Usage of the Title Elohim in the Hebrew Bible and Early Latter-day Saint Literature

Since the word elohim never occurs in any of our English Latter-day Saint scriptures 1 (though it appears more than twenty-six hundred times in the Hebrew text), it may seem unusual that Latter-day Saints use the term elohim at all. Yet use it we do.

For nearly one hundred years now, Latter-day Saints have understood, and more or less used, elohim as “the name-title of God the Eternal Father.” 2 Yet historically they have not always used the term in this strict sense. In the nineteenth century, LDS literature employed elohim in a wider range of meanings than today, some of which might seem foreign to contemporary ears. Even more remarkable is that early LDS usage of the term mirrors in many respects its usage in the Hebrew Bible. In this essay in honor of S. Kent Brown, a friend and mentor, we explore how elohim is used in the Hebrew Bible and sample how early Latter-day Saints used the term.

In 1916 the First Presidency, in an essay entitled “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve,” issued a statement concerning the nature of the Godhead. The statement, published in the Improvement Era, set forth the official position of the church on the Father and the Son. “God the Eternal Father, whom we designate by the exalted name-title ‘Elohim,’ is the literal Parent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and of the spirits of the human race.” 3 The statement also made it clear that “Christ in His preexistent, antemortal, or unembodied state . . . was known as Jehovah.” 4 This is how Latter-day Saints use these terms in the church today.

With this statement, a clear distinction was made between the titles elohim and Jehovah as they apply to members of the Godhead. Today elohim and Jehovah are often used to differentiate for the listener or reader whether the reference is to the Father or to the Son. This unique separation of terms (which also separates the Latter-day Saints from all other groups who accept the Bible as scripture) does not find its roots in the Hebrew Bible or its English translations because the biblical evidence is at best ambiguous and at worst nonexistent. After all, Latter-day Saint usage of these and other theological terms stems from the words of latter-day prophets, not the Bible. Therefore, we now turn to a brief summary of what can be determined about how the term elohim is used in the Hebrew Bible.

Hebrew Bible Usage of elohim

Because English translations of the Old Testament are of little use,5 clarity about the biblical use of the term elohim can be found only in the Hebrew Bible. Like most languages, Hebrew has several words that can be translated as “god” or “gods.” For instance, in addition to elohim, Hebrew uses various words, all of which can be and are translated as “God,” “god,” or “gods,” such as el, a singular, and its plural form elim, and eloah, usually taken as the singular of elohim.6 Even the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, usually translated as “LORD,” but in four verses as “Jehovah” (Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; 26:4), can be rendered as “GOD” (see, for example, Exodus 23:17). Of the more than 3,300 occurrences of god or gods in the English text of the King James Version of the Old Testament (hereafter KJV), it is impossible to know without checking the Hebrew text which instances represent the approximately 2,600 occurrences of elohim.

A close look at how elohim is used in Hebrew will help to make clear its range of meanings. In form, elohim looks like a Hebrew plural and can be translated as a plural. For example, Joshua 24:15 reads, “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD (yhwh = Jehovah), choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods (elohim) which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods (elohim) of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD (yhwh).” 7

When the plural form is intended, which usually happens when elohim is used for a non-Israelite deity, it can be coupled with plural forms. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 25:15 not only is a plural verb used with elohim but also a plural pronoun: “Wherefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Amaziah, and he sent unto him a prophet, which said unto him, Why hast thou sought after the gods (elohim) of the people, which could not deliver [plural] their [plural] own people out of thine hand?”

Though plural in form, elohim can take a singular verb and other singular attributives. Note this usage in Genesis 28:4, where elohim refers to the “God” of Abraham: “thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God (elohim) gave [singular] unto Abraham.” 8 Other passages also use the singular, especially in reference to the God of Israel. Throughout Genesis 1, whenever elohim governs a verb, the verb is invariably a third person singular form. Furthermore, Exodus 6:2 states, “And God (elohim) spake [singular] unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD (yhwh).” In this verse, elohim, besides taking a singular verb in Hebrew, spake, also takes the singular pronoun I. Thus in the Hebrew Bible, when elohim was thought to refer to the God of Israel the verb or attributives are usually singular, and when elohim seems to refer to a non-Israelite deity the verb or attributives are usually plural.

But there are enough exceptions to the usual Hebrew practice that no hard-and-fast rule can be formulated regarding singular/plural and Israelite/non-Israelite usage. Occasionally, when elohim refers to the God of Israel, plural attributives and verbs can be used. These instances are most often explained as being conditioned by their international context.9 For example, when the Philistines hear that Israel is coming to battle against them, they exclaim, “Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these [plural] mighty [plural] Gods (elohim)? these are the Gods (elohim) that smote [plural] the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness” (1 Samuel 4:8). Here the Philistines, who are likely polytheistic, impose perhaps their own views of deity upon Israelite deity.

Another example comes from Genesis 20:13. In speaking with Abimelech, Abraham uses the term elohim, but with a plural verb. This is usually translated as “God caused me to wander from my father’s house.” However, in the Hebrew it literally says that “Gods (elohim) caused [plural] me to wander from my father’s house.” Again, this plural usage can be explained by an international polytheistic setting in which elohim may have had a different meaning for Abimelech than it did for Abraham.

