Recent tangential comments on JI lately have briefly touched on the development of Joseph Smith’s theology, the correct context in which to place it in, and determining what influence(s) led to what came to be his Nauvoo doctrinal system. These, as well as other topics, are among those that, in my opinion, were not handled well in the new Mormon history. Obsessed over facts, narrative, and otherwise objective measures of examination, historians of the 80s and 90s often highlighted any new-found connection to contemporary intellectual sources, no matter how shaky, and then used that connection to pronounce specific theological categories that Mormonism subscribed to.
As I’ve said elsewhere, however, these tidy categories are often more of a disservice than a help, because not only are the associations murky at best, but these characterizations also trick us into overlooking important differences and points of divergence. The same problem appears when engaging possibly intellectual influences on the early Saints, especially when trying to pin down the eclectic mind of Joseph Smith. The bigger hurdle I see in this regard, though, is the all-or-nothing mindset most Mormon historians maintain when looking at intellectual history. This fallacy, in short, includes either the blanketing of all intellectual characteristics onto Smith if some small connection is established, or, on the other hand, dismiss any contemporary thinker or school’s influence entirely when any point of difference is determined.
Let’s use Thomas Dick as an example. These are the facts we know: Dick was a contemporary of Smith, a common-sense quasi-philosopher in Scotland, and someone whose theology became quite popular in antebellum America. Some of his theological ideas make an interesting, and sometimes eye-opening, comparison to Smith’s theology, specifically with regards to the immortality of the soul and the eternal nature of matter. Further, the Mormon Kirtland-era periodical, Messenger and Advocate, published two lengthy excerpts of Dick’s most important work, Philosophy of a Future State.
Now, what to make of this? On the one hand, historians as far back as Fawn Brodie have used Dick as not only the source for Smith’s belief in pre-existence, but as the measuring rod from which to understand early Mormonism’s entire view of the cosmos. John Brooke continued this thesis in the 1990s, and it was also one of the many tangential and discursive topics attempted to be dealt with in George Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy. On the other hand, competing historians have tried to show that it is ridiculous to mark Dick as an influence on Smith because of the many differences between the two thinkers. The apex of this reasoning is Edwards Jones, who spent his entire master’s thesis pointing out the differences between Smith and Dick in an attempt to dismiss any correlation between the two.
Both of these approaches, in my opinion, overlook the potential benefits of examining the relationship between the Mormon prophet and the Scottish philosopher; further, they overlook the overall modus operandi of Smith as a thinker. Joseph Smith never accepted or rejected entire theological system; rather, he incorporated bits and pieces while ignoring others in his attempt to either gather “fragments” of truth or to buttress his religious vision. While it is a mistake to point to Dick as the origin of Smith’s theology of the soul—there were already accounts of preexistence before their use of Dick’s work—Dick likely did provide a larger theological construct in which to place the doctrinal fragments of preexistence that was floating around in Smith’s early revelations (that’s how the Mormons used Dick’s extracts in their periodical, anyway). With regard to the eternal nature of matter, Dick was most likely not Mormonism’s source—I don’t interpret Mormonism as believing in a sort of eternal matter when they quote Dick, and I see eternalism as more of an introduction from Parley Pratt in 1838-39—it is very possible that the Saints’ familiarity with Dick’s writing could have strengthened, expanded, or even provided a respectable framework and defense for Mormonism’s developing materialism.
When looking beyond the common yea/nay dichotomy of influence, much more interesting—and significant—questions arise. How, for instance, did Mormonism’s eternalism lead to a unique form of materialism, while Dick’s retained a strict sense of dualism, and what does that imply about their larger theology? Similarly, why did Mormon notions of preexistence lead to a glorification of the mortal body, while Dick’s led to the classic Platonic yearning for a disembodied afterlife?
Indeed, Thomas Dick provides a potent example of the issues at stake here, and, as I argue, an example of a more plausible middle way in which to view the idea of “intellectual influence” in early Mormonism. By being equally hesitant with wholesale associations as well as wholesale dismissals, and thus actually engaging what these similarities and divergences really meant within the predominantly give-and-take environment that was the “spiritual hothouse” of antebellum America, the theological position of Mormonism becomes more clear. Not as merely another expression of systematic categories, though, or as an entirely unique religious movement created within a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger religious community struggling to answer many of the same questions, deal with a number of the same issues, and react to much of the same intellectual climate.
It seems, to me, that those who wish to explore Mormonism’s developing theology must first better understand the intellectual air in which its early adherents breathed, recognizing the eclectic theological climate of varying degrees of adaptation and agreement, and then attempt to determine the significance of Mormonism’s mesh of theological answers.
 Perhaps the best example of a historian attempting to place certain “landmarks” along the path of the development of Mormon theology within clear boundaries of theological categories is Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology,” Sunstone 5, no. 4 (July-August 1980): 24–33.
 The only scholarly work on Dick thus far is William J. Astore, Observing God: Thomas Dick, Evangelicalism, and Popular Science in Victorian Britain and America (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001).
 “Extracts from Dick’s Philosophy,” Messenger and Advocate 3, no. 3 (December 1836): 423–25; “The Philosophy of Religion (Concluded from Our Last),” Messenger and Advocate 3., no. 6 (March 1837): 468–69. In the latter excerpt, Dick’s phrase “economy of the universe” is similar to the “economy of God” that Joseph Smith’s scribes used when describing the revelation that came to be known as “The Vision” (1981 LDS D&C 76). Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” 3 vols. (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1974), 2:935.
 Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Knopf, 1945), 171–72.
 John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 205–7; George D. Smith, Nauvoo Polygamy: “…but we called it Celestial Marriage (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2007), chapter 1.
 Edward T. Jones, “The Theology of Thomas Dick and its Possible Relationship to That of Joseph Smith” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1969).