Defining Mormon Materialism, circa 1840s

By September 22, 2009

The more I look at the development of Mormon thought, the more I’m convinced that the development of materialism drastically shaped late Nauvoo and early Utah (and beyond) theology. However, the evolution of Mormonism’s materialism is not only difficult to trace, but perplexing to compare when examined in conjunction with contemporary materialists. When Joseph Smith proclaimed that “all spirit is matter,” he still refused to collapse all distinction, claiming that spirit was more refined and “pure.”[1] Indeed, as LDS thinkers began to work towards a more systematic theology, further definitions on what constituted Mormon materialism were required to not only to differentiate themselves from other ideologies, but to retain some form of earthly/heavenly dualism.[2]

The initial development of Mormon materialism, while a fascinating topic, is not the focus of this post. For our purposes, vague roots of it are found in Joseph Smith’s early revelations, a crucial step is made with Parley Pratt’s prison writings, and then Smith’s Nauvoo teachings vaulted the idea to a central position of LDS thought where it has since stayed.[3] By closing the distance between matter and spirit, a redefined and radical ontology not only appeared but flourished in Nauvoo. Many Mormon thinkers, most notably Parley Pratt, argued that all of Mormonism’s distinct theology stemmed from “the riches of materialism.”[4]

When early Mormons declared themselves as ?materialists,? they entered into an ongoing dialogue that had picked up steam in the previous two centuries of British theological debate, even if they were not aware of it.[5] While Descartes most famously divided spirit and matter into two distinct substances, others like Joseph Priestly attempted to collapse that distance. While many materialists tended to have an atheist or agnostic view of the world, theistic (though unorthodox) voices began to argue for a Christian materialism.[6] Therefore, the Saints? notion of all things being composed of a physical substance was not novel, though important facets of their materialist theology was unique and made necessary a distinction between their thought and that of their contemporaries.

When Parley Pratt proclaimed in 1844 that ?all persons except materialists must be infidels, so far at least as belief in the scriptures is concerned,?[7] he might not have been ready to differentiate LDS theology from other materialists?perhaps because he did not know the difference himself. However, within a decade, British Mormons were being attacked with the standard claims associated with other materialists, encapsulated in T. W. P. Taylder?s The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed.[8] Orson?s response, Absurdities of Immaterialism, was as much a distinction of Mormon theology from contemporary materialisms as it was a denunciation of “atheistic” immaterialism. Taylder, Pratt reasoned, ?has clearly exhibited the absurdities of Priestley, Darwin, and various other writers, who have made mind the result of the motions of the brain or its organization.?[9] But, Pratt continued, the minister failed to attach these thinkers to those of the LDS Church, and he thus set out to differentiate himself from others.[10]

Forced to demonstrated their diverging views, Orson Pratt focused on how contemporary materialism devalued the mind to the point of mechanism, or the idea that all thoughts, emotions, and feelings are just the result of the organization and natural function of the brain. ?A material mind,? Pratt countered, ? possessing the power to think, to feel, to reason, to remember, is not the brain, nor secretions of the brain, nor any other part of the fleshy tabernacle,? but is separate and distinct.[11] With such an ?absurdity? being common among materialists, Pratt concluded, it is no surprise that there is such an outrage against the idea.

No doubt but that the immaterialist absurdity was invented principally to combat the gross errors which have been embraced by some materialists, both of ancient and modern times. The great majority of materialists have contended that thought and feeling are the results of organization, beginning and ceasing with it. Hobbes, Spinosa, Priestly, Darwin, and numerous other individuals, have strenuously advocated this inconsistency. They have asserted that particles of matter have no susceptibilities of thought and feeling when unorganized, but as soon as they were brought together into a certain system, the result of such union is thought and feeling.[12]

Pratt?s most common emphasized difference was that ?intelligence? (and ?intelligences?) were the cause of all action, and not the affect, most clearly set up in his later pamphlet, Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe.[13]

Now, these are just a few of the fascinating tensions involved when engaging Mormon materialism, especially when differentiating them from other materialists.[14] I am interested in what interesting insights others have garnered when dealing with (and possibly defining) materialism in Mormon thought. What do you see as distinctive in LDS materialism? What role do you see it playing in the development of Mormon theology?