Because the general rule about the usage of the singular when referring to Israelite elohim and plural when referring to non-Israelite elohim is not consistent, and because elohim can be used for both Israelite and non-Israelite deities, the conclusion can be drawn that elohim is a generic term for any deity, whether Israelite or not, whether singular or plural. Recently Joel S. Burnett has convincingly shown that there are direct analogs to the generic use in Hebrew of elohim, both as an abstract term and as a singular and a plural noun. His evidence comes from Semitic languages closely related to Hebrew—namely, in the Late Bronze Age Babylonian dialect of the El Amarna tablets, in Iron Age Phoenician, and first-millennium Akkadian.10 In his view, the Hebrew Iron Age usage of elohim as a singular and as a plural was simply a continuation of a Late Bronze Age Northwest Semitic grammatical convention or practice. Thus, whether the writers of the Hebrew Bible used elohim as a generic term for the God of Israel or for a non-Israelite deity, they were simply following the contemporary Semitic literary conventions of their day.11

Since elohim is a generic term for any deity, it should not be surprising that on occasion, contrary to the general rule, non-Israelite elohim can take singular verbs and attributives. The Hebrew Bible has the Philistines using the term to refer to Dagon, the main god they worshipped. The Philistines’ leaders came together to offer “a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god (elohim), and to rejoice: for they said, Our god (elohim) hath delivered [singular] Samson our enemy into our hand” (Judges 16:23).

Conversely, if elohim is a generic term for any deity, it might be expected that when elohim refers to the God of Israel, it might on occasion govern plural forms. This seems to be the case in Exodus 32:4–5. When Aaron had produced the golden calf, the people exclaimed, “These [plural] be thy gods (elohim), O Israel, which brought [plural] thee up out of the land of Egypt.” But lest anyone think the calf was anything other than a symbol of the God of Israel, the writers of the Hebrew Bible make it clear through Aaron’s words that the calf symbolized none other than Jehovah, “And when Aaron saw [the calf], he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the LORD (yhwh).” 12 Similar wording can be found in 1 Kings 12:28, where the first king of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam, erected golden calves for Israelite worship.13

According to Burnett, because elohim was used as a title for Jehovah in the northern kingdom, the northern prophets were concerned that Israel understand that their elohim, their deity, was Jehovah.14 For example, in the days of Elijah some people in the northern kingdom were beginning to assume that Baal was the elohim of Israel. This can be seen in Elijah’s imperative “How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD (yhwh) be God (elohim), follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). Translated another way, “How long are you going to have two views? If Jehovah is elohim, follow him: but if Baal [is elohim], follow him.” Elijah then devised a contest to determine the identity of the real elohim of Israel. He challenged the people, “Call ye on the name of your gods (elohim), and I will call on the name of Jehovah: and the God (elohim) that answereth [singular] by fire, let him be God (elohim). And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken” (1 Kings 18:24, our translation). When the story finishes with Elijah calling down fire from heaven, the people exclaim, “Jehovah, he is the God (the elohim); Jehovah, he is the God (the elohim)” (1 Kings 18:39, our translation).

Besides governing both singular and plural forms, elohim has another usage in the Hebrew Bible which is also analogous to general ancient Semitic usage. It has long been suggested that elohim is used as an abstract noun for the divine.15 In other words, elohim may be translated as “godhead,” “godhood” or “divinity.” This usage falls under a well-defined category of Hebrew words that, when placed in a plural form, can have an abstract meaning.16 For example, in Hebrew the plural of “young man” or “young woman” can mean “youth,” the plural of “old man” can mean “old age,” and the plural of “virgin” can mean “virginity.” 17 The abstract meaning for elohim is found multiple times in the book of Exodus, and elsewhere, in reference to Jehovah. For example, Exodus 3:18 reads, “ye shall say unto him, The LORD (yhwh) God (elohim) of the Hebrews hath met with us.” Here, the Hebrew word elohim is used as a modifier for Jehovah, and the phrase could be translated, among other possibilities, as “Jehovah, the God (the elohim) of the Hebrews,” or as “the deity Jehovah of the Hebrews.”

Moreover, because elohim can function as an abstract noun in Hebrew, it has a wider range of meanings than the other Hebrew terms for deity.18 This is why elohim is sometimes used as we would use an adjective in English to indicate that the noun it modifies has divine qualities.19 For example, the phrase “the angel of God” in Judges 6:20 reads literally from the Hebrew, “the angel of the elohim.” The translation “divine messenger” would be equally as acceptable as the King James “angel of God.” Genesis 32:1–2 reads literally in Hebrew, “And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God (= messengers of elohim, or “divine messengers”) met him. And when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host (literally, “the camp of elohim” = the divine host): and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” 20 Also, in Genesis 1:2 the Hebrew reads, “and the spirit/wind of elohim brooded [feminine singular, with reference to spirit/wind] upon the waters.” The Septuagint translators understood this meaning of elohim in this verse to be the attributive use of the genitive and omitted the definite article before theos, prompting the translation “a divine wind was being carried along over the water.” 21

Additionally, though masculine plural in form, elohim can refer to either male or female deities in the singular. First Kings 11:33 reads, “Because that they have forsaken me, and have worshipped Ashtoreth the goddess (elohim) of the Zidonians, Chemosh the god (elohim) of the Moabites, and Milcom the god (elohim) of the children of Ammon, and have not walked in my ways, to do that which is right in mine eyes, and to keep my statutes and my judgments, as did David his father.” In each instance the Hebrew word for “god” and “goddess” in this verse is elohim. Because Ashtoreth is singular (as are the other non-Israelite gods mentioned) and female, this verse demonstrates that elohim can be used for non-Israelite gods of either gender.

As the above discussion has shown, the uses and functions of the word elohim are manifold in the Hebrew Bible. The word can be translated as “god,” “gods,” “God,” “divinity,” “divine,” “godhood,” and “godhead.” It can govern both plural and singular verbs and attributives, as well as being a singular abstract noun that takes a singular verb. It can denote both masculine and feminine gods. The Hebrew Bible also does not distinguish in person or being between this elohim and Jehovah, and therefore, elohim was used as the name/title that was given to Jehovah, the elohim of Israel.

With this broad range of usage of elohim in the Hebrew Bible in mind, we can now turn to beginnings of the usage of elohim in Latter-day Saint literature and to examples of the range of its usage among early Latter-day Saints.

Nineteenth-Century LDS Usage

Because early Latter-day Saints did not suddenly become tabulae rasae when they joined the church, they brought with them vocabulary and traditions that were familiar to them from their previous religious training. Indicative of general American usage, Noah Webster’s 1828 edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language gives insight into the vernacular of the early nineteenth century American religious discourse. The entry for “Jehovah” reads, “The Scripture name of the Supreme Being” 22—that is, Jehovah is the scriptural name for God. The entry under “God” explains, “The Supreme Being; Jehovah; the eternal and infinite spirit, the creator, and the sovereign of the universe.” 23 This definition fits squarely within the Trinitarian views of God held by most Christians in early America. It seems likely that this early American usage influenced early LDS usage of divine names. Indeed, American usage may explain Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester’s 1841 statement in the Times and Seasons: “We believe in God the Father, who is the great Jehovah and head of all things, and that Christ is the Son of God.” 24

Webster’s 1828 dictionary lacks an entry for elohim, suggesting that elohim was not at all in common usage in America. The paucity of entrees for elohim in the Oxford English Dictionary would also suggest that elohim was not a regular part of British religious discourse either. It would seem then that any use of elohim in American English might be conditioned by its meaning and usage in the Hebrew Bible, rather than by any longstanding English tradition. In other words, Jehovah and God were the common names in America for deity, and elohim was relatively unknown. It would not be surprising then if whatever usage was made of elohim, it would have been synonymous with the general American usage of Jehovah and God. Therefore, even though the topic of this paper is elohim, we will necessarily point out that elohim and Jehovah are often interchangeable in early LDS usage, in direct analogy to their use in the Hebrew Bible.

The range of early LDS usage of elohim showed remarkable variety. There is no better place to begin a selective citation of these usages than with the Prophet Joseph Smith, who appears to have been the first to introduce the term to the church. On 20 November 1835, he received from Oliver Cowdery “a Hebrew bible, lexicon & grammar” in anticipation of the formal Hebrew instruction he would eventually receive under Joshua Seixas. 25 Joseph devoted much time to studying Hebrew even before Seixas arrived. He often recorded in his journal that he had “spent the day in reading Hebrew.” 26 Along with other church members, he received about two months of formal instruction under Professor Seixas.27 It seems likely that in Seixas’s class Joseph first encountered the Hebrew word elohim.28 Yet it was not until a few years later that he began using the word in his writings and sermons. Latter-day Saints who are familiar with contemporary LDS usage may find his use of the term somewhat surprising.

The Prophet, after the manner of the Hebrew Bible, employed on occasion the terms elohim and Jehovah interchangeably for the God of Israel. For example, in a letter to Major General Law dated 14 August 1842, in keeping with common American usage, he used the title Jehovah for God the Father, but also equated Jehovah with elohim: “Let us plead the justice of our cause; trusting in the arm of Jehovah, the Eloheim, who sits enthroned in the heavens.” 29 Here we have usage exactly analogous to the Hebrew Bible: “Jehovah, the elohim of the Hebrews.” Just over a week later, Joseph, in supplicating God in prayer, equated Jehovah and elohim again: “O, thou who seeeth and knoweth the hearts of all men; thou eternal, omnipotent, omnicient, and omnipresent Jehovah, God; thou Eloheem, that sitteth, as saith the psalmist; enthroned in heaven; look down upon thy servant Joseph, at this time; and let faith on the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, to a greater degree than thy servant ever yet has enjoyed, be conferred upon him.” 30 It is clear that the Prophet, by equating elohim and Jehovah, used the terms differently than Latter-day Saints do today.

