Intelligences: Why Bother Revealing this Doctrine?

We know next to nothing about what the Lord means by “intelligence” … so why know anything about it at all?

One of the most intriguing and enigmatic doctrines of the Restoration is the doctrine of intelligence. Sometimes the scriptures use “intelligence” in the everyday sense: information or “smarts.” But sometimes the Lord uses the term to refer to an eternal “material” or “substance” that we don’t know much about. It’s used in that sense six times for sure (D&C 93:29–30, 36; Abr. 3:21–22) and possibly another four times (D&C 88:40; 130:18–19; the context makes it hard to say for certain).

So what is meaning of “intelligence” when the scriptures use it in this unique way? Elder Robert L. Simpson explained the concept this way:

Before drawing the breath of life on this earth, we were all spiritual beings living in the realm of God, the Eternal Father. Scripture reveals that even before our spiritual birth, each of us had individual identification as an intelligence. Before all else could take place, there had to be that beginning spark of light.1

In other words, “intelligence” is what comes before we were born as spirits.

What We Don’t Know

Many assumptions are made about the nature of that pre-existent intelligence, but in reality, very little has been revealed. We don’t even know whether it’s a count noun (“many intelligences,” like “many apples”) or a mass noun (“much intelligence,” like “much clay”).2 There are several ways of interpreting what it is like:

Intelligence, however defined, is not created or made (D&C 93:29); it is coeternal with God (TPJS, pp. 353–54). Some LDS leaders have interpreted this to mean that intelligent beings—called intelligences—existed before and after they were given spirit bodies in the premortal existence. Others have interpreted it to mean that intelligent beings were organized as spirits out of eternal intelligent matter, that they did not exist as individuals before they were organized as spirit beings in the premortal existence (Abr. 3:22; JD 7:57; 2:124). The Church has taken no official position on this issue.3

Joseph F. Smith pretty much consigned interpretations of the doctrine of intelligence to the “Interesting But Not Revealed” category when he said,

There has been some speculation and articles have been written attempting to explain just what these ‘intelligences’ are, or this ‘intelligence’ is, but it is futile for us to speculate upon it. We do know that intelligence was not created or made and cannot be because the Lord has said it. There are some truths it is well to leave until the Lord sees fit to reveal the fulness.4


Then What’s the Point in Knowing at All?

In this short series of articles, my goal is not to describe the various ways Church leaders have interpreted the scanty passages on intelligence.5 I have only one question: If he wasn’t going to tell us anything about it, why did the Lord bother to reveal the doctrine of intelligence?

There are a lot of vital doctrines the Lord usually focuses on: priesthood, repentance, the second coming. Usually it seems like he chooses such doctrines because they are vital to our salvation or help us in the process of repenting and becoming like him. On the other end, there are a lot of things he has chosen to not reveal: the full process involved in creation, the timing of the second coming, the history of the lost tribes. Usually it seems like he withholds such doctrines because we’re not ready to understand them, or because we don’t need to know them. Revealed truth doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The Lord always has a purpose for every bit of information he reveals, and it usually involves some kind of moral obligation on our part. He doesn’t reveal things on a whim, just to satisfy our curiosity.

So why bother telling us there is a mysterious something called intelligence and then not tell us anything more about it? It would be like saying, “In the heavens there are snufflemuggins. I will tell you that they’re purple, but beyond that, I will say no more.” Considering the Lord’s characteristic revelatory parsimony, it seems unusual that he would reveal something “just because.” There may really be snufflemuggins in heaven, and they may really be purple, but why would he go through all the trouble of making sure we knew that … and nothing more. What is the hidden purpose behind the Lord’s choice to reveal the doctrine of intelligence?

I finally found an answer in D&C 93:29–31, and I will explain it in another post.


1. Robert L. Simpson, “Pollution of the Mind,” Ensign, Jan. 1973, p. 112. Notice that Elder Simpson says “identification,” not “identity.” We can’t even say for sure that intelligence has identity before spirit birth.

2. Some careful readers may notice that in choosing the title of this article, I opted for the count noun version “intelligences” instead of the mass noun “intelligence.” I did not do this to favor one view over the other; I did it to help people more quickly understand the topic of this post. If I had used “intelligence,” a person scanning past the title might think the article was about IQ or psychology.

3. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, vol. 1, “Intelligence.”

4. Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:401; cited in Doctrines of the Gospel Student Manual (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), p. 13. Notice that in President Smith’s usage of the terms, he confirms that we don’t even know whether to treat it as a count noun or a mass noun.

5. For a great discussion on the various interpretations of this doctrine, see Brent L. Top, The Life Before, ch. 3: “Intelligence or Intelligences?”

