Joseph Smith, Thomas Dick, and the Tricky Task of Determining Influence

By October 12, 2009

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] ?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.

[4] Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Knopf, 1945), 171?72.

[5] 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.

[6] Edward T. Jones, ?The Theology of Thomas Dick and its Possible Relationship to That of Joseph Smith? (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1969).

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Methodology, Academic Issues Theology


  1. The only scholarly work on Dick thus far. . .

    Is this a hint at a potential future project, Ben?

    Nice post.

    Comment by David G. — October 12, 2009 @ 1:48 pm

  2. Nice work, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — October 12, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

  3. David: Dick’s papers are actually here at Edinburgh, and I contemplated taking him on as a thesis project, but my interests have taken me elsewhere. However, I have glanced through his papers collection (if only for an hour or so), and I may do something with him if I find the time.

    Comment by Ben — October 12, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  4. Ben,

    This is a very thoughtful discussion of the methodologies of Mormon intellectual histories. I would only add that correlations can be very useful to historians as well. Even if Joseph Smith had never heard of Dick or his ideas, the fact that their ideas seem to address similar concerns and appeal to their contemporary society says something important about that society even if there is no way to prove whether their thoughts influenced each other. For me, this is the greatest utility of intellectual history–I am just not that interested in intellectual geneologies.

    Comment by Joel — October 12, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

  5. Nice summary of the issues, Ben. You’ve taken a page, more or less, out of Terryl Givens’ book, no?

    I have a piece under review right now that works up a model compatible with yours, though perhaps quite distinct in appearance. I might summarize it as follows:

    What marks the unicity of Mormonism is not its doctrines, or even its doctrinal sources. What marks the unicity of Mormonism is the events to which it declares (militant?) fidelity. For that reason, we should not be surprised at all to find “sources” for the development of Mormon theology. But the task of tracing what is Mormon in Mormon history might well be to look carefully at how the early Saints (Joseph, here) effectively recoded the theological influences they encountered through fidelity to the unique founding events of Mormonism (the several angelic visitations, but perhaps first and foremost the arrival of Moroni and the translation of the plates).

    Something like that anyway….

    Comment by Joe Spencer — October 12, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

  6. Maybe I read you wrong Ben, but didn’t Dick go with creatio ex nihilo? At least that’s what I remember from plowing through his “Philosophy of a Future State” (1836 ed.) ten years ago or so. I think Cowdery quoted from it because he saw (unpublished) Book of Abraham terminology in it. “Intelligences” and the like. Of course Brodie thought he borrowed from it wholesale.

    Comment by WVS — October 12, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  7. I’m friends with Ted Jones, who wrote the master’s thesis cited at note 6. I alerted him to this thread, and he wrote the following note, which I am sharing here with his permission:

    If Ben thinks my conclusion was harsh (and I just re-read it…. it was harsh), he should have seen my original conclusion. Much worse. My advisor, Ellis Rasmussen, challenged me on my original conclusion, and I softened it up a bit, but apparently just a little bit. I was surprised that a BYU professor would suggest, or at least imply, that Joseph Smith might have been influenced by reading a non-LDS writer. It was a bit of a ‘defining moment’ for me, on how I would read and think about LDS thought after that.

    I remember the first time I returned to BYU after that 1969 thesis; it was 1977 to read a paper on the ascension motif in early Buddhism (my doctoral dissertation topic at U Minn.). I ran over to the library to see if I could tell if anyone had read the thesis. Wish I hadn’t been so nosey! One or more people had read it, and written all kinds of nasty notes in the margins: top, bottom, both sides. Someone(s) really didn’t think much of my scholarship. Sigh! Nothing new there.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — October 12, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  8. Well said, Ben. The all-or-nothing reflex seems to me clearly a reflection of the tensions around the concept of influence on Joseph Smith – echoes of the polemics surrounding Mormonism. Once a satisfactory theory of influence (like the one you’ve outlined here) comes forward, comparative work becomes safe. Without one believing scholars feel like they have to make wide turns.

    Comment by Ryan T — October 12, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

  9. Interesting comments, Ben.

    I think that de-emphasizing the aspect of direct influence also allows one to avoid those stickier (some say polemic) issues of whether or not a particular person was receiving revelation. Or it challenges the assumptions about revelation itself.

    But even in exploring the climate and comparing thought and so forth there seems to remain an implicit claim regarding revelation and naturalistic explanations. So it seems the problem represented by the hypothetical competing schools doesn’t go away, it is simply footnoted or left hanging, but still there.

