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Pure Sources

By: Steve Fleming - May 06, 2011

In a previous post, I mentioned a sort of revelation I had while reading Brooke’s Refiner’s Fire. “Wait, Steve,” the Spirit said, “don’t write this book off. You have to understand a few things. What Brooke is talking about here are ‘temple’ or esoteric truths that are by nature difficult to verbalize. Such ideas have been passed through the ages from original pure sources and had thus become somewhat corrupted. These factors make what Brooke is talking about not so easily recognizable or understood. Furthermore, don’t pretend that you understand what the temple is about. So read the book with an open mind. You’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to figure this stuff out.” Or something like that.

Since working on that issues the last ten years, I’ve wondered what those “pure sources” were: “primitive Christianity,” Moses, Abraham, Enoch?

A comment left on an earlier post by Seth R. frames the issues very well:

I think that the idea that the LDS Church is merely a restoration of “primitive Christianity” has the status more of folk doctrine.

What Joseph Smith was trying to restore was the “true order of religion” not just the confused and disheveled period under St. Peter. He was trying to restore the true religion practiced by Adam, Enoch, Abraham, etc. I think limiting the foundational aims of the LDS Church to simply imitating the state of affairs under Peter and Paul is selling our religion waaaay short.

As Seth and others on that post mention, pure, “primitive” Christianity is a problematic concept (John Wesley was rather dubious of the concept himself). As I have argued in other posts, our notions of the apostasy have been heavily influenced by Protestant theologians and historians. Protestants tended to see a pure Christianity corrupted by pagan practices that the reformers sought to strip away. I would argued, however, that LDS scriptures presented the apostasy differently. Rather than the addition of incorrect pagan ideas, 1 Ne 13 talks only about the removal “from the gospel of the Lamb many parts which are plain and most precious; and also many covenants of the Lord have they taken away” (26). Thus supposed additions, whether it be pre-Christian worldview or Platonic philosophy, are less a problem than subtraction. “Mormonism is truth,” Smith declared, “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.” [1] As he said in his last sermon, “I never hear[d] of a man being d[amne]d for bel[ievin]g too much but they are d[amne]d for unbel[ief].”[2]

In the end, I would simply say that the “pure source” is God Himself and not some earthly movement. I certainly believe that God has revealed Himself to humans but as historians we are looking through a glass darkly. The scriptures say repeatedly that, at best, the people followed the prophets half-heartedly. Enoch seems to have had great success with his city, but that’s not a movement we can access historically; it all comes to us by means of visions.

Ultimately, whatever means God uses to promulgate Truth are pure sources, by definition, independent of whatever labels scholars may put on them (i.e. pagan, magic, occult etc.)
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[1] Quoted in Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling 394.

[2] Quoted in Bushman, Joseph Smith, 544.

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16 Comments

  1. Very interesting stuff Steve, and very accessible to us non-history specialists. Thanks.

    Comment by Ben S — May 6, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

  2. I am impressed with your experience with the Spirit. Can’t say I have had anything quite that important happen during my scholarly efforts. Thank you for sharing it.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 9, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

  3. I very much agree with you, for what that is worth.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — May 9, 2011 @ 7:29 pm

  4. Protestants tended to see a pure Christianity corrupted by pagan practices that the reformers sought to strip away. I would argued, however, that LDS scriptures presented the apostasy differently.

    This makes sense, Steve. Do you have a sense of how the Book of Mormon’s view of apostasy fits within early LDS notions of the apostasy more generally?

    Re: Wesley. It’s important to remember that loss of spiritual gifts was recognized by Wesley as part of the early church’s apostasy (a point early Mormons were keenly aware of).

    Comment by Christopher — May 9, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

  5. Thanks all.

    Christopher, my sense is that the early Mormons focused particularly on the loss of miracles but also priesthood authority. Cessation and rejection of priesthood were both Protestant ideas. From the Mormon point of view, these could be losses of “plain and precious truths.” Also, perhaps in line with “and also many covenants,” Protestant reduced the sacraments from 7 to 2. Sort of a “loss of convenants” as a result.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 10, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  6. Wow. This idea is completely new To me and I find it intriguing.

