Inclusive Monotheism and Joseph Smith’s Sermon at the Grove

By October 5, 2015

Franklin’s statement may provide a lens through which to view some of Smith’s final statements about God(s). In the Sermon at the Grove (June 16, 1844) Smith insisted that there were multiple Gods: “the word Eloiheam ought to be in the plural all the way thro–Gods–the heads of the Gods appointed one God for us.” Franklin said there was a high God over Gods and that our God was the one who created our solar system. Franklin was probably influenced by Isaac Newton who also said there were multiple God in the universe and cited 1 Corinthians 8:5-6: “But to us there is but one God.” Smith cited the same scripture in the Sermon at the Grove.[1]

Thus Smith taught similar ideas to what some of the West’s most important thinkers and scientists had. Franklin biographer James Parton noted that Kepler and Goethe taught the same thing.[2] Strict monotheism would win out in orthodox Christianity (it usually did) but these great thinkers had found inclusive monotheism a better for the new conception of the universe.

For Barbara Newman, the division between inclusive and radical monotheism was one of jealously. “The biblical God is famously jealous, brooking nor rival to his sovereignty. In Greek religion, on the other hand, Stoic and especially Platonic philosophers, culminating in Plotinus, developed versions of inclusive monotheism.” Since the One was not a personal being, the potential for jealousy did not arise.”[3]

However, Plato explicitly said that the demiurge, or the creator God who was a personal God, was not jealous, a point that Terryl Givens makes in his recent Wrestling the Angel: “In explaining the divine motives behind creation, the Platonic dialogue Timaeus envisions a deity of particular generosity. ‘He who framed this whole universe … was good, and one who is good can never be jealous of anything. And so, being free of jealously, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible” (29e). Givens then declares, “Such a formulation is similar in spirit to the Mormon conception of theosis.”[4]

Indeed, the Timaeus, more than any other document embodies the West’s inclusive monotheism that was similar to Mormonism: creation out of matter, a high God over lower Gods, human preexistence, and human potential for Godhood. I. Woodbridge Riley noted the similarities between Franklin’s “First Principals” and the Timaeus: A Father of the Gods “who formed the universe and assigned each sole a star, who was good, and being free from jealousy, desired that all things should be as like himself as possible.”[5]

Thus for my purposes (describing early Mormon notions of inclusive monotheism) Platonic or “Timaean” monotheism may fit the best. Either way, the Timaeus was a very important document for these ideas and very influential and my next post will look at further influences.

[1] Words of Joseph Smith, 378-79.

[2] James Parton, Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1867), 175.

[3] Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 319.

[4] Terryl L. Givens, Wresting the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 266. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Plato declared that pre-mortal humans could join the Gods in their circular path around the universe to behold the true reality because “jealousy must stand outside the divine chorus.” Plato, Phaedrus, 247a.

[5] I. Woodbridge Riley, American Philosophy: The Early Schools (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1907), 249. Riley actually wrote the first dissertation on Mormonism, later published as The Founder of Mormonism (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1903).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Like I’ve said, the idea of a pantheon is common in the near east and related regions including Greece and Rome. It’s just not that clear to me that the Timaeus adds much that this general conception doesn’t already bring. Likewise if we appeal to the Timaeus we have to deal with the problems of absolutism in Greek philosophical thought as well as Platonic metaphysics.

    That is, I agree with the parallels you see. It just seems to me they are an ubiquitous element of the region. Even most scholars see the pre-exilic Hebrews as having a pantheon most likely very similar to the Canaanites. (Some apologists have played this up ever since Mullens published The Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature was published back in the early 80’s.

    As for the Timaeus and matter I think that’s trickier than you suggest. An awful lot has been written on the Khora or receptacle in the Timaeus. There are definitely different ways to conceive of it. (With Plotinus tending to read the Timaeus by way of Aristotle’s prime matter) The Khora really isn’t matter in any normal sense but much more space or container. (Think empty space or vacuum in modern conceptions) Of course there are ways to read it as a kind of filled space more akin o Aristotle (which is why the more Aristotilean conceptions tended to dominate amongst the Stoics and later neoPlatonists).

    The problem I have with reading this in light of Joseph’s conceptions is first it’s not clear what Joseph means. He’s speaking fairly vaguely. Second in terms of the Timaeus it’d seem to me that Joseph is talking about matter as elements whereas the Timaeus’ Khora is more space to be filled with intelligible matter or the forms.

