Widtsoe on MMP

April 16, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 8:06 pm   Category: Widtsoe Reading

THe Following is a lengthy excerpt from evidences and reconciliations, which was quite possibly the most popular book by John A. Widtsoe. In it he rejects reincarnation. I submit it here for your amusement and comment. For those concerned with copywrite issues or interested in reading more of evidences and reconciliations, the whole text is available online here.

Three doctrines lie at the foundation of belief in reincarnation.

First, the pre-existence of the “soul” of man; second, the indestructibility of the “soul” of man after death; and, third, the possibility of constant development of the pre-existent, eternal “soul.” These are all necessary doctrines to the thinking mind. They are supported by divine revelation. But, in the explanations and applications of these truths, the proponents of reincarnation have failed dismally, and have shown how the semblance of truth, becoming untruth, may lead men into vast fields of deception…

Reincarnation rests upon an unsound foundation; hence is dangerous, and should be avoided…

The conditions of reincarnation by which the immortal “soul” may progress are … unacceptable. “Reincarnation is a plan whereby imperishable conscious beings are supplied with physical bodies appropriate to their stage of growth and through which they can come in contact with the lessons of physical life.” (Ibid., p. 17.) This supplying of bodies is repeated endlessly. By this doctrine, the body of man is of little consequence. We take it on, cast it off, and put on another one, much as we do with our old suits of clothing. The “soul” of man is then really confined to this earth, as in a prison. Why this should be so, baffles the mind. His sojourn between incarnations can be of no value to him, since he must return to earth in a mortal body to gain further experience. He is of the earth, earthy. He cannot in reality go beyond the earth or physical experiences. Therefore, an infinity of experiences are beyond his reach. The universe is not his. Such an eternal “soul” demands a vaster area of understanding and action than the earthly life affords. There is no freedom in reincarnation.

Reincarnation fails utterly to comprehend the meaning of the human body.

The gospel of Jesus Christ declares that man an eternal spirit, acquainted with the spiritual world, came upon the earth when he was fitted and permitted to become acquainted with the material world. To this end he was given a body of material elements. This body belongs to him eternally, to be used by him, in a purified form, in his endless progressive journey among spiritual and material realities. He does not need another. It is a sacred possession, the home of his eternal spirit. With it, composed of celestialized material elements, he may forever explore the universe, in all its aspects, even to the limits of eternity. Without such a body, the immortal spirit would be handicapped in its victorious progress, in the midst of universal elements, toward the likeness of God. Reincarnation has gone far afield to explain that which the Lord has made clear to the human mind.

The doctrine of reincarnation really destroys personality as connected with earth life. The perpetual passage of spirits from body to body on earth, implies that the Lord is using the earth as a playground for a few spirits. As one writer remarks, the soul of the ancient patriarch Seth was probably the spirit of the great prophet Moses. Thus, individuality on the earth is lost. Temporal identification is hopelessly confused. There is no end to the disorder, for the process of reincarnation is unending. That violates the innate desire, even need, of man, for an individual, personal identity on earth as in heaven.

By reincarnation the power of God seems also to be limited. He uses the same, relatively few, spirits over and over again, endlessly, to accomplish whatever may be his purpose. He seems to be short of material and vague in his purpose. This is out of harmony with the gospel, which teaches that there is a host of spirits waiting to take upon themselves mortal bodies, and that the next stage of existence will come when this has been accomplished.

This doctrine of confusion presents no final objective in life. It seems to suggest only living over and over again on earth, much the same experiences, sometimes as a man, sometimes as something else. To what ultimate state does it lead us? Even in human affairs, soldiers who may fight many a battle in various places, come at last to an end — victory or defeat. Reincarnation sets up no understandable objective of existence, except that we are advancing; but how and to what end? It reduces the spirit of man to the position of a treadmill worker in the affairs of the universe. Some say that the end is nirvana, first held to be extinction of existence; now a fusion into a mass of security. That does not help.

This is in clearest opposition to the doctrine of progression, which lies fundamentally in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The objective of life is to move toward the likeness of God. Man rises continually. Once on earth, he experiences earth life, with its joys and sorrows: then bids it farewell, to enter into another life where he continues with added power, in the advancing program of existence. He outgrows the past throughout eternal existence. Reincarnation moves in a circle; the gospel in an ascending spiral. Existence without a definite objective, but with constant repetitions, is valueless.

Finally, reincarnation is incompatible with the resurrection of the body, through the redeeming service of Jesus Christ. The continuous changing of bodies makes the resurrection and any redeeming act, unnecessary. It places the Christ in the class of fakirs. A Christian cannot believe in reincarnation. That should be, in itself, a sufficient answer to the question at the head of this writing.

(John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 369.)

