Early Mormonism, the Expansiveness of Knowledge, and Religious Imagination

By March 22, 2009

?The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.? ?John Keats

[This is not so much a scholarly post as it is a personal averment of one of my cherished aspects of Mormon thought. It may be too literature-heavy for many of JI?s readers, but that?s where my background is, and also a framework which I believe helps our understanding of the intellectual context of early Mormon thought.]

While a number of Romantic impulses can be found in Joseph Smith?s theology, perhaps the most convincing and overwhelming to me is the perceived prospect and probability of acquiring expansive amounts of intelligence and knowledge. Reacting against the systematic, organized, and ever-measured culture of the enlightenment, the intellectual paradigm shift at the beginning of the nineteenth century pushed for a more open-ended and dynamic framework for their theology. They desired not just a reformulation of traditional thought, but a complete overhaul and reconceptualization. ?I must create my own world,? quipped William Blake, ?or be enslaved by another man?s.?[1]

Indeed, pessimistic undertones pervaded much of theology and intellectual thought from Catholicism to Calvinism to Joseph Smith?s ancestor?s Puritanism. Jonathan Edwards, America?s foremost eighteenth century theologian, wrote that mortals were weighed down with ?a heavy moulded body, a lump of flesh and blood which is not fitted to be an organ for a soul inflamed with high exercises of divine love?.Fain would they fly, but they are held down, as with a dead weight at their feet.?[2] Terryl Given?s recent lecture at the Conference on Mormon Thought and engineering claimed that contemporary theology limited itself to ?defining the terms and conditions of a very limited concept of salvation, of a soul of unknown beginnings, from an evil of unknown origin, to prepare for a future of unknown nature, all in accordance with the inscrutable will of a God who is beyond human comprehending.?[3] Not only was the outlook bleak, it was also shrouded with shaded mystery.

The Romantics felt similar strains, and often bemoaned the limiting circumstances. Lord Byron?s Lucifer aptly reflects this view, accusing Cain as a creature of ?high thought?linked to a servile mass of matter.?[4] William Wordsworth complained that ?man is of the dust,? yet ?ethereal hopes are his,? echoing the idea of a world and ideology incapable of the soul?s possible development.[5] In John Keats?s ?Ode to a Nightengale,? the speaker attempts to escape the banal existence of life and limits of knowledge by soaring with the birds, yet is still haunted by the ?murmurous haunt of flies,? signifying insurmountable death and impassible boundaries.[6]

The response of the period was a plea for transcendence. As Keat?s quote in the epigraph above implies, they called for imagination that could eclipse and overstep the shackles of modernity. Romantic historian Arthur Lovejoy noted that the dominant strain of Romanticism was ?the demand for a perpetual transcendence of the already-attained, for unceasing expansion.?[7] They viewed themselves as revolutionaries, modern-day prophet-types to lead a coming generation into a new imaginary world. Speaking to his fellow Romantics, Wordsworth plead,

Prophets of Nature, we to them will speak
A lasting inspiration, sanctified
By reason, blest by faith: what we have loved,
Others will love, and we will teach them how.[8]

To accomplish this transcendence, the Romantic intellectual shift turned to imagination, creation, and limitless knowledge. As Lovejoy put it, the ?increasing emphasis upon the conception of God as insatiably creative? resulted in the notion that man ?would imitate God?by being himself ?creative??Man?s high calling was to add something of his own to the creation, to enrich the sum of things, and thus, in his finite fashion, consciously to collaborate in the fulfillment of the Universal Design.?[9] Likewise, M.H. Abrams wrote, ?the artist, from being a craftsman, became (in a momentous new aesthetic metaphor) a creator, for it was sometimes said that of all men the poet is likest God because he creates according to those patterns on which God himself has modeled the universe.?[10] To connect this to the American continent, Transcendentalist George Ripley explained that American Romantics believed in ?an order of truths which transcends the sphere of the external senses. Their leading idea is the supremacy of mind over matter.?[11] Emerson?s later reflection back on the era also summed it up well: ?The key to the period appeared to be that the mind had become aware of itself??again emphasizing the reliance on personal imagination and the expansive nature of the mind.[12]

It is easy to see how early Mormonism, and especially Joseph Smith, fit into this tradition. Smith emphasized the pursuit of knowledge and the discovery of mysteries throughout his prophetic career and especially in his last five years. While incarcerated in Liberty Jail, possibly the lowest moment of his life, he penned,

God?shall give unto you knowledge by his holy spirit yea by the unspeakable gift of the holy-Ghost that has not been revealed since the world was untill now which our fathers have wated with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times which their minds were pointed to by the Angels as held in reserve for the fullness of their glory a time to come in the which nothing shall be with held whither there be one god or many gods they shall be manifest to all thrones and dominions principalities and powers shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have indured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ?[13]

In the same letter, he eloquently expounded on the richness of the human mind: ?thy mind O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation must streach as high as the utmost Heavens, and sear[c]h in to and contemplate the loest conside[r]ations of the darkest abyss, and Expand upon the broad considerations of Eternal Expance, he must commune with God.?[14]

Smith?s ability?and indeed his overarching mission?to imagine an entirely different theological framework saturates his later teachings. Speaking of this context, Givens argued that ?one begins to see why Smith?s thoughts appear undisciplined and unsystematic. His major project was not the correction or enunciation of particular theological principles but the complete reconceptualization of the scope and sweep of gospel parameters themselves.?[15] Rejecting the boundaries placed on him by his contemporary society, he explored the origins of man (eternal), the potential of mankind (boundless), and the history of God (divinely anthropomorphized and capable of emulation), all of which annihilated conceptual guidelines and religious norms. He argued that not only was there was no piece of knowledge that could not be obtained, but that ?without knowledge [of these mysteries] we cannot be saved.?[16] Further, he claimed, ?Whatever principle of intelligence we obtain in this life will rise with us in the ressurection: and if a person gains more knowledge in this life through his diligence & obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.?[17] His ?religious genius??to borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom?echoed the Romantic plea for expansive knowledge through imagination and creativity.

This knowledge was not to just encompass things traditionally held as religious, however. As Smith wrote in 1843,

I stated that the most prominent difference in sentiment between the Latter-day Saints and sectarians was, that the latter were all circumscribed by some peculiar creed, which deprived its members the privilege of believing anything not contained therein, whereas the Latter-day saints have no creed, but are ready to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.[18]

Through his collapse of the sacred, Smith rejected the dichotomy of spiritual and secular knowledge, combining them all on the same level of ?true principles? that needed to be obtained.

Parley Pratt, perhaps the most prolific theologian in early Mormonism, caught this vision early. ?Revelation and reason,? he wrote in 1840, ?like the sun of the morning rising in its strength, dispel the mists of darkness which surround him; till at length heaven?s broad, eternal day expands before him, and eternity opens to his vision.? Once there, ?he may then gaze with rapture of delight, and feast on knowledge which is boundless as the ocean from which it eminates.?[19] Indeed, the religion of Parley Pratt, Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Brigham Young, and others knew no limits, but rather presented a progressive theology of increasing knowledge and limitless possibilities.

To the early Saints, there was nothing ?out-of-bounds,? nothing that can be left to the ?mysteries of eternity.? It was an age where all was to be known, knowledge to abound, and revelation to flow. Religion was not to be afraid of inquisitive minds, but was meant to embrace them and enlarge them with further light and truth.

This is one of the reasons I love Mormonism.


[1] William Blake, Jerusalem, in Robert Perkins, ed., English Romantic Writers (Boston: Thomson and Wadsworth,1995), 194.
[2] Jonathan Edwards, Heaven is a World of love, cited in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), 191.
[3] Terryl Givens, ?No ?Small and Cramped Eternities?: Parley Pratt and the Foundations of Mormon Cosmology,? paper in my possession. The title for Givens?s presentation comes from Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton: ?There is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity. You may see it in many modern religions.? G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dover, 2004),12.
[4] Lord Byron, ?Cain,? in Byron, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 902.
[5] William Wordsworth, ?The Excursion,? in Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson and Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 627.
[6] John Keats, ?Ode to a Nightengale,? ln. 50.
[7] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970), 306.
[8] Wordsworth, Prelude, XIV. See also his ?Preface? to Lyrical Ballads.
[9] Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being, 296.
[10] M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 42.
[11] [George Ripley,] A Letter to the Congregational Church in Purchase Street by Its Pastor (Boston: Printed, Not Published, by Request, for the Purchase Street Church, 1840), 25-26.
[12] Ralph Waldo Emerson, ?Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England,? in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson, 12 vols., Centenary Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-04): 10:326.
[13] Joseph Smith to the Church at Quincy, Illinois, 20 March 1839, in Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 437.
[14] Ibid, 436.
[15] Terryl L. Givens, ?Joseph Smith: Prophecy, Process, and Plentitude,? in Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 117.
[16] Joseph Smith Sermon, 10 April 1842, in Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 113-114, emphasis added.
[17] Joseph Smith Sermon, 2 April 1843, in Ehat and Cook, Words of Joseph Smith, 169. (Later canonized as part of D&C 130.)
[18] Manuscript History of the Church, book D-1, pg. 1433.
[19] Parley P. Pratt, ?Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,? in The Essential Parley P. Pratt, ed. Peter Crawley (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 106.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Reflective Posts


  1. After seeing how long this ended up being, I probably should have broken it up into two posts.

    Kudos to anyone who sludges their way through.

    Comment by Ben — March 22, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  2. Thanks, Ben. This was lovely, and it turned my mind toward the Romantics in a new and favorable way. 🙂

    Comment by Elizabeth — March 22, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  3. Truly fine, Ben – thank you so much. No “sludging” required: your writing made it easy to sail right through and come out flying.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — March 22, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

  4. Well done.
    I don’t know that I’d give Bloom “religious genius,” though. I think we cut him slack because he is positive toward us, but a) his religious criticism is a pale fire beside his quite compelling literary criticism, and b) I think he just loves the idea of a pseudo-gnostic polygamist (a friend of mine think he mostly just envies JSJ).
    You’d want, if this is for publication, to think through how to disentangle 19th-century boosterism from this expansive love of knowledge. I’m impressed in the general American primary sources that I read how much of antebellum America was interested in this idea of unfettered knowledge.

    Comment by smb — March 22, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  5. Thanks, Liz, Rick, and smb.

    Sam: good point on the Bloom comment–that sentence was just a quick addition I put in right before posting, and it wasn’t fully thought-out. You bring up legit concerns about his religious criticism.

    While this isn’t planned for publication (it was more of a “shoot-from-the-hip” Sunday afternoon activity), I am interested in the topic and hope to explore it more; thanks for the suggestion.

    Comment by Ben — March 23, 2009 @ 1:02 am

  6. Beautifully expressed.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — March 24, 2009 @ 12:17 pm


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