[1] Joseph Smith Sermon, 17 May 1843, recorded in George D. Smith, ed., An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in Association with Smith Research Associates, 1995), 103-104.

[2] An example of this desire to retain some form of distinction is Mormon thinkers’ insistence that blood is a key separation between earthly and celestial bodies.

[3] Early revelations that contained seeds of the eventual Mormon materialism include D&C 93 and the “Awman” revelation, made available for the first time in the first volume of the Revelations series in the Joseph Smith Papers Project (I’d have more to say on this fascinating text, not to mention give citation information, but my copy hasn’t arrived yet–darn overseas shipping!!!). Pratt’s important early text is Parley P. Pratt, ?The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,? in Parley P. Pratt, The Millennium, and Other Poems: To Which is Annexed, A Treatise on the Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter (W. Molineux, 1840).

[4] [Parley Pratt], ?Materiality,? The Prophet 1, no. 52 (24 May 1845), no pagination. This late-Nauvoo period editorial, important in tracing the development of Mormon materialism, ontology, and theosis, is engaged in Benjamin E. Park and Jordan Watkins, “The Riches of Mormon Materialism: Parley Pratt’s ‘Materiality’ and Early Mormon Theology,” paper under review. It should be noted that some scholars, including JI’s frequent commenter Sam Brown, believe that Mormonism’s materialism stemmed from other theological developments, rather than vice versa.

[5] Concerning Joseph Smith, Richard Bushman wrote, ?When he spoke the words [about materialism], Joseph probably did not consider the longstanding philosophical argument about the nature of matter. Metaphysical materialism?the idea that there was no spirit, only matter?was the subject of extensive debate in the late eighteenth century.? Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 419.

[6] See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 302-303.

[7] Parley P. Pratt, ?Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,? in An Appeal to the Inhabitants of the State of New York, Letter to Queen Victoria (Reprinted from the Tenth European Edition,) The Fountain of Knowledge; Immortality of the Body, and Intelligence and Affection (Nauvoo: John Taylor, Printer, 1844), 21.

[8] T. W. P. Taylder, The Materialsm of the Mormons, or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed (Woolwich: Printed by E. Jones, 1849).

[9] Orson Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, or, A Reply to T. W. P. Taylder?s Pamphlet, entitled, ?The Materialism of the Mormons or Latter-Day Saints, Examined and Exposed” (Liverpool: R. James, 1849), 9.

[10] On the difference between Orson?s thought and other materialists, see Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985), 202-205.

[11] Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, 5.

[12] Pratt, Absurdities of Immaterialism, 18.

[13] Orson Pratt, Great First Cause, or the Self-Moving Forces of the Universe (Liverpool: R. James, 1851).

[14] On a comparison of Mormon thought and materialist theology in general, see Max Nolan, ?Materialism and the Mormon Faith,? Dialogue 22, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 62-75.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. I have a few things to apologize for here. 1) the length of the post in general. So much to say, so difficult to cut it down. 2) the length of the footnotes. I guess I’m just trying to channel my inner Edje. 3) because of the time difference between the America and Britain, as well as my current lack of internet service at my flat, I will unfortunately not be very quick with responses to comments.

    Comment by Ben — September 22, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  2. I have nothing to contribute to the discussion, but I wanted to thank you for a thoughtful and provocative post, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — September 22, 2009 @ 9:59 am

  3. While the Pratts are the obvious choice to understand early Mormon materialism I personally think the more interesting place to look are Young’s sermons. Young has a much less ontological thrust, but arguably constraints the narrative much more.

