Stephen Fleming is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He's married with four kids. He has worked on the history of Mormonism in the Philadelphia area and has published a few articles and hopes to publish a book on the topic. He is now focussing on the history of Christianity and is writing looking at the influence of Neoplatonism on early Mormonism. stephenjfleming at yahoo dot com
I add my praise for the church’s essays on gospel topics, including the essays on polygamy. However, I disagree with two points that the essay on Joseph Smith’s polygamy made: that polygamy was revealed to Joseph Smith during his translation of the Old Testament and that Smith engaged in eternity only sealings. Such points have been asserted by a number of scholars so my critique isn’t so much one of the essay but of these two commonly asserted claims. (more…)
In my dissertation, I argue that the following statement in an 1835 letter from Oliver Cowdery to William Phelps was an important step in the development of the Mormons’ theology related to baptisms for the dead:
Do our fathers, who have waded through affliction and adversity, who have been cast out from the society of this world, whose tears have, times without number, watered their furrowed face, while mourning over the corruption of their fellowmen, an inheritance in those mansions? If so, can they without us be made perfect? Will their joy be full till we rest with them? And is their efficacy and virtue sufficient, in the blood of a Savior, who groaned upon Calvary’s summit, to expiate our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness?
Yet, I wondered who exactly Cowdery meant by “our fathers, who have waded through affliction and adversity,” etc. Early Mormons expressed a lot of concern for ancestors who died before Mormonism (a big reason for the embrace of baptisms for the dead), but Cowdery seemed to have particular people in mind. Val Rust’s Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and Their Colonial Ancestors (2004) argues that the early Mormon descended disproportionately from New England radicals who were often cast out and persecuted by other New Englanders but I was curious to what degree the early Mormons were aware of their radical ancestors and of their possible connection to them. (more…)
I’m no New Testament scholar. At all. But I had to look a few things up for my dissertation in my attempt to trace ideas in Joseph Smith’s teachings and revelations. In particular, Joseph Smith made some interesting statements about Jesus that were very much at odds with Protestantism. A handful of ideas in particular stood out and overlapped: that Jesus became God during His life, either through his baptism or through an additional temple rite and that Jesus did so even though he was a pre-existent deity. And I found it interesting that Morton Smith made all these same claims. (more…)
With the new polygamy essays out, I’ve heard and seen a number of comments along the lines of “we can maybe wrap our brains around this, but how in the world are we supposed to explain this to our children?” Good question. I, like probably a lot of bloggernacle folks, have tried to make it a point to go over various often undressed points of early Mormon history my my kids (like the seer stone) but I had neglected polygamy. This neglect was brought to my attention one summer after my then twelve-year-old son had returned from a trip to California to spend a week with his non-Mormon friends. He informed us that they had been razzing him about polygamy, something he knew nothing about. My wife and I started into a basic explanation of how we used to practice this but no more when he cut us off by asking, “But it was wrong, right?” (more…)
The idea of esoteric truth, or higher truths only taught to the spiritually or ritually prepared, can be found in many traditions. It has a long history in Christianity and Jesus himself declared to his apostles, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand” (Luke 8:10). Paul in particular referred to higher teachings: in 1 Corinthians 2 he declared, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified … Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory … But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” And in the next chapter Paul declared, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.” (more…)
I first read about JS’s polygamy in sixth grade when I read the World Book Encyclopedia entry on JS, which said he had like 30 wives. That seemed novel to me, though since I had heard about the church practicing polygamy I had some context. What was even more novel, I remember, was that that entry was the first time I had ever read anything on JS that wasn’t devotional. The article wasn’t particularly negative as I recall, but I remember the distinct realization that there was another way of looking at the church’s history than what I was taught in church. And I wasn’t really sure what to make of that. And I didn’t discuss it with my parents or anybody else since it seemed a little awkward and at that age I sort of wanted to avoid awkward discussions with my parents. But it left the distinct impression that there may be some unsettling issues in church history, that there were a number of viewpoints on those issues, and that I didn’t have all the answers. As I look back, I actually think that realization served me well. (more…)
