"Here then," declared the Prophet Joseph in his famous funeral sermon for Elder King Follett, "is eternal life — to know the only wise and true God. You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done — by going from a small capacity to a great capacity, from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, until the resurrection of the dead, from exaltation to exaltation — till you are able to sit in everlasting burnings and everlasting power and glory as those who have gone before."
(Presumably, a fundamental element in "saving yourself" is accepting Christ and his atonement — an act that is entirely ours to make or to refuse.)
The King Follett Discourse, as it's often called, was delivered on April 7, 1844, less than three months before Joseph Smith went to his death as a martyr at Carthage Jail. Some have seen it as marking the stunning culmination of a Nauvoo theology that was radically different from the earlier doctrines of Mormonism as those appear, for example, in the Book of Mormon.
But the idea of exaltation or human deification was present in Mormonism from a very early period — a fact commonly overlooked, in my personal experience, by a surprising number of otherwise serious scholars and observers.
Consider, for example, Doctrine and Covenants 76:55-60, speaking about those who will inherit the celestial kingdom:
"They are they into whose hands the Father has given all things — They are they who are priests and kings, who have received of his fulness, and of his glory; and are priests of the Most High, after the order of Melchizedek, which was after the order of Enoch, which was after the order of the Only Begotten Son. Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God — Wherefore, all things are theirs, whether life or death, or things present, or things to come, all are theirs and they are Christ's, and Christ is God's. And they shall overcome all things."
This passage — given at Hiram, Ohio — dates to Feb. 16, 1832. In other words, it was revealed less than two years after the formal organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830.
But it isn't the earliest distinctively Mormon scriptural text to teach human deification. No, that honor belongs to the Book of Mormon, which was published in March 1830 (i.e., even before the founding of the church).
In 3 Nephi 28, the Savior turns to the three Nephite disciples who, in order to serve humanity and bring people to Christ, hoped to tarry upon the earth until his second coming.
"Ye have desired," he tells them, "that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one" (3 Nephi 28:9-10).
This passage is reminiscent of what mathematicians call "the transitive property of equality." That's a grand-sounding and perhaps intimidating phrase, but it's really pretty easy: A basic rule of arithmetic, it says that, if "a" equals "b" and "b" equals "c," then it necessarily follows that "a" equals "c."
With that in mind, let's turn back to 3 Nephi 28: If the three Nephite disciples will be like the resurrected Savior, and the resurrected Savior is like the Father, that means, according to the principle of "transitivity," that the three Nephite disciples will be like the Father.
"Therefore," the Savior had already said to the Nephites generally, "I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect" (3 Nephi 12:48; expanding upon Matthew 5:48).
There are, surely, important differences between what Joseph Smith was teaching in the early 1830s and the doctrines he was revealing in the 1840s. That's what continuing revelation means. But there's no radical discontinuity. Regardless of whether even the Prophet himself had noticed it, the doctrine of exaltation was there from the beginning.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org, the general editor of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture" online at www.mormoninterpreter.com and he blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson.