There is a class of Mormon terms that Mormons use differently than everyone else, but whose definition we don’t realize is different. We are too often so caught up in our own culture that we don’t realize it is different from all the others. Godhead is certainly one of such words, and, in this case, the difference in definition is clearly rooted in our doctrine.
The use of the word Godhead in Mormonism is so widespread compared to its use in other religions, that Mormons have likely only heard one definition: “There are three separate persons in the Godhead“¦[1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Guide to the Scriptures.]” We, Mormons, hear our own definition so frequently and the definition used by others so infrequently that we think our definition is the only one.
I noticed this while reading an 1853 sermon by Brigham Young in which he said:
“Suppose that our Father in heaven, our elder brother, the risen Redeemer, the Savior of the world, or any of the Gods of eternity should act upon this principle, to love truth, knowledge, and wisdom, because they are all powerful, and by the aid of this power they could send devils to hell, torment the people of the earth, exercise sovereignty over them, and make them miserable at their pleasure; they would cease to be Gods; and as fast as they adopted and acted upon such principles, they would become devils, and be thrust down in the twinkling of an eye; the extension of their kingdom would cease, and their Godhead come to an end.[2. Young, Brigham. “Duties and Privileges–Sacrifice–Confidence–Language–Organization and Disorganization–Taking Wives.” Journal of Discourses, v1 Discourse 20. Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, February 27, 1853. Reported By: G. D. Watt.]”
I was surprised at Young’s use of Godhead to mean a state of being instead of a group of persons, and consulted the Oxford English Dictionary to see how Godhead has been used in English. The OED had just two senses: 1. The character or quality of being God, and 2. The Supreme Being[3. “godhead” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed 22 Nov. 2012], and the former sense seems to be what Young is using. However, since neither of these senses implied the trinity or any group, I began to wonder where our definition came from. Why did this become the name for our version of the trinity?
I next looked at the scriptures, wondering if somehow the sense of a group can be found there. Godhead appears in the LDS scriptures three times, all three in the New Testament: Acts 17:29, Romans 1:20, and Colossians 2:9. [I did not review how this idea appears in other translations, nor what Greek words translated as Godhead.] The Romans verse is clearly not referring to a group, and while the others could be read that way, our reading of the Godhead as a group is certainly not required or even suggested by the text.
Looking instead at early Mormon publications, the earliest use of the word Godhead I found occurs in the Lectures on Faith, in the first paragraph of Lecture 5:
In our former lectures we treated the being, character, perfections, and attributes of God. What we mean by perfections is the perfections which belong to all the attributes of his nature. We shall, in this lecture, speak of the Godhead: we mean the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[4. Rigdon, Sidney, Joseph Smith et al. Lectures on Faith. Kirtland, Ohio, 1835.]
Since the Lectures on Faith were bound with the Doctrine and Covenants until 1920, the Mormon definition likely spread from this source. But was this the origin of the definition? Did Joseph Smith create this sense of Godhead at this point? Was it something that came from the Reformed Baptists through Sydney Rigdon? Or was the concept already part of Christianity before Mormonism?
Part of the problem with all this may be a weakness in the OED. The current OED website says that the definition of Godhead is being reviewed for the next edition and that the current information was prepared as part of the first edition in 1900. Other dictionaries, including the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, in fact do define Godhead as the trinity.
To be sure that this didn’t originate after Mormonism, I searched Google books for appearances of Godhead before the publication of the Lectures on Faith in 1835, and found several instances of Godhead meaning the trinity. Many books from that time speak of the “unity of the Godhead,” an unmistakeable reference to the trinity. And using google’s ngrams viewer, it appears that the popularity of the phrase “unity of the Godhead” peaked in the 20 years before the Church was established, after first becoming popular in the mid 18th century (which makes me think that this may have been a Methodist phrase, since Methodism began in the latter part of that century).
So, our definition of Godhead is clearly borrowed from earlier Christianity, despite the OED’s silence on the trinity as a sense of the word. But, as our theology has a different concept of the trinity, our use of the word is also unique.