A New Framework for a New Generation of Mormon Studies: The Conclusion from my Bushman Tribute Conference Paper

By June 29, 2011

What follows is the conclusion from my paper “On Mormon Thought and its Context(s): Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Tricky Task of Determining Influence,” presented at the conference in honor of Richard Bushman a few weeks ago. The paper spends most of its time outlining how the question of Thomas Dick’s influence has been handled in Mormon historiography, the problems with past approaches, and then demonstrates a possibly more fruitful approach. (A very early version of the paper is found here.) Then, in this conclusion, I use the topic as an example of how new frameworks are needed, specifically when engaging the development of LDS thought, in the next stage of Mormon studies. This topic—and even much of my message—has been trumpeted of late (both by myself as well as others), including Richard Bushman’s own concluding remarks at the conference, but it is still an important enough message that it is worth repeating.

The traditional mishandling of intellectual influence hints at a broader problem in Mormon historiography. LDS scholarship in recent decades has presented itself as increasingly aware of broader cultural contexts and trends, and in many ways they have succeeded. Most historians now agree that early Mormonism did not develop in a vacuum, but that Latter-day Saints were aware of and interacted with broader environmental factors, such as millenarianism, folk magic, or democratization, just to name a few of the most prominent themes.[1] But while broader cultural trends are now often invoked, a persistent scholarly parochialism still frames much of the discussion. Thomas Dick’s theology is only important inasmuch as it actually influenced Joseph Smith; folk magic is only significant if the Smith family’s practices could be meticulously documented; freemasonry proves useful only in determining whether Mormonism’s temple rituals were counterfeited or not. Put simply, the scholarly framework that has long dominated Mormon history renders contemporary influences essential only if a tangible and explicit connection can be made. Mormonism, then, remains the central actor in these narratives, thus limiting the role and range of supporting characters.

But this solipsistic view of Mormon history stunts both our understanding of Mormonism itself as well as the larger culture from which it derived. While it is tempting—whether at a practical, ideological, or devotional level—to construct a framework in which Mormonism is the center of activity, such a picture distorts a reality in which Joseph Smith and his fellow Saints were only a few examples of a much larger population striving to interpret, incorporate, and react to their surrounding culture. Patrick Mason subtly emphasized a more useful approach in his recent book on anti-Mormonism in the American South. Mason noted that since his topic was the construction and reaffirmation of Southern identity, instead of anti-Mormon violence in-and-of itself, “Mormons appear here more as objects than subjects.”[2] It is this framing—that is, of Mormons as “objects” rather than always as “subjects”—that must be more liberally adopted in order to speak to broader topics and be received by larger audiences. As Matthew Bowman recently noted, “Mormon historians need to swallow our pride and recognize that insights can be gained if we position Mormon history as a subfield” rather than the scholarly endgame.[3] Indeed, though Mormon historiography has often depicted contemporary and external sources as supporting figures within the larger narrative of Mormon development, in actuality Mormons were equal participants in the larger production of American culture and religious thought. Luckily, this type of approach has started to trickle in of late, demonstrated in books by Mason on Southern identity, David Holland on canonicity in the Early Republic, Jared Farmer on ecohistory in America, and Terryl Givens on pre-mortal existence in western thought.[4]

This subtle shift of perspective speaks volumes to the potential of Mormon historical studies. The question of whether Thomas Dick influenced Joseph Smith’s understanding of the cosmos becomes much less important than the question of how both Thomas Dick and Joseph Smith were both responding to a post-Enlightenment world that brought supernatural assumptions into doubt. The focus isn’t on whether Joseph Smith borrowed the three-tiered heaven from Emanuel Swedenborg, but on the cultural milieu that encouraged revisions to the traditional understanding of the afterlife. The issue isn’t so much whether early Mormonism “stole” elements of Freemasonry rites as it is determining how both the Mormon temple and the Masonic lodge are two examples of American constructions of communal identity and validating masculinity. These types of frameworks may force Mormon scholars to read more and more broadly, as well as rob Mormon characters of their uniqueness and the preeminent position they have held amongst both its practitioners and historians, but it will better illuminate both Mormonism itself as well as its surrounding culture.

