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Mormon ChristianityWhat Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints$

Stephen Webb

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199316816

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199316816.001.0001

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(p.204) (p.205) Sources and Suggested Reading

(p.204) (p.205) Sources and Suggested Reading

Mormon Christianity
Oxford University Press

Introduction: The Mormon Ecumenical Moment

The quotation about the “larger cup” comes from Truman G. Madsen, Eternal Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1970), p. iv. I was honored to be invited to give the Fifth Annual Truman G. Madsen Lecture sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University on November 15, 2012. I want to thank Richard Williams, James Faulconer, and Emily Reynolds (Truman Madsen’s daughter) for their warm hospitality, encouragement, and constructive responses to my work. I read Eternal Man when I first started a serious study of Mormonism, and it was unlike any theology I had ever read before. Indeed, I did not think that such theological views were even possible, let alone that they could be delivered in inspiring and engaging prose.

A good rejoinder to the resurgence of atheistic materialism among some philosophers and scientists has been written by Ian S. Markham: Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong (Malden: Blackwell, 2010).

For my review of one of the best books on the restoration movement, see Stephen H. Webb, review of William R. Baker, ed., “Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement,” Encounter 64, no. 1 (Winter 2003): pp. 106–108. In that review I point out that the restorationist emphasis on baptism for the remission of sins set the Stone-Campbell movement apart from the evangelical emphasis on having a born-again experience. Interestingly, Mormons too focus on baptism as the means of salvation and also tend to avoid born-again language.

Statistics about Mormon growth and other aspects of the Latter-day Saints can be found in Brandon S. Plewe, ed., Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2012).

(p.206) Chapter 1: Mormon Envy

All of Joseph Smith’s works can be found on the official website of The Church of Latter-day Saints at http://lds.org. This includes the Doctrine and Covenants, which is mainly a collection of revelations received by Joseph Smith, and the famous King Follett Sermon. Context is everything in the study of Joseph Smith, as has been pointed out by the historian who knows Smith the best: “To a large extent, Joseph Smith assumes the character of the history selected for him. The broader the historical context, the greater the appreciation of the man” ( Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph Smith’s Many Histories,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith, ed. John W. Welch [Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006], p. 4).

For more of my reflections on the evangelical culture of the church of my youth, see Stephen H. Webb, “Recalling: A Theologian Remembers His Church,” in Falling toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture from the Heartland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), pp. 70–76; and for my analysis of church traditions in terms of what I call their theoacoustical soundscapes, see Stephen H. Webb, “Silence, Noise, and the Voice of Jesus Christ,” in Developing Ears to Hear: Listening in Pastoral Ministry, the Spiritual Life, and Theology, ed. Aaron Perry (Lexington, Ky.: Emeth Press, 2011), pp. 29–35.

An insightful examination of the role sincerity plays among the Saints has been written by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp; see “Tracking the Sincere Believer: ‘Authentic’ Religion and the Enduring Legacy of Joseph Smith Jr.,” in Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), chap. 11. Saints often appeal to enduring and heartfelt experiences to confirm their religious beliefs.

For an analysis of what he calls Mormonism’s “selective literalism,” see the important book by Philip L. Barlow, Mormonism and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 32.

The quotation from the mental health expert is from John Watkins, Hearing Voices: A Common Human Experience (Melbourne: Michael Anderson Publishing, 2008), p. 5. For more on the research of Henry Sidgwick, see T. M. Lurhmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), esp. chap. 8.

For the quote from Terryl Givens, see his excellent book, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 221. The quote from Alexander Campbell comes from the same book, p. 232. I am grateful to Givens for advice and inspiration in writing this book.

(p.207) Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version except when the context makes it appropriate to use the King James Version. There are many editions of William James’s classic The Varieties of Religious Experience.

No understanding of anti-Mormon prejudices would be complete without reading J. Spencer Fluhman, “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Chapter 2: The Magic of Being Mormon

For a fascinating history of magic, see Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Penguin Books, 1971).

