Dissertation Prospectus 3.1

By October 17, 2011

So I’m still writing prospectuses (or is it prospecti?) My committee technically passed off my first prospectus in December but did so with reservations. I’ve been working on placating those ever since. Also, the way my adviser Ann Taves likes to do it is to write an original prospectus, then do all the research, and then write another one at that point. I certainly haven’t completed my research but I’m getting there. My point is though I’m still working at this but I don’t feel like I’m spinning my wheels.

Anyway, the latest draft weighed in at 55 pages and 230 footnotes. I’m thinking of doing three posts of some of the introductory material. Here’s number one: [note: a fair amount of this is Ann’s wording]

“The Presence of God: Early Mormonism and Neoplatonism”

American religious scholars have found Mormonism perplexing and difficult to categorize. Smith’s theology departed from the orthodox Christianity of his day, which led scholars to ask why Smith departed and what sources he drew upon in doing so. Though many scholars attempted to explain Smith in light of early nineteenth century sources and conflicts, John Brooke argued that, in the context of the early national period, “the combination of temple ritual, polygamous marriage, three-tired heavens, the coequality of spirit and matter, and the promise of godhood is essentially unique.” Further, added Brooke, “Unless one rests ones argument on revelation, Jungian archetypes, or simple reinvention (all of which are of some importance to this problem), we have to ask from where these ideas came.” Brooke changed the dynamic of the discussion by placing Mormonism’s context outside of its immediate environment. “Joseph Smith’s cosmology becomes comprehensible,” he argued, “only when it is placed in a setting broader than that of antebellum America.” Brooke asserted that Mormonism was fundamentally “hermetic,” drawing on Francis Yates’s thesis about the influence of the Corpus Hermeticum on the religion, science, and magic of early modern Europe. [1]

I argue that Brooke was right to link Mormonism to Yates’s thesis but that recent reevaluations of Yates’s work allow us to now situate Mormonism within a richer understanding of the history of Christianity. These critiques suggest that Neoplatoinic theurgy is a better term than “high magic” for the activities Yates describes (and raise questions concerning the use of the term magic in general), that Neoplatonism is a better description than Hermeticism, and that, rather than being reborn in the Renaissance, theurgy and Christian Platonism had medieval roots. In particular, they suggest that the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus and Proclus had a major influence on Western Christianity (discussed below).[2] It is their thought that I will argue corresponds remarkably well with Joseph Smith’s.

These reevaluations help to flesh out Brooke’s Hermeticism thesis by providing a larger context for early Mormonism and the sources upon which it drew. Using the Neoplatonic lens sheds light on numerous debates in Mormon historiography. 1) The Smiths’ involvement in what has been termed “folk magic” has led to considerable discussion of the relation between these folk practices and early Mormonism. If scholars refrain from reifying the concept of magic, they can focus on the worldview those practices suggest and observe the way certain rites paralleled Neoplatonism.[3] 2) Smith’s politics and utopianism stood out in various respects from those of his contemporaries. Those differences, I will argue, echoed Platonic themes. 3) Smith’s marital practices (polygamy) have received considerable attention. I argue that Smith essentially combined two Platonic motifs that had persisted in Western culture: Aristophanes’s myth of the adrogyne from Plato’s Symposium, where severed males and females seek wholeness by finding their severed half, and Socrates’s shared-wives from Plato’s Republic.[4] Smith’s goal, I argue, was to create a “nucleus of heaven” of his closest friends.[5] 4) Scholars have been puzzled by Mormonism in part because it is hard to see how the disparate innovations fit together. Ultimately, Neoplatonism provides a unifying framework that ties together many of Smith’s seemingly disparate innovations.

This dissertation will interpret Mormonism in light of the long tradition of Christian Platonism, in which Plato was viewed either as an important precursor to Christianity, or one who had tapped into legitimate sources of divine wisdom and thus was able to express Christian truth. Rather than something foreign to Christianity, Plato was influential from the beginning and found adherents throughout the history of Christianity. Platonism was not static; the Neoplatonists, in particular, made important additions to the movement. Imablichus and Proclus, added theurgy (Egyptian and other rituals that led to the divinization of the adherent) to Platonic practice and had significant influence on the development of Christian Platonism. Mormonism itself most resembled the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus and Proclus and the various traditions they influenced. At the same time, Smith was heavily influenced by the traditional folk Christianity of the early United States, which also shaped the Neoplatonic-sounding aspects of his theology, but which, I will argue, preserved features of Neoplatonic practice in attenuated forms. These fuller aspects of Neoplatonism must be considered in exploring Smith’s religiosity.

