The Conflict of Theological Innovation

Theology has an odd place in LDS thought. Early on there was a rather positive view of theology. Lectures on Faith, then part of the Doctrine and Covenants, praised the idea of theology calling it:

…that revealed science which treats of the being and attributes of God, his relations to us, the dispensations of his providence, his will with respect to our actions and his purposes with respect to our end. (Question 1 of Lectures on Faith

Now this was just quoting from a well known theological dictionary of the time. It most likely reflected Sidney Rigdon’s view of theology which would have been shaped by the more systematic theology of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin along with various others. 

Certainly Joseph Smith saw great value in learning and studying from theology and biblical studies. He studied multiple languages so he could read the scriptures in the original languages. By the time of Nauvoo many new theological ideas were introduced in part due to these studies along with his inspired translation of the Bible and the translation of the Book of Abraham. While scholars can debate how original Joseph’s ideas were given the background of more speculative quasi-religious traditions from the Renaissance onward, in terms of mainline Protestantism they were extremely innovative.

Even during Joseph’s lifetime there was pushback against innovative theology. Often apostasy was tied to new theological innovations whether in the early church with the rise of a real priesthood up through Nauvoo with changing views of God and marriage. While we can debate how mainstream Book of Mormon theology actually was, in terms of how it was read it really wasn’t seen as out of the mainstream of early American theological debates. However it’s really in Utah that we start to see the pushback against too much theological innovation. It’s there that we see the rise of the  infamous theological tensions between Orson Pratt and Brigham Young.

While Orson Pratt’s strengths as a philosopher are vastly overstated by some, he was at least somewhat exposed to classic philosophers – especially the Scottish Realists. More particularly he embraced many of the theological and scientific views of Joseph Priestly. Priestley was the discoverer of oxygen and developed many of the features of atomic theory. While today it’s his scientific ideas that we’re most familiar with, he actually was a major theological innovator as well. He was one of the main founders of Unitarianism which had become a major religious movement by the time of Joseph Smith. (Emerson was one example of a famous Unitarian) Pratt appropriates many of these ideas to try and explain theologically Joseph’s innovation that spirits are material.[1] Pratt’s main innovations was to split intelligences from spirits (possibly due to Nauvoo teachings of Joseph) and treat intelligences as free atoms. The idea of atoms he picks up from Priestly. However he rejects Priestly’s determinism in favor of the idea of free will that was popular both in Mormon thought but also many of the types of Protestantism influential on Mormonism. (Alexander Campbell being the clearest example with the conversion of Sidney Rigdon and many of his congregation) Combined with these more Arminian views,[2] Orson Pratt tries to salvage a version of the Trinity’s notion of the ousia as the fundamental substance of the unity of the Godhead. Here he creates an extremely innovative idea suggesting the then scientific notion of the aether as an interpenetrating substance made up of atoms that is the Spirit of the Godhead. God the Father, Jesus and other divine beings are human like made up of atoms with their ultimate soul being an intelligent head atom but their divinity arises due to their unity with this spiritual fluid. It ends up being the Trinity by way of a Stoic like conception of the universal soul and Leibniz monads.

Brigham Young strongly opposed Orson Pratt’s very speculative ideas. To Brigham theology wasn’t to be considered in terms of fundamental cosmology or metaphysics. Rather he saw the main innovation of Joseph to be conceive of God primarily through the conception of a divine man like Jesus. Christology becomes the lens to understand all theology. Theology thus becomes transformed into a kind of cosmological anthropology. While he still makes what we’d call metaphysical speculations at times (such as the destruction of individual spirits into component parts) his primary concerns are much more pragmatic. His focus is on the lived life and lived history of human like beings. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t make his own theological speculations. He does with the idea that God the Father was Michael the archangel and Adam in the garden and after the fall. There are hints of this in Nauvoo of course. William Law’s attacks on Mormonism with the Nauvoo Expositor mentions the idea of the possibility of God falling with creation. Whether this means something like Brigham’s controversial views or something more like God being free and thus able to choose evil but refusing remains unclear.[3] 