26 thoughts on “Intelligences: Why Bother Revealing this Doctrine?

  1. Nathan, good stuff. You refer to D&C 93, and that is what went through my mind when you asked the question of why God mentions intelligences.

    I’m sure your take will be much more involved and thoughtful than mine, but my personal take is that it’s extremely important to know a)we have lived forever in some form and will live forever in some form and b)we have the potential to evolve into something better than we are now.

    One request: please put a “more” sign after the first few paragraphs of your post so people can read the others posts after yours. Thanks, and welcome!

  2. “In other words, “intelligence” is what comes before we were born as spirits.”

    I’m curious to see where you go with this, but first I want to ask whether you accept this definition (attributed to Elder Simpson) as definitive? I ask because I used to believe in the three stage model— intelligence -> spirit -> physical body —but have since come to reject it, favoring instead the interpretation that “intelligence” and “spirit” are synonyms (at least, almost always synonyms).

  3. BrianJ:
    How does your theory work with eternal marriage/spirit children? Are we not the literal children of Father? I am not saying we have children like we do on earth, but there is something to be said about being spiritually begotten of the Father.

    I would also be interested in the in-depth take on this. It is a foundational principle on which we are to learn and grow throughout our existence as children of God.

  4. dallske: Briefly, I believe that we are children of Heavenly Father in more-or-less (if not precisely) the same way we are children of Jesus Christ (see Mosiah 5, Ether 3, D&C 25, etc.). One can extrapolate from that how I view eternal marriage/spirit children.

    For more detail, see the link Adam G provided. (I don’t intend to be elusive, but I also worry about derailing Nathan’s post onto topics treated elsewhere.)

  5. My view of “intelligences” (and my theories of what they are) has massively fluxuated over the years. I’m open to many possibilities at this point, including the idea that we’re talking about a mathematical abstraction pre-existing the actual creation and existing eternally. All numbers exist, therefore there is a sense in which all intelligence must always exist.

    Probably all wrong, of course. 🙂

  6. How evil comes into being? There are various eternal intellgiences and God has organized them into this creation to see how they would act out their agency, with the potential to become like him. If intelligences are eternal and exercise their agency in this probation then the evil we do to one another is of each intelligent beings own doing. It’s true God created our bodies and this world and even organized our spirits but if we have eternal agency and we have been given bodies which permit us that agency to one degree or anoher but perhaps the degree to which we use that agency and the initial instincts in how we use it reflects the type of intelligence we came from. Further Satan desired to place all the organized spirit intelligences into mortal bodies which diverted that agency to his desires… interestingly that is still the way he works… getting us first to excercise our agency for his purposes and then he gradually leads us with a cord around our necks until we are blinded and for all intents have given our agency over to him.

    So is that where you were going?

  7. This follows the Lords pattern in teaching. Little by little, line by line.

    Apparently, we (either as a church or as human beings) haven’t progressed enough to the level where we can handle being publicly given more information on this topic.

    But at the same time, what we have been given so far might be just a “seed” so that those who are ready to receive more teachings on this topic can be “taught from on high.”

    Spiritual insight, most often received when either reading the scriptures or going about doing the Lord’s will, (or listening to the prophets at General conference, or attending the temple) is how the Lord teaches the “advanced” topics. That is why there is no “advanced” doctrine Sunday school class other than our two “Gospel Essentials” and “Gospel Doctrine.” After the “Gospel Doctrine”, you’re on your own.

    Those who are ready for “Advanced Doctrine” get it directly from the Spirit, either in one of those classes, or while reading the scriptures, or being out and about on the Lord’s errand, or when attending the temple.

  8. Are these the “mysteries of the kingdom” which are revealed line upon line, precept upon precept? Maybe, but somehow I doubt that God has revealed to super-righteous people like Pres. Monson all about the nature of pre-existent intelligence.

    The great mystery Pres. Monson has access to is the greatest mystery of all, and one that few ever truly grasp their significance: “Whosoever becomes as one of these little ones, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…”

    I would characterize the nature of pre-mortal intelligence as esoteric doctrine, which can have little spiritual value beyond the basic tenets revealed to Joseph Smith in the first place: our eternal existence. But I could be wrong. Maybe Nathan will reveal something mindblowingly beautiful in his next email, which will open up new spiritual horizons I’ve never considered.

  9. This is my first post on Millennial Star, and I’m not sure yet what the best way to respond is when it’s on a post in a series.

