Pure Sources Part II

By July 7, 2011

In both my MHA and Bushman papers given recently, I cited Quinn’s point about JS’s Moroni visitation coming on the equinox. [1] After my Bushman presentation, an audience member cornered me to let me know that the date was Rosh Hashanah and asked me if I knew that (I did because another guy told me that after my MHA presentation).

My question is, why is Rosh Hashanah good and the equinox somehow bad? Why do we (by we I mean a common perception among church members) only want to have JS be influenced by the ancient world? Why is the ancient world good, but the nineteenth century is bad?

The guy wanted to really let me know of these connection and to assure me that JS could have had no knowledge of any of this stuff. During our question and answer session at the Bushman seminar, Jordan asked me what what was gained or lost by locating JS in his environment (or something like that). My response was that I had found it personally problematic to base my testimony on JS’s perceived ignorance, that the apologetic model often used of JS finding ancient ideas unknown in his time is not a solid foundation on which to build one’s testimony. This is because when you do research on JS’s era you continually find things that you supposed were uniquely Mormon taught by other people. That was my personal experience until I decided to see this all as the process by which God brought Truth to JS.

It has been the tendency for those looking for nineteenth-century parallels to Mormonism to do so to undermine Mormonism’ validity, while those who denied such parallels did so to defend that validity. These assumptions still persist but I don’t think it has to be that way. That is, I look forward to a time when people like Ben and I can have an academic discussion about Thomas Dick’s possible influences on early Mormonism where the validity of JS’s prophethood isn’t at stake at all.

[1] As part of my larger point about the Moroni visitation fitting the principles of theurgy, as part of my larger point about the Smiths and early Mormonism engaging in theurgy in general. For clarification, read my forthcoming (hopefully!) dissertation.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I think the idea is that a restoration entails a restoration of aspects of the original culture which was Judaism. Whereas injecting 19th century superstition seems to undermine that. Although I suspect that had Joseph made use of significant American days (say 4th of July) then you’d have something more equivalent. But much of the idea of the restoration was the idea of restoring and apologists make use of that.

    Now I *personally* think Joseph quickly saw that and started investigating things to restore. And some of these were really pseudo-restorations. i.e. things that seemed ancient but which had renaissance and later trappings. An obvious example of that was brought up by Brent Metcalf in his critique of how Joseph used masonry in creating the endowment with the 5 points of fellowship (now not in the ceremony). Now I happen to think that masonry got the idea from pre-existing notions and further it’s just an obvious symbolism for resurrection. That’s the whole conceptual vs. genealogical analysis.

    I remember having an interesting discussion on that point with Brent back in the 90’s over the whole synchronic vs. diachronic analysis of symbols which is somewhat related to what you, I and Ben have been discussing.

    Effectively I think why it matters really depends upon what sort of analysis you are doing. What sorts of connections have significance with an equinox? Is the significance just a connection to an earlier epoch or is the connection the more solar symbolism? (Which frankly goes over most peoples heads) The second issue is perhaps what’s an essential religious symbol versus a less significant one. For instance there are some interesting solar symbolism in the Salt Lake City temple and the architects and designers were pretty cognizant of them. But I don’t tend to think they have a whole lot of religious significance to them.

    There’s an obvious problem in all that since the question becomes what is a significant religious symbol? That’s a pretty subjective judgment and hard to really put in a fashion that works. For instance my ring is a religious symbol but it’s not really a Mormon religious symbol for marriage but more an American cultural one. But I bet for most Mormons it is significant. I think the only way to define this is by reference to the normative “language” of a culture at a given time. But that shifts. (So, for instance, the “elite” of Mormonism became less aware of Masonic symbolism over time and thus the symbolism changed whereas in the 19th century it was pretty significant – but should we consider it significant today?)

    The problem ultimately is that most symbols are arbitrary. Even more iconic symbols (say baptism as an icon for death and washing) are somewhat arbitrary. Also from a distance a lot of debates about symbolism are silly (say the sprinkling vs. immersion debate between Catholicism and Protestantism/Mormonism). Yet undeniably this is significant in defining religious communities.

    Comment by Clark — July 7, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

  2. Two examples of the problem which may be familiar to even random Latter-day Saints is with the Word of Wisdom, where parallel-deniers want to believe that Joseph couldn’t possibly have been aware of health risks associated with alcohol and where parallel-seekers delight in pointing to contemporary temperance movements; and similarities between Masonry and temple rites, where parallel-deniers want to maintain ignorance of Joseph’s Masonic background and resort to “echoes of an apostate temple rite” to explain similarities, while parallel-seekers smash that idea by showing that Masonry’s roots are nowhere near as ancient as generally claimed.