And finally, this type of approach finally addresses issues that speak to a much broader academy, for until Mormon scholars are more willing to join those discussions they will be circling the same questions while positing the same answers. Indeed, by adopting a new framework of contextualizing early Mormon thought in a way that illuminates its surrounding environment, the development of LDS thought suddenly becomes much more pertinent to external and broader scholarship. Recent decades of historiography may have indeed made Mormonism more respectable in the eyes of external fields, but it still remained inconsequential to their own research and conclusions. Now that Mormon Studies is demanding a more prominent place at the larger academic table—which is most tangibly seen with the Mormon Studies Chairs at respectable universities—practitioners of Mormon history must make their work more pertinent to related fields. To do this, they must cease debates that frame questions like Thomas Dick’s influence on Joseph Smith as one focused on whether there was a linear linkage, assuming that Dick’s usefulness depends solely upon his direct relationship to Joseph Smith, and begin treating both as equal representatives of larger issues. Previous debates surrounding figures like Dick within Mormon historiography are not fitted to address the questions posed by a new and more sophisticated Mormon Studies.

Indeed, Thomas Dick provides a potent example of the issues at stake here and serves as an example of a more plausible middle way in which to view the idea of “intellectual influence” in early Mormonism. By being equally hesitant with wholesale associations as well as wholesale dismissals, and thus actually engaging what these similarities and divergences really meant within the predominantly give-and-take environment that was the “spiritual hothouse” of antebellum America, the theological position of Mormonism becomes increasingly clear.[5] Not as merely another expression of systematic categories, though, or as an entirely unique religious movement created within a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger religious community struggling to answer many of the same questions, deal with a number of the same issues, and react to much of the same intellectual climate.

For the next generation of LDS scholarship, those who wish to explore Mormonism’s developing theology must first better understand the intellectual air which its early adherents breathed, recognizing the eclectic theological climate of varying degrees of adaptation and agreement, and then attempt to determine the significance of Mormonism’s mesh of theological answers. And, once these answers are better understood, it is then crucial to apply them to larger cultural questions and issues, emphasizing how Mormonism related to and diverged from their larger environment. Indeed, one of the great achievements of New Mormon History was using broader contexts to better illuminate early Mormon thought—now it is time to use early Mormon thought to further illuminate its broader contexts.


[1] Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999); D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987); Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989).

[2] Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 12.

[3] Matthew Bowman, “Context and the new-New Mormon History,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (Summer 2009), 210.

[4] Mason, The Mormon Menace; David F. Holland, Sacred Borders: Continuing Revelation and Canonical Restraint in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008); Terryl L. Givens, When Souls had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[5] “Spiritual hothouse” comes from Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 225.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Comparative Mormon Studies Conference/Presentation Reports Cultural History Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. I wish that I would have been there to hear it in he flesh, Ben. Are you looking to publish the whole piece?

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 29, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

  2. It would have been great to see you there, J. They are planning on publishing the proceedings, so if I can convince them my paper is publishable (I’m currently revising and expanding it) it should appear in that collection.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 29, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  3. Liked it then, and like it now. It’s perfect for the volume I think.

    Comment by WVS — June 29, 2011 @ 6:47 pm

  4. Great post. I really loved this:

    But while broader cultural trends are now often invoked, a persistent scholarly parochialism still frames much of the discussion. Thomas Dick’s theology is only important inasmuch as it actually influenced Joseph Smith; folk magic is only significant if the Smith family’s practices could be meticulously documented; freemasonry proves useful only in determining whether Mormonism’s temple rituals were counterfeited or not. Put simply, the scholarly framework that has long dominated Mormon history renders contemporary influences essential only if a tangible and explicit connection can be made.

    This subtle shift of perspective speaks volumes to the potential of Mormon historical studies. The question of whether Thomas Dick influenced Joseph Smith’s understanding of the cosmos becomes much less important than the question of how both Thomas Dick and Joseph Smith were both responding to a post-Enlightenment world that brought supernatural assumptions into doubt. The focus isn’t on whether Joseph Smith borrowed the three-tiered heaven from Emanuel Swedenborg, but on the cultural milieu that encouraged revisions to the traditional understanding of the afterlife. The issue isn’t so much whether early Mormonism “stole” elements of Freemasonry rites as it is determining how both the Mormon temple and the Masonic lodge are two examples of American constructions of communal identity and validating masculinity.

