How I Became a Mormon Historian and Just about the Only Mormon Fan of Refiner?s Fire

By March 28, 2010

Since Ardis Parshall said JI needed more posts like Jared’s…

Once when a member asked the typical question of what I wanted to study when I got home from my mission, my companion interjected, ?He?ll say he doesn?t know, but if you really press him, he?ll say he wants to be a historian.? We were together four months and he knew me quite well. My love of history probably started in the fourth grade when my family spent a year in Virginia. It was my teacher?s favorite subject and she dedicated significant time to projects, displays, and plays. After that I always fulfilled my reading quota by reading biographies of historical figures written for kids. It frustrated my fifth grade teacher, but reading fiction seemed intolerable to me at that age. They wouldn?t let me do that in junior high and high school but my love of history remained and I watched Ken Burns?s Civil War devoutly. Having spent most of my life in Utah, I was struck by religious pluralism when I got to my mission in Dallas. ?How did all this happen,? I wondered. I knew I wanted to study American religious history.

Update: I should add that my dad was always a history buff and this was probably my biggest influence (sometimes you forget the things closest to home).

But I had little or no interest in Mormon history. I can?t say why. I decided I ought to take a class when I got back to BYU in order to get the basics down. It was helpful in that respect and the teacher did a lot to help with controversial issues but the scholarly articles he had us read left me unenthused as models for what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do became clear from reading three books toward the end of my undergraduate career: Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth Century Revolution; Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution; and Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (in that order). I had the same feeling reading each one: the awesome sense of wonder in entering the metal world of past cultures. This was what I wanted to do with my life (I still think these are some the greatest books ever).

Yet Mormonism was always in the back of my mind. Hill and Thomas mentioned a number of movements with similarities to Mormons in seventeenth century England and Wood?s book suggested a lot of ways that the culture became amenable to Mormonism. I thought it would be very interesting to work on something related to that.

At that time, BYU was getting a lot of books from Ricks, which was about to become BYU Idaho. BYU had most of the books already so they had a shelf in the library where they sold the duplicates cheep: $2 hard back, $1 paper. I got a lot of good stuff (some of John Wesley?s works published in the 1820 and most of John Lock?s works published in the 1790s). One day in my frequent perusings of the shelf I saw a book entitled Transcriptions of Early Church Records of New Jersey: Colporteur Reports to the American Tract Society, 1841-1846. I picked it up and looked at it a bit but put it back. I had bought a lot of books already and we were broke and expecting our first soon. Then I went and sat on the couch and thought, maybe I should get that book (a good thought). Yet at that moment some bloke picked the book up and started looking through it. ?Put it down!? I thought, ?I want that book!? He did and I quickly purchased it. I can?t imagine how my life would have been different if I had not.

The book sat on my shelf a couple of months until I took my last class in history at BYU (490) where you have to write a big paper. I wanted to do American religious history so I thought I?d go home and look through some of the books I had bought for ideas, starting with the New Jersey one. On page 11, I ran smack dab into my destiny: reporting July 14, 1842, Presbyterian missionaries declared, ?Our efforts to benefit the Mormons who are quite numerous at Tom?s River seem to have proved fruitless. Their superstition appears to be so deeply rooted, and their self confidence so great, as effectually to shield them against the arrows of conviction.? I had suddenly become a Mormon historian.

The problem was that I had read almost none of the secondary literature and couldn?t in the space of that spring quarter in which I took the class. So I read a couple of articles that had references to Mormonism in New Jersey and plunged into the primary material (a goodly amount), which I loved. I finished the project, submitted it to BYU Studies, my wife had our baby and we were off to LA where we tried to be teachers and I applied to grad school (it kind of sounds funny when I put it that way). After no luck with that round of applications, I decided to try a master?s program with open enrolment and our little family was off to Turlock, California, for CSU Stanislaus. There I hoped to gain greater background in American religious history and planned to expand on my research on Mormonism in New Jersey.

My knowledge of Mormon historiography was still meager which led to an interesting moment I had while back visiting the family on vacation during the winter break. In Borders I discovered John Brooke?s Refiner?s Fire. 1644-1844. Tracing Mormonism to the English Civil War. My life?s work had already been done. So I bought it and started reading it and had the experience that a lot of Mormons had: ?This doesn?t sound like Mormonism to me.? Yet at that point I had an interesting spiritual experience. ?Wait, Steve,? the Spirit said, ?don?t write this book off. You have to understand a few things. What Brooke is talking about here are ?temple? or esoteric truths that are by nature difficult to verbalize. Such ideas have been passed through the ages from original pure sources and had thus become somewhat corrupted. These factors make what Brooke is talking about not so easily recognizable or understood. Furthermore, don?t pretend that you understand what the temple is about. So read the book with an open mind. You’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to figure this stuff out.? Or something like that.