    Comment by BHodges — October 12, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

  10. I agree the old harsh dichotomizations don’t hold much water. I’m slowly working on an essay about the “still, small voice of prophecy” and a concept of metaphysical translation to describe how Joseph Smith handled ideas in his milieux.

    Comment by smb — October 12, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

  11. Our blogmate Steve Fleming is working on some interesting models for ways of understanding influence and parallels for his dissertation on crypto-catholic survivals and Mormonism. I’ll let him comment on the details, but his approach is I think fairly congruent with yours, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — October 12, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

  12. Right, very interesting Ben, I’ll be in touch. I’m not quite sure how to summarize it yet. Ultimately I like the line Brooke’s quote from Richard Burton’s City of the Saints “Mormons were guided by the Spirit unto all truth … come whence it may.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 12, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

  13. Thanks, everyone, for the enlightening, helpful, and generous comments. Also, I apologize for a few glaring typos and errors in the post.

    Joel: Thanks for your note, I agree there are important parallels for history as well. (and I really appreciate your compliment, since I see you as one of the more thoughtful commenters on the bloggernacle.)

    Joe: Very interesting. I look forward to your paper.

    WVS: while Dick did hold to some sort of “ex nihilo,” it definitely wasn’t the traditional sort that Protestants were used to. Indeed, his whole theological corpus contains massive contradictions as he tries to find a middle way between enlightenment science and the Christian tradition. He did, however, most definitely present a form of eternalizing matter that was far from mainstream for Christianity at the time. Sort-of a halfway house to Parley Pratt, JS, et. all. (I also don’t think that JS had gotten that far in the Abraham texts by then. Lots of issues there, but there are not manuscripts of anything beyond Abraham 2:18 or so from the Kirtland period. Personally, I see Abraham 3 as being “translated” [however you want to use that term for this complex text] during early Nauvoo. While they use Dick’s excerpt as support for their belief in the soul, I don’t think it is in defense of Abrahamic “intelligences.”)

    Comment by Ben — October 13, 2009 @ 3:07 am

  14. Kevin: I really, really feel sorry if Ted (if I may) feels my scholarship is ripping on his. I more see it as a representative of an age, not as a horrible strawman (for example, I also use Tom Alexander as an example of this past framework, and I have nothing but respect for his scholarship). Please let your friend know that I meant no disrespect to what, in all sincerity, is actually one of the only detailed (and well-done) analyses of Dick’s theology.

    Ryan: agreed.

    BH: as a historian, I actually don’t feel the tension of revelation and natural origins as you present them here. As a believer, I deal with that personally, but a intellectual historian I have no problem directly connecting JS’s revelations to his cultural climate. I don’t think the academy will accept it otherwise.

    Comment by Ben — October 13, 2009 @ 3:14 am

  15. smb: I’m excited to see how that paper turns out. Truth is, your writing is one of the examples I’ve seen that demonstrate the best of the framework I tried to present here.

    David: thanks for pointing me toward Steve.

    Steve: love the Burton quote, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

    Comment by Ben — October 13, 2009 @ 3:16 am

  16. I feel like it’s most productive to ask “what does it do?” rather than “who said it first?” You’d be surprised how much these ideas, specifically as JSJ revealed/translated/redacted them, did for the Latter-day Saints.

    I personally think JSJ totally plagiarized Jacques Lacan.

    Comment by smb — October 13, 2009 @ 7:25 am

  17. sam: your first point is exactly what I was trying to get at with my third-to-last paragraph, only put much more succinctly and clearly.

    regarding your second point….

    Comment by Ben — October 13, 2009 @ 7:34 am

  18. Fine post, Ben. I think that for some commentators, the urge to see a source for Joseph Smith’s ideas in any contemporary book or pamphlet is similar to the motivation some have for taking the Spaulding theory seriously — they just can’t imagine Joseph Smith coming up with such ideas on his own or through divine communication. I prefer the Harold Bloom approach, acknowledging that Joseph Smith was a creative religious thinker. If you grant Joseph intelligence and creativity, talking about this or that source for his ideas becomes less threatening.

    That “the eclectic mind of Joseph Smith” did pick up ideas from many directions is easy to accept — I think the same can be said for any creative thinker. A better inquiry (the tack you seem to be following) is trying to determine why some ideas were adopted and/or transformed, while others were not.

    Comment by Dave — October 13, 2009 @ 9:41 am

  19. BH: as a historian, I actually don?t feel the tension of revelation and natural origins as you present them here. As a believer, I deal with that personally, but a intellectual historian I have no problem directly connecting JS?s revelations to his cultural climate. I don?t think the academy will accept it otherwise.