    Amazingly well said. It’s like all that matters is genealogy with no concern about content. (And since genealogy is so heavily privileged the question of the development of content and perhaps even the chance of similar evolutions at different times never can arise)

    Comment by Clark — June 29, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

  5. Thanks, WVS and Clark.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 30, 2011 @ 10:41 am

  6. Ben, I’m wondering to what extent you (and others pursuing advanced degrees) believe this is compatible with continuing to reach general church readership. In the larger world David McCullough and Joseph Ellis are highly-regarded and award-winning among laypeople but not in acadamia, whereas among Mormons Richard Bushman is accepted and read among both groups. But does the increased interest in contextualizing among newer scholars signal a shift that will break that unity?

    Comment by Craig M. — June 30, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

  7. That is an important question, Craig. To be honest. I haven’t been able to formulate my own answer to that yet. This framework I lay out is obviously and definitively directed to a scholarly audience, and common Saints would not find it as compelling.

    Reaching the general Church audience is very important. I have said elsewhere that it is hypocritical for academics to not write for the average Saint and then complain that they don’t understand history, and it is unrealistic to expect them to read complex and dense monographs. We get upset when amateurs write simplistic and even misleading books on Church history, but then we don’t try to fill those gaps either. I would imagine it would take a distinct effort to write specifically for a general audience, and perhaps even distinct works. People like Steve Harper say that they see their mission as “translating” scholarly and sophisticated history for a public audience. On a Church level, we likely need more of those just like we need more of the frameworks I outline here.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 30, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

  8. No, what distorts Mormon studies is the solipsistic focus on history per se without a rounded study in theology, philosophy, anthropology, hermeneutics, and the other areas of study that make a religion living and vibrant instead of feeding off of the corpses of the long dead.

    Comment by Blake — June 30, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

  9. As a reader but not researcher of history, it’s good for me to hear that you don’t forget about us! I think there are many people in the church who will be willing to read works that push them and expand their horizons,and if historians can get or keep the attention of those people, the ideas will be disseminated. I suppose that my concern is that if the Mormon historians write only for other historians (which I respect as being part of the discipline and community, don’t get me wrong!), that interest will be lost. But I’m sure that a balance can always be struck, whether within an individual work or in a body of work.

    Comment by Craig M. — June 30, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

  10. Blake: I don’t think you’d find anyone here who would disagree with you on that point. I fear you are making a straw-man of historians. I, for instance, have a graduate degree in theology and use that to vitalize much of my study. Others here are invoking many of the new anthropological tools like lived religion to capture the vibrancy of Mormonism. You’re preaching to the choir, here.

    I’m not quite sure who you are attacking, to be honest. A vast majority of Mormon historians readily agree with the narrowness of past approaches and constantly agree that more disciplinary tools are needed. Indeed, that is what much of my paper here was about.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 30, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

  11. Craig: strongly agreed. I think struggling with this balance is at the crux of Mormon scholarship.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 30, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

  12. Blake attacking strawmen when it comes to the relationship between Mormon studies and Mormon history? Never!

    Great post, Ben. I wish I could’ve been there to hear the paper and look forward to reading it when published.

    Comment by Christopher — June 30, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  13. Ben –

    Thank you so much for this, and for articulating it so well. We must not miss the forest for the trees. The workings of intellectual stimulus at all levels are as complex as they are vast. And, while there are a few concrete examples of likely, specific influences we can identify in early Mormon thought, that is no excuse to trivialize the more significant, broader processes. Thomas Dick was certainly read and cited by some early Mormons, but that does not identify him as the certain source of all that Mormons believed on subjects he treated. Dick was important, and he was preeminent in most people’s minds on such subjects, but that still does not “prove” him the cause, but rather, an indicator. Dick’s works supply colorful, prominent samplings of the environment that made Book of Abraham cosmology (for example), possible. Descent of ideas, obviously, is more ephemeral to trace, and not as important as understanding the culture itself.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — July 1, 2011 @ 8:49 am

  14. Grunder: “Dick’s works supply colorful, prominent samplings of the environment that made Book of Abraham cosmology (for example), possible.”

