B. H. Roberts and Pragmatism. Part III on William James and Mormonism

By February 28, 2008

(continued from Part II)

With the Mormon conception of a premortal council in mind, as Roberts continued reading Pragmatism he set about noting where James steered askew from a Mormon way of seeing things, filling in the gaps where James does not follow the Mormon line of reasoning all the way out as well as identifying other elements that resonate with Mormonism. Where James suggests–again, perhaps hypothetically–that some proto-individuals, at this pre-dawn of creation, might recoil from such a dangerous proposition and prefer rather to “relapse into the slumber of nonentity” from which they had “been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice,” Roberts demurs. In the bottom margin of his copy of Pragmatism–and later in the footnotes of his published works–Roberts offered this corrective of James’s implication that God brought human souls into being out of a nonentity to which they might at any time return:

Of course this proposition of relapsing into a nonentity is no part of the “Mormon” scheme of thought since the actual proposition of our revelations was made to Intelligences alike uncreated and uncreateable, and alike indestructible; so that while in the exercise of their freedom these Intelligences might decline participation in the scheme of things proposed, they could not sink back into nonentity <, they would merely remain status quo>. [1]

The “Mormon scheme of thought,” so clear to Roberts, might not be as uniformly held among Mormons as Roberts seems to here suggest. Brigham Young had taught, in a manner somewhat congruent (if more literal) to the scenario James lays out, that those who ultimately reject God’s plan–individuals known in Mormonism as “sons of perdition”–will cease to grow and progress in truth and light and will decrease in ignorance and darkness until the return to native element.[2] Though Roberts’s view of the ultimate fate of sons of perdition is slightly different that Young’s–Roberts views their fate as eternal separation from God but not as dissolution, which for Roberts is an untenable scenario–he still finds meaning in the concept of eternally lost souls, those who ultimately reject God’s plan, known as sons of perdition. Seeming to sense that this conception could further flesh out James’s cosmology (if it could be called that), a few pages after the above-quoted paragraph in Pragmatism, where James queries whether the claims of too-saccharine tender-mindedness had gone too far in suggesting that the world could be saved in toto, Roberts writes: “Add here consideration of ‘The Vision’ the loss of the sons of Perdition Sec 76.”[3] At the top of the proceeding page, where James describes the “ineluctable noes and losses” of life–the “permanently drastic and bitter” dregs that “always remains at the bottoms of its [life’s] cup”–Roberts writes, “The sons of Perdition,” reading into James’s account the Mormon conception of souls beyond the pale of redemption.[4]

Roberts quoted the above-cited paragraph and several more from Pragmatism–nine paragraphs in total[5]–in his Seventy’s Course in a chapter on the “war in heaven” (which followed the council in heaven) and in his later masterwork, The Truth, The Way, The Life, where he further fleshed out the “startling parallels” with Mormonism. Roberts introduces the passage as one “so pregnant with suggestion relative to our theme, so supported by philosophical thought and analysis of human nature, both strong and weak, that one marvels at the idea and thought in it which so parallels our own doctrines.”[6] He goes on to point out each of the parallels he sees:

The proposition put to intelligences before the earth was made, in each case; an earth-life full of adventure and danger, safety not guaranteed,[7] in each case; the counter plan proposed that would guarantee safety rejected; and yet the existence of some ‘morbid minds’ among the spirits-found ‘in every human collection,’ to whom ‘the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance’ made no appeal, and accordingly their rejection of it; in both cases enough heroic souls to accept the adventurous proposition of a scheme of things involving real losses.

Following these recognized parallels, Roberts proceeds to exult in the one element he sees as explicitly missing from James’s account–Jesus the Christ, whose “spirit stood for freedom of man in that great controversy.”[8]

Not only does Roberts point out parallels between the two descriptions, but his own rhetoric in narrating the event is influenced by Jamesian vocabulary. This is most evident in Roberts’s narration of Lucifer’s hypothetical counterproposal to God’s proposition, recast using expression that are admittedly “a paraphrase” of the said passage in Pragmatism. I quote Roberts’s passage below, with Jamesian terminology or themes in italics:

Under this plan, Intelligences were to have an earth-life in which there would be no losses; a world where there was nothing adventurous and dangerous, a “game” in which there are no real stakes; all that was hazarded would be given back. All must be saved; and no price is to be paid in the work of salvation. The last word is to be sweet. All is to be “yes,” “yes,'” in the universe. The fact of “no” was nowhere to stand at the core of things. There could be no seriousness attributed to life under such a plan, since there would be no insuperable “noes” and “losses;” no genuine sacrifices anywhere; nothing permanently drastic and bitter to remain at the bottom of the cup.[9]

Thus, not only did Roberts recognize similarities between the two accounts, but his own telling and perhaps even his own understanding of the event was modified by that “parallel” in James’s pragmatism.