    To most of these comments, I think all I can say is, many of your questions will best be answered by waiting for part 2. And many of your comments are really deep, and go far beyond what I hope to cover. I’ve tried to keep my scope very narrow, so I apologize ahead of time if I don’t wade into the interesting areas some of you have obviously thought deeply about. 🙂

  10. I think Bruce Nielson is on the right track. If he is right, we actually know a great deal about intelligences–we just haven’t called them by that name before. (I suspect the same is true of spirits).

  11. For me, this comes under two headings. The first is that this is to teach us that we are just like God, having always been eternal, just at different levels of progression. The second is along the lines of things that are very nearly completely unimportant to how we live our lives, like the theories on what comes after being like God is now.

    I’d imagine this came about int he first place because Joseph asked, anything more than this being information that would have gotten in the way of living this life.

    Could you imagine people in the Church feeling proud of themselves because they eventually become something more than God is now?

  12. As with the brother of Jared seeing the finger of the Lord because he could not be kept from beholding within the veil, some revelation may not be willed or with a purpose, but merely spills out as part of the degree of openness between man and heaven.

  13. I view intelligence as any matter moved/organized by God through the light of Christ. Therefore, an atom is an intelligence. When atoms are combined, we get a molecule that has the previous traits and components, but additional capabilities (H2O does more than just H or O alone).
    Eventually, intelligences can be combined/organized into a spirit (Abraham 3 notes intelligences that were organized that stood around God). I equate an “organized intelligence” as spirit, in that it is possibly here the individuality becomes apparent.

    With such a process, the next logical steps are to obtain a body, and then a glorified being of flesh and spirit as the highest organized intelligence.

    I believe this is similar to the concept Orson Pratt had, and that Blake Ostler offers up in his Exploring Mormon Thought.

    Intelligence always exists, as does matter. Just not necessarily in the same form as it is organized onto ever higher levels.

  14. JM,
    that’s an interesting hypotheses. Another point may be to remember that revelation is a dialogue. We do not and should not believe that God has an agenda of what He wants us to know and everything that is revealed is part of that agenda. Instead, I’d argue that sometimes God reveals things just because He was asked about it.

  15. One other thing: I’d like to push back a little against the notion that some truths or doctrines are not essential for exaltation. Every truth and every doctrine is essential to exaltation. No one can be fully exalted to God’s fellowship in ignorance, because God knows all that can be known.

    So when we say that something or other isn’t essential to our exaltation or salvation, what we’re really saying is that its something we don’t need to know *yet* because we’re still focusing on the basics. Indeed, since one of those basics is a process of study, prayer, reflection, revelation, and enlightenment through the Holy Ghost, having a few advanced doctrines around to spur inquiry contributes to the basics.

  16. I think this doctrine is much easier to “put to use” than merely as an eventually-need-to-know. It puts God’s entire Plan in proper context and completely shapes how we view him. Rather than the God of some Christians who created us so that we could worship him, we see a God who, in Joseph Smith’s words, “[found] he was in the midst of spirits and glory, [and] because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself” (History of the Church, 6:310–12). He did all this for us, not the other way around.

  17. I touch upon this whole matter in footnote 46 of an article I have here:

    Which states:

    ” Within the plan of salvation, wherein we can progress and become like God, there are three stages of life we must enter into. Each of which involves a “birth process”. Consider what the Lord told Abraham, “they who keep their first estate shall be added upon” (Abraham 3: 26) which implies that each stage of progression is preceded by a “birth” whereby the individual is “added upon” with greater powers of life. Each of these three stages are: 1. The Spirit birth (see, for instance, Acts 17: 28-29 where Paul states that we are the “offspring” of God. Or Hebrews 12: 9 where Paul speaks of God as being the “Father of [our] Spirits.”); 2. Mortal birth; 3. A “Spiritual” birth, which enables us to enter into the Kingdom of God and gain Eternal Life (see John 3: 3-5). Spirit birth brings life as a Spirit, with a Spirit for a body. Physical birth brings physical life with a physical body. Spiritual birth brings about a “Spiritual Life” with a “Spiritual” body. A Spiritual body is one which has been glorified and sanctified, thus D&C 88: 26-29 states, “Wherefore, it [the body] shall be sanctified; yea, notwithstanding it shall die, it shall be quickened again, and shall abide the power by which it is quickened, and the righteous shall inherit it. For notwithstanding they die, they also shall rise again, a spiritual body. They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened.”