    I think that this is precisely the kind of judgment from historical sources that Ben is saying we ought to be more careful in making — and it is just not accurate. It assumes that the Book of Abraham is simply Joseph Smith’s creation derived from his 19th century environment. Such a judgment suggests that one must assume that what Joseph Smith claimed is false. But this is precisely the nub of the entire problem of Mormon history in the academy — such naturalistic assumptions must be accepted to do real history. We cannot proceed on a shared faith that suggests Joseph actually was translating an ancient document (and I believe there are very compelling ancient cosmologies that are at least as congenial to what the BofA says as Dick or the surrounding 19th century culture).

    Comment by Blake — July 1, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

  15. Ben: I love history and the history of ideas so don’t take me as “attacking” you or history. I am certainly not disagreeing with your call for broader awareness of historical confluences (as opposed to influences) in relation to Mormonism. But what I suggest is no straw man. My post which was way too short and suggestive so any misunderstanding is my fault.

    You are a great example of the issue I have with Mormon studies programs that are just Mormon history programs in disguise. Your education is in intellectual history. You do other disciplines as an adjunct to history. If you study anthropology or philosophy it is to support your study of Mormon history. The problem with the view that all other disciplines are merely a hand-maid to history is precisely my issue.

    Certainly history is an important part of any Religious Studies program — but it isn’t the sine qua non and beginning and end of such programs as it is in Mormon Studies. One studies theology, philosophy and anthropology only in other programs outside Mormon Studies and not as a part of or within it at both Claremont,UVU and USU. That is what I find unacceptable. I believe that study of philosophy and theology ought to be required and not merely an elective for Mormon Studies.

    Comment by Blake — July 1, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

  16. Blake,

    You are a great example of the issue I have with Mormon studies programs that are just Mormon history programs in disguise.

    Not one bit of Ben’s education has been at an institution with a Mormon Studies program, so this strikes me as an incredibly odd statement. How Ben’s education could be indicative of what you see as wrong with Mormon Studies programs is confusing to me.

    You do other disciplines as an adjunct to history. If you study anthropology or philosophy it is to support your study of Mormon history. The problem with the view that all other disciplines are merely a hand-maid to history is precisely my issue.

    Ben’s welcome to practice his craft any way he pleases. Since he’s a historian, it seems entirely sensible that any other subject of study would be secondary to his historical research. Why you would have a problem with that is also confusing to me.

    One studies theology, philosophy and anthropology only in other programs outside Mormon Studies and not as a part of or within it at both Claremont,UVU and USU.

    Curiously enough, CGU’s website clearly states that:

    The Claremont School of Religion offers M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in a wide variety of specialties including Philosophy of Religion and Theology, Women Studies in Religion, History of Christianity and North American Religion. The study of Mormonism may be woven into any of these programs.

    It also offers courses in the sociological study of Mormonism, the Mormon Theological Tradition, Mormonism through Women’s Eyes, and Contemporary Mormonism (in addition to a couple of classes in Mormon history). Your accusation that “the study of philosophy and theology” isn’t required is simply inaccurate. Why you continue to make such accusations in light of evidence to the contrary is what confuses me most.

    Comment by Christopher — July 1, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

  17. Blake: Thank you for commenting again and elaborating more on your point. I think I am understanding your position better now.

    Perhaps at the crux of our disagreement is with definitions. I agree with you that Mormon studies must make more prominent other disciplinary approaches to Mormonism–that is indeed the future of Mormon scholarship. This should be done in two ways, and I think we exemplify each. One way, which I elaborate here, is that historians need to be more familiar with and open to more interdisciplinary tools in their historical texts. In a way, this is to make historians better suited for the new generation of Mormon studies.

