New Article: “Salvation Through a Tabernacle: Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, and Early Mormon Theologies of Embodiment”

By June 8, 2010

[The following is the introduction to my recently published article in Dialogue. I post it here with three goals in mind: 1) To get any feedback/corrections/accusations on the article, as well as to provide discussion for anyone else who finds the topic as fascinating as I do. 2) To fulfill my guilt and anxiety to post something of substance here, but doing so without much work on my part. 3) To remind everyone what a great resource Dialogue is, and how awesome they are for strengthening their online presence. For those who haven’t done so yet, go to their website right now and subscribe and/or donate!]

In his Socratic dialogue Phaedo, Plato offered a multi-layered argument for the immortality of the soul, claiming that the human spirit belonged with the Forms–that is, the highest and most fundamental kind of reality (as opposed to the ?shadows? that humankind dealt with in the temporal world). Plato implied that the soul existed before entering the body, and that if it properly purified itself from all attachment to bodily things, it would then return to the intelligible world of Forms after death.[1] The body in early Platonism, therefore, served as a temporary prison for the immortal soul, and, according to Phaedrus, came as a result of an undisciplined mistake and corresponding fall in humankind?s previous existence.[2] While Aristotle challenged and nuanced his teacher?s demeaning of the world and human bodies, Western thought largely engaged Plato?s belief for the following two millennia.

More than two thousand years after Socrates?s death, Mormon apostle Parley Parker Pratt used the Greek sage as a straw-man against which he presented a radically material afterlife. In an essay written early in 1844 titled ?The Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,? Pratt invoked the classic philosopher as among those professing a temporary–and therefore, insufficient–view of the physical tabernacle and who therefore epitomized those who held the hope ?of escaping with nothing but their spirits, to some immaterial world.? In Pratt?s theology, the redemption of the spirit is only half of the eternal battle that Mormons believed in: ?One of the principle objects of our blessed Redeemer,? he claimed, ?was the redemption of our material bodies, and the restoration of the whole physical world from the dominion of sin, death, and the curse.? Pratt went on to postulate the future potentialities of human bodies: a physical, supernatural resurrection of their bodily form, accompanied by celestial glory added not only upon the immortal soul, but the immortal tabernacle. ?What kind of salvation then do we need?? he asked. ?I reply, we need salvation from death and the grave, as well as from our sins . . . a salvation not only of our spirits, but of our body and parts, of our flesh and bones, of our hands, and feet and head, with every organ, limb and joint.?[3]

The vast differences between the Platonic approach and Pratt?s are readily apparent. The former viewed the body as a temporary prison while absent from the intelligible world of Forms, the latter as a vehicle to the salvation of a domestic heaven. Indeed, these positions occupy opposite poles of a long-debated spectrum, offering the extremes of how to religiously approach corporality: Pratt?s radical materialism acts as a foil to the more traditional duality of spirit and matter. While positioning Pratt among later Christian writers collapses the contrast, LDS embodiment still stands unique. Placing early Mormon theology of the body within the larger Christian–and more importantly, antebellum Protestant–context provides a unique vantage point from which we can more fully understand its origins and implications. This paper seeks to analyze pre-Utah Mormonism?s views of embodiment, both to better understand the development early LDS thought and also to place Mormon theology within its larger culture.

[The rest of the article can be downloaded here.]


[1] Plato, Phaedo, 57a?84c.
[2] Plato, Phaedrus, 244a?257b.
[3] Parley P. Pratt, ?Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,? in An Appeal to the Inhabitants of the State of New York, Letter to Queen Victoria (Reprinted from the Tenth European Edition,) The Fountain of Knowledge; Immortality of the Body, and Intelligence and Affection (Nauvoo: John Taylor, Printer, 1840), 27?29. Pratt?s later references to Plato and Socrates become more laudatory, especially when praising them for their emphasis on the eternal nature of the soul. See Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology: Designed as an Introduction to the First Principles of Spiritual Philosophy; Religion; Law and Government; As Delivered by the Ancients, and as Restored in This Age, For the Final Development of Universal Peace, Truth and Knowledge (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855), 61.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History JIers in Print Theology


  1. Congrats on the publication. It is good to see this in print.

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 8, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  2. I think this is a fascinating topic and once I have read the article I am sure I will have more questions.

    Comment by Aaron R. — June 8, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  3. Interesting. Okay, I only skimmed it, but a few thoughts. Peter Brown’s Cult of the Saints, seems relevant here: he discusses the shift from the pagan (Platonic notions of heaven and the body) to the Christian. Whereas the dead had been excluded from the cities to maintain ritual purity, Christians not only buried the dead close to their meeting places but turned saints bodies into relics. The Christian belief in resurrection was central to this shift. In late antiquity the was a ?fault that ran between earth and the starts” and ?the virtuous soul could have its share in the divinity of the stars; but this could happen only after the body had been discarded, and the soul had regained its rightful place?. In believing in the resurrection of the dead, Jews and Christians could envisage that one day the barriers would be broken? (2).

    Also, I found that Stoics believed in a material soul of fine matter.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 8, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

  4. Thanks, J and Aaron.

    And thanks for the heads-up, Steve.

