By April 13, 2018
William Victor Smith, Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2018).
William Smith turns his considerable knowledge of Mormon history and Joseph Smith’s thought to the study of Doctrine and Covenants 132, the plural-marriage revelation. Smith proceeds sequentially, dividing the book into eight chapters that each cover a portion of the text. At each stage, Smith delves into the topic that the different portions raise, and gives context both in terms of Smith’s theology and later Mormon debates on those topics.
Overall the book succeeds in contextualizing the revelation, but at times Smith either seems to wander to seemingly unrelated topics, or just touch on topics superficially. For instance, in the introduction, Smith gives an overview of what he calls “the high priesthood cycle” and the “apostolic cycle” but doesn’t discuss these issues much in the book (6-7). When he does mention them in chapter four, they seemed off topic as if they were part of another project (51-55). In another instance, Smith tells of John Taylor applying the “destroyed in the flesh” clause to an adulterous woman, but Smith doesn’t explain what Taylor meant exactly (121). Smith later says the phrase probably meant excommunication, but that context (if it were correct) would have been useful for the Taylor story.
Nevertheless, Smith’s study is extremely useful for all those interested in the topics of polygamy and Mormon thought. Not much is new in terms of these topics, but having all these ideas and sources brought together is extremely helpful to any readers.
If the book has a thesis, it seems to be a point that Smith makes in chapter 11: “As discussed through the volume, the plural marriage revelation seems to have been dictated for a limited audience—particularly Emma Smith—and was never meant for public consumption.” Smith notes some of the revelation’s troubling language and then declares, “This raises the question of what such a revelation might have looked like if it were meant from the beginning to be public, out-in-the-open, Divine Counsel” (178). This leads Smith to the unusual move of presenting an edited and cleaned up version of the text minus all the talk about destroying Emma, in addition to other changes.
Such is a peculiar move and highlights the unusual relationship that Mormonism has between its theology and its history, and the role that historian play in that relationship. Can such a revision be made? That’s up to other people, but Smith raises convicting and interesting questions in that direction.
By October 5, 2017
Yes, I’m very late to the party, but I recently saw a few episodes of PBS’s Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell and wanted to comment. Though I did a reading exam on the English Reformation, my focus was more societal than on individuals, so my knowledge of the main characters in the story are somewhat impressionistic. I did see a few problems though.
First, I’ll say that the production is very good, and Cromwell’s character is very likeable as a salt-of-the-earth, humble servant, caught up in difficult times. Clearly the intent is to overturn Man for All Seasons (1966) that makes Thomas More the hero of the story.
More’s character in Wolf Hall is an interesting one, and while many say he’s the villain, Wolf Hall’s More is much more three-dimensional than Man for All Seasons’ Cromwell. Things seem to go off the rails, however, in the lead up to More’s trial and execution, as the dialogue becomes all about justifying More’s execution, and Cromwell seems to shoot down all the great lines from Man for All Seasons. Ultimately, More’s prosecution, torture, and burning of Protestants justify Cromwell’s prosecution of More for his refusal to sign the oath of allegiance.
By June 18, 2017
Having set the stage of the nature of early Mormon sociality in the first two chapters, in chapter three Ulrich first broaches the topic of plural marriage. But as the title of the chapter suggests, “I now turn the key to you,” the focus of the chapter is the founding of the Relief Society.
With her imposed stricture of not to “merge” reminiscences with diaries, (xx) Ulrich sets up a number of challenges, most notably the fact that very few contemporary early Mormon journals mention it. The focus of the chapter, Eliza R. Snow, said nothing about it in her Nauvoo journal and Ulrich turns to Snow’s much later affidavit to determine that Snow married Smith on June 29, 1842. Ulrich states this fact on page 61, the book’s first mention of plural marriage after the introduction. On that date, Snow wrote, “This is a day of peculiar interest to my feelings” (71).
By May 2, 2017
Seven years ago when I was starting this project, I came across the three-tiered system of the Neoplatonist Hierocles, who called the first step the telestic, or purifying mystery rites. Thinking that was a remarkable similarity among many other similarities between Neoplatonism and Mormonism, I wrote this post giving an overview of those similarities and proposing Hierocles’s system as the possible source of that unusual word.
Many expressed understandable skepticism, and as I was brainstorming, I said the following in comment 17:
By April 24, 2017
In this previous post, I noted the similarities between DC 88:6-13 and a passage from Thomas Taylor’s translation of Plato’s Republic 571b-c. That passage happens to be right in the middle of Plato’s allegory of the cave, and upon further reflection, major elements from the cave seem to show up not only in section 88 but also 93.
By December 22, 2016
So in sum, if Platonism shows up in Joseph Smith’s scriptures and revelations (some examples), there may have been biblical precedence for it.
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
By December 18, 2016
Nietzsche’s famously made this claim in the introduction to his Beyond Good and Evil, but Origen said something similar in his response to the Celsus. Among Celsus’s numerous critiques was that Christianity appealed to the lower classes and that its ethics were derivative of philosophy. Celsus quoted the passage from the Timaeus—“It is a hard matter to find out the Maker and Father of this universe; and after having found Him, it is impossible to make Him known to all”—before declaring, “You perceive, then, how divine men seek after the way of truth, and how well Plato knew that it was impossible for all men to walk in it” (Against Celsus 7.42).
By December 16, 2016
Plato’s concept of God seems to have been the central feature of his unwritten doctrine, based on Tubingen scholars arguing that it had to do with the One and Plato’s statement in the Timaeus, “Now to find the maker and father of the universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (28c). That you can only tell it to very few people lines up with what Plato said about his unwritten doctrine.
Plato seemed to have something monotheistic in opposition to the Greek pantheon since Socrates continually refers to “God” in a monotheistic way: one of the charges against Socrates was “not believing in the gods in whom the city believes, but in” new gods. (Apology 24-b-c).
With that in mind, here are a series of quotes that Andre Dacier thought were the most important for making the connection between Christianity and Platonism.
By December 14, 2016
This was the same daughter who said she was ready to leave the church over the Old Testament when she was 8. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t too crazy about the text when she studied it in seminary last year. She felt like she got a lot of lessons on God handing out punishment for what looked like violation of totally arbitrary rules.
I’d been thinking about the topic too in light of a statement in Plato’s Timaeus: “Now to find the maker and father of the universe is hard enough, and even if I succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible” (28c). It’s hard to know God, and if you come to that knowledge it’s even harder to explain it. As Paul said, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:12).
So I told my daughter this: “This is what I think. Knowing God is difficult for humans. We do our best and make our hypotheses, but our point of view and understanding is limited. So our understanding of God has changed over time, and has gotten better in many ways. In the Old Testament, we’re seeing that process: the long process of the human understanding of God improving.” She seemed to like that idea.
Trying to gain this knowledge of God seemed to have been a major part of Plato’s unwritten doctrine. More on that in my next post.
By December 12, 2016
You can’t read a text by either an early Christian or early modern Platonist without being hit by a barrage of claims that Plato got most of his ideas from reading the Hebrew scriptures. Says Margaret Barker, “The similarity between much of Plato and the Hebrew tradition is too great for coincidence.” Barker attempts to prove that Plato’s ideas did come from the Jews, but does so with little evidence.
In his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible, Russell Gmirkin considers “the possibility that both the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Bible as a whole drew on the writings of Plato found at the Great Library at Alexandria.” Gmirkin bases this argument on the assertion that “the Pentateuch’s law collections despite containing a few laws of Ancient New Eastern origin, are in large part based on Athenian law and on Plato’s Laws, and that the Hebrew Bible as a literary collection was based on instructions found in Plato’s Laws for creating a national literature.” Such an argument builds on Gmirkin’s previous work that argued that similarities to other texts suggested that the Pentateuch was written at the time the of the reported translation of the Septuagint (c. 270 BC.)
By December 10, 2016
To me, the strongest connection between Jesus’s secret teaching and Plato’s is the parable of the sower. Those who argued for Jesus having a secret teaching saw his parables as proof: said Origen, “Jesus explained all things to His own disciples privately; and for this reason the writers of the Gospels have concealed the clear exposition of the parables, because the things signified by them were beyond the power of the nature of words to express.” The parable of the sower is the clearest evidence that Jesus had different teachings for the masses and for his closest followers: exoteric (inside the walls) v. esoteric (outside the walls).
The parable of the sower has very striking similarities to passages from Plato’s Phaedrus and Theages. In the Phaedrus, in the same passages that Socrates says that writing is problematic and higher truths need to be taught orally, he compares teaching to a farmer planting seeds: “Now what about the man who knows what is just, noble, and good? Shall we say that he is less sensible with his seeds than the farmer is with his?… The dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge…. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human can be” (276b-277a).
By December 8, 2016
As an addendum to my secret tradition posts, I recently came across something interesting related to Plato and the Greek mysteries. In my post on Plato, I noted the Anne Mary Farrell’s dissertation arguing that Plato often made allusion to the Eleusinian mysteries and that the that Diotima’s ladder of love in Plato’s Symposium may have been related to ritual stair case in the Eleusinian telestron (or the temple where they performed the rite). The Symposium also contained Aristophanes’ myth of spilt male and female pairs that can be “welded” back together so that they’ll be “one and not two in Hades” (ie the afterlife). So I wondered if since Diotima referred to a ritual, Aristophanes might have as well.
Joseph Campbell’s description of the Orphic Sacramental Bowl suggests that Aristophanes was referring to a rite. Unearthed in 1837, the object was later melted down by the Russians during World War I, but not before casts were made in England in 1867.
To explain why I found this Campbell’s description of the bowl significant, I first need to describe what Plato says about souls falling from and returning to the Gods in his Phaedrus. At 246 d, Socrates launches into his description of the chorus of the Gods by declaring, “Let us turn to what causes the shedding of wings, what makes them fall away from the soul,” based on his belief that we had preexisted with the Gods and our wings had allowed us to be up in the heavens with them. Socrates then describes the chorus of the Gods, how the Gods travel around the cosmos to behold “the place beyond heaven” or true reality, a process that Farrell says had the most over references to the Eleusinian mysteries. Premortal humans follow the Gods to behold this reality, but if “by some accident [the premortal soul] takes on a burden of forgetfulness and wrong doing, then it is weighed down, sheds it wings and falls to the earth,” ie becomes a mortal (246d-248d).
By December 4, 2016
Since I’m going to be referencing the Christian secret tradition a lot in these posts, I wanted to list out the post I did on this topic a couple of summer’s ago. I’d wanted to put these together anyway.
Clement of Alexandria declared, “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.”
Clement’s letter to Theodore
The debate of the the letter to Theodore
Evidence of a ritual
The Greek Mysteries
The Disciplina Arcani
By December 4, 2016
Friedrich Schleiermacher, who played a major role in the modern study of Plato, rejected the notion of a Platonic oral tradition, arguing that Plato’s central purposes were expressed in his dialogues. Though Friedrich Nietzsche was heavily critical of Schleiermacher’s interpretation, Schleiermacher’s became the dominant view especially in the Anglo-American academy. American Harold Cherniss went so far as to say that Aristotle was simply mistaken when he referenced Plato’s “so-called unwritten doctrine.”
The Tübingen school, or a group of scholars at Tübingen University who study the issue, pushed back against Schleiermacher, by not only pointing out Plato’s over references in the Phaedrus and in letter 7 but also noting the numerous times that Socrates refers to things he cannot talk about throughout Plato’s dialogues. As Dmitri Nikulin puts it, “The Tübingen interpretation to a large extent suspends the fundamental principle of modern hermeneutical interpretation: the sola scriptura. This hermeneutical principle stresses the importance of going back to the ‘original’ text as the only source of dependable interpretation, and hence implies the rejection of any oral tradition of transmission that is construed as only secondary and therefore untrustworthy.”
The Tübingen scholars have set about trying to recover what the unwritten doctrine might have been by looking at clues in Plato’s dialogues and statements by his pupils, to argue that the unwritten doctrines seem to relate to mathematical relations of ultimate reality, and dualism and monism. Many argue that the Neoplatonist’s “One” may have been what Plato had in mind, and that Plotinus had it right.
By November 29, 2016
Early modern Christian Platonists argued that Plato essentially was a precursor to Christianity and such individuals pointed to a few particular passages to make their case. Many of these passages relate to what is call “Plato’s unwritten doctrines” or ideas that Plato did not write down but only taught orally.
Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, refers to Plato’s “so called unwritten doctrines” in his Physics. In Plato’s seventh letter, Plato says, “There is a true doctrine that confutes anyone who presumes to write anything whatever on such subjects” and that “anyone who is seriously studying high matters will be the last to write about them. Whenever we see a book … we can be sure that if the author is really serious, this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with his fairest possessions. And if he has committed these serious thoughts to writing, it is because men, not the gods, ‘have taken his wits away’” (Letter 7, 342a, 344c-d, quotes from the 1997 Hackett edition).
By October 25, 2016
Scholars have noted the Neoplatonic nature of some of Joseph Smith’s revelations. The beginning of D&C 88 (The Olive Leaf) sounds particularly so. In fact, it has numerous striking similarities to Plato’s description of the Good from his allegory of the cave. The following is Thomas Taylor’s 1804 translation of the Republic 571b-c. Like DC 88:6-13, it mentions ascent and says that the Good (like Christ) is the source of light, the light of the sun, and of human understanding.
If you compare this region … to the soul’s ascent into the intelligible place; you will apprehend my meaning…. In the intelligible place, the idea of the good is the last object of vision, and is scarcely to be seen; but if it be seen, we must collect by reasoning that it is the cause to all of everything right and beautiful, generating in the visible place, light, and its lord the sun; and in the intelligible place, it is itself the lord, producing truth and intellect.
In my dissertation, I argue that Smith seemed aware of Plato and may have used his Timaeus. The above quote suggests Smith may have been aware of Plato even earlier.
 The Works of Plato, viz. His Fifty –Five Dialogues, trans. Thomas Taylor, 5 vols (1804, reprint; AMS, 1979), 1:360-61.
 Stephen J. Fleming, “The Fulness of the Gospel: Christian Platonism and the Origins of Mormonism,” chapter 6. See here and the comments.
 Since I see Plato as rather Mormon, I quite like the idea. “Study it out” (DC 9:8) suggests such a process.
By June 15, 2016
In my first post on Jane Lead, I noted an 1858 article that the editor of the Millennial Star, Samuel Richards, wrote about Jane Lead. He’d found an 1807 German translation of her works and posted two passages, translated back into English. Of those quotes, Richards declared, “We have seldom read anything more pointed or expressive of the Latter-day Work than the foregoing. It is another evidence that those who are spiritually minded, according to the light and advantages they have, can seek after God and learn of His ways—that He giveth liberally to all who ask wisdom of Him, and upbraideth not.” When I did that first post, I was unable to track down the quotes, but now that I’ve found them, I’m posting what Richards cited along with the English originals.
By June 1, 2016
Kyle R. Walker, William B. Smith: In the Shadow of a Prophet. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2015. xiv, 639 pp. Photographs, two appendices, notes, sources, index; ISBN 978-58958-505-1.
Kyle Walker has further solidified his position as the leading expert on the Smith family with this extensive biography of Joseph Smith’s troubled younger brother, William. In meticulous detail, Walker describes William’s life as one full of conflict: with his brother Joseph and other church leaders during Joseph’s lifetime, with other claimants to leadership after Joseph death, with William’s own followers when William made his own claim, and with William’s numerous wives almost all of whom left him. As one-time follower Edmund Briggs declared, “Everybody that knew William Smith, and worked with him, rejected him” (409).
Walker begins the book with a description of uncle Jesse Smith, the cantankerous family member that threatened to get an ax if anyone said anything about the Book of Mormon. Walker wonders if there was an inherited family trait that would explain William short temper, his refusal to compromise or let things go, and his perpetual self-focus.
By January 11, 2016
Jesus said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (Matt 22:30), while Plato said in his Symposium that lovers desired Hephestus to “weld” them together so that “when [they] died, [they] would be one and not two in Hades.”
Such was part of Aristophanes’s myth of the androgyn, that humans had once been androgynous pairs that the gods split into male and female, who now longed for their other half. Such lovers, when they found each other, still yearned to become one again, especially in the next life. Aristophanes then adds the following caveat: “Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and lesbians come from this class. People who are split from a male are male-oriented.”
That is, eternal marriage is a Platonic concept, and Plato had allowances for same gender relationships.
Plato didn’t discuss eternal procreation, but in the Republic he did describe a system radically different than monogamy: shared wives and children. In the Republic, the children belong to everyone, or as Plato says in the Timaeus (which begins by summarizing the Republic), “Everyone of them would believe that they all make up a single family, and that all who fall within their own age bracket are their sisters and brothers, that those who are older, who fall in an earlier bracket are their parents or grandparents, while those who fall in a later one are their children or grandchildren.” Or as Mormon said, “All children are alike unto me” (Moroni 8:17).
I argue here and here that Joseph Smith sought to implement shared marriages as well: or that originally both men and women could have multiple spouses. Such sharing would make allowances for procreation by the larger group that would transcend individuals’ procreative abilities.
 Plato, Symposium, 190-193.
 Plato, Symposium, 191e.
 Plato, Republic, 457c-d.
 Plato, Timaeus, 18d.
By December 22, 2015
This final post on Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism explores the boundaries between theology, fantasy, and literature, particularly in the context of inclusive monotheism. Barbara Newman points out that many theologians who embraced Plato’s Timaeus and its inclusive monotheism in the 12th century were condemned while writers who embraced the Timaeus through fabula, or literature, were not. “Poets, through much of the Middle Ages, had license to proclaim with impunity ideas, however radical, that if voiced as formal theology could have provoked swift, hostile response. Because of it unofficial status, mere literature might well be denounced (as Ovid so often was), but it was hardly worth the trouble repressing.”
Tolkien mixed Platonist and Christian themes in his creation narrative in The Silmarillion and W. W. Phelps began his “Paracletes,” which also mixed these themes, with “Once upon a time.” Yet for Phelps, “Paracletes” was a higher form a literature: “And let me say that I have began this story of the ‘Paracletes,’ or Holy Ones to counterbalance the foolish novel reading of the present generation. My story is not revelation, but the innuendoes relate to holy transactions, which may lead good people to search after truth and find it.” Andrew Michael Ramsay had a similar intent in writing his Travels of Cyrus, which also mixed Christian and Platonic creation ideas: “We have here a fruitful source of luminous ideas, beautiful images and sublime expressions, such as we find in the holy scriptures, and in Milton, who has copied them.”
What Tolkien meant by the Ainulindalë I’m not sure, but like many others he used fabula to give expression to inclusive monotheistic ideas held by some of the West’s most notable thinkers.
 Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 65.
 [W.W. Phelps] “Paracletes,” Times and Seasons 6 (May 1, 1845): 892.
 Chevalier (Andrew Michael) Ramsay, Travels of Cyrus: To Which is Annexed, A Discourse upon the Theology and Mythology of the Pagans (1727, reprint; Albany: Pratt and Doubleday, 1814), xxi. See also Ronan’s series at BCC, which discusses similar themes (1, 2, 3).