The ancient Greek thinker Euhemerus was a mythographer whose reputation has lived on until today as an influential theory for explaining religion. He argued that mythological accounts were records of actual events that developed and were embellished in their retelling. The practice of divinizing ancient leaders in Hellenic cultures (a practice shared by the Egyptians and later Hellenistic rulers, including the emperor cult of the Roman era) served for Euhemerus as an interpretive tool to unlock the significance of the myths. He suggested that they were all based on historical tribal leaders whose subsequent memory transformed them into the gods.
Euhemerism was hotly debated in antiquity, and used for various purposes. Some early Christians advanced these ideas as a way of explaining paganism in contrast with monotheism. The notion that gods are divinized tribal leaders has been advanced as a way of explaining religion in modern times, though such an idea has fallen out of favor for its reductionism. It is largely put to secularist ends as a way of explaining away religion, a sort of etiological assessment of religion.
Mormonism, however, is in many ways a religion built on this very premise of Euhemerus. We suggest that God was in fact once a human being who has become divinized. Our great ancestor’s memory and deeds have come down to us only in garbled form. We reject the “mythological” accounts of traditional monotheism which images a God who is ontologically different from humanity, and instead suggest that God himself has a history.
The connection also increases when one considers that Herbert Spencer, who had a profound intellectual impact on Mormonism in the early 20th century, was a Euhemerist. Spencer’s notions of progress, that great 19th and early 20th century ideal, were the basis of Mormon combatibalism with evolution, an idea that was important for LDS notions of divinization. Such ideas of progress, humanism, and the blurred lines between divinity and humanity are foundational to Mormon thought. Is Mormonism a religious version of Euhemerism, acknowleging God’s history, but considering him worthy of worship nevertheless?