    The second way, and I think this is what you are bringing up, is we need more than just these historical approaches. I am in full agreement that history should not be the center of Mormon studies, and that other disciplines should have an equal representation. I think this is being seen with the wonderful work being done by Mormon theologians (like yourself, Sheila Taylor, Deidre Green, Joseph Spencer, Jim Faulkner, etc.), Mormon literature scholars (like George Handley and Rosalynde Welch), folklorists (like Eric Eliason), etc. Attending annual conferences for Mormon Scholars in the Humanities show the many different approaches currently progressing. I certainly hope, as you do, that future Mormon Studies Chairs represent this diversity.

    Thus, I think we are, in large part, in agreement. In this paper, I am just saying what historians, not every discipline within Mormon studies, should look toward. Perhaps the title to this post–which I thought up in about .02 seconds–was too misleading, for which I apologize. I hope similar discussions are taking place in related disciplines.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 1, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  18. Ben: yeah, I think we’re in agreement.

    Christopher: yeah, pretty sure we’re in complete disagreement and I think your evidence just bolsters what I said.

    Comment by Blake — July 1, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

  19. Blake, in 14 you seem to be arguing that any contemporary influence on Joseph’s translations undermines his prophetic claims. This seems a strange assertion in light of your expansion thesis. I think Ben is arguing for getting away from such either/or thinking.

    I also don’t understand your strong feelings on what other people should study. I’m getting a religious studies degree and your characterization of the academy isn’t accurate.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 1, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  20. I really do not understand the term “Mormon thought”. The early church membership was a smorgasbord of many different schools of thought and influences. In the doctrines, one will find fragments from many different sources.
    I do not know if the historians are suggesting that the LDS doctrines were influenced by those fragments and evolved into what they are today, or what.


    Comment by Glenn Thigpen — July 3, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

  21. Glenn: I think a major thrust of current Mormon historians is to demonstrate the heterogeneity of the early Church, so I think you are correct in those suspicions. At least that is a major point in my current writing.

    Yet no matter the diversity, there should still be organizational schemas under which you can place Mormons collectively—there are primary beliefs that drew all the converts together, after all. And within the development of these core beliefs, historians are emphasizing that they were not created in a vacuum. And it was through the merging of these many beliefs and influences–both internal and external–that a more unified LDS tradition appeared.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 3, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

  22. Steve: If you think that the BofA cosmology can be dependent on a cosmology “made possible” by Dick’s writings in the 19th century and also be what it claims for itself then I beg to differ. Such a stretch is not something that the expansion could account for. I’m pretty sure not even the most wild relativism provided by Post-modern thought would allow for such a conclusion.

    Comment by Blake — July 5, 2011 @ 3:22 pm

  23. Perhaps “made possible” wasn’t the ideal choice of words, but you can see how similar logic to “expansion” could be applied here.

    The cosmology of the BoA is certainly ancient. I has said on a previous post of Ben’s that it was a mix of Newtonian and Neoplatonism. I was wrong. On closer examination, there is nothing Newtonian about it. So this is a retraction of that statement. It does look rather Neoplatonic, however. Neoplatonic cosmologies drew on the ancient world, but discussions of such ideas were still around in the 19th century. In so far as Dick was Platonic, he was drawing on ancient things.

    But at the end of the day distinguishing between convergence and influence is tough.

    This cosmology stuff is really fun for me and will be in my dissertation. I may do some posts on it.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 8:52 am

  24. Steve: If you think that the cosmology of Bofa is NeoPlatonic, then I would differ from you. I suggest that yo check out the Mesopotamian and Ugaritic cosmologies of concentric heavens of stars around a governing star.

    Comment by Blake — July 6, 2011 @ 11:45 am

  25. Interesting, Blake. Either way, there’s plenty of Neoplatonism in the BoA cosmology.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

  26. I think the neoPlatonic scheme arose out of those earlier traditions Blake. NeoPlatonism arose on the back of a lot of syncretic tendencies in Rome.

    Obviously once you get into the European renaissance era this becomes even more pronounced. The reason I think one can quickly see the BoA as neoPlatonic is because of the kinds of connections made in Abr 3. However I think the danger in pushing the connection too much is that Platonism is fundamentally an idealist view in which the planets are simultaneously planets and platonic daemons or angels. Thus the ascent through the planets is a psychic ascent through higher realities. That key idealist aspect simply is missing in the LDS traditions.

