Introductory Essay

Mormonism as Historical

Truman G. Madsen

Introductory Essay, in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), xi–xviii.

“Among our colleagues,” Jacob Neusner has written recently, “are some who do not really like religion in its living forms, but find terribly interesting religion in its dead ones.” An example of a living form—“A fresh Christian expression”—that has too often endured scholarly neglect is, he says, the Book of Mormon. [1] “Fresh” in this usage means, of course, recent and alive; and yet the Book of Mormon is, like the living Dead Sea Scrolls, new and old; a new discovery, indeed, but also a recovery rooted in antiquity. Mormonism itself is both contemporary and ancient.

The recency of its revelatory beginnings is a prime distinction of Mormonism and led German historian Eduard Meyer to write a half-century ago:

The unique position of Mormonism, in which it distinguishes itself from all other religious groups which have developed on Christian foundations, consists in the fact that it is not merely a new sect, of which there are countless examples, but rather a new revealed religion [Offenbarungsreligion]. This new religion developed in the middle of the nineteenth century, allowing us to follow its emergence in history with the help of any unusually rich contemporary tradition in a very detailed fashion. That which in the study of other revealed religions is disclosed with only the greatest difficulty, is directly accessible in the study of Mormonism. It is for this reason that the origin and history of Mormonism has such extraordinary worth for the historian of religion. [2]

On the other hand, it was the common ancestry of Mormonism (itself uncommon) in antiquity that impressed archeologist William F. Albright. Some regions, he observed, indeed most of the world’s great religions, have “little or no historical consciousness.” Their origins are usually lost in the unrecoverable past. (Sometimes, he might have added, there is little regret for this because it gives a certain credibility and license to theological speculation.) As examples of religions whose past is beyond reach, Albright cites Japanese Shintoism and the early polytheisms of the ancient Mediterranean. Judaeo-Christianity, in contrast, is for Albright the only world religion that has a “completely historical orientation.” As a conspicuous modern counterpart, he adds, Mormonism is an important offshoot of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and “continue to exhibit marked historical tendencies. Mormonism actually possesses an alleged historical authentication in the form of the Book of Mormon purporting to give the ancient history of the New World in imitation of the Bible.” [3]

Among obvious manifestations of Mormonism’s “historical sense”:

Its vast historical archives are among the most conscientiously preserved, collated, and studied in the world.

Its genealogical fervor, not just an identity but a family quest, is unequaled.

The admonition to “keep a journal” is to every member almost as binding an observance as the Ten Commandments. (“Your journals will be sought after as history and scripture . . . That is the way the New Testament came—what we have of it,” said Joseph Smith.)

Its systematized and even ritualized remembering engenders historical groups and study classes. Its curriculum focus and its legacy of commemoration and celebration as second only to Judaism.

Its many expositors have been historians as well as scripturalists. [4]

“Marked historical tendencies” have more substantial underwriting in Mormonism than is commonly observed. As a backdrop to the present symposium, let us point toward ways in which in its historical outlook Mormon is somewhat distinctive.

1. God and Temporality. The Mormon reads modern revelation to say that God himself is in time, that time and space are as real and eternal as he is. This is not to say only that God has a relationship to process and duration, nor again that his entry or “involvement” in the spatio-temporal order came only once in the intrusion of Christ. It is to say that, stripped of its heavy philosophical overlay, the “eternity” of God is his endlessness in time. There is a when and a where for all divine action, whether in or beyond this world. The ultimate nature of time is itself problematic. But this much is clear in Mormon theology: God himself has a history. Transcendent through he be as to man and man’s condition, he has become so; and in that becoming his past has always differed from his future (as does our own) if in no other way in that it is unchangeable. It has happened.

The implications of this for the historical temper among the Mormons (and, as they believe, among the ancient Hebrews and Christians) are of course legion. For one thing, man’s life is conceived in an exact paradigmatic relationship to the Divine. An inexhaustible kinship and closeness, not to say comfort and motivation, spring up from this faith. World religions which tend to disparage time or events as mere appearance, as illusion, or as a mental projection of finite or even evil perception, are misleading. When Christianity in its present forms defines other-worldliness as timeless, it is off the mark. Time is not temporary but is itself eternal. History is not dross and refuse but is precious and sacred. We, with God, are already in eternity and always have been. All history, cosmic and human, is the extension of the biography of God.

