My Prospectus

By November 25, 2010

Ann Taves, my adviser, signed off on me sending this out to my committee a few days ago. The whole things is over 30 pages so I just include the first part here.

Dissertation Prospectus and Outline

To Organize a Nucleus of Heaven: Early Mormonism and the Persistence of Pre-Reformation Religiosities

Problem/question: How might we best understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism?
Mormonism has created considerable confusion for scholars. Prominent nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff concluded, ?I readily grant, that Mormonism is to me, still one of the unsolved riddles of the modern history of religion; and I therefore venture no final judgment upon it.? [1] Sydney Ahlstrom declared that Mormonism ?renders almost useless the usual categories of explanation. One cannot even be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is all of these.? [2]

Beginning in the 1980s major works on U.S religious history started to place Mormonism in the center of their analysis, but these studies of Mormonism became a kind of ?blind man and the elephant.? R. Laurence Moore in Religious Outsiders and the Making of America said Mormonism was defined by its outsiderness, Nathan Hatch?s The Democratization of American Christianity said Mormonism was primarily about populist outrage, and Jon Butler?s Awash in a Sea of Faith focused on Mormon folk magic. All of these authors effectively fit Mormonism within their larger analyses of American religious history but all made the mistake of calling the part the whole with regard to Mormonism.

John Brooke?s Refiner?s Fire, which won the Bancroft prize by focusing solely on Mormonism, provided a more encompassing explanation: hermeticism. Hermeticism, Brooke argued, ?explains the more exotic features of the inner logic of Mormon theology.? [3] Brooke traced the roots of Mormonism back to the English Civil War and back further to the Italian Renaissance when the Corpus Hermeticum was translated from Greek to Latin. Yet despite this broader view, I argue here that Brooke also made the mistake of calling the part the whole. Brooke made the common mistake of focusing on Mormonism?s exotic elements and ignored its more mundane ones, which Brooke himself admitted. Mormonism, for Brooke, became only about its esoteric aspects, which created a distorted view of the movement and its broader context. For instance, though Brooke goes back to the Middle Ages to trace alchemical and mystical practices, he failed to note the many areas of remarkable convergence between Mormonism and medieval Catholicism including priesthood, miracles, visions, work for the dead, elaborate ritual, religious drama, exorcism, angels, sacred space, and sacred objects.

Brooke?s mistake is also common to historians of the western esotericism. Such historians, argues Wouter Hanegraaf, have made the mistake of treating the esoteric or the hermetic as a distinct tradition. Primarily as the result of Frances Yates?s work, upon which Brooke drew heavily, the ?hermetic Tradition? ?is presented as a quasi-autonomous counter-tradition pitted against the mainstream traditions of Christianity and rationality.? Such a notion was a result of 1960s counter-cultural thinking, that saw in hermeticism its own heritage, argues Hanegraaf. Yet the notion of an autonomous tradition greatly distorts the western esoteric tradition. ?For example,? argues Hanegraaf

Frances Yates? figure of the ?Renaissance magus,? representing the type of a ?hermetic gnosis,? is a non-existent entity. Authors such as Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Agrippa, Bruno or Dee were in fact highly complex figures who are misunderstood if they are reduced to the straightjacket of the ?magus,? at the expense of their interest in e.g. mainstream Christian theology, scholastic philosophy, or contemporary physics, astronomy and mathematics. Obviously this is not to deny the great, even, central, importance of magic and hermeticism in their thinking. The point is that their intellectual world cannot reasonably by reduced to that factor only, and (most importantly) that one does not correctly understand even the very nature of those magical and hermetic dimensions in their work if one does not take into account the complex way in which these are interwoven with non-magical and non-hermetic dimensions. It is precisely that inverwovenness?and not any ?purely hermetic? worldview?that makes the study of esotericism such a challenge for the study of religion in the West. [4]