Joseph’s first semipublic use of elohim suggests, but does not force, the conclusion that he knew of its plural sense. On 4 May 1842, in a meeting with several of the brethren, he set forth the order pertaining to “all those plans and principles by which any one is enabled to secure the fullness of those blessings which have been prepared for the Church of the First Born, and come up and abide in the presence of the Eloheim in the eternal worlds.” 31 The use of the definite article the might suggest that the Prophet intended a plural meaning for elohim, in which case the Prophet was probably referring to the Gods of eternity. If he had meant the singular exclusively, the definite article would not have been necessary.

In subsequent discourses Joseph Smith explicitly drew attention to the plural meaning of elohim. In April of that same year, the Prophet gave his famous King Follett discourse. Though he does not mention elohim, in speaking of the creation process he drew on the term’s plural sense to explain Genesis 1:1, “The head one of the Gods brought forth the Gods. . . . Thus the head God brought forth the Gods in the grand council.” 32 Two months later, on 16 June 1844, Joseph again translated this verse: “In the beginning the head of the Gods brought forth the Gods. . . . In the beginning the heads of the Gods organized the heavens and the earth.” 33 The word that is translated as “Gods” corresponds with elohim in the Hebrew Bible. In the same speech the Prophet continued by calling attention to the plural meaning of elohim to establish the doctrine of a plurality of Gods, declaring, “In the very beginning the Bible shows there is a plurality of Gods beyond the power of refutation. . . . The word Eloheim ought to be in the plural all the way through—Gods,” 34 meaning that elohim ought to be rendered as plural at least in the creation account, if not also in other biblical passages.

Even though he referred to Jehovah as elohim and used Jehovah as a term for God the Father in many instances, at some point Joseph Smith made a clear distinction between elohim and Jehovah. For purposes unrelated to Hebrew Bible usage, Joseph Smith must have thought it important to distinguish between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. In a late reminiscence, Edward Stevenson remarked in his journal that “Joseph Smith was the first, whome I ever herd proclaim a plurality of Gods, he said that there was Elohiem God, and Jehovah God, and Michial God.” 35 He also remembered that “Joseph the Seer, said, in the grand Council of Heaven, The Great Eeloheiåm, directed Jehovah and Michaiel[?], for the Gods Counciled in the beginning of the Creation of This Earth.” 36 A remark by Brigham Young in 1852 would seem to corroborate Edward Stevenson’s later recollection: “It is true that the earth was organized by three distinct characters, namely, Eloheim, Yahovah, and Michael.” 37 Here the delineation is clearly set forth in terminology that is similar to the usage that prevails in the church today.

Nevertheless, despite the clear separation that the Prophet and Brigham Young made between elohim and Jehovah on occasion, the two terms continued to be used inconsistently. For example, Joseph Smith used a variety of names to refer to God the Father. In the dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple, for example, he seems to have addressed God the Father as “God of Israel” (D&C 109:1), “Holy Father” (vv. 4, 10, 14, 22, 24, 29, and 47), and “Jehovah” (v. 34).38 Yet only a week later Joseph stated that he heard “the voice of Jehovah,” that is Christ, speak to him when he appeared to him and Oliver in the Kirtland Temple (D&C 110:3). Thus in the first instance, Doctrine and Covenants 109, Jehovah was used as it commonly was in America at that time, namely, as a name for the God of Israel. However, in the second instance, Doctrine and Covenants 110, Joseph seems to have departed from contemporary usage by identifying Christ as Jehovah.

Other church leaders also used elohim and Jehovah in a variety of ways. John Taylor in 1845 mirrored the language of Joseph in an editorial in the Times and Seasons. In translating Genesis 1:1, he stated, in language that would appear to be dependent on Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse: “In simple English, the Head brought forth the Gods, with the heavens and with the earth. The ‘Head’ must have meant the ‘living God,’ or Head God: Christ is our head.” 39 In this interpretation John Taylor seems to equate Christ with the “Head God” who brought forth the other “Gods” (elohim). Normally, Latter-day Saints would equate the “Head God” with elohim—that is, God the Father, not with Jehovah/Christ.

Brigham Young on occasion associated elohim with God the Father. For example, he stated, “I want to tell you, each and every one of you, that you are well acquainted with God our heavenly Father, or the great Eloheim.” 40 As explained above, Brigham’s clear application of this term to God the Father seems to be the exception rather than the rule in the early days of the church. Often it was still used as a generic term for deity without any specific designation. For example, Brigham Young himself ten years later in 1867 used Jehovah and elohim synonymously when he said, “To secure His blessings the Lord requires the strict obedience of His people. This is our duty. We obey the Lord, Him who is called Jehovah, the Great I AM, I am a man of war, Eloheim, etc. We are under many obligations to obey Him.” 41

Heber C. Kimball in 1863 distinguished between Jehovah and elohim when he said, “We have been taught that our Father and God, from whom we sprang, called and appointed his servants to go and organize an earth, and, among the rest, he said to Adam, ‘You go along also and help all you can; you are going to inhabit it when it is organized, therefore go and assist in the good work.’ It reads in the Scriptures that the Lord did it, but the true rendering is, that the Almighty sent Jehovah and Michael to do the work.” 42 This clear differentiation between God the Father and Jehovah goes along with President Young’s statement that “Elohim, Yahovah, and Michael” were the three distinct beings who organized the earth.

