For our final paper in my Cultural Astronomy class we were asked to write about an individual who we feel has greatly impacted the field of astronomy. I chose a farm boy from Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont.
Joseph Smith: Astronomer and Scientist
Upon considering which astronomer and culture to write about, my mind was drawn to the constant ongoing discord between science and religion. This disagreement has been serious enough to lead many Christians—who conclude that one or the other must come out conqueror—to choose to abandon their faith, and embrace the doctrines of so-called science. Modern astronomy has its own reserved front row parking space, right next to evolution, inside the protected “academic” garage for faith destroying ideologies, and hence finds direct relevance in this discussion. In observing this continuous debate, I find great satisfaction and reassurance in belonging to a Church that not only embraces all truth, but whose founder has so beautifully harmonized religion and science that they have become circumscribed into the same circle of truth. Joseph Smith has done this by teaching scientific principles, gained by the farm boy not through experiments or observations, but, according to him, by direct revelation from God. I would like to focus on three of these concepts, and their impact on the school of astronomy in light of the science vs. religion debate—the indestructibility of matter, our sun gets its light from Kolob, and the indestructibility of energy.
Indestructibility of Matter
In his 1908 work Joseph Smith as Scientist Apostle John A. Widtsoe noted, “It was believed by the philosophers of ancient and medieval times, especially by those devoted to the study of alchemy, that it was possible through mystical powers, often of a supernatural order, to annihilate matter or to create it from nothing. . . Naturally enough, the systems of religion became colored with the philosophical doctrines of the times; and it was held to be a fundamental religious truth that God created the world from nothing” (Widtsoe, p.10). He then contrasts this observation with the radical, conflicting teaching of the Mormon prophet: “No doctrine taught by Joseph Smith is better understood by his followers than that matter in its elementary condition is eternal, and that it can neither be increased nor diminished. As early as May, 1833, the Prophet declared that “the elements are eternal,” and in a sermon delivered in April, 1844, he said ‘Element had an existence from the time God had. The pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and reorganized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning, and can have no end’” (Widtsoe, p.12). While a theory such as the big bang may have fit in to the religious doctrine of churches in medieval times, Joseph Smith left no room in his doctrine for such a notion. In the same 1844 sermon quoted by Elder Widtsoe, the Prophet said that the supposed biblical support for the idea of God creating the world out of nothing was due to a mistranslation, stating that “the word create came from the word baurau, which does not mean to create out of nothing; it means to organize; the same as man would organize materials and build a ship” (HC 6:302-317). So, according to Joseph Smith, God did not create the world, he organized it.
This idea of matter never being created or destroyed leaves no room for the big bang, because the big bang requires a beginning, a time when the universe suddenly came into existence by expanding from a singularity. If matter has always existed, there can be no beginning or end. Moreover, matter cannot act for itself, it is inert and can only be acted upon. It requires energy for it to be put in motion, and someone or something to apply that energy. Consider the wristwatch; when functioning properly with a charged battery, the hour, minute, and second hands on this device move in a set motion to tell time. But without the energy from the battery, the watch is nothing more than a collection of inanimate raw materials—which could not have organized themselves into a watch. And the battery itself did not provide the energy, it had to be collected and harnessed by someone, then put inside the battery, thus allowing it to be applied to the watch. It is inconceivable for the watch to have suddenly expanded out of a singularity into a fully organized and functioning tool to wear on our wrist, complete with charged battery and all. Clearly, there must be an orchestrator in this process—the same with the universe. Inert matter cannot organize itself into galaxies and solar systems, to be moved it requires energy, and energy must be harnessed and applied by someone or something.