I would go even one step further and argue that not only do scholars need to understand the ?interwovenness? that Hanegraaf asserts but that ?hermetic? is the wrong term for this esoteric tradition. The esoteric aspects of Mormonism are better placed within the medieval world broadly than within the narrow confines of Renaissance hermeticism. Indeed Brooke?s list of the Mormon temple ritual, three-tired heaven, divinization, and the notion of a Heavenly Mother are better set within the mystical devotions of the late medieval era. [5] Barbara Newman situates these devotions as a form of ?Christian Platonism,? and this term better frames the esoteric elements that Brooke sees as the roots of Mormon cosmology. [6]

In addition, the Yatesian paradigm creates the false notion that the use of esoteric sciences, rituals, and mysticism in Christianity began in the Renaissance. Hanegraaf himself makes this mistake. ?An important corollary of the authority attached to ?Hermes?? argues Hanegraaf, ?was a new appreciation of the so-called ?occult sciences?: magic, astrology, and alchemy.? This despite the fact that ?The Corpus Hermeticum contains a spiritual philosophy with very little reference to occult sciences.? Nevertheless, Hanegraaf asserts that in the Renaissance, ?The outlines appeared of a new type of religious syncretism: a mixture of Christianity, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism Magic, Astrology, Alchemy as well as an important new phenomenon: Christian reinterpretation and adaptations of the Jewish Kabbalah.? [7] In this fusing was the roots of Mormonism, Brooke argues: ?Quite simply, there are striking parallels between the Mormon concepts of the coequality of matter and spirit, of the covenant of celestial marriage, and of an ultimate goal of human godhood and the philosophical traditions of alchemy and hermeticism, drawn from the ancient world and fused with Christianity in the Italian Renaissance.? [8]

Yet such ?fusing? goes back to Christianity?s earliest years and persisted throughout the Middle Ages. Zosimus, the father of alchemy, was a Christian. [9] Second-century Christian Platonists Clement of Alexandria asserted that Christianity was about becoming a God. [10] Most importantly for the Christian Platonist tradition was the author calling himself Dionysius the Areopagite who was actually a fifth century devotee of the late Neoplatonist Proclus. Pseudo-Dionysius sought to merge Proclus?s teachings with Christianity and thus borrowed Proclus?s notion of a three-tired heaven, which in Pseudo-Dionysius took the form of nine orders of angles broken into three groups. Pseudo-Dionysius also promoted the idea of divinization (he in fact coined the term) and argued that such was the purpose of the Christian liturgy. Because Dionysius claimed to be a convert of St. Paul, his writings took on a quasi-scriptural status in medieval Christianity and were widely influential. [11]

As Hanegraff suggested, ?hermeticism? came to mean more than just the ideas in the Corpus Hermeticum in the early modern period: a combination of Platonic-inspired movements and occult sciences became referred to collectively as ?hermetic.? Furthermore, late Neoplatonism, which included Proclus, was similar in intent to the Corpus Hermeticum in that Imablichus and the Neoplatonists who came after him deliberately drew upon Egyptians rituals like the writers of the Corpus. [12] Thus ?hermetic? could loosely apply to a broad tradition of esoteric, Platonic ideas with which Mormonism had many similarities. However, the fact that scholars of Western esoterica overwhelmingly follow Yates in placing the beginning of the ?hermetic tradition? at the translation of the Corpus Hermeticum indicates a fundamental problem with the term. In other words, Yates?s ?hermeticism? implies the removal of the medieval milieu, which is what I hope to reverse in my dissertation. ?Christian Platonism? is therefore the better term for these persistent Platonic themes. Brooke was pioneering in his assessment that ?Joseph Smith?s cosmology becomes comprehensible only when it is placed in a setting broader than that of antebellum America,? and was on to something when he labeled Mormonism ?hermetic.? [13] However, in light of recent research, it still remains to more fully explore the directions to which his research pointed.

