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
This is the second installment of the first annual JI Summer Book Club. This year we are reading Richard Bushman’s landmark biography of Mormonism founder, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). JI bloggers will be covering several small chunks of the book (typically 2-3 chapters) in successive weeks through the summer. New posts will appear on Monday mornings.We invite anyone and everyone interested to join along. Please use the comment section on each post to post your own reflections and commentary on the chapters under consideration and ask questions. This week Steve Fleming takes a closer look at Chapters 3 (“Translation: 1827-30″) and 4 (“A New Bible: 1830″).
Previous installments in the series:
•Part I: Prologue, Chapters 1-2
3 Translation, 4 A New Bible (See part 1 here).
Bushman ends Chapter Two and begins Chapter Three by discussing how to make sense of the possible connections between the Smiths’ “magical” treasure-digging activities and Mormonism’s foundational events: receiving and translating the golden plates. Such similarities include seer stones, special treasure in the ground, and treasure guardians.
Bushman concedes that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture,” (51) but he argues that by 1827, the year he married Emma and received the plates, “magic had served its purpose in his life. In a sense, it was a preparatory gospel. Treasure-seeking lore may have made it easier for his father to believe his son’s fabulous story about an angel and gold plates” (54). Thus treasure digging played a “preparatory” role in the beginnings of Mormons, argues Bushman, and the treasure-digging elements in the events related to the golden plates played the purposed of Smith gaining his treasure-digging father’s support. (more…)
Helen Kimball as Joseph Smith’s 14-year-old wife understandably gets a lot of attention in discussions about Smith’s marital practices. In my dissertation, I argue that the story of Helen’s marriage to Smith sheds lights on larger issues so I’m posting those passages here. First, however, I’m posting a few paragraphs where I give a summary of my argument about Smith’s overall intent. It’s pages 371-74 of my dissertation.
The sexuality of Smith’s marriages has been much debated, but boiling Smith’s marital relationships down to sex misses the point. The point of the marriages, again, was best described by Mary Lightner, both in her description of the 1831 “sealing” and in the proposal to her by Smith: to be united with Smith so as to go with him into the Father’s kingdom. This was something that many early Mormons wanted. Oliver Huntington said that “soon after Dimick had given our sisters Zina & Prescinda to Joseph as wives for eternity,” Smith offered Dimick any reward he wanted. Dimick requested “that where you and your fathers family are, there I and my fathers family may also be.” Todd Compton argues that a number of polyandrous husbands may have known about the sealing, particularly Henry Jacobs and Windsor Lyon.… (more…)
For the D&C class I taught at BYU, (see my previous post on teaching polygamy), when we got to Official Declaration 2, my objectives were to cover the difficult issues and present some possible frameworks by which to make sense of those issues.
The students had read the church’s essay, so they had some good background, but I wanted to get a little more specific on a few items. I began with a quiz where I just asked for thoughts and questions on the topic. They pretty much all had the same one: why did we do this? So I just started into my PowerPoint. (more…)
In 1 Nephi 13:5, the angel says to Nephi “Behold the formation of a church which is most abominable above all other churches, which slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity.” We used to stress this being the Catholics but have sort of backed off this in the last few decades to the point where I don’t hear much talk about the GAC anymore. And yet it’s quite important in these chapters in the Book of Mormon where Nephi lays out a kind of visionary history of the world from Christ to the coming of the Book of Mormon.
Both the discussion of the apostasy and restoration that the kids are having now in church coupled with my recent discovery of the movie Agora on Netflix (it’s R but a fairly light R, historical violence that isn’t too bad), put me in mind of the topic. (more…)
So I recently finished teaching the second half of the Doctrine and Covenants at BYU, which I enjoyed very much. When we got to some of the harder issues that are part of the curriculum, especially polygamy and blacks and the priesthood, I wanted to cover them in a way that was both direct and helpful. I applaud the church’s essays in these topics, assigned them, and wanted to cover these topics in the same spirit of openness. Yet these are tough and as 132 approached, I was trying to thing about how to go about it. To me it seemed like I had three options. 1) Dodge it. Again, I didn’t want to do that. 2) Tell the students information that I felt pretty sure was incorrect. As I mentioned in this previous post, I like the articles but think there are some mistakes, especially eternity only sealings. 3) Tell them what I believe is correct. Having tried this out on my own kids and feeling it went well, I decided to give my assertion about shared marriages a shot. So I got my powerpoint ready and headed to class. (more…)
Okay, kind of a goofy way of putting the question, but in my last post, I said that I argued in my dissertation that I believed that JS often knew about things much earlier than when he first clearly taught them. I base this claim on a few point, most notably my assertion that I think JS was influenced early on by texts that had a lot of what we would consider “Mormon ideas.” As I’ve tried to stress a lot around here, I don’t see this claim as an attack, but as a larger claim that JS was gathering “Truth” together from the sources that had it. Nor do I see such claims as antithetical to revelatory claims since we’re supposed to seek wisdom “by study and faith” and then ask God “if it be right.”
So with that in mind, here’s part of my introduction to my chapter 6 “The Plan of Salvation” where I treat JS’s teachings about God’s plan of sending preexistent beings to earth to progress, get bodies, with the chance of becoming deified. It’s an overview of my claim that JS knew about a lot of the Nauvoo doctrine much earlier. It’s pages 386-87 of my dissertation. (more…)
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…)
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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.