Dissertation Introduction, Part 3: The Alexandrians

By September 3, 2014

The above quotes from Mosheim were descriptions of the same movement: Alexandrian philosophy of the first centuries C.E.  In addition to attempting to pull together all truth and entering the presence of God (similar to Smith?s goals), Mosheim said that Ammonius Saccas taught that Jesus?s ?sole view, in descending upon earth, was ? to remove the errors that had crept into the religions of all nations but not to abolish the ancient theology from whence they were derived.?  Mosheim went on to say that Jesus?s ?only intention was to purify the ancient religion, and that his followers had manifestly corrupted the doctrine of their divine master.? Mosheim suggested that Ammonius believed that Jesus?s followers had corrupted Christianity by removing truths that aligned with the ?ancient theology.?  Just like the Book of Mormon said, according to Mosheim, Ammonius believed that truth had been removed, and as Mosheim said that Ammonius believed that the ancient theology was Platonic, the truth removed by Jesus?s followers would align with the Platonic ideas found in the Book of Mormon and Allen?s Modern Judaism.  Thus, just like Ammonius, Smith sought to restore this lost truth: Mosheim called Ammonius?s followers the ?latter platonics? similar to Smith?s Latter-day Saints.[1]

Furthermore, a number of other texts printed variations of Mosheim?s passage including the Encyclopedia Britannica (reprinted in the United States by Thomas Dobson and known as ?Dobson?s encyclopedia,?) Charles Buck?s Theological Dictionary, Hannah Adams?s A Dictionary of All Religions, and Alexander Campbell?s periodical The Christian Baptist.[2]  The encyclopedic texts (Dobson?s encyclopedia, Buck, and Adams) had entries on ?Ammonius,? ?Ammonians,? ?Eclectics,? ?Mystics,? ?New Platonics,? ?Origen,? ?Origenists,? ?Plato,? and ?Platonism? (these entries referenced each other) that covered numerous concepts found both in Christian Platonism and Mormonism.   These included themes like pre-existence, deification, uncreated souls, and rejection of creation ex-nihilo that were also found in Modern Judaism.  Charles Buck?s entry on ?Origenists? had particularly striking similarities not only to Mormon theological concepts, but also to particular phrasings that appeared in Smith?s revelations.[3]  Thus Smith had access to Mosheim?s description of Ammonius from several sources and the similarities between early Mormon doctrine and practices and the descriptions of Ammonius and his pupil Origen in these sources suggests that Smith did additional research on the topic.

Furthermore, Mosheim said not only that Ammonius practiced theurgy, rites to commune with gods and become divine oneself, but said that Christ was ?the admirable theurge.?[4]  As the Book of Mormon said the great and abominable church had removed ?many covenants? or rituals in addition to truth and as Smith himself engaged in rites similar to descriptions of theurgy, Smith may have believed that theurgy was among the rites that the great and abominable church removed from Christianity.  Mosheim described theurgy as ?the pretended art of so purging and refining that faculty of the mind ? as to render it capable of perceiving the demons,[5] and of performing many marvelous things by their assistance.?[6]  Reginald Scot?s The Discoverie of Witchcraft, a text that Smith likely used (Chapter Two), said, ?There is yet another art professed by these cousening conjurors ? called Theurgie; wherein they worke by good angels,? and said that theurgy mostly consisted of cleanliness of the body and objects.  ?The cleanlines whereof, they saie, dooth dispose men to the contemplation of heavenlie things.  They cite these words of Esaie for their authoritie; to wit: Wash your selves and be cleane, &c.?[7]  Other descriptions of theurgy were more positive.  Samuel Johnson defined theurgy as, ?The power of doing supernatural things by lawful means, as by prayer to God,? and Noah Webster defined theurgy as ?the power of performing supernatural things by an intercourse with the Deity.?[8]  Dobson?s encyclopedia defined theurgy as, ?the art of doing divine things, or things which God alone can do: or the power of working extraordinary and supernatural things, by invoking the names of God, saints, angels, &c.?[9]

As described in Chapter Four, Smith?s rites that he introduced after the founding of Mormonism also had the elements of ritual purification and prayer.  Such rites culminated in Smith?s Kirtland temple, where officiators washed participants? whole bodies and also used cinnamon.  Temples and the use of cinnamon were connected to Old Testament rites?early modern theurgists also made references to Solomon?s temple?and Mosheim said that early Christians had continued practicing Jewish rites for a time.[10]  Thus Smith?s rites suggest similarities to both Jewish rites and theurgy, both of which Mosheim said certain early Christians had practiced.

