim. Elohim has the Hebrew masculine plural ending, îm, and can designate gods generally, the gods of Israel’s neighbors, one of these gods (despite its technical plurality), or Israel’s God. Jehovah is the personal name of Israel’s God as revealed to Moses (Ex. 6:2—3) and hence is never used in a plural sense or ever designates anyone but Israel’s God. Jehovah is used in combination with, parallel to, and as a synonym for El or Elohim. The author of the second account of creation in Genesis 2 intentionally combined the two names Jehovah-Elohim (LORD God) to “Affirm that Jehovah is Elohim, the God of all times”. Reading several passages containing the original Hebrew names instead of the King James translations shows the effort being made by the biblical authors to identify Elohim (or El) and Jehovah as being the same God:

“For Jehovah your Elohim is Elohim of Elohim(s), and Adonai of Adonais, the great El, mighty and terrible” (Deut. 10:17).

“I am Jehovah, the Elohim of Abraham thy father, and the Elohim of Isaac” (Gen. 28:13).

“Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you … Jehovah, the Elohim of your fathers … of Abraham … of Isaac, and of Jacob, hath sent me unto you” (Ex. 3:14-15).

“Jehovah is El of the Gods! Jehovah is El of the Gods! He knows, and let Israel itself know” (Josh. 22:22).

“For Jehovah is the Great El, the Great King over all the gods” (Ps. 95:3).

This intermixing of the names for God may be best understood by noting that El, or Elohim, was favored by the northern kingdom of Israel while Judah, or the southern kingdom, preferred Jehovah. 15

This Jewish monotheistic tradition carried into the New Testament in the teachings of Jesus and Paul.16

In the Doctrine and Covenants, Jehovah is used to refer to both God the Father and Jesus Christ. The dedicatory prayer for the Kirtland temple (which Joseph received by revelation) uses Jehovah, Lord, and Father interchangeably.17 In a visitation seven days later in the same temple, Jesus Christ appears and is identified by Joseph as Jehovah.18

In 1915, James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ taught that

Jesus Christ was and is Jehovah, the God of Adam and of Noah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, the God at whose instance the prophets of the ages have spoken, the God of all nations, and He who shall yet reign on earth as King of kings and Lord of lords.19

This would be reaffirmed in a 1916 article from the First Presidency and apostles entitled The Father and the Son.20 It remains the official teaching of the church today.21

Consistent Threads

Latter-day saints are not alone in having differing views of the nature of God. The early Christian church had deep divisions on the question of whether Jesus was fully human or fully divine, among others. Some of those divisions persist to this day. We are sometimes tempted to think that people in other churches don’t really know God because their beliefs about Him differ from ours. Knowledge of how our own teachings have evolved should help us resist this arrogant temptation.

We are trying to answer a question, “what must we correctly understand about God in order to exercise faith in Him?” We’ve seen that many of His disciples, such as Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the ancient Christian fathers and modern church leaders, have held a range of conflicting beliefs about Him. I assume that most of these people did exercise faith.

Though church leaders have disagreed on many points about the nature of God, there is a core set of beliefs that is common throughout Mormonism and Christianity generally:

  1. God created the world.
  2. We are His children.
  3. He loves us.
  4. He has a plan for us.

Nephi models this minimalist approach to faith in the Book of Mormon. During his vision of the tree of life, an angel asks him a question that sounds pulled from a graduate theological seminar: “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi humbly pulls the conversation back to more solid ground: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”22 Nephi’s answer shows the one thing that is essential to understand about God in order to exercise faith in Him, and it has nothing to do with whether He was once a man, whether He’s two personages or just “the Lord”, Adam-God or just God. We can exercise faith in God even if we believe nothing more than that He loves his children.

Aside: The D&C Resolves a Biblical Debate

There has been considerable debate among Biblical scholars about Luke 22, verses 43 and 44, which recount Jesus being strengthened by an angel and sweating “like great drops of blood” (NRSV translation). This debate has both historical and pragmatic sides. The historical side centers on these verses’ absence from some early sources of the Gospel of Luke. The pragmatic side of the debate focuses on the physiological implausibility and incongruity in the story. In the next verses Jesus is betrayed by Judas, taken before the high priest and Pilate, and crucified, without first washing off the blood or changing his clothes. No one in the account comments on him being covered in blood during these events. This strengthens the argument that the verses were mentioning blood metaphorically rather than literally.

The Jesus of D&C 19 firmly resolves this longstanding debate in favor of literal blood:

16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;

17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;

18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.

Additional Resources

  1. Lectures of Faith 3:2-5.

  2. Alexander, Thomas G. The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine. Sunstone Issue 22, July-August 1980.

  3. Lectures on Faith 3:15.

  4. Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed Dec. 31 2016.

  5. Becoming Like God.

  6. God the Father.

  7. Buerger, David John The Adam-God Doctrine. Dialogue Vol. 15 No. 1 p. 14.

  8. Nuttall Journal, February 7, 1877, as quoted in Buerger, The Adam-God Doctrine.

  9. Buerger, p. 34.

  10. Buerger, p. 38.

  11. Evidences and Reconciliations, Improvement Era, vol. 48 (November 1938), no. 11, pp. 652, 690.

  12. The Seven Deadly Heresies, as quoted in Buerger, p. 45.

  13. Alexander p. 16.

  14. Alexander p. 19.

  15. Kirkland, Boyd. Elohim and Jehovah in Mormonism and the Bible. Dialogue Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1986 pp. 78-79 (internal citations omitted).

  16. Kirkland, pp. 84-85.

  17. D&C 109

  18. D&C 110

  19. Talmage, James E. Jesus the Christ, p.4.

  20. The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition of the First Presidency and the Twelve. Improvement Era 19/10 (August 1916) pp. 934-942.

  21. Jehovah, Bible Dictionary. See also Seely, David R. Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

  22. 1 Nephi 11:17