Esotericism in the Internet Age: Or How Do We Teach Our Secrets Now?

By November 14, 2014

The idea of esoteric truth, or higher truths only taught to the spiritually or ritually prepared, can be found in many traditions.  It has a long history in Christianity and Jesus himself declared to his apostles, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand”  (Luke 8:10).  Paul in particular referred to higher teachings: in 1 Corinthians 2 he declared, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified … Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory … But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”  And in the next chapter Paul declared, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.”

In the Stromata, Clement of Alexandria explained that the Lord “allowed us to communicate of those divine mysteries, and of that holy light, to those who are able to receive them. He did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing, as is the case with God.” Clement called the one who could obtain this higher teaching the “Gnostic,” not to be confused with the sectarian Gnostics that Clement condemned. “The Gnostic alone is able to understand and explain the things spoken by the Spirit obscurely…. For the Lord says, ‘He that has ears to hear, let him hear,’ declaring that hearing and understanding belong not to all…. It is the prerogative of the Gnostic, then, to know how to make use of speech, and when, and how, and to whom.” (Clement, Stromata, 1.1; 6.15).

Such was central to the notions of the Secret Tradition that I blogged about this summer and though this kind of esotericism was suppressed, various notions of esotericism did remain, such as monks not being allowed to read Song of Solomon until they were deemed ready.  And esotericism was always central to Christian Platonism.

Esotericism was central to Mormonism from the beginning: the Book of Mormon not only refers to teachings that cannot be written, but repeatedly states that “when [the Gentiles] shall have received this, which is expedient that they should have first, to try their faith, and if it shall so be that they shall believe these things then shall the greater things be made manifest unto them.” (3 Nephi 26:9, also Ether 4:5-7, 13).  Such was the policy as the Mormons began proselytizing “And I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me.  For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish” (DC 19:21-22), and as Mormon doctrine continued to expand, church leaders repeatedly emphasized that the missionaries were only to teach the basics: “Let the elders preach nothing but the first principles of the Gospel,” JS instructed the Twelve in 1839 (JS Letter Jan 16 ,1839 LDS archives).

Those who believe in the system don’t see esotericism as dishonesty, but as a divinely appointed process of only revealing certain truths to those who are prepared. As Alma says, ?It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God, nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him” (Alma 12:9).  Yet to outsiders and critics, esotericism looks highly suspect and dishonest.  JS’s polygamy certainly fell into this category.

So in the internet age, can any esoteric structures be preserved, when all teaching, practices, and rites can be viewed on line?  What does this do to contemporary proselytizing?  Like JS instructed, we want to start with the basics, but is this even possible anymore?

I’m reminded of two stories from my mission.  The first was a woman whom the elders had been teaching before I got there.  She had gone through most of the discussions, but had learned about garments and didn’t like it.  During that meeting she declared how upset she was that she hadn’t been told about it during the discussions and demanded that we change our curriculum to tell people “everything” from the get go.  To the believer in esotericism, this is impossible.  “Everything” is infinite, teaching takes time. We never saw her again.

Another story struck me as particularly sad.  My companion and I whitewashed an area where sisters had been and we met with a woman who had also gone through all the discussions, had seemed ideal, but had run into problems.  She explained the situation when we met with her.  She loved what she heard from the sisters and had quickly read the entire Book of Mormon and loved it.  Wanting to keep learning, she read the entire D&C.  She didn’t love that: it was dry and repetitive, but what she really didn’t like was DC 132.  “Again, I loved the Book of Mormon, but I really didn’t like the tone of DC 132,” she explained, “plus I’m really wondering how Joseph Smith explained this to his wife.”  Yikes, good question!  As you can imagine, two 20 year-olds were utterly helpless in this situation.  I didn’t like the tone of DC 132 either, what was I supposed to say?  That was the last time we saw her.  The critic would say that she was wise in learning as much as she could so as to avoid joining a church she wouldn’t like, but what would the believer say? She was too committed to reading the scriptures?

I see the church’s new “openness” as excepting a new reality: everyone has access to our esoteric teachings.  Now we have to try to explain them.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Steve, I think the internet is a change in degree but not kind. Pre-internet there were still plenty of means to expose LDS “secrets” and the church had to decide how to deal with such disclosures. For example, around the turn of the 20th century someone illicitly took pictures of the celestial and sealing rooms of the SL Temple and tried to extort the church. Rather than paying up, the church simply released its own pictures of those rooms.

    As for esotericism, I think the best course is to teach in parables like Christ. Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

    Comment by Dave K — November 14, 2014 @ 12:38 pm

  2. Do you have any good parables in mind, Dave? 🙂

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 14, 2014 @ 1:09 pm

  3. No, just the principle of using parables. The vast majority of time Christ taught his gospel openly to all, but realized that most would not fully grasp it.

    Comment by Dave K — November 14, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

  4. Yeah, but he also made it pretty clear that he was using parables to be obscure. Again, “but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” This is esotericism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 14, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

  5. I think this new reality just makes more important the actual performance of ritual. Knowing about the temple or garments or the sacrament is not the same thing as participating in the ritual oneself. Despite the idea of salvation “in ignorance” being impossible, I also don’t think salvation has anything directly to do with acquired knowledge. It’s all about what one does with one’s knowledge.

    So I think the question is mostly a PR issue of sorts. How do we convince people to participate in rituals that seem unfamiliar to them? Before we did it by hiding them until people were committed and it would be embarrassing to back out (describing the process much less charitably than the OP does). Now we need to convince people to participate knowing what they are getting into. For a community that emphasizes simplicity in our rituals outside the temple, this may be a difficult change in approach. It is certainly a break with lame-stream American culture.

    I really wonder about the gender stuff in the temple–can the ritual survive daylight in its current form? The pre-1990 version certainly couldn’t. I would expect more tweaks–some of which I think are actually made in the new videos, largely through the direction of the actors.

    Comment by Owen — November 14, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

  6. I think one way to salvage the esoteric truth is the distinction between engaging in a ritual and simply having a few facts about the ritual. That is ritual is an embodied action such that experiencing it is different from learning a few facts.

    I?d note that this is often the way the endowment is taught. But of course it?s common for many cultures views of ritual. It?s fairly easy to miss the forest for the trees as ?exposes? even in the ancient world did. (Think the Roman accounts of Christian ritual cannibalism)

    Comment by Clark — November 14, 2014 @ 2:53 pm

  7. I think we’re inching toward the day when the esoteric will be spoken from the house tops.

    Comment by Jack — November 15, 2014 @ 8:51 am

  8. I agree with most of the post. But I am a bit confused with the polygamy parallel. I see how temple rituals and its elements such as garments have been affected, as these are things purposely not available to the general public due to their esoteric nature. I can keep to myself the things learned in the temple and I can wear my garments in a way they are out of sight to the general public. Thus protecting their esoteric nature. But this hardly applies to polygamy as a community structure. I suspect the secrecy about polygamous lifestyles was derived from persecution not from esotericism.

    Where it may apply is to the doctrinal frame to support polygamy. The understanding of temple rituals and obtaining salvation and different statuses in the afterlife through the practice of polygamy. Especially, Joseph Smith’s role in the salvation of families that submitted to the practice through having young daughters and even wives be polygamously married to him. That is the element of it that seemed to be esoteric in nature. And that is still hardly being discussed concurrent to the recently published posts, articles and essays. I made a comment elsewhere about this and you already dismissed it (weakly) so I don’t expect you to actually care about it.

    Comment by Manuel — November 15, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

  9. Owen and Clark, interesting thought. Jack, indeed.

    Manuel, fear of persecution certainly drove polygamy’s secrecy, but that could overlap with esotericism: “cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” So while JS was certainly worried about his own safety, I still see it as fitting the higher doctrine that was not for neophytes.

    And I agree that there is a whole lot of theology that needs to be sorted out. I have a whole section on this in my dissertation. Here’s a summary here.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 15, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

  10. “My companion and I whitewashed an area”

    Uh, definition? (Re-tracted? Completely tracted? Sometime I’d like to see someone do a linguistics project on linguistic distribution of mission slang.)

    Comment by Ben S — November 15, 2014 @ 6:46 pm

  11. Whitewash (verb) Source: Standard English. Meaning: When both missionaries in a geographical area get transferred to a different part of the mission and two different missionaries are transferred in. Context: Used when talking about missionaries getting transferred into or out of an area.

    Comment by Christopher — November 15, 2014 @ 7:58 pm

  12. What about things that are no longer held as doctrine by the Church?

    Like say, some of the doctrines that were part of Mormon estorericism can no longer be held because they either contradict current doctrines or they would have set the doctrinal frame of the Church en route for something completely different than it is today; therefore, in many cases the LDS have officially dismissed them, and in other cases the LDS have opted to never mention them again and not include them anymore in any of their curricula (which some scholars recognize as a dismissal too).

    Such is the case ith spiritual adoption, Adam-God, blood atonement, etc. They are not held as doctrine, they are not part of any ritual, there is no preparation to be had.

    I argue these orphan doctrines (ex-doctrines) cannot belong to any sort of esoteric process within Mormonsim per the definition of “higher truths only taught to the spiritually or ritually prepared,” since these are no longer considered “truths” nor is there any preparation or ritual set up to receive them.

    Such is the case in my opinion with most aspects of polygamy/polyandry. There is no preparation to be had, and as for the controversial doctrines that were used to support them, they are no longer held by the Church. Do you consider discussing/disecting them an affront to Mormon Esotericism?

    Comment by Manuel — November 15, 2014 @ 8:28 pm

  13. Good question, Manuel. Like I suggested in the post, information is widely available so I’m not sure that I would consider discussing polygamy or other topics “an affront to Mormon Esotericism.” Like I said, we need to try to explain this stuff now, which the church seems to trying to do.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 16, 2014 @ 7:58 am

  14. Great article; I particularly liked the two stories at the end. Related to this is how we teach our children about such historical matters so that they will not go through the crisis of faith and betrayal that many members have faced in the preceding weeks and years. I’ve tried to be open with my kids about Joseph’s polygamy and this month added his polyandry to the dinner conversation. None of them seemed phased by it when it’s just talked about normally. As a funny sidenote, a couple of years ago, my ten year old had an interesting take on the upside of polygamy as only a kid could:

    Comment by sw — November 17, 2014 @ 12:12 pm


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