Final Dissertation Outline

By March 26, 2012

So my adviser, Ann Taves, has approved my final “throughline” for me to send out to the rest of my committee. Let me clarify.  The way Ann likes to do it, is for her students to write the initial prospectus, then do all the research and then write a second prospectus.  She calls the second prospectus a “throughline” or a chapter by chapter detail of your arguments.  I had the added wrinkle of having my initial committee not being particularly thrilled about my first prospectus, which they passed off December 2010, so I was working to try to convince them that the project was viable in addition to “doing all the research.”  I ultimately readjusted my committee, which now consists of Taves, Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, Allison Coudert, and Owen Davies.  He’re hoping it sticks.

The following is the short version of the throughline, the long version is 25 pages.  Ann wanted me to send out a long and short version to the committee and I figured the short version would work here.  Ann and I have gone through many many drafts of this thing and it’s nice to finally get things ironed out.  Ann likes this process because she feels it prevents problems down the road.  About a third of this is Ann’s rewording.


The Presence of God: Early Mormonism and Christian Platonism

Stephen Fleming


We can best understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism in light of an inclusive understanding of the history of Christianity, particularly its Platonizing strands and the various ways that practices for experiencing the presence of God have been framed over time (e.g. as magic, theurgy, mysticism, etc) on popular and elite levels.  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.  Smith himself was undoubtedly not a self-conscious Christian Platonist, but Neoplatonic ideas were diffused throughout his environment and filtered down to ordinary people like Smith in various ways.  This dissertation suggests that Smith was drawn to theological ideas that had Platonic overtones and pieced them together to create a system that makes sense in when viewed in those terms.

1. The Influence of Neoplatonism on Christianity and the World of Joseph Smith

This chapter addresses the issue of how a philosophical movement of the late Roman Empire could have had a profound influence on Joseph Smith, a person of limited education who lived more than a thousand years after the Neoplatonists.  The first section will explain what Neoplatonism was and how it was incorporated by Christian Platonists up to the Reformation.  The second section focuses on the democratization of Neoplatonism after the Reformation, or how Neoplatonism filtered down to regular people like Smith.

2. Young Joseph Smith: Folk Christianity and Christian Platonism

Many scholars have argued that Smith shifted from ?magic? to ?religion? as he went from practices like treasure digging to founding Mormonism.  Mormon believers have tended to argue that Smith left behind the ?magical? world of treasure digging as he embraced the ?religion? of his visions, while critics have argued that Smith covered up his ?magical? activities in Christian terms (for instance Moroni originally being a treasure guardian ghost who Smith then made an angel).  By viewing the Smiths? practices in the light of folk Christianity rather than an imposed magic/religion binary, we can view his development not as a transition from ?magic? to ?religion,? but from folk Christianity with implicit Neoplatonic elements to a more explicit and elaborated form of Christian Platonism.

3. A New Church

In mid-eighteenth-century in Weilheim, Germany, one Anna Maria Freyin began speaking with angels/ghosts and quickly attracted followers. ?The sect was about to reshape local society and clearly threatened the local Protestant Church,? explains Johannes Dillinger.  ?A new Christian community with a special revelation, a holy book and at least a nascent priesthood was about to emerge.?[1]  Freyin?s movement was crushed by the local authorities, but many of these elements did come together in Joseph Smith?s Church of Christ (later named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)  In the formation of the church, we see the confluence of the folk Christianity and Christian Platonism that had shaped Smith?s early religiosity: new revelation, new scriptures that had Neoplatonic themes, and claims to priesthood authority granted by angels.  Like the Neoplatonic philosopher-king (an ideal found in the Book of Mormon), Smith sought to bring enlightenment to the larger society.

