Steve Fleming

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

The Secret Tradition, Part 6: The Greek Mysteries

By: Steve Fleming - July 25, 2014

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.”[1] (more…)

The Secret Tradition, Part 5: Judeo-Christian Apocalypses

By: Steve Fleming - July 16, 2014

Morton Smith argued that secret Mark suggested an initiation ritual that was an ascent to heaven and that Jesus had undergone the same process.  Knowing exactly what secret things Jesus might have done is highly speculative, but there is evidence for some kind of secret teaching or ritual in early Christianity. Smith argued that the context for the ascent were the Enochian apocalypses particularly 1 and 2 Enoch in which Enoch ascends to heaven and in 2 Enoch he becomes an angel.[1]  1 and 2 Enoch also described Enoch undergoing a heavenly temple liturgy.  Says 2 Enoch,

And the Lord said to Michael: Go and take Enoch from out of his earthly garments, and anoint him with my sweet ointment, and put him into the garments of My glory. And Michael did thus, as the Lord told him. He anointed me, and dressed me, and the appearance of that ointment is more than the great light, and his ointment is like sweet dew, and its smell mild, shining like the sun’s ray, and I looked at myself, and I was like one of his glorious ones.

After this transformation, God then tells Enoch, “Hear, Enoch, and take in these my words, for not to My angels have I told my secret, and I have not told them their rise, nor my endless realm, nor have they understood my creating, which I tell you today.” God then proceeds to show Enoch the creation.[2]


The Secret Tradition, Part 4: Evidence of a Ritual

By: Steve Fleming - July 09, 2014

Both Clement’s language in his letter to Theodore and the text of secret Mark that he cites suggest some kind of ritual. Secret Mark’s reference to waiting six days, coming at night, being naked under a linen cloth, and being taught “the mystery of the Kingdom of God” all suggests a ritual initiation. Clement’s language also suggests a ritual including statement that secret Mark “would, as a mystagogue, lead the hearers into the innermost sanctuary of that truth hidden by seven veils.” A mystagogue was a person who oversaw Greek mystery rites, a point I’ll discuss in a later post. Clement’s declaration that secret Mark is “most carefully guarded” in Alexandria “being read only to those who are being initiated into the great mysteries,” is a pretty explicit reference to ritual language. Clement’s statement about how Mark “did not divulge the things not to be uttered, nor did he write down the hierophantic teaching of the Lord” also has ritual language: a hierophant was like a mystagogue.

Morton Smith, who found the document and wrote the first book about it, argued that secret Mark suggested that Jesus “developed his spiritual gift into a technique by which he was able to ascend to the heavens and also to give others the same experience and similar spiritual powers.” (more…)

The Secret Tradition, Part 3: The Debate over the Validity of Clement’s Letter to Theodore

By: Steve Fleming - July 02, 2014

As mentioned in my previous post, Clement’s letter to Theodore has been very controversial and its authenticity has been heavily debated.  Again, I’m not an expert on the topic, but the controversy seems to be over a few particular issues.  The claim that Mark wrote “a more spiritual gospel,” or that Mark had additional information that he intentionally left out is an anathema to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, or the idea that the biblical canon is the complete and total word of God.  Mark’s secret gospel also suggested that Jesus had esoteric teachings, or teachings that were kept hidden from regular believers and reserved for the more spiritually advanced, another idea that Protestants don’t like.  The reference to the young man coming to Jesus by night who was naked underneath a linen cloth suggests some kind of secret ritual (a claim that Morton Smith, the document’s finder, stressed; see my next post); esoteric rituals are another concept that Protestants reject.  As Scott Brown argues, “Bear in mind that when scholars form opinions on non-canonical gospels they rarely stray from their religious commitments.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in the assessments of longer Mark.”[1]  Finally, Smith made rather wild claims about what the secret ritual might have been like (see my next post), which made the document even more controversial.

What follows is essentially a review of Scott G. Brown, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery(more…)

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and Salvation Through Love

By: Steve Fleming - June 30, 2014

I’m no expert on fairy tales but such stories as purveyors of folk and esoteric ideas interest me.  So I found The Little Mermaid fascinating when I finally read the original a few years ago and was even more interested as I studied Western esotericism for context for my dissertation.  All I know about Andersen comes from Wikipedia, but studying esotericism gave some interesting additional context, which relates to the Mormon doctrine of the importance of eternal marriage.

I hear lots of scorn cast at Disney’s version these days and Andersen’s original is obviously a very different story.  The major difference being the little mermaid’s motivation for becoming human and trying to get the prince to love her.

“If men are not so unlucky to drown,” asked the little mermaid, “then do they live forever?  Don’t they die as we do, down here in the sea?”

