Review: Terryl Givens, Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought

By October 22, 2014

Terryl L. Givens. Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmology, God, Humanity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xv, 405 ppg. Notes, index. Cloth: $34.95. ISBN 978-1-9979492-8.

wrestlingFew books encompass as audacious a scope as Wrestling the Angel. In this work, the first of projected two volumes, prolific Mormon scholar Terryl Givens presents a rigorous and exhaustive overview of Mormonism’s theological foundations. This is not necessarily a historical work that systematically traces theological developments and places them in cultural context as it is an attempt to faithfully reproduce the intellectual tradition founded by Joseph Smith, refined by Parley and Orson Pratt, and tinkered with by a handful of twentieth century thinkers like B.H. Roberts, James Talmage, John Widtsoe, and, sometimes, more contemporary LDS leaders. The finished product is an overwhelming account that makes a compelling case for Mormonism’s inclusion within the Christian theological canon.

The book is separated into five sections. The first, “Frameworks,” outlines Mormonism’s relationship with theology and posits a new prism through which to understand Joseph Smith’s conception of “restoration”; the second is a very brief overview of Mormonism’s theological narrative, which is meant to ground the remainder of the discussion. The final three chapters are the “meat” of the project by taking, in turn, the three broad topics under consideration: “Cosmology,” “The Divine,” and “The Human.” Each chapter within these sections engages particular topics—embodiment, salvation, theosis, etc.—and places them within Christian theological context. “Context” is a crucial word, here: while some attention is given to nineteenth-century America’s context, the bulk of contextualization takes place within a grand Western narrative that includes sources including figures like Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Milton, the Christian Platonists, and Reinhold Niebuhr. While these comparisons can sometimes prove a tough pill for historians of antebellum America to swallow, they are used for a particular purpose: by placing Joseph Smith and his successors in dialogue with the great thinkers of Western Christianity, Givens seeks to demonstrate Mormon theology’s relevance to a broader array of audiences.[1]

There are many key contributions that can be highlighted. The opening section on “restoration” is far from an introduction to the book in general—it is a sophisticated re-alignment of how we are to understand Joseph Smith’s conception of Mormonism’s origins and role. And it succeeds. The restoration, Givens argues, was not a whittling down of added corruptions, like most primitivists envisioned, but an expansion to encompass “a gradual process of assimilation, differentiation, and development” (37). The “apostasy” represented the loss of “authority,” not necessarily of total “truth.” Smith’s vision was as dynamic as William Herschel’s cosmos: “His prophetic vocation…involved visions, borrowings, re-workings, collaborations, incorporations, and pronouncements, with false starts, second-guessings, and self-revisions” (40). Givens’s narrative is a quintessentially romantic account of a quintessentially romantic theological tradition.

Most chapters are remarkably wide-ranging, though often with different results. The chapters on “Embodied God” (89-105) and “Life Before Birth” (147-175) skillfully weave together key concepts from notable Christian thinkers, the niceties of Mormon intellectual development relating to the topic, and the continued debate over that development’s trajectories today. The chapter on “Embodiment” (199-217) on the other hand, is a bit more uneven: it jumps from Mormon charismatic manifestations to abortion to Mormonism’s engagement with science, including how they deal with the theories of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins; such eclecticism is often a hallmark of many chapters in the book, but could sometimes become unwieldy without a central tether, as it did here. But even in this, the analysis is mostly reflective of the disjointed tradition it seeks to reconstruct, which in turn is a service to the field.

It is appropriate that Givens refers to Joseph Smith’s project as “divine synthesis,” because that is, to a certain degree, the very type of project upon which Givens himself embarks: he gathers scattered remnants of early Mormon teaching in attempt to construct a coherent whole. But if it is liberal in scope and open-ended in frame, it still belies both a particular form of cultural originalism and a specific teleology of theological development. That is, it grounds cultural authority for interpretation in an appeal to Joseph Smith’s own “vision,” a complex and contested space that grants just as much validity as it does flimsiness, as well as anticipates, either consciously or subconsciously, that said “vision” would have developed, had it been given a chance, into the systematic whole posited in Wrestling the Angel (and summarized in Chapter 4). This is all to be expected in such a project, of course, but it is important to note this interpretive context that in turn shapes a historian’s contexts for interpretation.[2]

An important metaphor that often appears in Wrestling the Angel, and one which proves an apt descriptor for Givens’s overall argument, is that of “seeds.” In a way, that is the central framework found in the opening pages of the book. “The seeds of almost all [Joseph Smith’s] furthest-reaching innovations are present as early as 1830, as this study will show,” the prelude tells us (4). “An impressive number of Mormon doctrines find their seeds, if not their elaboration, in [the Book of Mormon],” we’re told a few pages later (9). “The seeds of two radical Mormon innovations are present in the [Lectures on Faith], but in muted form,” states the very next page (10). “As was so often the case with Smith’s theology,” he explains in his chapter on eternal laws, “the seeds of this radical repositioning of law relative to God were in the Book of Mormon” (64). When it comes to the Godhead, “the seeds planted in Joseph Smith’s first theophany developed into three interrelated hallmarks of Mormon doctrine about deity” (74; repeated again on 93). You get the picture.

