Pragmatizing Mormonism and Baptizing William James; or Was William James a Closet Mormon (and Joseph Smith a Proto-Pragmatist). Part I on William James and Mormonism

By February 23, 2008

In the spring of 1914, at a bi-annual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Levi Edgar Young, a relative of Brigham Young, stood at the pulpit of the Mormon tabernacle in Salt Lake City and declared that “if Dr. William James, of Harvard College, had come to Utah before he died, he would have found a society that, above all other human societies, illustrates better the theory of pragmatism, brought about by that great psychologist[,] than any other society on earth today.” [1] James almost had the chance to do just that-to visit Utah-having been invited by Brigham Young Academy president Benjamin Cluff to come to Provo, Utah, to lecture-an invitation James unfortunately had to decline due to his poor health. [2] But even though James never had the chance to see pragmatism in action in the Mormon West, he was no stranger to the faith. He had had several Mormon students at Harvard, including Levi Edgar Young, and had on one occasion dined with Benjamin Cluff during Cluff’s visit to Cambridge in 1892.

In his diary, Cluff described the conversation that took place during his dinner engagement with the renowned professor. “During the conversation,” writes Cluff,

[James] asked me to give in brief an account of the vision of Joseph Smith. After I had done so, a student-post-graduate-asked the Doctor how he would explain the vision scientifically. James replied, “On the theory of hallucination.” “Joseph Smith had a hallucination.” He then went on to say that if others had seen the angel or the plates it would have been different.” I corrected him by informing him that others, three witnesses had seen the angel and the plates and eight had seen the plates. “That changes it then”

At the end of their dinner visit, James expressed interest in obtaining a set of LDS books so that he could “read up on the subject.” “I wrote the presidency [of the LDS Church],” Cluff writes, “and they kindly sent him a full set of works.”[3]
Since that exchange and the resulting shipment of books, Mormons have wondered if James “read up on subject” of Mormonism-and if so, how much? In 2000, BYU Studies¬†asked Jed Woodworth, then a student at¬†Harvard, to see if he could locate any of these Mormon books in the William James collection. Though he was unable to locate any such books in the James collection at Harvard, Jed was able to locate a couple Mormon books in the Houghton Library that had James’s name written, “in presumably his own hand,” in the inside front cover of the book. There was unfortunately, however, no underlining and no marginalia. Time restraints prevented Jed from tracking down every Mormon book at Houghton that might have James’s signature in the front; it is thus yet to be determined what use, if any, James got out of the Mormon books that were sent to him.[4]

That James had access to Mormon books and that he had met Latter-day Saints are not the only reasons some Latter-day Saint scholars suspect James may have done some “reading up” on Mormonism. Nor is it simply because he discussed Joseph Smith and Mormonism in a few paragraphs in his Varieties of Religious Experience, though that is certainly a good reason to suspect that he may have done so. A deeper and more substantial, albeit speculative, reason, however, lies in the great resonance between James’s conception of God and the universe, as described in or implied by his writings, and that laid out by the prophet Joseph Smith. Brigham Young University Philosophy professor and Mormon theologian David Paulsen recognized as much and laid out what he saw as James’s conception of a finitistic God in his article “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and (William) James,” which asserts that James’s conception of God aligns much more closely the God of the Bible than does the absolutistic God of classical theology. Though Paulsen does not mention Joseph Smith or Mormonism in the article, to anyone familiar with Mormon theology, and especially with Paulsen’s previous writings on Mormon theology, the parallel was not difficult to divine. It was not lost on Mormon historian Richard Bushman, who referred to the piece as “stealth theology”-a strategy, Paulsen explains, that, until recently, Mormon philosophers and theologians had to resort to in order to get their works published in reputable academic journals outside of Mormon circles.[5] Nor was it lost on Evangelical apologist Carl Mosser, who warned readers to not be deceived by the title-that the article was really outlining the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph Smith.[6] Paulsen of course did not deny that it did; to him, the two are one and the same.

(continued in Part II)


[1] Levi Edgar Young, in Conference Report, April 1914, 118.

[2] William James to Benjamin Cluff, Cambridge, Mass., March 4, 1902; Benjamin Cluff Presidential Papers, Box 8, fd. 4, item 4, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah (hereafter BYU Special Collections).