    Comment by Ben — June 8, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  5. ben,

    i agree. it is a fascinating topic.

    the combination of pre-mortality and corporeal exaltation is a curious one. the idea of disembodiment or lack of a body being a punishment for satan and company is not very platonic at all, whereas the imortality of the soul is.

    so in general i think that the juxtaposition with platonic thought is apt. though the phaedo is pretty hard on the body and does not represent the only view even within plato’s writings.

    as you probably know, there has been debate among platonists as to the reasons for embodiment. at least in ancient times. not everyone attributed the descent of the soul to sin or whatever. iamblichus, for instance, thought that some advanced souls (like himself no doubt) freely chose to (re)incarnate in order to help their fellow humans, not because they were being punished for anything.

    among some early christians (valentinians), incarnation was seen as a chance for learning and improvement, if the body was also to be finally abandoned.

    that is, the earthly body. despite accusations to the contrary, various ‘gnostics’ believed in a bodily resurrection. just not the resurrection of the earthly body. the soul-body, the body that adam and eve had in the garden, would rise. the post-fall body would not.

    the platonic notion of the ‘vehicle of the soul’ might be relevant here, to the extent that the vehicle overlaps with the body and joins the soul to it. the vehicle of the soul is often hard to distinguish from the astral body or second soul known to numenius and the occasional hermetist. iamblichus, as well as proclus, i think, believed that the vehicle rose with the soul and continued to exist after the death of the earthly body.

    but your paper is not about late antiquity, of course.

    Comment by g.wesley — June 8, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  6. Thanks for your comment, g. While you are right that my paper is not about late antiquity, I find the stuff you just outlined absolutely fascinating.

    Comment by Ben — June 8, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

  7. Interesting g. Plotinus attacked the gnostics for being overly pessimistic about embodiment, right?

    Wasn’t the idea that on each incarnation you got to pick a new guardian daemon and the more enlightened your soul was the better you would choose?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 8, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  8. Steve, while the Stoics believed the soul was of fine matter (fire – one of the four elements) it’s important to realize it was not an immortal soul. More interesting is the Renaissance philosopher Telesio who had a view of spirits fairly similar to Mormons. (See this old post of mine although there I’m primarily dealing with Moreland’s critique of Pratt’s ontology)

    As G. noted not all Platonists were quite so anti-body. One can actually argue for a neoPlatonic conception of body that is positive yet accepts a higher faculty of the person to focus on divine things. (Indeed that is largely was Telesio with his material soul does) One should also note that the neoPlatonists had three levels to what a Mormon would call the soul. There is the regular body and then a place for intelligence that in some ways parallels Joseph’s use of spirit. (Quinn notes this in passing in Magic World view although he doesn’t really engage with the issue and thus presents it in a fairly misleading fashion)

    Comment by Clark — June 8, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

  9. steve,

    yes. that’s well put. overly pessimistic. as in more pessimistic than he was. at one point he humorously suggests that his gnostic pals ought to kill themselves if they think being in the body is that bad. but the joke might not have been very funny, since it looks like some sethians did in fact commit suicide in order to get away from the material world. the nag hammadi tractate zostrianus opens with a guy who is thinking about taking his life. then an angel comes to convince him otherwise. apparently, suicidal thoughts were not uncommon among plotinus’ group either. porphyry hismelf admits that he was about to end things one day before plotinus happened to show up and told him to take a vacation. there are also some fragments of a work by plotinus on why we don’t want to take ouselves out of the body prematurely.

    as far as i know, the main passage on the choose-your-own-adventure daemon is in the myth of er in the republic. and that is the point, as you say: do philosophy (correctly) so that you avoid picking a bad life/daemon for your next incarnation. porphyry and iamblichus later argued about the personal daemon, whether it was possible to identify it, summon it, and get it to change a person’s fate. iamblichus claimed that through ritual practices adepts could replace their daemons with gods in this life. the implication was that he had a god for a daemon, whereas porphyry and plotinus and others less theurgically inclined platonists were still bound to their daemons and fate. this is probably the back story to the famous episode in porphyry’s biography of plotinus where he tells of an egyptian priest who comes to rome and offers to show plotinus his daemon. when the daemon appears, the priest confesses that plotinus’ daemon is actually a god. surprise, surprise.

    Comment by g.wesley — June 8, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

  10. Well done Ben. You packed a lot in there. Some paragraphs deserve expansions as their own papers. (And you made me want to read Sam’s book!) Nice work.

    Comment by WVS — June 9, 2010 @ 12:18 am

  11. This is excellent, congratulations.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 9, 2010 @ 5:44 am

  12. Ben, in the article you reference a paper by R. Todd Welker ‘The Locus of Sin?’ Is there any way a resident of England might get hold of that article?

    Comment by Aaron R. — June 9, 2010 @ 6:21 am

  13. Thanks, all; it’s great to get good feedback.

    Aaron: Well, the easiest way WAS to get it from me, since I live in Scotland (and will be in England next year), but I unfortunately just mailed that book home, so it is now sitting on top of all my boxes of books in a New Mexico storage shed. (sigh, I feel like a negligent father.) The best way would probably to convince someone at BYU to scan/photocopy it and send it to you.

    Comment by Ben — June 9, 2010 @ 7:11 am

  14. Congratulations on the publication. It looks interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 9, 2010 @ 8:39 am

  15. Congrats on the publication, Ben. It’s good to see this in print.

    Comment by Christopher — June 9, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  16. Thanks, Edje and Chris.

    Comment by Ben — June 9, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

  17. G. Interesting. I’d comment on your interesting post but I haven’t been able to post on FPR for several months. A glitch?

    (Sorry for the thread jack, Ben).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 9, 2010 @ 7:18 pm


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