Orson Pratt, The Seer and spiritual atomism

By: J. Stapley - November 17, 2005

The SeerAmong the recent attempts at reconciling our eternal nature with the concept of spirit birth and eternal progression has been a resurgence of spiritual atomism. This concept was first championed by Orson Pratt who outlined the concept in The Seer. There are many problems with this position, not least of which is a lack of evidence and reason for its veracity. Orson Pratt also disavowed the work which stands as a foundation for the theory.

From pages 102 and 103 of The Seer we have Pratt’s outline of what could be considered, spiritual atomism, spiritual evolution and spirit birth (sorry for the length of the quote, but I believe it is important):

The Question is, whence originated these elementary qualities of the mind? We answer, they are eternal. The capacities of all spiritual substance are eternal as the substance to which they belong. There is no substance in the universe which feels and thinks now, but what has eternally possessed that capacity. These capacities may be suspended for a season, but never can be annihilated. A substance which has not these capacities now, must eternally remain without them. The amount of matter in space can never be increased nor diminished, neither can there be a new elementary capacity added to this matter. For the arguments sustaining the eternity of matter and its capacities, see our treatise referred to in the preceding paragraph. Admitting the entity of the capacities, then the materials of which our spirits are composed, must have been capable of thinking, moving, willing, &c., before they were organized in the womb of the celestial female. Proceeding that period there was an endless duration, and each particle of our spirits had an eternal existence, and was in possession of eternal capacities. Now can it be supposed that these particles were inactive and dormant from all eternity until the received their organization in the form of the infant spirit? Can we suppose that particles possessed of the power to move themselves, would not have exerted that power during the endless duration preceding their organization? If they were once organized in the vegetable kingdom, and then disorganized by becoming food of celestial animal, and then again re-organized in the form of the spirits of animals, which is a higher sphere or being, then, is it unreasonable to suppose that the particles have, from all eternity, being passed through an endless chain of unions and disunions, organizations and disorganizations, until at length they are permitted to enter into the highest and most exalted sphere of organization in the image and likeness of God? A transmigration of the same particles of spirits from a lower to a higher organization, is demonstrated from the fact the same particles exist in a diffused, scattered state mingled with other matter; next, they exist in a united form, growing out of the earth in the shape of grass, herbs, and trees; and after this, these vegetables become food for celestial animals, and these same particle are organized into their offspring, and thus form the spirits of animals. There, then, is apparently a transmigration of the same particles of spirit, from an inferior to a superior organization, wherein their condition is improved, and their sphere of action enlarged. Who shall set any bounds to this upward tendency of spirit? Who shall prescribe the limits to its progression? If it abide the laws and conditions of its several states of existence, who shall say that it will not progress until it shall gain the very summit of perfection, and exist in all the glorious beauty of the image of God?

85. When therefore, the infant spirit is first born in the heavenly world, that is not a commencement of its capacities. Each particle eternally existed prior to the organization; each was enabled to perceive its own existence; each had the power of self-motion; each was an intelligent, living being of itself, having no knowledge of the particular thoughts, feelings, and emotions of other particles with which it never had been in union. Each particle was as independent of every other particle as on individual person is of another.

Orson’s conjectures did not resonate well with Brigham Young, in particular, and several of his publications were essentially banned by the church:

Proclamation of the First Presidency and Twelve, October 21, 1865
But the Seer, The Great First Cause, the article in the Millennial Star of October 15th, and November 1, 1850, on the Holy Spirit, and the first half of the tract, also on the Holy Spirit, contain doctrines which we cannot sanction, and which we have felt impressed to disown, so that the Saints who now live, and who may live hereafter, may not be misled by our silence, or be left to misinterpret it. Where these objectionable works, or parts of works, are bound in volumes, or otherwise, they should be cut out and destroyed; with proper care this can be done without much, if any, injury to the volumes.

Pratt added a sustaining note to the action of the First Presidency:

DEAR BRETHREN,-Permit me to draw your attention to the proclamation of the First Presidency and Twelve, published in the DESERT NEWS, and copied into the MILLENNIAL STAR of the 21st inst., in which several publications that have issued from my pen are considered objectionable. I, therefore, embrace the present opportunity of publicly expressing my most sincere regret, that I have ever published the least thing which meets with the disapprobation of the highest authorities of the Church; and I do most cordially join with them in the request, that you should make such dispositions of the publications alluded to, as counselled in their proclamation.
London, Oct. 25, 1865 ORSON PRATT, Sen.