2. Man and Autonomy. For the Mormon, man’s freedom, his power of autonomous choice, is of the very nature of uncreate intelligence and is indestructible. The universe splits into two categories: things to act and things to be acted upon. In the redemptive process God safeguards and expands man’s freedom. But he does not, will not, and finally cannot violate it. This truth is both exhilarating and sobering. The responsibility for history is shared; every creature bears part of it. We unavoidably bear the brunt, the consequences: “Behold, here is the agency of man.” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:31.) This perspective stoutly resists stereotyping events or disparaging the concrete. It undergirds the sense of infinite potential in the Mormon understanding of man. It gives life, including spiritual life, zest, tingle, and variety. Determinism, whether conceived in secular or in theological terms, is rejected. Those oriental philosophies and religions which see history as karma (punishing results), or as samsara (illusion), or as the monotonous groaning of inevitabilities, are replaced with “eternalism,” which recognizes that in response to or in the rejection of the divine plan man moves through transformations but not through repetitions. Nietzsche’s phrase “eternal recurrence” or the popular idea that history “repeats itself” is qualified. There is indeed life before life as there is life after life. But novelty, adventure, and creativity spring out of the individual’s own unique experience. There is no final “swallowing up” of individuality nor of freedom, nor again is there exact repetition of any autobiographical thread. History is a paragraph of a whole library of genuine possibilities.

3. Mormonism and Particularism. The classical dichotomy of spirit and body is modified in Mormonism by the teaching that “all spirit is matter, but it is more fine and pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes.” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7.) Is this materialism or spiritualism? In classical terms, neither. And neither will the familiar either-or, sacred and secular, hold up. The tendency, since Plato, to assume a final ontic difference between the “pure form,” the idea, and the so-called shadow world of sensate flux and opinion has all but dominated Western religion. Of course, there are crucial differences between the nature of spirit and of matter. But for the Mormon, intellectual history, or the history of ideas, is rooted in time and space, and technically there is no absolutely spiritual history any more than there is any purely secular history. If there are indeed spiritual subtleties (or, for that matter, material ones) which elude the best of our present methods, so be it. A proper humility follows. But it will not do to “sole” tensions by a superimposed distinction between physical and metaphysical, or a doctrine of “double truth,” or by the claim, widespread in our time, that religion is after all not a matter of truth but rather a sheer expressive faith, a paradox, a mystery. History as a discipline is bound to be on the human scale at best highly probable. But there can be no revelation about history as well as history of revelation.

That leads to the Mormon understanding of dispensationalism. The glory of the Restoration is that “what was given of old has been given anew.” It is new wine in new bottles. But that witness involves the recognition that wine of exactly the same vintage has been given to mankind in prior generations or what the Mormon calls dispensations. Past outpourings are intimately intermixed with the present. One cannot accept modern revelation without accepting ancient, and from the Mormon point of view the reverse is also true. (Was it not a frequent query of the Master, “How can you claim to accept Moses and no accept me?” And that was not the edge of his query that they did not really accept, or accepting did not fully understand, either?)

There is no more vivid example of this than the Mormon understanding of the Bible. In their resort to it for doctrinal proof texts, their probing concern for devotional light, and their seeking of sanctions for moral guidance, Mormons seem to be biblicistic and literalistic. But it is the recognition that the Bible is in central parts clear narrative, an account of genuine persons involved in genuine events, that is characteristic. And in addition, Mormonism offers a much richer definition of scripture than would satisfy traditional notions of canon: “Whatsoever [you] shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture.” (Doctrine and Covenants 68:4.) The canon is never closed. Revelation and scripture are therefore continual. And the Mormon refuses to harden on the all-sufficiency or only-sufficiency of any part of scripture, for that is to praise the cup and reject the fountain. Nor does the Mormon embrace or invent literary theories that tend to turn narrative into metaphor and metaphor into theological invasion. Creation was an event; the Resurrection occurred. The religious experiences chronicled in the book of Acts are acts in a book. The Bible, the point is, becomes thus a temporal document just as much as it is spiritual. And the same can be said for other Mormon scriptural writings. They too are “time-bound”; they cannot be understood in a nonhistorical way. They arise from and, it is hoped, return to the concrete realities of the human predicament.

4. Mormonism and Futurism. With this sense of dispensations comes the Mormon sense of culmination. This is in part what W. D. Davies underscores when he says Mormonism is messianic and therefore apocalyptic, eschatological, and millennial. As the late Thomas F. O’Dea observed, the Mormons have in a century experienced and built a tradition almost as profound and sweeping as its parents, Judaism and Christianity, have done in more than three millenia, and as a sociologist he saw signs of its winding down. And though the record is of triumph and growth, it is also a record of flaws, tragedies, and setbacks. Its varieties of religious experience have hardly been touched by serious students as yet. But it is not a chronicle of despair comparable to the literary outbursts of chronic pessimists of our time. There is throughout a resilient sense of meaning and sacred purpose. Something like this was in the mind of Brigham Young when he said that Joseph Smith lived a thousand years in thirty-eight. The Church, comparatively a fledgling, has reached many of the highest water marks of religion, but it views its own history as the prologue to the glorious consummation of God’s purposes for the salvation of the human race.

