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March 7, 2014

The evolving state of Mormon heaven

It takes lots of praying, preaching and singing to mourn a president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a man called Prophet, Seer and Revelator by his global flock.

That was certainly true at President Spencer W. Kimball's funeral in 1985. So when one of the church's most powerful women rose to speak, the leader of its vast Relief Society projects, she simply shared a cherished private memory that pointed far beyond the grave.

While visiting Colorado, recalled the late Barbara B. Smith, "I asked President Kimball a searching question. 'When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?' He looked around those mountains. ... Then he said, 'I'll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.'"

She also recalled this Kimball quote urging Latter-day Saints to help those in need: "What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves? Perhaps the most essential godlike quality is compassion."

It was already rare, at that time, to hear such an explicit public reference to the faith's doctrine of "exaltation," the belief that through piety and good works, truly devout Mormons can rise to godhood and even create new worlds.

While this doctrine has caused tensions with other faiths, it has been a key source for the Mormon emphasis on marriage and family. As a mid-1980s text for converts stated: "Parenthood is ... an apprenticeship for godhood."

Now, church leaders have published an online essay -- "Becoming Like God" -- in which they have attempted to reframe this doctrine, in part by mixing the unique revelations of Mormon founder Joseph Smith with New Testament references and selected quotes from the writings of early-church saints such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Basil the Great.

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