It can be argued that Roberts was reading too much in James’s account–that James was merely posing a hypothetical and rhetorical scenario without any suggestion that such may have in reality been an actual premortal event or anything like unto it. Since James does not develop the idea further in any of his other writings, this is a valid objection. Nonetheless, Roberts’s contention is not that James is a proponent of the Mormon view, per se, in every detail and in it all literality, but that, due to thematic similarities in principle, the account is “pregnant with suggestion relative to our [the LDS] theme.” That suggestion, Roberts seems to imply, is that since James’s hypothetical account is grounded in “philosophical thought and analysis of human behavior” by one of America’s foremost philosophers, it lends support to the reasonableness of the LDS doctrine. That James could arrive at similar conclusions by pure reasoning, apparently unaware of the “parallel” LDS doctrines–though Roberts does wonder whether he read an LDS account of the council somewhere–suggests that the principles inherent in Joseph Smith’s revelations, mystical as they may be it terms of reception, are grounded in solid philosophical reasoning and sound principles related to human behavior.


1. This marginal note was reproduced almost verbatim, with punctuation added, in the manuscript of Roberts’s posthumously published TWL with the following lines, as indicated by brackets, added to the end: <, they would merely remain status quo>.

2. See Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal: 1838-1898 Typescript (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1983), 4: 402; Brigham Young, “Disorganization of Soul and Body,” Contributor 10, no. 11 (September, 1889).

3. Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which Roberts makes reference to here, is a transcribed “revelation” describing a vision experienced by the Prophet Joseph Smith, in which he outlines a heaven consisting of three degrees of glory, which constitute the eternal residence of the great majority of mankind-as well as a region known as outer darkness, which is not a kingdom of glory, to which sons of perdition are banished.

4. Pragmatism, 295-296, B. H. Roberts Memorial Collection.

5. In the Seventy-s Course, Roberts quotes nine paragraphs and eight in TWL.

6. Seventy-s Course, 30; worded slightly different in TWL, 324.

7. In the Seventy-s Course, 32, Roberts here inserts, in a footnote, a reference to the following passage from the Book of Abraham in the LDS canon, which portrays a conversation between God and Jesus Christ prior to the creation of the earth: “We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make on earth whereon these [Intelligences] may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate [premortal existence] shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estates [sons of perdition] shall not have glory on the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate [mortality] shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever? (Abraham 3:24-26; the first bracketed explanatory note is Roberts’s, the rest are mine).

8. Seventy’s Course, 32; TWL, 326.

9. Seventy’s Course, 29-30. It would be an interesting study to compare narrative descriptions of the council in heaven in Latter-day Saint writings before and after the publication of Roberts’s Seventy’s Course to see if the Jamesian terminology Roberts here employs influenced the general LDS conception of the council and subsequent war in heaven. Did the idea of the potential losses it entailed by the council become more pronounced, for example, after Roberts’s conflation of the standard account with the Jamesian conception?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I am a big Roberts fan, and would like to read even more by him. It is not surprising that he sought for support for the revelations from rational thought and science. This is a big part of Roberts goal it seems.

    I need to read some from James as well.

    Thanks for passing this along.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — February 28, 2008 @ 11:45 am

  2. The issue of risk and the plan in heaven is a very interesting one: both in terms of pragmatism but also Continental thinkers like Heidegger (or even Kierkegaard from whence I believe the notion originated). It’s interesting that Roberts picked up on that.

    BTW – did you go through Robert’s annotated books or was this recorded somewhere?

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  3. Roberts’s books are housed in Church Archives in the BH Roberts Collection. I went thru his copies of James and transcribed his marginal annotations.

    Comment by stan — February 28, 2008 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Does anyone know if Brigham Young had a collection of books like that? (I assume not, but now I’m very curious) How about Orson Pratt?

    Comment by Clark — February 28, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  5. Thanks for this, Stan. I find it very interesting that leaders like Pratt at the turn of the century used rational thought and applied other rational thinkers to support their ideas, while, in general, the Church today would rather not do that because it seems too “worldly.”