    The other thread I think is interesting to follow up on in Quinn’s suggestion. Now after having done a lot of research I think there is far less there than Quinn did. But I think the view of materialism by the Transcendentalists (who obviously weren’t materialists) needs to be followed up. (Quinn didn’t appeal to the Transcendentalists – but he makes reference to understanding Joseph’s comments in terms of neoPlatonism which in the early 19th century largely is transmitted via the Transcendentalists)

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 10:03 am

  4. Thanks, Chris.

    Clark: Thanks for the heads up on Young–since my research drops off considerably with the trek west, I honestly haven’t looked much at his discourses. And, as one whose primary focus is on the Transcendentalists, there are some interesting comparisons there, but that is for another post.

    Comment by Ben — September 22, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  5. I think the Pratts’ materialism is an excellent study in Mormon religion making through analogy. We have a body now. And we have material spirits. Therefor our spirits have spirit organs. This is all based on the hyper-literalist views of “the same sociality.”

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 22, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  6. I don’t think it’s just a literalist interpretation of “the same sociality.” Rather I think key to the thinking is an anthropomorphic view of spirits entailed from how the early Mormons interact with them. That is God appears (at least by the 1840’s) as a man. When other angels are seen they are men and women. When the devil appears, he is a man. All the encounters have the appearance of beings like us.

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  7. To add, the phenomenology of spirits and ghosts even before the Mormons come onto the scene is often very materialistic. Even amongst the Renaissance philosophers this is a major trend. (Telesio being the obvious example) Thus “immaterial spirits” aren’t immaterial in the sense of a Thomist soul or a Cartesian mind. Rather they are immaterial in the sense of being like wind. So when you look at the folk descriptions of spirits they have all the material properties we associate with gases.

    I think a lot of the early Mormon rhetoric of spirits owes a lot to this folk tradition. Even Joseph’s “more fine” statements lines up with a lot of traditions, even philosophical ones (even though the Renaissance philosophers aren’t accorded much focus due to not saying much that interesting). The more hard core thinkers by the early 19th century have adopted either hard materialism or hard dualism. However there still is that tradition which tends to not think in terms of ontological categories but more in terms of a naive phenomenology of ghosts which is very much in line with the Mormon tradition

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  8. One last point and then I’ll shut up.

    It is very hard to escape materialism when talking about spirits. There’s a recent book by Moreland (a major Protestant philosopher and apologist) that attempts to defend the typical Evangelical view of dualism. Interestingly his section on what I’d call phenomenological defenses completely undermines his argument. He appeals to things like NDE to defend dualism. He argues that because you don’t see the body it is a case for immaterialism. However the descriptions have the spirit with a definite spatial location, a definite perspective as if from a spot and much else that are all material, not immaterial properties. So unintentionally he makes the case for that folk tradition. That is immaterialism means either small, undeveloped, or gaseous. It doesn’t mean ontological immaterialism, at least in the phenomenology.

    When even a dualist apologist falls into the materialism it’s not at all hard to see why the early Mormons do it. And arguably the only real debate is whether the constitution of spirits is more a mystery or not. Pratt adopts a highly speculative view due to influence (probably) from the early atomists. (It’d be interesting to know if he was also influenced by the space but lack of body in NDE – suggesting a small size)

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

  9. How you managed to write this without citing Madonna is beyond me. 🙂

    Comment by Cynthia L. — September 22, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

  10. Sure. To your point, Clark, I meant to use the “same sociality” as shorthand for the idea that there are beings in human form before and after this world.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 22, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

  11. The idea that beings have human form both before and after this world is so heavily entrenched in Mormonism that it is hard to imagine anything else.

    To start with, the doctrine of the body. Joseph Smith said that those with (physical) bodies had power over those that did not. We are told that one of the purposes of this earthly life is to get a body and learn to discipline it.

    We are told that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man”. We are told that “the spirit and the body shall be reunited again in its perfect form; both limb and joint shall be restored to its proper frame, even as we now are at this time“.