    My qualms with Joseph parallels thus amount to being concerned that he’s just not filled in a whole lot of metaphysics to his conceptions. (Unlike say Pratt, Roberts or others) With the Timaeus the unique development of a physics out of filling the space (Khora) produces tensions that have certain behaviors that the creator then uses to form the quasi-atoms (which for the Timaeus are various ideal 3D solids like the tetrahedron) representing the the four classic types of elements plus the universe as a whole. Again, nothing like that in Joseph.

    So it’s true there’s an idea of creation via matter but this misses the key elements of what creates the matter whereas as I read Joseph the matter is simply pre-existent and thus co-eternal with Joseph’s head God. Perhaps the closer parallel is less the Timaeus than simply scholarly speculative recreations of pre-exilic Hebrew thought. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil thus seems a better bet as are books grappling with the issues Mullens raised 40 years ago.

    But the “inclusive monotheism” element you bring up seems correct. But as I said that seems a common feature of the region.

    Now if we’re admittedly looking for 19th century influences rather that ancient parallels then of course things are a tad different. The Timaeus might be a better fit there, despite the problems. I confess I’m simply more familiar with platonic like parallels in figures like Bruno than the idea of a Hebrew pantheon. Yet the latter can be seen in things like the Sefiroth within Kabbalism. (The serfiroth technically isn’t a pantheon but includes perhaps echoes of those earlier ancient views – sometimes each portion of God is treated as a nearly anthropomorphic individual though)

    Comment by Clark — October 5, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

  2. In terms of the similarities between the Timaeus and JS’s statment regarding creation out of existing matter, Thomas Taylor’s translation said, “But since it is necessary that a corporeal nature should be visible and tangible?and since nothing can be visible without fire, and nothing tangible without something solid, and nothing solid without earth?hence the divinity, beginning to fabricate composed the body of the universe from fire and earth.? 459 (31b).
    JS said, “Anything created cannot be Eternal. & earth, water &c?all these had their existence in an elementary State from Eternity.? (Words of Joseph Smith, 9). And then later he said, “[T]he Earth was made out of sumthing for it was impossible for a sumthing to be made out of Nothing[.] fire, air, & watter are Eternal Existant principles which are the Composition of which the Earth has been Composed.” (Words of Joseph Smith, 61).
    So quite similar.

    In terms of if there are better ancient parallels, perhaps, but the Timaeus has most of the elements that strict monotheism sought to reject in one nice little package. Furthermore, it’s the influential document in the West on these issues. Biblical strict monotheism had overshadowed most of the pre-exilic notions you mention, but the Timaeus was still around.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 5, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

  3. And Taylor’s translation also says, “The composition of the world, therefore, received one whole of each of these four natures. For its composing artificer constituted it from all fire, water, air, and earth.” (Wanted to get all of those elements in there).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 5, 2015 @ 5:51 pm

  4. Earlier, I had assumed Joseph’s language was drawing on alchemical roots. But it is hard to find references that fit as well as the Timaeus. Thanks for this — I have your dissertation, too, but it’s slow going through it because I’m trying to read all the 19th century references in it that I’ve neglected to read until now.

    Comment by Jacob H. — October 6, 2015 @ 8:50 pm

  5. Alchemy and Neoplatonism often overlapped, but I agree, JS’s language looks very similar to the Timaeus in those quotes. And I’m happy to hear of your interest in my dissertation and would be happy to get any feedback.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 7, 2015 @ 8:32 am

  6. I want to be careful to distinguish the Timaeus proper from 19th century uses of the Timaeus especially particular translations. Just to be clear with my aims.

    The Timaeus does have creation from the elements but my point is that these elements are themselves not eternal but are created in the Khora. (Space, receptacle) So what you say about fire is true (and this becomes more important later for the Stoics) but doesn’t really get at the fundamental issue of creation in Timaeus.

    So I’m fine with the Timaeus somehow affecting Joseph rhetorically. I’m just noting that there’s a huge difference between Joseph’s teachings (which require eternal uncreated matter) and the Timaeus where the elements are created and Khora is more fundamental. Joseph’s ontology just is at odds with 47e3 to 52d4. The craftsman it is true is bringing order to disorder. As such he’s similar to the early Hebrew conception of organizing chaos.