Beyond the institutional censure, Pratt’s atomism is not sustainable by measures of reason or scripture. What reason have we to support this spiritual atomism? By Pratt’s reasoning, my physical body is eternal and intelligent because I am made up of atoms which have existed as animals and vegetation. The only difference is that my physical atoms are not self-moving…but why would spiritual atoms be different?

Another consequence of Pratt’s spiritual evolution is that minds and identities are consumed. If the spirit of a fish can be consumed and assimilated into my spirit, why therefore can my spirit not be consumed and assimilated into a higher spiritual predator?


  1. I understand what you’re saying, but not what you’re getting at. So what are you actually pointing out, other than Pratt was wrong…or is that all you are sayin?

    Comment by Don — 11/17/2005 @ 1:22 pm

  2. That is pretty much it, Don.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/17/2005 @ 1:29 pm

  3. J.,

    Nice quotes; weak analysis.

    You do your readers a disservice by trying to lump everything Orson Pratt ever taught into one whole, and then suggesting we reject it all. If we did that with every apostle or would reject every one of them (Joseph and Zelph, Brigham and Adam-God, etc.)

    What evidence is there that the censure Orson received was over his “spiritual atomism” teaching? My understanding is that the letter the First Presidency wrote was mostly in response to Orson’s teaching that all divine persons were exactly equally in knowledge and power and that God no long can progress.

    We must look at each of these teaching individually and accept or reject the various beliefs of different brethren one at a time and on their own merits. If not we end up discarding lots of true doctrine with incorrect ideas. I see thinking Mormons doing this with Brigham often too; throwing out the baby with the bathwater by saying “that is all part of the Adam-God complex so I reject it all”. (Some people reject the Mother in Heaven doctrine by this reasoning).

    I think a better approach is to treat the different brethren that delved into theology like we treat the apocrypha. We should keep the true parts and reject the false parts and use the Spirit and our minds to discern the difference.

    For the record, I accept the direction Orson was heading with this “spiritual atomism”, but reject many/most of the other parts he taught in the Seer (including the things Brigham was most bent about). I am generally more of a Brigham man when it comes to their disagreements actually. I have not seen any statements where Brigham specifically came out against this particle theory though — do you know of any?

    (I think you logic against “spiritual atomism” at the end is worthy of rebuttal but in interest of space I’ll hold off for now)

    Comment by Geoff J — 11/17/2005 @ 2:47 pm

  4. Nice quotes; weak analysis.


    The first Presidency’s message stated that primarily the applicaiton of it spiritual atomism to the nature of God – especially, the Holy Ghost – were fallacious. Brigham further qualifies his other ideas as follows:

    They are mere hypotheses, and should be perused and accepted as such, and not as doctrines of the Church. (I’ll email you the whole thing)

    Now, I actually quite like Orson. I think he had quite a bit of courage to go where he went and I think you are very correct in how we should approach such speculation. I couched this post in stronger terms mostly hoping for a response! 🙂

    That said, I believe there is still no reason to accept these speculations and look forward to your rebuttal.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/17/2005 @ 4:19 pm

  5. Thanks J.,

    I’ll look for that email. It certainly isn’t clear what parts of Orson’s writings were being rebutted in the FP quote you gave in the post.

    The two choices (that I am aware of) we have for our eternal spirits are what I call the particle model (our parts are eternal but not our whole) and the whole-cloth model (our spirits in their current form are eternal). Since you have named a few knocks against the particle model I will first list a few knocks against the whole-cloth model.

    If our spirits have always been in this human form for all eternity, does that mean our God has always been God for eternity? If so, how is it that we can expect to suddenly “jump tracks” and become something we have never been? Further, what was God the Father doing on an earth like this prior to this one (as Joseph taught)? Was the couplet by Lorenzo Snow just false doctrine? (“As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”) Is the notion of eternal progression also false?

    I suspect that you would answer yes to many of these questions, but I would answer no to them. I think that the whole-cloth model leave little room for eternal progression — especially if the members of our Godhead have been Gods for all eternity already. The whole cloth model seems to imply an ontoligical divide between God and man that cannot be bridged (I know you suspect this, but there are admittedly others that don’t see it that way.)

    These are foundational doctrines/assumptions and a LOT rests on the answers to them. One way to figure them out is to decide if we really accept that God was once a man like us or not and work backwards from there. I think that accepting that God was once like us and that we have potential to become like him naturally and logically leads to the particle model.

    I do believe those things and that is why I lean toward the particle model.

    Comment by Geoff J — 11/17/2005 @ 4:51 pm

  6. Spiritual Predators? Ooh, that has some nice possibilities for an LDS fiction work…

    The spiritual predator prowls through the night seeking prey. He hungers for the weak-spirited and consumes them utterly, leaving only a shell of a person behind. The grisly aftermath of these attacks can either strenghten the survivors or leave more in a vulnerable state. In the case of the latter, the predator knows he will come back for more…

    erm, OT, it seems like the idea of spiritual atoms would fit nicely into the concept of conservation of mass and energy.