    We are told that “even there shall not so much as a hair of their heads be lost”. We are told that all “angels” have resurrected bodies of “flesh and bones”, as also Jesus Christ post resurrection. It is implied that spirits, including pre-mortal spirits like the “devil” and Jesus Christ prior to his birth either have hands or can trivially appear to have them.

    Half of the church, at least, believes in something akin to vivaparous spirit birth, and no end of church publications show us as pre-mortal spirits with bodies, being raised by our heavenly parents and so on.

    Some of that might be dismissed as having no doctrinal foundation. A better question is what post-mortal life is going to be like if instead of having resurrected bodies, all we are is some sort of blinky thingy like the way we presumably were before we had a body of any kind.

    Comment by Mark D. — September 22, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  12. Thanks, Ben. A careful weaving of all the threads you followed through the seminar this summer on a fascinating topic. Look forward to yours and Jordan’s forthcoming paper. And while it may be the subject for another post, I’d also be interested in hearing how the growth of LDS materialism can be worked out with/against transcendental idealism in the U.S.

    Comment by Ryan T — September 22, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  13. Ah, OK. Sorry for misreading you. I thought you were talking about literalism in scriptural exegesis. My point was more that this probably had little to do with exegesis and everything to do with exegesis of visionary experiences.

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 11:27 pm

  14. Ryan, I think one can reconcile them. Honestly I think neoPlatonism is open to more materialistic-like readings than most people realize. Even in the classical formulations one can see them as arguing for a matter of degree. And there are some very interesting takes on biology by modern neoPlatonists. The Gaia hypothesis, for instance, offers a very neoPlatonic approach. But neoPlatonism, especially by the 19th century, is pretty broad and general – to the point that it’s not that informative.

    But of course one should be clear what one means by transcendental idealism. Typically that just refers to Kant, but I suspect you mean something quite broader. The American form in Emerson and company is obviously quite different from say in German idealism – especially post Kant and up past Hegel.

    But all one really has to do is say that the ontological questions are ultimately not as important and then focus in on the anthropology. I’d argue that Brigham Young often sounds very much like an idealist but explicitly avoids the central ontological (and to a degree epistemological) issues.

    I think one should take Joseph as arguing more like Young than Pratt. That is I see no engagement with fundamental ontology. Unlike Pratt who despite his bad philosophy at least thinks he’s doing fundamental ontology.

    The American Transcendentalist reaction against materialism isn’t really targeting ontology primarily. It’s more against the dehumanization of the rising industrial revolution that treats everything as machine and technology. Now there are ontological implications to that (arguably culminating in Heidegger IMO). The emphasis is an unity to nature we ought be in harmony. And of course Spirit arises in Mormon thought in that same role. (Especially in Pratt) The emphasis is against technology focusing in on individuality and against the barrier traditional religion has with God.

    All those elements are in Mormonism regardless of how one views the ontology.

    The big question is the transcendental question. For Kant and the American Transcendentalists the argument is against reason in preference to intuition. In Mormonism the epistemological questions are a tad more complex. Clearly the Spirit doesn’t function akin to traditional experience. But despite the very transcendental talk of figures like Young, there’s still a sense that it all transpires within an empirical setting – which is anti-transcendental.

    Comment by Clark — September 22, 2009 @ 11:40 pm

  15. Thanks, all, for the participation.

    Clark: thanks for your engagement and questions here. I deal with Mormon concepts of spirits and angels in an angelology paper coming out later this year, so I’ll reserve my comments for that. Sam MB’s manuscript also deals with it as well (in a lot more comprehensive sense in regards to Mormon ontology).

    J: Agreed.

    Cynthia: I’ll try and do better next time 🙂

    Ryan: thanks–it was through discussions with you and others that helped these thoughts crystalize.

    Mark: thanks for the response–I agree with you on many points. Not to weakly push off the topic again (like I did with Clark), but I have a paper coming out with dialogue next year on early Mormon embodiment that deals with a lot of those issues.

