Juvenile Instructor


From the Archives: A Presbyterian Minister on the Mormon Belief in Pre-Existence, 1840 by David Grua
November 3, 2007, 11:12 am
Filed under: Archives, David Grua

Mormon forays into the Delaware Valley in the late 1830s yielded scores of converts, prompting Protestant ministers, in particular Presbyterian Henry Perkins, to respond against the growing Mormon presence. In the following excerpt from a May 1840 speech, Perkins denounces the Mormon belief in pre-existence. As Charles R. Harrell has shown, seminal references to pre-existence first appeared in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and Mormon periodicals began printing references to pre-existence as early as 1835.[1] This statement by Perkins is the first known public anti-Mormon denunciation of the doctrine.

We will now proceed to examine some of the doctrines of the “Mormons,” or as they call themselves, “Latter day Saints.”  Whether they are saints or not, remains to be seen.

Let me here premise, that to avoid the uncertainty of hear-say evidence, I took the pains to visit one of their accredited preachers lately in this neighborhood, Mr. Sidney Rigdon, who gave me the articles of the Mormon faith, as preached among you by himself and others.  We shall have time only to consider some of the more striking of these articles….

3d.  Another article of their belief is this, viz:  “That the spirits of all men had a pre-existence, and lived in a state of intelligence in some part of God’s dominions, before their bodies were born, and before the foundation of the world.”

“This article (Mr. Rigdon says,) was revealed to him immediately from God.”  We will bring the word of God to bear upon it.

But first let me say, that if the article be true, we have all been most egregiously deceived as to our ages.  Instead of our age being “an hand breadth,” according to the Bible, we are according to the Mormons, older than the world which we inhabit.  Moses must have been wide of the mark in his account of the lives of the patriarchs.  He puts the age of Methuselah at nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and that of Noah at nine hundred and fifty, but the Mormons make them older by some thousands.  What appears also remarkable is, that we lived all this while in “a state of intelligence,” we should have no knowledge or remembrance of what we were doing, or others were doing around us, but be as entirely ignorant of one another, and of our pursuits, and of the creation of the world, as if we had not been alive.  But what says the word of God?  We are told, . . . dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”  This looks very much to me as if Adam were created, body and soul, at one and the same time.  Again, we are told that “God created man in his own image.” Now as God is a Spirit, it must have been Adam’s spirit, and not his body merely, that was created in the image of God.  Hence, it appears again that he was created body and spirit, at the same time.  In Zech. xii. 1, are these words:  “Saith the Lord, which stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him.”  If God, “formeth the spirit of man within him,” it is manifest that he did not form his spirit without him.  Man’s body is the tabernacle in which his soul or spirit dwells during this life.  Paul is speaking of his soul or spirit, when he says, “I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; nevertheless to abide in the flesh, is more needful for you.”  We see then that the flesh or body is that part of man, within which the spirit abides, and within with also, according to Zechariah, God formeth it.  Therefore a plainer contradiction of Scripture cannot be conceived of than the assertion, that the spirit of man was formed without, or before his body….[2]  

Mormon missionary Benjamin Winchester responded to Perkins in An Examination of a Lecture Delivered by the Rev. Henry Perkins, which is too long to excerpt here, but will perhaps be included in a later installment of From the Archives.[3]


[1] Charles R. Harrell, “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies 28 (Spring 1988): 75-96.[2] “The Mormons,” The State Gazette(Trenton) 22 July 1840. Portions not immediately relevant have been deleted. This newspaper was found and transcribed by historian Stephen J. Fleming, in the Elmer Tindall Hutchison Collection, Special Collections, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Religion and American Culture recently published an article summarizing Flemming’s research on the Delaware Valley.[3]Copy in LDS Church Archives.

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10 Comments

David, do you know if Terryl Givens will be addressing these responses to the Mormon doctrine of pre-existence in his forthcoming book?

Comment by Christopher

Chris: From what I understand, Terryl will only have a few pages on Mormonism in his book and he only intends to look at the major scriptural texts that deal with the doctrine. He does intend to examine the question: “Why, considering the explanatory power the doctrine has had, has belief in pre-existence been suppressed throughout history?” But I think he’ll focus his discussion on major texts that repudiate the doctrine, which may mean that Henry Perkins will be overlooked.

Comment by David Grua

Cast my vote for publishing Winchesters response. This is a great vignette. I know everyone was believing in creation ex nihilo, but I like that this was a Calvinist. In my ultra-simplified broad brushed view of the restoration, I see it as the anti-Calvinism.

Comment by J. Stapley

Stapley: good point. I’ll see what I can do with the Winchester thing.

Comment by David Grua

I think the fruitful approach here is to situate it within the “pre-existence of Christ” a much-discussed theme among the orthodox. Makes the pre-existence more clearly tied to Smith’s belief in the genetic identity of humans and Jesus. JB Turner has another denunciation of pre-existence in 1842, says JSJ was preaching that humans are premortal angels.

Comment by smb

SMB: Thanks for stopping by. I think you’re right that Protestants would have seen Mormon preexistence through that lens.

How does Turner’s critique compare with Perkins?

Comment by David Grua

Incidentally, Harrell claims the 1835 Letter No. 8 as the first printed reference to preexistence, but regarding Enoch, Phelps wrote in a hymn: “With God he saw his race began,/And from him emanated man,/And with him did in glory dwell,/Before there was an earth or hell.”
——————–
[William Phelps] “Songs of Zion,” The Evening and the Morning Star 1, no. 12 (May 1833): 96. Phelps was rephrasing the Kirtland Revelation book. See Hicks, Mormonism and Music, 36.

Comment by smb

smb: That’s interesting that he uses the word “emanated.” Not exactly the same thing as “coeval,” now is it.

Comment by David Grua

Agreed, it plays with the fairly typical (and idiosyncratically) animistic metaphysical view of all creation as representing emanations of the central divine essence.

Comment by smb

[…] spirits: Geoff at New Cool Thang questions the infinite amount of pre-existent spirits, while Presbyterian Henry Perkins questions the LDS doctrine of pre-existence […]

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