By July 12, 2019
So Universal Theosophy having recently put Thomas Taylor’s 1804 translation of Plato’s works online has made it a whole lot easier to go through the edition of Plato’s works that would have been available in Joseph Smith’s day. I’ve argued that Smith seemed to have used Taylor’s translation, but I was still surprised to have just discovered the striking similarities between certain passages in Smith’s 1832 account of his First Vision and Taylor’s translation of Plato’s cave allegory from the Republic, especially lines 515 to 517. As I argued last year that Smith seemed to have drawn on the passage just after this for the description of Christ in the Olive Leaf revelation (which he dictated the same year), I do see these similarities as evidence that Smith read, knew, and used Plato. And that fact that Plato showed up so prominently in this earliest account of this founding event, I would argue, is a very big deal.
Here’s a write up that I just put together.
By July 3, 2018
During the first LDS mission to England, Heber C. Kimball and Joseph Fielding ventured up the Ribble Valley (I post links to the Google maps since they are too grainy when I copy them; minimize the search bar to see the whole area) after their tremendous success in Preston (Pendle Hill is the green blob north of Manchester with the word “Nelson” on it). Their success continued especially at Chatburn (at the top of the first map) where townsfolk requested that Kimball preach to them and where Kimball ended up baptizing twenty-five people the night of his first visit. Kimball later said, “My hair would rise on my head as I walked through the streets, and I did not know then what was the matter with me. I pulled off my hat, and felt that I wanted to pull off my shoes, and I did not know what to think of it.” When Kimball told Joseph Smith of this experience, Smith replied, “Did you not understand it? That is a place where some of the old Prophets traveled and dedicated that land, and their blessing rested upon you.”
Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England
Looming above Chatburn is Pendle Hill, which does have a very interesting religious history. In 1652, George Fox felt impressed to climb Pendle Hill: “There atop the hill,” said Fox, “I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.” Quakers mark that event as the beginning of the movement.
On the other side of the hill is the Pendle Forest (not really a forest; that meant a traditional hunting ground where in the Middle Ages people weren’t supposed to live) the events that led to England’s most famous witch trial occurred. Witches are a major part of the tourist industry of the region. The region was also the most Catholic area in England after the Reformation. That plus the abundance of Methodist churches in the area makes the Pendle Hill region sort of the overflowing microcosm of all the factors that led to early Mormon conversion according to my research. 
By June 5, 2018
The passage I cited in my previous post (“The Angelical Key”) contained the following side note: “This Vision is a more distinct Revival of a former one, that was given several Years before, and is already Published in the First Volume of this Diary, pag.22 Entitled, The Key of the Great Mystery. Which ought therefore to be compared with this.”
In that vision (see “In the Month of August”), Lead seeks a key to unlock a gate to the Holy City, but is unable to make it. Wisdom then comes to her and says that she shouldn’t feel bad since most have failed at this, and then adds,
But in as much as thou ownest and bewailest thy unskillfulness, I will make known to thee what Key will turn this great Wheel of my Wisdom, so as it may move, and manifest it self in thee, through all thy Properties, if thou canst bid up to the Price of it. For understand that it is compounded of all pure Gold…. But the great thing, saith Wisdom, now is to discipline and make thy Spirit a cunning Artist, to give it Knowledge of what Matter in Number, Weight and Measure this pure Key is made up of, which is all pure Deity in the Number THREE; which is weighty indeed, being one exceeding weighty Glory.
By June 4, 2018
Part 1, 2, 3, 4
The line about an object being touched and transformed by “the Finger of God,” at the beginning of the second paragraph (below) is what struck me about this passage from a vision Jane Lead titled, “The Angelical Key,” from her third journal. I’ve posted some of the numerous similarities between Lead’s visions and Mormonism and the following is one of many more like it. The abundance of passages like the following have convinced me that Joseph Smith knew Lead’s writings well.