[3] Benjamin Cluff, Jr., Diaries, 1881-1909, box 1, fd. 2, vol. 2, 1886-1903, pp. 139-40; BYU Special Collections. The entry is dated 1894; Cluff indicates that he had not written for the past few years and was reviewing important events that had taken place. He attended dinner at James’s invitation with Latter-day Saint student Richard Shipp. A list of the books sent to James was apparently indicated in the letter exchange between Cluff and the First Presidency. A note in his diary indicates that Cluff had or had intended to attach the letter in his journal, but it in not longer there and is apparently housed in another collection. Jed Woodworth recalls see the letter. I thank Jed and David Paulsen for making me aware of this entry.

[4] Jed Woodworth to Stanley Thayne, personal email sent November 5, 2007. Jed indicated that the James collection was not all kept intact; beside those kept together in the collection, some of his books were sold, some given to friends, and some were placed on the shelves in the Harvard libraries. The Mormon books apparently fall into this category. Jed also poses the thesis-correctly so, I believe-that this conversation with Cluff becomes the basis for James’s explanation of Joseph Smith’s vision in Varieties of Religious Experience.

[5] Class lectures from Paulsen’s course on William James, Brigham Young University, Fall 2007.

[6] See David L. Paulsen, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph Smith: Defending the Faith,” FAIR.


  1. Interesting Stan. I wonder if any James experts have an alternate theory about the origins of these particular views of James. It’s too bad that Jed wasn’t able to find any marginalia. I read an article that looked at O’Dea’s notes on the Book of Mormon, and it was very telling. O’Dea was far less polite in his marginal musings than he was in his public writing about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I can’t remember who wrote the article, and I don’t have access to my files at the moment. It may have been reprinted in that new collection on O’Dea, but I read it somewhere else.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 23, 2008 @ 7:40 pm

  2. Great stuff Stan.

    Nor is it simply because he discussed Joseph Smith and Mormonism in a few paragraphs in his Varieties of Religious Experience, though that is certainly a good reason to suspect that he may have done so.

    For those of us that (embarrassingly) have not yet read Varieties, how does James treat JS and Mormonism?

    Comment by David G. — February 23, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  3. Here is exactly what James had to say about JS and Mormonism in Varieties:

    In the case of Joseph Smith (who had prophetic revelations innumerable in addition to the revealed translation of the gold plates which resulted in the Book of Mormon), although there may have been a motor element, the inspiration seems to have been predominantly sensorial. He began his translation by the aid of the ‘peepstones’ which he found, or thought or said that he found, with the gold plates,- apparently a case of ‘crystal gazing.’ For some of the other revelations he used the peep-stones, but seems generally to have asked the Lord for more direct instruction. *

    * The Mormon theocracy has always been governed by direct revelations accorded to the President of the Church and its Apostles. From an obliging letter written to me in 1899 by an eminent Mormon, I quote the following extract:

    “It may be very interesting for you to know that the President [Mr. Snow] of the Mormon Church claims to have had a number of revelations very recently from heaven. To explain fully what these revelations are, it is necessary to know that we, as a people, believe that the Church of Jesus Christ has again been established through messengers sent from heaven. This Church has at its head a prophet, seer, and revelator, who gives to man God’s holy will. Revelation is the means through which the will of God is declared directly and in fullness to man. These revelations are got through dreams of sleep or in waking visions of the mind, by voices without visional appearance or by actual manifestations of the Holy Presence before the eye. We believe that God has come in person and spoken to our prophet and revelator.”

    Comment by stan — February 23, 2008 @ 7:59 pm

  4. SC: That’s interesting about O’Dea. I find marginalia to be a fascinating glimpse into a reader’s private thoughts and musings.

    I would be really interested to find out if Robert D. Richardson came across any Mormon stuff when he was researching his recent Bancroft-winning bio on James. Jed suggested I try to contact Richardon but I haven’t done so yet.