    As to Dick being Platonist, it’s been an awfully long time since I read him last. I don’t recall him being terribly Platonic. If anything he seemed pretty much trying to tie theology with the science of the day. Philosophy of a Future State is available online. So it’s not hard to scan through it and see what is or isn’t platonic. Edward Jone’s thesis, whether one agrees with it or not, is worth reading as well.

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

  27. To qualify that above, I think fac #2 where it talks about governing power and so forth can easily be read neoPlatonically. Yes it also parallels certain Babylonian ideas but that’s hardly surprising.

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  28. Well put Clark (on Neoplatonic cosmology). I haven’t read Dick yet but the issues that scholars say that Mormonism may have received from Dick seem to be Neoplatonic.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  29. Well, as you know, I think the influence of Dick is vastly overstated. I’m not quite sure who you mean by “scholars.” I find most of Brodie’s comparisons to be pretty weak (and better found in the general Protestantism of the era). There are some influences I’d agree upon (i.e. life throughout the universe) but I have a hard time seeing most of those claims as neoPlatonic.

    Could you be a bit more specific? I’m open to some BoA neoPlatonic parallels, although as I noted one has to be careful. Usually when I read these parallels there’s a bunch of hidden assumptions about how to read Abraham that are controversial. (i.e. a bunch of hermeneutic issues get brushed under the rug)

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

  30. I’m not sure what I mean by that either (somebody said it though). Ben Park treats the subject very well in his recent award-winning article on the development of Mormon materiality. Dick may likely have been a prompt on things like the rejection of creation ex nihilo and that spirits are material (both neoplatonic ideas).

    As far as the BoA, I may need to hold off until I have time to really do an in-depth analysis. But things like a hierarchically arranged heaven, descending ranks of intelligence, descending operation of time, the cosmos with various different governing stars, stuff like that.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  31. I’ll just add this: I think describing things as “Neoplatonic,” or “Mesopotamian,” or “influenced by Dick” are the type of descriptors that derail an understanding of early Mormonism, or at least must be handled very carefully. Indeed, much of my paper for the Bushman conference (and the conclusion pasted in the OP) focus on getting around those questions and descriptors.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 6, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  32. To try and answer my question let me go through a few of the parallels that I think are plausibly significant (not that I necessarily agree with them – I’m just listing them for discussion).

    1. Throne of God. Brodie claims that the throne in fac 2 comes from Dick’s throne of God in Future State. I’m skeptical but he does say there is a rotational hub in the universe one could call the Throne of God. (He sees its size as equivalent to the ratio of earth to sun only with all planets in the universe being the equivalent of earth – he obviously has no concept of compressed matter) Some of the other parallels of this passage are more significant. I’ll quote it in its entirety as it is the strongest example.

    It is now considered by astronomers, as highly probable, if not certain, – from late observations, from the nature of gravitation, and other circumstances, that all the systems of the universe revolve round one common centre, – and that this centre may bear as great a proportion, in point of magnitude, to the universal assemblage of systems as the sun does to his surrounding planets, And, since our sun is five hundred times larger than the earth, and all the other planets and their satellites taken together, – on the same scale, such a central body would be five hundred times larger than all the systems and worlds in the universe. Here, then, may be a vast universe of itself – an example of material creation, exceeding all the rest in magnitude and splendor, and in which are blended the glories of every other system. If this is in reality the case, it may, with the most emphatic propriety, be termed, the throne of God… This grand central body may be considered as the capital of the universe. From this glorious centre, embassies may be occasionally dispatched to all surrounding worlds, in every region of space. Here, too, deputations from all the different provinces of creation, may occasionally assemble, and the inhabitants of different worlds mingle with each other, and learn the grand outlines of those physical operations and moral transactions, which have taken place in their respective spheres. Here, may be exhibited to the view of unnumbered multitudes, objects of sublimity and glory, which are no where else to be found within the wide extent of creation. Here, intelligences of the highest order, who have attained the most sublime heights of knowledge and virtue, may form the principal part of the population of this magnificent region. Here, the glorified body of the Redeemer may have taken its principal station, as “the head of all principalities and powers:” and here likewise, Enoch and Elijah may reside, in the mean time, in order to learn the history of the magnificent plans and operations of Deity, that they may be enabled to communicate intelligence respecting them to their brethren of the race of Adam, when they shall again mingle with them in the world allotted for their abode, after the general resurrection…

