Redefining the Virgin Birth: Mormonism's Teaching Concerning the Natural Conception of Jesus
Compiled by Bill McKeever and Aaron Shafovaloff
One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity is the belief that Christ was born of a virgin. The Bible teaches that though she had not yet had physical intercourse with a man, she miraculously conceived and bore a son.
Mormons have insisted they believe in the virgin birth, yet they have given a description far removed from that held by Christians throughout the centuries. The following quotes show how the "virgin" birth has been redefined by Mormons, including Mormon prophets and apostles, in a way that has never been accepted in Christian circles. While individual Mormons are divided over this issue, to this day the Mormon Church has no unequivocal official position on whether the immortal Heavenly Father had sexual intercourse with his mortal spirit-daughter Mary to conceive Jesus.
"When the Virgin Mary conceived the child Jesus, the Father had begotten him in his own likeness. He was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. . . . Now, remember from this time forth, and for ever, that Jesus Christ was not begotten by the Holy Ghost. I will repeat a little anecdote. I was in conversation with a certain learned professor upon this subject, when I replied, to this idea if the Son was begotten by the Holy Ghost, it would be very dangerous to baptize and confirm females, and give the Holy Ghost to them, lest he should beget children, and be palmed upon the Elders by the people, bringing the Elders into great difficulties." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, pp. 50, 51)
"I believe the Father came down from heaven, as the Apostles said he did, and begat the Saviour of the world; for he is the only-begotten of the Father, which could not be if the Father did not actually beget him in person." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, p. 238)
"When the time came that His first-born, the Saviour, should come into the world and take a tabernacle, the Father came Himself and favoured that spirit with a tabernacle instead of letting any other man do it. The Saviour was begotten by the Father of His spirit, by the same Being who is the Father of our spirits, and that is all the organic difference between Jesus Christ and you and me." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 4, p. 218)
"The birth of the Saviour was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood - was begotten of his Father, as we were of our fathers" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 115).
"God has made His children like Himself to stand erect, and has endowed them with intelligence and power and dominion over all His works, and given them the same attributes which He himself possesses. He created man, as we create our children; for there is no other process of creation in heaven, on the earth, in the earth, or under the earth, or in all the eternities, that is, that were, or that ever will be." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 122-123).
Heber C. Kimball
"...I will say that I was naturally begotten; so was my father, also my Saviour Jesus Christ. According to the Scriptures, he is the first begotten of his father in the flesh, and there was nothing unnatural about it." (Journal of Discourses, 8:211)
"God, the Father of our spirits, became the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh ...The fleshly body of Jesus required a Mother as well as a Father. Therefore, the Father and Mother of Jesus, according to the flesh, must have been associated together in the capacity of Husband and Wife; hence the Virgin Mary must have, for the time being, the lawful wife of God the Father ...He had a lawful right to overshadow the Virgin Mary in the capacity of a husband, and beget a Son, although she was espoused to another; for the law which He gave to govern men and women, was not intended to govern Himself, or to prescribe rules for his own conduct" (The Seer, p. 158).
First Presidency Statement
"Elohim is literally the Father of the spirit of Jesus Christ and also of the body in which Jesus Christ performed His mission in the flesh..." (First Presidency and Council of the Twelve, 1916, God the Father, compiled by Gordon Allred, pg.150).
"[Jesus Christ] was willing to make payment because of his great love for mankind, and he was able to make payment because he lived a sinless life and because he was actually, literally, biologically the Son of God in the flesh" (Messages for Exaltation: Eternal Insights from the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1967), pp. 378-379).
"Thus, God the Father became the literal father of Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of a mortal mother and an immortal father" (Gospel Principles, p. 57).
In an official LDS Church manual, sixth Mormon President Joseph F. Smith taught:
"Now, we are told that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. Well, now for the benefit of the older ones, how are children begotten? I answer just as Jesus Christ was begotten of his father. The difference between Jesus Christ and other men is this: Our fathers in the flesh are mortal men, who are subject unto death: but the Father of Jesus Christ in the flesh is the God of Heaven." (Family Home Evening Manual, 1972, 125)
The same manual carried the above illustration showing the figure of a man, woman, and child. On page 126 LDS parents are told they should use this to explain to their children “how Jesus was the only begotten Son of God.” Daddy plus Mommy equals you; Heavenly Father plus Mary equals Jesus.
Ezra Taft Benson
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the most literal sense. The body in which He performed His mission in the flesh was sired by that same Holy Being we worship as God, our Eternal Father. Jesus was not the son of Joseph, nor was He begotten by the Holy Ghost" (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 7; cf. Come unto Christ, p. 4).
Joseph F. Smith
"Now, we are told in scriptures that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. Well, now for the benefit of the older ones, how are children begotten? I answer just as Jesus Christ was begotten of his father... Jesus is the only person who had our Heavenly Father as the father of his body" (Family Home Evening Manual, 1972, Joseph F. Smith, p.125,126).
