Dissertation Introduction, Part 1

By September 1, 2014

Now that I have my dissertation filed, I thought I’d post some parts of the introduction.  Here’s the beginning.


?Mormonism is truth, the First Fundamental principal of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.? Joseph Smith, letter to Isaac Galland, March 22, 1839. 

?Those real sages ? who were sick of those arrogant and contentious sects,[1] which required an invariable attachment to their particular systems. And, indeed, nothing could have a more engaging aspect than a set of men, who, abandoning all cavil and all prejudices in favour of any party, professed searching after the truth alone, were ready to adopt, from all the different systems and sects such tenets as they thought agreeable to it.? Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, discussing Alexandrian Platonism in the first centuries C.E. and its influence on Alexandrian Christianity, Ecclesiastical History, 1:138.

?[If the] Presbyterians [have] any truth, embrace that. Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world, [and] come out a pure Mormon.? Joseph Smith, sermon, July 23, 1843.

?These sages were of opinion that true philosophy, the greatest and most salutary gift of God to mortals was scattered in various portions through all the different sects; and it was, consequently, the duty of every wise man, and more especially of every Christian doctor to gather it from the several corners where it lay dispersed.? Mosheim discussing early Alexandrian Christians including Clement of Alexandria, Ecclesiastical History, 1:139.

?I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some thruth [sic]. but I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.?which I cannot subscribe to.? Joseph Smith, sermon, October 15, 1843.

?They were to raise above all terrestrial things, by the towering efforts of holy contemplation, those souls whose origin was celestial and divine ? that thus, in this life, they might enjoy communion with the Supreme Being, and ascend after death, active and unencumbered, to the universal Parent, to live in his presence for ever.? Mosheim, discussing Alexandrian Christian Platonist Ammonius Saccus and his Neoplatonic followers, Ecclesiastical History, 1:142.


Comparing statements from Joseph Smith to the views of early Christian Platonists in Alexandria, particularly one named Ammonius Saccas (c. 175-250), as discussed in Mosheim?s Ecclesiastical History, a popular book that Smith likely owned, highlights important themes in this dissertation.[2] Smith, like the early Christian Platonists described by Mosheim, said that he sought the truth from eclectic sources and also stated his motivation for such a quest: to come into the presence of God.

In his seminal biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling (2005), Richard Bushman noted that such ideas were similar to Kabbalah, whose ?central impulse was a desire to encounter God.? Bushman then declared, ?How Joseph could have tied into this line of religious inquiry remains a mystery.? Though Smith had a tutor with knowledge of Kabbalah toward the end of his life, Smith?s early revelations also had Kabbalistic ideas, and it was unlikely, argued Bushman, for Smith to have encountered Kabbalah at that early stage. ?More reasonable is Harold Bloom?s conclusion that Joseph?s desire for God?s presence came out of his own religious experience and genius. He had an uncanny ability to recover long lost traditions for use in modern times.?[3] Bushman was citing Harold Bloom, the renowned literary critic, who declared in 1992 ?that Smith and his apostles restarted what Moshe Idel, our great living scholar of Kabbalah, persuades me was the archaic or original Jewish religion.? But for Bloom, like Bushman, the sources of these parallels remained mysterious. Thus, Bloom concluded, ?I can only attribute to his genius or daemon, his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to normative Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly.?[4]

Bushman?s statement highlights a trend in early Mormon historiography in which historians acknowledge the parallels between Mormon thought and earlier esoteric ideas, but claim that the case for actual historical links is weak, preferring to view the similarities as mysterious parallels that Smith could not have encountered in his early nineteenth-century environment. For Mormon scholars, these parallels thus serve to highlight the originality of Smith?s views relative to his environment and, thus, in their view, help to buttress Smith?s claim to new revelation. The work of Harold Bloom, a non-LDS scholar who also viewed the origins of Smith?s views as mysterious, was well received by LDS scholars since it further buttressed these claims.