    In fine, this vast and splendid central universe may constitute that august mansion referred to in Scripture, under the designation of the third heavens – the throne of the eternal – the heaven of heavens – the high and holy place – and the light that is inaccessible and full of glory.” (p. 244-246)

    Obviously the bit about ambassadors parallels some readings of Fac 2 and governing. However once again note that this is simultaneously less platonic under this reading.

    2. God’s glory is intelligence. Man’s progression is a matter of intelligence and universe is made for that progression. This seems a pretty general parallel found in lots of places though. So I see it as not terribly significant. One might see it as very neoPlatonic depending upon how it is taken. (It’s also a significant part of the hermetic corpus as well) Interestingly to the degree one sees this as platonic the less significant the Dick parallel becomes.

    3. Different graduations of intelligence. It’s hard to really take this as significant given how obvious this is looking around us. Does anyone think intelligence isn’t gradatiated? If not, how on earth is this a significant parallel?

    4. Spirits are finer. Once again pretty broad given, as I’ve noted over at FPR, and is pretty much the folk view of spirits already. Why appeal to Dick when this is what most non-theologians already believe? Once again I’ll quote the relevant Dick passage.

    To what is stated in this paragraph respecting angels, it will doubtless be objected, “that these intelligences are pure spirits, and assume corporeal forms only on particular occasions.” This is an opinion almost universally prevalent; but it is a mere assumption, destitute of any rational or scriptural argument to substantiate its truth. … The vehicles or bodies of angels are doubtless of a much finer mould than the bodies of men; but, although they were at all times invisible through such organs of vision as we possess, it would form no proof that they were destitute of such corporeal frames. The air we breathe is a material substance, yet it is invisible; and there are substances whose rarity is more than ten times greater than that of the air of our atmosphere…. If, therefore, an organized body were formed of a material substance similar to air, or to hydrogen gas, it would be in general invisible; (p. 219-220)

    The rest I’ve seen emphasized in Dick really are just generic Protestant views. i.e. the idea that intelligences are rewarded according to their progress. Dick does reference 1 Cor 15 for that, much as Mormons do. But one doesn’t have to read much to recognize that is a fairly common reading.

    As an aside if we are quoting neoPlatonists I’ve long found this quote of Emerson’s interesting relative to Alma 32. (Obviously Emerson is writing later)

    All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason.

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

  33. Whoops. Screwed up my closing blockquote tag. Could someone fix that for me?

    [Editor: Fixed]

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 2:27 pm

  34. Steve and Ben – I agree. That’s why I think Dick vastly overstated. Most of these ideas – especially regarding corporality – are better seen in terms of a broader and more general discussion of how people have thought about these things. Once one moves away from a genealogical analysis into a conceptual one you can find the same sorts of discussions in many historical periods. For instance Telesio and many Renaissance philosophers considered material spirits. The Stoics had material spirits that were more fine.

    And of course neoPlatonism was hardly it’s own unique tradition. It was from day one highly influenced by Stoicism – especially on cosmology. The Renaissance was very much a reaction against Aristotle/Thomist conceptions of theology often influenced by Platonism. But people forget how dominant Aristotle was even for the people designated as Platonists. And of course each brought their own speculation and logic to the problems at hand.

    I fully agree though that it’s much more valuable to talk about conceptions rather than genealogy. However the problem is that to talk about ideas one has to refer to texts. The danger in broad surveys to explain ideas is that one falls prey to the same problems that beset the structuralists in the 40’s through 60’s – especially those doing myth criticism and arguably a lot of religious anthropology of the era. (There remains an ongoing debate as to how “irrelevant” folks like Mircea Eliadi are to understanding religion, for example) The debate ends up being over the problem of the particular vs. the general. The problem was that in that structuralist era the differences and context of the particular were repressed and often one got analysis that was very distorting to source texts.

