Of Stars, Symbolic Language, Cultural Context, and Intellectual Influence

By April 11, 2011

Every once and a while I’ll read a book or article that in no way deals with Mormon history but still either sheds light on Mormonism’s cultural surroundings or demonstrates a methodological approach that may be useful for Mormon studies. (For instance, an example of the former is here, and an example of the latter is here.) In Eran Shaley’s “‘A Republic Amidst the Stars’: Political Astronomy and the Intellectual Origins of the Stars and Stripes,” published in the most recent issue of Journal of the Early Republic, I found an example of both.[1]

First, the cultural context for early Mormonism. Shaley outlines a general trajectory of political Astronomy in western civilization. Perhaps even more potent than other metaphors, astronomical terms were often invoked when discussion political and cultural issues. Especially after Newton’s fame spread abroad, when even commoners began looking to the heavens to gaze on the sky’s wonders, the perceived unity and organization of the universe was an apt symbol for not only God’s omnipotent power but also humankind’s position within an interconnected cosmos centered on kingly rule. Kingdoms were likened to single galaxies, and royalty, “reigning through a revamped doctrine of divine right,” were seen as “luminous stars, as inherent to the cosmic order” of society as planets were to circling the sun (40). Even in America during the mid 18th century, colonists “repeatedly addressed their distant British monarchs in solar and celestial terms,” eager to reaffirm their position within the British universe (44). The kingdom’s order and life depended on the all-powerful king, just as the universe revolved around an imposing sun.

Yet just like many other intellectual assumptions, things began to change with the Age of Revolutions. Whereas previously political discourse drew from rhetoric dependent on one central sun with circulating stars and planets, many now came to embrace the idea of a “plurality of worlds” with many stars shining equally bright and, importantly, independent from each another (47). “When that intellectual transformation [of the American Revolution] was complete,” Shaley tells us, “Americans would no longer read the skies as a realm of hierarchical subservience to a solar monarch; they now read the cosmos as manifesting starry republican egalitarianism (49).” Understanding the new American union as a “system composed of stars-states”—most poignantly demonstrated on the American flag—“enabled them to imagine and communicate the proper relation between the system’s starry and self-governing components and its luminous whole, the new American constellation (50).” Rather than depending on a central sun figure that everyone circled around, the American states—and as the Jacksonian era approached, more emphasis was placed on the American people—were independent spheres held together by the gravitational pull of a republic. This rhetoric only escalated in the nineteenth century, as Federalists and Democrats, Whigs and Republicans, as well as Northerners and Southerners used it in diverging ways. (When the recently seceded Confederacy took suggestions for a new flag, for instance, 107 of the 120 proposed designs included stars in some way [68]).

One example that Shaley didn’t use, likely because religion wasn’t anywhere on his political radar, was Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham. Sam Brown has recently engaged how Mormonism participated in this intellectual transformation of the Chain of Being—the ideological construct that detailed how individuals understood themselves within the larger cosmos—and images of stars and suns were a large part of that transition rhetoric.[2] In the Book of Abraham, individual human spirits are likened to stars in the cosmos: while Kolob, the governing star representing God, was higher and implicitly more powerful than all other stars, there remained an innumerable amount of other stars of differing glory spread across the skies. This language succinctly represented the deeper ontological message of early Mormonism. Since I’m lazy, I’ll just quote from something published last year: “Mormon ontology presented a unification of species with numerous grades and advancements, similar to—and likely influenced by—the spiritual chain depicted in Joseph Smith’s Abrahamic scripture. ‘These two facts exist,’ the text read, ‘that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.’ This eternal chain in early LDS thought entailed vast possibilities including a pre-mortal existence, mortal probation, angelic servitude, and eventual godhood.”[3] And this doesn’t even cover their use of astronomical language in speaking and writing about the afterlife.

Thus, Mormonism can not only be used as an especially potent example of astronomical discourse in the early American republic, but the background of political astronomy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provides better context for how early Saints thought of and understood their scriptural language. We can assume that when the early Saints read the Book of Abraham after its Times and Seasons publication in 1842, they likely placed it within the tradition—a tradition exuberant with humankind’s potential, often likened to the numberless stars in the cosmos.

The second interesting (and perhaps more important) insight from the article is the methodology it invoked—an interpretive approach that has been covered a bit here and elsewhere recently, so I won’t spend too much time on it. Shaley admits that the identification of where these symbols came from—the ever-annoying question of intellectual influence—has been debated in the past. But, “rather than futilely investigating the elusive origin (or originator) of the symbolic representation of the star-as-state,” he reasoned, “it would be more fruitful to uncover the meaning and significance of that language” (55). This point cannot be made vehemently enough within Mormon studies. Too often scholars of early Mormonism attempt to find the origins of a specific belief within Joseph Smith’s context, a question that should be considered but should never dominate the discussion to the point of being a red herring. (I tackle this issue a bit more here.)

