King Follett Discourse
From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
Author: Cannon, Donald Q.
The King Follett Discourse is the name given to an address the Prophet Joseph Smith delivered in Nauvoo, Illinois, on April 7, 1844, at a general conference of the Church. It was a commemorative oration for a Church member named King Follett, who had died in an accident on March 9, 1844. The discourse may be one of the Prophet's greatest sermons because of its comprehensive doctrinal teachings. It was his last general conference address, delivered less than three months before he was martyred. Key doctrinal topics in the sermon include the character of God, man's potential to progress in God's likeness, the Creation, and the tie between the living and their progenitors.
Joseph Smith delivered the sermon to several thousand people in a grove west of the Nauvoo Temple in a natural amphitheater, where benches and a rostrum had been placed. He spoke for two hours and fifteen minutes. Four experienced scribes took synoptic notes: Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff, William Clayton, and Thomas Bullock.
The spring of 1844 was a time of tension and turmoil in the Prophet's life. On the one hand, the Church was flourishing in Nauvoo and abroad, construction of the Nauvoo Temple was proceeding apace, and generally men and women were serving in the Church with dedication and effectiveness. On the other hand, apostates, political factions in Illinois and Missouri, and other groups were conspiring against Joseph Smith.
Of the kinship between God and man, Joseph Smith taught, "If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves" (TPJS, p. 343). "It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another" (TPJS, p. 345). Echoing his first vision, the Prophet taught what he called the "great secret": "If the veil were rent today, and God [were] to make himself visible, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form-like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man" (TPJS, p. 345).
Creation, he taught, was not by mere fiat or ex nihilo. God's role was to bring harmony to primal, unorganized elements and to "institute laws" whereby weaker intelligences might have the privilege of advancing like himself (TPJS, p. 354).
Of man's potential, the Prophet said that even as God is eternal and self-existent, so the intelligence of man is also eternal. The Father has become what he is through eternities of progress. Christ, who did nothing but what he had seen the Father do (cf. John 5:19), followed identical paths and patterns. Since all mankind have a divine Father, they are potential "heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ" (TPJS, pp. 346-47; cf. Romans 8:17). In this sense, all the children of God are embryonic gods or goddesses. Obedience to the fulness of the gospel is the perfecting process through which they may go "from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation until [they] arrive at the station of a God" (TPJS, pp. 346-47).
On the link between the living and their progenitors, the Prophet asked, "Is there nothing to be done?-no preparation-no salvation for our fathers and friends who have died without having had the opportunity to obey the decrees of the Son of Man?" (TPJS, p. 355). He answered, "God hath made a provision that every spirit in the eternal world can be saved unless he has committed [the] unpardonable sin" (TPJS, p. 357). He explained these provisions as they apply both in mortality and in the world beyond. To the mourners, the Prophet testified, "We have reason to have the greatest hope and consolations for our dead of any people on the earth; for we have seen them walk worthily in our midst, and seen them sink asleep in the arms of Jesus; and those who have died in the faith are now in the Celestial Kingdom of God" (TPJS, p. 359).
The Prophet indicated some of his concerns: threats on his life, his love of the Saints, the loneliness of leadership ("You never knew my heart"), the wonderment he felt in retrospect ("I don't blame anyone for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself" [TPJS, p. 361]). He finished with a plea for peace and invoked God's blessing on the assembly.
Cannon, Donald Q. "The King Follett Discourse: Joseph Smith's Greatest Sermon in Historical Perspective." BYU Studies 18 (Winter 1978):179-92.
Cannon, Donald Q., and Larry E. Dahl, eds. The Prophet Joseph Smith's King Follett Discourse: A Six-Column Comparison of Original Notes and Amalgamation. Provo, Utah, 1983.
Hale, Van. "The Doctrinal Impact of the King Follett Discourse." BYU Studies 18 (Winter 1978):209-225.
Larson, Stanley. "The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text." BYU Studies 18 (Winter 1978):193-208.
DONALD Q. CANNON