Turning the World Upside Down: Baconian Logic, Scottish Common-Sense Realism, and Parley Pratt

By April 26, 2009

To begin his preface to A Discourse of the Baconian Philosophy, conservative Calvinist Samuel Tyler quoted approvingly Francis Bacon’s famous statement that had by then became the mantra for American religious discourse: “It ought to be eternally resolved and settled, that the understanding cannot be decide[d] otherwise, than by Induction, and by a legitimate form of it.”[1] Tyler would go on to claim that Baconian logic was “the most wonderful philosophical revolution…of any within the whole history of the world.”[2] This has not been ignored by recent religious historians. Theodore Dwight Bozeman wrote that Baconian philosophy became the primary mode of theological argument in antebellum America.[3] E. Brooks Holifield’s magisterial work on American theology noted that “never had the issue of rationality assumed as much importance as it did in the early decades of the nineteenth century,” which saw rise to what he titled “evidential Christianity” and an increased promotion of “the methods of Baconian science.”[4]

American religious thinkers were not reading straight from Bacon, however, but Baconian logic came to them through the emerging–and highly influential–Scottish Common Sense Realism. It was through these Scottish philosophers that America was introduced to Bacon, and it was through Scottish philosophy that they interpreted him. William Goetzmann’s recent history of American nineteenth century thought argued that Scottish philosophy served as “the broadest philosophical foundation for the new nation,” most importantly because it “good full advantage of the new sciences of the day, yet without abandoning a number of traditional values they greatly esteemed.”[5] The Scots mirrored the larger European enlightenment, yet were conservative enough to see pitfalls in that intellectual shift and feared the deistic and atheistic conclusions they felt it led to. Scottish philosophers and theologians thought that Christianity–and more importantly, revelation–could still go hand in hand with new scientific and theological advances. As Goetzmann put it, starting in the 1730s, “Common Sense Realism…became the ‘official’ American philosophy and the fountain head of theology for nearly 150 years.”[6] While this philosophy was officially introduced into America by elites–most notably the Scottish Reverend John Witherspoon who was appointed president of Princeton in 1768–it had been influencing preachers like Jonathan Edwards during the Great Awakening and became a common feature for the “populist” ministers in the first few decades of the nineteenth century.[7]

No early Mormon writer exhibited this approach more than Parley P. Pratt, and his Nauvoo-era pamphlets are as revealing as they are entertaining (see here for an example). In his pamphlet “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” for instance, he claimed he could prove through “mathmatical demonstration that it is not in the power of any being to originate matter”[8]–thereby adopting the assumption that one can empirically prove supernatural claims.[9] Especially when dealing with the scriptures, one can find what Goetzmann described as “practical and universal but ‘Common Sensical’ principles”[10]: “the Scriptures should be taught, understood, and practiced in their most plain, simple, easy, and literal sense, according to the common laws and usage of the language in which they stand–according to the legitimate meaning of the words and sentences precisely the same as if found in any other book.”[11] Following the Baconian desire to do away with all “mysteries” and the reliance on trained clergy, Pratt wrote a satyrical piece in England, where he pretended to be a “sectarian minister” writing to fellow religionists, that revealed what he thought was the contemporary religious position:

[The Mormons] know no better than to tell the people to believe the Bible as it reads, and to no longer give heed to the spiritualizings of our learned priests. Even setting aside and despising that glorious name on the forehead of our goddess,–that word “MYSTERY” which stands most conspicuous among the great and venerable names which encircle her on every hand. Thus having burst the veil of mystery, and taking the scriptures as if common sense was to be exercised, they read the commandment which says “Be not yet called Rabbi, for one is your Master, and all ye are brethren.” This, in their ignorance, leads them to suppose that all the other names, titles, and dignities which are written on the goddess are to be equally despised and avoided such for insistance as “Docor of Divinity,” Very Rev.,” His Grace,” His Holiness,” Right Rev. Father in God,” Lord Bishop,” &c. [12]

There are two central theological claims that Pratt uses Common Sense to prove, which I will now briefly outline: the first being direct revelation, the second being the eternal duration of matter.