Both Plato quotations are from his dialogue Theaetetus. See The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 881 (176b) and p. 860 (155d). Plotinus’s last words were recorded by Porphyry in his “Life of Plotinus.” See the first volume of the A. H. Armstrong translation of the Enneads in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 7. For the argument that the theurgist becomes his own demiurge, see the important book by Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), p. 56. I have also learned much from Algis Uzdavinys, Philosophy and Theurgy in Late Antiquity (San Rafael: Sophia Perennis, 2010); and John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977).

More philosophers are beginning to recognize that philosophy traditionally was (and still should be) a spiritual discipline. See, for example, Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, trans. Michael Chase (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1995).

For John Brooke, see his book The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). An excellent survey of various receptions of this book can be found in Jan Shipps, Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), chap. 10.

The Iamblichus quotation is from Iamblichus: On the Mysteries, trans. with intro. and notes by Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon, and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), p. 169 (III.19).

The quotation from Jeffrey Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is from a devotional address, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” that he gave (p.208) on January 12, 1988, at the Marriott Center while he was president of Brigham Young University. It can be heard on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5PBqxwlfHI, and it was printed as a pamphlet by Deseret Book Company in 2001.

An insightful discussion of LDS–Roman Catholic relations can be found in Michael G. Reed, Banishing the Cross: The Emergence of a Mormon Taboo (Independence: John Whitmer Books, 2012).

Chapter 3: What’s Up with Mormons and Matter?

For further discussion of the Messalian movement, see my review of Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakley, eds., “The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Christianity,” Reviews in Religion and Theology 19, no. 4 (September 2012): pp. 452–455. Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses is considered scripture by Latter-day Saints and is included in a selection of his other works under the title Pearl of Great Price. As further evidence that Smith taught the doctrine of a spiritual sense, Erastus Snow recalled him saying that “the Holy Ghost or Spirit of the Lord underlies all of the natural senses, viz., seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. This spirit communicates with the spirit of man, and enlivens all the other senses” (quoted in Truman G. Madsen, The Sacrament: Feasting at the Lord’s Table [Provo: Amalphi Publishing, 2008], p. 136). Rather than limiting the spirit sense to the eyes, Smith understood spirituality as a deepening of all of our senses toward their ultimate synesthetic consummation in heaven. For my own interests in synesthesia, see Stephen H. Webb, The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011).

All the quotations from Orson Pratt are from David J. Whitaker, foreword, The Essential Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991). The best book on Orson Pratt’s scientific and metaphysical speculations is Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992). Paul associates Joseph Smith’s thought with what he calls “astronomical pluralism” (p. 75) or, in Smith’s own words, a belief in “worlds without number” (Moses 1:33). For Paul, Smith’s ontological heterogeneity (being itself is plural) follows upon his fascination with astronomical multiplicity. Paul also associates Pratt with the occult: “In contrast to the mechanical requirement of inert particles, however, Pratt’s atomistic ontology admitted particles that possessed self-volition. Thus his ontology of nature was a curious mixture of the occult with the mechanical” (p. 130). Paul helps us to see the connections between “multiple worlds” astronomy and Smith’s (p.209) view of God’s embodiment and the role of propagation in heaven. The cosmos has to be big enough for all of these gods-in-the-making! Smith stretched the imagination of the universe to make the world large enough to include God. Mormon thinkers like Pratt did not take Smith’s astronomy in the direction of natural theology because their materialism inspired them to seek a more immediate connection between doctrine and science.

There is also a fine discussion of Orson Pratt in Craig James Hazen, The Village Enlightenment in America: Popular Religion and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000), chap. 1. The only biography of Orson Pratt is Breck England, The Life and Thought of Orson Pratt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985).