    Comment by Ben — February 28, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  6. Clark: good question. BH Roberts is all I’m aware of. I came across a few of Joseph Fielding Smith’s books while browsing thru the open shelves at the Church History Museum. After blogging about that here, I noticed that one of the books was pulled and put in the closed stacks (not sure if there’s any connection).
    I’m not aware of any other intact collections. It would be great if there were.

    Comment by Stan — February 28, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

  7. Brigham Young, ?Disorganization of Soul and Body,? Contributor 10, no. 11 (September, 1889).

    Thank you for providing this link. I was unaware of it. A while back I did a post on Brigham’s spirit annihilation. I think it is important to note that BH was trying to synthesize Joseph Smith teachings on the uncreated spirit and later doctrines like spirit birth. Joseph’s ring analogy consequently supports both Brigham and and uncreated existence.

    Something of interest to me in BH’s formulations in the Seventies Course is his coinage of the word “intelligencies” which he uses as his eternal and uncreated existence (and base for all subsequent tripartite existence models). I have noticed that this word hasn’t come up in your post and it has been too long since I have done a systematic analysis but I assume that his shift to the standard “intelligences” in TWL was an accommodation to criticism of his earlier coinage?

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 28, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  8. Stan, is this series drawn from you thesis? It’s excellent (of course I have the flu and I’m so sick I can’t see straight, so who knows).

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 28, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  9. J: I’ve been unaware of the term “intelligencies.” I’ve probably being reading right over it without noticing. Your comment makes me nervous that I may have transcribed something wrong. Perhaps I better go back over my sources again.

    SC: No, I’m actually doing my thesis on a non-Mormon topic: a Depression-era Metaphysician who lead a small esoteric sect in southern Utah during the 30s and 40s. I thought about Roberts’s reading for a thesis though. It will definitely be matter for some later publications, or something (presenting on it at MHA).

    Comment by stan — February 28, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  10. Stan, I should have kept quiet with my feeling of “surprise” over the JFS books. There’s always a connection.

    Comment by Justin — February 28, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

  11. I’m hoping it was pulled in a effort to gather them all together into one collection–if that’s still possible. That would be a good project for someone–to go thru all the library books at BYU, the COB, etc., and try to gather together or at least note signed copies, especially if there are anotations. I’ve noticed that sometimes its indicated on library catalogues. I’ve also noticed that sometimes names are intentionally washed out–history erased–a tragedy.

    Comment by stan — February 28, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

  12. Re intelligencies, I’ve noticed that Abraham 3:21, as published in the Times and Seasons (Mar. 15, 1842), features the word twice. Verse 22 uses “intelligences.”

    It appears that Brigham Young and John Taylor also used the term.

    Comment by Justin — February 29, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  13. Justin, I was unaware of that usage in the T&S printing of the Book of Abraham. It appears to me to be a mistake in typography, but I am not sure. I’m quite unfamiliar with the manuscript history of the BoA. Is it available anywhere? Will it be part of the JS Papers?

    I’m curious about the instances in the JD as well, as it isn’t a systematic application – just random occurances, and only a handful. I’m going to have to do some digging.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 29, 2008 @ 11:50 am

  14. J.: There has been talk about doing a volume in the JSP on all the KEP and the Book of Abraham, but I don’t know what has been decided on that.

    Comment by David G. — February 29, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  15. I realize that in some circles they are controversial; but how could not include the “Kirtland Egyptian Papers” in the Joseph Smith Papers?


    Comment by J. Stapley — February 29, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  16. I believe that it will contain translation manuscripts.

    Re Taylor and Young’s usage, I haven’t looked into how they use the term, i.e., is it consistent with their use of the term intelligences (do they use the terms interchangeably)? I agree that we may be dealing with typographical errors here.

    I’m curious, though, because Dick uses the word quite often.

    Comment by Justin — February 29, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  17. I really, really hope they do. Especially with full color photos. Hopefully by now the Church realizes that Brent Metcalf and company’s arguments via the Book of Abraham have had at most a minor impact on the church. Getting the sources out there – for apologists if no one else – would be extremely beneficial.

    Comment by Clark — February 29, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  18. I had no idea. I just checked and Josiah Priest employs the term as well…I guess this means I need to do some digging.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 29, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

  19. I also checked the OED and found an entry for “intelligency.” Its definitions consist of cross-references to various definitions for the word “intelligence.”