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2009 @ 4:43 am

  16. Clark…interesting characterizations of idealism in America and fascinating distinction between the thought of Pratt and Young/Smith, as you put it. To me these seem to hold true. I think your closing point suggests that traditional materialism/idealism categories may be too hard-edged to be meaningful ways to think about both American Transcendentalism and Mormonism, since both are highly interested in aspects of those philosophies but silent or unconcerned with others. Seems like studies like Ben’s are useful since they teach how Mormonism, etc. relates with discourses like materialism…but emphasizes how these relations are oblique, tangential, complicated.

    Comment by Ryan T — September 23, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

  17. Ben, I look forward to your article.

    Ryan, I think my point is ultimately that the movements have discussions on a certain higher level due to lower level ontological considerations. But one can be convinced on some higher level (say the unity of all things) without embracing a particular ontological position (say degrees of idealism culminating in the immaterial One).

    I’m not sure that makes sense. It’s more akin to say how Marx could appropriate Hegel while embracing a much more materialistic streak. In the same way I think it’s hard to read Young without noticing a strong idealist streak but it’s also hard to consider Young as either an Emerson styled neoPlatonist let alone a Hegelian. He was very pragmatic but I think the way he considered things was very idealist and ultimately pragmatic.

    I agree about Ben’s studies. I think all these relations are complex and its unfortunate that they have all too often been very oversimplified. (Once again thinking of Quinn)

    Comment by Clark — September 23, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

  18. […] Defining Mormon materialism in the 1840’s at the Juvenile Instructor. The discussion in the comments was quite good. I’m looking forward to the mentioned papers. […]

    Pingback by Defining Mormon Materialism : Mormon Metaphysics — September 24, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  19. How in the world could both the poster and the commenters write about Mormon materialism without even mentioning Sterling McMurrin? His book answers these questions better than anything written here.

    Comment by Paperweight — September 25, 2009 @ 11:48 am

  20. Umm. My personal feeling is that the less said about McMurrin the better. I think his book a mess.

    Comment by Clark — September 25, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  21. Paperweight: This post has dealt with the historical context of Mormon materialism and how it compares to its historical contemporaries. If we were to deal with the philosophical ramifications of this development then yes, I guess, we would engage McMurrin.

    And judging by your tone of the comment and your missing the point of the post, I can tell you are not familiar with the blog and just wanted to make an impact by showing that you have read McMurrin’s work. Please, we love engagement and differing viewpoints, but just present them in a respectable way (not to mention explaining what you actually found problematic) rather than just doing a drive-by name dropping in an attempt to prove that you are better read than us. The former approach is what we hope for here; the latter is rather galling.

    Comment by Ben — September 25, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

  22. To riff on the McMurrin comment though… Does anyone thin McMurrin had much of an effect on how Mormons thought about materialism? I know a lot of people were really influenced by McMurrin. But I don’t see the influence.

    I think the big influence in the 20th century was frankly science education. That is due to the 19th century analysis and emphasis of God as embodied Mormonism was much more open to the scientific worldview. Yes, there was the backlash due to evolution and literalism with regards to Genesis. But beyond those minor skirmishes Mormons tended to read science as speaking to theology. By the time FARMS arises in the 80’s the scientific stance of Roberts, Widstoe, Eyring, and Talmage is taken for granted and using science more rigorously as a premise from which to understand theology and history is taken for granted. And of course in the more liberal wing of Mormonism the same thing was going on, only more so.

    Given that, I’m not sure McMurrin is much beyond an indicator of the trends already in 20th century Mormonism.

    Comment by Clark — September 25, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  23. Just to clarify since that paragraph is a tad confusing.

    Rewrite it to

    I know a lot of people were really influenced by McMurrin. But I don’t see the influence on how people thought about materialism.

    Comment by Clark — September 26, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  24. […] I?ve said elsewhere, however, these tidy categories are often more of a disservice than a help, because not only are […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Tricky Task of Determining Influence — October 12, 2009 @ 10:49 am


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