Lynne McTaggart’sbook is The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe (New York: Harper, 2008). For an excellent investigation of how quantum mechanics is changing theology, see Kirk Wegter-McNelly, The Entangled God: Divine Relationality and Quantum Physics (New York: Routledge, 2011). I refer to this book in my own critique of creatio ex nihilo, forthcoming from Routledge in a volume edited by Thomas Oord. John Durham Peters has written a creative and accessible essay on some of these issues: “Reflections on Mormon Materialism,” Sunstone Magazine, March 1993: pp. 49–52.

Chapter 4: Branches on the Family Tree: Relatives or Impersonators?

This chapter is a thoroughly revised expansion of an essay that originally appeared as “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ,” First Things, February 2012: pp. 21–23; with my reply to letters in the April 2012 issue, pp. 9–15. I am very grateful for the dozens of e-mails I received from readers, most of which were helpful suggestions and encouragement from Mormons. I especially learned from an informative and gracious letter from Elder Bruce D. Porter.

Very few books about Jesus Christ written by non-Mormons begin with his prehistory. The only one that I know of is the exceptional work Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus: A Theography (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012). Chapter 1 is entitled “Christ before Time.” Note this comment: “Consequently, the incarnation should not be seen as a single temporal act in history. But the divine emptying that it embodied began before creation, continued into the incarnation, and further than that” (p. 4).

Richard Lyman Bushman is the author of a grand biography of Joseph Smith that has significantly shaped my thinking: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005).

(p.210) All of Robert Millet’s books are instructive and helpful. In particular, see Robert L. Millet, A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005). Philosophers have become interested in analyzing “vague concepts” (concepts whose extension is unclear), but theologians have not; theologians still treat vagueness as a debility that must be corrected. Millet introduces the idea that the chasm between humanity and God is “almost infinite” (p. 117), which sounds to me like a perfectly good vague concept.

Chapter 5: Mormon Overreach? Brigham Young and Parley Pratt

For the quotation from Turner, see John G. Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 2. Several of the quotations from Young are from Turner’s book, while the rest can be found in The Essential Brigham Young, foreword by Eugene E. Campbell (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), available at the publisher’s website: http://signaturebookslibrary.org/.

The section on Brigham Young is a revised and expanded version of my review of John Turner’s book: “A Many-Sided Man,” Books and Culture, September/October 2012: pp. 30–31.

The section on Parley Pratt is also revised from a review forthcoming in Books and Culture. I am extremely grateful for that journal’s editor, John Wilson, for all of the support he has given my writing over the years and for encouragement in my pursuit of Mormon studies. John is an incredibly generous reader and supporter of writers.

All of the quotations from the Pratt section are from Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). I have also benefited from Gregory K. Armstrong, Matthew J. Grow, and Dennis J. Siler, eds., Parley P. Pratt and the Making of Mormonism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011).

I have not given much discussion to the significant role that millennial expectation played in early Mormonism, primarily because I believe that apocalypticism in all of its forms is a type of religious experience that collapses and minimizes the distances of time, while the Saints developed their spiritual perception in a different direction: their materialism crosses and dissolves the great distances of space.

There are many ways of viewing early Mormon polygamy. The most helpful, I think, is to see it as a product of a premature eschatological enthusiasm. It was also an attempt to recover not just an Old Testament practice but the New Testament’s emphasis on how the church should have (p.211) a creative impact on restructuring the nature of the family. Finally, it must have seemed to early Mormons a natural implication of Joseph Smith’s vision of human spirits being, before the creation of the world, the literal offspring of God the Father. Propagation for Mormons is the primary means by which acts of creation take place, and thinking of spirits as propagated by God is a way of drawing all creatures into an intimate portrait of God’s love. Smith basically reorganized discourse concerning God’s relationship to the world along the lines of family ties. That so many non-Mormon Christians find a sexualized eternity both in prehistory and in heaven offensive is a good issue to ponder. It presupposes not only God’s embodiment but also the speculation that there is a Mother God along with God the Father. One of its theological benefits is that it gives stronger meaning to the phrases “Son of God” and “God the Father.”