In 1994, John Brooke?s The Refiner?s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 challenged the notion that Smith was untouched by esoteric traditions, arguing that Mormonism was a product of ?hermeticism,?[5] a European mystical movement inspired by late antique texts called the Corpus Hermeticum. Drawing on Francis Yates?s work on the subject (see below) Brooke argued that Smith was exposed to hermetism through radical sects, Freemasonry, folk magic, and alchemy. Brooke thus agreed that Smith?s ideas were very different from the prevailing Protestantism of his time, but declared that ?unless one rests ones argument on revelation, Jungian archetypes, or simple reinvention (all of which are of some importance to this problem), we have to ask from where these ideas came.?[6] In making his case, Brooke?like many LDS scholars?suggested that claims of revelation were inconsistent with the presence of those same ideas in contemporary sources. Brooke?s attempt to solve the ?mysterious origins? problem won the Bancroft Prize and was generally very well received in the wider academic community. LDS scholars, understandably reluctant to solve the mysterious origins problem if it undercut LDS claims of revelation, received it much more critically.[7]

Whether or not claims of revelation were (or are) inconsistent with the presence of similar ideas in contemporary sources is at bottom a theological question that admits of different resolutions. This way of viewing the relationship?assumed by many Mormons and non-Mormons?has had historiographical consequences. Not only has it generated polemics, it has made it more difficult, if not impossible, to understand Smith?s religious quest. As the introductory quotes suggest, not only were descriptions of relevant antique traditions available to Smith, but Smith?s revelations commanded him to seek out the truth in accessible sources. An 1832-1833 revelation that instructed Smith to set up a kind of study group called ?the school of the prophets? also commanded the saints to ?teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom: seek learning even by study, and also by faith.?[8] This is not to say that Refiner?s Fire was without fault; the Mormon critics highlighted legitimate problems with the book and I offer my own critiques below. My point here is to argue that presenting revelation and the study of available texts as somehow antithetical misinterprets Smith?s religiosity. This dissertation, therefore, seeks to remove this dichotomy, which has been used both to attack and defend Mormonism, in order to offer a more helpful way forward toward a deeper understanding of early Mormonism.

Thesis. Smith?s religious quest was to restore what he called ?the fulness of the gospel,? or the complete truth that was missing from contemporary churches and even the Bible itself. The Book of Mormon said that it restored many of these lost truths, and many of the additional doctrines in the Book of Mormon that were not explicit in the Bible were Platonic; Christian-Platonic themes became even more overt in Smith?s later revelations. I argue that Smith likely drew on particular sources for Christian Platonism including Universalism, visionaries like John Dee and Jane Lead, descriptions of Kabbalah (Jewish Platonic mysticism), and descriptions of Alexandrian Christian Platonists. At the same time, Smith saw himself as a visionary who received his knowledge directly from God, but as I note above, Smith revelations commanded study. The goal of Smith?s doctrine was also Christian-Platonic: to come into the presence of God and to attain a divine status. Smith used the word fulness to describe this process (Chapter Four).[9] Smith also sought to restore missing rites in addition to missing truths and used the word fulness to describe that quest as well. In Smith?s later years he spoke of ?the fulness of the priesthood,? or the complete and final rites that would bestow the divinized status. Such rites had much in common with theurgy, or Neoplatonic rites that bestowed divinization, and Smith likely drew on descriptions of theurgy for his own rites (Chapter Four and Seven). ?The question is frequently asked Can we not be saved without going through with all thes[e] ordinances &c,? Smith related to his followers in 1844. ?I would answer No not the fulness of Salvation.?[10] Smith?s rites were needed for the fulness. Thus, fulness in many ways describes Smith?s religious quest: gathering the full truth and complete truth and rituals so that humans could become full and complete themselves.