    I’m familiar enough with both of those issues to be completely comfortable with discussing contemporary influences on Joseph’s thought with no risk to his stature as a prophet. Yet I confess that my defend-Joseph’s-prophethood hairs stood on end when y’all began discussing Thomas Dick a post or two ago. I hope that was simply ignorance of both Dick and all of the issues you were discussing — I can’t explain my wariness otherwise.

    I wonder how long it will take for your looked-for day to come, when even someone like me who wants to shed that defensive reaction still succumbs to it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 7, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

  3. Yeah, I think many have that instinctual reaction. As I said though I think that the parallels with the ancient world really are pretty pronounced. I just think the Nibley approach that tends to emphasize purely the genealogical aspects isn’t always helpful. I guess to me I just see a lot of symbols arising naturally through the fact we live in pretty similar environments and have pretty similar psychological makeups. I don’t want to move too far in say a Jungian direction because I do think there is a lot of authentic restoration by Joseph. I think there really are far too many parallels with the ancient world for it to all be coincidental.

    I think the parallel to something like the Word of Wisdom is pretty interesting. Not just in the genealogical sense but in the sense that how things were understood was so different. In the 19th century the WoW just wasn’t this significant almost people-defining characteristic of Mormonism.

    Comment by Clark — July 7, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

  4. Clark, I do see symbols as culturally specific and there’s nothing wrong with that. When God says he speaks to men in their own language, I see symbols as a part of that. So if JS thought that the equinox was an ideal time to get answers to his prayers, I can’t imagine that God would have had a problem with that. Since I believe that the Moroni visitation is legitimate, I’m feel certain that He did not.

    Sorry that the discusion set off your warning bells, Ardis. I can understand the impulse. That’s why I want to state strongly what my intent is.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 7, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  5. I guess my point is that while there is a arbitrary or perhaps cultural component to symbols I think that the environment has a big component as well. For all the problems of the mythic criticism I think seeing a lot of common structures as psychological was perhaps wise.

    An obvious example. The symbol-myth of dying and resurrection figures makes a lot of sense when most of humanity lives in environments with seasons or at least seasonal changes (say the flooding of the Nile). When biology furnishes an example of such a cycle it shouldn’t be considered surprising that it will develop as a religious symbol in many disparate cultures.

    The final point is that I think we get so focused on the language of the symbols that we’re in effect doing historic linguistics all the while ignoring what it is the symbols symbolize.

    I think underneath all this is a common theological belief by many that there is a common theological language and that we should seek to learn this. There’s an obvious reason for this theological belief. A lot of our theology of the restoration is a theology of particular symbolic practices.

    Comment by Clark — July 7, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  6. No need to apologize, Steve. I just wonder how long it will take me (never mind the church as a whole!) to drop the defensiveness, when I’m conscious of the problem and in a context where I appreciate the intent. It’s purely a knee-jerk response and goes against both my head and my heart.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 7, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  7. Ardis, my suggestion would be for believing Latter-day Saints simply to relish the spiritual or aesthetic beauty and joy of the parallels, in the spirit of the thirteenth Article of Faith. Such an approach can only lead to increasingly mature – dare I say sophisticated – spirituality. Thomas Dick, for example, was a wonderful man, and his writings uplifted generations of people at all levels of society

    Let me offer just one example, however, of the earlier and broader background culture relative to Book of Abraham cosmology. I won’t bore readers with the source, since I’ve been citing it for thirty years now, and have yet to see it considered seriously in Mormon studies. Here is a tiny fragment of the work, published in 1785, written by a grandson of Jonathan Edwards (begun when he was a teenager) . . .

    As in the world of minds, with golden chain,
    Attractive Love extends her blissful reign,
    In one pure realm all sainted beings joins,
    GOD with his sons, his sons with GOD combines:
    The bond to all of pure perfection given,
    The life, the beauty, peace, and joy of heaven:
    So this stupendous frame, by him alone
    Who calls their names, supported, number’d known,
    These countless systems in one system join’d,
    Their size, their distance, with nice art design’d,
    A great, attracting power, on all impress’d,
    Connects, moves, governs, and forbids to rest.
    By this great power, impelling and impelled,
    All worlds move on through space’ unmeasur’d field.
    Around their planets moons refulgent stray;
    Around their suns those planets trace their way;
    Around your central heaven all systems roll;
    And one great circling motion rules the whole.
    O scene divine, on those bright towers to stand,
    And mark the wonders of th’ Eternal hand;
    To see thro’ space unnumber’d systems driven,
    Worlds round their suns, and suns around the heaven;
    To see one ordinance worlds and suns obey;
    Their order, peace, and fair, harmonious way;
    Their solemn silence: varying pomp divine;
    Their fair proportions, and their endless shine!
    Some nearer rolling in celestial light;
    Some distant glimmering tow’rd the bordering night;
    ‘Till far remov’d from thought the regions lie,
    Where angels never wing’d the lonely, verging sky . . .