    Right, that’s why I say the problem (or “question”) is “simply footnoted or left hanging, but still there.” I can write from a certain academic viewpoint without making the tension explicit. As you say, in some ways the “academy” demands such history. At the same time, the questions of influence and religious claims are relevant to, and accessible through (in a fallible way of course) historiographical inquiry. I don’t think that is a bad thing, I think it is simply addressing different questions and is supported by different assumptions.

    Comment by BHodges — October 13, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  20. To put it more succinctly, you say you don’t feel such tensions as a historian. I believe this has more to do with your approach, assumptions, and the questions you ask (which are valid and fruitful in their own right). The tensions are still valid and still there, they just aren’t being addressed for your purposes. Does that make sense?

    Comment by BHodges — October 13, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  21. Dave: exactly.

    BH: I see what you are saying, and I understand that. But, as I argue here, I think trying to settle those questions are just going to lead to dead ends, and in the end can’t be solved. The result, then, is usually flawed scholarship.

    Comment by Ben — October 13, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  22. All scholarship is flawed, though. The flaws become more apparent depending on the questions one believes are being addressed, or based on the questions one thinks should be addressed.

    I’m fine with pointing out flaws in previous research and like you and other folks in this discussion I’m excited to see different questions asked and problems addressed. These new directions have problems as well, and the previous questions haven’t been invalidated only insofar as people agree that they can’t be answered to one’s satisfaction.

    I like the contextual and conceptual approach you describe, but it still has implications for the other approaches you discuss, no matter their flaws.

    Comment by BHodges — October 13, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  23. Thanks Ben. You’re certainly correct that Abraham is complex. With the critical text to appear soon, it will be interesting to see what ideas it adds to the mix. I think, based on what I’ve seen so far, that one could make a case for Abr. 3, or parts of it at least, being around in late 1835. But information is sparse, for sure.

    To your point, looking at context is important, and influence has been a sensitive question for historian’s who happen to be Latter-day Saints. I’m old enough to remember what happened on the inside in the 70s. It was both a little alarming and in the end disappointing. Hopefully the new movement in the direction of “laying it all out” means that balanced, considered and professional work will be accepted as a part of that movement. I think MMM shows this.

    Blair’s point is partly an individual hurdle. Secular treatment of the sources will often lead to conclusions or at least propositions that require interpretation from a perspective of faith. Bushman clearly faced this and saw it as a difficulty in RSR.

    Anyway, great post. Thanks.

    Comment by WVS — October 13, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  24. WVS: right on.

    Comment by BHodges — October 13, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  25. so where have your interests taken you Ben?
    a project on Dick would be oh so snazzy! [i was about to say “sick” but i am just not quite that hip, or whatever]

    you attending the Gifford Lectures there in e-burgh?

    Comment by stan — October 19, 2009 @ 10:51 pm

  26. Just to continually push the idea that the sources for all this stuff is medieval, here’s a quote from Jean-Claude Schmitt’s Ghost’s in the Middle Ages. Hugh of St. Victor, an important 12th century theologian said that the spirit was something between the soul and the body and thus not immaterial while not being quite material. ?Said Alcher of Clairvaux not without unease, the spirit was ?something?: ?All that is not body and which however is something is said rightly to be ?spirit.? Page 197.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 20, 2009 @ 12:50 am

  27. Stan: Interests have taken me more towards German theology and American reception of foreign ideologies in general. I attended a few of the Gifford lectures (they have them every night for two weeks), but I’m keeping up mostly via online streaming. They are blowing my mind. (literally–they are on the possibilities of the mind.)

    (Oh, and I consider you cool enough to say “sick”–fwiw)

    Steve: fantastic source.

    Comment by Ben — October 20, 2009 @ 3:08 am

  28. fwiw [sic]! (when i use that it’s not an acronym but onomatopoeia, fwiw)–glad to hear i am that up there by your coolness/sickness factor.

    have you found the hall that Wm James Gifforded in? i hear (read, actually) there is a plaque on the wall with his name on it.

    Speaking of WJ, he apparently thought Edinburgh was “surely the noblest city ever built by man,” FYI (i can acronymate too!) Soak it up mind-blowing up, bro!

    Comment by stan — October 20, 2009 @ 8:41 am

  29. […] fruitful, particularly when considering exceptionally thorny issues like the nature of God. I have personally proposed a more eclectic approach to the antebellum environment in which Mormonism was raised by […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Considering Biography and Thought in Early Mormon Thought — November 3, 2009 @ 7:57 pm


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