Smith’s own lack of education may be an objection to the claim that Christian Platonism influenced him. “Being in indigent circumstances [we] were obliged to labour hard,” Smith said of his childhood. “Therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education[.] Suffice it to Say I was mearly instructed in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements.” His mother, Lucy, said Smith read less that her other children and his wife Emma said at the time he dictated the Book of Mormon, he “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter.” Smith’s writing skills were limited and he most often dictated what he wanted to communicate. But Smith was not cut off from learning and literacy in his day. His mother said he read less than her other children, not that he didn’t read at all, and both his mother’s and his wife’s statements were made in context of defending the validity of the Book of Mormon against the claim the Smith was the author. Lucy and Emma may have been exaggerating Smith’s ignorance to bolster that claim. Though he grew up in a small, recently settled town, print was available to him: newspapers, bookstores, and libraries. Smith also made attempts to engage intellectually with his peers by attending religious meetings and a local debating society. Furthermore, Smith continually worked at his education; Smith even attended school when he was 20 to 21. A major shift occurred when Smith founded his church. Smith now had more free time with which to read and many of his followers had better educations than he did; he even founded a study group, the school of the prophets. In an important sermon toward the end of his life, Smith declared after giving an exegesis of Genesis 1:1 along Christian-Platonic lines, “if you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God.” (more…)
Yet arguing for the influence of these various thinkers on Smith raises the issue that Smith never once mentioned any of their writings. Visionaries often did not cite their sources, however: Jacob Boehme, Jane Lead, Emmanuel Swedenborg, and William Blake said nothing about what they were reading other than the Bible. This has caused problems for scholars who have tried to contextualize these visionaries. Swedenborg’s followers have tended to view claims of influence as delegitimizing and have argued against Swedenborg being influenced by other thinkers (similar to Mormon scholars’ concerns), but as Brian Gibbons argues, “The tendency of Swedenborg’s hagiographers to see his work as created ex nihilo is clearly untenable.” Scholars have vigorously debated what William Blake’s influences might have been with Harold Bloom declaring that Blake “was not an antiquarian, a mystic, an occultist or theosophist, and not much of a scholar of any writings beyond the Bible and other poetry insofar as it resembled the Bible,” while numerous other scholars have argued that Blake was influenced by esoteric ideas, particularly Neoplatonism. (more…)
Yet Mormonism was not simply a product of Joseph Smith digging through texts that described early Christianity and Judaism (though he likely made use of such texts). Smith’s earliest contact with Christian-Platonic ideas came through the Smith family’s religiosity. A series of dreams that Smith’s father had continually described the feeling that something fundamental was missing from the established churches; Smith’s notion that that the established churches and even the Bible were missing truth likely came from his father. As I argue in Chapters Two and Three, Smith’s father’s dreams align with visions described in John Dee’s spirit diary (1659). Dee and Smith had a number of additional similarities: both used a seer stone, wrote a book that was dictated by a person looking in a seer stone, made Enoch central to their theology, and had similar marital practices. Dee was heavily influenced by Christian Platonism (see below) and the similarities between Dee and Smith suggest that Smith felt that early modern visionaries could also have parts of the missing truth. Smith’s grandfather was a Universalist and his father joined them at one point; Origen’s writings inspired the rise of Universalism in early modern Europe. In addition, the Smiths engaged in a number of traditions related to the cunning-folk, or those who either believed that they had special powers or believed that such could be derived from “magic” books called grimoires. Grimoires were full of Neoplatonism (Platonic philosophy inspired by Ammonius), particularly theurgy. Furthermore, evidence suggests that Smith’s father had some association with a movement called the New Israelites, who, among other things, believed that they really were Israelites, a claim that the Mormons also made. These connections suggest that interest in Jews was part of the Smith family religion, an interest that may have led Smith to read Allen’s Modern Judaism. (more…)