The argument is that, counter to a common Mormon history argument that the theological innovations of Nauvoo were an abrupt shift from those of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri, Joseph Smith’s theology was actually remarkably consistent. The radical teachings of theosis and pre-existence were not given their fullest expression until Joseph Smith’s final years, but the origins were present enough during the Church’s beginnings that they cannot be categorized as wholly different. As the chapter on an embodied God put it, “it is clear that in this case, as in so many others, Smith’s Nauvoo theology was elaboration of rather than rupture with his earliest theology” (103; emphasis mine). Givens offers quite a bit of evidence for this moderately revisionist view, and it is clearly not based in an apologetic motivation to prove Joseph Smith’s coherency. It is also in line with recent work on Joseph Smith, most notably that by Samuel Brown. In many ways, this is a very useful, and often persuasive, course correction to a traditional scholarly argument (Kirtland theology =/= Nauvoo theology) that was likely more based in cultural angst than academic rigor. It also demonstrates a closer reading of Joseph Smith’s scriptural texts and early revelations that have been overlooked by past historians.[3]

But are “seeds” the most apt metaphor for early Mormon thought? On the one hand, it is useful shorthand that emphasizes continuity while still acknowledging substantial development over the decades of Joseph Smith’s life. Yet it also assumes a teleological progression that implies the end product was pretty well determined from the beginning; an apple seed does not provide a wide variety of different fruit possibilities. To say that the seeds of Joseph Smith’s mature thought (theosis, materialism, pre-existence, etc.) were found in this early period might be taken to mean that the former was the logical end result of the latter. And while I am on board with Givens’s push to find strains of continuity throughout Joseph Smith’s prophetic career, I am not convinced the development was as determined as his framework implies. There were a number of possible trajectories leading from Mormonism’s early thought, most notably demonstrated in the numerous schisms that multiplied after Smith’s death. (Givens’s sole emphasis on the Brigham Young-led portion of the Saints highlights this undergirding framework.) Indeed, when the book briefly traces theological beliefs that didn’t last long, like the Adam-God theory, a new metaphor is presented: “paths” (112) Brief forays into speculation, Givens explains, may have seemed like a “logical trajectory” (114), but they apparently did not bear fruit.

Perhaps Givens’s dealing with pre-existence best embodies how a teleological progressive framework shapes his examination. Historical evidence, Givens explains, suggests both that “Smith was coming to conceive of a process by which God transformed inchoate eternal material into individuated, autonomous spirits” as well as that “Smith considered spirit and intelligence to be synonymous concepts, referring to an eternally existent entity” (156-7). This debate about whether Smith taught “spirit birth” or “spirit adoption” is an old one, and Givens charts the two arguments quite exhaustively. But while he constantly insists there is no direct evidence Smith taught that spirits are the result of Godly procreation, he eventually concludes that “this interpretation is the logical implication of a heavenly pattern” (160). He may be correct—and I admit his detailed examination of the topic is more persuasive than other “spirit birth” interpretations I’ve read—but it should be noted as reflective of a broader methodological framing consistent throughout Givens’s analysis.[4]

There are some sections where, due to the nature of the project, it becomes very apparent that this is more a theological than a historical examination; scholars of American religious culture will likely want more cultural, rather than theological, context when it comes to explaining certain Mormon intellectual trajectories. For instance, Givens spends a sub-section in his pre-existence chapter on “Personality and Lineage,” which examines Mormon belief concerning one’s blood and genealogy—that is, most crucially, how one relates to the sometimes literal and sometimes metaphorical House of Israel (166-170). Joseph Smith and his successors were very committed to the idea of tracing a quixotically literal lineage within a democratic culture that had otherwise rejected such hereditary hierarchies. How is the historian to rectify the discrepancy? Wrestling the Angel’s attempt to place it within a purely theological context—how it related to other Mormon beliefs—only highlights the disjointedness of the belief, and thus the section fits unevenly. Similar critiques can be leveled against the book’s highly compartmentalized treatment of race and gender; rather than being subsets to larger intellectual constructs, other scholars might argue these elements were the driving force behind certain theological trends. Yet this critique concerning the interdependence of thought and culture is more rooted in the choice of approach than the particulars of Givens’s interpretation, and thus remains primarily a reminder to the limits of a particular book’s framework.