    I should note that khora is a pretty nuanced topic and there’s been a lot of dispute upon it as to whether it’s more like Aristotle’s material substrate or something else. I’ve not read the Taylor translation so I’m not sure how he treats those parts. Part of the problem is that the Timaeus is of course trying to explain how forms and matter relate. The later neoPlatonic (i.e. platonism of late antiquity) work this out in a more clear fashion IMO although one can always dispute how true to Plato they are.

    I’m at work so I don’t have my good Plato handy and the public Jowett translations are pretty horrible. This is the key passage:

    “Wherefore also we must acknowledge that there is one kind of being which is always the same, uncreated and indestructible, never receiving anything into itself from without, nor itself going out to any other, but invisible and imperceptible by any sense, and of which the contemplation is granted to intelligence only. And there is another nature of the same name with it, and like to it, perceived by sense, created, always in motion, becoming in place and again vanishing out of place, which is apprehended by opinion and sense. And there is a third nature, which is space, and is eternal, and admits not of destruction and provides a home for all created things, and is apprehended without the help of sense, by a kind of spurious reason, and is hardly real; which we beholding as in a dream, say of all existence that it must of necessity be in some place and occupy a space, but that what is neither in heaven nor in earth has no existence. “

    Comment by Clark — October 8, 2015 @ 9:50 am

  7. Interesting, Clark. I don’t know much about this Khora stuff, but in the passage you cite it kind of makes space sound like a “thing,” or something rather than nothing like Aristotle said. What I’ve read on creation ex nihilo said that it was invented by Christians in the 3rd century or so specifically to set the Christian God apart from Platonism and that the idea didn’t exist anywhere else in antiquity.

    The claim that Plato taught creation out of primal matter was made by the scholars in JS’s day. Here’s some passaged from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s (1790) entry on “Platonism.”

    ?We agree with Dr Enfield in thinking, that in this dialogue of the formation of the universe, matter is so manifestly spoken of as ETERNALLY CO-EXISTING [my emphasis] with God that this part of his doctrine could not have been mistaken by so many learned and able writers, had they not been seduced by the desire of establishing a coincidence of doctrine between the writings of Plato and Moses. ? Plato, it is true, in his Timaeus, calls God the parent of the universe, and in his Sophista speaks of him as ?forming animate and inanimate beings, which did not before exist:? but these expressions do not necessarily imply that this offspring of Deity was produced from nothing, or that no prior matter existed from which these new beings were formed. Through the whole dialogue of the Timaeus, Plato supposes two eternal; and independent causes of all things; one, that by which all things were made, which is God; the other, that from which all things are made, which is matter. He distinguishes between God, matter, and the universe, and supposes the Architect of the world to have formed it out of a mass of pre-existent matter.?

    In the King Follett Discourse JS said “God himself had materials to org. the world out of chaos which is Element & in which dwells all the glory–that nothing can destroy they never can have an ending they COEXIST ETERNALLY [my emphasis].”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 8, 2015 @ 11:41 am

  8. It’s not really a thing depending upon what one means by that. (Thing is an infamously ambiguous notion in English) If you’re familiar with Plotinus it’s basically akin to matter there as absolute privation. (Although Plotinus is reading the Timaeus in light of Aristotle and the Stoics) The SEP has a good discussion.

    The Khora (or in some places chora) becomes important in 20th century philosophy. The words Plato uses here with the elements as traces and the khora as place are key terms in say Derrida’s phenomenology (discussed quite a lot in his On the Name and gets picked up by other figures in the Continental tradition. John Sallis for instance has an interesting book on the Timaeus called Chorology. Caputo has a chapter in his Deconstruction in a NutshellKhora: Being Serious with Plato.” However none of those discussions really have to do with physics/theology of the sort we encounter with Joseph Smith. It’s very much more phenomenology and semiotics.

    Creation Ex Nihilo as I understood it was to avoid the notion of emanations in the various types of platonism in late antiquity. They wanted an absolute creation whereas as you can see in that quote from the Jowett translation platonism has creation out of something else. (Which prior to the revelation on matter from Joseph Smith appears to have been the view of at least the Pratts in some form)

    The quote from the encyclopedia you gave is correct although one then has to unpack what we mean by eternal. There’s that question of time that’s pretty important in Platonism but that I’ve never seen discussed among any 19th century Mormons. So eternal to a Platonist means the forms. Eternal to Joseph and the rest means a timeline that goes back to infinity. Time for the Platonists only applies to the realm of spirit not intelligence.

    God in the Timaeus is the father but Khora is the mother. It’s the forms and the ultimately formless that together form something intermediate that is the elements as we think of it.