Smith?s school of the prophets, a kind of study group, had a number of similarities to Ammonius?s and Origen?s schools as described by Mosheim and the encyclopedias.  As described in Chapter Four, both Smith and these Christian Platonists did rituals associated with the school, both were to study widely, and both were to be aware of those not of the faith.  Mosheim noted how Christian schools divided the students between beginners and the more advanced and that the more advanced received higher teachings.  Such led to the idea that there was a ?secret doctrine? taught in the early church, said Mosheim; both early modern Catholics and Freemasons claimed that this secret doctrine included rites.[11]  After Kirtland, Smith continued to expand his rites, the culmination of which was his endowment ritual at Nauvoo.  I argue in Chapter Seven that for this ritual Smith drew on Freemasonry, descriptions of ancient mystery rites, and Catholicism, all of which contemporary sources said were connected to early Christianity.  In a speech in 1843, Smith declared, ?If a man gets the fulness of God, he has to get [it] in the same way that Jesus Christ obtain[ed] it & that was by keeping all the ordinances of the house of the Lord.?[12]   Christ had performed the same rites in his lifetime that Smith said he had now made available to his followers.  As with Smith?s restoration of lost truths, Smith also drew on eclectic sources to restore lost ?covenants.?


[1] Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, 1:141, 143.  Allen also referred to the Neoplatonists as ?latter Platonists.? Allen, Modern Judaism, 209.  In a footnote, Mosheim noted that no works survive from Ammonius and that the tenets that Mosheim attributed to Ammonius were ?gathered from the writings and disputations of his disciples, who are known by the name of the modern platonics,? or the Neoplatonists. (143).  That is, Mosheim took the teachings of the Neoplatonists and extrapolated them backward onto Ammonius.  The notion that Ammonius taught that Jesus?s disciples removed Platonic truth from Christianity probably came from Ficino.  Hannegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy, 50-51; James Hankins, Plato in the Italian Renaissance (Leiden: Brill, 1990), 1:283-84.

[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica; or, a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature (1790), 1:624.  Thomas Dobson pirated this encyclopedia in the United States as Encyclopaedia; or, a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature (Philadelphia, 1798) and sold it for less.  Robert D. Arner, Dobson’s Encyclopaedia: The Publisher, Text, and Publication of America’s first Britannica, 1789-1803 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).  Charles Buck, A Theological Dictionary (Philadelphia, William Woodward, 1824).  Buck?s dictionary was very popular and went through numerous printings and the early Mormons used it (Matthew Bowman and Samuel Brown, ?The Reverend Buck?s Theological Dictionary and the Struggle to Define American Evangelicalism, 1802-1851,? Journal of the Early Republic 29, no.3 (2009): 441-47). Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathan, Mahomoten, and Christian, Ancient and Modern, 4th ed (Boston: James Eastburn, 1817), 23. Charles Buck borrowed considerable material from Adams for his Dictionary.  Adams?s previously titled A View of Religions, in Two Parts (Boston), came out before Buck?s Dictionary.  Alexander Campbell printed most of Mosheim?s passage in an article titled ?Essays on Ecclesiastical Characters, Councils, Creeds, and Sects? no. II, Christian Baptist (Buffalo) 1, no. 10 (May 3, 1824): 229-35.  Many early Mormons were followers of Campbell before converting to Mormonism. Mark Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith?s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Kofford, 2009),119.

[3] Similar to one of Smith?s revelations from 1833 that claimed to be an expansion of John 1, Buck?s entry said that Christ lacked ?fulness? on earth and said that Christ was ?before the beginning of the world,? a particular phrase not found in John 1. ?Origenists,? in Buck, Theological Dictionary, 421-22. (Chapter Four).

[4] Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, 142.

[5] As described in Chapter Two, ?demon? referred to ?daemon? or a kind of angelic being in Hellenistic thought.

[6] Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, 142.

[7] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, ed. Brinsley Nocholson (1584, reprint; London, 1886), 392.  Scot was borrowing this description from Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), whose description was not as negative.  Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 699.  Three Books of Occult Philosophy was a very popular and influential grimoire with numerous similarities to Mormonism.

[8] Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 3d ed. (London, 1766), s.v. ?theurgy.?  This same definition was repeated in a number of other dictionaries and encyclopedias like John Walker, Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1823), 539; Noah Webster, A Dictionary of the English Language; Compiled for the Use of Common Schools in the United States (Hartford: George Goodwin, 1817), 320.

[9] ?Theurgy,? Encyclopaedia (Philadelphia, 1798), 18:501.

[10] Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, 1:105.

[11] Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, 1:101.

[12] June 11, 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 212.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’ve been following this series and am greatly enjoying it.

    Comment by Sean — September 3, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

  2. Thanks Sean.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 3, 2014 @ 5:07 pm


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