That is not to say Wrestling the Angel ignores nineteenth-century American context altogether; far from it. Indeed, I was often impressed with how well the book engages Joseph Smith’s contemporaries’ thought. This ranged from Givens’s use of contemporary debates over the biblical figure “Michael” to shed light on Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings (113-115) to engaging antebellum religious language concerning depravity to make sense of Mormonism’s doctrine of the fortunate Fall (189-194). But it is to say that the companies that we make our historical characters keep largely shapes how we view their ideas and actions. By placing Mormon thinkers within an intellectual spectrum that transcends their immediate culture may not add much to the understanding of antebellum American religion, but it will elevate our understanding of their contributions and shed light on their broader relevancy; this seems the very type of thing that Richard Bushman called for when he asked for more “transnational” Joseph Smith.[5]

There is plenty of work left to do in Givens’s project. Volume Two, currently in progress, will not only have a new cast of very different types of topics (ordinances, spiritual gifts, etc.) but also the immense challenge to coalesce the idealistic Joseph Smith—the figure who held a “fundamentally Romantic view of the world” (52) and was “a product of a zeal for liberty that still fired the hearts and imagination of people only a generation removed from the War for Independence” (198)—with the Joseph Smith who implemented a rigorous ecclesiastical structure that centralized authority and bound believers through seemingly un-democratic ritual tethers. I imagine it will be in this next book that Givens’s commitment to abstract theological ideas will have to face a more grounded sense of cultural implementation.

But that challenge will be saved for a later day. For now, we should celebrate this monumental scholarly achievement. Scholars of Mormonism are indebted to Givens for a sophisticated engagement and encyclopedic coverage of the Church’s historical belief. Scholars of religion are indebted to Givens for finally being provided a book that convincingly proves the cohesion and relevancy of Mormon thought and persuasively shows its rightly earned place within the history of Western Christianity. Wrestling the Angel not only succeeds in providing the most comprehensive and rigorous overview of Mormonism’s theological tradition, but it is, in the end, a key contribution—perhaps the most important contribution in the last half-century—to that very tradition.

_________________________________

[1] It is important to note that “long range” history is currently quite trendy in intellectual history, as historians like David Armitage and Jo Guildi argue that it provides historians more tools to prove their scholarly relevance. Guildi and Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[2] It should also be noted that in attempt to make Mormonism appear coherent and cohesive, there were points where Givens slid from historical theology to theology proper. “God chose Joseph Smith not in spite of but because of his weakness,” he explains to readers at one point (22). This is, of course, to be expected given the scope of Givens’s project, which necessitated choosing texts and ideas from a myriad of possibilities. He even notes this issue when stating that while “my intention is primarily descriptive, my judgments are obviously selective and subjective” (17). He is especially prescriptive rather than descriptive when discussing sin, choice, and their relationship to the War in Heaven (130-135).

[3] The classic example that argues for distinct ruptures in Mormon thought between Kirtland and Nauvoo is Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,” Sunstone 5:4 (July-August 1980): 24-33. A more recent example is Charles Harrell, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011).

[4] It is also a great example of how approaching the topic from a purely theological standpoint can mask important elements. The nature of spirit origins is intimately tethered to cultural conceptions of domesticity and patriarchal control, which get overlooked when only trying to place Mormon thought within an intellectual context. But again, that is a critique of the book’s framing and approach than of the argument’s particulars—I don’t want to come across as wanting to critique the book Givens didn’t write, only to point out how this work both supplements and is needed to be supplemented by other forms of scholarship.

[5] Richard Bushman, “Joseph Smith’s Many Histories,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, ed. John Welch (Provo: BYU Press, 2005), 3-20.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Intellectual History Theology


Comments

  1. Thanks, Ben. This is very helpful.

    Comment by David G. — October 22, 2014 @ 6:55 am

  2. Great review, Ben. I’m really looking forward to reading the final product. Apart from all the merits of Givens’s arguments themselves, it sounds at the very least as if a coherent and cogent narrative of Mormon thought has finally been articulated, which will be helpful as a point of reference for all scholarship on Mormon theology in the future. Really a very exciting development.

