Articles by

Steve Fleming

Inclusive Monotheism and Joseph Smith’s Sermon at the Grove

By October 5, 2015

Franklin’s statement may provide a lens through which to view some of Smith’s final statements about God(s). In the Sermon at the Grove (June 16, 1844) Smith insisted that there were multiple Gods: “the word Eloiheam ought to be in the plural all the way thro—Gods—the heads of the Gods appointed one God for us.” Franklin said there was a high God over Gods and that our God was the one who created our solar system. Franklin was probably influenced by Isaac Newton who also said there were multiple God in the universe and cited 1 Corinthians 8:5-6: “But to us there is but one God.” Smith cited the same scripture in the Sermon at the Grove.[1]

Thus Smith taught similar ideas to what some of the West’s most important thinkers and scientists had. Franklin biographer James Parton noted that Kepler and Goethe taught the same thing.[2] Strict monotheism would win out in orthodox Christianity (it usually did) but these great thinkers had found inclusive monotheism a better for the new conception of the universe.

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Benjamin Franklin’s “First Principles”: More Inclusive Monotheism

By September 22, 2015


Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky, c 1816, Benjamin West

Newton’s views likely influenced a remarkable statement from young Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had met with John Conduitt, the man who said that Newton had said that God had appointed “superior beings” over heavenly bodies.[1] Not long after, Franklin wrote the following which he entitled “First Principles.” Here I simply quote the whole thing and will offer further thoughts in a later post.


I BELIEVE there is one supreme, most perfect Being, author and father of the gods themselves.

For I believe that man is not the most perfect being but one, but rather as there are many degrees of beings superior to him.

Also when I stretch my imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves, into that space that is every way infinite, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds for ever moving round him; this little ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing, and myself less than nothing, and of no sort of consequence.

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Isaac Newton’s Inclusive Monotheism

By September 16, 2015



Newton and Joseph Smith had a lot of similar ideas about God

In my previous post, I mentioned Barbara Newman’s discussion of “inclusive monotheism” where intermediaries and other divine beings all work in harmony under a supreme being, as opposed to the radical monotheism of the Reformation which sought to get rid of such beings. Wouter Hanegraaff argues that when Max Weber referred to “disenchantment,” “he was describing the attempt by new scientists and Enlightenment philosophers to finish the job of Protestant anti-pagan polemicists, and get rid of cosmotheism once and for all.”[1]

Yet a major figure in the Enlightenment speculated about intermediary beings as well. Isaac Newton’s editor, John Conduitt, reported that Newton wondered toward the end of his life “whether there were not intelligent beings superior to us who superintended these revolutions of heavenly bodies by the direction of the Superior Being.”[2]  

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What’s the Opposite of Strict Monotheism? A Question of Terminology

By September 8, 2015

Hanegraaff concludes Esotericism and the Academy by arguing that the two principal points that Enlightenment scholars of philosophy labeled as pagan heresy—the rejection of creation ex nihilo and the belief in the uncreated, divine part of the soul (or nous)—are in fact the chief traits of what we might term Western esotericism.

Hanegraaff calls the rejection of creation ex nihilo, cosmotheism, which he sees as a counterpart of strict monotheism. Quoting the Egyptologist Jan Assman, cosmotheism is one where “a divine world does not stand in opposition to the world of cosmos, man, and society; rather, it is a principle that permeates it and gives it structure, order and meaning … The divine cannot be excluded from the world.” Such, Hanegraaff argues, is “the logical alternative to classic monotheism, where the invisible and eternal Creator is strictly separate from this visible and temporal creation.”  Hanegraaff sees “a deep structural conflict between the dynamics of these two mutually exclusive systems and all that they imply” (371).

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Book Review: Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy

By August 27, 2015

Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

I’m planning on doing a series of posts on “cosmotheism,” or at least the way the Wouter Hanegraaff describes the concept in his book Esotericism and the Academy. But before I do so, I thought it best to review Hanegraaff’s book, which I had been meaning to do for a while now.

For anyone who attended MHA session on the reassessment of John Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire, both Brooke and I mentioned this book a number of times, and I would simply state here that there isn’t a book that I would recommend more highly for anyone interested in situating Mormonism both historically and intellectually within Christian history.

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Guest Post: A Survey on the Trek Experience

By August 17, 2015



Sara M. Patterson (Hanover College) is conducting research on people’s trek experiences for a larger project on historical memory along the Mormon Trail. She invites people who have participated in trekking to fill out this short survey about their experiences:

If you have any questions, you can contact her at:

“If Any of You Lack Wisdom”: Seer Stones and John Dee’s and Joseph Smith’s Religious Quests

By August 9, 2015

A number of scholars have argued for a connection between Joseph Smith’s First Vision and the commencement of his treasure-digging activities, a trend nicely summarized by Mark Ashurst-McGee in his seminal work on Joseph Smith’s seer stones:

When Joseph went to the grove he was not just wavering between Presbyterianism and Methodism, but between organized religion and folk magic. Should he join one particular denomination or were they all wrong together? Should he convert to Evangelicalism or obtain his seer stone? “Go thy way,” the Lord told him, and rejected the churches of the day in part because, as he told Joseph, they taught “the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.” As historian Marvin Hill notes, the power and gifts of God were not denied by the treasure seers and diggers and other practitioners of folk magic. Richard Bushman explains that the First Vision would have driven Joseph away from the organized churches in his mother’s social orbit toward the treasuring-seeking culture of his father.

Ashusrt-McGee goes so far as to ask, “Did Jesus instruct Joseph to obtain a stone?”[1]

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JI Summer Book Club: Rough Stone Rolling, Part 2: Chapters Three and Four

By May 18, 2015

RSR Image

This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30”) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830”).

Previous installments in the series:

•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2


3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).

Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.

Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support.

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“My Father Had but One Ewe Lamb”: Joseph Smith and Helen, Heber, and Vilate Kimball

By May 14, 2015

Helen Kimball as Joseph Smith’s 14-year-old wife understandably gets a lot of attention in discussions about Smith’s marital practices. In my dissertation, I argue that the story of Helen’s marriage to Smith sheds lights on larger issues so I’m posting those passages here. First, however, I’m posting a few paragraphs where I give a summary of my argument about Smith’s overall intent. It’s pages 371-74 of my dissertation.

The sexuality of Smith’s marriages has been much debated, but boiling Smith’s marital relationships down to sex misses the point. The point of the marriages, again, was best described by Mary Lightner, both in her description of the 1831 “sealing” and in the proposal to her by Smith: to be united with Smith so as to go with him into the Father’s kingdom. This was something that many early Mormons wanted. Oliver Huntington said that “soon after Dimick had given our sisters Zina & Prescinda to Joseph as wives for eternity,” Smith offered Dimick any reward he wanted. Dimick requested “that where you and your fathers family are, there I and my fathers family may also be.”[1] Todd Compton argues that a number of polyandrous husbands may have known about the sealing, particularly Henry Jacobs and Windsor Lyon.[2]

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Teaching the Priesthood/Temple Ban at BYU

By May 6, 2015

For the D&C class I taught at BYU, (see my previous post on teaching polygamy), when we got to Official Declaration 2, my objectives were to cover the difficult issues and present some possible frameworks by which to make sense of those issues.

The students had read the church’s essay, so they had some good background, but I wanted to get a little more specific on a few items. I began with a quiz where I just asked for thoughts and questions on the topic. They pretty much all had the same one: why did we do this? So I just started into my PowerPoint.

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Religious Persecution and the Great and Abominable Church

By April 24, 2015

In 1 Nephi 13:5, the angel says to Nephi “Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.” We used to stress this being the Catholics but have sort of backed off this in the last few decades to the point where I don’t hear much talk about the GAC anymore. And yet it’s quite important in these chapters in the Book of Mormon where Nephi lays out a kind of visionary history of the world from Christ to the coming of the Book of Mormon.

Both the discussion of the apostasy and restoration that the kids are having now in church coupled with my recent discovery of the movie Agora on Netflix (it’s R but a fairly light R, historical violence that isn’t too bad), put me in mind of the topic.

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Teaching Polygamy at BYU

By April 23, 2015

So I recently finished teaching the second half of the Doctrine and Covenants at BYU, which I enjoyed very much. When we got to some of the harder issues that are part of the curriculum, especially polygamy and blacks and the priesthood, I wanted to cover them in a way that was both direct and helpful. I applaud the church’s essays in these topics, assigned them, and wanted to cover these topics in the same spirit of openness. Yet these are tough and as 132 approached, I was trying to thing about how to go about it. To me it seemed like I had three options. 1) Dodge it. Again, I didn’t want to do that. 2) Tell the students information that I felt pretty sure was incorrect. As I mentioned in this previous post,  I like the articles but think there are some mistakes, especially eternity only sealings. 3) Tell them what I believe is correct. Having tried this out on my own kids and feeling it went well, I decided to give my assertion about shared marriages a shot. So I got my powerpoint ready and headed to class.

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When Did Joseph Smith Know What He Knew?

By April 1, 2015

Okay, kind of a goofy way of putting the question, but in my last post, I said that I argued in my dissertation that I believed that JS often knew about things much earlier than when he first clearly taught them. I base this claim on a few point, most notably my assertion that I think JS was influenced early on by texts that had a lot of what we would consider “Mormon ideas.” As I’ve tried to stress a lot around here, I don’t see this claim as an attack, but as a larger claim that JS was gathering “Truth” together from the sources that had it. Nor do I see such claims as antithetical to revelatory claims since we’re supposed to seek wisdom “by study and faith” and then ask God “if it be right.”  

So with that in mind, here’s part of my introduction to my chapter 6 “The Plan of Salvation” where I treat JS’s teachings about God’s plan of sending preexistent beings to earth to progress, get bodies, with the chance of becoming deified.  It’s an overview of my claim that JS knew about a lot of the Nauvoo doctrine much earlier. It’s pages 386-87 of my dissertation.

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Two Quibbles with the Church’s Essay on Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: When It Was Revealed and Eternity Only Marriages

By March 30, 2015

I add my praise for the church’s essays on gospel topics, including the essays on polygamy. However, I disagree with two points that the essay on Joseph Smith’s polygamy made: that polygamy was revealed to Joseph Smith during his translation of the Old Testament and that Smith engaged in eternity only sealings. Such points have been asserted by a number of scholars so my critique isn’t so much one of the essay but of these two commonly asserted claims.

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Oliver Cowdery and Roger Williams: Holy Ancestors and Baptism for the Dead

By February 28, 2015

In my dissertation, I argue that the following statement in an 1835 letter from Oliver Cowdery to William Phelps was an important step in the development of the Mormons’ theology related to baptisms for the dead:[1]

Do our fathers, who have waded through affliction and adversity, who have been cast out from the society of this world, whose tears have, times without number, watered their furrowed face, while mourning over the corruption of their fellowmen, an inheritance in those mansions? If so, can they without us be made perfect? Will their joy be full till we rest with them? And is their efficacy and virtue sufficient, in the blood of a Savior, who groaned upon Calvary’s summit, to expiate our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness?[2]

Yet, I wondered who exactly Cowdery meant by “our fathers, who have waded through affliction and adversity,” etc. Early Mormons expressed a lot of concern for ancestors who died before Mormonism (a big reason for the embrace of baptisms for the dead), but Cowdery seemed to have particular people in mind. Val Rust’s Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors (2004) argues that the early Mormon descended disproportionately from New England radicals who were often cast out and persecuted by other New Englanders but I was curious to what degree the early Mormons were aware of their radical ancestors and of their possible connection to them.

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Joseph Smith’s and Morton Smith’s Similar Views of Jesus’s Deificaiton

By January 1, 2015

I’m no New Testament scholar. At all. But I had to look a few things up for my dissertation in my attempt to trace ideas in Joseph Smith’s teachings and revelations. In particular, Joseph Smith made some interesting statements about Jesus that were very much at odds with Protestantism. A handful of ideas in particular stood out and overlapped: that Jesus became God during His life, either through his baptism or through an additional temple rite and that Jesus did so even though he was a pre-existent deity. And I found it interesting that Morton Smith made all these same claims.

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Talking about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy with Your Kids: One Dad’s Experience

By December 1, 2014

With the new polygamy essays out, I’ve heard and seen a number of comments along the lines of “we can maybe wrap our brains around this, but how in the world are we supposed to explain this to our children?” Good question. I, like probably a lot of bloggernacle folks, have tried to make it a point to go over various often undressed points of early Mormon history my my kids (like the seer stone) but I had neglected polygamy. This neglect was brought to my attention one summer after my then twelve-year-old son had returned from a trip to California to spend a week with his non-Mormon friends. He informed us that they had been razzing him about polygamy, something he knew nothing about. My wife and I started into a basic explanation of how we used to practice this but no more when he cut us off by asking, “But it was wrong, right?”

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Esotericism in the Internet Age: Or How Do We Teach Our Secrets Now?

By November 14, 2014

The idea of esoteric truth, or higher truths only taught to the spiritually or ritually prepared, can be found in many traditions.  It has a long history in Christianity and Jesus himself declared to his apostles, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand”  (Luke 8:10).  Paul in particular referred to higher teachings: in 1 Corinthians 2 he declared, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified … Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory … But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”  And in the next chapter Paul declared, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.”

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When Did You First Hear about Joseph Smith’s Polygamy (And Other Difficult Issues)?

By November 11, 2014

I first read about JS’s polygamy in sixth grade when I read the World Book Encyclopedia entry on JS, which said he had like 30 wives.  That seemed novel to me, though since I had heard about the church practicing polygamy I had some context.  What was even more novel, I remember, was that that entry was the first time I had ever read anything on JS that wasn’t devotional.  The article wasn’t particularly negative as I recall, but I remember the distinct realization that there was another way of looking at the church’s history than what I was taught in church.  And I wasn’t really sure what to make of that.  And I didn’t discuss it with my parents or anybody else since it seemed a little awkward and at that age I sort of wanted to avoid awkward discussions with my parents.  But it left the distinct impression that there may be some unsettling issues in church history, that there were a number of viewpoints on those issues, and that I didn’t have all the answers.  As I look back, I actually think that realization served me well.

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Dissertation Introduction, Part 7: Joseph Smith and Learning

By September 5, 2014

Smith’s own lack of education may be an objection to the claim that Christian Platonism influenced him.  “Being in indigent circumstances [we] were obliged to labour hard,” Smith said of his childhood. “Therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education[.] Suffice it to Say I was mearly instructed in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.”[1]  His mother, Lucy, said Smith read less that her other children and his wife Emma said at the time he dictated the Book of Mormon, he “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter.”[2]  Smith’s writing skills were limited and he most often dictated what he wanted to communicate.  But Smith was not cut off from learning and literacy in his day.  His mother said he read less than her other children, not that he didn’t read at all, and both his mother’s and his wife’s statements were made in context of defending the validity of the Book of Mormon against the claim the Smith was the author.  Lucy and Emma may have been exaggerating Smith’s ignorance to bolster that claim.  Though he grew up in a small, recently settled town, print was available to him: newspapers, bookstores, and libraries.[3]  Smith also made attempts to engage intellectually with his peers by attending religious meetings and a local debating society.[4]  Furthermore, Smith continually worked at his education; Smith even attended school when he was 20 to 21.[5]  A major shift occurred when Smith founded his church.  Smith now had more free time with which to read and many of his followers had better educations than he did; he even founded a study group, the school of the prophets.  In an important sermon toward the end of his life, Smith declared after giving an exegesis of Genesis 1:1 along Christian-Platonic lines, “if you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God.”[6]

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