Without going into the nuances of all of Brigham’s and Orson’s theological speculations it’s enough to note that these major theological views were strongly hated by the other. Brigham felt that Orson was teaching that we worship God’s attributes rather than God himself. This to Brigham seemed like a return to what we’d today call a caricature of the fairly platonic conception of God that had developed with Augustine and other thinkers.[4] To Orson, Brigham’s speculations (to which he sometimes attributed inspiration) were completely contradictory to revealed scripture. There were quite heated arguments over the issue reaching a head with Brigham reordering the seniority of the Apostles to place Orson lower down due to his having left the church for a period.[5] 

One of the ironies of history is that while Brigham is triumphant politically, his theology in many ways quickly falls out of favor. Orson’s view of people being made up of independent intelligences organized into spirits dominates 20th century views. Brigham’s views of Adam quickly become rejected and actually become grounds for thinking people as apostate.[6] What comes to be known as the tripartite theology of the soul teaches that humans are made up of an intelligence that is our ‘thinking and ruling part’, a spirit which is some material form that gives us a quasi-human like nature and then our mortal bodies. However by the late 20th century as historians start to examine Nauvoo theology more closely, many of the theological assumptions of the 20th century themselves come into question.[7]

The aim of this post isn’t really to push any particular theological view. Rather it is to note the history of theological innovation. While most people tend to privilege Joseph Smith’s theological views, the innovations of those who came after him tend to get questioned far more. Even with Joseph Smith many views are questioned, such as his ideas about the resurrection of small children in the King Follet Discourse. (Often excluded when the sermon is reprinted in lesson manuals using the form found in the History of the Church)

This is not to say theological innovation doesn’t persist. You see it again in the next major conflict between the more ‘literalistic’ reading of Genesis as history by Joseph Fielding Smith versus the more scientific takes by B. H. Robert, James Talmage, and John Widstoe. While in most ways Smith’s views dominate the 20th century, especially as propagated by his son in law Bruce McConkie, in certain ways that tension and distrust from earlier in the Utah period persists. As the era of formal apologetics arises with Hugh Nibley and then FARMS those theological stances by McConkie and Smith tend to get downplayed.

[1] The idea of material spirits is not as unique as some suggest. In folk tradition spirits often had a quasi-materialistic nature. Think the traditional idea of ghosts as vaporous like objects and you already have the materialistic conception of spirits against the idea of immaterial souls and angels of Aquinas. During the Renaissance the idea of material spirits was raised by philosophers like Telesio or Bacon. While the ideas never became popular they did persist in various ways.

[2] Arminianism is based upon the theological ideas of the dutch reformer Jacobus Arminius at the end of the 16th century. Arguably the most important of his ideas relevant for Mormonism was his emphasis of free will enabled by grace against the ideas of Calvin. One should keep in mind that there are significant breaks with Arminianism in even early Mormon thought. Arminius’ ideas reached Mormonism primarily via Methodism and particularly the teachings of John Wesley

[3] The idea of God potentially being able to sin is important in some contemporary theological views such as Blake Ostler’s. The idea seems to be intrinsic to  traditional Mormon conceptions of free will as opposed to traditional theological conception of God as a necessary being. If God is free surely that means free to do anything he could. If God could sin then that would explain the idea of God falling if only as a never realized potential. Blake actually argues that a god who could sin but chooses not to is greater than a god who intrinsically can not sin. While this is an interesting argument (with hints of Anselm’s ontological argument) the idea hasn’t been established clearly theologically. This is despite some passages in the Book of Mormon like Alma 7:11 where Jesus is tempted with sin. (The idea being that to be tempted requires the potential to succumb to temptation) There’s also Alma 42 where some read the potential of God to cease to be God as a robust reality rather than just an argument making a reductio ad absurdum.

[4] Brigham doesn’t put it in those terms of course. But it seems clear from the nature of his criticisms not to mention criticisms of traditional Anglican theological catechism in the temple ceremony that he opposes anything smacking of traditional platonic Christian theology. While in his own way Orson too is reacting against platonism effectively he’s keeping much of the old theology and just rescuing it with a materialist rethinking of the theology. Augustine’s conceptions arose out of his neoPlatonism. NeoPlatonism was a syncretic version of platonism combined with Aristotle and the cosmology of the materialist Stoics. Effectively Orson is taking Augustine’s neoplatonism and stripping out the platonism with Aristotle’s and the Stoic’s materialism being left over.