“Yes they do,” answered her grandmother.  “Men must also die and their life span is shorter than ours.  We can live until we are three hundred years old; but when we die, we become the foam on the ocean….  We do not have immortal souls.  When we die, we shall never rise again….  But men have have souls that live eternally, even after their bodies have become dust.  They rise high up into the clear sky where the stars are.  As we rise up through the water to look at the world  of man, they rise up to the unknown, the beautiful world, that we shall never see.”

“Why do I not have an immortal soul!” sighed the little mermaid unhappily.  “I would give all my three hundred yeas of life for only one day as a human being if, afterward, I should be allowed to live in the heavenly world….  Can’t I do anything to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old merwoman.  “Only if a man should fall so much in love with you that you were dearer to him than his mother and father; and he cared so much for you that all his thoughts were of love for you; and he let a priest take his right hand and put it in yours, while he promised to be eternally true to you, then his soul would flow into your body an you would be able to partake of human happiness.”


The Secret Tradition, Part 2: Clement of Alexandria’s Letter to Theodore

By: Steve Fleming - June 25, 2014

For part 2, I simply post Clement of Alexandria’s (c 150-215) letter to one Theodore. What may be the most controversial document of all time is very interesting and central to this discussion. I will be referring back to this letter a lot in this series, so I wanted to post it in its entirety. Here is Morton Smith’s translation.

From the letters of the most holy Clement, the author of the Stromateis. To Theodore.

You did well in silencing the unspeakable teachings of the Carpocrations. For these are the “wandering stars” referred to in the prophecy, who wander from the narrow road of the commandments into a boundless abyss of the carnal and bodily sins. For, priding themselves in knowledge, as they say, “of the deep things of Satan”, they do not know that they are casting themselves away into “the nether world of the darkness” of falsity, and boasting that they are free, they have become slaves of servile desires. Such men are to be opposed in all ways and altogether. For, even if they should say something true, one who loves the truth should not, even so, agree with them. For not all true things are the truth, nor should that truth which merely seems true according to human opinions be preferred to the true truth, that according to the faith. (more…)

The Secret Tradition, Part 1: Introduction

By: Steve Fleming - June 19, 2014

My dissertation talks a lot about early Alexandrian Christianity, both as an important influence on Christian Platonism and as an issue that was debated in Joseph Smith’s day (was it good or bad?)  An intriguing aspect of Alexandrian Christianity was the secret tradition or secret discipline.  Here’s a passage from my dissertation.

Many fathers did talk about a secret tradition, most notably Clement of Alexandria.  Eusebius quoted from Clement’s Hyptotyposes: “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.”[1]  Clement frequently used the language of the mysteries when speaking of the higher truth.  “The mysteries are not exhibited incontinently to all and sundry,” explained Clement, “but only after certain purifications and previous instructions.”  Clement alluded to practicing “greater” and “lesser” mysteries, similar to Eleusis. (more…)

Next Book Idea: A History of Women’s Knowledge

By: Steve Fleming - June 18, 2014

Okay, this doesn’t really have anything to do with Mormonism, but I wanted to ride the coattails of women’s history that the blog has been doing to try to get some feedback for my next project idea.  Let me know if this has already been done.

A quote from Grevase of Tilbury (an eleventh century English scholar) sparked an idea for this new project. While investigating supernatural phenomenon, Grevase cited the authority of “the old wives” as proof that a supernatural belief (women flying and passing through walls) was real. Grevase saw the knowledge of old women as authoritative, whereas the “old wives’ tale” later came to mean foolish beliefs. Furthermore, Grevase said the old wives were making claims to supernatural events. I want to explore the history of Western attitudes toward the socially constructed category of both women’s knowledge and women’s charisma (revelation and supernatural power) from 1100 to 1850. (more…)

Great-Grandma’s Sixth Sense

By: Steve Fleming - May 26, 2014

The way my family described my great grandma was that she was very clean, very shy, and very superstitious. The superstitious characterization is the one I heard the most; my mom once used Great Grandma in an attempt to contextualize Joseph Smith’s “magical” practices–everyone was doing it. So I was surprised and interested to get a little more context for Great-Grandma’s beliefs when my grandma read a history of her mother (Great Grandma) to us last year (this was just a few months before my grandma passed away). (more…)

Heavenly Mother

By: Steve Fleming - May 10, 2014

Okay so here’s another section of my dissertation, this one on Heavenly Mother.  It’s part of a larger chapter on Smith’s plan of salvation.  It’s taken out of context somewhat and make several references to W. W. Phelps’s “Paracletes” that I examine in the next section.  But it was getting a little long, so I think this section with suffice.  Happy Mother’s Day.

