Considering Biography and Thought in Early Mormonism

By November 3, 2009

I’ve recently been researching the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, a late 18th- early 19th-century thinker who represented the transition between German enlightenment and Romantic thought. Schleiermacher, long recognized as an important sage in German culture, has only recently been given due attention in the English-speaking world. Thus, the literature on his theology is somewhat scant in the American academy (save for his demonization by 20th-century neo-conservatives like Karl Barth), especially when compared to someone like Joseph Smith who has long been scrutinized, praised, or overall engaged by scholars both within and without the Mormon tradition. Because of the relative newness of the topic, however, the narrative and frameworks in which to understand Schleiermacher’s thought is still being developed. Several important questions are just now beginning to be asked—questions which, surprisingly, still have relevance to Mormon history today.[1]

One specific question relates to the intersection of a person’s thought and their biography, i.e. how someone’s ideas relate to their historical context. Wilhelm Dilthey, one of the first biographers of Schleiermacher, wrote this interesting insight that largely set the basis for all German Schleiermacher studies for the last century: “The philosophy of Kant can be wholly understood without a closer engagement with his person and his life; Schleiermacher’s significance, his worldview and his works require a biographical portrayal for their thorough understanding.”[2] While I may not agree with his dismissal of historicist approaches to Kant, I (obviously) find Dilthey’s biographical approach to the German theologian as compelling; I’m one who believes that it is an error to approach a person’s theology without acknowledging the larger culture from which it was birthed. I assume that, since this is a historical blog, many who read this would agree with me.

However—and you knew a “however” was coming—I am continually impressed at the fact that this approach is not shared by everyone in the academy. With Schleiermacher, in fact, it is still a point of hot debate as to how much his life and culture must be understood in order to comprehend his theology.[3] In English scholarship, Schleiermacher has largely been ignored as a historical figure and has only been engaged in philosophy (primarily because, until the last decade or so, Schleiermacher studies [as barren as it was] was dominated by philosophers). Thus, the German scholarship, largely dominated with the Diltheyian historicist view, did not mingle well with the English philosophical view. Only recently has a more balanced approach of the German thinker been widely accepted.

What does this have to do with Mormonism—and Joseph Smith—you ask? Plenty. As has been demonstrated recently, there has often been a divide between theological/philosophical and historical views of past figures, especially Joseph Smith. Indeed, I think a lot of the problems came from a lack of dialogue and understanding on both sides of the divide: historians would upset that philosophers or theologians did not understand the historical context of Joseph Smith’s ideas, and philosophers and theologians constantly (and rightly so) accused historians of not understanding philosophical implications, definitions, or characterizations. By speaking past each other, I fear that scholarship on early Mormon thought especially suffered.

Luckily, we have had some hints of an optimistic outlook ahead. Bushman’s biography of Smith, being the first biography to really deal with the prophet’s mind, made it a goal from the outset to not only place Smith’s theology within its cultural context, but also to understand its philosophical implications and actually engage what the theology actually meant.[4] Other recent works that also, in my opinion, perform a terrific balancing act include fellow JIer Matt B’s award-winning “The Crisis of Mormon Christology,” Sam Brown’s “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt” (his forthcoming book will likely be even more helpful), and Grant Underwood’s “Communities of Discourse.”[5] Regarding the last piece, I find Underwood’s approach to early Mormon theology—that of understanding it within a larger dialogic community—to be especially fruitful, particularly when considering exceptionally thorny issues like the nature of God. I have personally proposed a more eclectic approach to the antebellum environment in which Mormonism was raised by acknowledging the give-and-take atmosphere and deciphering the mesh of theological answers that Joseph Smith et. all came up with.

I end with several points of possible discussion:

  1. What other works do you see exemplifying a balance between historical and philosophical approaches?
  2. What frameworks do you see as most fruitful in engaging early LDS thought?
  3. Is such a balance possible and/or necessary, or should we not even attempt to bridge this (perceived) divide?


[1] One notable exception to the dearth of academic works on Schleiermacher in English is B.A. Gerrish’s A Prince of the Church: Schleiermacher and the Beginnings of Modern Theology (1984).

[2] Wilhelm Dilthey, Leben Schleiermachers (1870), xxxiii.

[3] An overview of the debate is in Richard Crouter, Friedrich Schleiermacher: Between Enlightenment and Religion (2005), 21-38.

[4] Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling (2005), xxi.

[5] Matthew Bowman, “The Crisis of Mormon Christology: History, Progess, and Protestantism, 1880-1930,” Fides et Historia 40 (Summer/Fall 2008); Samuel Brown, “Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden,” Church History 78 (March 2009); Grant Underwood, “A ‘Communities of Discourse’ Approach to Early LDS Thought,” in Discourses in Mormon Theology (2007). There are obviously other examples that I could use. There are also, unfortunately, many books—even in the last few years and on both sides of the debate—that have done a horrible job at finding a balance.

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


  1. Are you seriously saying that Joseph Smith was “long been…praised” by scholars? Really? Perhaps a handful of non-LDS scholars like Harold Bloom have praised him, but other than a few, most non-LDS scholars have given scathing remarks about him. Of course Brent Metcalfe, Dan Vogel, and other scholars definitely have not praised Joseph Smith so much as called him a genius charlatan. That’s not praise in my book.

    Or are you only focusing on the faithful and inspiring books written by Joseph’s mother and others?

    Comment by Rameumptom — November 4, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  2. Umm, Rameumptom, did you read the entire sentence? I said that he had long been “scrutinized, praised, or engaged” by scholars, offering the many different varieties. Your ellipses cut out the very point you were trying to make.

    In fact, did you read any of the post beyond your selective reading of the first paragraph, or did you just want to make a “hit-and-run” comment to boost your ego?

    Comment by Ben — November 4, 2009 @ 9:54 am

  3. Thanks for the post, Ben. I don’t have time to comment more at this point, but will try and join in the conversation at a later point.

    Comment by Christopher — November 4, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  4. I agree with you. Matt is a star of this field. His piece on the Gillites will be another wonderful example. you’re very kind to include me in the list.

    I think Leigh Schmidt has the tone down cold–I would hold him as the type of historical work we ought to be engaging within Mormonism.

    Comment by smb — November 4, 2009 @ 4:31 pm

  5. There’s got to be some good intellectual historians who weigh in on this, no?

    Comment by smallaxe — November 6, 2009 @ 12:14 pm

  6. Smallaxe: there should be, yes; but sadly, we’ve had somewhat of a dearth of intellectual history in Mormon studies. I’ve talked a little bit about that here.

    Again, however, there are some definite bright spots in this field. Recent works have dealt increasingly with intellectual history, and several of the “manifestos” for a new new mormon history in the last edition of JMH also called for more of this type of approach.

    Comment by Ben — November 6, 2009 @ 12:28 pm


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