Chapter 6: How to Heal Modernity’s Spiritual Breakdown

The quotation from Joseph Smith regarding the earth being crowned with glory is from Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, first published in 1938 and available on the Web at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Joseph-Smith/Teachings/T1.html.

The best brief explanation of Mormon baptism for the dead that I know of is provided in James E. Talmage, “Missionary Labor among the Dead Was Inaugurated by the Christ,” in Jesus the Christ: A Study of the Messiah and His Mission according to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983), p. 627. Jesus tried to save the dead, so why should not Christians follow suit?

The indisputably great work of the Old Testament Temple scholar Margaret Barker is just beginning to be assimilated by Mormon (and other) scholars. See Margaret Barker and Kevin Christensen, “Seeking the Face of the Lord: Joseph Smith and the First Temple Tradition,” in Joseph Smith Jr.: Reappraisals after Two Centuries, ed. Reid L. Neilson and Terryl L. Givens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), chap. 10.

Chapter 7: Two Decisions

For the quote from David L. Paulsen, see his “Are Christians Mormon?” BYU Studies 45, no. 1 (2006): p. 280. For the book dedicated to his work, see Jacob T. Baker, ed., Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology: Essays in Honor of David L. Paulsen (Salt Lake City: Greg (p.212) Kofford Books, 2012). I draw his understanding of apostasy from his review of Roger Olson, “The Story of Christian Theology,” BYU Studies 39, no. 4 (2000): pp. 185–194. There is a great need to publish Paulsen’s collected papers. Miranda Wilcox is editing an excellent book on apostasy: Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy (forthcoming).

Parts of this chapter are a revision of my Web article “Talking with Mormons: A Catholic Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Mormons,” posted in 2012 on the Books and Culture website: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2012/may/talkingmormons.html. See also Richard J. Mouw, Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012). I also borrow from my review of Robert L. Millet and Gerald R. McDermott, Claiming Christ: A Mormon–Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), Reviews in Religion and Theology 15 (July 2008): pp. 426–429.

For Blake Ostler’s groundbreaking work in systematizing Mormon doctrine, see his Exploring Mormon Thought, vol. 1: The Attributes of God; vol. 2: The Problem with Theism and the Love of God; vol. 3: Of God and Gods (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2001, 2006, and 2008).

For an excellent discussion of The Book of Mormon and anti-Catholicism, see Stephen E. Robinson, “Nephi’s ‘Great and Abominable Church,’” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 7 (1998), pp. 32–39.

A marvelous book on the often hidden history of Western affirmations of preexistence is Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Also see the beautifully written book Terryl L. Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Pleasant Grove, Utah: Ensign Peak, 2012). It is a standard belief in Mormonism that God the Father held a council before the creation of the earth to determine the plan of our salvation, and our premortal spirits were there. On the way Joseph Smith’s experiences of the deaths of loved ones shaped his thought, see Samuel Morris Brown, In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

There is a growing number of Mormon scholars who advocate for an a-theological approach to Mormonism. They affirm and celebrate Mormonism’s freedom from the obsession in traditional theology for system building and logical completeness. The leading voice in this movement is James E. Faulconer. See his fine collection of essays, Faith, Philosophy, Scripture (Provo: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2010): “Perhaps the most important reason that Latter-day Saints have (p.213) done little toward giving an intellectual clarification of revelation is that our experience of religion is fundamentally practical and, so, does not lend itself readily to systematic theological reflection” (p. 64). This position has not stopped Faulconer from becoming one of the most insightful Mormon thinkers writing today. His analysis of the Mormon view of transcendence, which puts it into dialogue with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, is outstanding (it appears in Jacob T. Baker, ed., Mormonism at the Crossroads of Philosophy and Theology (Salt Lake City: Gregg Kofford Books, 2012), chap. 13). Following in his footsteps, in a more self-consciously (and even systematically!) postmodern way, is Adam S. Miller, Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Gregg Kofford Books, 2012).