Just as Allen had condemned Kabbalah as Platonic, Mosheim and the encyclopedias also condemned Ammonius and Origen. These sources went so far as to claim that these thinkers had corrupted Christianity. Mosheim began the passage by declaring, “A new sect of philosophers arose of a sudden, spread with amazing rapidity throughout the greatest part of the Roman empire … and was extremely detrimental to the cause of Christianity.” Mosheim then asserted, “This new species of philosophy imprudently adopted by Origen and many other Christians, was extremely prejudicial to the cause of the gospel, and to the beautiful simplicity of its celestial doctrines.” Ultimately, said Mosheim, this philosophy led to “an unseemly mixture of platonism and Christianity.” Those who reprinted this passage reprinted these denunciations and Alexander Campbell in his introduction to Mosheim’s passage declared, “Mosheim … satisfactorily shows, that the first ‘Theological Seminary’ established at Alexandria in Egypt, in the second century, was the grave of primitive Christianity.” Such, said Campbell, “was the fountain, the streams whereof polluted the great mass of Christian professors, and completed the establishment of a paganized Christianity, in the room of the religion of the New Testament.” Mosheim and Campbell were repeating the popular notion that Platonism had corrupted primitive Christianity, a notion that Protestants had developed to attack both Catholics and Christian Platonists in their day (Chapters One and Three). (more…)
The above quotes from Mosheim were descriptions of the same movement: Alexandrian philosophy of the first centuries C.E. In addition to attempting to pull together all truth and entering the presence of God (similar to Smith’s goals), Mosheim said that Ammonius Saccas taught that Jesus’s “sole view, in descending upon earth, was … to remove the errors that had crept into the religions of all nations but not to abolish the ancient theology from whence they were derived.” Mosheim went on to say that Jesus’s “only intention was to purify the ancient religion, and that his followers had manifestly corrupted the doctrine of their divine master.” Mosheim suggested that Ammonius believed that Jesus’s followers had corrupted Christianity by removing truths that aligned with the “ancient theology.” Just like the Book of Mormon said, according to Mosheim, Ammonius believed that truth had been removed, and as Mosheim said that Ammonius believed that the ancient theology was Platonic, the truth removed by Jesus’s followers would align with the Platonic ideas found in the Book of Mormon and Allen’s Modern Judaism. Thus, just like Ammonius, Smith sought to restore this lost truth: Mosheim called Ammonius’s followers the “latter platonics” similar to Smith’s Latter-day Saints. (more…)
Christian Platonism is simply the thought and practices of Christians who drew on Plato either deliberately or who drew upon the long tradition of those who had done so. Christian Platonists believed in philosophia perennis, the perennial philosophy of God’s wisdom that was found in many sources including Plato, that often manifested itself as prisca theologia or ancient truth that originated with the patriarchs and had spread through many civilizations. They viewed Jesus as the ultimate locus of Wisdom but believed that Christ’s truth had many precursors and that Jesus had manifested himself many generations prior to his coming. Plato and others could be a reservoir of the Word in the same way the Old Testament was. Christian Platonism had a number of tenets including pre-existence of the soul, deification, utopianism, marriage in heaven, universal or near-universal salvation, post-mortal progression, and marital experimentation. Christian Platonists tended to believe in an animated universe with powers of an unseen world and in the superiority of that unseen world which was usually immaterial. There were many varieties of Christian Platonism, and, as there was no Christian-Platonist church, the varieties differed from person to person. Christian Platonists could embrace some of these tenets while seeing others as heretical or impractical. Early Mormonism embraced all of these tenets except for the notion of spirit over matter, but even the importance of matter gained ascendency in a number of Platonic traditions including Kabbalah. (more…)
Now that I have my dissertation filed, I thought I’d post some parts of the introduction. Here’s the beginning.