    Comment by Clark — October 8, 2015 @ 1:51 pm

  9. Thanks, Clark. Definitely some nuances here, but still a lot of basic similarities.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 9, 2015 @ 7:18 pm

  10. Yes, and I think going back to Quinn one can appeal to rhetorical influences or at least parallels without necessarily embracing the content. My nervousness is really part and parcel of the whole post-structuralist movement’s reaction to traditional structural analysis of say myths and legends. There the view of say Campbell and others was critiques as forcing stories into categories by repressing the parts that didn’t fit. (Eliade is a bit more complex here for various reasons at a minimum due to his relationship with Heidegger. But generally he’s critiqued by the post-structuralist movement as well)

    The question then becomes how to deal with these marginalized elements when figures like Quinn make these critiques. The Khrora is a pretty important one since I think it undermines attempts to push the Timaeus as a setting too strongly.

    That said, during his period of attempting to learn as much as possible it would be quite likely Joseph would encounter Plato. Whether that’s the main influence or not I couldn’t say. I’d say that when Joseph reads these sorts of things he’s already doing a kind of oddly deconstructive reading. Sort of like how a Mormon might read the Gospel of Philip and completely discount the gnostic setting in preference to what the origins of elements like the mirrored room were outside of gnosticism.

    Comment by Clark — October 12, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

  11. Good points, Clark. I think EP Thompson’s description of William Blake’s reading could be applied to JS: “But Blake had a different way of reading. He would look into a book with a directness which we might find to be naïve or unbearable, challenging each one of its arguments against his own experience and his own ?system…. He took each author (even the Old Testament prophets) as his equal, or as something less. And he acknowledged as between them, no received judgements as to their worth, no hierarchy of accepted ?reputability.??
    For JS the Holy Ghost would confirm truth but he still had to study it out in his mind.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 13, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

  12. Yes, I think William Blake is actually a very strong parallel for Joseph’s thinking. (I’m hardly unique in making that connection – Orson Scott Card even has Blake as a Gandalf like character in his fantasy retelling of the Joseph story)

    The problem with this sort of reading though is that it can make parallels difficult to ground. That is the significance of a parallel isn’t clear precisely because of this way of reading. How are we to know what is creative or not? We can look to similar phrasing but then how much is just from the culture (including books) and how much is significant?

    That is the parallels that are most interesting are ones of content not phrasing. Yet it’s precisely here in figuring out content influence that things get much more tricky. This deconstructive way of reading by Joseph makes such parallels more difficult to deal with.

    It’s these methodological issues that then become pretty tricky. So for instance Quinn raises the three gradations in Platonism as a parallel for Joseph’s celestial, terrestrial and telestial. Yet in terms of content, Joseph’s use is utterly unlike the Platonic conception. This doesn’t get mentioned even in his footnote yet seems a pretty important issue.

    Comment by Clark — October 14, 2015 @ 10:40 am

  13. Just to add, I am very curious as to how you navigate these issues since in many ways it seems like our thinking is quite similar. I think neoplatonic ideas where definitely in the air both in the esoteric tradition but also through more mainstream figures like Emerson or the place of a classic education among the educated of the era. To be educated at that time pretty much demanded reading the classic authors of whom Plato would be prime. It was also not at all uncommon to read many other platonists for those going to college. Finally you had influences such as Swedenborg who formed a kind of middle ground.

    Comment by Clark — October 14, 2015 @ 10:46 am

  14. Good questions, Clark. My committee really raked me over the coals on these points all throughout the process and Owen Davies (my outside reader) suggested I read EP Thompson’s book on Blake as a way to situate Smith. I think it really helped by pointing out that visionaries seem to view sources and influence quite differently than scholars. Visionaries usually don’t cite sources because they see their visions as authoritative whereas other people need to cite sources to be intellectually authoritative.

    But just as scholars try to sift through Blake’s ideas to see where and with whom the lined up, I’m trying to do the same for JS. So I took at stab at it with my dissertation, and am now working to revise it.

    Here’s parts of my dissertation introduction that I posted the summer before last.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 14, 2015 @ 11:30 am

  15. […] finish my series on inclusive monotheism (see here here here here) and similarities with Plato?s Timaeus, I wanted to look at similarities between Mormon […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Plato, Tolkien, and Mormonism, Part 1: The Travels of Cyrus — October 19, 2015 @ 12:59 pm


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