Forgetting Kolob

hs-2004-10-a-large_webGeneral Conference is the central forum for official instruction in Mormon doctrine. Conference has very wide viewership among church members, and its influence is magnified by the widespread reach of Conference talks in the Ensign.

The last General Conference in which Kolob was mentioned — the star where God lives — was in 1969.

In 1969, President McKay briefly alluded to the idea of Kolob as an actual belief:

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints always have known through revelation of the numberless creations of God. They are taught that somewhere out in that great expanse of space is the great star Kolob that we sing about in the hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob.” Abraham of old was shown in vision these kingdoms, and he said: “And I saw the stars, that they were very great, and that one of them was nearest unto the throne of God; and there were many great ones which were near unto it;

“And the Lord said unto me: These are the governing ones; and the name of the great one is Kolob, because it is near unto me, for I am the Lord thy God: I have set this one to govern all those which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abr. 3:2-3).

The idea shows up in a few other conference talks from the 1960s. For instance, Church Patriarch Eldred G. Smith spoke of Kolob in 1966, and then-Elder Spencer W. Kimball in did the same in 1962. President McKay briefly mentioned the idea in 1960, William W. Critchlow Jr. in 1964 (Elder Critchlow was one of the Assistants to the Twelve), Joseph Fielding Smith in 1966. Then-Elder Harold B. Lee quotes the hymn in 1969.

The total number of references to the doctrine of Kolob in general conference talks since 1970 is Zero.

(The word itself does appear twice. In 1979, then-Elder Howard W. Hunter quoted a passage from the diary of Wilford Woodruff: “President Woodruff told of his missionary experiences. He said: ” In the time of the apostasy in Kirtland… the Spirit of God said to me, You choose a partner and go straight to Fox Islands.’ Well, I knew no more what was on Fox Islands than what was on Kolob. But the Lord told me to go, and I went.” And in 1999, a speaker referenced the 1892 Kolob stake.)

To repeat: The last time that Kolob was taught as a doctrine in General Conference was in 1969. Neil Armstrong had just stepped on the moon, a few months earlier. Richard M. Nixon was U.S. President. Credence Clearwater Revival was having a great year, with their new releases Proud Mary, Green River and Bad Moon Rising dominating the charts. Woodstock had just happened.

The church had thirteen operating temples and an estimated 2.8 million members. It would be almost a decade before African-American men would become eligible for Priesthood ordination. Heck, there were still Assistants to the Twelve.

This was the last time the idea of Kolob as doctrine came up at General Conference, which is the premier space for Mormon doctrinal instruction.

The complete absence of Kolob doctrine for over forty years in conference discussions strongly indicates that the doctrine has in effect died through desuetude.

And given that backdrop, it is deceptive and false for church critics to ignore very clear trends in recent history and suggest (as they often do) that Kolob continues to play some central role in Mormon belief or lived Mormon experience today.

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Image: Hubble.

47 comments for “Forgetting Kolob

  1. Roger
    October 8, 2014 at 5:18 pm

    While we are at it Kaimi. What about mention of John the Beloved and the Three Nephites who were to never taste death? Would such notions be in the same category?? (It’s not like the aforementioned apostles have been presented for a sustaining vote…)

  2. EmJen
    October 8, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    I wonder when the hymn was last sung in conference?

  3. EmJen
    October 8, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Heh, found it. April 2008, Sunday Morning Session.

  4. EmJen
    October 8, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Click here if you want to hear it. It’s kind of a weird version.

  5. October 8, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    We are stardust, we are golden.

    I like the approach, Kaimi, but this doctrine won’t die until we decanonize the Book of Abraham. Hard to fault LDS critics when the idea is so clearly spelled out in our LDS scripture.

  6. Porter
    October 8, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Kolob is referenced several times in the Book of Abraham. last time I checked the Book of Abraham (discredited though it may be) is still firmly a part of the LDS canon. Isn’t that enough to make it fair game? Perhaps an analogous situation is the new and everlasting covenant of plural marriage which still appears in Section 132 of the D&C which, last time I checked, is still in my scriptures. Nobody talks about that anymore either, but that doesn’t mean its not a doctrine of the church (at least as far as it is practiced in the Celestial Kingdom).

