Esoteric Mormonism: Marginal or Mainstream?

April 11, 2012 | 15 comments
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I recently finished reading Samuel Brown’s In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (Oxford University Press, 2012; publisher’s page). It’s an impressive book, although I disagree with the implicit argument of the book that the esoteric branch of Joseph Smith’s eclectic and diverse theology is central to his thinking and, by extension, should be central to present-day Mormonism. It is a book anyone interested in Mormon Studies should read (twice), but probably not the first or even second book on Joseph Smith that a practicing Mormon should read.

Overview

The book is dense enough that only a long and thorough review can do it justice. I consider this post to be a discussion of some interesting points raised by the book rather than a full or even a short review. I won’t even attempt a summary of the book (the table of contents and the description of the book from the dust jacket are available at the linked publisher’s page). This paragraph from the Introduction (p. 8) gives something like an overview and also a taste of the author’s approach:

After the Book of Mormon emerged as a distinctive grave artifact in the late 1820s, Joseph Smith continued to explore relics and rituals central to the problem of death. In the late 1830s, after moving to Ohio, Smith acquired and interpreted Egyptian mummies and their funerary papyri. Finally arriving in Illinois, where he founded a biblical-sounding utopia called Nauvoo, Smith elaborated his religious vision, encompassing an afterlife theology that could vanquish death, ensure permanent personal election, and maintain the human family intact forever in a sacerdotal structure. To this end, Smith drew on, adapted, and reformulated rites and doctrines from sources inside and outside normative Protestantism, yielding an intensely biblical system that combined elements of the Radical Reformation, Western esotericism, and Christian perfectionism. By the time of his death, Smith had revealed a polyvalent family system, a utopian communitarianism grounded in mystical traditions about Enoch, a temple liturgy that taught his followers how to negotiate the afterlife and promised them postmortal divinity, and a scandalously anthropomorphic God whom all humans could call Father. These surprisingly varied themes and innovations of early Mormonism find coherence in Smith’s encounters with, and attempted conquest of, death.

In the book’s favor, it does a better job of relating and synthesizing this material than prior book-length attempts. Brooke’s The Refiner’s Fire went too far afield and did not make the case for causal connections between the hermetic material he reviewed and Joseph Smith. Brown stays closer to home with his material. Davies’ The Mormon Culture of Salvation has a thesis that is similar to Brown’s, but employed a variety of models from religious studies and the sociology of religion to guide the analysis. In contrast, Brown bases his discussion on a much larger set of detailed historical facts and employs no social science models (although he does cite the literature from time to time). I found Brown’s fact-based discussion more credible than Davies’ model-driven discussion. To compare favorably with both Brooke and Davies, two well-respected scholars, is certainly an admirable accomplishment.

Issues

At the same time, I have a few issues with the book. First, I’m not convinced foregrounding a “Mormon conquest of death” theme is defensible. First, there is nothing unique about the Mormon view of a “conquest of death.” Every Christian denomination takes the conquest of death as a common point of departure, rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s not like existential dread hangs over most people or other Christians until they convert to a Mormon doctrine of salvation that promises unique access to immortality and the afterlife. Even the Mormon claim of eternal families is hardly unique: while not incorporated in the formal theology of other Christian denominations, most Christians nevertheless assume their families will be around in the next life. No one thinks of heaven as a form of solitary confinement where you would be barred from contact with former family members. “[T]hat same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there” (D&C 130:2).

More generally, there’s an odd connotation to the term “conquest of death.” It brings up images of familiar movie plots where some 19th-century eccentric is hacking his way through the African rain forest in search of the fountain of youth or the golden elixir of life. And there is a secular view, often enough reflected in media stories on religion these days, that all religious beliefs are in some sense strange, not much different from the jungle eccentric on a misguided quest for a technology of eternal life. To confirm that bias journalists are drawn to stories that accentuate strange and bizarre religious beliefs or practices. I don’t know what Brown’s own perspective is (the author reveals very little in the book), but making “the Mormon conquest of death” the central theme of the book perhaps unwittingly plays the same game, suggesting it is also the central theme of Joseph’s life and the central concern of modern Latter-day Saints. As noted in the book, Joseph lost several family members during his life, which understandably intensified his feelings on the subject (see D&C 137, for example). But the implicit suggestion that Latter-day Saints in general have a strange preoccupation with death is an idea that will not survive actual attendance at a Mormon funeral, which is more likely to give the impression that Mormons do not take the idea of death seriously enough.

