Mormonism as a Strand of Western Thought

March 27, 2006 | 15 comments
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When we are not in our “Mormons are not weird”-PR mode, Latter-day Saints love to point out that which is unique about their religion: the denial of ex nihilio creation, eternal progression, living prophets, Adam-God, etc. (OK, maybe not the last one…) What we tend to resist is any attempt to place Mormonism within intellectual history. In other words, we want the Restoration to spring forth fully formed from modern prophets without any intellectual history beyond Joseph’s confusion amidst the contending ministers of Palmyra.

There is a certain irony to this insistence on Mormon uniqueness. One of our central theological heresies is the denial of ex nihilio creation. Not even God, we teach, makes something from nothing. Rather, he always creates by rearranging previously existing materials. Yet when we tell the story of the intellectual content of our faith we want it to spring forth from nothing in the 1830s. There a couple of problems with this approach.

First, if we take it seriously, then we are going to have to defend some rather problematic historical positions. When Brookes published The Refiner’s Fire, arguing that Mormon cosmology had its roots among certain religious and mystical radicals during the period of the English Civil War, Mormon scholars were eager to attack his work. Now in fairness to Brookes’s critics, there are some problems with his book. On the other hand, his basic point that the intellectual enviroment of the Restoration extends beyond New York’s burnt over district is clearly correct. Mormonism very clearly inherited practices and concepts from New England Puritanism, and somewhat more controversially from various elements of the Radical Reformation and late Renaissance. Strenuously denying any connection in the name of some sort of a uniqueness apologetic simply isn’t plausible.

Second, the constriction of Mormonism’s context to the burnt over district is boring. Seeing Mormonism as an intertwining of various strands of Western thought makes the story much more interesting. Furthermore — as Richard Bushman observed last year at the Library of Congress conference — there is a sense in which broadening the context of Mormonism increases its stature. We are not simply a surprisingly successful eddy in the froth of the Second Great Awakening. We are the modern decedents of powerful ideas that have been actors on history’s stage for centuries.

Third, there is no real theological need for the uniqueness narrative for Mormon theology. Mormons seem quite comfortable with the idea that God prepared the world for the Restoration. Generally, we think about this in terms of God opening up a space where Mormonism could happen. Hence, we look at the Reformation, the rise of religious freedom, and the founding of the United States. This narrative acknowledges God’s handiwork in history beyond the core Mormon story, but the result of God’s handiwork is a more or less blank and open space where the unique Mormon revelation occurs. There is no reason, however, that this theological narrative could not be expanded to include a conceptual preparation, which would necessarily imply a genealogical relationship between Mormonism and earlier thought.

Viewing Mormonism as a strand of Western thought, however, presents both scholarly and theological tasks that are daunting. On the scholarly side, it means that we can no longer begin the story of Mormonism with Joseph Smith’s immediate progenitors in the late 18th century. Following Brookes’s lead, Mormon scholars are going to have to push the story of Mormon origins much farther into the past and this will require that they become familiar with huge swathes of intellectual history that have traditionally been thought of as outside the required competence of Mormon history. Theologically, it will require that Mormons create a much larger and more complicated account of providential history. We have a number of plots to make theological sense of the history of the Restoration if we begin that history with Joseph Smith’s family, i.e. the miraculous presence of the sophisticated physicians who operated on Joseph’s leg as a young boy, the Palmyra and Manchester revivals, even — following Bushman and Quinn — the role of folk magic as midwife to prophecy. Once we push Mormon origins farther and farther back into the centuries before 1830 the theological plots will have to become much more complicated and ambitious.

It could to be quite a show…

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15 Responses to Mormonism as a Strand of Western Thought

  1. Christian Y. Cardall on March 27, 2006 at 9:02 am

    There is a certain irony to this insistence on Mormon uniqueness.