    This comment:
    “The amount of matter in space can never be increased nor diminished, neither can there be a new elementary capacity added to this matter.”
    Seems revolutionary for the time period. Or is it?

    Comment by FaithHopeLove — 11/17/2005 @ 5:51 pm

  7. I just read that First Presidency response to O.P. and as I suspected they are not rejecting the notion of particles of spirit, but rather the specific variation and applications O.P. suggested:


    We have quoted some of the items which stand out most prominently in the publications referred to, and which strike us as being most objectionable. They are self-confounding and conflict one with another, and, to our minds, some of the statements, if pursued to their legitimate conclusion, would convey the idea that the physical and spiritual organization of a human being conferred no additional powers or benefits on the creature thus organized, but that any single atom of the “spiritual fluid,” however minute, possessed every attribute that an organized being could possess. Yet it will readily be perceived, upon reflection, that attributes never can be made manifest in any world except through organized beings. (Italics mine)

    The beef they have — and legitimately so — is that OP claimed the each particle of intelligence could independently be “all knowing” as is God. This does seem completely unsustainable to me. But it does not mean that organized beings, made up of intelligence cannot have an emergent intelligence that is far greater than the sum of the parts. I think that is a sustainable position.

    The FP therefore basically denounced some of the more ridiculous speculations of OP but even in their statement they were careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. They mostly were making it clear to the church that there was indeed bathwater in some of OP’s ideas.

    Comment by Geoff J — 11/17/2005 @ 6:00 pm

  8. FYI,

    If anyone would like to read the First Presidency letter to Orson Pratt we have been discussing I just put it up here.

    Comment by Geoff J — 11/17/2005 @ 6:17 pm

  9. Geez, if you think he’s wrong, why did you bring it up. Now you’ve got me all scared and nervous. What if there really is reincarnation and oh man, I will never cease to exist? Maybe I will never get that hot tub and cabin in the woods.

    What good did that do anybody?

    Comment by annegb — 11/18/2005 @ 4:18 am

  10. Bravo, John.

    My wife and I came across the KFD model about 4 years ago, and we love it. I told her about our discussions over at FPR last night, and we discussed all these angles once again. For us, there’s just no reason to amalgamate subsequent theories into Joseph Smith’s perfectly clear and concise presentation of the topic in the KFD. But that’s just us.

    Great post, man.

    Comment by David J — 11/18/2005 @ 8:20 am

  11. I agree David J. The whole point of Joseph’s ring analogy was that our minds not just our spirit matter are eternal.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/18/2005 @ 8:30 am

  12. Amen, brother. I thought I’d include the relevant quotations from Words of Joseph Smith with their corresponding page numbers:

    God never had power to create the spirit of man (341)

    I am dwelling on the immutibility of the spirit of man, is it logic to say the spirit of man had a beginning & yet had no end, it does not have a begining & yet had no end, it does not have a begining or end, my ring is like the Exhistanc of man it has no begining or end, if cut into their would be a begining & end, so with man if it had a begining it will have an end, if I am right I might say God never had power to create the spirit of man (346)

    their Spirits coexisted with God (352)

    God never had power to create the Sp of Man at all (352)

    their spirits existed coequal with God (359)

    God never did have power to create the spirit of man at all. (360)


    Inteligence exist upon a self existent principle no creation about it. (341)

    Intelligence is Eternal & it is self exhisting (346)


    Mind of man coequal with God himself. (341)

    the mind of man is as immortal as God himself (352)

    The mind of man—the intelligent part is coequal with God himself. (359)

    First Principles:

    the first principles of man are self exist with God (352)

    Spirit = Mind:

    all mind & spirit God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement. (341)

    man exhisted in spirit & mind coequal with God himself (346)

    I take ring from my finger and liken it unto the mind of man, the im[mor]t. Sp. Bec. It has no beging. Suppose you cut it into but as the D[evil] livees there wod. be an end all the fools & wise men from the beging. of creation who say that man had begin (352)

    Mind = Intelligence:

    All mind that is susseptible of improvement, the relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. God has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences that they may be exhalted with himself (346)

    Soul = Spirit:

    the soul the in[ne]r Spirit—of God man says created in the beging. The very idea lessens man in my idea—I don’t bel. The doct (351)

    Intelligence = Spirit:

    intelligence is self existent it is a sp. from age to end & there is no creatn abt. it (352)

    Intelligence exists upon a selfexistent principle–is a spirit from age to age & no creation about it (360)

    Soul = Mind:

    the soul –the mind of man–they say God created it in the beginning. The idea lessens man in my estimation. Don’t believe the doctrine–know better–God told me so (359)

    Seems quite clear to me.