Brown does attempt to define the term “conquest of death” in broader terms:

When … I refer to death “conquest,” I mean a set of approaches to the meaning of life, a framing of aspirations for the afterlife, and controversies about the security of stability of salvation, as expressed in human struggles with mortality. When and under what circumstances life ends, how much of earthly experience will persist, and what constitutes preparation for death are problems that can be distinguished from salvation per se. Framing Mormonism as an attempted conquest of death illuminates its theology and enriches the texture of the lived experience of believers. (p. 5)

I’m not sure that broad definition was really carried forward through the balance of the book. I don’t think a balanced discussion of an LDS view of the meaning of life or an LDS view of the stability of salvation would focus on the themes discussed in the book. My sense is that such a discussion would reflect what we used to call the Plan of Salvation (now known as the Plan of Happiness), essentially “salvation per se.” So my impression was that the book’s discussion of the “Mormon conquest of death” was rather narrower than the definition given by Brown implies.

Conclusion

So what’s the right perspective or balance for a book about Joseph Smith or early Mormonism? The topics and themes treated in Brown’s book are part of the story, of course. A very good discussion can be had over how much weight to accord those themes as opposed to others that generally get more coverage in a biography of Joseph Smith or a history of early Mormonism. I think the book would be stronger if a chapter were devoted to that discussion and an effort was made to place the themes discussed in the book within the fuller context of Joseph Smith’s life and early Mormonism.

That is a discussion that could easily apply to present-day Mormonism as well. So a case can be made that the book is more than just a discussion of (what I consider to be) marginal themes and practices in early Mormonism. Consider the rise of “temple Mormonism” in just the last generation: a vastly expanded temple construction program, coupled with a redefinition of normative Mormonism in which holding a temple recommend is now essentially a requirement of being a Mormon in good standing (rather than simply being a baptized, attending, believing member of the Church), even extending to the use of the temple recommend as a requirement for teaching at BYU or for confirming one’s son or daughter a member of the Church.

Both esoteric doctrine and temple Mormonism fall on the retrenchment side of Armand Mauss’s assimilation/retrenchment spectrum, emphasizing Mormon distinctiveness rather than community with other Christians. It may be that the direction of current LDS organizational and doctrinal change implies that the themes discussed by Brown, which I view as being largely marginal to present LDS belief and practice, are in fact becoming the new Mormon mainstream, but I hope not. I won’t give up without a fight.

15 Responses to Esoteric Mormonism: Marginal or Mainstream?

  1. Howard on April 12, 2012 at 6:45 am

    Joseph was a shaman as were many of the great Prophets. This is a very uncomfortable concept for most Mormon’s to seriously consider mostly due to ignorance, a closed mind and fear of spiritualism but it closely explains his life. Death and the afterlife is a central theme in shamanism and during his divine training a shaman encounters the deaths of those near him, he learns that death is a change of state and he becomes familiar with the spirit world by way of visions. This also explains why Joseph was so revelation prolific compared to later prophets and it explains the powerful spiritual experiences of many in the early church who were near him compared to the barely perceived inspiration common today.

  2. J. Stapley on April 12, 2012 at 9:26 am

    This is a very interesting write-up. Thanks Dave. A couple of quibbles:

    “…by extension, should be central to present-day Mormonism.”

    I think that there is a tendency among many believers to assume that JS’s teachings are or should be normative for present-day Mormonism, but I don’t read Sam as saying this at all. Living as we do today, after the “demographic transition” it is difficult both Mormon and non-Mormon to grasp the degree to which mortality framed lived religion. And I agree that every religion address issues related to this, but I think the following statement is either hyperbolic or mistaken:

    “First, there is nothing unique about the Mormon view of a ‘conquest of death.'”

    Mormonism is certainly rooted in the traditional Christian Gospel, but the early Mormon approach to that Gospel and its solution to the problem of mortality are at least surprising and quite interesting.

    And this isn’t to say that I never disagree with Sam. I certainly do, but I think that this treatment of early Mormonism should be read as precisely that.

