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.
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 ).
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. 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.” 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.
 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.
 Samuel Brown, “The Early Mormon Chain of Belonging,” Dialogue 44 (Spring 2011): 1-52.
 Benjamin E. Park, “‘A Uniformity So Complete’: Early Mormon Angelology,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 2 (2010):35-36.