In all the examples we have provided so far, the distinction between elohim = God the Father and Jehovah = God the Son occurs in the context of the creation, which is the context in which Joseph first emphasized the plurality of Gods. John Taylor, however, seems to have used these terms without worrying about specific attribution. In 1872 he stated, “Who has controlled and managed the affairs of the world from its creation until the present time? The Great I am [a title of Jehovah], the Great Eloheim, the Great God who is our Father. We bow before him. Is it a hardship to reverence the Lord our God?” 43 Here he equates elohim with “the Great I am,” an epithet that refers to Jehovah and comes out of Exodus 3:14. He also used the phrase “the Lord our God,” which is usually the translation of the Hebrew “Jehovah our elohim.” However, in 1882 in The Mediation and Atonement, John Taylor clearly identified Christ as Jehovah when he wrote, “He is not only called the Son of God, the First Begotten of the Father, the Well Beloved, the Head, and Ruler, and Dictator of all things, Jehovah, the I Am, the Alpha and Omega, but He is also called the Very Eternal Father.” 44

John Taylor apparently did not always confine himself to a single narrow definition of Jehovah. In the words to a song first published in 1840 in Manchester, England, which was later ascribed to John Taylor,45 the author had penned the following:

As in the heavens they all agree, The record’s given there by three . . . Jehovah, God the Father’s one; Another, God’s Eternal Son; The Spirit does with them agree,— The witnesses in heaven are three.46

Here Jehovah is used to refer to God the Father, according to the general American vernacular of the day. After going through numerous editions, this hymnal was replaced with the 1927 Latter-day Saint Hymns. No doubt because the 1916 First Presidency statement had changed LDS theological discourse, the words to this hymn were also changed. The line that read, “Jehovah, God the Father’s one,” was changed to read, “Our God, the Father, is the One.” 47

If John Taylor did write the words to the 1840 hymn that confused God the Father and Jehovah, then by at least 1884 he allowed a distinction between Jehovah and elohim. He spoke of how the Saints needed the support of “the Great Jehovah” and “were dependent upon Him.” He then went on to say that the “work in which [the Saints] are engaged is one that has been introduced by the Great Eloheim.” 48 Though President Taylor does not explicitly distinguish between elohim as God the Father and Jehovah as God the Son, the context allows the reader to make the distinction.

Also in that same year, 1884, John Taylor remarked, “I have heard [Joseph] quote from the Hebrew Bible in support of a plurality of Gods, showing that the suffix ‘mem’ in the word Eloheim or God, ought to be rendered in the plural. . . . If, as stated, Jesus was with the Father in the beginning, there certainly was more than one God—God the Father, and God the Son.” 49 President Taylor’s point seems to be that the plurality of Gods demonstrated by the Hebrew word elohim comprises both the Father and the Son, which would be a usage similar to the Hebrew abstract meaning.

A few years after the turn of the century, Orson F. Whitney published a collection of poems, Elias: An Epic of the Ages. In the revised and annotated edition published in 1914, a footnote was added to explain elohim. The note reads: “The Hebrew plural for God. To the modern Jew it means the plural of majesty, not of number; but to the Latter-day Saint it signifies both. As here used it stands for ‘The Council of the Gods.’ ” 50 The last part of the footnote may be an example of the Hebrew abstract meaning of elohim.

On the other hand, Franklin D. Richards clearly set forth that Jehovah is Christ. In 1885 he told the Saints that Jesus Christ’s “name when He was a spiritual being, during the first half of the existence of the earth, before He was made flesh and blood, was Jehovah.” 51 Despite this fact, just four months earlier, using the vernacular of the day, he seems to have associated Jehovah with God the Father when he said, “The Savior said He could call to His help more than twelve legions of angels; more than the Roman hosts; but He knowing the great purposes of Jehovah could go like a lamb to the slaughter.” 52 Here we see the name Jehovah being coupled with established American patterns. Both the adjective great and the phrase purposes of are coupled with Jehovah and may represent a more generic usage of the term than we would use today.

Elohim was consistently used by President Wilford Woodruff in dedicatory prayers of the St. George and Salt Lake Temples in 1877 and 1893 respectively. Both of these prayers, like many dedicatory prayers today, were addressed to “Our Father in Heaven.” The Salt Lake Temple dedicatory prayer continues, “We thank thee, O thou Great Elohim,” clearly a reference to God the Father. At one point the Father is addressed as “O thou God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” a title that some would reserve for Jehovah. But Jehovah-Messiah-Christ-Son is never addressed or appealed to in the prayer, though the Son is mentioned several times. Throughout the prayer, it is the Father who is addressed.53

Earlier, in 1881, Elder Wilford Woodruff had published Leaves from My Journal, wherein he explained that “the Father and Son were revealed unto [Joseph], and the voice of the great Eloheim unto him was: ‘This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him,’ ” with an obvious reference to the Father as elohim.54

The above quotations are not meant to suggest that nineteenth-century LDS usage of elohim and Jehovah was clearly defined. In fact, most usages of these terms are ambiguous, denoting simply “God.” Because they are often used in similar phrases and usually appear in contexts that often do not specify identity, it seems likely they were often used as generic names for deity without consistent specificity. This may explain why different denotations for Jehovah were used simultaneously and why both the plural and singular meanings of elohim were used.