    Baptism and receiving the Holy Ghost comprise what is called the “gate” to this spiritual birth. Consider the experience of Adam when he was baptized:
    That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified; Therefore it is given to abide in you; the record of heaven; the Comforter; the peaceable things of immortal glory; the truth of all things; that which quickeneth all things, which maketh alive all things; that which knoweth all things, and hath all power according to wisdom, mercy, truth, justice, and judgment.
    . . . And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam, our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water. And thus he was baptized, and the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man. (Moses 6: 59-61, 64,65) It is thus, the power of the Spirit that “quickens” or gives life, as the Lord said in a revelation to Joseph Smith that the comforter, or Holy Ghost, “is the promise which I give unto you of Eternal Life” (D&C 88:4) or that the “power of my Spirit quickeneth all things” (D&C 33:16).

    The powers of the Spirit are powers of intelligence and life, and when a person obtains the Glory of God he has an endowment of “Life” which other beings do not possess. Eternal Life, therefore, is more than just being in the presence of God or living the way that God lives, but it is an actual added endowment of life. Parley P. Pratt expressed it this way:
    “An intelligent being, in the image of God, possesses every organ, attribute, sense, sympathy, affection that is possessed by God Himself.
    But these . . . attributes are in embryo; and are to be gradually developed.
    The gift of the Holy Ghost adapts itself to all these organs or attributes. It quickens all the intellectual faculties, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections; and adapts them, by the gift of wisdom, to their lawful use. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. It develops beauty of person, form and features. It tends to health, vigor, animation and social feeling. It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. It strengthens, and gives tone to the nerves. In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being.” (Parley P. Pratt, Key To The Science Of Theology, p. 61.) Pratt, in the same book mentioned above also said, “the flesh, bones, sinews, nerves, all the organs, all the particles of the celestial body, must be quickened, filled, surrounded with that divine and holy element which is purer, more intelligent, more refined and active, fuller of light and life than any other substance in the universe.” (Key To The Science Of Theology, p. 86.)

  18. Steven, the issue is whether the “birth” is a literal one or metaphorical. Paul stated that the children of Israel and Moses were baptized in the cloud and sea. However, it is a metaphor, as they were not literally baptized in the Red Sea, as they walked across it on dry ground.

    Jesus said we had to be born again, which, again is a metaphor comparing spiritual birth with the physical mortal birth we now understand. That said, it does not follow that spiritual birth is done in the exact same way. Nor does it mean that our resurrection will be a literal birth, either.

    So, we have to be careful not to be too literal when it comes to terms like “offspring.” Intelligences cannot be created. But according to Abraham 3, they can apparently be “organized” into spirits. Just as Christ is our Father by being the father of our salvation, it is very possible that our Heavenly Parents used some other form of creation to form us as spirit children.

  19. Rameumptom: can you explain how you understand that “[intelligences] can apparently be “organized” into spirits” from Abraham 3? I see that intelligences can be organized, but not necessarily into spirits. (Into what, it does not explicitly say.) Moreover, verse 18 states that spirits have no beginning….

  20. 22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;

    23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.

    I see the “organized spirits” of verse 22 being equated with “souls” of verse 23. The term “soul” is equated with spirit in v23, also.

    It states that God stood “amongst those that were spirits.” This can be read either as he wasn’t standing among other resurrected beings, or he wasn’t standing among intelligences that were not yet organized as spirits. I see both readings as applicable here.

    Some read this as a political organizing, but in view that we are discussing Creation in these chapters (3-4) of Abraham, I believe it also refers to spirits, as well. There is both a spiritual and physical organization/creation/formation.

  21. Thanks for the reply.

    “I see the “organized spirits” of verse 22”

    I think you mean “organized intelligences.”

    “…being equated with “souls” of verse 23. The term “soul” is equated with spirit in v23, also.”

    Not that I’m pressing my view, but to put my questions in context I’ll point out that I think all these terms are being used synonymously: souls, spirits, intelligences. (But not throughout the scriptures, of course.)

    “…not yet organized as spirits.”

    I still don’t see how that jibes with verse 18: “spirits…have no beginning.” If there is no beginning, how can there be a “not yet”?

  22. Rameumpton (Gary),Good to hear from you Gary. Regarding whether the Spirit Birth is literal or metaphorical: I suppose metaphorically is one way to look at it. But since earthly things are patterned after heavenly things your argument remains unconvincing. I’ll maintain my belief in a Spirit Birth as a literal one until convinced otherwise.

  23. Brian J, yes I did mean organized intelligences.

    As I read verse 18 is the same way Mormons view God as being Eternal and always God. Spirits, as with all creations, are never created ex nihilo, only formed from matter unorganized. In one form or another, intelligence has always existed. I believe it is just formed into higher levels of ability and organization. So organized intelligences, in this instance, means spirits. And they are involved in planning the next stage of their formation: uniting of spiritual and physical forms of matter (which may just be a difference of density and organization).

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