The Mormon Understanding of Persons . . . and God
On the view taught in Snow's poem, the individuation of personal existence begins at premortal spirit birth. That spirit is formed from intelligence, which is an elemental substance or material and not individuated. With interesting and sometimes outrageous variations and speculations, particularly by the apostle Orson Pratt and his brother, Parley P. Pratt, also an apostle, this was the principle understanding among Latter-day Saints from 1845 to about 1900. Few, if any, appear to have thought otherwise.
It isn't clear when the idea began to change, but in October of 1895 a professor from Brigham Young University, Nels L. Nelson, wrote an article for an LDS magazine aimed at Mormon young people. There Nelson identifies intelligence with the uncreated individual rather than with elemental substance ("Theosophy and Mormonism," The Contributor 16.12: 737-738).
Nelson proposed three parts to human persons:
· individual intelligence, in other words the uncreated and individual part of the person
· the spiritual body created by God "around" an intelligence
· the mortal body, ensouled by spirit and, therefore, also by intelligence
For Nelson, this tripartite view was the only satisfactory way to account for Smith's teaching that intelligences are eternal and that we were born as spirits in a premortal state.
By proposing this new understanding, Nelson established the current usage of the term "intelligence." On Nelson's usage, that word refers to the eternal part of human being and "spirit" refers to that part given birth by God. According to Nelson, intelligence is eternally individual, and it is born into a spirit body in a manner analogous to the birth of the spirit into a mortal body.
Nelson's idea took hold among the membership of the Church relatively quickly. Early on several important church leaders also became proponents of this way of understanding intelligence. But at the same time other prominent church authorities found his understanding of intelligence unacceptable. That tension continued for some time, with more and more members of the Church understanding intelligence in the way that Nelson proposed at the same time that high-level opposition to his explanation gradually weakened.
One of the last public statements on the belief by an official of the Church came in 1936. Joseph Fielding Smith, an apostle, son of a previous prophet, and great-nephew of Joseph Smith, said that we know there is something eternal and uncreated in the person, but we don't know and cannot now know whether it is eternally individual (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man [Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Genealogical Society, 1936], 11).
At present I doubt that anyone knows what the majority view is among the highest councils of the LDS Church. Contemporary LDS authorities seldom make theological pronouncements; their focus is on preaching the gospel and the life it entails. I would not be surprised if they themselves don't know what the majority view about intelligence is among them. Theological training and knowledge is not a requirement for or expectation of those in Mormon leadership positions.
James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.