[5] While it’s easy to see this reordering as tied primarily to Orson’s opposition to Brigham’s theological innovations the situation is actually a bit more complicated. Orson had left the Church for a period over issues tied to polygamy and polyandry. It was a very messy situation that didn’t necessarily reflect well on Joseph. It was all wrapped up with John Bennett using the then secret teachings on polygamy to justify sleeping around with many women. However at the same time Joseph was marring women and according to Orson’s wife Sarah had attempted a polyandrous marriage with her. (In later interviews such as to Joseph Smith III then head of the RLDS church she denied this but in other interviews she continues her charges against Joseph) Orson took her side and ended up excommunicated over the situation. However Orson soon returned to the Church and again becomes an apostle. Regardless of ones views of the matter of controversy, Orson had been excommunicated so arguably what Brigham did was justified despite the proximate tensions leading to his actions.

[6] Part of the complexity with Brigham’s views is that break off sects emphasized these doctrines of Brigham along with polygamy. They viewed the Church as having rejected revealed theology. They typically saw Heber J. Grant and even sometimes Wilford Woodruff as apostates. However Mormons of course viewed those break off groups as apostate. These theological points thus became signifiers for the deeper divides and political conflicts. Each group tended to emphasize the differences and became strongly against those differences. While people pushing what became known as Adam/God were viewed with suspicion, from what I can see the Church only really rejected the idea that the historic fallen Adam was the same as God the Father, the spiritual and literal father of Jesus Christ. Mormon apologists soon point out that if father, God, and Adam are titles rather that single persons that most of the problems disappear. In their view Brigham is just slightly confused over the role of Adam as a title. This theory becomes known as the two Adam theory. There’s some support for this in scriptures like Abr 1:3 or 1 Cor 15:45 as well as resolving many contradictions with scripture and Joseph’s teachings. We should also note that Brigham wasn’t completely consistent in his teachings. For a more contemporary apologetic take on Brigham’s views Matthew Brown has written a fair bit.

[7] One obvious example is the assumption of a distinction between intelligence and spirit that is so characteristic of early Utah theology with both Brigham and Orson. In this view there may not even be a spirit birth at all – something both Orson and Brigham take for granted. Instead spirits as a whole are pre-existent and are adopted by God. There are many other places where theology gets called into question by close reading of the original texts now more widely available with all their flaws. 

10 comments for “The Conflict of Theological Innovation

  1. Very interesting and worth a “save for reference” note.
    I’m curious about the process of validating and questioning theological concepts. In LDS experience it seems to be not (or not only) a matter of argument and debate, nor a matter of authority (which one might have expected), but something else, perhaps an evolutionary or survival process, a question of who gets quoted and who gets dismissed by later writers and speakers?

  2. I nearly added it to the post, but one thing characteristic of Pres. Hinkley’s time running the church is a move away from more speculative/innovative theology (meaning having less strong explicit support in revelations). It’s not that the ideas aren’t held, but they’re held with a certain degree of what we’d call the hermeneutics of suspicion. You see that not only with the church strongly backing off Elder McConkie’s theology in the 1990’s but even Pres. Hinkley treating the King Follet Discourse in a more tentative fashion than you’d seen through most of the 20th century.

    That’s largely persisted in the post-Hinkley era only with the Church embracing academic historians far more. What we’re not seeing is any institutional attempt to systematize this data. You start having the more systematic attempts at theology coming more from apologetics or 3rd party theological writing without institutional support. (Blake Ost;er being the prominent example)

  3. The only person I’ve seen make progress in recent years has really been Terryl Givens. His essays presented on his site tend to work on examining LDS theology and reevaluating ideas as they are generally viewed in Mormon culture (the war in heaven, the apostasy/restoration narrative). His work in the books The God Who Weeps, Wrestling the Angel, and The Oxford Handbook of Mormonism have started to both systematize the data and put it in a larger context. Granted, so far he has operated as a 3rd party, but the fact that The God Who Weeps was published by Deseret Book, the research behind Wrestling the Angel was sponsored by BYU, and that he is in the group who are working on producing the next official church history books that will be published by the Church seem to indicate to me that he is moving closer to some institutional support than, say, Blake Ostler or Eugene England have every enjoyed.

