The King Follett Discourse

King Follett

The King Follett Discourse has to be the pinnacle of Nauvoo Mormonism. That discourse summed up everything that Mormonism had become. The discourse itself doesn’t really contain anything that wasn’t previously taught. However, the ideas were almost all previously taught privately and certainly not before a wide general audience. For almost all in attendance though, this was their first exposure to these new ideas.


On March 9th, 1844, a prominent convert to the church, named King Follett, was killed while digging a well. About a month later on April 7th, 1844, Joseph took the opportunity, during the scheduled general conference, to deliver what we refer to today as the King Follet Discourse. The discourse itself has almost nothing to do with King Follett himself, however it does begin with a reference to his death and his death may certainly have been an impetus to the ideas delivered that day.

The conference that day was estimated to have between 10,000 and 20,000 people in attendance. This would make it the largest conference the church had ever had at that point. Joseph very likely knew the impact this speech would have on the crowd as he requested three scribes to take notes of what was spoken. Previously sermons would have one official scribe and then maybe an unofficial one. However, this discourse had three official scribes and then fairly complete notes from Willford Woodruff the unofficial scribe. Many others in attendance though recorded the discourse as well. Such as George Laub, who also recorded a talk from Hyrum Smith 3 weeks later on the same subjects.

The scribes for this speech were Willard Richards, William Clayton, Thomas Bullock, and Wilford Woodruff. Willard Richards and William Clayton were both secretaries for Joseph and would very commonly record meeting minutes or transcribe talks that were given. Thomas Bullock was a professionally trained recorder as a convert from England. Generally, when we have notes from Bullock, they seem to be more complete and detailed in comparison to notes from the others. This is no exception. The last scribe was Wilford Woodruff who commonly recorded events and discourses in his private journal.

Certainly, the four accounts differ to a degree. However, in general for an almost two and a half hour talk they seem to topically agree remarkably well. Each account was written with a different style which of course yields slightly different results. Bullock, the professionally trained scribe from England, wrote in complete sentences using a form of abbreviation. Clayton’s account is similar in the amount of detail as Bullock’s, but his account stops about three quarters of the way through in comparison to the other accounts. Richard’s account is the shortest and includes only basic details. Woodruff’s account is very concise and seems to be a summary of every single topic addressed.

The King Follett discourse was first published on August 15th, 1844, in the Times and Seasons newspaper. This was a little over a month after Joseph’s death and was a combined version of the more complete notes from both Bullock and Clayton. A more comprehensive version of the discourse was created from the notes from all four scribes for the official history of the church. This version was created in the 1850s by Jonathan Grimshaw who was a clerk working on compiling the official church history at the time. This later account is seen by the church as being the official account since it was carefully reviewed by the leaders of the church including Brigham Young who was the President at the time.

One final authoritative version of this discourse was created by Stan Larson in 1978. He amalgamated all four versions into a single cohesive account and noted all the important differences. I personally find his version to likely be the most accurate as to what Joseph actually said.


Due to the nature of the doctrines presented in the discourse some people have sought to dismiss the speech entirely, blame it on Brigham somehow, or embrace everything spoken as pure revelation from God through Joseph. In addition, word analysis has been done on the King Follett Discourse in an attempt to prove someone other than Joseph was the author. This is frankly incredibly problematic since we have four contemporaneous accounts, and then two amalgamated versions from around the same time period. It was also printed four different times by the end of 1845. Depending on which account you choose then you will of course get different statistical analysis. Therefore, any conclusions using this method are fundamentally flawed in my opinion.

Of course, Joseph wasn’t alive to verify the account printed in the Times and Seasons, however 1000’s of people in attendance were certainly alive, knew Joseph, and were there to hear what Joseph spoke that day. I find it strange to think that a month after Joseph’s death anyone would feel the need to manufacture a talk, add supposed new doctrines, attribute it to Joseph, and then have it printed in the official newspaper of the church all while no one would have noticed.

Certainly, a pivotal talk like this would have caused someone to raise a concern if it was made up by Brigham or one of the other leaders in an attempt to subvert the doctrines of the church. I think it is far more realistic to conclude that Joseph gave the talk as there are also several personal accounts of how people felt about the new doctrines introduced during the conference. In addition, almost everything in the talk was previously taught by Joseph in some form. The talk itself just packages all the ideas into a more cohesive form.


There certainly were a lot of positive personal accounts of the discourse in private journals or diaries. The “faithful” membership seemed to receive it well and write about their excitement concerning the new ideas being introduced into the church. However, certainly not everyone received it well. Many of the ideas were in direct contradiction to the core beliefs the converts had been raised with and still held dear.