Viewing Joseph Smith?s folk practices, utopianism, temple rituals, soteriology, marital practices, and political ambition through a Christian-Platonic lens allows us to see underlying connections that make intelligible many disparate and peculiar aspects of early Mormonism. Though Smith would not have designated himself a Christian Platonist (most Christian Platonists would not have either) Christian-Platonic ideas were available to Smith and he gravitated towards such ideas. As Mosheim said of the Alexandrian Christians, ?They preferred Plato to the other philosophers, and looked upon his opinions concerning God, the human soul, and things invisible, as conformable to the spirit and genius of the christian doctrine.?[11]


[1] Smith said in his 1839 history that fighting between the ?sects? in his day really bothered him (see Chapter Two). Christ in the Book of Mormon went so far as to say ?For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away? (3 Nephi 11:29-30). Here Mosheim was referring to philosophical sects.

[2] The record of the Nauvoo library listed Smith as donating ?Mosheims Church History 1 Vol? to the library. Christopher C. Jones, ?The Complete Record of the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute,? Mormon Historical Studies 10, no. 1 (2009): 192. The record did not say which volume Smith donated but Smith have the first was most likely since that was the one that seemed to interest the Mormons the most (see Chapter Three).

[3] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 451-52.

[4] Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon and Schuster), 99, 101.

[5] Yates and scholars of late antiquity referred to the movement as hermetism, but later early modern scholars began to call it hermeticism to mean a broader range of ideas. Brooke also used hermeticism. Here I call it hermetism.

[6] John L. Brooke, Refiner?s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), xvi.

[7] See John-Charles Duffy, ?Clyde Forsberg?s Equal Rites and the Exoticizing of Mormonism,? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39, no. 1 (2006): 12-42. Davis Bitton, a Mormon historian at the University of Utah, stated the issue most clearly in a Mormon academic journal: ?The discovery of similarities or parallels does not threaten Mormonism, for it is in the restored gospel that these are all fully integrated and properly understood. But this comfortable recognition hardly requires Mormons to accept any and all assertions of similarities, especially when coupled with a charge or claim of influence that preclude revelation.? (Davis Bitton, review of John L. Brooke, Refiner?s Fire, in BYU Studies 34, no. 4 [1994-95]: 182-83.) Bitton?s non-Mormon colleague at the University of Utah, Paul Johnson, described Refiner?s Fire in terms similar to Britton. ?To those who examine Mormon beginnings and come up doubting,? asserted Johnson, ?the church has a standard answer: it is easier to believe that the Book of Mormon is ancient and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God than it is to believe that an ignorant farm boy could have made the whole thing up. By excavating the intellectual inheritance on which Smith drew, John Brooke has rendered that answer less effective.? (Paul E. Johnson, ?The Alchemist,? review of John L. Brooke, Refiner?s Fire, in The New Republic 212 [June 12, 1995]: 48.) The stakes could be high for believers in these historical debates.

Bushman?a Mormon, an emeritus professor of history at the Columbia University, and a Bancroft Prize winner himself? was the leading critic of Refiner?s Fire. Bushmansuggested that the source of Smith?s ideas was an issue with Refiner?s Fire in responding to an online review. Walter van Beek questioned why Bushman had left Brooke largely out of Rough Stone Rolling, to which Bushman responded, ?I did slight Brooke?s The Refiner?s Fire, not because I dislike its thesis but because I think he failed to prove his case.? Bushman then made a more telling statement: ?Brooke should have marveled that Joseph picked up hermetic themes, as Harold Bloom marvels that Joseph echoes primitive Judaism without verifiable connections. Instead Brooke insists on causative influence that simply cannot be demonstrated.? (?Walter van Beek on Joseph Smith,? December 9, 2005, timesandseasons.org/index.php/2005/12/rsrwalter-van-beek-on-joseph-smith/). Bushman?s language suggested comparing Mormonism to esoteric ideas was acceptable so long as one did not argue that they influenced Smith.

Many of these scholars? critiques of Refiner?s Fire were valid; the book, like all books, had some problems. My point here is to highlight the debates over the source of Smith?s ideas as a historiographical issue.

[8] Doctrine and Covenants (1835): 107; current DC 88:118.

[9] Doctrine and Covenants (1835): section 82 (now 93).

[10] February 8, 1844, Words of Joseph Smith, 319.

[11] Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, 1:139.

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