    This is not the same as Adam-God or Blood Atonement, which were never clearly based in scripture. My view is that if its still in the scriptures its still doctrine. Perhaps the church should clean house and remove all these pesky scriptural references that it no longer supports. I nominate the doctrine of dark skin being a sign of wickedness as a good place to start.

  7. October 8, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    There’s a _lot_ of scripture that we don’t generally cite as church doctrine. A Priests Quorum has 48 priests and an Elders Quorum has 96 Elders. The Word of Wisdom is not commandment. And so on.

    Just because it’s mentioned in the canon, doesn’t make it active church doctrine.

  8. CH
    October 8, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    What about the Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham published in 2014?

    https://www.lds.org/topics/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng

    Don’t you think the Church affirmed it’s position about doctrines in the BOA and three Facsimiles in that publication?

  9. Jack
    October 8, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    You’re right that we don’t hear much about Kolob during conference. But the increased work that’s being done by LDS scholars on the Book of Abraham is causing that specter appear again — in a better light, I’d say.

  10. Porter
    October 8, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    Kaimi, as a lawyer don’t you think it would be a good idea for the church to formally disclaim doctrines it no longer believes in? It seems to me that this idea of “dying through desuetude” is very sloppy.

  11. DCL
    October 8, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Well, the hymn could always be rehabilitated as the fantastic “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” using the same Kingsfold tune.

    Seriously, though, the idea of teachings dying through desuetude is sloppy in a good way.

  12. October 8, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Porter, I agree that it would be better if the church would more clearly repudiate doctrines that are no longer considered accurate. But as a descriptive matter, the desuetude approach is what the church does. I discuss this in more depth in a prior post: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2006/08/how-does-mormon-doctrine-die/ .

    CH, those received very little publicity. I think it’s still the case that Kolob is, at best, an extremely minor and peripheral doctrinal idea.

    And Porter, given your comment name, maybe the decanonization should start with the verse in D&C 89 that says we’re actively supposed to be drinking beer. :)

    Yeah, that one hasn’t been enforced in a _long_ time, and in fact is directly counter to existing policy.

  13. Martin James
    October 8, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Kaimi,

    You seem unaware of the decision in 1970 to separate exoteric from esoteric doctrines together with the beginning of the Hie to Kolob project that began together with the Apollo landings under the direction of the 47th Quorum of the Seventy.

    I don’t want to give too much away but if you substitute Sun for Son and propulsion system for prophet you may be surprised at the mysteries that await.

  14. CAS
    October 8, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    To be precise, Kolob is not the star where God lives. It is the star nearest to where God lives.

  15. Jack of Hearts
    October 8, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    This article was just published in 1997 in the Ensign.

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1997/03/the-book-of-abraham-a-most-remarkable-book?lang=eng&query=Kolob

    It even references the idea that the earth fell from orbit around Kolob at the Fall.

  16. Left Field
    October 8, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    I don’t understand why Kolob is a “doctrine” at all. Much less a “doctrine” that people think we should teach, repudiate, forget, mock, ignore, focus on, be embarrassed by, or tout. How long has it been since anyone mentioned Gog and Magog in conference?

    It’s a vaguely interesting place mentioned in passing in the scriptures. What makes it different from a bazillion other places mentioned in scripture like Adam-Ondi_Ahaman, the Waters of Mormon, Eden, Paradise, or the Moon?

    But what do I know? I’m just a former member of the Kolob Stake.

  17. Martin James
    October 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    No more Gog and MaGog means no more LDS religion. Ya’ll are on your own.

  18. Brian
    October 8, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    “Just because it’s mentioned in the canon, doesn’t make it active church doctrine.” Your qualifier of “active” undermines your entire argument. And I believe you generally got the implication arrow reversed. Just because it’s doctrine doesn’t mean we cite it frequently.

  19. Christopher
    October 8, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    Wow, I never realized how many people had it out for Kolob! Why all the calls for decanonization?

    Would it really be so much worse/harder to just say that we understand those verses symbolically and not literally? We seem pretty comfortable doing this with the Flood, despite a wide range of earlier authorities suggesting the story was literal truth. Is it really so hard to take the same approach with Kolob? Why throw out the whole thing when we can try to interpret and learn from it symbolically?