This caused enormous strain among some members who didn’t even know the full doctrines of the church at that time. It is important to keep in mind that many converts would get a testimony of the Book of Mormon and then join the church and immigrate to Nauvoo. This would be a huge cultural and religious change in a very short time.

Brigham Young even told the elders in an October 1841 conference that they should only teach the basics and let the converts learn everything else after they already immigrated. During the 1841 conference, Brigham remarked about:

The importance of teaching abroad the first principles of the gospel, leaving the mysteries of the kingdom to be taught among the saints.

Brigham Young – Oct 1841 Conference

One member who struggled with this concept of learning the “mysteries” after she already left friends and family was Sarah Scott. One week after hearing the discourse Sarah wrote to her mother:

Mother you think you have trials but I can tell you there is nothing there to try your faith; I mean comparatively speaking. I never fully understood the place in, the holy writ where the Lord says he will have a tried people until I came here with the Church. Sometimes I almost fear that I shall give up but by the help of the Lord I mean to endure to the end.

Sarah Scott – Letter to her Mother

Once converts were in Nauvoo then often times they would feel stuck and alone. Certainly, many left if they no believed in Mormonism. However, due to human nature and the Sunk Cost fallacy many doubled down and convinced themselves that everything was fine. In addition to Sarah, there were members who saw Joseph as a false prophet and actively sought to bring others to their side. Certainly, the King Follett discourse was not the only disagreement people had, however it seemed to solidify their perception of Joseph. They either accepted him as a prophet with the discourse being prophetic, or accepted him as a false or fallen prophet with the discourse as proof of that.

A prime example of this would be the Nauvoo Expositor which was published 2 months after the King Follett discourse was given. The Nauvoo Expositor described a belief in the early doctrines of the church as taught by Joseph, however strongly repudiated many of the doctrines Joseph taught in Nauvoo and in the discourse itself. The doctrine which seemed to anger people the most would be that of the plurality of Gods as taught in the King Follett discourse. This directly undercut the uniqueness and sovereignty of God which was, and still is, a fundamental aspect of Christianity. No longer was God supreme, but the eternal chain of Gods was supreme.

Modern leaders have also had serious concerns about the King Follett discourse. When B. H. Roberts was compiling his 1902 History of the Church, he originally included the King Follett discourse, however was compelled to remove it since the leadership of the time had serious reservations about the truthfulness of it. We can see this in the pagination of the first edition of his book. The pages were just simply removed without the subsequent page numbers being updated. George Albert Smith, in a private letter, wrote concerning the sermon:

I have thought that the report of that sermon might not be authentic and I have feared that it contained some thing that might be contrary to the truth. … Some of the brethren felt as I did and thought that greater publicity should not be given to that particular sermon

George Albert Smith letter to Samuel O. Bennion – January 30, 1912

New Doctrines

Some of the ideas introduced in the King Follett discourse are natural extensions of Christianity however many of them are not. With some of them even being wild departures from the rest of Christianity. If we look at the discourse from start of finish, then we can see approximately twenty-seven clear doctrines that were introduced.

We will briefly look at three of the more controversial ones and compare them to scriptures and the rest of Christianity. It is important to keep in mind that many of these may seem like core basic doctrines, however that is only because we have been taught them in many different forms all throughout Mormonism. To the rest of Christianity, they are seen as quite blasphemous.

  1. God is an exalted human.
  2. God was once a man on an earth like ours
  3. Children who die in youth will remain as children eternally

To many these were proof positive, why they thought Joseph was a fallen prophet as he was deviating so wildly from the scriptures. To others this was a sign of divine guidance and continuing revelation. Ultimately, I think the scriptures must be our guide otherwise we are at the literal whim of the current leader.

1. God is an exalted man

The first major point Joseph made during the discourse was that he remarked about how being created in the image of God was a very literal statement. He said:

God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto one of yourselves—that is the great secret!

Joseph Smith

This statement is contained in all four versions of the discourse and is the first part of the famous 1840 couplet from Lorenzo snow which reads:

As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.

Lorenzo Snow

Certainly, we know that God can fashion himself in a human form from accounts like Ether 3. However, the idea that God is an improved human was certainly a departure from the rest of Christianity. It was even an official Christian heresy according to the 1753 Chamber’s Cyclopedia. All throughout history civilizations have made anthropomorphic gods and this seems no different. For instance, the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks, all believed their gods were human like beings with thoughts, passions, and actions which greatly mirrored normal human activities. Essentially their gods were just exalted humans as well.

