I was asked to present a bit on the Latter-day Saint perspective on extraterrestrials for an “exotheology” reading group I’m a part of that’s mostly composed of British academics. The following are my thoughts I put together for the lecture.
I was asked to present because the Latter-day Saint (AKA Mormon) tradition has had a long history of believing in multiple planets and non-earth life.
I’m talking to an educated audience I assume most people know the basics but just in case I’ll go over them briefly. Mormonism, or more properly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, is a restorationist movement that believes that the authority for the primitive Christian Church was lost sometime after the Apostles died out in what it terms “the Great Apostasy” and was restored through divine and angelic messengers through Joseph Smith, a day laborer in Northern New York in the early 19th century. From the earliest congregation, which was basically Joseph Smith’s and a few other families in New York, it kept growing while getting driven West with the expanding frontier, and now it is headquartered in Utah with about 17 million members. There’s obviously a lot more but that’s sort of the elevator synopsis.
To first set the stage a bit at a meta level: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to Catholicism in that there is a scriptural canon, but there’s also an authoritative priesthood structure that has the right to interpret and comment on canon, often in official statements but more often at the faith’s semiannual general conference,. However, where one statement is more authoritative than another is much less clearly delineated than in Catholicism. In both faiths there are sort of these concentric circles for theologically what’s considered definitive doctrine that go from the core out to the periphery. However, in the Latter-day Saint tradition the delineations between tiers of doctrine is much less systematic than in Catholicism, so in a way it’s also like Rabbinic Judaism with Torah and Talmudic Midrash, or in Islam with the Koran versus the Sunnah down to Fatwas from individual clerics.
Because in Latter-day Saint tradition the leaders are considered to have the same office as the early prophets, they can proclaim new doctrine, sometimes in rather radical directions. This initially led to sort of a Wild West (literally) of theological speculation as leaders would sometimes outright contradict each other in public. Over time, however, the faith underwent a classic Weberian transition from being anchored in charismatic spiritual individuals to a systematic faith with more messaging control, and now everything that is said over the General Conference pulpit has been thoroughly vetted by what’s called the Correlation Committee, which is kind of the Latter-day Saint analogue to the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.
Now, with that background more to the point of this discussion today, the seed of the belief that God created numberless planets and has different children elsewhere in the universe is briefly but definitively touched on in several places in the Latter-day Saint specific canon, so I’ll read those now.
And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only begotten.
35 But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.
36 And it came to pass that Moses spake unto the Lord, saying: Be merciful unto thy servant, O God, and tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens, and then thy servant will be content.
37 And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
Speaking of Christ 24 That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.
9 The light and the Redeemer of the world; the Spirit of truth, who came into the world, because the world was made by him, and in him was the life of men and the light of men.
10 The worlds were made by him; men were made by him; all things were made by him, and through him, and of him.
So we have these vague but definitive allusions. It’s clear in the core canon that there are many other worlds with inhabitants, but that’s all we know. Additionally, historically verified statements from Joseph Smith have a non-canonical, but still influential status, and here we also have another tidbit from a sermon he gave:
John saw curious looking beasts in heaven, he saw every creature that was in heaven, all the beasts, fowls, & fish in heaven, actually there, giving glory to God. I suppose John saw beings there, that had been saved from ten thousand times ten thousand earths like this, strange beasts of which we have no conception.
The worlds without end idea is strongly embedded in the LDS zeitgeist: when the Hubble Deep field came out people were sharing the photos with quotations from LDS scripture. Now, this interacts with other canonically established theologies that 1) we ourselves will become deified, and 2) kind of a fun one, that God lives near or on a specific location known as Kolob, (by the way, obviously the idea that God is embodied and lives in space is metaphysically one of many reasons why we’re very distinct from traditional Christianity).
Those canonical points together, along with Midrash-type statements from Church leaders, have painted a picture of a situation where God has created this universe and other worlds, but we ourselves will eventually progress towards Godhood and have the opportunity to have our own children populate worlds we create without number.
As a sociocultural sidebar, as you can imagine this belief can have interesting implications for childhood fantasies and play acting. A lot of children go through a stage of world creation, but in the Latter-day Saint context it can become a little more reified because of this belief in the back of their head. For example, when I was a child I was excited about being able to create a hybrid Star Wars/Fantasy-type universe, and my wife really liked hedgehogs, so she was excited about creating a hedgehog world. I obviously can’t speak to all Latter-day Saint children, but I’ve heard similar stories from enough people that this is definitely a thing, and there is some speculation that the anecdotally high number of Latter-day Saint science fiction and fantasy writers such as Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, and Stephenie Meyer, stems from this theologically-motivated childhood world creation that a lot of us experienced. Of course, now I realize that once I’m mature enough to be a God I’ll probably have other concerns besides replicating my childhood fantasies.
While the idea that we can achieve Godhood and create our own worlds populated with our own children is relatively non-controversial and is still in the core of the doctrinal circle. Presidents of the Church in the 20th century, the canonical successors of Joseph Smith and Peter in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (I’m using the full name because there are splinter groups from the Latter-day Saint movement that Smith founded so we have to be specific here) have affirmed the Latter-day Saint belief in non-earth, intelligent children of God elsewhere in the universe.
However, as we go farther out we have other speculation about there being an infinite chain of Gods, that God lives near the black hole in the center of the galaxy, etc, This kind of speculation is non-church leaders, guy-with-a-blog level stuff. Now that the Church is more standardized the more romantic speculations really don’t ever make it into leader discourse. If you were to watch General Conference today (we just had one a few weeks ago) it’s pretty anodyne stuff about how to be a good Latter-day Saint. The one mainstream residue of the Kolob, for example, is a popular cosmological hymn, and if you attend a Church service it’s highly unlikely that the sermons will be directed towards other worlds and the other children, but the dots connecting the theological points are definitely there and operating in the background, although now that the idea of worlds without end and other children of God on other worlds is more mainstream this particular perspective is perhaps less idiosyncratic than it once was.