From late January until April 1833, Joseph Smith and 15 to 20 other men attended the School of the Prophets in Newel K. Whitney’s store in Kirtland, Ohio. In their meetings, they sang, prayed, studied a variety of subjects from the mundane to the sacred, and exercised spiritual gifts. During one of these sessions, held on February 27—the same day the Word of Wisdom was revealed—David W. Patten was moved by the Holy Ghost to sing a hymn in an unknown tongue. Someone present, perhaps Sidney Rigdon, interpreted Patten’s hymn for the others. The hymn was about Enoch’s vision as found in Joseph Smith’s revision of Genesis.
Enoch’s vision was probably familiar to most of the men in the school. Penned about two years earlier and published in the Evening and Morning Star (an early Church newspaper) in August 1832, the vision gave a grand overview of human history—in the words of Patten’s interpreted hymn, Enoch was shown “what had passed and then was and is present and to come.”The vision also gave Church members one of the earliest glimpses of the idea of a premortal existence. “I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh,” the Lord told the ancient prophet (Moses 6:51). The interpretation of the hymn given in the schoolroom echoed the revealed text: “He saw the time when Adam his father was made and he saw that he was in eternity before a grain of dust in the ballance was weighed.”
Joseph Smith’s revisions of the Bible, including the vision of Enoch, contained profound ideas about premortal life and humankind’s relationship to the divine. But they were only hinted at, not explained in detail. We can sense in the interpreted hymn the excitement these early members felt as they contemplated what these hints might mean. But we can only guess what questions these hints may have planted in the minds of Joseph Smith and his companions in the school.
On May 6, a few weeks after the school adjourned for the warm season, Joseph Smith received a revelation giving further details about a premortal existence. Now found in Doctrine and Covenants 93, the revelation departed from traditional Christian ideas about the nature of humankind, opening startling new vistas on our premortal past, our future potential, and our relationship to God.
Since the fifth century, Christian orthodoxy had imposed an almost impassable gulf between the Creator and His creations.Humankind, Christians came to believe, was created from nothing. God was not a craftsman who refashioned existing materials but wholly different and apart from His creation—mysterious and unknowable. The Bible’s parent-child description of God’s relationship to us was understood largely as a metaphor instead of a literal kinship. To suggest otherwise, in the estimation of most Christian thinkers, blasphemously lessened God or dangerously elevated humankind.
The May 6 revelation was bold and new, yet also ancient and familiar. As with so many of Joseph Smith’s revelations, it recovered lost truths that were apparently known to biblical figures, in this case John the Baptist. It declared that as Christ “was in the begining with the father,” so “man was also in the begining with God.” It dismissed the long-held belief in creation out of nothing: “Inteligence or the Light of truth was not created or made neither indeed can be.”
The revelation provided additional truth about God and human nature. It echoed both the text of the Book of Mormon and David Patten’s hymn by defining truth as “knowledge of things as they are and as they were and as they are to come.” These insights into past, present, and future were given “that you may understand and know how to worship and know what you worship.”The revelation dealt in particular with God’s past and humanity’s potentially glorious future. Jesus Christ, Joseph was told, had progressed to become like His Father. He “received not of the fulness at the first” but “continued from grace to grace” until He received His Father’s fulness. Likewise, humankind had godlike potential. Men and women who keep God’s commandments “receive grace for grace” until they, too, “shall receive of his fulness and be glorified in me as I am glorified in the father.” These flashes of insight into “things as they [really] are” recovered an ancient understanding of the relationship of God and His children and narrowed the yawning gap between Creator and creation that Mormons had inherited from the Christian tradition.
Joseph Smith spent the rest of his life pondering the implications of these stunning revelatory teachings. Years later in Nauvoo, he gave these truths their most complete expression in his last conference sermon. Echoing the words of the revelation, he taught that men and women were co-eternal with God and could become like Him by “going from a small capacity to a great capacity,” until eventually they dwell “in everlasting burnings.” Speaking with revealed assurance, he taught: “The soul, the mind of man, whare did it come from? The learned says God made it in the beginning, but it is not so. I know better. God has told me so.”