[What follows is the gist of the introduction from my paper “Celestial Family Organization: The Developing Nature of Mormon Conceptions of Heaven, circa 1840s,” presented at the 2010 MHA Conference.]
This post begins with a seemingly unrelated starting point: the debate over the legacy of Kantian philosophy in 1790s Germany. Philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in defense of his interpretation of Kantian idealism, argued for a distinction between “the inventor” of an ideological system, and “his commentators and disciples.” Fichte explained,
The inventor of a system is one thing, and his commentators and disciples are another…The reason is this: The followers do not yet have the idea of the whole; for if they had it, they would not require to study the new system; they are obliged first to piece together this idea out of the parts that the inventor provides for them; [but] all these parts are in fact not wholly determined, rounded and polished in their minds…
Fichte continued by explaining “the inventor proceeds from the idea of the whole, in which all the parts are united, and sets for these parts individually…The business of the followers,” on the other hand, “is to synthesize what they still by no means possess, but are only to obtain by the synthesis.”
The specifics of Kantian philosophy that Fichte was debating hold little importance to us, but the tension he outlines between an “inventor” and “disciple” plays an important correlating role in the development of early Mormon thought, just as it does with any movement that boasts an innovative founder. Students of the development of Mormon theology have long focused on Joseph Smith, with good reason. As prophet and founder of the LDS Church, his revelations and teachings laid the foundations for the movement, and his voice is considered the most authoritative one when considering early Mormon beliefs. However, Smith’s theology is difficult to determine on two grounds. First, his premature death at the age of 39; though he had been the recognized prophet and leader for nearly a decade and a half, the explosive theological development during his last three years showed no signs of relenting, and it can only be assumed that much of his religious vision was left inchoate and unfulfilled. Indeed, it wasn’t until the last three months of his life that Smith’s sermons began piecing together what had previously been only theological fragments.
The second reason for this difficulty is the very nature of Smith’s prophet persona, and relates to the Kantian dynamic outlined above. Smith was by nature eclectic, rather than syncretistic, and his teachings were emblematic of that approach. His teachings were never presented in a systematic order, but rather, as Richard Bushman aptly put it, in “flashes and bursts.” This collection of fragments has left many historians bewildered at the difficulty of presenting a coherent picture of his beliefs. Further, Smith’s eclecticism has made it difficult to position him among his antebellum contemporaries, because his teachings are malleable enough to be considered emblematic of numerous—and sometimes competing—cultural tensions. Thus, just as Smith’s religious successors inherited a dynamic theology with countless possibilities, modern historians are left with a mesh of innovative fragments from which to make a distorted picture.
While attempts to articulate Joseph Smith’s vision will—and should—continue, it might serve fruitful to look in other directions for ways to contextualize early Mormonism. First, it should be remembered that Joseph Smith’s was not the only voice of the early LDS church. Indeed, the vast majority of Mormon print came from the disciples who were still trying to understand Smith’s theology even as they were explicating it. Just as Fichte worked from the bits and pieces of idealism he inherited from Kant, Mormon thinkers like Parley Pratt, John Taylor, and William Phelps sought to synthesize the prophet’s revelations into an intelligible dogma. Pratt summarized this process in a proclamation written only months after Smith’s death: “The chaos of materials prepared by [Joseph Smith] must now be placed in order in the building. The laws revealed by him must now be administered in all their strictness and beauty. The measure commenced by him must now be carried into successful operation.” Indeed, especially after the Quorum of the Twelve took control of the church, there was an acute anxiety to complete and expand Smith’s vision, even if ambiguity remained. The diversity in these synthesizing attempts reveals not only the pliable nature of early Mormon thought, but the difficulty in correlating eclectic ideas into a theological whole.
Sociologists Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, who in turn were building off of the religious theory of Max Weber, have argued that this very process of correlation is an important moment in the development of a religious movement. “Cult formation,” they argued, is “a two-stage process of innovation.” The first is “the invention of new religious ideas,” while the second is “gaining social acceptance of these ideas” through adaptation and expansion. The latter stage is accomplished primarily by drawing from cultural tensions and expectations in order to further accommodate the movement’s religious goals. In other words, those correlating the innovative ideas have a specific culture in mind as their audience, and a distinct set of cultural preconceptions as their tools. With regard to the theologians of early Mormonism, their doctrinal formulations not only bare the footprint of the religious innovator—in this case, Joseph Smith—but also of the culture in which they interpreted the innovator—in this case, antebellum America.
Therefore, I argue that an important step in the scholarly interpretation of early Mormon thought will entail a decreased focus on Joseph Smith. Besides being able to sidestep the issue of revelatory validity, it also provides an opportunity to analyze more systematic theologies and better engage cultural trends. Sam Brown’s work on William Phelps offers a great example of this, as will the forthcoming biography of Parley Pratt by Matthew Grow and Terryl Givens. I hope to see the trend continue and blossom.
 Johann Gottlieb Fichte, “Second Introduction to the Science of Knowledge,” in J. G. Fichte, Science of Knowledge, translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 57.
 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), xxi.
 For example, one recent writer waived the metaphoric white flag when he described Smith as “simultaneously an eminent Jacksonian, a scion of the Yankee exodus, a creature and critic of the Second Great Awakening, a Romantic reformer, a charismatic utopian, a mystic nationalist, and a hustler in the manner of Barnum.” Or, in summation, a “prophet, genus, con man, crackpot, or all four in some proportion.” Walter A. McDourgall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 180.
 Gordon S. Wood wrote that the principles that Smith laid out contained elements “mystical and secular; restorationist and progressive; communitarian and individualistic; hierarchical and congregational; authoritarian and democratic; antimonian and arminian; anti-clerical and priestly; revelatory and empirical; utopian and practical; ecumenical and nationalist.” Wood, “Evangelical America and Early Mormonism,” New York History 61 (October 1980): 380.
 Parley Pratt, “Proclamation. To the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-Day Saints: Greeting,” Millennial Star 5 (March 1845): 152.
 Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 1987), 156. For more on this formation, see their chapter 8.