A much simpler reason to reject reincarnation is to take Alma 11:45 at face value…


  1. Matt,

    Interesting quotes. However the title of this post is misleading since Widtsoe makes no references at all to MMP — he speaks only about reincarnation (the idea that people live multiple lives on this planet). And even then he seems to be creating an inaccurate straw man version of the idea of reincarnation found in the Dharmic religions so I would have to say all in all this does not represent one of Widtsoe’s finest moments.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 16, 2007 @ 9:10 pm

  2. So Geoff, I take it that you can reject reincarnation then based on some sort of definition based on space? If it is on another planet, it’s a-ok, but if it’s on earth, no luck? I can see where you are pulling that limited view from, but it seems sort of misplaced.

    Widtsoe is fundamentally saying people only get one shot at life because multiple shots would screw up God’s promises regarding:

    1. The ressurection
    2. The Human body
    3. The atonement
    4. Eternal progress
    5. The nature of God

    Comment by Matt W. — April 16, 2007 @ 10:07 pm

  3. One of the most peculiar pieces on MMP that I have ever read was a letter from JFS to Edward Faulkner on August 13, 1901 (available on Selected Collections). You might want to check it out.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 16, 2007 @ 10:14 pm

  4. This may be a good place for Geoff to review (again) what he sees as the important differences between MMP and simple reincarnation. Maybe I’ll try and he can straighten me out.

    With Geoff’s MMP ideas I think you only cycle through as a human, and you do it on another planet. With reincarnation you can cylce through as pretty near anything but probably only on earth.

    I think Geoff sees a lot of difference between the two, but I don’t.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 17, 2007 @ 5:36 am

  5. Eric and Matt,

    Don’t get me wrong — I don’t doubt that Widtsoe didn’t believe in MMP either. I don’t begrudge him or anyone else that belief. But other apostles in our history disagreed with him on that opinion. I happen to think they were more likely the correct ones for the myriads of reasons I’ve outlined in the past here.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 17, 2007 @ 8:22 am

  6. No problem Geoff. I’m just having fun with my continued study of Widtsoe. I just thought the topic would interest you, if you hadn’t read it. I hope you don’t see this as some sort of an appeal to authority attack or something like that. (The postscript to Alma 11:45 was the appeal to authority attack. :) )

    You seem, however, to be tired of retreading that ground.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 17, 2007 @ 8:38 am

  7. Well yes, you are right about that — I am tired of retreading the authoritative angle on this. Plus Widtsoe doesn’t even remotely do justice to the doctrine of reincarnation taught by several world religions. Contrary to his claims, they do almost universally believe in an upward spiral of progression — not some meaningless and repetitive eternal merry-go-round with no objective. I suppose that the great Eastern religions were an easy target for Widtsoe at the time and place he wrote this stuff, but he was plain wrong and unfair to their beliefs in these quotes and I find such unfair attacks on the religion of others by an LDS apostle more embarrassing than enlightening.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 17, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  8. All this time I thought Geoff was the only one interested in MMP, but he may have his match in Matt W.

    Comment by Jacob — April 17, 2007 @ 9:17 am

  9. Jacob: MMP is brain candy to me. It may be rotting my mental teeth, but I do enjoy the dulce.

    Geoff: I think that is a tad overdramatic. Widtsoe was merely stating the position of our religion on an issue as he understood it. He may be wrong, but to say he was unfair would imply that he was knowingly distorting the view of the other religion, which I do not believe he was.

    In any case, are you now disowning the concept of eternal recursion? It is that concept (God gets bored, goes back to pre-mortal spirit state for fun of it)which I would think Widtsoe is possibly thinking towards.

    An upward spiral is much more appealing to me, since it graphs better. I’d still probably disown it based upon the scriptural promise that we will be resurrected and die no more.

    I will say that MMP does speak nicely to Widtsoe’s perpetual theme of improvement through self-effort.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 17, 2007 @ 9:42 am

  10. Matt,

    I don’t think it is being overly dramatic at all. Widtsoe was distorting the views of several world religions when he said things like this about their doctrine of reincarnation:

    Reincarnation moves in a circle; the gospel in an ascending spiral. Existence without a definite objective, but with constant repetitions, is valueless.

    Now you could argue he was just ignorant of their actual beliefs. If that is the case then he is guilty of intellectual laziness rather than intentionally distorting their beliefs. Either way this was not his finest moment. Look, I’m a Widtsoe fan. But if we don’t hold ourselves to high standards when talking about other religions how can we expect the same of others when they talk about Mormonism?

    BTW – I am baffled by your comment/question about eternal recursion.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 17, 2007 @ 9:59 am

  11. re- eternal recurssion, you said :

    I am opining that perhaps any exalted being can choose to condescend in such a manner [meaning Heavenly Father will reach this point where he is an unembodied spirit again.
    ]. We know God can pass through the veil too (see Jesus) and we have at least some evidence that all of us arrived at our current place in existence through something along those lines too (see Michael being the spirit that became Adam and Eve).

    As our discussion went on, you seemed to be saying that God, once he achieved “perfection”, realizing the joy was in the journey, and not the destination, went back to do it all over again.

    I guess you could argue that the “definite objective” is the joy of the journey in such a case, to which Widtsoe may be wrong.