  20. October 8, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    Kaimi, did you realize that this information is available at the Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks?
    (http://corpus.byu.edu/gc/)

    Apparently, the 1960s was actually the high point of use of the word “Kolob” in Conference — used more than twice as many times as in any other decade. Yes it is lower, but the drop compared to decades before the 1960s isn’t quite so significant.

  21. October 8, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    It’s one thing to say that God the Father has a body that is in some way corporeal without attaching that belief to any sort of real implications or solid answers to the inevitable questions that this belief leads to (where did the body come from? how can it be matter but not anything like the matter we know? did God give himself the body or did someone else give it to him? does he need to eat? if he doesn’t eat what happens to the body? if he doesn’t need to eat how does the matter get its energy? if he didn’t have the body would he still be God? what principle organizes the separate parts of God’s body? why aren’t we worshiping that principle since God depends on it for his material existence? or if God is the organizing principle, then why does God even need the body?).

    I think “critics” probably cling to the Kolob thing because it gets out of Mormonism a little more information about what exactly they mean when they say “God the Father has a body.” Usually it’s worse than pulling teeth. When you say “God the Father has a physical body” what does that even mean? Does he have a physical location? Is it in Outer Space? It’s in Outer Space, isn’t it? Where else would it be? Etc.

    If Mormons remove all references to Kolob and let the doctrine fall by the wayside, it gives the appearance that they are just retreating into a warm, safe blur of abstraction, where they don’t actually have to explain why it’s significant or important that God has a physical body or what that actually means in real life. It seems evasive for Mormonism to have a doctrine which is such a stark departure from what the majority of theist philosophers have defined as God, yet no indication of what its actual implications are, other than the nice feelings that come from having a God why cries saline tears or that you could play football with.

    This is why I feel Mormonism is quite frustrating for me. At least viewing God the Father as a physical being on a physical location in the physical Universe gives us an answer to what the heck we mean by “God has a physical body.” If we get rid of that data point it just leaves me wondering what in the world we actually believe and what we’re actually communicating to people when we talk about physical bodies.

  22. larryco_
    October 9, 2014 at 1:18 am

    The hymn, which we call “Say ‘hi’ to Kolob”, is a popular choice by the YM for priesthood opening exercises.

  23. Jesse Stricklan
    October 9, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Umm… I’m mostly with Syphax. And in addition, does someone want to (very briefly!) explain why Kolob is problematic for Mormonism, other than the general Book of Abraham problems and that it allows people to make fun of Mormon doctrine? As mentioned by Left Field and Christopher, there are all sorts of other things (even places!) that are not well-established in Mormon history – like, say, a quasi-Israelite culture living somewhere on this continent leaving golden plates in a hill for a teenager to find. Or a dead guy coming back to life and promising everyone else the same will happen for them. Et cetera. Am I missing something?

  24. John Mansfield
    October 9, 2014 at 7:53 am

    Instead of bringing up Kolob, Conference speakers keep telling listeners to frequent the dozens of temples that have been built since 1969.

    As a missionary, my wife had a conversation that went something like this:
    “If God exists, then where is he? Right now, where is he? But you can’t even tell me that.”
    “I can tell you, but the answer won’t mean anything to you.”
    “Try me.”
    “He’s near a star called Kolob.”
    (pause)
    “That’s a completely stupid answer.”

  25. Kent Larsen
    October 9, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    I dunno, Syphax. I don’t mind some abstractions. There are things we don’t know. It is alright to not know.

    How much exactly do we have to know about things that have little or no direct impact?

  26. October 9, 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Well, it makes a difference to me because Mormonism claims to be a “Restoration” that improves upon, fixes, restores, brings back, etc. many important and great truths that have been lost to Christianity (the stuff that Christians would argue about in Joseph Smith’s day). If it turns out all those new and restored truths are just IOUs or placeholders then it’s hard for me to see what Mormonism actually brings to the table.

    So Mormonism comes charging in and says, “All the solutions of the greatest classical thinkers through history are false – God is not an immaterial Ground of All Being, he is actually a material being like us.”