“Mormonism is truth, the First Fundamental principal of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.” Joseph Smith, letter to Isaac Galland, March 22, 1839.
“Those real sages … who were sick of those arrogant and contentious sects, which required an invariable attachment to their particular systems. And, indeed, nothing could have a more engaging aspect than a set of men, who, abandoning all cavil and all prejudices in favour of any party, professed searching after the truth alone, were ready to adopt, from all the different systems and sects such tenets as they thought agreeable to it.” Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, discussing Alexandrian Platonism in the first centuries C.E. and its influence on Alexandrian Christianity, Ecclesiastical History, 1:138.
“[If the] Presbyterians [have] any truth, embrace that. Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world, [and] come out a pure Mormon.” Joseph Smith, sermon, July 23, 1843.
“These sages were of opinion that true philosophy, the greatest and most salutary gift of God to mortals was scattered in various portions through all the different sects; and it was, consequently, the duty of every wise man, and more especially of every Christian doctor to gather it from the several corners where it lay dispersed.” Mosheim discussing early Alexandrian Christians including Clement of Alexandria, Ecclesiastical History, 1:139.
“I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to though all of them have some thruth [sic]. but I want to come up into the presence of God & learn all things but the creeds set up stakes, & say hitherto shalt thou come, & no further.—which I cannot subscribe to.” Joseph Smith, sermon, October 15, 1843.
“They were to raise above all terrestrial things, by the towering efforts of holy contemplation, those souls whose origin was celestial and divine … that thus, in this life, they might enjoy communion with the Supreme Being, and ascend after death, active and unencumbered, to the universal Parent, to live in his presence for ever.” Mosheim, discussing Alexandrian Christian Platonist Ammonius Saccus and his Neoplatonic followers, Ecclesiastical History, 1:142.
Comparing statements from Joseph Smith to the views of early Christian Platonists in Alexandria, particularly one named Ammonius Saccas (c. 175-250), as discussed in Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History, a popular book that Smith likely owned, highlights important themes in this dissertation. Smith, like the early Christian Platonists described by Mosheim, said that he sought the truth from eclectic sources and also stated his motivation for such a quest: to come into the presence of God. (more…)
In 1843, Joseph Smith taught, “If a man gets the fulness of God, he has to get [it] in the same way that Jesus Christ obtain[ed] it & that was by keeping all the ordinances of the house of the Lord.” Here Smith suggested that Jesus had undergone the same rites that would be performed in the Nauvoo Temple. Again, Morton Smith and others have argued that Jesus did perform some kind of higher rite and that such continued to be performed, particularly in late second-century Alexandria. Such a rite likely had elements in common with rites described in Judeo-Christian apocalypses, mysteries (particularly Eleusis), and Platonism, and pieces of the rite may have had echoes in parts of the Catholic liturgy (particularly baptism) and theurgy. So if Joseph Smith attempted to piece together this lost rite based on all these elements (apocalypses, mysteries, Plato, Catholic rites, and theurgy), he would have been on the right track.
 June 11, 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 212.
 A forthcoming dissertation claims that the endowment had these elements.
Here I continue this series that discusses the possibility of a higher rite of initiation in early Christianity that may have had similarities to the apocalypses, the mysteries, and perhaps some Plato. Clement of Alexandria gave a number of hints in these directions. Alexandria also gave rise to Neoplatonism and Christian Platonists and Neoplatonists were often in the same circles. For instance, Plotinus, considered the founder of Neoplatonism, had the same tutor as Origen, a man named Ammonius Saccas. Furthermore, the Neoplatonists would begin to practice their own secret deifying rite: theurgy. Dominic O’Meara defines theurgy as “a process for making man god.” (more…)
Ben S.’s post at Times and Seasons about expanding the missionary library and the subsequent discussion made me wonder what other missions were like in terms of what kinds of texts were available. I ask because there wasn’t a whole lot available in my mission beyond the mission library. The Work and the Glory was somewhat popular but even that was eventually discouraged by the mission president. I heard about Nibley but I wasn’t aware of any missionaries reading him. Some Skousen made the rounds (tapes and books). Extra reading material seemed to consist of Mormon Doctrine and Lectures on Faith and a few pamphlets. Those who wanted to do extra study would study that stuff. To make it through Talmage was considered a bit of a feat. Truman Madsen’s Joseph Smith lectures didn’t even circulate on my mission.
