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

Dissertation Introduction, Part 2: Kabbalah

By: Steve Fleming - September 02, 2014

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.[1]  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…)

Dissertation Introduction, Part 1

By: Steve Fleming - September 01, 2014

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,[1] 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.[2] 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…)

The Secret Tradition, Part 10: Joseph Smith

By: Steve Fleming - August 28, 2014

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.”[1]  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),[2] he would have been on the right track.


[1] June 11, 1843, Words of Joseph Smith, 212.

[2] A forthcoming dissertation claims that the endowment had these elements.

The Secret Tradition, Part 9: Theurgy

By: Steve Fleming - August 26, 2014

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.”[1] (more…)

What Did You Read on Your Mission?

By: Steve Fleming - August 20, 2014

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?

Depression and Missionary Work: Confessions of a Suicidal Would Be Missionary

By: Steve Fleming - August 15, 2014

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 Tradition, Part 8: The Loss of the Tradition and the Disciplina Arcani

By: Steve Fleming - August 06, 2014

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.”[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]  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.[4] (more…)

The Secret Tradition, Part 7: Plato

By: Steve Fleming - July 30, 2014

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.”[1] 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.”[2]  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.”[3] (more…)

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…)

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