    You see the same thing in Mormon apologetics – especially with Nibley who in many ways was of the same mindset as Eliadi. (Minus Eliadi’s background with phenomenology) The New Mormon history then becomes a focus on particulars in opposition to that earlier tendency. I think it’s wise to move beyond the New Mormon History but I think we simultaneously have to keep in mind what was so distorting with the structuralist accounts.

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  35. Clark, I wasn’t saying that BoA cosmology came from Dick (again, I haven’t read him). I was saying that the cosmology was Neoplatonic.

    As far as the points that Ben makes in his article about spirits being matter and the rejection of creation ex nihio, I’ll let you guys argue over the fine points. Either way, both Neoplatonic. I have no problem with it having a folk orientation, Neoplatonism (particularly late Neoplatonism) very frequently blended with folk beliefs.

    Ben, trying to figure out where creative thinkers get their ideas is pretty standard stuff. I’m reading a very good, recent book on John Dee that spends half the book simply going over the sources of Dee’s thought. The question is to correctly identify the sources of his thought and scholars are making a lot of headway. I see it as a model for what I’m trying to do.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  36. Steve: I’m not saying that finding some sources aren’t important, just that they are more of a starting point. I think descriptors and categorizations often become misleading because they are so problematic, and because something that originated neoPlatonic really doesn’t remain neoPlatonic once Smith and others start adapting/transforming/translating (to use Sam’s phrase) them. That’s why I’m on pins and needles to see the results of your dissertation: the identification of something having neoPlatonic roots (as I’m sure you know) is only the preface to the important work ahead.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 6, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

  37. I think a comment of mine ended up in the spam filter. (Probably writing too much when I should be working)

    Steve, I think my point wasn’t so much that Dick’s place in a genealogy of ideas as it was that the cosmology isn’t necessarily platonic. My comment that ended up in the spam filter hopefully clarifies this. I was more just trying to raise the parallels for readers perhaps not as familiar with the issues. My own view is much more what I take Ben to be saying. That is I’m not sure “neoPlatonic” ends up being that helpful a term.

    Consider, for example, how the American Transcendentalists are sometimes called neoPlatonic yet typically they are just taken as a movement on its own terms. And the Mormons are much more removed than say Emerson is.

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  38. Since a full study of the Mormon/neoplatonic connection hasn’t been done and the fact that there’s a lot of striking similarities, it seems like a worthwhile project. Again, there is a very long tradition of Christians “translating” Plato; or Christian Platonism. It looks to me like Mormonism is in that tradition even if not self-consciously so (this was the case with other movements as well).

    Sorry if this is exactly what you didn’t want this thread to turn into Ben :(.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 6, 2011 @ 6:06 pm

  39. Don’t get me wrong Steve, I think it worthwhile to do. I just hope you focus more on common meanings rather than genealogy. i.e. as a more general project of considering man’s place in the universe.

    Comment by Clark — July 6, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  40. It seems to me that there are two sorts of taxonomic questions being raised–one has to do with phenotype, the other has to do with genealogy (pardon my mixed and obfuscatory metaphors). I think both sorts of taxonomies are useful and necessary. Phenotype seems closer to what I hear Steve proposing, while genealogy is much trickier to work out and is unfortunately much more polemicized. I think it’s great work to sift through the conceptual universe of the early LDS and notice where phenotypically they are (neo)Platonic/esoteric/Arminian/Catholic/primitivist/Babylonian. This type of groundwork can be useful for whittling away at the much less tractable problem of genealogy, which I suspect by most academic methodologies will have relatively little to do with unfiltered ancient Mesopotamia. The phenotypic claims are much hardier than the genealogical claims.

    Comment by smb — July 6, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

  41. I may be doing a little of both, Sam. You’re also write about the attitude of the academy not giving much credence to Mesopotamian parallels and maybe that’s not fair. For my purposes, I have to write to convince a committee of scholars who are demanding that I make a very good case that any parallels I want to claim actually influenced JS. I think it will work out though.

    Anyway, so as not to jack your thread anymore, Ben, I put up a new post.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 7, 2011 @ 11:06 am


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