Nebuchadnezzar and The Mormon Social Imaginary

By December 21, 2010

My presentation at the last MHA conference revolved around some ideas I?d been working with related to Mormon collective identity. A while ago I became fascinated with the way that Charles Taylor has been using the concept of ?social imaginaries? in his work in social philosophy. To him, a ?social imaginary? is basically the perceived social world of an individual, and Taylor?s work shows how these perceptions are critical for understanding how societies function. [1] This is an idea similar to the basic premise that Benedict Anderson introduced in Imagined Communities. Anderson focused on the phenomenon of the nation, and he described how the shared perceptions of citizens of were truly the element that made a nation possible. [2] In my view, both of these ideas ? ?social imaginaries? and ?imagined communities? have an important connection to the question of group or collective identity.

Mormon group identity and its initial formation is something that I?ve seeking to better understand, and so far, these concepts have proved very helpful. In keeping with my interest in lived religion, I prefer thinking about identity in these terms because they give a phenomenological perspective. ?Social imaginary,? for instance, implies an internal view of identity; identity as it was lived and experienced. Of course, that can only take us as far as our subjects? consciousness before we need to adopt a different stance, but there?s much there that has not been explored or appreciated.

En route to sketching out an initial account of the formation of a Mormon identity, my MHA presentation had a few different parts: I tried to address, somewhat, a decline in American patriotism evident through at least the mid-1840s. I argued that that decline opened space for an alternative sense of sociopolitical identity (the ?Kingdom of God?). I also suggested a few other factors: the fact that Mormons were ?gathered? ? relatively insulated from social contact and often at odds with state and national government; the fact that they were unfavorably viewed and underwent adverse collective experiences; the fact that they united under a very distinctive religious vision. All these factors (and many more) contributed to the formation of a unique identity. A ?Mormon? identity was born and developed.

This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of the process, and I?m still trying to get my head around all the elements that fed it. In getting ready for a Sunday School lesson on Daniel and one of the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar earlier this week, though, I was reminded of one of the these components that I cited in my MHA presentation and that appears to factor into this process one way or another.

David Whittaker wrote a very interesting article twenty years ago about ?Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought.?[3] In it he traced the significance of Daniel typology for Christianity generally and for the LDS movement in particular. As he shows, the images, language, and concepts of the Book of Daniel became distinctively embedded in Mormon discourse, and that this happened relatively early on. They also, I suggested at MHA, influenced the way that Mormons understood their collective.

Images are vivid, powerful things, especially as they become imbued with symbolic meaning. The ?great? and ?terrible? image of Nebuchadnezzar?s dream in Daniel 2 is one of the more striking images, perhaps, in Christian scripture, and (according to Daniel, at least) it has deep symbolic meaning. Some of this symbolism was transferred into Mormonism. Whittaker points out how Wilford Woodruff reported that Daniel 2 was one of the texts quoted by Moroni in his first visit to Joseph Smith. And the prayer revealed in October 1831 (now D&C 65) explicitly likened ?stone?cut out of the mountain without hands? to the ongoing restoration of God?s truth. Whittaker continues to show how this imagery figured significantly in many contexts through early Mormon history. At MHA, I steered Whittaker?s thinking into the question of a ?social imaginary? or a distinctive Mormon identity. Daniel?s kingdom and its presence in Mormon discourse represent, I think, one example and theater of this identity formation. This overlaps, of course, in many ways with the Zion paradigm and a number of other related concepts.

My questions to you: what are the other major influences, ideas, factors that contributed to a distinctive Mormon identity? I alluded above to factors beyond the powerful factor of religious ideology: spatial and geographical factors, political factors, a crucible factor, etc. There are aspects of identity that are derived by opposition (negative) and those that are positive and independent. But still, this is a very complex question, and I suspect there?s much more to take into account. I?d like to continue to isolate some of the most significant of these contributing elements. Your thoughts?


[1] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 1983).

[3] David J. Whittaker, ?The Book of Daniel in Early Mormon Thought,? in By Study and Also By Faith, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990): 155-99.

Article filed under Christian History Cultural History Intellectual History


  1. A related point: Someone mentioned somewhere recently that Asael Smith believed the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream represented the United States. Just curious: how do we know that? I?d also be interested to hear how the dream functioned outside of Mormonism, if anyone’s aware.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 21, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  2. Fantastic stuff, Ryan, and important question. As you know, I am also highly interested in the process of identity formation, and only just recently engaged Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities in a paper I was writing.

    Recently going through Rachel Hope Cleves’s The Reign of Terror in America and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire has had me contemplating even more on the role of the “Other” in shaping identities. With Mormonism, it seems much of the own self-understanding came as a result of the misshaped caricature of antebellum Protestantism that they were so keen on challenging. I haven’t looked into it deeply, but it may be interesting to see how Mormons merged the Protestant Other and the American Other during the 1840s, 50s, and 60s as they established their imagined kingdom.