Such interchangeability of terms no doubt led to questions among church members. In the April 1895 General Conference, President Woodruff counseled the elders of the church, “Cease troubling yourselves about who God is; who Adam is, who Christ is, who Jehovah is. For heaven’s sake, let these things alone. Why trouble yourselves about these things? . . . God is God. Christ is Christ. The Holy Ghost is the Holy Ghost. That should be enough for you and me to know. . . . I say this because we are troubled every little while with inquiries from Elders anxious to know who God is, who Christ is, and who Adam is.” 55

The matter began to be laid to rest in the early 1900s when the meanings of the terms elohim and Jehovah as they are known within the church today were clearly set forth. Charles W. Penrose was adamant that church members understand and use these terms differentially. In September 1902, two years before his ordination to the apostleship, he published an Improvement Era article entitled “Our Father Adam.” In it he explained that “Elohim, Jehovah and Michael were associated in that mighty work. When God spake ‘in the beginning,’ he gave direction to other divine persons and said, ‘Let US do thus and so,’ and they obeyed him and acted in harmony with Him. The Eternal Elohim directed both Michael and Jehovah, and the heavenly hosts obeyed them. When Adam was formed ‘out of the dust of the earth,’ he worshiped the great Elohim, the Eternal Father of us all.” 56 The statement by the future apostle made it clear that elohim was a name or title for God the Father, separate and distinct from Jehovah, and he made the point in the context of the creation.

Only two months later in the November issue of the Improvement Era, W. H. Chamberlin, a teacher at Brigham Young College in Logan, Utah, wrote an article entitled “Use of the Word Elohim” in which he clearly stated that “Jehovah was a personal name applied to the Being who guided Israel, and afterwards lived on the earth as Jesus Christ.” 57

Several years later, Charles W. Penrose, this time as an apostle and member of the First Presidency, spoke in the October 1914 General Conference of “the great Elohim, the God of gods, the Father of our spirits, the Mighty and Eternal One to whom today we address our praises and our prayers.” 58 Clearly, Elder Penrose wanted to emphasize for the Saints that elohim should be applied to God the Father.

To the growing amount of church material clarifying the matter was added Jesus the Christ, by James E. Talmage. This work, commissioned by the First Presidency and published in 1915, was foundational in establishing practice. In it Elder Talmage explained, “Elohim, as understood and used in the restored Church of Jesus Christ, is the name-title of God the Eternal Father, whose firstborn Son in the spirit is Jehovah—the Only Begotten in the flesh, Jesus Christ.” 59 The clarity and precision articulated so well here by Elder Talmage, and which helped set the course for our contemporary usage, must have been refreshing to many church members.

These statements continued to build when President Penrose again clearly separated the terms elohim and Jehovah for members of the church. In the April 1916 General Conference, he declared:

Now, who is this person, this Jesus Christ? Is He Adam or a son of Adam? Not at all. . . . Well, was Jesus Jehovah? Yes. . . . We are told by revelation that in the creation of the earth there were three individuals, personally engaged. This is more particularly for the Temple of God, but sufficient of it has been published over and over again to permit me to refer to it. Elohim,—not Eloheim, as we spell it sometimes—that is a plural word meaning the gods, but it is attached to the individual who is the Father of all, the person whom we look to as the great Eternal Father. Elohim, Jehovah and Michael, were engaged in the construction of this globe. Jehovah, commanded by Elohim, went down to where there was space.60

President Penrose in this rare instance referred to the temple for the source of the definition that we today take for granted. He then identified very clearly the three persons as God, Jesus Christ, and Adam. This distinction in terms seems to have most often been associated with the creation of the earth, and it seems that was in this isolated instance where these names were separated.

An additional authoritative statement appears to have been necessary. It came in the form, mentioned above, of an official statement of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve dated 30 June 1916: “God the Eternal Father, whom we designate by the exalted name-title ‘Elohim,’ is the literal Parent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and of the spirits of the human race. . . . Christ in His preexistent, antemortal, or unembodied state . . . was known as Jehovah.” 61 This was a clear and official delineation of terms for the benefit of the church members.

In 1924 Elder Talmage made additions to his book The Articles of Faith in order to reflect this distinction. At the end of chapter 2, he added, “Note that distinction is not always indicated here [in this book] between the Eternal Father or Elohim and the Son who is Jehovah or Jesus Christ.” 62 Further, where Genesis 11:5 is quoted, a parenthetical insertion next to “Lord” states, “i.e., Jehovah, the Son.” 63 Elder Talmage also included the First Presidency statement in an appendix with a preface stating, “That Jesus Christ or Jehovah is designated in certain scriptures as the Father in no wise justifies an assumption of identity between Him and His Father, Elohim. This matter has been explained by the presiding authorities of the Church in a special publication.” 64 Thus even after 1916 a conscious effort was made to emphasize the clarity that the First Presidency had brought to the definitions.