With regard to the topic in the article in question, it may be tempting to use this information about political astronomy to find a genealogy for the Mormon cosmos; scholars have pointed out Thomas Dick as the originator of Joseph Smith’s scriptural cosmos, for instance. Indeed, some may even think that this very post is arguing for a naturalistic explanation for the Book of Abraham. Fortunately, such a perspective seems to be going out of style. Historians are finally moving beyond the question of where these ideas came from and are finally asking what they did with them once they were received. This scholarly paradigm shift requires a better understanding of the environment Mormonism developed in, a willingness to admit that intellectual influence and adaptations were much more elastic that previously perceived, and the realization that the cultural and ideological trends that flowed into Jacksonian America were not designed for the sole purpose of explaining or creating Joseph Smith’s cosmology, but were in fact merely parts of a transitioning society that could be silent and dominant, influential and invisible, static and dynamic. Once this is understood, more fascinating questions arise and Mormonism’s relationship to its culture comes into clearer view.

_____________________________________________________

[1] Eran Shalev, “‘A Republic Amidst the Stars’: Political Astronomy and the Intellectual Origins of the Stars and Stripes,” Journal of the Early Republic 31 (Spring 2011): 39-74.

[2] Samuel Brown, “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” Dialogue 44 (Spring 2011): 1-52.

[3] Benjamin E. Park, “‘A Uniformity So Complete’: Early Mormon Angelology,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 2 (2010):35-36.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Theology


Comments

  1. Would be fascinating to track down astronomical references in modern LDS teachings. On my mission I remember a GA telling us that he was reading an astronomy book, and he waxed eloquent about how outer darkness is a black hole, etc. How have other LDS authors or authorities used astronomy to a) highlight gospel themes or b) tie LDS teachings to a larger cosmos? Fun thoughts!

    Comment by RobF — April 11, 2011 @ 7:45 am

  2. Ben, this is a highly enlightening post. Thanks very much.

    But this sentence grates: “Especially after Newton’s fame spread abroad, when even commoners began looking to the heavens to gaze on the sky’s wonders, the perceived unity and organization of the universe was an apt symbol for not only God’s omnipotent power but also humankind’s position within an interconnected cosmos centered on kingly rule.” Seeing society and its structure in the heavens was one of the basic features of the astrological pamphlets that were among the least expensive and most available of all printed works a good two centuries before Newton. The idea is undoubtedly much older than that.

    But your point is not about origins, of course, but about what people do with these ideas, and the connection you’re pointing out really is fascinating.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 11, 2011 @ 10:01 am

  3. Rob: that would indeed be a fun study.

    Jonathan: Chalk that up to my ignorance of everything pre-17th century and my taking Enlightenment figures at their word! (They did like to speak up their own generation, as we all do.) Thanks for the corrective.

    Comment by Ben — April 11, 2011 @ 10:10 am

  4. Indeed, Jonathan, people had looked to the heavens to understand God forever. Understanding how Newton shifted what came before is significant here. Says Herbert Leventhal,

    “The tendency to ignore the continuation of the old in the development of the new is as much a problem for the history of eighteenth-century America as it is for the history of the Renaissance. We tend to concentrate on the adoption of Enlightenment thought and the idea of modern science, emphasizing only Newtonian physics, Linnaean natural history, and Lockian psychology. There is an almost total neglect of the continuation of ideas and concepts first articulated centuries earlier. Such neglect is sometimes apparently not so much the result of ignorance as of the exigencies of writing history.” Hebert Leventhal, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America. (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 1.

    Indeed the Book of Abraham very much resembles the old Neoplatnic cosmology with a little Newton sprinkled in. Shaley asked interesting question, but understanding the nature of cosmological shift is a worthwhile project as well.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 11, 2011 @ 10:26 am

  5. Nicely expressed, Ben. I certainly take your point about searching for a more sophisticated, less self-conscious interpretation of Joseph Smith’s original development or synthesis of themes which were in part present in his culture. But when you deem this direction of inquiry a fortunate departure from navel-gazing environmentalism, I only see two directions it can go, either of which, to me, requires ever-more thorough examination of the underlying culture. 1) If our advanced direction is to enthrone Joseph’s contribution as uniquely and divinely inspired, rising significantly beyond the disparate elements in his culture (which I see Richard Bushman advocating), then any inference of superior quality begs continual point-by-point checking along the way. (Yes, Joseph’s synthesis of pre-existing elements is original, but just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s right.) Or, 2) If the direction of this increased sophistication of historiography is only secular, without any desire to prove divine quality for Joseph’s synthesis, then that’s all it is – intellectual history, which to contextualize most accurately requires continual point-by-point checking of the underlying culture along the way [rinse, repeat].