Finally, the Mormon historical sense is unique in that it is not unique. To say that the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness is restored is to say that something has been lost and regained—but it is not to say that everything has. The Mormon believes that after every outpouring of divine light there is a record of degeneration and loss, the signs of which he thinks he can see in every generation. But Mormons have resisted from the outset the sectarian impulse: the isolation of a text or principle and the insistence that they alone possess and practice it. Exultant at a new revelatory downpour, the Mormon sees the implication: unless the same truths, authorities, and powers can be found in prior times and places; unless there have been genuine prophets, apostles and holy men who were, for all their individual traits, in touch with divine outpourings; unless there have been saints of former as well as of latter-days—unless these things are so, Mormonism has no claim to be a viable religion in the past. And this is not just a halfhearted concession that there has been sort of, or part of, or a shadow of the fullness of the gospel. It is to say that some, at least, among the ancients had it all. It is to match the thesis that from the early (and supposedly crude) beginnings things have been become better; just as often they have, instead, become worse. Spiritual anabolism and catabolism have been at work in the religious life from the beginning.

In exactly this spirit Joseph Smith lived his own testimony that to a prophet, a genuine seer, the significant religious past as well as the future are increasingly clear. His clarion teaching was that the barrier to the powerful revivification of the Judaeo-Christian legacy was less on of scholarly reach, however brilliant or heroic, than of sensitivity and worthiness. One cannot overemphasize the impact of his expectations in the consciousness of Joseph Smith or of those who tried to carry on after his early death. Looking forward to the dedication of the Nauvoo temple, which he yearned to live to see (“Then, oh Lord, Thy servant can depart in peace”), he yet predicted that his enemies would ensure that he did not. He spoke of that sanctuary in what Santillana would call “archaic” ways. What he said seemed to the increasing melting-pot of converts to be foreign and familiar—the temple was a template, a place for taking one’s bearings on the universe, a divinely endowed observatory (he used the precise word). It was as if he saw the dedication of the that temple (which presupposed the dedication of the lives who had sacrificed to build it), the first full-fledged temple of this era, as an event that would tap the reservoir of the past, bringing participants to a new closeness to the Redeemer and new skills of human initiative in the uncovering of precious records. For, said he, at the close of his yearning prayer, “Then let the ancient records come—oh, let them come!”

To the scholars comes the task of deciding how many of those discoveries have occurred since the 1840s and whether Joseph Smith’s expectations, as detailed in form as in the promise of content, are passing strange or patently prophetic.

All this is background to the search for parallels exhibited in this symposium. Surface resemblance may conceal profound difference. It requires competence, much goodwill and bold caution properly to distinguish what is remotely parallel, what is like, what is very like, and what is identical. It is harder still to trace these threads to original influences and beginnings. But on the whole the Mormon expects to find, not just in the Judaeo-Christian background but in all religious traditions, elements of commonality which, if they do not outweigh elements of contrast, do reflect that all-inclusive diffusion of primal religious concern and contact with God—the light “which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” If the outcome of hard archeological, historical, and comparative discoveries in the past century is an embarrassment to exclusivistic readings of religion, that, to the Mormon, is a kind of confirmation and vindication. His faith assures him not only that Jesus anticipated his great predecessors (who were really successors) but that hardly a teaching or a practice is utterly distinct or peculiar or original in his earthly ministry. Jesus was not a plagiarist, unless that is the proper name for one who repeats himself. He was the original author. The gospel of Jesus Christ came with Christ in the meridian of time only because the gospel of Jesus Christ came from Christ in prior dispensations. He did not teach merely a new twist on a syncretic-Mediterranean tradition. His earthly ministry enacted what had been planned and anticipated “from before the foundations of the world,” and from Adam down.

Of course, all originative religious movements, Christ’s perhaps more than any, have faced initial rejection as outlandish, then a kind of studied indifference, and then the claim that its opponents actually thought of it first. These responses can be viewed as stages through which any movement passes, but they may also be seen as levels. For at one and the same time the core of religion is outlandish (in the sense that it goes against the grain of much of the culture it has come to transform) and self-authenticating—one must work hard at rejecting it. And, however new, it is likewise old. Mormonism has had its share of willful misunderstanders, as have other innovative movements which, while upsetting in their righteous intent, tend (human nature being what it is) to carry along residues of what they renounce. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, not just of religious but of all movements aimed at the improvement of mankind, that in proportion to their value, their advocates could count not only on lag and lethargy but on vigorous opposition.

Yet the Mormon continues to hope, out of his historical legacy, that the comparative enterprise will lead away from fragmentation and friction and toward coherence and kinship. In the wake of such efforts as this symposium, the future of scholarship, as of the religious life, seems brighter.


[1] Council on the Study of Religion, Bulletin, vol. 8, no. 5 (December 1977), 118.

[2] Eduard Meyer, Upsprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (Halle: 1914), 1.

[3] “Archaeology and Religion,” Cross Currents, vol. IX, no. 2 (Spring 1959), 111.

[4] For example, James E. Talmage, B. H. Roberts, Orson F. Whitney, and Joseph Fielding Smith.