The idea that God had a body though was certainly taught in the church before the King Follett discourse. We have this recorded in an April 2nd, 1843, discourse from Joseph which is canonized today as D&C 130. It says:

The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s

D&C 130:22

This idea of God having a body was a slow departure from the earlier beliefs of the church. For instance, the 1835 Lectures on Faith taught that God didn’t have a body and was a spirit being instead:

The Father being a personage of spirit, glory, and power, possessing all perfection and fulness. The Son, … a personage of tabernacle

Lecture 5

A published account from Parley P. Pratt in 1840 seems to agree with the Lectures on Faith. He mentions:

Whoever reads our books, or hears us preach, knows that we believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, as one God. That the Son has flesh and bones, and that the Father is a spirit.

Parley P. Pratt – An Answer to Mr. William Hewitt’s Tract

Parley does concur with the Lectures on Faith that the Father is an entity of spirit. However, he mentions that entity may have a human like appearance. However, in 1843, that idea was abandoned, and God was fashioned after the likeness of man.

2. God was once a man

The next major theme of the King Follett Discourse would be that God was once a man on an earth like our own. He used that time to work his way up the ranks exalting himself and his God in an eternal chain. This is verified in the Woodruff, Bullock, and Clayton accounts of the discourse. The Richards account contains roughly the same idea and certainly mentions that God wasn’t always God, however the disjointed sentences are not as clear. In the discourse, Joseph remarked about God that:

He once was a man like one of us and that God Himself, the Father of us all, once dwelled on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did in the flesh.

Joseph Smith

The idea that God was once a human like us was seen as very blasphemous and was a central point of attack in several publications against the church. This was because God was no longer omnipotent, omniscient, or even eternal. He was just one exalted being in a long chain of exalted beings. Essentially eternity became a multilevel marketing pyramid. The best god was the one with the biggest downline.

In a private letter written in 1844, Isaac Scott wrote that Joseph also taught that God must be obedient to his god otherwise he would be dethroned and cast to hell. This of course makes faith in God completely dependent on God himself which seems to be unsure according to Joseph. It also would imply that the god above God would have to be obedient otherwise his downstream of Gods would be affected as well. If God had a bad day, then would we all be condemned to eternal hell? Isaac Scott’s June 16th, 1844, letter reads:

Joseph says there are Gods above the God of this universe as far as he is above us, and if He should transgress the laws given to Him by those above Him, He would be hurled from his Throne to hell

Isaac Scott

The idea of multiple gods or the literal possibility of us become gods wasn’t really new but was taught privately on several occasions. For instance, in George Laub’s journal he recorded that in April 1843, Hyrum taught him that there was “a whole trane & leniage [sic] of gods”. Lorenzo Snow even recorded privately that on June 5th, 1836, Joseph Smith Sr told him:

You will become as great as you can possibly wish-EVEN AS GREAT AS GOD

Joseph Smith Sr. – Lorenzo Snow account

Lorenzo Snow referred to this as a “dark parable” which is completely understandable. Scripturally it is hard to make sense of this concept without some serious twisting. For instance, Isaiah 43 is pretty clear that God is unique and there will never be anything else like him. It reads:

I am the One. Before me no God was formed, nor will there be one after me.

Isaiah 43:10 – ISV

Another pretty clear instance is found in Isaiah 46 which reads:

I am God, and there is no one else; I am God, and there is none like me

Isaiah 46:9 – ISV

A last example of how this new concept of God changing over time, seemingly violates scripture, is found in 2 Nephi 27. God tells Nephi that he has been the same and will always be the same. It reads:

For behold, I am God; … and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever;

2 Nephi 27:23

Of course, if we change the definition of ‘God’, of ‘eternity’, and of ‘same’ then we can make things work. We could also make ‘up’ mean ‘down’ if we just change perspectives. However, how could we ever make it work if God is in a precarious situation with his god? If God is not a rock-solid foundation, that we can always rely on, then what is there to rely on instead? If things can change for us because a god 1000 levels up made a small tweak, then why should we trust anything God ever says? If no god can ever change anything eternally then what is the purpose of ascension?

