Jacob J and I have been l somewhat half-heartedly putting together this post for over a month now. Seeing J. Stapley’s excellent post over at BCC, I thought I’d dust it off a bit and post it. The scope of this post is not to put forth any foundational doctrine or all encompassing concept of theology, but it is merely our hope to establish a few concepts regarding Joseph’s beliefs regarding spirits, and specifically his understanding that pre-mortal human spirits were in human form, which some would term a spirit body. We readily acknowledge that Joseph’s thoughts on this matter are disputed and the sources we have are ambiguous enough to support multiple readings.
With that in mind, it seems prudent to survey as many quotes as possible and look for points on which they seem to converge. While one, two, or even three quotes may be disputed, we believe the combined evidence of these statements puts forward a strong case for what Joseph may have believed on the subject. We provide or reference all the statements and sermons we think are pertinent to the subject below. Please feel free to add to these in the comments, if you know of any statements on the subject (for or against) that we may have missed.
First, for the sake of context, it is important to establish Joseph’s belief in the eternal nature of man. Joseph put forth the following revelation:
…these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal. (Abraham3:18 -1835, with revisions in 1842)
Joseph would go on to teach up to his death the eternal nature of spirits, and further linking theses eternal spirits with God by saying:
God who sits in yonder heavens is a man like yourselves
-Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844, as recorded in the Wilford Woodruff Journal
These two ideas, that man’s spirit is without beginning or end, and that we are of the same kind as God, are essential to understanding Joseph’s belief in spirits. Linking this with the above stated thesis, Joseph taught that even members of the Godhead were “personages” of spirit with “spiritual bodies”
The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us (D&C 130:22 -1843)
But the holy ghost is yet a Spiritual body and waiting to take to himself a body. as the Savior did or as god did or the gods before them took bodies for the Saviour Says the work that my father did do i also & those are the works he took himself a body & then laid down his life that he might take it up again
-Joseph Smith, June 16 1844, as recorded in the George Laub Journal (emphasis added)
[Joseph] said was the provence of the Father to preside as the Chief or President–Jesus as the Mediator & Holy Ghost as the testator or witness– the Son had a Tabernicle & so had the father But the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit without tabernicle
-Joseph Smith, March 9, 1841 McIntire Minute Book
The meaning of “personage” is certainly ambiguous, but we have some evidence as to what Joseph Smith meant by the term “personage.” When commenting on the scripture which refers to the Holy Ghost descending in “the form of a dove,” he said:
Holy Ghost is a personage in the form of a personage–does not confine itself to form of a dove–but in sign of a dove. (JS Diary)
The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a Dove but the sign of a Dove was given to John to signify the Truth of the Deed as the Dove was an emblem or Token of Truth (Franklin D. Richards “Scriptural Items”)
Here is a case where spirit “shape shifting” would be an easy and obvious reading but Joseph Smith goes out of his way to teach that it is, in fact, impossible for the Holy Ghost to take the form of a dove given that he is a personage. For Joseph the word “personage” implies a form.
It is impossible to escape the anthropomorphic language used by Joseph Smith whenever he speaks of heavenly beings. We have the Spirit of the Lord coming to Nephi who is “in the form of man” (1 Ne. 11:11). We have him seeing two personages in his first vision, one pointing to the other, and we have this:
Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh. (Ether 3:16)
This is Jesus Christ talking, as “the Father and the Son” (Ether 3:14) and noting that his spirit has a body and men are made in the image of his spirit body. I have seen it argued that this could be an example of a special case, being representative of only Christ’s spirit, and not all spirits, and that his reference to man being created after his body is only to physical man. It could also put forth the idea of a pre-mortal spirit that was in the image and likeness of a human form being normative. It seems that the idea of two different deified beings having the shape of human form pre-mortally must point to one of these options. This brings us to a few more statements from Smith, like the following description of creation from Moses:
And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air …out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. And it became also a living soul. For it was spiritual in the day that I created it; for it remaineth in the sphere in which I, God, created it, yea, even all things which I prepared for the use of man; and man saw that it was good for food. And I, the Lord God, planted the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and also the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Moses 3:5,9, emphasis added -1830)
This revealed insertion into the book of Genesis shows that Joseph took the creation that was present in Moses 2 to be pre-mortal spiritual creation, and here in vs 9 we show that it remained spiritual as a creation while the events of the fall came about. Thus these spirit beings, who are said to be in the image and likeness of God in this same narative, and as referenced in Ether (“man have I created after the body of my spirit” Ether 3:16) were personages with spiritual bodies. This pushes away from th idea of Christ and the Holy Ghost being special cases, and, in my view, leans toward a concept of the physical descriptions used by Joseph for Pre-mortal beings applicable to Humans as well. This idea of our pre-mortal spirits having a body like form is no more clearly taught in scripture than when in 1832, Joseph received the following:
…that which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual; the spirit of man in the likeness of his person, as also the spirit of the beast, and every other creature which God has created (D&C 77:2- 1832)
Now it may be argued that Joseph left behind the idea of created spirits, abandoning them for the later taught concept of eternal spirits, and along with the created state, he also abandoned any notions of a spirit body. However this seems improbable in light of the following from the Joseph Smith Diary:
Case of the woman & 7 husbands Luke 20-29 &c
Those who keep no eternal Law in this life or make no eternal contract are single & alone in the eternal world (Luke 20-35) and are only made Angels to minister to those who shall be heirs of Salvation never becoming Sons of God having never kept the Law of God ie eternal Law
The earthly is the image of the Heavenly shows that is by the multiplication of Lives that the eternal worlds are created and occupied
that which is born of the flesh is flesh that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit
-Joseph Smith, July 16, 1843, Joseph Smith Diary, Willard Richards as scribe (emphasis and formatting added)
Here again we see that the earthly is still, in Joseph’s view, in the image of the heavenly precursor, and connoting that our Spirits, which he now taught were Eternal, still went through a form of Spirit Birth. (We will not argue what this spirit birth specifically entails here.). The quote about “that which is born of the spirit” being spirit is all the more striking in the context of the larger quote.
The language here is clearly related to the ideas expressed in D&C 132, the context being marriage and the continuation of lives being possible only for those who are eternally married. Based on this context, any idea that this reference to being born of spirit is an allusion to the meaning put behind the same phrase in John 3:6 seems unconvincing at best. It is much more likely that Joseph is doing what he often does, and taking a normal phrase from the scripture and filling it with new meaning.
Also, before this we have Joseph Smith speaking on a subject regard a body like form to spirits in 1841
Brethren be not deceived an nor doubtful of this fact a spirit of a good man or an angell from heaven who has not a body will never undertake to shake hands with you for he knows you cannot perceive his touch and never will extend his hand but any spirit or body that is attended by a dove you may know to be a pure spirit Thus you may in some measure detect them the spirits who may come unto you (Martha Coray Notebook, March 21, 1841)
This concept of an intangible spirit having hands one can or cannot shake was repeatedly taught from 1839 to 1843 (see footnote one here.), and further reinforces the idea of Joseph teaching the idea of pre-mortal persons being in the form and likeness of human beings.
In conclusion, Joseph Smith arguably believed throughout his life that the pre-mortal spirit was in the image and likeness of man (or woman or God or Goddess) prior to his or her birth in a mortal tabernacle, and was in the image and likeness of the same after death.
 This next argument was edited into the post after it was first published based on comment #9.
end note: The question of whether these spirit beings were actually visible to the human eye or if they were only visible to the minds eye is beyond the scope of this post.