God Has a Wife. In his “Paracletes,” William Phelps referred to pre-mortal spirits living with their “father and mother in heaven”; a few months earlier Phelps declared, “O Mormonism! Thy father is God, thy mother is the Queen of heaven,” in a letter to Smith’s brother William.[1] This was the first printed reference to what would become one of Mormonism’s distinctive doctrines: Mother in Heaven. (more…)

The King Follett Discourse: The Nous

By: Steve Fleming - April 07, 2014

With Joseph Smith having given the King Follett Discourse one-hundred seventy years ago this day, I thought I would put up a post from my dissertation that addresses one of the themes from the Discourse. Here I discuss the Platonic concept of the nous, or the uncreated part of the soul that was divine.

I put this analysis in the context of discussing the Book of Abraham, so this is the part where Abraham discusses “intelligences.”

The Nous.  Using the term “intelligence” to describe pre-mortal beings was similar to the Platonic concept of the nous; indeed, intelligence is one way to translate nous in to English, mind is another.  Smith used both terms to describe a similar concept.  (more…)

The Genius Ritual

By: Steve Fleming - March 14, 2014

Okay, my last post talked about the concept of the “genius”: guardian beings like angels.  Here I talk about a possible ritual that young Joseph Smith might have performed on the night of the Moroni visitation.  Michael Quinn argued that Smith may have performed some type of ritual on the night of the visitation.  After summarizing Quinn’s arguments, I present the following:

An additional piece of context for the Moroni visit was the statement from the neighbor that Smith was “born with a genius.”  Again, this was a Platonic notion that remained prevalent in grimoires. (more…)

The Genius

By: Steve Fleming - March 13, 2014

The following is a short excerpt from my dissertation.  It’s part of a bigger section on the Smith family religiosity.  It therefore refers to issues discussed earlier, which may make this a little confusing.  This section doesn’t address a ritual, but it’s important context for a post I’ll put up soon that does have to do with ritual.  Extra points for those who can guess what that post will be about.

The Chosen Son.  Associates of the Smiths in Vermont and New York said the Smiths spoke of Joseph Jr. as the chosen son.  Smith had a number of traits that would have set him apart in folk culture.  The Green Mountain Boys said that the Smiths said that Joseph Jr. was “born with a veil,” which meant born with the caul: being born with the caul set children apart in European folk culture, often meaning that the child was a seer.[1]  The Green Mountain Boys seemed to link that claim to Joseph Sr.’s desire to find a stone for his son by which he would “see all over the world,” suggesting the caul and seeing with a stone were linked; Smith himself would claim the ability to “see” with a stone. (more…)

Mormon Studies Weekly Roundup

By: Steve Fleming - March 02, 2014

The main news items for this week are all the up coming events.  Matt McBride is giving a lecture on early Mormon female missionaries for the John A. Witsoe Lecture Series this Tuesday, March 4, in Logan.  This Thursday and Friday is the Church History Symposium on The Worldwide Church: The Global Reach of Mormonism.  Thursday at BYU; Friday in Salt Lake.  BYU also has a full slate of events planned for women’s history month.  And speaking of Mormon academic conferences, registration for this year’s MHA in San Antonio is now open.

A new gospel-topics entry was posted on the church’s website: this time on Mormon ideas about deification.  ABC ran an article on it.  Furthermore, the New York Times ran an article on Mormon women, and this article from the Huffington Post didn’t focus on Mormonism per se but did give us a nice picture of the temple.

The big news, of course, is that Jimmer is now playing for the Bulls.

Finally, Savannah Reid, an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, is doing research on Mormon womanhood for her senior capstone and needs people to take this survey.

Joseph Smith and the Knowledge of the Early Christian Fathers

By: Steve Fleming - February 28, 2014

In 1964, D. P. Walker declared that scholars have neglected “the revival of interest in the early, pre-Nicene Fathers of the Church,” Origen in particular.[1]  In his book, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment, Walker details the centrality of Origen to the rise of Universalism in the late seventeenth century.

In that same year, Francis Yates published her much more influential Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.  Yates’s work overshadowed Walker’s, not only his brilliant Decline of Hell, but his equally competent Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (1958) and The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (1972).  Whereas Walker emphasized the importance of Plato, Christian Platonism, and the Fathers, Yates overshadowed all this with her hermetic thesis that treated Western esotericism as something other to Christianity and focused on the Corpus Hermeticum, a text of limited importance to that tradition. (more…)

Elder Bednar Has It Right: Joseph Smith’s August 13, 1843 Speech

By: Steve Fleming - February 14, 2014

There were no sealing rituals between parents and children in Joseph Smith’s life time. [1] In his August 13, 1843 speech the prophet explained why such sealings were unnecessary:  “A measure of this sealing is to confirm upon their head in common with Elijah the doctrine of election or the covenant with Abraham—which which when a Father & mother of a family have entered into their children who have not transgressed are secured by the seal wherewith the Parents have been sealed.” [2]  Parents who were sealed to each other would have the opportunity of having their children sealed to them also so long as their children did not “transgress.” [3] Therefore, no additional ordinance was necessary.  Howard and Martha Coray’s much notes make it clear that William Clayton’s much briefer notes (just a few sentences) were problematic.  “When a seal is put upon the father and mother it secures their posterity so that they cannot be lost but will be saved by virtue of the covenant of their father.” [4] Again, Clayton’s notes were extremely truncated; researchers need to look to more thorough notes to get a better sense of Joseph Smith meaning (like Elder Bednar did).