    In addition to the ex nihilo irony you mention, there is another irony, or hypocrisy, in our need for novelty and uniqueness as a signal of truth: some Mormon scholars have criticized traditional Christians for resisting Christian elements in the Dead Sea Scrolls, accusing these traditional Christians of needlessly needing Jesus to be new and unique for him to be true.

  2. Elisabeth Calvert Smith on March 27, 2006 at 11:12 am

    Great post, Nate. It reminds me of D&C 88:79 – where we are instructed to learn about human history, (the “perplexities of the nations�), astronomy, biology and geology (“things both in heaven, and in the earth and under the earth�) and to cultivate a general knowledge of current events (“the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms�).

    There is plenty of encouragement in the scriptures to incorporate the knowledge of the world into our understanding of Mormonism (see the same D&C section, verse 118), and your post reminds us of the value of such comprehensive study habits as well. Thanks.

  3. DKL on March 27, 2006 at 11:31 am

    When it comes to western thought, I don’t think that Mormonism can hold a candle to William Shatner. Take a look at this for proof.

  4. Clark on March 27, 2006 at 1:24 pm

    I agree Nate. While Brooks’ book definitely has some huge flaws, the basic approach that he and also Quinn bring up in important. There are manifestations of a somewhat repressed view of the world. These repressed movements of ideas do erupt in Mormonism. Both as what one might best call a framework for new revelation as well as perhaps accidental trappings and understandings by the new members of the church.

    While some of the parallels either Quinn or Brooks make are silly, (i.e. the view of heremetic ideas in the purported “counterfeiting” at Kirtland), I’m somewhat sad that so many have simply discounted the whole approach. It seems there’s a lot valuable in them. One wishes that a second generation analysis had been made by now, given the age of both books. They are both significantly flawed and really call out for a more careful and thoughtful analysis.

  5. Hellmut Lotz on March 27, 2006 at 2:26 pm

    My research about the interests of rulers in the rule of law has led me to take a close look at Stuart England. Even though I am only a casual observer of seventeenth century religion, it is clear that British independent churches explored most topics of the Doctrine and Covenants in similar terms.

    Wasn’t Joseph Smith’s grandfather or great grandfather a preacher for an independent congregation?

  6. Nate Oman on March 27, 2006 at 2:32 pm

    Hellmut, I agree that mid-17th century England is probably a good place to start looking for intellectual antecedents of Mormonism. Lots and lots of folks from the radical edges of the English Reformation wash up in America, and from there their ancestors — human and intellectual — end up in Mormonism.

  7. Nate Oman on March 27, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Incidentally, T&S’s Rosalynde Welch did her Ph.D. disseration on the idea of conscience in 17th century England. Hence, she has a real background in the period as well as an understanding of Mormon history and doctrine. She strikes me as being very well placed intellectually to do this sort of work.

  8. Melinda on March 27, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    I read a biography of Ann Lee, which gave a lot of the history of the Shaker movement in American about 60 years before Joseph Smith got going. Ann Lee was a remarkably charismatic leader. I was surprised at some of the similarities between the Shaker movement and Mormonism. They claimed many miracles in crossing the sea (the group transplanted from England), as well as miraculous events moving their work forward in America. Their leaders communed with God. They bravely endured much persecution, and often their dignified demeanors influenced their captors/persecutors to be more merciful and even learn more about Shakerism. They had some radically strange ideas about marriage (that chapter mentioned several other religious movements that were introducing ideas about marriage that make polygamy seem rather tame). They believed the Second Coming was imminent.

    I’d thought early Mormon history was unique, but it turns out it has a lot in common with Shakerism in their claims to miracles and their endurance of persecution. We were hardly the only ones, and I’d always assumed that Mormons attracted attention different from what other new religions attracted.

  9. DKL on March 27, 2006 at 10:42 pm

    It seems to me that trying to place Joseph Smith within a context of Western thought leads to one very large problem. Specifically, you must determine exactly what constitutes Joseph Smith’s thoughts (on the one hand) and what constitutes communication from deity and material from ancient sources (on the other).

