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
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 : 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 . 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…)
In 1670, two months after her husband died, Jane Lead had her first of many remarkable visions. Lead said she was out for a walk and thinking about Wisdom  in the Bible, when
there came upon me an overshadowing bright Cloud, and in the midst of it the Figure of a Woman, most richly adorned with transparent Gold, her hair hanging down and her Face as the terrible Crystal for brightness, but her Countenance was sweet and mild. At which sight I was somewhat amazed, but immediately this Voice came, saying, Behold, I am God’s Eternal Virgin-Wisdom, whom thou hast been enquiring after; I am to unseal the Treasures of God’s deep Wisdom unto thee, and will be as Rebecca was unto Jacob, a true Natural Mother; for out of my Womb thou shalt be brought forth after the manner of a Spirit, Conceived and Born again. 
I think it was in 2005 when I came across Times and Seasons and I was rather enchanted by it. “These people are talking about interesting things.” “I want to be part of this conversation.” “I have important things to say.” “I’m working on important things right now that would inform these conversations.” “I would like it if these people knew who I was and thought what I had to say was important.”
Yet I quickly saw that all these feelings suggested that the blogs could be a dangerously seductive place to the aspiring scholar. I’m probably not just speaking for myself when I say that aspiring scholars badly want to be recognized. To be recognized we need to publish and that can be a long and difficult process. The time and effort between “brilliant idea” and “brilliant idea in print” is often significant. What if I could just skip all that and just throw my ideas up on a blog? Very tempting. (more…)
In the thirteen century, Aristotle became all the rage among European intellectuals. Aristotle had a systematic way of viewing universe as well as a compelling system of logic. But God played a very minor role in Aristotle’s system: Aristotle said there was an unmoved mover, the first cause (which medieval theologians took to be God) that had set the universe in motion. But God played no role in Aristotle beyond that. Aristotle argued that the rules that governed the universe  were there by necessity and he also argued that there was only one universe/world . This bothered medieval thinkers of the time because it seem to suggest that even if God wanted to create multiple universes/worlds, He could not. This all came to a head in 1277, when a massive condemnation of Aristotle was issued : article 34 stated that it was heresy to believe “that the first cause [i.e God] could not make several worlds.”  Thus the possibility of God creating multiple worlds/universes was needed to preserve God’s omnipotence, even though most thinkers assumed that God, in actuality, had probably only created one world/universe. (more…)
So my adviser, Ann Taves, has approved my final “throughline” for me to send out to the rest of my committee. Let me clarify. The way Ann likes to do it, is for her students to write the initial prospectus, then do all the research and then write a second prospectus. She calls the second prospectus a “throughline” or a chapter by chapter detail of your arguments. (more…)
Dillinger, Johannes. Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History. Houndsmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
There’s no need to point out that treasure digging has been a major theme in the historiography of the early life of Joseph Smith for 40 years or more. So it was with great excitement and high hope that I read the first book-length treatment of the subject. This book exceeded my expectations. In fact, although it technically dedicates only 4 pages to Mormonism, I found the book to be one of the most ground-shifting books I’ve ever read on Joseph Smith. I hope readers will excuse my enthusiasm, but the first full treatment to the topic has yielded exciting results. (more…)
My dissertation committee felt I sort of gave them a bait and switch at my prospectus defense. I had spent three years telling them I wanted to compare Mormonism to medieval Christianity (which I’m still doing) but for my prospectus I was now talking about Mormonism and Neoplatonism. They found this all rather confusing and wanted brainstorm other angles I could take. In the midst of all this, my medieval advisor exclaimed, “I know what your thesis should be. It should be how Christian Mormonism is. This is all thoroughly Christian, it’s just not Protestant.”
What is Christian depends on one’s point of view. Medieval Christianity was very different from Protestantism. As I’ve noted around here a few times, Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 presents a very different picture of traditional Christianity than do Protestants. (more…)
Coudert, Allison P. Religion, Magic , and Science in Early Modern Europe and America. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.
This book made my head spin. Coudert sets about attacking cherished ontologies and historiographical dogmas in ways I’m overwhelmingly in agreement with, but the book still left me dizzy. Coudert comes out swinging and doesn’t let up. Most brilliant is the way Coudert blends these categories with each other and the social history of the periods she covers. (more…)
Gardner, Brant A. The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2011.
Gardner seeks to understand the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon by a thorough examination of the text coupled with descriptions of the translation process. Gardner compares the Book of Mormon translation to regular translations and argues for three types: literal (an exact, word-for-word translation), functional (a translation that conveys meaning instead of exact wording) and conceptual. Gardener argues that the Book of Mormon translation fits the functionalist type: it is a translation of the concepts into the idioms of Joseph Smith’s world. Gardner goes further, arguing that research on cognition suggests how Smith translated: revelation was given at a pre-language level and then translated into English by Smith. Gardner argues that such is a “natural” account of the translation and that his description still posits Smith as the translator. (more…)
Here I basically place the work of Quinn, Brooke, and Owens within the context of Christian Platonism that I described in my earlier posts (3.1 and 3.2). It’s not an in-depth discussion of the sources, but more of an overview. (more…)
David M. Morris received his PhD from Southampton University (supervised at Chichester) in History and Sociology of Religion. His PhD focused on British Mormons in the 19C and the socio-demographic backgrounds of LDS in Staffordshire between 1840 and 1870. Morris is also the General Editor of the International Journal of Mormon Studies as well as a co-founder of EMSA. He is currently researching UK/IRISH Mormons in the modern era.