I did like to study but focussed on the scripture and Talmage. I wasn’t too impressed with the Skousen that I got ahold of and I developed the opinion that a lot of the “extra” stuff was problematic (I viewed McConkie in the same light). My favorite area in terms of reading was my last. The missionaries had converted a Jehovah’s Witness and he gave them his library of stuff, about 10 books. I really liked learning about other religions, so that was fun. Also in that area, we tracked into a Muslim who gave us a book explaining Islam. I really liked that. Other than some books my folks sent me for refuting anti-Mormon augments, not much else.
So what did you read on your mission and what was the culture like for passing around texts? What kinds of texts circulated? If you read a lot of extra stuff, how did you get a hold of it?
My apologies to my blogger mates for a post that has nothing to do with Mormon history, but all the talk about missionaries coming home for psychological stuff and mission stories sort of made me want to share this.
My depression problem kicked in at the beginning of my junior year of high school. I first started noticing it at church (though I didn’t think of it as depression at the time). I would get very sad and I didn’t know why. So as I would walk home from church I would try to figure out why I was sad and examine my life to see what was wrong with it. Doing so I figured that various trivial things were really very important which made me more and more sad. Over the months I went into a downward spiral. After school every day I would hide in the bathroom and cry for about an hour (I tried my best to keep all this hidden, boys crying? shameful!). It got worse and worse and I became more and more fixated on suicide. (more…)
The secret ritual that Jesus used to initiate his followers, argues Morton Smith, may have been “limited to a few, shut away from the rest by special requirements, and at last quietly forgotten.” Both Morton Smith and Scott Brown argue that Clement of Alexandria may have taken Secret Mark with him when he fled Alexandria during the Severus persecution of 200 CE. Origen who was a teenager at the time of the persecution and who may have been Clement’s pupil, says nothing of Secret Mark and had a very different notion of the secret tradition than did Clement. For Origen, the secret teachings were found hidden in the scriptures—one just had to know how to find them—rather then being a secret initiation. Since Origen was a teenager when Clement left, he likely would have been too young to be initiated before Clement left, and if Clement took the letter with him, perhaps the higher initiation was no longer performed in Alexandria after Clement left. (more…)
The apostles, said Origen “saw better than Plato … what things were to be committed to writing, and how this was to be done, and what was by no means to be written to the multitude, and what was to be expressed in words, and what was not to be so conveyed.” With this statement, Origen seemed to suggest that Christ’s secret teachings had things in common with Platonism. Platonism was linked to both the apocalypses and the mysteries. Martha Himmelfarb describes 2 Enoch’s creation description as “a blend of biblical creation and popular Platonism.” Of the apocalypses, John Turner says, “One can scarcely think of a more apt Jewish equivalent to Plato’s description of the intense light of the ultimate Goodness and Beauty awaiting anyone who would risk the ascent out of the cave of illusion.” (more…)
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The secret tradition may have been connected to Judeo-Christian apocalypses and the rites described in those texts, but Clement’s Letter to Theodore made numerous allusions to Greek mystery rites, the Eleusinian mysteries in particular. There were a number of Greek mystery cults that allowed individual to be initiated in the hopes of attaining a better afterlife, the most famous of which was at Eleusis a few miles from Athens. In the fall, Greeks could perform rites at Eleusis that, according to Cicero, taught people “how to live in joy, and how to die with better hopes.” (more…)