    Comment by Stan — February 23, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  5. James mentions JS one other time in Varieties, lecture 19:

    The great field for this sense of being the instrument of a higher power is of course ‘inspiration.’ It is easy to discriminate between the religious leaders who have been habitually subject to inspiration and those who have not. In the teachings of the Buddha, of Jesus, of Saint Paul (apart from his gift of tongues), of Saint Augustine, of Huss, of Luther, of Wesley, automatic or semi-automatic composition appears to have been only occasional. In the Hebrew prophets, on the contrary, in Mohammed, in some of the Alexandrians, in many minor Catholic saints, in Fox, in Joseph Smith, something like it appears to have been frequent, sometimes habitual. We have distinct professions of being under the direction of a foreign power, and serving as its mouthpiece.

    Comment by Stan — February 23, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  6. Nice post Stan, thanks. I remember being surprised to see Joseph Smith mentioned in Varieties the first time I read it. It is great to hear some of the back story on how he became familiar with Mormonism. I do enjoy reading James.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 24, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  7. James’s books are kind of all over the place in those libraries. I once checked out his personal copy of Whittier’s Supernaturalism of New England, circulating without any restrictions, and I remember seeing a few others. I was tempted to just “lose” the book and pay the $75 restocking fee, but then my Mormon honesty complex kicked in.

    Comment by smb — February 24, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  8. How often I have shared those exact feelings, and the corresponding honesty complex, smb.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 24, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

  9. The father of William James, Henry James Sr., was a noted Swedenborgian theologian. Apostates have often claimed Swedenborg as a source for “The Vision” given to the prophet and elder Rigdon recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 76. Having read a translation of Swedenborg’s “Treatise Concerning Heaven and Hell,” I can tell you that the similarity is grossly overplayed. However, what similarities there are may account for any afinity for Mormonism by either his novelist son Henry Jr., or William. (They must have had some fascinating family discussions!)

    Comment by J. Max Wilson — February 24, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  10. Can I say that outside of a few superficialities I just can’t see James and Mormons as having that much common ground?

    Comment by Clark — February 24, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  11. To add, I see a lot valuable to Mormons amongst the pragmatists (despite how much Nibley hated Dewey). Especially in epistemology (which I’ve written a lot on at my blog). But in terms of the ontology of God there just ain’t much there…

    Comment by Clark — February 24, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

  12. Clark: I can’t say I’m enough of a James expert to really be able to judge how much common ground there is between the two. But my main point here has not been to actually suggest that WJ was a closet Mormon (just thought it was a clever title) but to point out that he was familiar with Mormonism and that some Mormons have tried to figure out just how much. As for whether his Mormon reading affected his actual held theories…I think it prudent to be skeptical, but significant Mormon thinkers have seen what to them seemed to be significant resonance.
    Having only recently begun reading James myself, and being far from an expert on the matter, any further enlightenment on James from those in the know is more them welcome.

    Comment by stan — February 25, 2008 @ 12:26 am

  13. At the beginning of the post I quoted Levi Edgar Young as saying that Mormonism better illustrated the theory of Pragmatism than any other soicety. Any thoughts on why he may have suggested that?

    Comment by stan — February 25, 2008 @ 12:49 am

  14. At the beginning of the post I quoted Levi Edgar Young as saying that Mormonism better illustrated the theory of Pragmatism than any other soicety. Any thoughts on why he may have suggested that?

    I had the exact same question after reading the post, and unfortunately have no firm idea what LEY might have meant.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  15. I think he may have simply been referring to Mormonism’s tendency to translate beleif into action, such as past cooperative ventures, agriculture, etc. But I kinda feel there was more to what he was saying that I haven’t unpacked yet.

    Comment by stan — February 25, 2008 @ 2:56 pm

  16. Thanks, Stan. Keep us updated on anything else you “unpack” that might offer more insight.

    Comment by Christopher — February 25, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  17. Stan I used to have a quote by Brigham Young arguing against Orson Pratt and especially Orson Pratt’s method that uses the term pragmatic. But I can’t for the life of me find it anymore. In any case I’d argue that in some important ways Young has a lot of similarities to the pragmatists although not ultimately in religious belief.

    Comment by Clark — February 25, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

  18. BTW – Peirce is better to read than James (IMO). I think James expanded pragmatism far too much.

    Comment by Clark — February 26, 2008 @ 1:05 am


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