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. [Ann wrote that sentence] Mormonism largely rejected the religious innovations of the Reformation and Enlightenment; we therefore need to place Mormonism in the context of pre-Reformation religiosity. In Smith?s religiosity we see evidence of both folk and intellectual pre-Reformation survivals: the village seer with a pre-Reformation religious bent who also took interest in Christian Platonism. Smith?s thought and practices paralleled that of the late Neoplatonists (Iamblichus and Proclus) in that they both drew on the ritual practices in their environment for the purpose of becoming like God. In Smith?s case he drew on crypto-Catholic practices and thus ?restored? a number of Catholic practices: all seven sacraments can be found in Smith?s system in one form or another. Smith likewise followed the pattern of the Platonic Philosopher-King: the one who becomes enlightened and then seeks to enlighten his fellow humans for the purpose of creating the perfect society. Failing in the goals, Smith sought to link his closest associates to himself in preparation for the next life??to Organize a nucleus of Heaven.? [14]

[1] Philip Schaff, America: A Sketch of its Political, Social, and Religious Character, ed. Perry Miller (1856; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961), 203.
[2] Syndney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 508.
[3] John Brooke, The Refiner?s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), xvii, 4.
[4] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, ?The Study of Western Esotericism: New Approaches to Christian and Secular Culture,? in New Approaches to the Study of Religion. Vol 1: Regional, Critical, and Historical Approaches, eds. Peter Antes, Armin W. Geerts, and Randi Warne (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 507, 510-11.
[5] Brooke, Refiner?s Fire, 28.
[6] Barbara Newman, God and the Goddess: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 2.
[7] Hanegraaff, ?The Study of Western Esotericism,? 493.
[8] Brooke, Refiner?s Fire, xiii.
[9] Mark Edwards, ?Where Greeks and Christians Meet: Two Incidents in Panololis and Gaza,? in The Philosopher and Society in Late Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Brown, ed. Andrew Smith, (Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2005), 189-202.
[10] E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1965), chp. 4; John Dillon, The Middle Platonitsts: A Study of Platonism 80 B.C. to A.D. 220 (London: Duckworth, 1977), chp. 3.
[11] Dominic J. O?Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), chp. 13; Andrew Itter, ?Psuedo-Dionysian Soteriology and Its Transformation of Neoplatonism,? Colloquium 32, no. 1 (2000): 80-81.
[12] Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplationism of Iamblichus (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1995); O?Meara, Platonopolis.
[13] Brooke, Refiner?s Fire, xvi.
[14] Early Mormon Benjamin Johnson said ?The Prophet taught us that Dominion & powr in the great Future would be Comensurate with the no [number] of ?Wives Childin & Friends? that we inheret here and that our great mission was to Organize a Neculi [nucleus] of Heaven to take with us.? Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997), 10. This, I will argue, was central to what Smith was hoping to accomplish.

Article filed under Christian History


  1. Congratulations, Steve. Looks awesome.

    Comment by David G. — November 25, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

  2. Steve–


    Comment by Max — November 25, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

  3. Steve, I know your dissertation is true. Congratulations, and good luck!

    Several times in my research I’ve come across some bit of pre-Reformation culture that is oddly familiar, but I don’t have the tools to connect the dots. Without giving away the store, can you say what you think the primary means of transmitting pre-Reformation ideas to Joseph Smith are, some 300 years later? That’s the big question that I don’t know how to answer.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — November 26, 2010 @ 12:20 am

  4. Thanks guys. Jonathan, I think I may put up some more of the prospectus that will give a sketch of how I see such things persisting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 26, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  5. Interesting stuff. Congrats, and thanks for posting.

    Comment by Ben S — November 26, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  6. steve, this is really exciting. what a huge scope. i look forward to reading more. proclus is about as far/late as i ever go in my studies.

    you cite hanegraaff … have you looked at kocku von stuckrad’s new book on locations of knowledge?

    it might be useful.

    what do you think of albanese’s treatment of mormonism in her a republic of mind and spirit?

    you write “Smith likewise followed the pattern of the Platonic Philosopher-King …” which makes me giddy. for fun i once proposed a res-publica-esque reading of the book of mormon:

    Comment by g.wesley — November 26, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

  7. Awesome! This is indeed a big hurdle to clear, so congratulations.

    I’d like to hear more about your central question–How might we best understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism?