    And traditional Christians say, “That’s an extraordinary claim, considering how much logic and work has been put into the Ground of All Being idea. What does it mean for you to say that God is material?”

    And we say, “He actually has a physical body, and he stands physically on a planet in this Universe. J/K LOL, we actually didn’t mean that. We don’t know what it means. Anyway. Do your home teaching and you’ll realize you don’t even need to know that.”

    To me that’s just deeply unsatisfying, given the powerhouse nature of Classical Theism in answering so many problems.

  27. Kent Larsen
    October 9, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    I’m not suggesting that we don’t have or don’t need to have answers that others don’t have. I’m just trying to suggest that Mormonism doesn’t have all answers to every detail. I don’t think we are saying “J/K LOL, we actually didn’t mean that.” I think we are saying “God has a body. We know some of what that means and we are working on figuring out the rest.”

    Perhaps part of the problem lies in how we say we know things. Central to Mormonism’s claim is the idea that we can know some things by revelation. We know God is material by revelation. Other things we know or can learn by scientific investigation or by logic and study, such as that used for Classical Theism. Since knowing that God is material is a starting point for logic and study, I suspect that Mormonism will be working (in a number of different ways, including both seeking revelation and logic and study) on the implications of the idea that God is material for much of human life.

    If that is unsatisfying, well all I can suggest is that life itself must be unsatisfying, because there are many, many similar problems that human kind is trying to address, and that will likely take centuries to figure out, if not the rest of our earthly existence as a species. We see through a glass darkly.

  28. spectator
    October 9, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    y’all are so weird.

  29. BlueRidgeMormon
    October 9, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Props to comment #28 – in an Uchtdorf-esque self-deprecating way, this is an apt comment aimed at all of us who write/consume/engage in Momon studies or spend hours on the Bloggernacle. Hilarious!

    Weighing in on the thread:
    I’m with those who say that Kolob has useful symbolic meaning, which also POINTS to something literal. As in: sure, the Book of Abraham / Joseph Smith notion of planetary orbits doesn’t necessarily square with actual science (and so the particulars might be wrong), but I do think that most of us Mormons do indeed believe that God is a discrete being who does live somewhere, physically. And that’s useful as both a specific doctrinal idea and as part of our larger cosmology. Where “Kolob” is, and whether Neil Degrasse Tyson can locate it with the Hubble, seems to miss the point. (And therefore, as others have pointed out, worrying about that seems equivalent to worrying about the physical location of Zarahemla, or worrying about the so-called dimensions of Noah’s ark, etc.)

    (See this for a hilarious set of infographics on the ark topic, by the way: http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/12/30/comparative-charts/

  30. October 9, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    “The doctrines of the Church are found in the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles.” (Handbook 2, 17.1.3; emphasis added.)

    Most of us study the scriptures every day and carry them with us to Church every Sunday.

    Kolob appears 14 times in the scriptures and has its own article in the Church’s official Guide to the Scriptures. There are six Topical Guide entries that reference Kolob: (1) Astronomy, (2) Govern, (3) Manner, (4) Nigh, (5) Reckon/Reckoning, and (6) Throne.

    Kolob is found in nine triple combination index entries: (1) Astronomy, (2) Govern, Government, (3) Kolob, (4) Nigh, (5) Planet, (6) Reckon, Reckoning, (7) Revolutions, (8) Throne, and (9) Time.

    It might not be a popular topic, but Kolob doctrine is NOT dead.

  31. Martin James
    October 9, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    …nor doth it sleep.

  32. pangWitch
    October 11, 2014 at 9:46 am

    maybe, but members overdo their love for hymn. so The “lob abides.

  33. Segullah
    October 12, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Kolob as doctrine is truly dead, Kaimi said it was so…

    Yet we sing the hymn and follow this thread, so Kolob does yet grow…

  34. Daniel Watkins
    October 12, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    Kolob may be no longer discussed in Conference, but it is still actively taught as doctrine in the CES. When I took the required “Family Foundations” course at BYU Idaho a couple years ago, we had a few days where the lecture was solely about Kolob. I didn’t feel like it was relevant at all, but I’m no religion professor so what do I know?