Joseph Fielding Smith
"Christ Not Begotten of Holy Ghost... Christ was begotten of God. He was not born without the aid of Man, and that Man was God!" (Doctrines of Salvation, Joseph Fielding Smith, 1954, 1:18).
"Jesus Christ is the Son of Elohim both as spiritual and bodily offspring; that is to say, Elohim is literally the Father of the spirit of Jesus Christ and also of the body in which Jesus Christ performed His mission in the flesh..." (The Articles of Faith, James Talmage, pp. 466-467).
"Christ was Begotten by an immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers" (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 547).
"These name-titles all signify that our Lord is the only Son of the Father in the flesh. Each of the words is to be understood literally. Only means only; Begotten means begotten; and Son means son. Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in the same way that mortal men are begotten by mortal fathers." (Mormon Doctrine, 1979, pages 546-47)
"And Christ was born into the world as the literal Son of this Holy Being; he was born in the same personal, real, and literal sense that any mortal son is born to a mortal father. There is nothing figurative about his paternity; he was begotten, conceived and born in the normal and natural course of events, for he is the Son of God, and that designation means what it says" (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 742)."The great God, the Eternal Elohim, the Father of us all, . . . in his love, mercy, and grace condescended to step down from his Almighty throne, to step down to a lesser and benighted state, as it were, and become the Father of a Son 'after the manner of the flesh.' . . . This then is the condescension of God-that a God should beget a man; that an Immortal Parent should father a mortal Son; that the Creator of all things from the beginning should step down from his high state of exaltation and be, for a moment, like one of the creatures of his creating. . . .We have spoken plainly of our Lord's conception in the womb of Mary; in reality the plain assertions are found in the revealed word, and we have but certified that the words mean what they say and cannot be spiritualized away. And as it is with reference to our Lord's mother, so it is as pertaining to his Father. The scriptures say that Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten Son. The problem is that the intellectually led ministry and laity of the day assume, as Satan leads them to do, that a name-title of this sort is simply figurative and does not have the same literal meaning as when the words are spoken in ordinary conversation. Perhaps again the best service we can render, on the issue here involved, is somehow to get the message across that words mean what they say, and that if Christ is the Only Begotten of the Father, it means just that.
"Some words scarcely need definition. They are on every tongue and are spoken by every voice. The very existence of intelligent beings presupposes and requires their constant use. Two such words are father and son. Their meaning is known to all, and to define them is but to repeat them. Thus: A son is a son is a son, and a father is a father is a father. I am the son of my father and the father of my sons. They are my sons because they were begotten by me, were conceived by their mother, and came forth from her womb to breathe the breath of mortal life, to dwell for a time and a season among other mortal men."And so it is with the Eternal Father and the mortal birth of the Eternal Son. The Father is a Father is a Father; he is not a spirit essence or nothingness to which the name Father is figuratively applied. And the Son is a Son is a Son; he is not some transient emanation from a divine essence, but a literal, living offspring of an actual Father. God is the Father; Christ is the Son. The one begat the other. Mary provided the womb from which the Spirit Jehovah came forth, tabernacles in clay, as all men are, to dwell among his fellow spirits whose births were brought to pass in like manner. There is no need to spiritualize away the plain meaning of the scriptures. There is nothing figurative or hidden or beyond comprehension in our Lord's coming into mortality. He is the Son of God in the same sense and way that we are the sons of mortal fathers. It is just that simple. Christ was born of Mary. He is the Son of God-the Only begotten of the Father." (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ)
"And so, in the final analysis it is the faithful saints, those who have testimonies of the truth and divinity of this great latter-day work, who declare our Lord's generation to the world. Their testimony is that Mary's son is God's Son; that he was conceived and begotten in the normal way; that he took upon himself mortality by the natural birth processes; that he inherited the power of mortality from his mother and the power of immortality from his Father-in consequence of all of which he was able to work out the infinite and eternal atonement" (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, p. 473).
"As far as this life is concerned, [Jesus] was born of Mary and of Elohim; he came here as an offspring of that Holy Man who is literally our Father in heaven. He was born in mortality in the literal and full sense as the Son of God. He is the Son of his Father in the same sense that all mortals are the sons and daughters of their fathers" (Mortal Messiah 1:330).
"The Father had a Son, a natural Son, his own literal Seed, the Offspring of his body" (The Promised Messiah, p. 355).
"There is no need to spiritualize away the plain meaning of the scriptures. There is nothing figurative or hidden or beyond comprehension in our Lord's coming into mortality. He is the Son of God in the same sense and way that we are the sons of mortal fathers. It is just that simple" (The Promised Messiah, p. 468).