4. Kirtland (1830-1838)

With the founding of his church, Smith quickly attracted followers.  A major boon for Smith came when Parley P. Pratt, a follower of Sidney Rigdon who led a congregation in Kirtland, Ohio, heard of the Mormons while in New York in the summer of 1830.  Pratt inquired and joined shortly after.  Pratt and Oliver Cowdery then brought the Mormon message to Rigdon and his congregation (Rigdon had split with Alexander Campbell over spiritual gifts and utopianism), most of whom joined the Mormons.  Smith relocated his fledgling church to Kirtland as a result. Cowdery had been a source for additional Neoplatonic ideas, and now Rigdon would do the same; both mentioned Neoplatonic ideas in Mormon newspapers in the coming years.  Together with William W. Phelps, another autodidact and newspaper writer, these three form the most likely sources of additional Neoplatonic ideas during the Kirtland period.

After the publication of the Book of Mormon and the founding of his church, Smith began receiving numerous revelations regarding the running of the church as well as doctrinal clarifications (the bulk of which were later published as ?The Doctrine and Covenants?).  In addition, Smith used similar visionary methods to ?retranslate? the Bible, rewriting passages he deemed problematic and expanded others (called ?The Joseph Smith Translation.?)  In the process, questions about the Bible arose in his mind, were put to God, and often became the source of Smith?s most important revelations during this period; thus Smith?s biblical translation and revelations overlapped.  While the bulk of Smith?s revelations and translations were fairly quotidian, a of number of these revelations became increasingly unconventional and Neoplatonic fueled by new ideas from core followers, as well as his own intuitions.  These revelations in turn shaped the building of the Kirtland temple and the rituals practices therein.

I divide the development of Smith?s theology during the Kirtland period into two categories: things in heaven and things on earth (an allusion to one of Smith revelations where God commands the Mormons to learn ?of things both in heaven and in the earth? [DC 88:79]). The first section, things in heaven, looks at the Neoplatonism in Mormonism?s development of cosmology and soteriology during this time, and section two looks at the development of Mormon utopianism and liturgy.

5. Things in Heaven in Early Nauvoo: 1839-42

Though Smith?s initial religious goals fell apart (being driven from Ohio and Missouri), Smith continued his Christian Platonic agenda in Nauvoo, Illinois.  Smith scaled back his utopian earthly goals (no more community of goods, though he did try to gather his followers into a holy city) but took his heavenly cosmology in an increasingly Neoplatonic direction adding a fuller description of the divine drama that added a pre-mortal divine council (similar to Timaeus) and the possibility of multiple gods.  Yet Smith developed Neoplatonic themes in novel ways, with a focus on the body that would lead to an embodied God. But even this seeming violation of Neoplatonism can be understood in terms of later developments within Neoplatonism.

6. A Nucleus of Heaven: Binding Heaven and Earth, 1840-42

In Smith?s 1838 prison revelation, God consoled Smith by telling him that his friends stood by him and that he was ?not yet as Job.?  Building on this theme, Smith would declare friendship to be the ?grand fundamental principle of Mormonism? as he modified his utopian goals.  Smith now sought to ritually bind together both his close associates through shared marriages that could last into the next life (concepts that drew upon Platonic marital notions) as well as seeking to bind together the living and the dead by the living performing baptisms on the dead?s behalf (which drew upon Christian Platonic themes of universalism and post-mortal progression). In doing so, he developed themes that were recognizably Catholic, Masonic, and Platonic, yet all relied to some degree underlying on Neoplatonic sources.

7. Teleos 1843-1844

Smith?s nucleus-of-heaven plans collapsed when followers either found them antagonizing or went rogue with the system.  Both actions created a crisis and Smith changed his system to strict polygyny (no wife sharing) as a result.  Yet Smith moved ahead with his other goals, expanding his rituals and seeking to rule as philosopher-king.  Such acts were antagonizing to his neighbors who assassinated Smith June 27, 1844?his death the final apotheosis and the final goal of the Christian Platonist: the final union with the divine.

[1] Johannes Dillinger,  Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History (Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 173.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Congrats on passing this milestone! A complete dissertation is only a hop and a skip away.

    Comment by Amanda HK — March 28, 2012 @ 7:46 am

  2. This looks great! Congratulations. Not that you’re asking for advice, but in working on the dssertation you might want to start with the chapter that you find the most interesting. All too often if you start from the beginning the diss ends up as chapters 1-3, and you never really get to the stuff that interested you.

    Also, this may already be in the longer version of the throughline, but you’ll want to say something (a couple of pages should suffice) about how using a Christian Platonic lens highlights certain elements of Mormonism, but downplays or obscures others. As it reads now, it sounds too much like you think you’ve discovered _the_ lens with which to view Mormonism. I’m guessing you won’t want to make that argument.

    Comment by MDKing — March 28, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  3. Thanks Amanda, probably a few more hops involved, but hopefully not too long now.

    MD, thanks, we post these things looking for feedback. Hmm… which is my favorite? I probably see 6 as a highlight and I’m giving a paper on that at MHA this year so that may be a good place to start.

    In terms of how exclusive I want to make my arguments, my adviser is insistent that I use tentative language. In an earlier draft I said something like this “it’s not my intent to explore all of Joseph Smith’s teachings/thought, only that which lines up with Neoplatonic themes. However, lots of it does.” The tricky thing about Mormonism is that there’s a whole lot to it, it’s very difficult to try to cover the whole of early Mormon theology. Naturally one has to focus on certain themes, but I think I’ll hit on many of the major ones.

    In terms of what I may be obscuring, that will probably be easier for my readers/critics to answer. Although one thing that comes to mind is the Old Testament/Israelite paradigms in early Mormonism. That stuff is no doubt very important but won’t be the focus of my dissertation, or it will be reinterpreted through the Neoplatonic lens. Good point about stating that up front, although I may need to wait till it’s done to see exactly how I cover those topics.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 28, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

  4. Congrats. I look forward to reading what you arrive at. (Do a see a post dissertation book in your future?)

    Comment by Clark — March 28, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

  5. Congrats, Steve. It’s been a long road (or at least it seems that way, given Taves’ process), but you’ve made it.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

  6. Good stuff, Steve. I’m excited to see this project really get going now. Good luck.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  7. Steve, I’ve got a question: I finished a quantitative dissertation last summer, and we had a very fixed format for our chapters: 1-Introduction, 2-Review of Literature, 3-Methodology, 4-Results, 5-Discussion. How do philosophical/historical dissertations function? Do you have to create your chapters and format ex nihilo? Or are there some kind of guidelines for this?

    Comment by Jeremiah — March 28, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

  8. Looking forward to the final product. And I’m happy to see Davies on your committee; I’ve really enjoyed his work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 28, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

  9. Thanks all. Clark, a book is the goal.

    David, yes, this has been a long process but that’s largely my fault for picking such an unruly topic.

    Jeremiah, I had a one size fits all formula for my master’s thesis but not for my dissertation. My adviser for the diss seems to want to do it like a book: intro, then a bunch of chapters. I basically laid out how I wanted to do it in my long version of the throughline and my adviser signed off on it.

    J., I’m very happy to have Davies on board.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 28, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  10. Hi Steve,

    Sounds like you’ll cover most of the major themes. I think you got the gist of my point about obscuring things, but I still want to elaborate a bit.

    There are many lens one could choose in interpreting early Mormon theology. Each lens serves to bring certain things into focus, but each lens also obscures other things (or if we think of this in terms of “framing,” a frame is a means of including and excluding). I think it’s important to justify one’s choice in lens. If I’m reading your post correctly, Neoplantonism is a good lens because it provides a means of connecting otherwise disparate aspects of Mormonism. Are there other ways in which it is a bad lens? How do you justify your choice in this lens among others? It’s these kinds of questions that you might want to spend a page or two in the dissertation discussing.

    Comment by MDKing — March 29, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  11. MD, that’s a good point. But keep in mind this project is an outgrowth of questions I had over connecting Mormonism in history, or where the Mormon ideas could be found. So after many years of working on this, I came across Neoplatonism. That is, I didn’t start this project with the Neoplatonic lens, finding the Neoplatonic lens was more of a culmination. I still working on piecing together my understanding of Neoplatonism and it Christian influences. So the Neoplatonic lens is still something I’m working on figuring out, and thus, will also need to wait on that to figure out exactly what it obscures. But that is a good thing to think about.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 29, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

  12. Sounds good, Steve. Can’t wait to hear more as it progresses.

    Comment by MDKing — March 29, 2012 @ 2:20 pm


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