    I have read an awful lot of claims for Joseph’s original cosmological contributions, advanced by LDS scholars during the past quarter century, which are easily brought back to grass-level American temperament if one only knows where to look. I can give you the stars-and-states, for example, in a highly dramatic vision set ten miles from where Lucy Mack Smith was nursing infant Alvin, published in just the right time and place to suggest appetite for such stuff in the appropriate culture. Or youthful poetry dramatically incorporating pretty much everything I have seen in recent Mormon studies about hierarchies of stars compared to those of God’s children and creation in the Great Chain of Being. These sources don’t protest that “Joseph Smith read us.” They merely demonstrate with quiet authority, “We were already there, and we were ‘everywhere.'”

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 12, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

  6. Thanks for your comment, Rick, but I think you are presenting a dichotomy that doesn’t have to exist. Such an approach that I am lobbying for–which is driven by current trends in American cultural and intellectual history–strives to neither “enthrone Joseph’s contribution” nor to prove a naturalistic explanation. The uniqueness rhetoric and framework of a Gordon Woods-type history is going out of style, and the Charles Sellers sociological and environmental approach has long been left behind. What I am arguing for here is to better construct both the historical context Mormonism was developed in and then better glean their divergences and similarities. Sure they had unique and original contributions, but nearly everyone had unique and original contributions in the dynamic culture of antebellum America, so a triumphant framework would seem out of place. For an excellent example of examining differences and similarities in a more measured and sophisticated framework, I’d recommend Sam’s article on the chain of being mentioned above.

    (For the record, I attempt in my academic writings to take a very neutral approach to supernatural origins, especially when dealing with Smith’s cosmological contributions. His contemporaries demonstrate that you don’t have to be inspired to provide truly remarkable and original contributions, but I think the unwritten tone is that we can never conclude by the historical record (let alone promote in scholarly literature) what elements are divine in origins and which ones aren’t.)

    But what this approach necessitates is we must understand the culture much better than we have in the past. Your own contributions, Rick, are very significant in this manner. But the way we frame this context and present Mormonism’s relationship will be crucial, and that is where I think we need the most work. I am formulating these thoughts for a paper at the Bushman tribute conference this summer so I won’t spoil too much of it here; but I think we need to, in many cases, transform the focus from Mormonism to its larger culture, and make Joseph Smith, Parley Pratt, and others the objects rather than the subjects of our narratives.

    Comment by Ben — April 13, 2011 @ 5:54 am

  7. Rick, I think you’re nodding toward my essay with your comment on the Great Chain of Being, but I (self-consciously) propose that this is a weak part of your argument. In that essay I show very clearly that CoB was ubiquitous in Smith’s environment but that he familialized it in distinctive ways. The notion of correspondence between earthly and heavenly societies is quite old, Smith’s familial, sacramental Chain of Belonging seems to me to be an interesting development. Or would you claim that the Smithian Chain differs only inconsequentially from its generic invocations in his milieu?

    More broadly I concur with Ben on this topic.

    Comment by smb — April 13, 2011 @ 9:32 am

  8. ““When that intellectual transformation [of the American Revolution] was complete,” Shaley tells us, “Americans would no longer read the skies as a realm of hierarchical subservience to a solar monarch; they now read the cosmos as manifesting starry republican egalitarianism (49).” Understanding the new American union as a “system composed of stars-states”—most poignantly demonstrated on the American flag—“enabled them to imagine and communicate the proper relation between the system’s starry and self-governing components and its luminous whole, the new American constellation (50).” Rather than depending on a central sun figure that everyone circled around, the American states—and as the Jacksonian era approached, more emphasis was placed on the American people—were independent spheres held together by the gravitational pull of a republic. This rhetoric only escalated in the nineteenth century, as Federalists and Democrats, Whigs and Republicans, as well as Northerners and Southerners used it in diverging ways.”