  3. Dave on April 12, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Thanks for the comments.

    Howard (#1), I’m sure shamanism would be proud to claim Joseph Smith, but that’s not the tradition I would place him in or the vocabulary I would use to discuss his religious experience or teaching.

    J. (#2), I tried to use “implied” or “implicit” when extending Brown’s points to the modern LDS context, as Brown was careful to restrict his observations to Joseph Smith and his era. But just like no book about Jesus is really just about Jesus, so no book about Joseph Smith is just about Joseph Smith.

  4. Howard on April 12, 2012 at 9:59 am

    I’m open Dave, what other tradition and vocabulary explains the whole story including odd things like the use of seer stones, scrying and divining?

  5. lyle on April 12, 2012 at 9:59 am

    “compared to the barely perceived inspiration common today.”

    Thank you for sharing your experience and/or opinion, but speaking for the experiences of all other members of the Church is a bit much, don’t you think?

  6. Howard on April 12, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Lyle,
    I don’t know, do you have a different experience? That is what is commonly reported. I heard such comparisons made in priesthood meeting a a part of the lesson, by my Bishop, First Counselor in the stake presidency and as a part of a discussion by the High Council. None were challenged or questioned. Please feel free to share.

  7. Gary Bergera on April 12, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Dave, Thanks for a very interesting, thought-provoking review. Would you dare hazard a guess, based on your reading, as to what if any extent Sam’s own professional (and other) interests in and concerns with death and death-related issues may influence his approach to Joseph?

  8. Dave on April 12, 2012 at 10:57 am

    Gary, Sam discussed has professional work at several points in the book. Certainly that spurred his interest in the themes covered in the book and also gives him unique insight into the material. The result may be that he sees these themes as central whereas other historians might see other themes as central, but that doesn’t really detract from the book because (1) it is easily corrected by a reader with a different perspective, and (2) all historians have themes they emphasize.

    A point Sam does make in the book (and that I didn’t really touch on in the post) is that few in the modern world can relate directly to the 19th-century life experience of regularly losing close family members. And, given the state of medicine at that time, of knowing that even young, healthy family members might, like Joseph’s brothers Alvin and Don Carlos, fall victim to disease or injury for which doctors had no effective treatment. Someone in his line of work is uniquely situated to at least be familiar with how individuals and families are affected by that sort of environment. So to the extent the ever-present possibility of death affected people’s thinking in general or Joseph’s religious thinking in particular and to the extent that we, looking back through historical documents, can discern the influence of that effect, Sam would be the one to do so.

  9. Blake on April 12, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Speaking of the dead, I thought some of you might be interested in a debate that I had with Dennis Potter on whether baptism for the deadis ethical and rational: http://usu-shaft.com/2012/baptisms-for-the-dead-a-debate/

  10. Dave on April 12, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for the link, Blake. Either you need a haircut or a new tie. ;-)

  11. BHodges on April 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Always fun to read book reviews, IMO. Here’s my long reply!

    I disagree with the implicit argument of the book that the esoteric branch of Joseph Smith’s eclectic and diverse theology is central to his thinking and, by extension, should be central to present-day Mormonism.

    Well, to be fair, I disagree with your explicit argument that the book is trying to extend an early reading of Mormon history onto the present by implication.

    From the intro you quote:

    yielding an intensely biblical system that combined elements of the Radical Reformation, Western esotericism, and Christian perfectionism

    You don’t really bring this up, but I think this quote seems to describe a atomistic view of religion; Joseph Smith as architect combining various “elements” together into a new superstructure, full stop. The ever-risky question of environmental influence/borrowing versus divine revelation pervades Brown’s (and any such) narrative. I understand Brown as one who tries to cut through that division rather than trying to side with one side or the other. Sometimes the rhetorical advantage leans in the direction of environmental influence, as in that selection, but overall I see Brown trying to challenge that dichotomy, here and in his other works on Mormonism.

    No one thinks of heaven as a form of solitary confinement where you would be barred from contact with former family members.

    To the contrary, there are and have been theologies of the afterlife which don’t favor individualism or communalism, but go so far as to swallow up human individuality into the ineffable Majesty of the divine. Not to mention non-Xtian views!

    More generally, there’s an odd connotation to the term “conquest of death.”