    Comment by Justin — February 29, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

  20. Getting the sources out there – for apologists if no one else – would be extremely beneficial.

    Judging by Elder Jensen’s recent statements, I’m guessing the aim isn’t to help the apologists.

    Comment by Christopher — February 29, 2008 @ 1:25 pm

  21. Perhaps. We’ll see.

    Comment by Clark — February 29, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  22. Clark, my comment was partly tongue-in-cheek (and a light-hearted reference to our discussion at the Wasp yesterday). I can assure you, though, that the project does not have as its goal, “Let’s get these documents published to help our buddies at FARMS defend the church and refute those antis’ arguments!” I imagine apologists will appreciate and find the volumes useful for their purposes, but that’s not the project’s aim.

    Comment by Christopher — February 29, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

  23. I have a JD quote somewhere in which Brigham hedges his bet a little on the annihilation issue. I believe he was pretty committed to the issue, but perhaps not as much as it seems. (Or maybe he was taking audience into consideration. Either way, it is an interesting quote, I’ll see if I can track it down.)

    Comment by BHodges — February 29, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  24. I thought FARMS was working on an independent project to publish the manuscripts.

    Comment by Justin — February 29, 2008 @ 2:18 pm

  25. Brian Hauglid is doing a KEP, due out within the next year or so. He’s doing a great job with it, and he’s working from BYU, so I suspect a JSP would be redundant. I’ve spoken with him about his work; he’s quite credible, and I’m looking forward to the edition.

    Comment by smb — February 29, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  26. Justin, I thought that Brian Hauglid was preparing a full color edition as well. I’m still curious about the BoA mss from the Nauvoo work. Where are those held? Are they part of the KEP?

    BHodges, Brigham was fairly clear in public and private about spirit annihilation, tons of references over decades.

    I went through and looked at how “intelligencies” pops up in the JD. It appears that they use it exactly how they use “intelligence.” Brigham is pretty clear hear. he notes that “spirit element” is used to create a spirit/intelligence and that there is no mind before that creation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 29, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  27. Sorry, the perhaps was about Elder Jensen getting the Abraham materials out. I did catch the joke though. I actually think we agree but just disagree about how widespread bad tone is. Having railed on about tone when I contributed to FAIR for a few years and seen many others worry about that a lot I think it gets too much ‘press.’ (Which is not to excuse poor tone). As I said at the Wasp though I’ve seen far too much poor tone in regular academics as well though. There is, for example, huge antagonism between so-called postmodernists and analytic philosophers that makes the FARMS/Signature fight of the early 90’s seem positively tame and respectful.

    (Sorry – apologize for the tangent)

    What I think we can agree on is that it is embarrassing that Brent and his collaborators have full color photos of the texts whereas more faithful Mormon scholars are completely out of luck.

    Comment by Clark — February 29, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  28. I didn’t know Hauglid was publishing a critical edition. Hats off to him. I’ve been so busy the last year I’m far too ignorant of a lot of happenings.

    Comment by Clark — February 29, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  29. I wonder if intelligencies, in addition to being a typographical variant, might also reflect a common nineteenth-century pronunciation.

    Comment by stan — February 29, 2008 @ 11:50 pm

  30. BHodges, Brigham was fairly clear in public and private about spirit annihilation, tons of references over decades.

    I agree. That’s why I was kind of surprised to see him hedge his bet in the JD. I’ll see if I can track it down. At the least, it was a comment about that teaching not being important to our salvation, etc. but I think BY hints at it being speculation, though speculation he held to tightly.

    Comment by BHodges — March 5, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  31. […] is uncertain why Robert’s used this term, however as Justin pointed out, the Times and Seasons printing of the Book of Abraham (3 [March 15, 1842], 720, vs. 21 [Abraham […]

    Pingback by Splendid Sun » A Textual History of the KFD, Part II — June 5, 2008 @ 5:53 pm


Recent Comments

wvs on News from the Mormon: “Congrats to Chris Blythe!”

David G. on Book Review: Colvin and: “Thanks, Charlotte!”

J Stuart on Book Review: Colvin and: “Can't wait to read the rest of the review in JMH. Thanks, Charlotte!”

Ben S on MHA 2020 Networking Materials: “Thanks for this.”

Th. on Book Review: Jake Johnson,: “. Just commenting on your first paragraph: Egad.”

Steve Fleming on A note on the: “No but haven't really looked.”