    Take the Book of Mormon as an example. Signature Books has published three books of essays devoted to treating the Book of Mormon in the context of 19th century literature, religion, and sociology. FARMS has published several times that amount arguing that the Book of Mormon is best approached as an ancient document rendered in modern language. You seem to want to side with Signature, but broaden the context to other Enlightenment era antecedents. My advice is this: next time you have a fondu party, watch out for Lou Midgely.

  10. Ryan on March 27, 2006 at 10:45 pm

    Nate,

    So does this mean that calling the Joseph Smith era “The Restoration of the Gospel” is a misnomer – or at least an abbreviation of what should be entitled “The Culmination of ‘The Restoration of the Gospel'”?

    In other words, at some point after the apostles, there had to be a bottom of the barrel. A fullness of truthlessness, right? At that very moment 12:17 pm PST 127 AD, when no more truth could be lost or mangled, the restoration began little by little, “line upon line” as it were.

    Like a plant growing out of the ground, Mormonism was just the flower of the whole gospel vine.

    It makes me wonder, if you could find a way to quantify the existence of truth on the earth, what would a graphical representation look like? I imagine those big thermometers that they use to measure how much money a telethon has raised in relationship to their goal…

    “Come one everybody, we’re at 62% truth restored!”

  11. Adam Greenwood on March 28, 2006 at 9:32 am

    Great idea, Ryan. In fact, we would have one of those little online quizzes and people could post their results: Look, everyone, I’m a 1650!

  12. Jed on March 28, 2006 at 11:25 am

    “Mormonism very clearly inherited practices and concepts from New England Puritanism, and somewhat more controversially from various elements of the Radical Reformation and late Renaissance. Strenuously denying any connection in the name of some sort of a uniqueness apologetic simply isn’t plausible.”

    I am sympathetic to the argument, Nate, but I think the theory needs to be refined to reflect differing conceptions of words like “inherited” or “connection.” Brooke offended Mormons because he was arguing for dependence, not because he was digging up parallels. How does awareness fit into the model? When do we say when on inheritance? Do we trace JS’s conception of law in D&C 132 back to Babylonia and the Sumerians?

    It seems to me that Mormons do not object to finding connections with Western thought, so much as they object to connections that turn Joseph Smith into an imitator or plagiarizer. We are always trying to isolate him and keep him unaware of the connections he was making to Western thought. Mormons don’t like the idea of Joseph Smith scouring books or newspapers for theological ideas (the Bible is the exception), like an Edwards or an Emerson, because that seems to reveal a prophet who is getting his bright ideas the way everyone else does, and not from God. Mormons love convergence so long as the strands are independent. This is why Mormons read Nibley.

    You state that “there is no real theological need for the uniqueness narrative for Mormon theology.” What about the Abrahamic convenant and Israel’s role in that covenant? Doesn’t Ephraim’s latter-day role require us to hold onto the uniqueness narrative in some sense?

  13. Nate Oman on March 28, 2006 at 12:43 pm

    DKL: It seems to me that the problem comes when one tries to deny the reality of particular stories of divine intervention, rather than when one tries to make intellectual connection. The difference between me and Brent Metcalfe, is that I believe in angels and gold plates, while he thinks that the idea of God is on par with the idea of Santa Claus. I think that these are distinctions that I can maintain even while thinking about the relationship between Mormonism and radical religious ideas during the English Commonwealth.

    Ryan: I think that it depends on how one thinks about loss and restoration. It seems to me that you are implicitly thinking in terms of obliteration and creation. I think that it make more sense, however, to think of apostasy as a kind of shattering that leaves shards of ideas that then get rearranged in various ways. The concepts are always there. It is their configuration that is apostate.