Summary and Conclusion

As detailed above, church members prior to the authoritative clarifications of the early twentieth century often used elohim and Jehovah interchangeably and inconsistently, much the same way they are used in the Hebrew Bible. Like much of the Christian world of the nineteenth century, Latter-day Saints did not always distinguish between Jehovah, God the Father, the God of Israel, elohim or simply God. However, the flexibility of use and at times the ambiguous phrasing of the nineteenth century that reflected general American usage and served the general Christian world well, fell short of the precision that the restoration of the gospel brought to LDS understanding of the Godhead.

It is remarkable that early Latter-day Saints used the name Jehovah in reference to both God the Father and to his Son. Equally interesting is that elohim seems to have been used by Latter-day Saints for both God and gods, exactly as it is used in the Hebrew Bible—that is, as both a singular and a plural noun, a proper name and a common noun. Officially, this practice ended in 1916.

And finally, a word of caution here is appropriate. Since the modern Latter-day Saint usage of Jehovah and Elohim was not taken from the Hebrew Bible, it can create misunderstandings if imposed upon the Hebrew scriptural account. Thus if we try to exclusively assign actions to different members of the Godhead based on which divine name is used in the Hebrew Bible, the result, in many instances, will be chaos. Additionally, Doctrine and Covenants 20:28 states that “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God.” 65 In this same vein, Elder Bruce R. McConkie once said that “most scriptures that speak of God or of the Lord do not even bother to distinguish the Father from the Son, simply because it doesn’t make any difference which God is involved. They are one. The words or deeds of either of them would be the same words and deeds of the other in the same circumstance.” 66 Therefore, the issue of which name or title is assigned to which member of the Godhead is not one that Latter-day Saints should be overly concerned with. But it is helpful to know that the meaning of a word such as elohim is not always the same in all times and in all places.

Ryan Conrad Davis is a graduate student in ancient Near Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Paul Y. Hoskisson is professor of ancient scripture and director of the Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University.


1.    Some search programs will turn up Mark 15:34 if elohim is typed in as the search word, but the word used in Mark, eloi, is hardly elohim. Mark 15:34 is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, where the word in Hebrew is eli, “my God.” Additionally, the quotation in Mark is in Aramaic, not Hebrew.

2.    James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1915), 38.

3.    Dated 30 June 1916 and published as “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Twelve,” Improvement Era, August 1916, 934.

4.    “The Father and the Son,” 939–40.

5.    The only help that the KJV translators offered is tangential. When they thought that any Hebrew term for deity referred to the God of Israel, they opted to capitalize the word, e.g., God, but they lowercased it whenever they thought the term in question referred to a non-Israelite deity.

6.    In addition to these four etymologically related words for deity, there are numerous other titles and epithets for the God of Israel, including “the most High” (el elion), “Lord,” “Jehovah,” and “Lord of Hosts.” There are even instances where the term elim is not translated as “god(s)” but as some other term. See Psalm 29:1, where the Hebrew “sons of elim” is translated as “ye mighty.” See also Psalm 89:6, where the Hebrew “sons of the elim” is translated as “sons of the mighty”; and Isaiah 57:5, where the Hebrew elim is translated as “idols.”

7.    These passages also illustrate the aforementioned King James convention of capitalizing God if thought to refer to Israel’s deity but lowercasing it in reference to a non-Israelite deity.

8.    Note though that God in the preceding verse is the translation of el, a singular form.

9.    Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch, trans. A. E. Cowley (Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), §124, g (hereafter cited as GKC), §145, i.

10.   Joel S. Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2001), 1–53.

11.   Burnett, Biblical Elohim, 79–119.

12.   See Paul Y. Hoskisson, “Aaron’s Golden Calf,” FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 375–87.

13.   It is irrelevant which passage is dependent on the other, 1 Kings 12:28 or Exodus 32:4–5. The point is that elohim governing the plural forms could be used for Israelite deity.

14.   Burnett, Biblical Elohim, 107–19.

15.   GKC §124, g.

16.   GKC §124, d.

17.  בחור young man > בחורים and בחורות youth; זקן old one > זקנים old age; בתולה virgin > בתולים virginity; see GKC §124, d.

18.   Burnett, Biblical Elohim, 57–60.

19.   Sometimes nouns used as genitives take on adjectival qualities. GKC §128, p–u, examples include “man of words” = “eloquent man,” “man of wrath” = “wrathful man,” “possession of eternity” = “everlasting possession.”

20.   The words in the King James translation, host and mahanaim, are the same word in Hebrew, the former in the singular and the latter in the dual, מחנים ,מחנה. It is possible that the dual is used because God’s camp is one and Jacob’s camp is another. Later Jacob splits his camp into two parts, mirroring the dual in this verse.

21.   Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, eds., A New English Translation of the Septuagint (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 6.

22.   Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Converse, 1828), s.v. “Jehovah.”

23.   Webster, American Dictionary, s.v. “God.”

24.   Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester, “An Address to the Citizens of Salem (Mass.) and Vicinity,” Times and Seasons 3/1 (November 1841): 578.

