From the Archives: How Joseph Smith Restored Greek Religion

January 22, 2008 | 12 comments
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I’ve been thinking of late about immortality and Mormonism. My question is whether or not you can be a Good Mormon and a Good Homeric Hero. I am unclear on the answer, but Moroni and John Taylor seem to suggest that for at least one Good Mormon being a Homeric Hero was just fine.

What do I mean? It seems that we have (at least) three concepts of immorality, which for simplicity I will call the Christian concept, the Hebraic concept, and the Greek concept. When Mormons talk about immortality, I think that we are generally talking about Christian immortality. We think about the resurrection of the dead and endless life in the hereafter. Immortality is about the triumph over death through the eternity of the soul and miracle of Christ’s atonement.

What I call the Hebraic concept goes back to the promise made to Abraham that his seed would be as numerous as the sands of the sea. My understanding is that basically the ancient Israelites didn’t have much of a concept of the hereafter or the immortality of the soul. I don’t want to make this claim too strongly, and obviously Mormonism teaches that history since Adam on has been punctuated by God revealing greater light and truth to various prophets, separated by long periods of apostasy. On the other hand, it seems that the primary way in which the Old Testament (especially Genesis) conceptualizes immortality is about the propagation and continuation of posterity. We are immortal because our decedents (and thus some part of us) will continue in the world after we are gone to the dust.

For the Greek concept, I think of the heros of Homer. In the Iliad, Achilles or Hector achieve immortality because they do deeds of such greatness that their names will always be remembered by the poets. While the Greeks had some notion of the continuation of the soul after death, what really seems to have mattered was whether one’s life was sufficiently superb to merit a continuing memory. Of course, the Greek poets get in on this as well. Homer, like his heros, is remembered because his poem is a great and immortal deed. In the prologue to the Theogyny Hesiod explicitly states that his ambition is to write a poem that will insure the immortality of his memory.

So what does Mormonism do with these differing kinds of immortality? First, it seems that we embrace a kind of Christian immortality on steroids. Not only do our souls continue forever forward it time, they are also co-eternal with God in the past. Thus we have Christian immortality in both directions. We also embrace the Hebraic conception of immortality and integrate it with the Christian concept of immortality in our doctrines of sealing and eternal increase. In a sense, Hebraic immortality (the extension and continuation of family) becomes the justification for Christian immortality.

Which brings us to the Greeks. Mormons tend to not like Greek ideas. We get all suspicious about apostasy and the philosophies of men mingled with scripture. I am not so sure. On the first night that he appeared to Joseph Smith, Moroni told him that his name would be known for good and for evil among all nations. After their murders, John Taylor wrote of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, “They lived for glory; they died for glory; and glory is their eternal reward. From age to age shall their names go down to posterity as gems for the sanctified.” (D&C 135:6) All of this sounds Homeric and Greek to me.

Here is where I think Joseph restored to us something of Greek religion. Homer’s heros are theomorphic. “The godlike Achilles” is a man who can battle with gods and (at least against lesser gods) come off victor. For a good two and half millennia, monotheists have been smugly berating the Greeks for having such pathetically human gods. What is often forgotten is that they also believed in godlike human beings. Mormonism also offers us a vision of godlike humanity, although it is a vision that integrates both Christian and Hebraic ideas.

Now I have yet to figure out how we are supposed to dare for Greek immortality while at the same time exercising the Christian virtues of humility and meekness, to say nothing of the Mormon virtues of primary commitment to home and family. Still the possibility is tantalizing.

[Originally posted here]

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12 Responses to From the Archives: How Joseph Smith Restored Greek Religion

  1. Dave Kitchen on January 22, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    I apologize in advance for a lengthly post.

    It seems like the three “immortalities” you desribe can be summed up as focusing on one’s past, present, and future. In the Christian version, eternal life comes from the past – one’s father. In the Greek version, it comes from one’s present – one’s self. In the Hebraic version, it comes from one’s future – his progenity. Past, present, and future – not a bad way to encompass immortality.

    You also speak of immortality in terms of glory. Here I think the Greeks can add a lot by showing that glory is not a bad thing, nor something we should not seek. Where they err though, is their attempt to gain glory for themselves. Christ clearly taught (by word and deed) that the greatest of us is he who is the least. John Taylor’s quote doesn’t necessarily contradict this. He says Joseph and Hyrum lived and died for glory, but not that they did so for THEIR glory.

    Perhaps the best way to look at immortality is through the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged …” As we honor our father (and mother :) ), so too will our children honor us, and thereby we attain eternal glory in both the Christian, Hebraic, and Greek senses.

  2. Bob on January 22, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    “I have yet to figure out how we are supposed to dare for Greek immortality….”
    Nate, I read your post and the responses in 2003. On a far smaller scale, people who do family history will come to this phenomena of the Greek’s idea of immortality. As you write down the ‘tale’ or stories of your loved ones, in hopes of giving them some immortality, it hit you: “I am making myself immortal by writing this!”. It is called in Genealogy “Pyramid Building”. The tomb builder (history writer, becomes immortal alone with the person placed in the tomb, (or book).