    In contrast, the flag of the Mormon political kingdom of God on earth had 12 stars circled about a larger central star or around a trio of stars.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 13, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  9. That, Mark, is fascinating, and it goes along with a thesis I’ve been tossing around in an article I’m trying to finish. (That while early Mormon theology included strains of both republican and anti-republican tensions—as you brilliantly lay out in your dissertation—that balance at least temporarily shifted in the immediate post-martyrdom period as more emphasis was placed on the kingdom of God.) I may need to email you about this…

    Comment by Ben — April 13, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  10. Does it have to be either/or? Can you not talk about both influences and how the ideas worked? Sam does this. Is it not worth noting that Abraham 3 looks like a summation of Proclus’s cosmology? Proclus even discusses how time works differently at different places in his cosmological hierarchy. It seems to me that understanding Proclus would shed considerable light on how the ideas work in Smith’s cosmology.

    I look forward to hearing your paper at Bushman’s tribute. I’m giving “Joseph Smith as the Philosopher King: Early Mormonism and Late Neoplatonism.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 13, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

  11. Steve: I agree completely, and I’ve made the same point in comment 6 where I pointed out the false dichotomy, and in the OP when I said that it’s not important where they got the ideas, but what they did with it.

    Comment by Ben — April 13, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  12. but it IS also important where they got the ideas

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 13, 2011 @ 1:51 pm

  13. Ben – I actually appreciate what you are saying, and (a study of Joseph Smith’s) ideas for ideas’ sake alone, would appeal to me very much. What I fear within the field of Mormon studies, however, is an almost inevitable abuse by some writers, of that which I feel quite encouraged you will be doing rather well. Sorry to sound so cynical, and I truly hope that my generation’s forty years in the wilderness will make way for a better land where it will not always have to be two extreme sides fighting against one another. But I’m not holding my breath waiting to see that develop within my lifetime.

    Sam – I have actually acted as a defender of your article to a friend who immediately dismissed it out of hand. The moment I saw “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” I considered its potential as a genuine contribution, and I would encourage readers to work through it carefully, and not to disregard it. I only completed my first reading last week, and plan two more readings of it through the summer. I have my hesitations and caveats, to be sure, but the last thing I would want to do is miss your forest for the trees (which I accuse other people of doing with Mormon Parallels). My impression is that even if there are points where I will resist, personally, I think you have hit upon something. I instinctively sense that your Chain of Belonging will entice, instruct and endure at a historiographical/sociological level comparable to Poulson’s Iron Rod vs. Liahona Mormons construct. But as Ben has pointed out, these things don’t have to be either/or, and I’m sure the fine tuning will become intense in some quarters.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 13, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  14. You’re right, Mark; I meant it’s not as important as what they did with them.

    Comment by Ben — April 13, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  15. Rick: I’m sure you are absolutely right that some will abuse the approach, but that shouldn’t discourage the attempt. One of the main reasons intellectual history has been commonly mishandled in Mormon history is that–when done right–it is a very theory-driven approach, and theory is not, well, the forte of most Mormon history texts.

    Comment by Ben — April 13, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  16. Very much agreed, Ben – amen & amen to what you said.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 13, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

  17. Can I be the one to be skeptical of Dick as a source for these ideas? I read most of Dick’s works back in the 90’s that were purportedly the source for all this and I’m really, really skeptical. The parallels sound much better when you read them decontextualized in some paper. When you read Dick directly they really aren’t terribly strong. I’ve found must stronger parallels in other works. I think folks appealing to Dick are vastly overstating the evidence.

    Comment by Clark — April 14, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  18. Clark: being that Thomas Dick was far from the focus of this post, I’ll save my counter-argument for a more relevant thread.

    Comment by Ben — April 14, 2011 @ 12:48 pm

  19. I’ll look forward to it. (It’s been years since I last looked into it – but I was pretty dramatically unimpressed when I did) Sorry for latching onto tangents all the time. You keep saying in passing these very interesting things.

    Comment by Clark — April 14, 2011 @ 1:52 pm

  20. Rick, thanks for your kind words. I’d be curious why your friend dismissed it out of hand and where you think the argument is weakest (I’m still chewing on these ideas and glad for feedback).
    Clark, Dick is an interesting figure, not least because Mormons were clearly reading and citing him. That he was one of many pursuing natural theology through striking claims about cosmic order does not diminish the probability that he was a conceptual interlocutor for the early LDS.
    Sounds like the Bushman event will be great fun. I have no specific memory of what I said I would present, but I’m sure when the time comes I will find it in my files somewhere. Looking forward to hearing the other talks.

    Comment by smb — April 14, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  21. Smb, oh I agree. And don’t mistake me. I’m most definitely not saying Dick isn’t an influence. I just think people have pushed his influence on particular doctrines way, way beyond what’s justified.

    Comment by Clark — April 15, 2011 @ 2:13 pm


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