    What are the implications for the primitive Christian church, then? Did they not have the fulness of the gospel that Adam, Enoch & Joseph Smith had? Or does the fulness of the gospel just not incorporate whatever aspects of the Pauline church we don’t emulate? And what might those aspects be?

    Comment by Ryan — May 22, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  7. Interesting questions, Ryan, but I just don’t know.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 23, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  8. Steve, one interesting way of looking at early views of apostasy is the King Follet Discourse and how Joseph perceived Genesis 1:1 and the activities of “an old Jew without any authority.” It might be a bit dubious as an exegesis of the passage (although as others have noted it parallels Kabbalistic readings as well as certain common misreadings when learning Hebrew). I’ve long thought it an interesting insight into Joseph’s mind regarding apostasy.

    The real interesting question is when Joseph had the idea of quasi-temple related stuff being so key to apostasy. Certainly by Nauvoo it’s front and central with Masonry being perceived as a kind of hermetic parallel to Protestantism in terms of both being apostate versions of the truth. Of course much of what Nauvoo Mormons took as true within Masonry was somewhat late addition to Masonry. (Something critics have never tired of pointing out)

    What gets lost in all this is how early Joseph’s exposure to Masonry probably was. The parallels of the Gadianton Robbers to anti-Masonry sentiment has long been noted by historians however few have written about how this might affect Joseph’s perception of “true Church” in those early years. (Partially because it’s likely an unknowable question I’m sure)

    It’s interesting since the Protestant take on all this was a Priesthood of all believers and the idea of the opening of the temple was more or less the destruction of the temple since it wasn’t needed anymore. Everyone had the Holy Ghost and that’s all that was needed. Joseph moves the opposite direction seeing the opening of the temple as everyone able to come to the temple. Priesthood was intrinsically needed.

    What does this mean for primitive Christianity? Obviously Mormon apologists have long been open to books like Jeu or the Gospel of Philip – even while being uncomfortable with the gnosticism or platonism they were tied to. But I think you are pointing to that gap being not quite as easy to divorce. (If I’m reading between the lines correctly Steve) Certainly that’s where Nibley goes. I’m still not convinced that’s where Joseph was going.

    Comment by Clark — May 24, 2011 @ 6:13 pm

  9. Thanks Clark. My foremost point would be that we need not see Plato as corrupting influence. What influence Plato had on JS is no doubt up for debate, but Mormonism’s veracity isn’t at stake in that debate.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 24, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

  10. Well…

    If we emphasize that “need not.” As I mentioned before I think theologically the big problem was merging Jewish more anthropic views of God with Greek more absolutist views of God (which includes Plato). So honestly I do think a big influence in the apostasy was trying to think of the God of the Hebrews in terms of the God of the Platonists (or Stoics).

    Now one can reconcile this by taking Plato in a more atheistic sense and divorcing God from the absolute. And I think Mormonism especially as promulgated by Joseph Smith really does make that more atheistic move. That is religion becomes not about the absolute as in Greek thought but that much more primitive pre-Greek philosophy conception of religion. (And of course this view of apostasy has the apostasy starting well before the Christian era – Philo is already doing this for instance)

    Thus the apostasy of the gnostics isn’t simply falsely claiming the hidden teachings (what we’d call temple cosmology) and isn’t just false authority (as in Paul) but it is that weird way God and the demiurge are treated (not to mention the way they deal with Christology). To Joseph it’s all about anthropological conceptions of God.

    Comment by Clark — May 25, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

  11. Interesting thoughts Clark. You’re right that there were a number of ways of thinking about Platonic deity. One could say that the Neoplatonic One isn’t really a God since It is totally unaware of us and totally indescribable. Christian Platonists who push this idea do have a God that doesn’t sound very Mormon. The Demiurge though does look more Mormon, particularly Proclus’s concept with a Father and Mother God who give birth to the Demiurge who then creates the world. So arguing that JS divorces God from the One is interesting.