  3. Mark N. on January 22, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    Are we talking about “immorTality” or “immorality”?

    The first sentence of the second paragraph leaves it a bit unclear.

  4. JKC on January 22, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    “After their murders, John Taylor wrote of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, “They lived for glory; they died for glory; and glory is their eternal reward. From age to age shall their names go down to posterity as gems for the sanctified.” (D&C 135:6) All of this sounds Homeric and Greek to me.”

    Don’t leave out the part where Jay-Tee starts bustin’ rhymes (“a fame and a name that cannot be slain”). That’s the best part.

    Not that it changes the main thrust of this post, but isn’t it more than just the Greeks that thought this way about glory and remembrance? I seem to remember a similar attitude reading Beowulf.

  5. se7en on January 22, 2008 at 3:10 pm

    LOL, I made the classic primary mistake and was reading the 1st two paragraphs rather too quickly, and thought it was about IMMORALITY and not IMMORTALITY.

    Perhaps the Lord is trying to tell me something.

  6. Mephibosheth on January 22, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I don’t know if this has been mentioned, but Brigham Young made some “Homeric Heroes” of the three young men who carried members of the Willie and Martin handcart companies across the frozen Sweetwater River.

    When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child and later declared publicly: “That act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.”

  7. Ardis Parshall on January 22, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Except that he didn’t, Mephibosheth. 99% of the gooey story we’ve all heard about the Sweetwater rescue didn’t happen the way Solomon Kimball told it, including this statement attributed to Brigham Young which goes against everything Brigham ever taught about repentance and atonement and salvation and enduring to the end, and against all scriptural teaching. For corrections to this and other details of the rescue story as commonly told, see Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater,” BYU Studies 45:3 (2006), 5-37.

    Probably more accurate, and just as relevant to this post, is the version told by Solomon Kimball himself six years before his better known and certainly embellished version, is: “When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and declared that this act alone would immortalize them.” Solomon F. Kimball, “Our Pioneer Boys,” Improvement Era 11 (July 1908), 679.

  8. Mephibosheth on January 22, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Foiled by history! Again!

  9. Nate Oman on January 22, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    The first version of the story is actually about Christian immortality (to use the terminology of the post) rather than Greek immortality. The second — apparently more accurate — account sounds more Greek to me, if we assume that by “imortalize them” what BY meant was something like “they will always be remembered.”

  10. smb on January 22, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    Great topic. Limited time so a few quick comments.
    What you call Hebraic is often also called “biological immortality” and is the preferred mode for many writing within secular traditions now. There is one prominent scholar that disputes the consensus that a Christian-sounding afterlife arose during the Maccabean period. He hasn’t caught much traction.
    What you’re calling Greek is rooted in cultural commonplaces in the antebellum period. The death culture of the period strongly emphasized the effect on those who survived and the responsibilities of survivors to maintain the dead in memory. Two other relevant cultural influences are martyrology, informed by the Revolutionary soldiers and Mormon persecution narratives, as well as a tradition against slandering the dead. See Eliza RS Smith’s Nauvoo-period poetry for various examples of these threads.
    As for the Greeks, you’re pushing up against euhemerism, itself hiding a multitude of meanings.
    Finally, I keep toying with the idea of comparing our temple rites to the Eleusinian mysteries, an amazingly good fit in broad outline, and perhaps an illuminating comparison for us trying to understand how our forbears understood their experiences with the temple.

  11. Seth R. on January 23, 2008 at 2:19 am

    No, it definitely reads “immorality” in the second paragraph. I’m sure it’s a typo, but I almost find it more interesting to ask whether Joseph Smith reintroduces a Greek concept of MORALITY.

    You take guys like Odysseus and Achilles, and boy! There morality certainly wasn’t for the squeamish. But it was still heroic in its own way.

    At times, it seems to me that Joseph was cut from the same cloth as those heroes of old. A lot of the things we pansy moderns consider flaws in him wouldn’t have even been considered defects in ancient Greece. Quite the contrary…

  12. mls on January 24, 2008 at 1:33 am

    Here ww have another great example (in John Taylor\’s eulogy of the martyrs) of precisely how difficult it is for us Latter-day Saints to sort out lofty rhetorical flourishes from doctrinal declarations. Because the encomium ended up in scripture, it achieved canonic status … and so we generally feel compelled to work these flourishes into our theology. Comparative help might come from the songs of the Old Testament, when the Israelites or some Hebraic hero defeats an enemy … These appear in canonized scripture … but we don\’t afford these passages doctrinal status. At least I don\’t. I know of so many fellow Saints who are unaware of the extended poetic passages in the Doctrine and Covenants … trees breaking forth in songs or rocks clapping their hands (sorry, I haven\’t got the verbatim texts at hand, but I think most will know the reference…) Having read Nate\’s post, I\’m inclined, at least tonight, to consider John Taylor\’s eulogy as having a function much like a song of praise for the conquering hero or the breaking forth into song of Section 128… less inclined to see it as an article of faith that Mormons are hero makers … but then (tongue in cheek:) this might get us into good graces with evangelicals if we could ratchet things down a notch from being godmakers!