  35. Cameron N.
    October 12, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    In terms of overdoing their love for the hymn, it is only because so many hymns have generic melodies and chord structures that are easy to conflate. It is also because it is inspiring in a ‘how great thou art’ way.

    I agree that the recent article on Abraham reaffirms doctrinal status, and I don’t see any reason why that would change any time soon.

  36. Hedgehog
    October 13, 2014 at 7:34 am

    We need more RVW arrangements in our hymn book.

  37. N.
    October 14, 2014 at 9:09 am

    I always found the insistence on a location of Kolob and the common misreading that God lives there to be a non-starter idea anyway. Why so many people care so deeply about it so literally that they want to know the galactic coordinates of it or use it as a cudgel to beat down or guffaw at believers seems insane to me.

    If one actually reads the Book of Abraham account, and notices that God is using simile and metaphor (or “object lessons” as we tend to call them) to teach some spiritual truths about the relationship between The Father, the Son, the relationship of the Godhead, and their relationship to mankind, it is all perfectly clear = God uses things we think we know about or things care about to teach us Truth.

    I hope the reason why it isn’t brought out and paraded about as a “peculiar doctrine” is that people should be realizing the *doctrine* is not peculiar at all, and the doctrine has nothing to do with planets, stars, ancient concepts of astronomy.

    [sarcasm]
    Maybe we should all be up in arms that “the bosom of Abraham” isn’t explained literally and repeated more fully in Conference every year. Maybe we’ve lost “the bosom of Abraham” as a doctrine, and what a pity, since Christ himself refers to it in the NT.
    [/sarcasm]

  38. Steve Smith
    October 14, 2014 at 9:37 am

    “Wow, I never realized how many people had it out for Kolob! Why all the calls for decanonization?”

    I don’t think that anyone is overtly calling for the decanonization of the Book of Abraham or the Kolob doctrine. Kaimi seems to be merely pointing out that it is a doctrine that has become increasingly deemphasized. Any motion to turn Kolob into a symbol would run counter to its previous literal treatment by the LDS leaders. The best way for current LDS leaders to distance themselves from a past belief, which may be construed to be a deterrent to conversion for many investigators, is to just stop mentioning it and hope that people forget it ever was. But alas, the internet has made it difficult for some past statements and doctrinal beliefs to fade into oblivion.

  39. Kruiser
    October 18, 2014 at 11:57 am

    When I first read about Kolob as a teenager, I thought of it as a star in another dimension not associated with this universe as also the earth when transformed into the Celestial Kingdom could no longer reside in this telestial universe. So again, what is all the fuss?

  40. Timothy Episkopus
    October 18, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    Hopefully all the doctrines that JS invented will eventually go the same way, and Mormons can just go back to being Christian

  41. Chet
    October 26, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    stake youth standards tonight – a presubmitted question “What is Kolob?” was answered by a (local) priesthood leader. Another question was about Mother in Heaven and this same leader’s answer suggested that your “mother there” might not be my “mother there.” At that point my nap was over….

  42. Cameron N.
    October 27, 2014 at 12:50 am

    @timothy (40) I’m really tempted to take the bait on that one. =)

  43. Sharee
    October 27, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    @Chet (41), regarding mother in heaven, I have heard more than one person suggest that we may not all have the same mother in heaven. When that brilliant “aha!” moment came to me a couple of years or so ago, I mentioned it to my bishop, who thought it quite possible that I was right, and referred me to the writings of Orson Pratt.

  44. Chet
    October 27, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    re: my comment (41) I guess I was startled (but not upset) to hear this announced to the youth over the pulpit.

  45. Mark
    October 28, 2014 at 4:30 am

    Recently at a September Zone Conference in Germany where Elder Ballard told the missionaries not to ask him where Kolob resides. He (thus inferring the General Authorities) do not know. “Just keep hastening the work he added…that is all the Lord needs us to know.

  46. John Taber
    October 28, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Elder Ballard told us missionaries at the MTC in 1992 something similar.

  47. Matt Whitney
    November 6, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I just want to say: to Martin James on October 9, 2014 at 6:39 pm… nor doth it sleep. THAT was AWESOME! Possibly the most well considered thought in this thread.

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