The following not only has parallels to the brother of Jared’s experience but also suggests the need for one to create a special object before one could gain knowledge. It doesn’t mention gold plates, but Lead does mention a gold book in another passage and I’ll talk more about that in my next post.
What follows is Lead’s “The Angelical Key,” (see here under November 16, 1678) with some of my commentary afterwards.
By June 3, 2018
Reading Revelatory Events was curious experience for me. Not only am I Taves’s former student who is researching and writing on Joseph Smith, but I’ve also been a believer in supernatural and revelatory events not only for Joseph Smith and Mormon history, but in my own life.
I’ve naturally engaged in plenty of reflection on these topics, but Revelatory Events brought my experiences into particular focus with discussion of certain traits like highly-hypnotizable individuals and benign schizotypy. Having been friends with some of Ann’s other students at UCSB that worked on cognitive science and religion, I had the chance to discuss these kinds of topics including various methods that scholars use to determine these traits. I do not know the names of these scales, but scholars will do surveys how “susceptible” one is based on their tendency toward being highly imaginative and having unusual/spiritual experiences. Simply put, I’d probably rank high on those charts.
In the spirit of applying these methods to one’s self I’ll mention two experiences I had that had to do with Ann.
By May 16, 2018
Parts 1 and 2.
In Kevin Christensen’s review of Revelatory Events, he refers to a person who said on a board “that Revelatory Events gave her a way to explain away the claims of Joseph Smith and all other religious claims in purely secular terms and let her walk away from the community, assured she was leaving behind nothing valid or of value” (70-71). For a whole lot of LDS, accepting Taves’s conclusions would simply mean the church isn’t true.
Taves actually attempts to address this issue by the way she framed the book as a study of “paths.” Taves looks at Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles to determine how experiences of the founders turned into spiritual paths, or the way of life that these groups encourage their adherents to follow. Taves suggests that having such paths is generally beneficial. Says Taves,
Although I think—and will argue—that the sense of a guiding presence emerges through a complex interaction between individuals with unusual mental abilities and an initial set of collaborators, an explanation of this sort says little about the content of what is revealed or the value of the spiritual path that emerges. If—as I believe—presences that articulate and guide a group toward collective goals can be understood as creative products of human social interactions rather than actual suprahuman agents, this does not undercut the human need to work out answers to the larger questions these paths seek to address. It just requires us to generate other methods for evaluating the value of the goals and the merits of the paths as means of obtaining them. (xii).
Though Taves doesn’t propose what those methods might be, she does conclude the book by declaring that while people will debate the merits of following Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles, “the power of the paths to transform is—in my view—quite apparent” (295).
By May 14, 2018
See part one here.
Again, Taves uses very little cognitive science until she turns to the question of the translation. To do so she compares the Book of Mormon translation to Helen Schucman’s writing of A Course in Miracles. Schucman’s case is particularly useful because in a private interview she described the process. Schucman said she, “didn’t hear anything,” the process was “strickly mental,” but still “it wasn’t my voice” (247). Schucman said the process wasn’t automatic writing and that she could “stop and start the flow at will” (247-50).
Taves then looks at research on “highly hypnotizable individuals” (HHs) for insight into how this process might have worked for Schucman and Smith. Such individuals can easily go in and out of such a state and may even learn to control the process. In such a state HHs can tell very vivid narratives as though they are experiencing a complete different place (254). Taves gives the example of a student of researcher Ernest Hilgard for how vivid these experiences can be. At a party, the student had been hypnotized, during which he described a setting in Victorian England so vividly that he believed he was recounting a past life. Despite this belief, the student went to Hilgard for analysis of the events to get a further perspective. Under hypnosis, Hilgard had the student enter other settings, including the Old West, where the student gave equally vivid descriptions and felt like he was there (250-51).