Joseph Smith’s teachings in this field of creation—or rather organization—are simple, easy to understand, and respect laws of physics. On the contrary, the big bang is confusing, illogical, and mysterious. Engineer Wallace Thornhill posits that “the big bang was not ‘discovered’ but contrived by mathematicians following the proposal of a Belgian Roman Catholic priest and astronomer, George Lemaitre, for the origin of the universe from a ‘primeval atom’ or ‘Cosmic Egg exploding at the moment of the creation.’ The theory defies physics principles and is unrealistic, needing most of the matter in the universe to be invisible (not even dark) and a mysterious ‘dark’ energy…… when you believe in theories like the big bang, logic has no dominion and any observation can be accommodated” (Thornhill, 2009). Similarly, the plasma cosmologist Eric Lerner, author of The Big Bang Never Happened, says: “one of the most destructive features of the methodology of the big bang is that it conveys the idea that only people versed in extremely complicated mathematics can understand the universe… This is, of course, the argument of the emperor’s new clothes. If you can’t see the emperor’s new clothes you must be either stupid or incompetent” (Thornhill, 2009). With ex nihilo creation being disqualified by physics, many people, including many Christians, submit in this argument; admitting—by virtue of having no other explanation—that they can’t see the clothes, and therefore are incompetent in debating creation. On the other hand, we have the harmonizing voice of Joseph Smith which comes thundering through that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes—there never was a beginning, God’s course is one eternal round.
Our Sun Receives its Light from Kolob
The following picture is Facsimile No. 2 from the Book of Abraham. In his explanations of this hieroglyphic, Joseph Smith taught much about the structure of the galaxies. Perhaps most intriguing is his description of Figure 5: “Called in Egyptian Enish-go-on-dosh; this is one of the governing planets also, and is said by the Egyptians to be the Sun, and to borrow its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is the grand Key, or, in other words, the governing power, which governs fifteen other fixed planets or stars, as also Floeese or the Moon, the Earth and the Sun in their annual revolutions. This planet receives its power through the medium of Kli-flos-is-es, or Hah-ko-kau-beam, the stars represented by numbers 22 and 23, receiving light from the revolutions of Kolob.” (Kolob represented by number 1 in the center)
Mainstream science teaches that the sun is a giant self-sustaining body of gas that generates energy by nuclear fusion reactions in its core. On the other hand, Joseph Smith taught that our sun, which the Egyptians called Enish-go-on-dosh, is not self-sustaining. Rather it borrows its light from Kolob through the medium of Kae-e-vanrash, which is a governing body that receives its light from two other stars, who in turn receive their light directly from Kolob. What Joseph described is a connected circuit, where each star does not produce its own power, but receives power, or light, through the medium of another star, all the way back to Kolob, which J. Reuben Clark Jr., an apostle in the Church’s first presidency, taught in 1951 was the center, or hub, of our galaxy (Clark, 1951).
This system of lighting stars through a series of power lines described by the prophet squares well with an idea that many plasma cosmologists subscribe to called The Electric Universe. In this structure stars are charged by a series of continually flowing electrical currents called “Birkeland currents,” named after the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland who associated the magnetic effects of aurorae with electrical currents flowing between the sun and the earth. “The Electric Universe recognizes that charged particles permeate all of space as electrically conductive plasma. Unlike the protons and electrons that make up neutral atoms, the charged particles in plasma are not bound by atomic structure. These freely moving charged particles are much more strongly affected by electric fields than by gravity. The aggregate movement of charged particles is an electric current” (thunderboltsinfo). Wallace Thornhill notes, “Engineers find it easy to light our cities with electrical power generated at some distance from the city. It never occurs to astronomers that Nature uses the same simple method of lighting galaxies. They have never considered that stars might be a cosmic electrical phenomenon, like streetlights tracing the path of power lines” (Thornhill, 2009).
This is relevant to the science vs. religion discussion because we have Jesus telling us in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, “I am the light of the world.” And Latter-day Saints read in the Book of Mormon account of Christ’s visit to America, “I am the light and the life of the world” (3Nephi 11:11). Scientists would tell us that the light and life of the world come from the sun, not from Jesus. However, if the universe is electric and the sun receives its light through a series of mediums that lead back to the throne of God, then Jesus truly is capable of being the literal light and life of the world. Which leads to our final concept taught by Joseph Smith.