    Jed: I think that you are right about the methodological problems, but I do think that the reaction against Brookes was more than simply a reaction against his notion of dependence. It was also a reaction against the location of the parallells that he found. Nibley is good because he finds Mormon antecedants in “the ancient world” (whatever that is) while Brookes looked in the Radical Reformation. To a certain extent, I think that this debate is muddled because we are not terribly clear about our ideas of causation. I think that the traditional Mormon anxiety about pre-Joseph Smith sources for Restoration ideas comes from the belief that God must be the sufficient cause of revelation. However, if we think, instead that God is the necessary cause of revelation, then there shouldn’t be a problem in thinking about other cause of revelation, even necessary ones. Language is a nice example. God gave Joseph Smith revelations that were expressed in the English language. The English language clearly has a history, and even the particular kinds of English that Joseph used had a peculiar history. Pointing this fact out and studying it in a rigorous way doesn’t mean that Joseph’s revelations are wholly dependent on this history, even though it is a necessary cause of their existence.

    As for conscious thought, here we get into a very difficult issue. If consciousness is the touchstone of a successful theory, then we are doomed for the simple reason that for almost all interesting questions we lack sources that give us any access to conscious thoughts, leaving us to play Quinn-esque games about what was being published in Pennsylvania in the 1830s. On the other hand, to the extent that we are involved in the interpretation of ideas, then it is not clear to me that conscious thought matters. Texts have a life independent of their authors, and their meaning frequently exceeds their conscious intentions. Consider again the example of language. It is unlikely that Joseph Smith was subjectively aware of all of the history involved in the particular words and phrases that the revelations use. It hardly follows from this fact, however, that the history involved in the language cannot be used to interpret the revelations, even if that interpretation cannot be offered as a pyschology of Joseph Smith.

  14. Edward A. Erdtsieck on March 28, 2006 at 1:31 pm

    Nate:
    Your observations in the last paragraph reflect a reality of Mormonism, but there is also some truth in what Ryan said, that at some point there had to be the bottom of the barrel. Although there is such finality to that barrel bottom, which I do not belief, but there certainly is at least theological plateau, which I do belief.

    I attribute the existence of this plateau to Heavenly Father’s command to Jehovah to let cherubim with a flaming sword, watch in every direction, while maintaining the purity of the way to the tree of life eternal. I believe that the First Presidency and the Twelve have far greater understanding of this providential history, but they also are under Jehovah command.

    For example, all organized churches promote modesty, but easily accept that the fact Adam and Eve walked around naked until Satan recommended fig leaves, which were later replaced by coats of skins by the Lord.

    I do not believe, that they were naked, but I do believe that they found themselves naked after they did eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I do have an idea what is was like and what took place in that Garden, but I have yet to hear it from flesh and blood sources.

    It seems certain issues are problematic, hence I stick to the letter rather than the spirit of the scriptures.

  15. Kimball Hunt on March 28, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    It surprises me that the prophet’s father, Joseph Smith senior’s, associations with men who hoped to revive biblical prophetic gifts as well as Joseph senior’s encouragement of his son in this calling are facts that seem to receive such scant mention or analysis within either the pro or anti “Joseph as legitimate revelator” camps. Yet to me an acceptance of there having been a successful revival of ancient practices “circle the square” of the paradox folks see when they consider the degree Joseph’s inpired prophecies can be seen to have direct antecedents. So, to maintain such conviviality around our fondu pot, what I’m saying is that–

    given a Truth No. 1 that in Joseph junior’s experiences there is indeed a completely successful revival of the exact type of prophetic mechanisms as existed as in the biblical Days of Yore,

    the Truth No. 2 dependent this Truth No. 1 would be that such a prophetic process always involves cultural antecedents;

    so that if some individuals of our own place and time could actually go back and hang out with Elijah for a day and then hang out with a priest of Baal–or else were to hang out with Moses and then with one of Pharoah’s magicians, et cetera–they’d see how, within indentical points of place and time, similar threads of culture are interpretted in rather distinct ways. So then why should individuals think it surprising that Joseph Smith junior would interpret in unique ways the same cultural materials as others (Hegelian/ post-Hegelian philosophers, Swedenborgian mystics, Campbelite revivalists, the boyhood Mark Twain, or whomever) within his own place and time?