The irony is that Smith never mentioned Plato, and the only reference to Plato among early Mormons that I am aware of was negative.[6] Smith never saw himself as an adherent of Plato, nor did he ever study Platonic or Neoplatonic ideas in a systematic way; Smith continually asserted that his theology was fundamentally biblical. However, I argue that Smith consistently pieced together Neoplatonic-sounding ideas and interpreted the Bible in Neoplatonic-sounding ways. Catherine Albanese’s assessment that Smith “picked up the scattered pieces of light in his world in order to repair and reconstruct a Hermetic whole” is apt (with the caveat that “Neoplatonic” is a better word choice).[7] Yet how Smith pieced together these Neoplatonic ideas is often quite unclear. Brooke suggested the possibilities of “revelation, Jungian archetypes, or simple reinvention,” all of which should be considered.[8] Smith saw himself as a prophet, a person that talked to God, and he produced extensive writings that he claimed were God’s word. Yet Smith did not present himself as wholly passive in expounding God’s word: Smith’s revelations were often answers to his questions and his revelations often directed Smith and his followers to study the various goings on in their world.[9] So even in Smith’s mind, it is possible that study was not incompatible with revelation.

I will argue that Smith was indeed able to study or at least absorb and integrate many of these Neoplatonic “pieces of light” because they were disseminated throughout Western religious thought and practice and were actually available to those, such as Smith, who were drawn to them. Why Smith was drawn to Neoplatonic ideas is harder to say. One reason was likely a reaction against the disenchantment asserted by the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Smith’s scriptures spoke out strongly against the cessation of miracles, and Neoplatonism presented a very enchanted worldview.[10] One way or another, Smith consistently was drawn to and expounded Neoplatonic ideas even though he did not view himself in those terms.

Method and Scope: I will make comparisons between the thought and practice of Joseph Smith and that of Plato and the Neoplatonists. Thus I will trace the development of Smith’s thought, making comparisons to Neoplatonism as I go, while noting possible points of contact between Smith and Neoplatonic ideas. The scope of the dissertation is very large, tracing ideas from Plato to Joseph Smith. The comparisons I will make will be based on primary sources but I will rely on many secondary sources when I talk about transmission. This dissertation will not attempt a complete analysis of Smith’s theology and practice but will instead focus on key areas with Neoplatonic similarities. I will argue, however, that the overlap between early Mormonism and Neoplatonism is extensive.

[1]John L. Brooke, Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), xvi.

[2]Wouter J. Hanegraaff “The Study of Western Esotericism: New Approaches to Christian and Secular Culture,” in New Approaches to the Study of Religion. Vol 1: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches, ed. Peter Antes, Armin W. Geerts, and Randi Warne (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 489-520; Gyorgy E. Szonyi, John Dee’s Occultism: Magical Exaltation through Powerful Signs (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004); Florian Ebeling, The Secret History of Hermes Trismegistus: Hermeticism from Ancient to Modern Times, forward by Jan Assmann , trans by David Lorton (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2007); Owen Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Stephen Clucas, “John Dee’s Angelic Conversations and the Ars Notoria: Renaissance Magic and Medieval Theurgy,” in John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies In English Renaissance Thought, ed. Stephen Clucas, (Springer Dordrecht, The Netherlands: 2010), 231-74.

[3] Naomi Janowitz, Magic in the Roman World: Pagans, Jews and Christians (London: Routledge, 2001); Randall Styers, Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); Hanegraaff “The Study of Western Esotericism,” 489-520.

[4] Plato, Symposium, 190-193; Plato, Republic, 457-462. Cathy Gutierrez argues that certain Spiritualists also mixed Aristophanes from the Symposium with the Republic, “Deadly Dates: Bodies and Sex in Spiritualist Heavens,” in Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism, ed. Wouter J. Haanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Krippal (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 326-29.

[5] Early Mormon Benjamin F. Johnson said, “The Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great future,” said Benjamin Johnson, “would be Comensurate with the no [number] of ‘Wives Childin & Friends’ that we inheret here and that our great mission to earth was to Organize a Neculi [nucleus] of Heaven to take with us.” Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997), 10.