    Also, the Gnostics had a totally different concept of the Demiurge than did Plato (stupid and evil) so I don’t see them as Platonizing on that point. I know some have argued that Gnostics were more dualistic or even Zoroastrian.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 25, 2011 @ 7:28 pm

  12. Sorry – didn’t mean to imply the gnostics were straight platonists. I was more critiquing the way some Mormons doing theology or apologetics tend to look at (or ignore) the Platonic elements in texts like The Gospel of Philip. By the time of Christ the philosophers had been spending centuries allegorizing Greek religion so as to avoid being called atheists. (Honestly, I’ve long thought that was the real message of The Apology: don’t philosophize in such as way as enemies can designate you an atheist) By the time of late antiquity effectively that had become a kind of religion. (Both the Stoics and neoPlatonists have meditative practices, the inner ascent of the soul is religious, and there was as you know lots of borrowing from various religions in terms of practices, ritual and so forth)

    Certainly the gnostics are doing something both similar yet different from the neoPlatonists or even the quasi-Egypian pseudo-religious hermeticists. I tend to see them more as simply a different way of how Platonic or Aristotilean absolutism gets reconciled with Christian thought. Ex nihlo is one innovation. But the evil demiurge (as contrasted with what is in the Timaeus) is an other way of doing it. Plotinus’ continuity of emanations is yet an other albeit non-Christian. (Although Christian mystics often try to introduce Plotinus’ into Christian theology and arguably the Kabbalists with the withdrawal of the En-sof is following Plotinus theologically)

    Proculus appeal to the Father and Mother God isn’t that unique. You can find similar ideas in lots of syncrestic texts. (It’s been years since I read the Hermetic corpus that dates to around this time but I vaguely remember similarities there in a few of the texts) Also the more explicit Platonic texts in the DSS also have something very similar. However as was common in Greek philosophy I think we have to take this as highly allegorized and is really talking of Platonic realities by way of common religious imagery. (i.e. divine pantheons both of the Semetic peoples, the Egypians, Greeks and so forth) The Kabbalists are really interesting here since they tend to be very anthropomorphic even as they are being much more Platonic in many ways. Interestingly they tend to have it both ways since there are so many layers to any Kabbalistic symbol. (Think the Sefiroth in particular) The difference between the Kabbalistic En-Sof and the neoPlatonic One is pretty hard for me to discern.

    Comment by Clark — May 25, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

  13. I saw the title to the post “Pure Sources” and the mentioning of the somewhat maligned Brooke book (Refiner’s Fire) and thought this would be a post in defense of appreciating a book even though it has what you see as problems. So when someone sees Brooke, or some of Quinn’s material referenced in a footnote, they might scoff a bit: ‘why are they relying on that stuff?’ But books can be quite valuable even when “impure.” Purity could be reimagined as referring to the way a book is approached and used by the reader, as opposed to how “pure” or correct its particular arguments are from the author.

    All of this flashed through my brain in about 5 seconds when I saw “Pure Sources” and “Brooke.” Typing it out adds all that cruddy extra “word” stuff we have to muddle with. Then I read the post and found a completely different message, a totally different purpose, and I really enjoyed it even still. Thanks Steve.

    Comment by BHodges — May 26, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  14. Thanks Blair.

    Clark, good points. These tradition do suggests many possible interpretations.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 26, 2011 @ 3:09 pm

  15. BHodges, I’ve been pretty critical of Quinn and Brookes has some dubious sections (Heremetic counterfeiting anyone?) but I fully agree both are extremely valuable despite their many flaws.

    Comment by Clark — May 27, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  16. BTW – I said Dead Sea Scroll above. I obviously meant Nag Hammadi. Sorry if anyone got confused.

    Comment by Clark — May 27, 2011 @ 11:56 am