    This boils down the the problem of using language in general, since different words can evoke different responses from different people. But Brown fully describes what the phrase intends to include (as you go on to say). Here he’s taking part in a wider discussion of the ways people have negotiated understandings and confrontations with death over time. (Yes, Brown has a tendency toward neologism and inventive phraseology, perhaps even once or twice to comical effect [I enjoy it!], but “conquest of death” doesn’t seem to be one of the things on that list to me.) Besides, writers can’t confine their words to the level of what a journalist might accept or understand, and a journalist who misunderstood would simply not be paying attention to the “conquest of death” as described within the book itself. A journalist might even say something like “that phrase made me think of such and such, but as the book goes on to describe, it is thus and so.” And as for your view that Mormonism not having a unique death culture, I think the whole project of the book is to say that it is unique and similar in different ways, and like you said, it def. deserves a close reading.

    suggesting it is also the central theme of Joseph’s life and the central concern of modern Latter-day Saints

    I too got the sense that the interpretive frame at times bent things a little too far, but as an overall framework I think it sheds a lot of interesting new light on the overall career of the prophet. It bought various matters together in a way I’d never supposed, and often in a fruitful and even compelling way, despite the remainders.

    will not survive actual attendance at a Mormon funeral, which is more likely to give the impression that Mormons do not take the idea of death seriously enough.

    Here you’re eliding the book’s scope. Present Mormon funerals, in fact, are somewhat different from what they were like in Nauvoo, for instance. (Think King Follett!)

    My sense is that such a discussion would reflect what we used to call the Plan of Salvation

    Again, you’re reading too much of present Mormon experience into the project Brown attempted. Explicitly analyzing and calling attention to differences within Mormonism on these issues to the present would actually make for quite an interesting project, though!

    I appreciate the review, but I think you’re reading too much into the book as perhaps being some sort of project to change present Mormonism. FWIW. I like the dialogue, though.

  12. Samuel Brown on April 12, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Response to Banack, T&S

    Dave, thanks for this thoughtful review.

    Writing for an academic audience on a topic that matters at a personal, devotional level to another audience can be quite difficult, as I think your review suggests. I am heartened that you noticed that I was responding to defects I perceived in Brooke’s fascinating intellectual history, as that is true. For the record, though, I have no personal interest in esoteric traditions except to the extent they provide windows on the important human issues those practitioners were grappling with. I’ve known enough of modern esotericist Mormonism to know that, while I honor the diversity of identity in the body of Christ, esotericism does not represent my own Mormon experience. I also do not believe, and did not understand my book to be arguing, that esoteric elements in early Mormonism should be central to modern Mormonism.

    I had hoped in the book to emphasize that I was not attempting to describe a path forward for the modern LDS Church but instead to provide a view on the thoughts and experiences of the first Mormons. As I worked through the documents from the perspective of an early nineteenth-century American, I realized that they saw the world very differently than we do now, and I wanted to honor them by recovering their voices in their particularity. What to do with the “salutary vertigo” (or healthy disorientation, a term I borrowed from Peter Brown’s fantastic treatment of early Christianity) that results from realizing that our ancestors are culturally different from us is a difficult set of questions that I did not try to address in the book. How to move from past to present will depend on the individuals involved—there are many important ideas about how to translate insights from history into modern belief and worship, and I wanted to leave those transition strategies open for readers of varied backgrounds. I do believe, however, that those types of maps from past to present are best served by an accurate depiction of the past, which was my primary focus in the book.

    And I agree with you that non-academic LDS should start their encounter with academic voices with books like Matt Bowman’s Mormon People and Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. I think my book will make a lot more sense to them if it’s not their first encounter with an academic work on Joseph Smith and early Mormonism.

  13. Mark D. on April 12, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    May I ask what counts as esoteric Mormonism in the here and now? Presumably esoteric enough not to be mainstream, but prominent enough that a non-trivial number of LDS take it seriously?

  14. Bob on April 12, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    @ Mark D,
    That is a very good question. Is there an inside conversation among the top leaders? Or, is it the scholarly esoteric like level I read on JI?

  15. clark on April 13, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Top leaders talk about things like second anointings (and presumably most have had them) yet I doubt the typical member even knows they exist. I actually think more do read scholarly works more than people realize – even if time issues limits how much they read. I’d lay good bets that Oaks does for instance.