Joseph Smith did teach antinomianism but like all other antinomians (from the heresy of the free spirit to John Dee to John Humphrey Noyes) perfection and thus being above the law was something that one achieved.  One progressed to that stage. (more…)

An Alien Testifies of the Apostasy: Benjamin Winchester’s Creative Apologetics

By: Steve Fleming - February 13, 2014

The announcement that the church is planning to build a complex in downtown Philadelphia next to the temple puts me in mind of the church’s history in Philadelphia.  This history revolved around Benjamin Winchester who began preaching in Philadelphia in 1840.  Winchester was immediately successful but his success was soon tainted by the fact that most of his converts quickly grew to seriously dislike him.  Apparently Winchester was rather dictatorial, excommunicating all who disagreed with him.  The problems Winchester created (the Philadelphia branch split in two between the pro- and anti-Winchester factions) continued until Winchester left the church shortly after Joseph Smith’s assassination.[1]  Thus Winchester left this unfortunate legacy, made even more unfortunate considering Winchester’s intellectual legacy.  Winchester wrote the Mormons’ first Bible concordance, the first refutation the Spaulding theory, and the Mormons’ first historical theology, which gave a history of the apostasy that made statements that Joseph Smith endorsed in his very last speech.[2]

Winchester set up his own periodical in Philadelphia (The Gospel Reflector) where he asserted Mormon doctrine. (more…)

An Unsigned Letter to Edward Hunter: Any Guesses Who and When?

By: Steve Fleming - September 10, 2013

Edward Hunter was perhaps the wealthiest convert to early Mormonism.[1] His coming to Nauvoo was a major boon to Joseph Smith as he set up a factory and brought a lot of store goods.[2]  “My wife and myself had made up our minds to let Joseph have all of our means,” Hunter wrote in his autobiography, “until Joseph came to me and said, ‘Keep it.’”[3]  The following unsigned and undated letter seems to confirm that narrative.  It seems to have been written by a dissenter who was irritated by Hunter’s consecration. (more…)


By: Steve Fleming - June 01, 2013

The only time my wife and I went out to the movies in our 4 and a half years in Santa Barbara was to see Waiting for Superman.  My wife, Lee, had seen it the weekend before but wanted me to go with her because she wanted to be able to talk about it with me.  Lee works for the New Tech Network, a non-profit organization that is involved in school reform, and was therefore very interested in a movie that addressed those issues.

Seeing this movie about the plight of education in the US in general and urban schools in particular was a rather jarring experience for me because a number of years earlier I had taught high school in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles.  So I had an up-close view of what those schools were like (they struggle) and what kind of education the kids got there.  This was a rather painful memory since, because I walked into the classroom with no training (and very little aptitude, I soon discovered), I struggled mightily and delivered a very poor product to my students.  Thus I knew first hand of the educational struggles of urban children that the movie was documenting.  Again, this was a rather painful memory that also felt like a personal failure and I wondered what could possibly be done to address this problem. (more…)

Hermetism and Christian Platonism: A Little More Clarification

By: Steve Fleming - March 16, 2013

Lately I’ve had a number of people ask me to clarify what the “hermetic tradition” was and I realized that although I’ve written some blog posts dealing with the topic, I ought to make a few more clarifications.  The notion of a Hermetic tradition is the work of Francis Yates and her very influential book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition.  It was this book that John Brooke used to frame Mormonism in his Refiner’s Fire.  Yates’s work did much to shed light on early-modern modes of thought that had previously been under-explored but like most works, they get a little dated over time, and I will list a few of the critiques here.

One of the biggest problems was that Yates called a number of ideas “Hermetic” that were not in the Corpus Hermeticum [1]: like astrology, alchemy, and kabbalah.  Such modes of thought, Yates argued, shared a common essence with Hermetism.  Though Yates always used the term “Hermetism” (the preferred term of those who study antiquity) later scholars began using the term “Hermeticism” as a broader umbrella for the practices not in the Corpus Hermeticum, but similar in essence [2]. Thus “Hermetism” meant the ideas in the Corpus, “Hermeticism” meant the broader term.  This move unfortunately created a bigger mess because the term “Hermeticism” became too vague.  What was deemed Hermetic was now an intuitive judgment call, rather than a process of tying ideas back to particular sources. (more…)

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