    Comment by Rick Grunder — July 7, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

  8. Um, I repeat that the automatic (visceral, emotional) reaction is not in accord with my (intellectual, spiritual) state, not that I need tutoring to mature my spirituality. My question is, when someone (me) is conscious of the automatic response and and still finds it difficult to tone down, how long do you suppose it will take the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, who haven’t even recognized the issue, to overcome it?

    I’m pretty sure that I wish I hadn’t said anything … yes, I’m sure.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 7, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

  9. Ardis, when do I expect the vast majority of Latter-day Saints to overcome it? Probably never. That type of thinking is pretty engrained. This nuanced stuff is for the scholars, I think. Though we can no doubt work on people a little bit at a time.

    This reminds me of a conversation I’m having a lot these days. “So, Steve, what are you writing your dissertation on?” Long pause. I’m just not sure how to answer the question.

    Clark, I do not mean to discount the ancient stuff (just saying that one shouldn’t base one’s testimony on it). As I mentioned in Ben’s post, Neoplatonism is ancient. Many of the ideas in the poem that Rick posted (thanks Rick) are very ancient. The Chain of Being goes way way back. But, as Rick demonstrates, a lot of this stuff either never went away or reemerges.

    So the BoA cosmology can be both ancient and have 19th century parallels. I’ve noticed some interesting stuff about it that I may post about.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 7, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

  10. Ardis: I really appreciate your honesty, because I think it is representative of many–including myself. I think it hits at a harder issue: until we, as a Church, provide a better framework of how to interpret the contemporary similarities, and introduce this framework at a young age, then there will always have the knee-jerk reaction to things like Thomas Dick, the Word of Wisdom, and the Masonic rites. I think the main problem is the typical black/white dichotomy of the gospel/world that is so instilled in our culture—when we get something that challenges that dichotomy, our faith either retrenches or dissembles.

    Once a reasonable framework is introduced, though, things become easier, even if knee-jerk reactions remain. I know that with the students in my D&C classes, they are very willing to accept these similarities and historical convergences once they realize that it is ok to do so.

    One model that I think (hope?) should be adopted is what Terryl Givens has been pushing recently. His presentations have focused on the fact that Joseph Smith interpreted two distinct, yet similar, restorations: that of the priesthood, and that of the gospel. The former was to be brought through angelic ministers connecting modern-day saints to the ancient apostles. The latter was to be accomplished by gathering doctrinal fragments that have been scattered throughout the world, rather than having completely disappeared. If this framework were accepted, then it would seem just natural that Joseph Smith’s ideas mirrored those of his contemporaries.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 7, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  11. I’ll add that I think the best place that this framework needs to be introduced is through the CES. Sadly, that seems like the last place that would ever accept such a nuanced framework.

    Comment by Ben Park — July 7, 2011 @ 8:22 pm

  12. So the BoA cosmology can be both ancient and have 19th century parallels.

    Yes, this is how I look at it.

    Comment by Clark — July 7, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

  13. It’s the attitudes of Mormon scholars that I’m more concerned about (though no doubt Ben makes very good points; his students are clearly getting a very good education). The thing is that the debate over ancient and modern parallels is how the battle lines between apologists and critics have been drawn for a very long time. So claims to modern sources for JS’s thought looks like an attack.
    But I’m hoping that more and more the scholarship can get past that.

    Terryl’s model sound interesting, thanks Ben.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 8, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

  14. I think, Steve, that most apologists are actually quite a bit more open than that. What most of them (not all of course) oppose are reductive arguments to the 19th century. I think most are quite familiar with Masonry and probably are more familiar with a lot of neoplatonic parallels than you might suspect. Back when I had time to hang out with FAIR and answer questions on their website a surprising many had pretty sophisticated views on all this. More or less reducing to, “why can we praise Protestantism for bringing part of the gospel to Joseph but then condemn any other source of wisdom that may have done the same?” A variation of the “God works in mysterious ways” view.

    Also while I sometimes make sport of Nibley here I’d note that he was much more sophisticate in his views than often given credit for. (Nibley of all people knew many of the sources he appealed to were medieval and not ancient) And of course Nibley always was fairly neoPlatonic himself. (Probably a better example of it than anyone you could find in the 19th century)

    Comment by Clark — July 9, 2011 @ 12:11 am


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