In “Plain Facts,” Pratt took on the accusation of a minister that all doctrinal truth is to be found within the Bible, calling such a position as “atheism in a new dress.”[13] Rather, Pratt argued that if reason and intellect were to seriously engage the scriptures,  it would show that “the Bible holds forth the doctrine of CONTINUAL and UNIVERSAL REVELATION…Do away the principle of direct Revelation then, and we do away the religion of the Bible, and have nothing left but atheism.”[14] In his essay “The Fountain of Knowledge,” written the same year, Pratt claimed that “it is therefore a self-evident fact, that sacred books are the productions of revealed knowledge, and revealed knowledge is not originally produced from books.”[15] Elsewhere he wrote that it is the combination of “revelation and reason, like the sun of the morning rising in its strength, [that] dispel the mists of darkness which surround him.”[16] Similarly, in the classic “Joe Smith and the Devil: A Dialogue”–perhaps the best example of Common-Sense/Baconian logic and deserving of its own post–Pratt has his fictional devil character explain that “I am decidedly in favor of all creeds, systems, and forms of Christianity…so long as they leave out that abominable doctrine which caused me so much trouble in former times, and which, after slumbering for ages, you have again revived; I mean the doctrine of direct communion with God, by new revelation.” With this knowledge, the fictional Joseph Smith explained, the doctrine of direct revelation could “lift the veil from your fooleries on one side, and…present plain and reasonable truth on the other, and the eyes of the people could at once distinguish the difference so clearly that, except they chose darkness rather than light, they would leave your ranks and come over to the truth.”[17] In Pratt’s theology, continued revelation was the Common Sense conclusion from the reading of the Bible.

Perhaps borrowing from the philosophical defence of Thomas Dick, Parley Pratt argued for the eternal duration of matter as the only reasonable conclusion when approached rationally. The theologies that revolved around dualism, he wrote, “are errors of the grosest kind–mere relics of mysticism and superstition, rivited upon the mind by ignorance and tradition.” To him, “all persons except materialists must be infidels, so far at least as belief in the scriptures is concerned.” The eternal duration of matter, he reasoned, is “not only proven from scripture, reason and philosophy, but [is] also demonstrated or confirmed by daily experience”–again demonstrating the balance of reason and experience purported by Baconian logic.[18] The reason the world doesn’t accepted it, he concluded, is that they “suppose that such a system is too good to be true.”[19] When he writes about the “two important facts connected with material existence”–that is, matter cannot be created out or nother or annihilated–he describes them as “self evident to every reflecting mind.” The idea that “God made all things out of ‘nothing‘” is not only unscriptural, he argued, but it “originated in the mysticisms of modern times, and been kept alive by ignorance and folly.” Further, to say that “the earth was without form and void” is “a contradicion to itself, as well as to common sence.” To make something out of nothing, he concludes, “is the climax of absurdity.”[20]

This topic can be expanded and fleshed out much more–every one of Pratt’s writings is saturated with this philosophic approach–but that should do for now. What has stood out to you in early Mormonism’s use of Scottish Common Sense Realism or Baconian logic?


[1] Samuel Tyler, A Discourse of the Baconian Philosophy (New York: Baker and Scribner, 1850), 5.

[2] Tyler, Baconian Philosophy, 46.

[3] Timothy Dwight Bozeman, Protestants in an Age of Science: The Baconian Ideal and Antebellum American Religious Thought (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 3.

[4] E. Brooks Holifield, Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003), 175.

[5] William H. Goetzmann, Beyond the Revolution: A History of American Thought from Paine to Pragmatism (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 53.

[6] Goetzmann, Beyond the Revolution, 57.

[7] Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1990), 182-183.

