What relationship does Mormonism have with early Christianity? I’ve considered this issue a bit in the past, but a recent thoughtful comment inspired me to take up the issue in a more systematic way. The Mormon mythos of origins suggest that Mormonism is a “restoration” of this ancient religion, though what exactly is restored is somewhat a matter of dispute. But, what is the role of the scholar in describing this relationship between Mormonism and ancient Christianity? How are we to compare to the two? Are there any rules?
The scholar of religion Jonathan Z. Smith’s famous essay, “In Comparison A Magic Dwells,” _Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown_, 19-35, deals with the issue of comparison in the study of religion. He suggests that the basis for most comparisons in religion is on memory, a kind of deja vu, where we discover something that reminds us of something else. We have come up with frameworks like “influence,” “diffusion,” “borrowing,” etc. that attempt to account for these comparisons, but ultimately he suggest that there is a lack of rules for this enterprise, which “is not science but magic” (22). Suffice it to say that magic is not the best foundation for academic inquiry.
The methods of comparison for thinking about how Mormons relate either to contemporaneous movements (think, Quinn, _Mormonism and the Magic World View_), or to ancient religions (think, 1990’s FARMS) is not surprisingly undertheorized. When situating Joseph Smith in the 19th c, “influence” has been a particularly powerful theoretical apparatus, despite the problems around issues of agency and causality that are bound up with such an approach. “Diffusion” has had a long run for understanding ancient religion, which is rooted in a kind of Platonic Idealism that sees Mormonism as an ideal type and ancient examples as close approximations of that type. Differences are explained and evaluations made by how far they diverge from the Mormon ideal.
What the study of Mormonism needs is a more thorough-going, thoughtful method of comparison, whether historical or typological. We need a systematics of comparison rather than the continued enumeration of exempla. Above all, Marx, not Plato needs to be the foundation for historical inquiry. We must not imagine ideal patterns and types (made after our own image and likeness), but rather see history as a real force. In Smith’s terms, we must accomplish “the integration of a complex notion of system and pattern with an equally complex notion of history.” (29). This is no easy task. Comparisons between Mormonism and antiquity have been woefully ahistorical. Not only have they failed to contextualize Mormonism, but they frequently cite ancient Christian exempla without attention to the particular historical situation which produced them.
To begin to establish a set of rules then along the lines of what Smith called for would be to first be explicit about what the comparison is attempting to accomplish. What are we expected to learn from such comparisons? What should we seek to know? Should the comparisons be made in order to demonstrate the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s revelations and to validate contemporary LDS views or practices? Or should comparisons be made to helps us better understand the human condition, or the religious impulses and practices to which Mormonism belongs?
Second, we must seek both the patterns and the historical situations. In short, this means that we look at both the similarities and the differences, and acknowledge them fully in the act comparison. We can see and appreciate similarities, but attention to history helps us to also see the differences, the particularities of what we study. These modest suggestions forming the basis of making comparisons are just a start as we begin to grapple with the broader intellectual and even ethical issues at stake in our own self-understanding.