  4. I would prefer it if all theological innovation came through revelation and “Thus sayeth the Lord” pronouncements. I do like how we can study different church leaders words, and ponder over if they were that persons personal opinion, or really are the truth.
    Having read The Truth, The Way, The Life, I can say that B.H. Roberts did have some strange ideas. But at least I can see how he was trying to reconcile gospel teachings with scientific understanding. It’s an approach which will much more likely keep me in the church vs. JFS’s absolute rejection of anything which didn’t line up with his reading of the Standard works. I don’t think that I could have been an active adult member of the church when he was President.
    Pratt ideas likely out lived Brigham’s because it was more scripturally based, and so it would be easier to tie them into Sunday School lessons, when preparing a lesson.

  5. God can’t sin. Now if God could transgress the law, what would happen? (Ahem… Fall)

    When we are exalted do we lose our agency? Don’t we always have a choice? What do you call it when an immortal being transgresses if not a Fall?

    Imagine you’re exalted and confronted with a commandment that can’t be fulfilled unless you trangress. Imagine you’ve suddenly realized you’ve heard this story and seen this scenario played out a hundred times in the temple.

    You trangress and precipitate the fall. Is it robbery for Eve to be equal with her Heavenly Mother?

    I think there’s a lot of unexplored potential in some of BY’s ‘”revelations” on the nature of God.

  6. Clark, are you able to provide sources re theological differences between Brigham and Orson, or are your thoughts considerations distilled from the publicly provided Journal of Discourses and OP Works.

  7. S James (6) Conflict in the Quorum goes through some of it although it has some problems in breadth and doesn’t really focus on the ideas in their context. It’s much more focused on the conflict. Reading the various original sources is the best way to grapple with the ideas although there is some secondary literature as well. Orson’s biography very briefly touches upon his philosophical influences during his mission but largely I was looking at parallels.

    Way back when I started my first philosophy blog around 2002 it was focused on a close reading of Orson Pratt and situating his ideas philosophically. I found as I grappled with him that there was far less there than portrayed. (In particular I find “The Absurdities of Immaterialism” to be embarrassingly bad) I ended up thinking through a lot of his ideas since they end up paralleling a lot of ideas in Stoicism and Leibniz which I happened to be studying at the time.

    Brigham Young is more interesting. First he has such a negative view of philosophy he’s kind of interesting in how much he doesn’t want to grapple with such ideas. (He ends up doing so anyways but in a less than rigorous fashion) Ultimately much to my surprise while I disagree strongly with Brigham on some issues his main philosophical stance was very much in keeping with my own views. As I mentioned he ends up with a very pragmatic conception of a lived life as the prism through which to understand theology rather than the traditional approach of metaphysics. Even though I’ll confess I do like metaphysics at time.

    Back at my old blog I primarily read through Orson and Brigham via figures like Peirce and Heidegger. I think they can be grappled with well in that way.

    Chad (3) I was surprised how great Givens recent books were. They are for broad overview the standard right now. I see them as must reads to at least get ones bearings. Vastly superior to what was available before. However he doesn’t really do sustained investigations. Too much gets mentioned but dealt with only in passing. In terms of pushing theology there’s more out there – especially thanks to the SMPT although I wish more was in print. Blake Ostler, even though I disagree with how much he pulls back from Utah theology, is probably the gold standard there. Adam Miller and Joe Spencer are doing a lot of new work but how they approach things is quite different from normal theology.

  8. I should add since I don’t think I made it clear, just how much influence Priestly had. Priestly argued against an immaterial soul such as was found in the then dominate position of Cartesian dualism. Most of Pratt’s approach to materialism really arises out of Priestly. The big difference is Pratt’s atoms are more or less Leibniz’ monads only windowed in some sense. Priestly doesn’t get into anything like that. He thinks it’s via vibrations that matter can act mind-like and thinks that’s how the brain works. However that tends to verge to the type of materialism now dominate where there really isn’t a substantial soul. Since Priestly doesn’t really have a separate soul he sees it as staying with the body until the resurrection. It was these views of the soul that caused quite a bit of controversy combined with his denunciation of the Trinity and denying the Holy Spirit as a being.

    So Pratt does modify Priestly a great deal primarily due to his theological commitments to a pre-mortal soul and a real holy ghost. Not to mention the huge divides between the more deist Unitarian view and the hyper-theistic Mormon approach to scripture.

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