    Comment by Ben — December 21, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  3. Nice, Ryan. I’ll repeat what I said to Ben on his FB thread: you should read Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation (I blogged about it here). He deals with Asael Smith’s views of the stone being the US, and how that may have influenced JS’s understanding of America. Mark then lays out the relationship between America and Zion through the Jackson County expulsion, using the BoM and the early revelations. He argues that national corruption, religious divisions, and economic struggles led JS to believe that the US his grandfather had envisioned for his descendants was gone, and the Saints needed to focus on building the New Jersusalem with the Lamanites. The early revelations concentrated on Zion and God’s law, and barely acknowledged US sovereignty, referring to the “powers that be” that would temporarily reign until the Lord returned (D&C 58). D&C 87 even predicted the violent demise of the American nation (which echoed similar prophecies of an Amerindian destruction of the Gentile nation in the BoM). It wasn’t until mid-1833, when the persecution in Jackson County heated up, that a revelation spoke about the US and the constitution. Anyway, it’s fantastic stuff.

    Not to toot my own horn (too much), but I also deal with some of these issues in chapter 3 of my thesis on Mormon persecution memory, where I examine how in the persecution narratives the Saints imagined the US as a land of liberty (I use Anderson extensively). The persecutions led the Saints to cast MO and IL as lands of tyranny, and ultimately to seek refuge in a new land of liberty in the West. I also look in my thesis at ways that Mormons defined themselves by casting the Missourians and Illinoisans as “other.” I’m currently revising that chapter for publication to account for Mark’s arguments.

    Comment by David G. — December 21, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

  4. Thanks, Ben. I remember your interest in the maintenance of identity boundaries with T. Parker and the Transcendentalists/Unitarians. You’ll have to fill me in on what you’ve been up to on those lines recently. And I’d like to hear you say more on the “misshapen caricature” of Protestantism with which you suggest Mormons were so concerned.

    Comment by Ryan T — December 22, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  5. Thanks for the suggestion, David, on MAM. I do need to look at it more carefully. I’ve done a bit of work with Mormon-American relations, and I certainly buy off on the disaffection between the two, but I’d like to see how he traces this out. My experience was that it was challenge to develop a clear and cogent narrative with it.

    And I do recall your work on persecution memory; that’s definitely a major component here.

    Comment by Ryan T — December 22, 2010 @ 12:18 am

  6. One thing you will definitely want to explore is the fact that the Mormon identity was not established or “imagined” in an urban setting. All of its beginnings are in the rural and “frontier” places of America. How might the constraints of an urban birthplace affected that identity?

    Comment by Bradly Baird — December 22, 2010 @ 10:36 am

  7. Interesting, I try to deal with the issue of identity in my study on Mormonism in the Philadelphia area, how it worked outside the gathering area. Most of my information comes from William Appleby’s journal who also wrote a tract on Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 22, 2010 @ 6:16 pm

  8. Bradly, I agree with your emphasis on a frontier identity. It would also be interesting to look at what movements toward urbanization and mature society, esp. in Nauvoo, did to it. To some extent, they may have tacked back and forth between transient and settled culture.

    That’s fascinating, Steve. If he has anything pointed to say about old Neb, I’d be curious.

    Comment by Ryan T. — December 23, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  9. The bonding during the wagon crossing of the plains must be put into the mix of the making of a Mormon ID.

    Comment by Bob — December 24, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  10. My memory is that it was fairly standard stuff: the interpretation of various empires (that was the standard view from the early middle ages) and then an overview of the apostasy. He ends with a discussion of Mormon persecution which he related rather melodramatically. It’s worth looking at: A Dissertation on Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 24, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  11. I used the tract in my paper on Mormon uses and abuses of Common Sense as an example of Mormon interpretive strategies. I don’t recall much besides that, though.

    Comment by Ben — December 24, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  12. I just glanced at my notes on the pamphlet. Lots of good stuff. Here is one of my favorite passages:

    “It is by taking the scriptures in their most literal sense, and making a right application of them, assisted by the spirit of truth, that we shall ever be able to understand their literal meaning. Some people are so otherwise that where it is recorded ?thus saith the Lord,? &c., say they it does not mean that, it means something else. Hence the discords of the present religious world…Here is the rule of the inspired Apostle, how true and simple it is. The scriptures themselves being the best interpreter, for we perceive all the Prophecies that have had a fulfillment, have been fulfilled to the very letter according to the most literal meaning of the words and sentences.? (3)

    It’s a great example of one of the dominant Mormon approaches to scriptural exegesis of the time, and demonstrates how biblical literalism–or at least their version of biblical literalism–was at the heart of their collective identity.

    Also, the tract is interesting in that it completely botches the first vision story. Says that JS was 16 and that the vision occurred in 1822. Shows that the precise details of the event were not as well known back then.

    Comment by Ben — December 24, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  13. Ben, on Appleby and the First Vision, you might also look at his “Autobiography and Journal.” He recounts hearing Orson Pratt tell the story in 1840 and I recall it was an interesting rendition. Appleby wrote the Autobiography portion of his journal in 1848 (the portion that includes Pratt’s telling) and then stuck in on the front of his journal (thus the title).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 24, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

  14. The way that polygamy changed the LDS into an ethnic group that lasted through the late 70s or so is another dramatic marker.

    LDS are no longer acting like an ethnic group. Often I think that is a pity, often I do not. But it is a huge change.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — December 25, 2010 @ 1:22 pm


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