25.   The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 91.

26.   Smith, Personal Writings, 93, 98, 104, 120.

27.   Included among this group were Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. The duration of the course was 26 January–29 March 1836. D. Kelly Ogden, “The Kirtland Hebrew School (1835–36),” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, Ohio, ed. Milton V. Backman Jr. (Provo, UT: Dept. of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1990), 63–87.

28.   In the grammar written by Joshua Seixas and probably used by Joseph Smith, this entry occurs as a definition for elohim: “God; a sing. noun with a plur. form.” Joshua Seixas, A Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners (Andover, MA: Gould and Newman, 1834), 85.

29.   History of the Church, 5:94.

30.   Smith, Personal Writings, 536. The prayer was written on 23 August 1842.

31.   History of the Church, 5:2. The transcription of Willard Richards’s diary that he kept for Joseph Smith, from which this account is taken, reads, “all those plans & principles by which any one is enabled to secure the fullness of those blessings which has been prepared for the church of the first born, and come up into and abide in the presence of God the Eloheim in the eternal worlds.” See Andrew F. Ehat, “ ’Who Shall Ascend into the Hill of the Lord?’ Sesquicentennial Reflections of a Sacred Day: 4 May 1842,” in Temples of the Ancient World: Ritual and Symbolism, ed. Donald W. Parry (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1994), 51.

32.   History of the Church, 6:307.

33.   History of the Church, 6:475.

34.   History of the Church, 6:476.

35.   Autobiography of Edward Stevenson, 1820–1870, ed. Joseph G. Stevenson (Provo, UT: Stevenson’s Genealogical Center, 1986), 64, original spelling and conventions retained.

36.   Autobiography of Edward Stevenson, 64.

37.   Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 1:51.

38.   This is of course based on the assumption that the deity addressed is God the Father. At this early stage of LDS vocabulary usage, the Lord, through the Prophet, may have used these terms the way Americans in general used them, according to “the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24).

39.   John Taylor, “The Living God,” Times and Seasons 73 (February 1845): 809.

40.   Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 4:216.

41.   Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 12:99.

42.   Heber C. Kimball, in Journal of Discourses, 10:235.

43.   John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 15:217.

44.   John Taylor, An Examination into and an Elucidation of the Great Principle of the Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1882), 138. This is also made clear about the same time in Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, eds., A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1886), 12, and in James A. Little, “Jesus Christ—His Character and Attributes,” Juvenile Instructor 16 (15 October 1881): 237.

45.   The Liverpool, England, 20th edition of 1890, ascribes the hymn to J. Taylor; see p. 435.

46.   A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Europe (Manchester: Thomas, 1840), no. 254, pp. 295–96. By the time of the 13th edition of the hymnal in 1869 the wording was changed from “God’s Eternal Son” to “His Eternal Son.” This altered wording was retained at least as late as the 20th edition in 1890.

47.   The 1890 20th edition of this LDS hymnal, still published in England, contains the same unaltered text as the 1840: “Jehovah, God the Father’s one.”

48.   John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 25:305.

49.   John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 25:213–14 (29 June 1884).

50.   Orson F. Whitney, Elias: An Epic of the Ages (Salt Lake City: Whitney, 1914), 118. The original edition was published by Knickerbocker Press in New York, 1904.

51.   Franklin D. Richards, in Journal of Discourses, 26:300.

52.   Franklin D. Richards, in Journal of Discourses, 26:172. This and the preceding passage were pointed out by Barry Bickmore in his essay “Of Simplicity, Oversimplification, and Monotheism,” a review of Monotheism, Mormonism, and the New Testament Witness, by Paul Owen, FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 215–58.

53.   The dedicatory prayer offered on 1 January 1877 to dedicate portions of the St. George Temple is found in Matthias F. Cowley, ed., Wilford Woodruff: History of His Life and Labors as Recorded in His Daily Journals (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 161–71. The dedicatory prayer for the Salt Lake Temple, offered on 6 April 1893, is found in James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries, Ancient and Modern (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1912), 134. See also the reprint, James E. Talmage, The House of the Lord: A Study of Holy Sanctuaries, Ancient and Modern (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 94–102. The quotations above are from the reprint, pages 94b, 95a and 97a respectively.

54.   Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882), 86.

55.   Although the address was given on 7 April 1895, this portion was recorded in “Discourse by President Wilford Woodruff,” Millennial Star 57 (6 June 1895): 355–56.

56.   Charles W. Penrose, “Our Father Adam,” Improvement Era, September 1902, 876–77.

57.   W. H. Chamberlin, “Use of the Word Elohim,” Improvement Era, November 1902, 26.

58.   Charles W. Penrose, in Conference Report, October 1914, 38.

59.   Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 38.

60.   Charles W. Penrose, in Conference Report, April 1916, 18.

61.   “The Father and the Son,” 934, 939–40: see notes 3–4 above.

62.   James E. Talmage, A Study of the Articles of Faith, Being a Consideration of the Principal Doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 12th ed. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1924), 49.

63.   Talmage, Articles of Faith, 43.

64.   Talmage, Articles of Faith, 465.

65.   See also 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:44; 3 Nephi 11:27, 36; Mormon 7:7.

66.   Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” in BYU 1981–82 Fireside and Devotional Speeches (Provo, UT: University Publications, 1982), 101b.