    Who is the “we” here, and what aspects of JS or early Mormonism are you seeking to understand?

    Comment by smallaxe — November 26, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  8. G. thanks a lot for the reference. I had not heard of him but that book (and a number of his others) looks very useful. My take on Albanese would be that she sort of follows Brooke, so what I say about Brooke probably would apply.

    I’m still new to a lot of this classical stuff but I like your post.

    Smallaxe, I guess the “we” means scholars [Ann wrote that sentence also]. As far as what aspects, I’d say the “religious” ones. I’m planning on going through the development of JS’s religiosity and frame it within these contexts. (I know that’s sort of vague, but I’m wanting to be pretty comprehensive).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 26, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

  9. Excellent, Steve. I’m quite excited about this. Congratulations on getting to this point and good luck the rest of the way.

    Comment by Christopher — November 26, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

  10. Very nice. Congratulations Steve!

    Comment by Jared T. — November 27, 2010 @ 12:00 am

  11. i guess von stuckrad is relatively unknown in the u.s. because he writes mostly in german. his list of publications and courses taught is staggering.

    Comment by g.wesley — November 27, 2010 @ 12:16 am

  12. Interesting stuff, Steve. I’m interested to see where you go with this.

    Comment by Ben — November 27, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  13. I’m really excited for your work, Stephen. I’d be interesting to see how these dynamics played out in other groups like the Tunkers (my favorite non-Mormon group du jour), or perhaps some groups of Separate Baptists.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 27, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

  14. Intriguing, Steve. Congrats on getting it all lined out.

    Comment by Ryan T — November 27, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

  15. This looks terrific, Steve. I’m very interested.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 27, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

  16. Thanks all. J., are Tunkers Dunkers? If so, they were pretty heavily influenced by late medieval mysticism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 28, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

  17. Yep, Steve. Tunkers/Dunkers. Love em.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 28, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

  18. Thank goodness someone is finally doing this. I’ve long thought there were some great gems picked up by all sorts of people (including even apologists) looking through the “hermetic” documents. However most of what ended up published was just so limited due to having bad theoretical structures. (Not the least being bad religion vs. magic or hermetic vs. protestant oppositions) I’d hoped Quinn would be a start to a very interesting transformation of how Mormonism was thought instead no one really pushed beyond his highly flawed approach.

    Best of luck with this. May it really lead to a transformation in LDS studies.

    BTW – I also wholeheartedly agree that Platonism as a category hasn’t been applied to Mormonism. Not just through the hermeneutic angle but also through so much more. (A lot of which has been discussed by various contributors and commentors here – I know J. has had some great posts related to that at BCC) I think the whole evolution of Mormon thought of materialism in terms of the platonism is one of the great unthought topics in Mormonism. Probably because it is such a difficult topic requiring elements from many disciplines (history, philosophy, theology, sociology, etc.)

    Comment by Clark — November 28, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

  19. BTW – one other bit of praise. I think understanding Mormonism as a kind of counter-reformation is also very insightful and something I’ve been hoping someone would do for quite sometime. Sadly I just have such superficial knowledge of the history and theology of that era that I never was sure if my intuitions were just completely off base.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought this and that someone is able to defend that thesis more rigorously.

    Comment by Clark — November 28, 2010 @ 11:14 pm

  20. Thanks Clark.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — November 29, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  21. […] of hermeticism in the early modern North Atlantic.” Our own Steve Fleming has embarked on an ambitious reinterpretation of Mormonism that looks beyond “its esoteric aspects” and explores potential “pre-Reformation […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » “One especially dramatic example”: Mormonism and Religion in the Atlantic World — January 10, 2011 @ 1:16 pm


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