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Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Interpreting Early Mormon Thought

By: Ben P - August 23, 2010

[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.”[1]

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.”[2] This collection of fragments has left many historians bewildered at the difficulty of presenting a coherent picture of his beliefs.[3] 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.[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] 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.

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[1] 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.

[2] Richard Lyman Bushman,
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), xxi.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] Parley Pratt, “Proclamation. To the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-Day Saints: Greeting,” Millennial Star 5 (March 1845): 152.

[6] 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.



14 Comments

  1. Ben, I told you so at MHA but will repeat it here. This is really interesting (and important) work you’re doing. I wonder what early Mormon lived religion might reveal within the paradigm you’ve laid out here. That is, what does early Mormon worship and religious praxis reveal about the movement’s theology/ies and how it/they were understood and interpreted by it’s earliest adherents? Such considerations would compliment your analysis of the written ideas of Taylor, Pratt, Phelps, et al.

    Comment by Christopher — August 23, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

  2. Interestingly, B.H. Roberts observed something quite similar, although I forget what theorist he was following in his explanation. I don’t have the book with me right now, but in the BYU Studies edition of The Truth, the Way, the Life James Allen (I think) points out the distinction Roberts made between Joseph Smith and two different types of followers. Or two different types of disciples, if I remember correctly. The one type wants to solidify, to end the stream with the death of the charismatic leader. The other type of disciple seeks to broaden the vision, to enrich, systematize, and seek more knowledge. Roberts obviously saw himself as the second type. If you don’t have the BYU Studies edition I can track it down at home and get you the exact quotes and references. Roberts essentially formulated something like what you discuss here around 1900.

    Comment by BHodges — August 24, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

  3. I think you are exactly right, Chris. I hope you (and Ryan T., and others) continue the lived religion paradigm. It is much needed.

    Thanks, BH. I haven’t heard that before. I have the book, but it is packed away somewhere with all my other books. I’ll let you know if I can’t find it.

    Comment by Ben — August 24, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

  4. Sounds good.

    Comment by BHodges — August 24, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

  5. I like how you use Stark and Bainbridge. The early Quakers went through a similar pattern with super radical preachers in their first decade (1650s) before things were systematized in the next two decades with their leading theologians William Penn and Robert Barclay.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — August 28, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  6. Christopher,

    It seems the elephant in the room is that you can’t sidestep the issue of revelatory validity. If the revelations are the product of Joseph’s mind, then of course they solely must be interpreted in light of his understanding and intention. There would also then be an obvious dividing line between founder and disciple as Fichte argued.

    If Joseph’s revelations are taken for what he claims they were then the problems you mention largely disappear. If they are actual revelations then it is God who is in the position of founder. The focus on Joseph Smith greatly lessens as those who followed are left to interpret, synthesize, and implement what they believe to be the will of God. Joseph’s commentaries and opinions about the revelations would obviously carry enormous weight when available, but each prophet that followed would believe that he was entitled to be guided by relevation and not bound by having to interpret and determine what Joseph Smith would have thought or done.

    I think that one the evidences that they were of divine origination is that were not revealed in a manner that demonstrates that Joseph had a set plan in place. That a coherent whole could later be made out of what appeared to be such chaos supports Joseph’s claims.

    Comment by Kevin Rudd — September 1, 2010 @ 10:54 am

  7. Correction.

    That last post is directed at Ben, sorry.

    Comment by Kevin Rudd — September 1, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

  8. Are you sure that is the only correction that needs to be made? Do you have any conception of the difference between academic and devotional study of religion, even among believers?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 1, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  9. @8

    Again Ardis, all I can say is thank you for the charitable spirit of your comments. I know enough about logic to know that a thing can’t be both “A” and not “A.” To aptly use Fichte’s argument you must assume that only Joseph would know precisely what the revelations meant because they were the product of his mind. You must assume that Joseph had “the idea of the whole, in which all the parts are united, and sets for these parts individually.” If, as a premise, one accepts the relevations for what Joseph said they were (and this of course has nothing to do with whether one actually believes them or not} the dynamic in Fichte’s argument largely fades.

    Ardis, when you read a novel does it worry you that you are reading devotionally if you accept that the story is set, in say, Texas, when you are just so sure that the story would have been much better had it been set in Florida?

    Comment by Kevin Rudd — September 2, 2010 @ 12:31 am

  10. “Logic” and “Kevin Rudd” have yet to be introduced to each other.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 2, 2010 @ 6:14 am

  11. Something about not feeding trolls is springing to mind here. Can’t quite put my finger on it.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 2, 2010 @ 8:36 am

  12. I proposed a good solution on the other thread.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 2, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  13. Good one Ardis. Didn’t think you’d have time to write something that clever. I thought you’d still be scouring the 14th amendment in a futile attempt to find the incorporation clause. Or perhaps reading the 1st Amendment for the first time because even a second grader understands that the words “Congress shall make no law” applies to Congress and not the states.

    I asked a question of another and you chose to respond with infantile attacks. If I’m as stupid as you think, is your response remotely appropriate? Have I attacked anyone personally? I expressed an opinion of the Constitution, which is shared by Joseph Story no less. I shared a feeling about New York City which is quite common in America. I wrote about Islam. Not Moslems mind you, but Islam. An abstract entity. You chose to respond, even when confronted with your own ignorance, with lame attempts to mock me.

    Here’s a good one for some of you. I have to warn you that some will be best served by covering their eyes and screaming “lalalalalalalalalalalala.”

    This is from Joseph Story, whose commentaries were perhaps the most influential constitutional law treatise in antebellum America. (He was also a member of the Supreme Court from 1811-1845)

    Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution,…the general if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation….

    The real object of the (First Amendment) was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.

    Comment by Kevin Rudd — September 2, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

  14. Well, it’s been a fun ride, Kevin, but I think we’ve reached an end. I think my fellow bloggers have given you plenty of opportunities on the other thread to participate in an intelligent discussion, but you have proven to be more cantankerous than our patience allow, especially in moving your narrow-mindedness to another post.

    Best of luck to you in future endeavors.

    Comment by Ben — September 2, 2010 @ 1:13 pm