[6] Mormon apostle Parley Pratt attacked Plato for his notion of an immaterial afterlife. Quoted in Benjamin E. Park “Salvation through a Tabernacle: Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, and Early Mormon Theologies of Embodiment,” Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought 43, no. 2 (2010):1-2. This issue is discussed below.

[7] Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 139.

[8] Brooke, Refiner’s Fire, xvi.

[9] One revelation ends with the injunction, “Verily I say unto you, that it is my will that you should hasten to translate my scriptures, and to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion. Amen.” Doctrine and Covenants 93:53.

[10] The Book of Mormon declares, “Who shall say that Jesus Christ did not do many mighty miracles? And there were many mighty miracles wrought by the hand of the apostles. And if there were miracles wrought then, why had God ceased to be a God of miracles?” And later, “If these things have ceased wo be under the children of men, for it is because of unbelief and all is vain.” Mormon 9:18-20; Moroni 7:37. Emma Clarke argues that the supernatural was central to Imablichus’s agenda. Iamblichus’ Mysteriis: A Manifesto of the Miraculous (Aldershot: U.K. Ashgate, 2001).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Christian History


  1. The nominative plural of prospectus is prospectus–it is one of those goofy fourth declension nouns.

    Comment by oudenos — October 17, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  2. Looks great Steve. This is one of those projects I think has been needed a long time. I hope you bring up the issue of convergent development and evolution rather than necessarily direct influence. I think given a few sets of premises that a lot of the ideas can arise naturally.

    Comment by Clark — October 17, 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  3. I used to tell people that the real secret to the LDS Church was that it was a practical joke by the wandering jew (a myth figure). You are about to add some spice to an alternative thesis … 😉

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — October 17, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

  4. Thanks oudenos.

    Thanks Clark. My adviser wanted me to suggest multiple possibilities for why there are parallels with Neoplatonism so I added the line from Brooke about Jung, revelation, and reinvention and that seemed to work for her. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that in the dissertation itself, but basically say “here’s a parallel and here’s some possibilities.” Anyway, I’ll put up some more posts on some of the evidence I’m looking at.

    Stephen ?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 18, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  5. Looking forward to this Steve. There’s a lot here.

    Comment by WVS — October 18, 2011 @ 10:32 am

  6. Well I’m not sure Jung is a valid approach to parallels. (At least I hope that’s not taken seriously in the academy anywhere) I think it’s fairly easy to find philosophies that end up recreating the wheel and I think that happens a lot with pseudo-platonic views. There are some interesting critiques of Heidegger’s readings of Plato for instance that argue Heidegger recreates Plato against the dominate way of reading Plato in the early 20th century. What was it Whitehead said? All philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. There’s a reason why people end up retracing his steps without being aware of it.

    Comment by Clark — October 18, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  7. Yeah, Jung isn’t really used but I sort of liked the shot gun approach to possibilities :).

    I think Whitehead had a point.

    Thanks WVS.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 18, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

  8. This approach will go nowhere just like Brooke’s thesis. You are attempting to ascribe too much sophistication to Joseph Smith. His main inspiration was Christian primitivism. You should rather compare Neoplatonism with early Christianity, which has been done. Is there enough unique parallels to justify a meaningful connection. I doubt it.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — October 20, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  9. Thanks Dan. More posts to come. If I’m half as successful as Brooke, that will be quite an accomplishment.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 20, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  10. Aim higher.

    Comment by Dan Vogel — October 21, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  11. I’ll do my best.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 22, 2011 @ 11:55 am

  12. I’d second Dan. Brooke had a very interesting thesis that he filled in via highly flawed examples and thinking. You should be able to do much, much better than Brooke.

    Comment by Clark — October 22, 2011 @ 1:49 pm

  13. I’d disagree with Dan on ‘Christian primitivism.’ I don’t think that explains much of Nauvoo at all. It’s too bad that all the mason books that were being worked on the past 15 years amounted to nothing. I think that’s still be best resource to figuring out a major influence on Nauvoo theology (not to mention a lot of early Utah thinking).

    But as I said I think neoplatonism is also an amazingly fruitful avenue so long as you don’t get too caught up in the genealogical issues.

    Comment by Clark — October 22, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

  14. Folks remember Brooke won the Bancroft, right? I know there are problems with his interpretation and some of his evidence, but can we please put the whole “his thesis doesn’t matter” to rest? It’s a flawed but brilliant book, and deserves much more attention and appreciation than it has received. The very fact that it was recognized with some of professional history’s biggest prizes and has become one of the go-to secondary sources on Mormonism for historians should matter, even to the most critical of Mormon historians.