3. Children eternally

The last point I want to address pertains to the resurrection of children who died in their youth. This topic is confirmed through the accounts of Woodruff, Bullock, and Richards with Clayton making a very brief remark about the topic. The Woodruff account is the most detailed however the other accounts match with all the other specifics. Joseph remarked regarding children:

But as the child dies, so will it rise from the dead … possessing all the intelligence of a God. It will never grow, it will be the child in its precise form as it was before it died out of your arms. Children dwell and exercise power, throne upon throne, dominion upon dominion, in the same form just as you laid them down. Eternity is full of thrones upon which dwell thousands of children, reigning on thrones of glory, with not one cubit added to their stature

Joseph Smith

It is somewhat hard to even begin to discuss this because it differs so much from the rest of scripture or at least there is nothing at all which agrees with this concept. For instance, historically billions of children died in their youth which means there are billions of tiny gods reigning according to Joseph. Brigham Young seemed to agree with this concept and continued to teach it in a February 19th, 1854, discourse in which he remarked:

You will see the child of three, four, and five years old, possessing all the intelligence of the Angels of God. … Resurrected bodies will be as diversified as the bodies of mortal flesh, for variety, beauty, and extension.

Brigham Young – February 19, 1854, discourse

This idea was even reiterated in a December 29th, 1888, article in the Deseret Weekly. Over time though, leaders have distanced themselves from this idea due to there being no scriptural support and that it seems like it really doesn’t eternally make any sense. In May 1918, Joseph F. Smith who was born just 6 years before the discourse was given, wrote an article for the Improvement Era magazine that focused on the resurrection of children and officially disavowed the doctrine. He wrote:

I have read Joseph’s discourse at the death of King Follett, as at first published, and I did not believe, never did believe that he was correctly reported or that those who died in infancy would remain as little children after the resurrection. … I knew the strong opinions that some people had in regard to little children being resurrected and, everlastingly and forever after to remain as little children. I did not believe it.

Joseph F. Smith – Improvement Era May 1918

I agree with the later leaders that it seems strange to conclude that children should be resurrected as children eternally. Based on my understanding there doesn’t seem to be any valid reason they should stay as children and not be able to grow to maturity. Functionally it may not make a difference, however if I had the possibility of being an infant or adult for eternity, I would certainly choose being an adult. It may be a possibility that they are resurrected back into the same age they left mortality as, however this again poses some problems. Our bodies are just temporary shells. They are not who we ultimately are.


Almost immediately after the discourse was given many dissenters and newspapers published articles criticizing the ideas Joseph brough forth. The most famous of these would have to be the Nauvoo Expositor which was a very pointed rebuke. About a month after the discourse was given, Joseph addressed all the backlash he was receiving and remarked on May 12th, 1844:

My enemies say that I have been a true prophet. Why, I had rather be a fallen true prophet than a false prophet.

Joseph Smith

As shown, the core ideas of the King Follett discourse were all taught previously and seem to have been a slow evolution from the humble roots of Palmyra to the might city of Nauvoo. However, it seems to me that it is difficult to tell between the well-meaning ideas of Joseph and the eternal truths of God. Certainly, we know almost nothing about God. However, that doesn’t require that God is like us physically or that eternity is just an exalted version of earth life. I frankly hope there is more to eternity than growing my MLM downline.

Today we hyper analyze everything President Nelson says for doctrinal consistency however it seems we heartily embrace everything Joseph reportedly said or did. I believe we should apply the same level of scrutiny to Joseph as well. Yes, Joseph did amazing things that very few others have had the privilege of doing. However, that doesn’t frankly mean that everything Joseph said or did should be on the same level. Joseph was a flawed individual just like the rest of us and made mistakes just like the rest of us.

I don’t claim to be on the same level as Joseph. However, I do think we should be very careful when we are redefining God in our own image, and claiming the possibility of being equal to God eventually. We also should be very careful when we allow discourses like this to influence the doctrines of the church. God has given us an unfailing support already, in the scriptures, yet we try to twist and alter them to suit our current perspectives.

Would we allow President Nelson to do the same today? Would we allow him to redefine God, or our relationship to God, just because he said it was true? I do think we shouldn’t be opposed to the idea of a new revelation. However, we also shouldn’t heartily embrace everything every leader believes either.

Historically some leaders have had a lot of strong opinions that other leaders eventually said were wrong or misguided. I believe this is why Paul asked the Ephesians to be rooted in Christ in Ephesians 4. Paul wanted them to be rooted in truth and no longer “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine”.

When Christ visited the Nephites as recorded in 3 Nephi 11, one of the first things he did was to teach them his simple doctrine. He then told them quite clearly:

This is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them. And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock;

3 Nephi 11:39-40

We are only safe when we are built upon Christ and his simple doctrine. There is nothing else that is eternally sure.

Author: Patrick