I am currently undertaking a sociological study concerning members of the BRITISH & IRISH LDS Church, OR those who were PREVIOUSLY affiliated or expatriates. The survey has 33 questions in 9 sections. Would you please mind participating. All information gathered is anonymous and can not be used to identify either an individual or an IP address. The survey is found here:
Furthermore, we are pleased to announce the publication of the fourth issue of the International Journal of Mormon Studies. This is a peer reviewed journal and indexed by EBSCO. The current issue and past issues may be found here. Note that in contrast to many academic journals, IJMS articles may be downloaded for free. We do this in order to make this work available to readers around the world.
Please consider submitting your own work for publication.
Here I summarize a group of books that reevaluate the work of Frances Yates. It was Yates’ work on Renaissance Hermeticism that was the foundation for Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire. Thus the reevaluations of Yates, I argue, help us to better situate Mormonism in the history of Christianity. I had considered writing individual reviews but since they interweave it worked to analyze them together. I may do individual reviews of some of these works later. (more…)
So I’m still writing prospectuses (or is it prospecti?) My committee technically passed off my first prospectus in December but did so with reservations. I’ve been working on placating those ever since. Also, the way my adviser Ann Taves likes to do it is to write an original prospectus, then do all the research, and then write another one at that point. I certainly haven’t completed my research but I’m getting there. My point is though I’m still working at this but I don’t feel like I’m spinning my wheels.
Anyway, the latest draft weighed in at 55 pages and 230 footnotes. I’m thinking of doing three posts of some of the introductory material. Here’s number one: [note: a fair amount of this is Ann's wording]
“The Presence of God: Early Mormonism and Neoplatonism” (more…)
Many Christians have found Plato valuable and those who have have often promoted the idea of prisca theologia, or, the ancient wisdom. The idea was the Plato got his ideas from somewhere else, like hermetic or orphic texts, and some thinkers constructed larger narratives of where the ancient wisdom (Platonic ideas that predated Plato) came from. “In order to preserve the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian revelation,” argues D. P. Walker, “it was usual to claim that pagan Ancient Theology derived from Moses; but sometimes it was supposed to go back further, to Noah and his good sons, Shem and Japeth, or to antediluvian Patriarchs, such as Enoch, or even Adam.”  (more…)
So I decided to read Robert Ritner’s “The Breathing of Hor among the Joseph Smith Papyri,”  for reasons I’ll discuss below. Wow. Where do I begin? As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m working on late Neoplatonic influence on early Mormonism and the primary innovations that the late Neoplatonists made to Neoplatonism was theurgy. To learn theurgy, Iamblichus spent considerable time studying in Egypt; Egyptians ritual played a significant role in Imablichus’s ritual theology. In fact, Iamblichus wrote his De Mysteriis (the principal exposition on theurgy) as “Master Abamon,” an Egyptian priest. (more…)
Clement of Alexandria asserted that Plato was an important precursor to the coming of Christ.  The quotes I post from Plato here suggest that Mormons could sympathize with Clement’s point of view. The first is Plato’s statement on deification from the Theaetetus. (more…)
In both my MHA and Bushman papers given recently, I cited Quinn’s point about JS’s Moroni visitation coming on the equinox.  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? (more…)
For me, the best history movies is Revolution, staring Al Pacino. This movie is a little weird from an artistic point of view; it was majorly panned by the critics. However, from a historical point of view, this movie is awesome. The movie is dark and gritty (I think they used all natural lighting), the people are all dirty and it presents an earthy view of the American Revolution. (more…)
We all know of the famous experiment of the subjects that were brought in and told to continue shocking other subjects (whom they did not see) until they screamed and eventually went silent. The experiment was meant to shed light on how a things like the Holocaust happened, that people are willing to do atrocious things under orders. This of course brings up very unpleasant worries of what we would have done not only in the experiment but also in the Holocaust itself.
The Holocaust is very upsetting to me and something I simply do not want to know any more about. So I was quite taken aback when my kids came home from the first day of summer acting workshop and reported that they were going to be enacting the Holocaust. (more…)
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D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Revised and Enlarged Edition. Salt Lake City: Signature, 1998.
In reassessing Quinn’s classic study, I’ll simply say that Stephen Ricks’s and Daniel Peterson’s review of the first edition still applies to the second. The book “reflects deep erudition” and “offers considerable evidence indicating that Joseph Smith, members of his family, and some of his early associates were involved in the use of seer stones, divining rods, amulets, and parchments, as well as in the search for buried treasure.” In other words, Quinn effectively argues his chief assertions. (more…)