By April 30, 2018
Ann Taves, Revelatory Events: Three Case Studies of the Emergence of New Spiritual Paths (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Taves was my dissertation adviser at UCSB
Ann Taves, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, made some waves in the Mormon academic community with her paper 2013 MHA paper that argued that Joseph Smith made the golden plates himself but did so under religious sincerity. Taves published her argument in Numen in 2014 and then placed the argument in a larger context in Revelatory Events, which not only looks at more of Smith’s supernatural claims (the First Vision and the Book of Mormon translation) but also compares those events to other revelatory individuals: Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and Helen Schucman, founder of A Course in Miracles.
Taves divides Revelatory Events into two parts: she starts with a historical examination of the founding of each religion and then she compares them to each other in part two. Since the book is a rather novel and somewhat complex approach to Mormon origins, I’ll break my review into two parts, following Taves’s division.
By April 13, 2018
William Victor Smith, Textual Studies of the Doctrine and Covenants: The Plural Marriage Revelation (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2018).
William Smith turns his considerable knowledge of Mormon history and Joseph Smith’s thought to the study of Doctrine and Covenants 132, the plural-marriage revelation. Smith proceeds sequentially, dividing the book into eight chapters that each cover a portion of the text. At each stage, Smith delves into the topic that the different portions raise, and gives context both in terms of Smith?s theology and later Mormon debates on those topics.
Overall the book succeeds in contextualizing the revelation, but at times Smith either seems to wander to seemingly unrelated topics, or just touch on topics superficially. For instance, in the introduction, Smith gives an overview of what he calls “the high priesthood cycle” and the “apostolic cycle” but doesn’t discuss these issues much in the book (6-7). When he does mention them in chapter four, they seemed off topic as if they were part of another project (51-55). In another instance, Smith tells of John Taylor applying the “destroyed in the flesh” clause to an adulterous woman, but Smith doesn’t explain what Taylor meant exactly (121). Smith later says the phrase probably meant excommunication, but that context (if it were correct) would have been useful for the Taylor story.
Nevertheless, Smith’s study is extremely useful for all those interested in the topics of polygamy and Mormon thought. Not much is new in terms of these topics, but having all these ideas and sources brought together is extremely helpful to any readers.
If the book has a thesis, it seems to be a point that Smith makes in chapter 11: “As discussed through the volume, the plural marriage revelation seems to have been dictated for a limited audience–particularly Emma Smith–and was never meant for public consumption.” Smith notes some of the revelation’s troubling language and then declares, “This raises the question of what such a revelation might have looked like if it were meant from the beginning to be public, out-in-the-open, Divine Counsel” (178). This leads Smith to the unusual move of presenting an edited and cleaned up version of the text minus all the talk about destroying Emma, in addition to other changes.
Such is a peculiar move and highlights the unusual relationship that Mormonism has between its theology and its history, and the role that historian play in that relationship. Can such a revision be made? That’s up to other people, but Smith raises convicting and interesting questions in that direction.
By October 5, 2017
Yes, I’m very late to the party, but I recently saw a few episodes of PBS’s Wolf Hall about Thomas Cromwell and wanted to comment. Though I did a reading exam on the English Reformation, my focus was more societal than on individuals, so my knowledge of the main characters in the story are somewhat impressionistic. I did see a few problems though.
First, I’ll say that the production is very good, and Cromwell’s character is very likable as a salt-of-the-earth, humble servant, caught up in difficult times. Clearly the intent is to overturn Man for All Seasons (1966) that makes Thomas More the hero of the story.
More’s character in Wolf Hall is an interesting one, and while many say he’s the villain, Wolf Hall’s More is much more three-dimensional than Man for All Seasons’ Cromwell. Things seem to go off the rails, however, in the lead up to More’s trial and execution, as the dialogue becomes all about justifying More’s execution, and Cromwell seems to shoot down all the great lines from Man for All Seasons. Ultimately, More’s prosecution, torture, and burning of Protestants justify Cromwell’s prosecution of More for his refusal to sign the oath of allegiance.