"Again the answer is perfect. There is a power beyond man's. When God is involved, he uses his minister, the Holy Ghost, to overshadow the future mother and to carry her away in the Spirit. She shall conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and God himself shall be the sire. It is his Son of whom Gabriel is speaking. A son is begotten by a father: whether on earth or in heaven it is the same." (The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary)
"The express image of his person. What more need be said? God the Eternal Father is the Father; the Son of God is the Son. A father is a father, and a son is a son. The Father begets; the Son is begotten; they are Parent and Child; Sire and Son look alike, so much so that they are the express image of each other's persons. The substance composing the body of one is identical in appearance to that composing the body of the other. What could be plainer? . . . Begotten means begotten; it means Christ's mortal body was procreated by an Eternal Sire; it means God is the Father of Christ, 'after the manner of the flesh.'" (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary)
Harold B. Lee
Harold B. Lee, who was second most senior apostle after President McKay and President Smith, addressed the issue of some who seemed to be "obsessed" with the conception of Christ, and responds that there is "very little" on this issue about which "the Lord has said", and that we should "wait until He sees fit to tell us more":
"Teachers should not speculate on the manner of Christ's birth. We are very much concerned that some of our Church teachers seem to be obsessed of the idea of teaching doctrine which cannot be substantiated and making comments beyond what the Lord has actually said.
"You asked about the birth of the Savior. Never have I talked about sexual intercourse between Deity and the mother of the Savior. If teachers were wise in speaking of this matter about which the Lord has said but very little, they would rest their discussion on this subject with merely the words which are recorded on this subject in Luke 1:34-35: 'Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.'
"Remember that the being who was brought about by [Mary's] conception was a divine personage. We need not question His method to accomplish His purposes. Perhaps we would do well to remember the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: 'For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.' Let the Lord rest His case with this declaration and wait until He sees fit to tell us more." (The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 13–14)
Mormons today are divided over whether LDS leaders have taught of the physical copulation between the immortal Heavenly Father (Elohim) and his mortal spirit-daughter Mary. While some deny that the traditional LDS concept of "virgin" is anything different than the traditional Christian understanding, others find it necessary to state that the Church takes no official position on the "mechanics" of the conception of Christ. Kevin Barney, who is associated with the LDS group Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research, writes that he likes the idea of the sexual generation of Jesus:
"My usual tack when asked about it is to point out that the idea is not now and never was doctrine; it was a speculation... I will confess, however, that I actually like this idea. Maybe it is because I have a streak of old fashioned Mormonism somewhere inside me. But I find it appealing on several levels. First, there is a certain naturalism to the idea. I presume the mortal Jesus had 46 chromosomes, and that 23 came from Mary, but where did the other 23 come from? As a Mormon, I’m not big on the idea that they were created ex nihilo for this specific purpose. I like being able to say that Jesus really did have a father, not in a metaphorical sense only (the language of begetting in the creeds doesn’t mean litera begetting), but in a physical sense. He really was the Son of God.
I also find it fascinating that people see this idea as being so totally offensive. To me, that speaks not only to our radically different conception of God and man as being of the same species, our literalist notion of divine paternalism and our radical materialism, but also to our Puritan heritage. If it is so disgusting to suggest God sired a son by sexual intercourse, why, I wonder, did God ordain that to be the natural method by which we conceive our own children? Is that just some sort of a cosmic joke? Does God sit in yonder heavens and look down on his creatures and laugh at their disgusting and dirty and ridiculous actions? Isn’t it possible that, if God ordained sexual intercourse as the means by which we create children, that it is divinely appointed and not disgusting or dirty at all?
I freely concede that the old fashioned Mormon speculators didn’t think all the way through this idea, and there are theological loose ends, to be sure. But I am curious: does anyone else here kind of like this old notion, or is it Mormon materialism run amuck?"
Robert Millet, who is seen as the champion of progressive BYU neo-orthodoxy, writes:
"While Latter-day Saints clearly believe that Jesus is the Son of God the Father, there is no authoritative doctrinal statement within Mormonism that explains how the conception of Jesus was accomplished," (Millet, Another Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, p. 74)
You might ask, "How can Mormons say that Christ was born of a virgin when leaders have consistently described an act common to the reproductive process?" This is accomplished by changing the definition of the word virgin. Since Mormonism teaches Mary did not have sexual relations with a mortal man, but instead was impregnated by an immortal man, Mormons feel that they can still use the phrase virgin birth. As Bruce McConkie said, "For our present purposes, suffice it to say that our Lord was born of a virgin, which is fitting and proper, and also natural, since the Father of the Child was an immortal Being" (The Promised Messiah, pg. 466).
When one considers that the LDS Church also teaches that every human born on earth is a literal child of God, the above quotes become even more blasphemous. Mormon leaders have maintained that all humans, Mary included, were born first in a spiritual state known as the pre-existence. If Mormon leaders are telling the truth when they say that God physically impregnated Mary, then we have no other recourse than to assume the Jesus of Mormonism was created by way of an incestuous relationship.
We at Mormonism Research Ministry call upon the Mormon Church to publicly and unequivocally renounce the past teachings of Mormon leaders concerning this issue, and repent of not having a clear official position concerning the nature of the virginity of Mary. The truth of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ as traditionally understood by Christendom is far too precious to warrant anything less. We also encourage Christians to lovingly question and challenge their Mormon neighbors over the teachings of past LDS leaders. True repentance demands that a person be willing to renounce the aforementioned redefinition of the virgin birth and embrace the Jesus Christ who was truly born of a virgin.
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