    And Christian primitivism doesn’t even begin to explain Joseph Smith, much less early Mormonism.

    Comment by Christopher — October 22, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

  15. Thanks for the encouragement Clark. Clearly I believe that Brooke can be improved upon but as Christopher points out, Brooke was quite successful.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 22, 2011 @ 6:19 pm

  16. I’ve come to be rather suspect of awards like that. I think awards are sometimes given to such flawed books that it’s hard to take too seriously. The counterfeiting chapter in Brooke is so bad it’s hard to take seriously even if he has a very compelling thesis and some other good chapters. And this isn’t just about Brooke. I’ve seen it over and over again where books are given awards that just don’t get the basics right.

    None of this is to deny the important place of Brooke (or of Quinn) but I think the role of the award in history has become rather problematic.

    Comment by Clark — October 23, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  17. I should note that Lance Owen’s “Joseph Smith and Kabbalism” also inexplicably won the award for best article in Mormon Studies from the MHA. And even if you are, like me, sympathetic to the thesis that is just a plain horrible article.

    Comment by Clark — October 23, 2011 @ 4:44 pm

  18. Clark, it’s difficult for me to take you seriously if you lump all awards together and compare the Bancroft Prize to MHA’s best article award. Surely you recognize the difference, right? You claim to have “seen it over and over again where books are given awards that just don’t get the basics right.” Okay, go through this list of Bancroft Prize winners and tell me which of them (excluding Michael A. Bellesiles’s 2001 Arming America, an award the committee later rescinded for much more damning reasons that an error or two) didn’t “get the basics right.”

    That said, I didn’t ever suggest you should accept his argument wholesale simply because it won awards, nor did I limit my reasons to take Brooke seriously to those prizes. I also noted that his book is among the most cited by American historians more generally when writing about Mormonism. Instead of dismissing the argument as “so bad it’s hard to take seriously,” perhaps you should read those books, consider their arguments, and ask what it is that those historians—trained, professional, peer-reviewed, and accomplished historians—find so interesting and persuasive about Brooke’s book. You might also re-read this post and reconsider why even someone as critical of Brooke as Mark Ashurst-McGee was willing to reconsider the import of The Refiner’s Fire.

    And finally, just to be clear about this: Brooke’s book is flawed. It reads much of early Mormonism wrong, makes interpretive leaps I’m not comfortable with, and ignores other potential avenues of influence that need to be addressed. But the book is still more important—for the reasons mentioned above and many others—than you or Dan Vogel give it credit for.

    Comment by Christopher — October 23, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  19. Chris, that’s a fair point. Clearly some awards are much more prestigious than others. I was trying to make a broader point that I’m kind of unimpressed with the selection of awards as well as their significance.

    If you’ve read my comments over the months you’ll see that I’m of two minds regarding most of the books and articles on “esoterica” and Mormonism. I think they are very important but they are often so flawed and on basic points that ought be got right that it’s disturbing. I think that too many Mormons have discounted Brooke. (You’ll recall it was me defending the book from Russell Fox’s criticisms)

    I think something can be important yet be bad history. I just think that often awards are given more in terms of what people wish the work did rather than what it actually did.

    Comment by Clark — October 23, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

  20. To add, I probably was unduly hyperbolic about rewards. So you’re quite correct to take me to task on that. Yet I also just think that folks should get the basic facts right before winning awards. I guess I’ve just seen this genre in particular defended by appeal to awards despite the big flaws that I’m grumpy on the point. That’s not to dispute the real contributions they make. But, as you yourself said, it’s a highly flawed book.

    Comment by Clark — October 23, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

  21. Thanks, Clark, for the clarification. We’re in complete agreement that awards are sometimes given to less-than-deserving or problematic scholarship (though I think that happens much less often with the Bancroft) and that a book should be judged on what it actually accomplished instead of what it attempted to or what judges wish it did.

    Comment by Christopher — October 24, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  22. Sounds like we’re more or less saying the same thing.

    The MHA has had, let us say, more controversial winners of its awards. It sometimes seems controversy and innovation are more important than strong argument and correct facts. Other awards tend to do better. Exactly why there have been so many odd MHA awards isn’t at all clear to me. (Although one can also argue that few even are aware of MHA awards and that the people who are aware of them are also simultaneously most able to figure out what books or articles are highly flawed)

    Comment by Clark — October 24, 2011 @ 10:17 am


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