Dissertation Introduction, Part 6: Study and Faith

By September 4, 2014

Yet arguing for the influence of these various thinkers on Smith raises the issue that Smith never once mentioned any of their writings.  Visionaries often did not cite their sources, however: Jacob Boehme, Jane Lead, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake said nothing about what they were reading other than the Bible.  This has caused problems for scholars who have tried to contextualize these visionaries.  Swedenborg’s followers have tended to view claims of influence as delegitimizing and have argued against Swedenborg being influenced by other thinkers (similar to Mormon scholars’ concerns), but as Brian Gibbons argues, “The tendency of Swedenborg’s hagiographers to see his work as created ex nihilo is clearly untenable.”[1]  Scholars have vigorously debated what William Blake’s influences might have been with Harold Bloom declaring that Blake “was not an antiquarian, a mystic, an occultist or theosophist, and not much of a scholar of any writings beyond the Bible and other poetry insofar as it resembled the Bible,” while numerous other scholars have argued that Blake was influenced by esoteric ideas, particularly Neoplatonism.  

E. P. Thompson pointed a way forward in his arguments for how Blake engaged texts, an argument that seems applicable to other visionaries, including Smith.  “We have become habituated to reading in an academic way….  We learn of influence, we are directed to a book or a ‘reputable’ intellectual tradition, we set this book beside that book, we compare and cross-refer.  But Blake had a different way of reading.  He would look into a book with a directness which we might find to be naïve or unbearable, challenging each one of its arguments against his own experience and his own ‘system.’”  And this way of reading suggests why Blake didn’t cite sources: Thompson argues, “He took each author (even the Old Testament prophets) as his equal, or as something less.  And he acknowledged as between them, no received judgements as to their worth, no hierarchy of accepted ‘reputability.’”[2]  Thus, citing those sources likely wasn’t important to him.

An early revelation to Oliver Cowdery (the scribe for the Book of Mormon and Smith’s close associate) gives some insights into how revelation worked for Smith.  The revelation told Cowdery that he was unable to translate the gold plates because “you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought, save it was to ask me; but behold I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”[3]  To receive revelation one needed to “study [something] out in [one’s] mind” and then ask God if the conclusion that one came to was right.  This statement suggested that revelation did not simply flow into the revelator; the revelator had to come up with an idea and then seek confirmation of that idea.[4]  If such a notion of revelation applied to the truth that Smith found in eclectic sources, then Smith knew that certain items were truth because God had confirmed them.  That is, God was the source of the truth more so than the writers of the text.

A very important vision that Smith and his better-educated associate Sidney Rigdon had may suggest an instance in which Smith and Rigdon had an idea confirmed (Chapter Four).  In 1832, Smith and Rigdon were working on Smith’s revision of the Bible when they came to John 5:29: “And shall come forth; they who have done good, in the resurrection of the just; and they who have done evil, in the resurrection of the unjust.”  Smith and Rigdon then added, “Now this caused us to marvel.”[5]  Why this caused them to marvel is unclear since John 5:29 is a simple statement of the division of the righteous and wicked in the next life, an idea found in the Book of Mormon and the Bible.  Yet the vision that followed, coupled with the revelation to Cowdery, give clues as to why Smith and Rigdon were marveling.  Smith and Rigdon’s vision had numerous similarities to visions described by Jane Lead in her books Enochian Walks with God and The Wonders of God’s Creation, which presented a complex view of the afterlife with different kinds of people going into different “worlds,” a word that Smith and Rigdon used in describing their vision.  If one needed to “study it out in [one’s] mind” and then ask God “if it be right” in order to get a revelation, then perhaps knowledge of Lead’s work was a catalyst for this revelation.  Smith and Ridgon wrote, “And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened.”[6]  That is, they had a revelation “as they were meditating upon these things” and the simplicity of John 5:29 suggests that Smith and Rigdon had additional information on which to meditate.  Lead’s more complex view of the afterlife may have been the reason why Smith and Rigdon marveled over an otherwise straightforward passage.  Furthermore, the vision that Smith and Rigdon then had as a result of their marveling would have trumped any prompt that caused them to “marvel” in the first place.  The truth was what they themselves had experienced.

Furthermore, Smith at times indicated that he was being coy about his sources.  In his 1840 letter to the Mormon apostles on the subject of baptism for the dead, he wrote, “I cannot in this letter give you all the information you may desire on the subject, but aside from my knowledge independent of the Bible, I would say that it was certainly practiced by the ancient church.”[7]  Smith said he had “knowledge independent of the Bible,” but did not say what the source was.  Later, in midst of one of his most radical sermons, Smith declared, “I suppose that I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not in the Bible—you would cry treason.”[8]  Being extra-biblical was a problem for both his critics and many of his followers and Smith seemed to have kept his extra-biblical sources to himself.

Smith’s response to a follower’s question about what he thought of Emmanuel Swedenborg is telling: “His answer I verially believe.  ‘Emanuel Sweadenburg had a view of the world to come but for daily food he perished.’”[9]  Smith suggested that he believed that Swedenborg had legitimate visions (“had a view of the world to come”) but lacked the full truth (“for daily food he perished”).  Lacking that full truth, Swedenborg’s visions weren’t very important, especially since Smith had the fuller truth.  One way or another, Smith suggested that other legitimate visionaries didn’t merit much comment.  Yet at the same time, Smith’s response suggested that he believed that there were other legitimate visionaries out there.  Indeed, though the early Mormons could be very critical of contemporary religions, they occasionally hinted that some people were inspired.  For instance the Book of Mormon declared that Christ “manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people.”  All who believed in Christ could have manifestations by the Holy Ghost.  Furthermore, the same passage that condemned the Gentiles for rejecting additional scripture declared, “Know ye not that there are more nations than one?  Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men … and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?”[10]  Truth could be found not only among visionaries like Swedenborg (or Lead or Dee) but also among non-biblical civilizations (like those documented in Ramsay’s Travels of Cyrus).  Yet it was Smith’s revelations confirmed by God that mattered most.


[1] Brian J. Gibbons, Gender in Mystical and Occult Thought: Behmenism and Its Development in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 200.

[2] E. P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), xii, xvi.

[3] Doctrine and Covenants(1835), 162; DC 9:7-8.

[4] Though revelation may have taken different forms.

[5] Doctrine and Covenants (1835), 226; current DC 76:15-18.

[6] Doctrine and Covenants (1835), 226; current DC 76: 19.

[7] Joseph Smith, letter to “the Travelling High Council and Elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of LDS in Great Britain,” Dec. 15 1840, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jesse (1984, reprint; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 521.

[8] Joseph Smith, April 7, 1844, Words of Joseph Smith, 358.

[9] Edward Hunter, Autobiography, in William E. Hunter, Edward Hunter, Faithful Steward (Salt Lake City: Publishers, 1970), 316.

[10] 2 Nephi 26:13; 2 Nephi 29:7.

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