    Comment by David J — 11/18/2005 @ 9:34 am

  13. David: My wife and I came across the KFD model about 4 years ago, and we love it.

    I’m not sure what you think th KFD model is, David. It clearly is split into at least two interpretations I mentioned earlier — The whole-cloth model of spirits and the intelligence-particles model. I think the “KFD model” = the intelligence particles model. I get the feeling that you think it means the whole-cloth model.

    I don’t fault anyone for leaning toward the whole-cloth model though. I can see how one could derive it from the quotes given. But I think logic works against it when we look at the big picture. For instance, how is a whole-cloth spirit susceptible of enlargement if it has been the same for all eternity? Intelligence is self existent, but that does not mean that our personal and individual spirits have been in the same form for all eternity. The mind of “man” is as eternal as God, but that does not mean that the mind of every individual man on the earth today has been in its current spiritual state for all eternity. It is the “first principles of man” that are self existent with God after all — not necessarily the current spiritual form of each individual person.

    Further, if we have not progressed (throughout all eternity no less) from something less than we are now, how can we possibly expect to ever progress to something more than we are now?

    Comment by Geoff J — 11/18/2005 @ 11:17 am

  14. This blog is provocative, to say the least. It shows one of the directions that Mormonism’s unique cosmology can take, thereby illuminating the features of that cosmology, a startling world view which over and over is placidly accepted by Gospel Doctrine classes following a question or two with predictable answers. The substance of this blog strikes me as an important article in the making. An article on this topic would interest Dialogue very much.


    Comment by Levi Peterson — 11/20/2005 @ 10:25 am

  15. Thanks, Levi. This is something that has been brewing for sometime now. Perhaps it is time to commit some resources for a systematic analysis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/20/2005 @ 10:35 pm

  16. I’ve not had time to contribute. I’d just suggest that people beware of the danger of equivocation. I think Joseph used some terms expansively. Especially terms like intelligence and spirit. Assuming that they always mean the same thing in all contexts will mislead one, (IMO).

    Comment by Clark Goble — 11/21/2005 @ 10:57 pm

  17. I very much agree, Clark. However, I really think there is a strong case for eternal identities from the latter Nauvoo discourse.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 11/21/2005 @ 11:08 pm

  18. I agree with J — we are well aware of the equivocations on the definitions of the word “intelligence” in the revelations and teaching from Joseph. This discussion is well beyond that and deals with the question of if our identities are essential and eternal or if they are contingent and emergent. J. believes the former, I believe the latter.

    Comment by Geoff J — 11/22/2005 @ 10:36 am

  19. I think though one must ask what an eternal identity is. What do we mean by it? Does it naturally entail an atomistic view? (Either of the sort Pratt espouses or the Cartesian sort that Roberts later does)

    I’d also say, that while Pratt’s atomism wasn’t really condemned by Young, Young was very distrustful of the philosophizing Pratt was doing. Young’s view could probably be characterized as a pragmatic one: what practical difference can we find in Pratt’s claims? Typically one can’t and further Pratt has no basis for his interpretations.

    I’d say as well that I think Pratt’s views on worship and the attributes of deity – the things he was censured for – tend to flow out naturally from his atomism. He has that whole spiritual fluid view, which I think really de-personalizes the attributes of God.

    Comment by Clark Goble — 11/22/2005 @ 3:04 pm

  20. I think all you guys need to stick to pure church doctrine! You are too concerned about matters that have nothing to do with your own salvation. Speculation, that all this all is! Read the Book of Mormon, that will teach you more about your salvation than a book written by an apostle that was excommunicated!! You have missed the mark, as the New Testament describes.

    Comment by Ron V — 1/21/2008 @ 1:31 am

  21. Ron V., you may consider being less judgmental of people and matters you know little about. Pratt wasn’t ever officially excommunicated and when he died Joseph F. Smith declared that he was one of the greatest heroes of the Restoration.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 1/21/2008 @ 11:31 am

  22. J. do you know the reference for Orson Pratt’s renunciation of The Seer?

    Thanks in advance.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — 9/21/2009 @ 11:54 am

  23. Tod, see Clark’s Messages of the First Presidency, 2:235-240.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/21/2009 @ 1:03 pm

  24. Nevermind. It’s in your post. Ha.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — 9/21/2009 @ 5:12 pm

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