    Anyway, back to Widtsoe and his intellectual laziness. I don’t believe this is the case. There is a cost-benefits analysis to be made in gathering empirical data, as there is always more data to be gathered. Widtsoe may have incorrectly believed he had gathered enough data to make an assessment, but that does not mean he was lazy.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 17, 2007 @ 10:40 am

  12. Yeah I think discussions of Joseph’s ring analogy and eternal recursion are a different subject than the one at hand. That is a metaphysical discussion of how we can make sense of beginningless and endless existence. This is a different discussion on how the present plan of salvation works.

    Now as to whether Widtsoe was being lazy by butchering his description of the doctrine on reincarnation or not… Let’s not kid ourselves. He was a scientist and an apostle with plenty of research resources at his disposal (even in the 40s). My guess is he had access to accurate information about both the Buddhist and Hindu version of reincarnation (not to mention the versions in Jainism, and Sikhism) if he were willing to do his homework but instead of doing that homework he created a straw man version to attack in this passage. That is exactly the tactic enemies of Mormonism use against us. I recommend we stick with the laziness — or at least “insufficient researching” — reasoning (which I see you basically did anyway…) because if we can’t blame “insufficient research” then we are left with him knowingly distorting those views.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 17, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  13. Matt W.:
    On comment #2, the doctrine of reincarnation also seems to upset the concept of a last or final judgment, no?

    Comment by Mondo Cool — April 17, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

  14. Allow me to jump in here and say there is no real “doctrine” of reincarnation, there is “my doctrine” or “doctrines,” but the word “theories” would better describe Geoff J’s version, or a myriad of other MMPers.

    I have a question for all of those “out there” reading this blog. When did the phrase “Multiple Mortal Probations” come into use? I know that in Ogden Kraut’s 1994 book it was not quite coined. He uses the phrase “Multiple Mortal Mortalities” and “Multiple Probations” but never the MMP phrase. Could someone enlighten me about how it came into use.

    Vern G. Swanson

    Comment by Vern Swanson — April 26, 2011 @ 11:45 pm

  15. Vern,

    I actually don’t remember why we started using the term multiple mortal probations in discussions here. I think early on at this blog (2005 range) someone used that MMP term and we adopted it to reflect the uniquely Mormon idea of one life per inhabitable planet rather than the more common reincarnation idea of many lives here on earth.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 29, 2011 @ 1:42 am

  16. Geoff J

    Robert Beckstead used the term MMP in the late 1990s, but did he coin the term?

    I understand that your position is that everybody has one life per habitable planet. Is this to increase the breath of experience or is there some other reason? What is the basis of this belief? I understand that it rests with several early LDS statements. What exactly are they?

    I also understand that Madame Blavatsky’s conjuring of Joseph Smith in October of 1854 was the basis of Eliza R. Snow’s belief that Joseph believed in reincarnation (last part as stated by O. F. Whitney). What is your thoughts?

    Vern G. Swanson

    Comment by Vern Swanson — April 30, 2011 @ 9:10 am

  17. Vern,

    I’m not sure who coined the MMP term or what they had in mind exactly when they first used it. We adopted the term at some point here and started using it to mean one mortal life per inhabited planet. I think the reason I started using the term that way was to avoid running afoul the very clear denunciations of traditional reincarnation by some LDS apostles in the past.

    But these days I am fairly convinced that nobody knows how any of these details work because God has never revealed those details to anyone, ever. Perhaps that is a skeptical view but that’s where I am now.

    From a model standpoint I think some form of reincarnation/MMP is a very useful tool to try to make sense of the universe in light of the King Follett sermon. In fact I have difficulty making much sense of the teachings in the King Follett discourse (let alone coming up with a remotely plausible theodicy) in the absence of MMP in some form.

    As for the various statements on MMP from former leaders you can wade through the MMP category here at NCT to track some down. Heber C Kimball’s comments on the subject remain the most striking to me but there are other speculations on the subject from other leaders as well. I am not really all that impressed with appeals to authority on this one these days though since I think everyone did a lot of speculating on these mysteries (including Joseph Smith Jr.).

    Comment by Geoff J — May 1, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  18. Vern,

    “I also understand that Madame Blavatsky’s conjuring of Joseph Smith in October of 1854 was the basis of Eliza R. Snow’s belief that Joseph believed in reincarnation (last part as stated by O. F. Whitney).”

    Do you happen to have a reference for this?

    Comment by Riley — May 2, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

  19. Riley,

    The Blavatsky note comes from several of her biographies that mention her coming to SLC in the Fall of the mid 1850s and holding a seance for business men at Emmeline Wells place. It was my assumption that they conjured Joseph Smith, thinking “Who else would they have contacted?” Of course I could be wrong.

    I have a question for everybody out there. How does the late 19th century businessman, John Beck figure in reincarnation? Did they become a part of the Masonic Temple in SLC? Any information would be most welcome.

    Vern Swanson

    Comment by Vern Swanson — May 16, 2011 @ 7:54 am

  20. Sweet, thanks.

    Comment by Riley — May 17, 2011 @ 3:25 pm