So my adviser, Ann Taves, has approved my final “throughline” for me to send out to the rest of my committee. Let me clarify. The way Ann likes to do it, is for her students to write the initial prospectus, then do all the research and then write a second prospectus. She calls the second prospectus a “throughline” or a chapter by chapter detail of your arguments. I had the added wrinkle of having my initial committee not being particularly thrilled about my first prospectus, which they passed off December 2010, so I was working to try to convince them that the project was viable in addition to “doing all the research.” I ultimately readjusted my committee, which now consists of Taves, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Allison Coudert, and Owen Davies. He’re hoping it sticks.
The following is the short version of the throughline, the long version is 25 pages. Ann wanted me to send out a long and short version to the committee and I figured the short version would work here. Ann and I have gone through many many drafts of this thing and it’s nice to finally get things ironed out. Ann likes this process because she feels it prevents problems down the road. About a third of this is Ann’s rewording.
The Presence of God: Early Mormonism and Christian Platonism
We can best understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism in light of an inclusive understanding of the history of Christianity, particularly its Platonizing strands and the various ways that practices for experiencing the presence of God have been framed over time (e.g. as magic, theurgy, mysticism, etc) on popular and elite levels. Viewing Joseph Smith’s folk practices, utopianism, temple rituals, soteriology, marital practices, and political ambition through a Christian Platonic lens allows us to see underlying connections that make intelligible many disparate and peculiar aspects of early Mormonism. Smith himself was undoubtedly not a self-conscious Christian Platonist, but Neoplatonic ideas were diffused throughout his environment and filtered down to ordinary people like Smith in various ways. This dissertation suggests that Smith was drawn to theological ideas that had Platonic overtones and pieced them together to create a system that makes sense in when viewed in those terms.
1. The Influence of Neoplatonism on Christianity and the World of Joseph Smith
This chapter addresses the issue of how a philosophical movement of the late Roman Empire could have had a profound influence on Joseph Smith, a person of limited education who lived more than a thousand years after the Neoplatonists. The first section will explain what Neoplatonism was and how it was incorporated by Christian Platonists up to the Reformation. The second section focuses on the democratization of Neoplatonism after the Reformation, or how Neoplatonism filtered down to regular people like Smith.
2. Young Joseph Smith: Folk Christianity and Christian Platonism
Many scholars have argued that Smith shifted from “magic” to “religion” as he went from practices like treasure digging to founding Mormonism. Mormon believers have tended to argue that Smith left behind the “magical” world of treasure digging as he embraced the “religion” of his visions, while critics have argued that Smith covered up his “magical” activities in Christian terms (for instance Moroni originally being a treasure guardian ghost who Smith then made an angel). By viewing the Smiths’ practices in the light of folk Christianity rather than an imposed magic/religion binary, we can view his development not as a transition from “magic” to “religion,” but from folk Christianity with implicit Neoplatonic elements to a more explicit and elaborated form of Christian Platonism.
3. A New Church
In mid-eighteenth-century in Weilheim, Germany, one Anna Maria Freyin began speaking with angels/ghosts and quickly attracted followers. “The sect was about to reshape local society and clearly threatened the local Protestant Church,” explains Johannes Dillinger. “A new Christian community with a special revelation, a holy book and at least a nascent priesthood was about to emerge.” Freyin’s movement was crushed by the local authorities, but many of these elements did come together in Joseph Smith’s Church of Christ (later named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) In the formation of the church, we see the confluence of the folk Christianity and Christian Platonism that had shaped Smith’s early religiosity: new revelation, new scriptures that had Neoplatonic themes, and claims to priesthood authority granted by angels. Like the Neoplatonic philosopher-king (an ideal found in the Book of Mormon), Smith sought to bring enlightenment to the larger society.
4. Kirtland (1830-1838)
With the founding of his church, Smith quickly attracted followers. A major boon for Smith came when Parley P. Pratt, a follower of Sidney Rigdon who led a congregation in Kirtland, Ohio, heard of the Mormons while in New York in the summer of 1830. Pratt inquired and joined shortly after. Pratt and Oliver Cowdery then brought the Mormon message to Rigdon and his congregation (Rigdon had split with Alexander Campbell over spiritual gifts and utopianism), most of whom joined the Mormons. Smith relocated his fledgling church to Kirtland as a result. Cowdery had been a source for additional Neoplatonic ideas, and now Rigdon would do the same; both mentioned Neoplatonic ideas in Mormon newspapers in the coming years. Together with William W. Phelps, another autodidact and newspaper writer, these three form the most likely sources of additional Neoplatonic ideas during the Kirtland period.
After the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of his church, Smith began receiving numerous revelations regarding the running of the church as well as doctrinal clarifications (the bulk of which were later published as “The Doctrine and Covenants”). In addition, Smith used similar visionary methods to “retranslate” the Bible, rewriting passages he deemed problematic and expanded others (called “The Joseph Smith Translation.”) In the process, questions about the Bible arose in his mind, were put to God, and often became the source of Smith’s most important revelations during this period; thus Smith’s biblical translation and revelations overlapped. While the bulk of Smith’s revelations and translations were fairly quotidian, a of number of these revelations became increasingly unconventional and Neoplatonic fueled by new ideas from core followers, as well as his own intuitions. These revelations in turn shaped the building of the Kirtland temple and the rituals practices therein.
I divide the development of Smith’s theology during the Kirtland period into two categories: things in heaven and things on earth (an allusion to one of Smith revelations where God commands the Mormons to learn “of things both in heaven and in the earth” [DC 88:79]). The first section, things in heaven, looks at the Neoplatonism in Mormonism’s development of cosmology and soteriology during this time, and section two looks at the development of Mormon utopianism and liturgy.
5. Things in Heaven in Early Nauvoo: 1839-42
Though Smith’s initial religious goals fell apart (being driven from Ohio and Missouri), Smith continued his Christian Platonic agenda in Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith scaled back his utopian earthly goals (no more community of goods, though he did try to gather his followers into a holy city) but took his heavenly cosmology in an increasingly Neoplatonic direction adding a fuller description of the divine drama that added a pre-mortal divine council (similar to Timaeus) and the possibility of multiple gods. Yet Smith developed Neoplatonic themes in novel ways, with a focus on the body that would lead to an embodied God. But even this seeming violation of Neoplatonism can be understood in terms of later developments within Neoplatonism.
6. A Nucleus of Heaven: Binding Heaven and Earth, 1840-42
In Smith’s 1838 prison revelation, God consoled Smith by telling him that his friends stood by him and that he was “not yet as Job.” Building on this theme, Smith would declare friendship to be the “grand fundamental principle of Mormonism” as he modified his utopian goals. Smith now sought to ritually bind together both his close associates through shared marriages that could last into the next life (concepts that drew upon Platonic marital notions) as well as seeking to bind together the living and the dead by the living performing baptisms on the dead’s behalf (which drew upon Christian Platonic themes of universalism and post-mortal progression). In doing so, he developed themes that were recognizably Catholic, Masonic, and Platonic, yet all relied to some degree underlying on Neoplatonic sources.
7. Teleos 1843-1844
Smith’s nucleus-of-heaven plans collapsed when followers either found them antagonizing or went rogue with the system. Both actions created a crisis and Smith changed his system to strict polygyny (no wife sharing) as a result. Yet Smith moved ahead with his other goals, expanding his rituals and seeking to rule as philosopher-king. Such acts were antagonizing to his neighbors who assassinated Smith June 27, 1844—his death the final apotheosis and the final goal of the Christian Platonist: the final union with the divine.
 Johannes Dillinger, Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History (Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 173.