[8] Parley P. Pratt, “The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter,” in The Millennium, and Other Poems: To Which is Annexed, A Treatise on the Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter (New York: Printed by W. Molineux, 1840), 111.

[9] Holifield wrote that a major tenet of American Baconianism was “the conviction that theology should be a science grounded in the same inductive methods that marked the other sciences.” Holifield, Theology in America, 174.

[10] Goetzmann, Beyond the Revolution, 54.

[11] Parley P. Pratt and Elias Higbee, “An Address by Judge Higbee and Parley P. Pratt, Ministers of the Gospel, of the Church of Jesus Christ of ‘Latter-Day Saints,’ to the Citizens of Washington and to the Public in General,” Times and Seasons 1 (March 1840): 6870.

[12] Parley P. Pratt, An Epistle of Demetrius, Junior, the Silversmith, To the workman of like occupation, and all others whom it may concern,–Greeting: SHowing the Best Way to Preserve Our Craft, and to Put Down the Latter Day Saints (Manchester: Wm. Shackleton and Sons, Printers [1841]), found here. It is from this pamphlet that this post gets its title: “Ye are well aware of those men who turn the world upside down having come up hither also; vis: the ‘Latter Day Saints,’ and that they teach customs which are not lawful for us to receive, being sectarians.”

[13] Parley P. Pratt, Plain Facts, Showing the Falsehood and Folly of the Rev. C. S. Bush, (a Church Minister of the Parish of Peover,) Being a Reply to His Tract Against the Latter-day Saints (Manchester: W. R. Thomas, Printer [1840]), in The Essential Parley P. Pratt, 76.

[14] Pratt, Plain Facts, 75. The Pratt brothers’ accusation of “atheism” to contemporary theologeans is one of the most fascinating points of their rhetoric.

[15] Parley P. Pratt, “The Fountain of Knowledge,” 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), 15.

[16] Parley P. Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,” in An Appeal, 23.

[17] Parley P. Pratt, “Joe Smith and the Devil: A Dialogue,” New York Herald (25 August 1844): 1.

[18] Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,” 21.

[19] Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,” 22.

[20] Pratt, “Immortality and Eternal Life of the Material Body,” 23-25.

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


  1. One of my favorite examples is Book of Abraham cosmology, reflecting exuberant ideas in Joseph Smith’s day of a completely orderly, divinely-ordained and hierarchical universe in which no space or matter is wasted, in which every star, planet and moon may likely be inhabited by children of God.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — April 27, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

  2. This is fascinating context for material I grew up reading. It really is in everything Parley wrote.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — April 27, 2009 @ 10:46 pm

  3. If any are interested, here’s a segment from Orson Pratt’s biography on his philosophical influences. While there are some differences between the brothers they shared a lot of ideas.

    I think the question of how each of Orson Pratt’s “monads” knows comes out of Reid’s direct realism. Of course that’s amazingly problematic and the issue of communication is one of the biggest flaws in Pratt’s work. I’ve not seen any direct evidence of Pratt reading either the Stoics or Leibniz but elements of both are pretty apparent in his ontology – although perhaps purely coincidentally.

    Regarding Parley’s “mathematical demonstration” it presupposes that creation ex nihlo is false “because this would contradict the law of truth.” Needless to say that’s not much of an argument. His brother had an annoying tendency to make these sorts of circular arguments as well.

    Regarding the application of Pratt’s common-sensism. It’s an interesting question and is probably why both brothers tended towards circularity. What was common sense to them (i.e. their preconceptions) they took for granted. The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the common sense of everyone else. (Although to the degree it lined up with folk beliefs it worked)

    The big problem with common-sense exegesis of scripture is that clearly Joseph didn’t always follow it. (Or rather he followed it in an unique way in which one of the common sense terms is given some new reference)

    Comment by Clark — April 27, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  4. […] Parley Pratt and Scottish Common Sensism. […]

    Pingback by Parley Pratt : Mormon Metaphysics — April 27, 2009 @ 11:03 pm


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