Dissertation Introduction, Part 5: Family Religion and Jane Lead

By September 4, 2014

Yet Mormonism was not simply a product of Joseph Smith digging through texts that described early Christianity and Judaism (though he likely made use of such texts).  Smith?s earliest contact with Christian-Platonic ideas came through the Smith family?s religiosity.  A series of dreams that Smith?s father had continually described the feeling that something fundamental was missing from the established churches; Smith?s notion that that the established churches and even the Bible were missing truth likely came from his father.  As I argue in Chapters Two and Three, Smith?s father?s dreams align with visions described in John Dee?s spirit diary (1659).  Dee and Smith had a number of additional similarities: both used a seer stone, wrote a book that was dictated by a person looking in a seer stone, made Enoch central to their theology, and had similar marital practices.  Dee was heavily influenced by Christian Platonism (see below) and the similarities between Dee and Smith suggest that Smith felt that early modern visionaries could also have parts of the missing truth.  Smith?s grandfather was a Universalist and his father joined them at one point; Origen?s writings inspired the rise of Universalism in early modern Europe.[1]  In addition, the Smiths engaged in a number of traditions related to the cunning-folk, or those who either believed that they had special powers or believed that such could be derived from ?magic? books called grimoires.  Grimoires were full of Neoplatonism (Platonic philosophy inspired by Ammonius), particularly theurgy.[2]  Furthermore, evidence suggests that Smith?s father had some association with a movement called the New Israelites, who, among other things, believed that they really were Israelites, a claim that the Mormons also made.  These connections suggest that interest in Jews was part of the Smith family religion, an interest that may have led Smith to read Allen?s Modern Judaism.

The writings of an early modern English visionary, Jane Lead (1624-1704), contain the most striking similarities to early Mormonism.  Lead?s visions were both full of Christian-Platonic themes and Lead?s and Smith?s revelations have so many similarities that it is difficult to believe that Smith or someone from his inner circle was not aware of Lead?s revelations at some point.  I discuss the likely candidates in Chapter One but I note here that the similarities between Lead and Smith were also likely due to those thinkers and movements that Lead inspired that also likely influenced Smith.  I refer to these thinkers and movements as ?Lead?s circle? and also included John Dee (1527-1608) in this circle because he likely influenced Lead.  Lead?s mentor, John Pordage, was linked to associates of John Dee and both Pordage and Lead had a number of similarities with Dee.

Lead, who also drew upon the visions of the German visionary Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) and the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists, formed a group that called themselves the Philadelphians in the late seventeenth century.  Though they never gained a large following, Lead and the Philadelphians influenced a number of groups and individuals: in particular Andrew Michael Ramsay (1686-1743), Freemasonry, the Dunkers or German Baptists, and Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772).  Scotsman Andrew Michael Ramsay, known as Chevalier Ramsay, was a Philadelphian as a young man before heading to the Continent where he spent most of the rest of his life.  His contribution to spreading Christian Platonism came through his book, The Travels of Cyrus, and through Freemasonry.  The Travels of Cyrus used the story of Cyrus the king of Persia to explore notions of prisca theologia as Ramsay had Cyrus travel around the Near East to speak with the various sages of antiquity. The Travels of Cyrus was extremely popular going though numerous editions; Smith?s local New-York library had a copy.[3]  Ramsay also played a major role in shaping Freemasonry: Ramsay was the major innovator of Freemasonry?s higher degrees, which pushed Freemasonry in more esoteric directions.  Freemasonry had a number of influences on Smith, particularly on his endowment ritual that Smith performed at Nauvoo (Chapter Seven).

Lead had a German following and the German Baptists formed with the intent of putting Lead?s visions into practice.  Known also as the Dunkers, the group moved to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the home of many other German radicals in 1719.  The Lancaster County milieu of German radicals produced a number of ideas and practices found in Mormonism; the Whitmer family, some of Smith?s most important early followers, were from Lancaster County.[4]  Lead?s followers mingled with German Pietists and Emmanuel Swedenborg?s father was a Pietist preacher; Lead?s writings had been translated into Swedish.  Swedenborg?s and Lead?s visions had many similarities, including three heavens, an idea also found in Mormonism.  In 1840, Smith told a follower that he was familiar with Swedenborg?s visions.[5]  Thus Lead played a significant role in the ideas that shaped early Mormonism and helps to map how Smith was influenced by Christian-Platonic tenets.[6]

Lead and her circle were all accused of being Platonic; as orthodox Protestants argued that early Christian Platonists had corrupted early Christianity, the same commentators argued that people like those in Lead?s circle were continuing that corruption.  For instance, in Meric Casaubon?s introduction to Dee?s spirit diary, he attacked the notions found in the diary and added, ?Plato?s writings are full of Prodigies, Apparitions of Souls, pains of Hell and Purgatory, Revelations of the gods, and the like.?  Aristotle, said Casaubon, was a much better philosopher, ?because he did not think that it was the part of the Phylosopher to meddle with those things that no probable reason could be given of.?[7]  Such statements were part of a larger debate over which philosopher was preferred in early modern Europe, with Protestants generally preferring Aristotle for the reasons Casaubon gave.  D. P. Walker paraphrased early modern thinker G. F. Pico as saying, ?Aristotelians believe too little, and Platonists believe too much.?[8]  Smith made it clear which side of this spectrum he was on in his very last speech: ?I bel[ieve] all that God ever rev[eale]d & I never hear of a man being d[amne]d for bel[ievin]g too much but they are d[amne]d for unbel[ief].?[9]


[1] Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 17; D. P. Walker, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[2] Stephen Clucas, ?John Dee?s Angelic Conversations and the Ars Notoria: Renaissance Magic and Medieval Theurgy,? in John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies In English Renaissance Thought, ed. Stephen Clucas, (Springer Dordrecht, The Netherlands: 2010): 231-74.

[3] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 190-91; Quinn, Magic World View, 186.

[4] Quinn, Magic World View, 239.

[5] Edward Hunter, Autobiography, in William E. Hunter, Edward Hunter, Faithful Steward (Salt Lake City: Publishers, 1970), 316.

[6] Brooke also discusses Dee and Ramsay and even Lead at one point.  Brooke, however, did not make a comparison between Dee?s spirit diary and Smith?s ideas and Brooke apparently relied on D. P. Walker?s description of Travels of Cyrus in his The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), rather than making his own comparison.  Similarly, Brooke made no examination of Lead?s writing but only noted her influence on certain radical sects.  Refiner?s Fire, 16-17, 39, 95. Now that scholars have much easier access to these texts than Brooke did, this kind comparison work is much easier.

[7] Meric Casaubon, Preface in John Dee, A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee ? and Some Spirits, ed. Meric Casaubon (London, 1659), [vii].

[8] D. P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic form Ficino to Campanella (1958, reprint; University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2000), 159.

[9] Smith, June 16, 1844, Words of Joseph Smith, 381.

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