Robert Beckstead gets quizzical looks from fellow Mormons when he tells them that reincarnation is "eloquently embedded" in the writings of Joseph Smith.
Reincarnation? The Hindu doctrine that people may take successive births as god, human, animal, hungry ghost or denizen of hell based on their behavior? Nah!
But give this emergency-room physician a few minutes - and a slide projector - and he'll present his case with confident vigor. The LDS Church's doctrines of premortal existence and eternal progression, Beckstead told a forum at the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City earlier this week, are remnants of Smith's original ideas about soul rebirth - a doctrine he cautiously taught trusted followers after 1841.
The Mormon founder's understanding of the concept may have been shaped by Alexander Neibaur, great-grandfather of revered LDS scholar Hugh Nibley. A Jewish convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Neibaur was an ardent student of the Kabbalah, a body of mystical teachings based on an esoteric reading of Hebrew Scriptures.
That tradition teaches that souls in the afterlife 'must commence another [life], a third, and so forth' in order to obtain the perfection 'that allows them to associate again with God.'
It could be that Neibaur convinced Smith the Book of Mormon "was actually a reincarnation text," Beckstead says, like the Zohar, Kabbalah's greatest book.
But wouldn't Smith know if reincarnation was central to his own revelations?
Not necessarily, says Beckstead, quoting Brigham Young University anthropologist John Clark, who "suggested in a recent symposium at the Smithsonian Library that Joseph Smith was the translator, not the author, of the Book of Mormon, and consequently 'did not fully understand' its contents."
That being the case, Beckstead notes, the Zohar could have become "the mirror in which Joseph Smith finally understood reincarnation in the Book of Mormon."
It was after his meetings with Neibaur that Smith began teaching about what he called "plural probations."
In April 1843, for example, Smith taught that "the purpose of successive probations or 'worlds' was to permit the gradual accumulation of intelligence and knowledge," Beckstead says.
Around that time, Joseph Lee Robinson, another Smith confidant, reported that Smith "discussed the 'idea that we have passed through probations prior to this' and surmised 'that we must have been married and given in marriage in those probations.'
Several of Smith's wives have written about his belief in plural probations.
"Mary Elizabeth Rollins, who wed Joseph in February 1842, claimed that he suggested to her they had an intimate relationship before they met," Beckstead says.
And yet, if Smith did believe in the reincarnation of souls, why didn't his teachings on the subject carry on after him?
The problem, if you believe Beckstead, was that Smith's successor, Brigham Young, "fundamentally misunderstood" his reincarnation theology. And church leaders since Young have dismissed it as a "doctrine of the devil." Although, on occasion, Smith's teachings have found support among LDS leaders.
Apostle Orson F. Whitney, for example, in a 1919 article in the church publication Improvement Era, "subtly expressed his disappointment" that reincarnation wasn't taught as church doctrine.
Generally, however, early Mormonism's Kabbalistic ideas are no longer kosher.
As University of Utah historian Gae Lyn Henderson observed in her response to Beckstead's lecture, "A belief in reincarnation, [or] what we might label 'second chance theology' takes the fear out of religion, and that fear-free religion loses its power to strictly control human behavior."
LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie attacked reincarnation theology more directly, ridiculing the idea of plural probations. "There is no such thing as a second chance to gain salvation," he said in a 1980 church address titled "The Seven Deadly Heresies."
"This life is the time and the day of our probation. After this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed."