The more I look at the development of Mormon thought, the more I’m convinced that the development of materialism drastically shaped late Nauvoo and early Utah (and beyond) theology. However, the evolution of Mormonism’s materialism is not only difficult to trace, but perplexing to compare when examined in conjunction with contemporary materialists. When Joseph Smith proclaimed that “all spirit is matter,” he still refused to collapse all distinction, claiming that spirit was more refined and “pure.” Indeed, as LDS thinkers began to work towards a more systematic theology, further definitions on what constituted Mormon materialism were required to not only to differentiate themselves from other ideologies, but to retain some form of earthly/heavenly dualism.
The initial development of Mormon materialism, while a fascinating topic, is not the focus of this post. For our purposes, vague roots of it are found in Joseph Smith’s early revelations, a crucial step is made with Parley Pratt’s prison writings, and then Smith’s Nauvoo teachings vaulted the idea to a central position of LDS thought where it has since stayed. By closing the distance between matter and spirit, a redefined and radical ontology not only appeared but flourished in Nauvoo. Many Mormon thinkers, most notably Parley Pratt, argued that all of Mormonism’s distinct theology stemmed from “the riches of materialism.”
When early Mormons declared themselves as “materialists,” they entered into an ongoing dialogue that had picked up steam in the previous two centuries of British theological debate, even if they were not aware of it. While Descartes most famously divided spirit and matter into two distinct substances, others like Joseph Priestly attempted to collapse that distance. While many materialists tended to have an atheist or agnostic view of the world, theistic (though unorthodox) voices began to argue for a Christian materialism. Therefore, the Saints’ notion of all things being composed of a physical substance was not novel, though important facets of their materialist theology was unique and made necessary a distinction between their thought and that of their contemporaries.
When Parley Pratt proclaimed in 1844 that “all persons except materialists must be infidels, so far at least as belief in the scriptures is concerned,” he might not have been ready to differentiate LDS theology from other materialists—perhaps because he did not know the difference himself. However, within a decade, British Mormons were being attacked with the standard claims associated with other materialists, encapsulated in T. W. P. Taylder’s The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed. Orson’s response, Absurdities of Immaterialism, was as much a distinction of Mormon theology from contemporary materialisms as it was a denunciation of “atheistic” immaterialism. Taylder, Pratt reasoned, “has clearly exhibited the absurdities of Priestley, Darwin, and various other writers, who have made mind the result of the motions of the brain or its organization.” But, Pratt continued, the minister failed to attach these thinkers to those of the LDS Church, and he thus set out to differentiate himself from others.
Forced to demonstrated their diverging views, Orson Pratt focused on how contemporary materialism devalued the mind to the point of mechanism, or the idea that all thoughts, emotions, and feelings are just the result of the organization and natural function of the brain. “A material mind,” Pratt countered, “ possessing the power to think, to feel, to reason, to remember, is not the brain, nor secretions of the brain, nor any other part of the fleshy tabernacle,” but is separate and distinct. With such an “absurdity’ being common among materialists, Pratt concluded, it is no surprise that there is such an outrage against the idea.
No doubt but that the immaterialist absurdity was invented principally to combat the gross errors which have been embraced by some materialists, both of ancient and modern times. The great majority of materialists have contended that thought and feeling are the results of organization, beginning and ceasing with it. Hobbes, Spinosa, Priestly, Darwin, and numerous other individuals, have strenuously advocated this inconsistency. They have asserted that particles of matter have no susceptibilities of thought and feeling when unorganized, but as soon as they were brought together into a certain system, the result of such union is thought and feeling.
Pratt’s most common emphasized difference was that “intelligence” (and “intelligences”) were the cause of all action, and not the affect, most clearly set up in his later pamphlet, Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe.
Now, these are just a few of the fascinating tensions involved when engaging Mormon materialism, especially when differentiating them from other materialists. I am interested in what interesting insights others have garnered when dealing with (and possibly defining) materialism in Mormon thought. What do you see as distinctive in LDS materialism? What role do you see it playing in the development of Mormon theology?
 Joseph Smith Sermon, 17 May 1843, recorded in George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in Association with Smith Research Associates, 1995), 103-104.
 An example of this desire to retain some form of distinction is Mormon thinkers’ insistence that blood is a key separation between earthly and celestial bodies.
 Early revelations that contained seeds of the eventual Mormon materialism include D&C 93 and the “Awman” revelation, made available for the first time in the first volume of the Revelations series in the Joseph Smith Papers Project (I’d have more to say on this fascinating text, not to mention give citation information, but my copy hasn’t arrived yet–darn overseas shipping!!!). Pratt’s important early text is Parley P. Pratt, “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” in Parley P. Pratt, The Millennium, and Other Poems: To Which is Annexed, A Treatise on the Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter (W. Molineux, 1840).
 [Parley Pratt], “Materiality,” The Prophet 1, no. 52 (24 May 1845), no pagination. This late-Nauvoo period editorial, important in tracing the development of Mormon materialism, ontology, and theosis, is engaged in Benjamin E. Park and Jordan Watkins, “The Riches of Mormon Materialism: Parley Pratt’s ‘Materiality’ and Early Mormon Theology,” paper under review. It should be noted that some scholars, including JI’s frequent commenter Sam Brown, believe that Mormonism’s materialism stemmed from other theological developments, rather than vice versa.
 Concerning Joseph Smith, Richard Bushman wrote, “When he spoke the words [about materialism], Joseph probably did not consider the longstanding philosophical argument about the nature of matter. Metaphysical materialism—the idea that there was no spirit, only matter—was the subject of extensive debate in the late eighteenth century.” Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 419.
 See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 302-303.
 Parley P. Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,” in An Appeal to the Inhabitants of the State of New York, Letter to Queen Victoria (Reprinted from the Tenth European Edition,) The Fountain of Knowledge; Immortality of the Body, and Intelligence and Affection (Nauvoo: John Taylor, Printer, 1844), 21.
 T. W. P. Taylder, The Materialsm of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed (Woolwich: Printed by E. Jones, 1849).
 Orson Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, or, A Reply to T. W. P. Taylder’s Pamphlet, entitled, “The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed” (Liverpool: R. James, 1849), 9.
 On the difference between Orson’s thought and other materialists, see Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985), 202-205.
 Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, 5.
 Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, 18.
 Orson Pratt, Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe (Liverpool: R. James, 1851).
 On a comparison of Mormon thought and materialist theology in general, see Max Nolan, “Materialism and the Mormon Faith,” Dialogue 22, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 62-75.