    Comment by Ryan T. — October 22, 2014 @ 6:59 am

  3. Excellent review Ben. I’m working on getting an interview with Terryl on my radio show. We had him for Parley Pratt and he told us he was working on this one. I’ll let people know when and how to find (since we’re streaming now) when its set up.

    Comment by Terry H — October 22, 2014 @ 7:34 am

  4. This is a wonderfully thorough review, Ben, and although theology sometimes bores me, might be enough to convince to go out and purchase a copy. I’m enough of a social historian to find some discomfort in what Givens is attempting to do here, but this seems like an immensely important project, and one that he is uniquely well-suited to tackle.

    Comment by Christopher — October 22, 2014 @ 7:53 am

  5. What a project, and what a review. Wonderful. Question: does Givens deal with marriage/sealing in this volume? If so, under what section (theosis, maybe)?

    Comment by Hunter — October 22, 2014 @ 9:16 am

  6. Excellent review, Ben. There are some really wonderful moments of beauty in Wrestling that capture, I think, part of of what was so compelling about JS’s revelation. I think your criticisms are also well placed. I’m less inclined to see seeds sprout tautologically.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 22, 2014 @ 10:56 am

  7. I enjoy the book, as I do many other writings of Terryl Givens. But I think that many times, he bases pretty sweeping conclusions on thin evidence, at best. To me, it often reads like a re-interpretation of mormonism as Terryl would like it. The ratio of historical evidence to extrapolation is smaller than I’d like, and smaller than you’d find in Rough Stone Rolling. Something I like about the good is that it attempts to relate mormon thought to broader Christian teachings. Criticisms notwithstanding, I recommend the book.

    Comment by PP — October 22, 2014 @ 11:16 am

  8. Thanks, Ben.

    Comment by Saskia — October 22, 2014 @ 12:13 pm

  9. Nicely done, Ben. Thanks for this careful and thoughtful piece. It’s an important book, but it has important limits too.

    Comment by wvs — October 22, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

  10. Thanks for the excellent review, Ben.

    Comment by Liz M. — October 22, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

  11. I am always very interested in the scholarship on “spirit birth,” because of its importance for understanding gender issues within the Mormon tradition.

    Comment by Liz M. — October 22, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

  12. A stellar review, Ben, as usual.

    “Givens’s narrative is a quintessentially romantic account of a quintessentially romantic theological tradition…”
    –Yes.

    “Perhaps Givens’s dealing with pre-existence best embodies how a teleological progressive framework shapes his examination…Smith was coming to conceive of a process by which God transformed inchoate eternal material into individuated, autonomous spirits”
    –Yes, pre-existence as teleology…incohate material into individualized autonomous Doctrines.

    “compartmentalized treatment of race and gender; rather than being subsets to larger intellectual constructs, other scholars might argue these elements were the driving force behind certain theological trends.”
    –Yes, we do. 😉

    “placing Mormon thinkers within an intellectual spectrum that transcends their immediate culture…will elevate our understanding of their contributions and shed light on their broader relevancy; this seems the very type of thing that
    Richard Bushman called for when he asked for more “transnational” Joseph Smith.”
    –Yes, a compelling need.

    “a book that convincingly proves the cohesion and relevancy of Mormon thought and persuasively shows its rightly earned place within the history of Western Christianity. ”
    –Amen.

    Comment by Maxine H. — October 22, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

  13. You write, “The nature of spirit origins is intimately tethered to cultural conceptions of domesticity and patriarchal control, which get overlooked when only trying to place Mormon thought within an intellectual context.”

    Where can I read more about this? Who has written on this? I have thought about it a great deal, but I haven’t read any scholarly treatment of it.

    Comment by Liz M. — October 23, 2014 @ 2:03 am

  14. Thanks, all.

    Hunter: there are a few sub-sections on marriage in the theosis chapter.

    Liz: I have not read anything that examines the social and domestic context for Mormon conceptions of spirit birth, but it is certainly something that needs to be addressed. And soon.

    Comment by Ben P — October 23, 2014 @ 8:28 am

  15. Thank you.

    Comment by Hunter — October 23, 2014 @ 11:20 am

  16. For those who are interested, Terryl Givens will be at http://www.newstalk890.com from 9-10 Mtn Time tomorrow (Nov 3) to talk about Wrestling the Angel.

    Comment by Terry H — November 2, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

  17. Liz and Ben, I do a little with this in two places (forthcoming) in the JS sermons book and the D&C 132 book.

    Comment by wvs — November 3, 2014 @ 10:56 am


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