So I?ve been a fan of Refiner?s Fire ever since (of course understanding that like all books, there are some problems). It became an important interpretative tool for my master?s thesis on Mormonism in the Philadelphia and when I submitted an article based on the thesis to Journal of the Early Republic (who turned it down), Brooke was one of my reviewers. He suggested I redo my charts so I contacted him for further details. He was extremely helpful and gave me a lot of advice and even agreed to write letters of recommendation for me. When I got into UC Santa Barbara, Catherine Albanese said that John?s letter was the most impressive thing in my application (in an application without a lot of impressive things).

So I hope this explains my affection for John Brooke, my intellectual interests, and why I?m still playing catch up in Mormon historiography.

Article filed under Reflective Posts


  1. I love these kinds of stories. I hope other JIers follow Ardis’ suggestion.

    Immediately after my mission, my ambition was to major in history. A terrible recession and working a backbreaking moving job for a two and a half months knocked that ambition clean out of me.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 28, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

  2. Very nice comments on John Brooke, Steve. I happen to be halfway through The Refiner’s Fire at the moment. It has more to offer than I was led to expect from remarks I have encountered over the years by various LDS commentators.

    Comment by Dave — March 29, 2010 @ 1:34 am

  3. Thanks for this, Steve. As someone who has come at it from the opposite direction (playing catchup on the larger sweep of American Religious History), I think you have nothing to apologize for ๐Ÿ™‚

    Incidentally, I had a very similar experience with Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View to the one you describe with Brooks and which has influenced me tremendously.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 29, 2010 @ 1:38 am

  4. I want more posts on the huge influence that the BYU library’s discard shelf has had on people. The coolest books in my collection all came from there.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — March 29, 2010 @ 8:30 am

  5. Thanks for this, Steve. I’ve heard a lot of this from you before, but never as a coherent narrative. This is a lot of fun.

    Comment by David G. — March 29, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  6. Thanks for this, Steve; it is always fun to hear historians’ backgrounds. It is also good to hear Refiner’s Fire defended from time to time.

    I want more posts on the huge influence that the BYU library?s discard shelf has had on people. The coolest books in my collection all came from there.

    Makes me wish I was around BYU at that time. Though, I was lucky enough to be attending the University of Edinburgh when they were selling stacks and stacks of 18th and 19th century volumes, most of which for less than a dollar each. Now I have boxes of books and am trying to figure out how to get them back to the US.

    Comment by Ben — March 29, 2010 @ 9:14 am

  7. Great post. I’ll have to read Brooke.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 29, 2010 @ 10:02 am

  8. Enjoyed the narrative, Steve. Wonderful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 29, 2010 @ 10:37 am

  9. You’re welcome … {takes bow} … you’re very welcome. I’ll gladly take credit — minus the itty bitty bit of credit due to Steve for, you know, actually writing it.

    Great post, Steve. I love people stories and the hidden backgrounds to great things.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 29, 2010 @ 11:05 am

  10. Jonathan, that New Jersey book has been the gift that kept on giving, I’ve used it in almost every one of my publications from Methodists to Quakers. I remember both David Whittaker and John Brooke remarking about what a great source it was. I bought a lot of crap too, but that book changed everything.

    David yes, you did hear a lot of this. Also that was the year I found Cedric Cowings, The Saving Remnant, also very influential on my work.

    This has been fun. I really enjoyed Jared’s remarks and Nibley and would like to hear other stories.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 29, 2010 @ 11:11 am

  11. For the record I liked Refiner’s Fire as well as Quinn’s Magic World View. However many of the parallels really are either strained or completely de-contextualized. (Think the “alchemical” parallels to the Kirtland bank issue which was amazingly weak) With both I loved the issue being addressed but just wished they had done it with more rigor.

    Comment by Clark — March 29, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

  12. BTW – it was a philosophy book on some technical areas of philosophy of science that they had in the “cheap” sale at the bookstore (apparently from the library) that got me to go back to read philosophy again after graduation. Then Dennis Potter started up LDS-Phil, Jim Faulconer there got me onto Derrida and Heidegger and the rest is history…

    Comment by Clark — March 29, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  13. Nice story, Steve.

    I chatted with my advisor last week about Brooke, and he was pleased to hear that folks like you are engaging his work more closely. Refiner’s Fire is now on my reading list for comps.

    Comment by Christopher — March 29, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  14. In contrast to the mythic days of J-Dawgs and the formation of the JI, I haven’t gotten to know people involved with it personally. I’ve appreciated these more personal posts. Thanks, Steve, (and likewise Jared) for sharing the arc of your thought and study.

    Comment by Ryan T — March 29, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

  15. Thanks Steve.

    For the record, though I usually criticize RF I have carefully read it twice from cover to cover, and found much that was worth salvaging–and have used it a bit in my work.

    As RLB pointed out, Brooke was onto something in his notice of the JS revelations concern with mysteries of godliness and secret knowledge.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — March 30, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  16. Thanks Steve, I enjoyed reading about your journeyt. I actually read RF in Susan Rugh’s 19th century US history seminar at BYU.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 30, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

  17. So did I, Taysom.

    Comment by Christopher — March 30, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  18. Me too, although I had read parts of it as an undergrad.

