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 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.
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. 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…)
There were no sealing rituals between parents and children in Joseph Smith’s life time.  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.”  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.”  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.”  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…)
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. 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.
Winchester set up his own periodical in Philadelphia (The Gospel Reflector) where he asserted Mormon doctrine. (more…)
Edward Hunter was perhaps the wealthiest convert to early Mormonism. His coming to Nauvoo was a major boon to Joseph Smith as he set up a factory and brought a lot of store goods. “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.’” 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…)
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…)
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…)
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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…)