The Indestructibility of Energy
Elder Widtsoe stated, “Joseph Smith taught, and the Church now teaches, that all space is filled with a subtle, though material substance of wonderful properties, by which all natural phenomena are controlled. This substance is known as the Holy Spirit” (Widtsoe, p.16). What he is referring to by the words ‘Holy Spirit’ is not the personage of the Holy Ghost, but rather the Light of Christ; which is defined as “the divine energy, power, or influence that proceeds from God through Christ and gives life and light to all things” (Guide to the Scriptures). The Mormon prophet taught in as early as May 1833 that this divine energy, the Light of Christ, also known as the Light of Truth, was indestructible. We read in the 93rd section of the Doctrine and Covenants “… the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” Elder Widtsoe observes that “Joseph Smith taught the doctrine that the energy of the universe can in nowise be increased or diminished, though, it may manifest itself in various forms.” He also notes that Smith did so “ten years before Dr. Joule published his famous papers on energy relations, and fifteen or twenty years before the doctrine was clearly understood and generally accepted by the learned men of the world” (Widtsoe, p.18).
Joseph Smith taught that the Light of Christ, which “proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space,” is “the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God” (D&C 88:12-13) He also explained that it is manifested in the light of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the earth, and is the power by which they were made. (D&C 88:7-10) Elder Bruce R. McConkie, a Mormon apostle, further expounded Joseph’s doctrine of the Light of Christ in this way: “There is a spirit—the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of Christ, the light of truth, the light of Christ—that defies description and is beyond mortal comprehension. It is in us and in all things; it is around us and around all things; it fills the earth and the heavens and the universe. It is everywhere, in all immensity, without exception; it is an indwelling, immanent, ever-present, never-absent spirit. It has neither shape nor form nor personality. It is not an entity nor a person nor a personage. It has no agency, does not act independently, and exists not to act but to be acted upon” (McConkie, p. 257).
These teachings coincide nicely with Wallace Thornhill’s description of plasma: “Almost the entire visible universe is composed of plasma. . . However, unlike the gases we are familiar with on Earth, plasma reacts strongly to the presence of electromagnetic fields and is a better conductor than copper. Its behavior has been described as complex and “life-like.” That should be a clue! The universe is principally an electrical plasma phenomenon” (Thornhill, 2009). These agreements lead one to a faith-promoting conclusion that what Joseph Smith identified as the Light of Christ, very well could be the same thing identified by cosmologists as plasma. Leading one to further conclude that those who put forward the idea of an electric universe, could really be onto something, which should grab every Latter-day Saint’s attention.
This concurrence is not so much an indicator that Joseph Smith lined up his religious teachings with principles of science and astronomy so that people could find a compromise and get along, but rather it signifies that scientists and cosmologists many years later are finally beginning to catch up with the Mormon Prophet. The big takeaway here for Latter-day Saints is, that if something in the field of science destroys faith and contradicts the word of God, it more than likely isn’t true; and if we wait faithfully for further understanding, trusting in that which has been revealed, eventually the truth will come forward; and we will observe, as many have before us, that time always vindicates the prophets.
Widtsoe, John A. Joseph Smith as Scientist: A Contribution to Mormon Philosophy. Salt Lake City: General Board, Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Associations, 1908. Print.
Roberts, B. H. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Vol. 6. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1902. Print.
Thornhill, Wallace. “The Simple Electric Universe.” Holosciencecom The Electric Universe. 6 Sept. 2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Clark, J. Reuben, Jr. “What Was This Jesus.” BYU Selected Speeches (1951). BYU Extension Publications. Web.
“Chapter 3 — What’s Different about the Electric Universe?” Thunderboltsinfo. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.
Guide to the Scriptures. “Light, Light of Christ.” Light, Light of Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Web. 11 Apr. 2016. <https://www.lds.org/scriptures/gs/light-light-of-christ?lang=eng>.
The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake City, UT, U.S.A.: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981. Print.
McConkie, Bruce R. A New Witness for the Articles of Faith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985. Print.