    Comment by David G. — March 30, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

  19. again, thanks for sharing steve.

    i agree with others that it is good to see a less combative reaction to brooke.

    when i read it, i can’t say that the spirit reassured me, though. on the contrary, as i finished the last chapter where he says something about the future of mormonism and the occult (if i recall correctly he predicts that we will continue to distance ourselve from it), i remember getting a sinking feeling that we had already drifted from the truth of those pure original sources you mention, the truth restored in the 19th saec.

    i was reading rodney stark at the time as well, so that might have had something to do with it.

    a personal question but feel free to ignore it: do you still see mormonism’s relation to the occult in the same way that allowed you to like refiner’s fire? are the magical, alchemical, hermetic sources still bearers of an earlier truth restored in our temples?

    Comment by g.wesley — March 30, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

  20. That is a very big question, G, and I have to clarify that my interest in Brooke relates more to the earlier chapters of the book. I right in the middle of swimming through all that stuff and I’m getting glimpses of a clearer picture. I think some things will need to be relabeled but I think in the end Brooke was definitely on to something.

    First the issue of pure sources is tricky since I’m not ultimately sure what those sources are/were. There are some very old esoteric traditions who origins are either primal or mythical. It’s hard to know what to trace this stuff back to.

    By “still bearers of earlier truth” do you mean would tapping into the present-day occult be a means of esoteric enlightenment? I hadn’t thought about it (though I guy in my ward just suggested to me that I ought to join the Masons). I’ve always found that studying this stuff historically is really illuminating, though.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 30, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

  21. Let me add that I understand there are legitimate criticisms of the book. Clark mentions one of the most common, equating alchemy with forgery. I know Mark brings up the problem of his conflation of high and low magic (though lots of scholars do that). But again, there’s a bigger picture that Brooke was trying to get at and he pointed the way to a lot of fruitful discussion.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 30, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

  22. Steve, I think what’s so sad to me is that there is so much fertile ground Quinn and Brooke pointed to but did a poor job with. Yet no one has really done much of anything. Yes Quinn came up with his revised second edition, but it had a lot more quotes but didn’t address the central problems with the book. (And the Kabbalah chapter was just odd – although recalling the old Morm-Ant discussion which I have archived somewhere I understand why he did it)

    We were actually talking a little about this at SMPT. I think the problem is that any project requires folks with a narrow but deep experience in the literature and just no one has it. Some of the stuff requires a philosophy background plus history. While others, as you note, require understanding the divisions in the esoteric movements (as well as where they intersect).

    Of course maybe you’re planning to write the more rigorous tome that takes off where Quinn and Brooke started? (Many of us would be happy)

    Comment by Clark — March 31, 2010 @ 12:03 am

  23. Yeah, I’m going to give it a shot. There’s a lot of good literature that’s come out since, some of which I’ve posted here. There is that minor problem of the topic being too big, but it won’t have to be perfect to be interesting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 31, 2010 @ 12:52 am

  24. thanks for the reply steve.

    i agree that the stuff is old and traceable, however unpopular that methodology may be today. i have been interested lately in the early hermetica, say 1st saec bce with nechepso-petosiris to 3rd saec ce with iamblichus. though my interest is simply historical (in fact it is a self-loathing pursuit in that i am very uncomfortable with the ‘practical’ application of this type of study, as it is generally done by wackos, in my opinion; so no esoteric enlightenment for me). given the manuscript tradition of the early material, this necessarily includes hermeticism in the middle ages and renaisance. but i mostly work in antiquity.

    i also agree that there is a big picture, and that mormonism and the occult (or whatever you want to call it) is a largely untapped resource in the academy. with the apparently burgeoning discipline of western esotericism, it is only a matter of time before the place of mormonism and the occult in this big picture becomes clear.

    but for me that will not have much if anything to do with temple truths in the sense of truth coming from outside this world and the human psyche.

    Comment by g.wesley — March 31, 2010 @ 8:09 am

  25. My expertise if very cursory at all levels of this. I’ve read Gregory Shaw’s biography of Iamblichus but I don’t know what nechepso-petosiris is.

    But I guess what I find most interested is the way the Mormon worldview and temple match of with what Eliade describes in the Myth of the Eternal Return. A discernible esoteric tradition plays a part in the influence on Mormonism but I would argue that it is a minority part. More comes from a “traditional” religiosity that yearns of access to God, links to the dead, sacred space and sacred time. Thus if esoteric traditions were seen as a means to these ends, they would be appealing to Joseph Smith and people like him.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — March 31, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

  26. […] a previous post, I mentioned a sort of revelation I had while reading Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire. ?Wait, Steve,? the Spirit said, ?don?t write this book off. You have to understand a few […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Pure Sources — May 6, 2011 @ 12:51 pm


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