De occultissimis

Something like reincarnation is not totally irrelevant to BHodges’ recent posts on Roberts vs.
Smith. Enoch mentioned it in his nuancimony. T&S featured a short post on it the other month. And of course the crazies at New Cool Thang have been discussing multiple mortal probations for years.

The most explicit sources on the topic that I am aware of are a couple of passages in Orson F. Whitney’s journal. In the first he relates a conversation between his mother (Helen Mar Kimball Smith Whitney) and his ‘aunt’ (Precindia Huntington Buell Smith Kimball), as told to him by his mother. She and his aunt confess to each other a belief in “plural probations.” Then there is a page break just as the latter is about to relate in confirmation of the belief something Joseph Smith purportedly said.

It’s been a long time since I looked at the journal, but if memory serves, this section is written in pencil. The binding is partially broken—I guess because of it having been opened there so many times. And the facing pages have rubbed together over the decades, smearing the lead and leaving the text difficult read and totally illegible in places.

Apparently the text referred to Joseph Smith having told this bit of information to someone who later “apostatized.” With the name of the person now illegible, there is no indication as to whether Whitney’s aunt overheard this first, second, or third hand. But what was purportedly said is preserved well enough: “You’ve had previous probations already and should have to have another.”

Though hard to tell for sure who the speaker is, it looks like Whitney then writes of a conversation he himself had with a certain Thomas(?) Wallace of Ogden, who claimed to see a vision of “the Son of God” descending to Earth from the Lord’s presence to take up a body and gain experience. Then he laid the body down and returned to the presence of God only to descend again to take up “another body.” This he did repeatedly “until he had descended seven times,” so the vision went.

The second passage is a report of Whitney’s three day visit with Lorenzo Snow, beginning on Saturday June 8, 1889, during which time they conversed on “the mysteries.” This part of the journal is in ink, as I recall, and easy to read except for the fact that someone has physically cut out a few lines here and there. Whoever excised the lines could have more easily removed the entire pages. So I gather that the person valued the information they contain.

Among other things, Snow tells Whitney that his sister (Eliza R. Snow Smith Young) “was a firm believer in the principle of reincarnation and that she claimed to have received it from Joseph the Prophet, her husband.” Snow says that he sees “nothing unreasonable in it, and could believe it, if it came to him from the Lord or His oracle.” He goes on to say something else that has unfortunately been snipped.

After a warning about sharing this information with most people who are “darkened in mind,” for his own part Snow also tells Whitney that “he heard Jos. Smith tell a man once that he would become a God and reign in glory, but that before that he would have to be crucified as Christ was.” Whitney notes that the person in question was still alive. What he wrote after that has fallen prey to the scissors.

These passages can be supplemented with others from Whitney’s book Elias, An Epic of the Ages (1904), which unlike his journal, is readily accessible.

Such as in Canto I, where he writes autobiographically:

Some men I found embodiments of all
The goodness, all the greatness I had dreamed;
Men seeming gods, bestowing benefits
As suns their beams, as seas and skies their showers;
Others as dwarfs, as despots by compare.
Devoured with greed, consumed with jealousy.

But truth taught charity, gave me to see,
As face to face one sees familiar friend,
Why men are not alike in magnitude,
Why souls, like stars, all differ in degree,
And cannot show an even excellence,
Unequal in their first nobility.
Great tells of greater—littleness of less;
Time a true shadowing of eternity,
Whose glories fixt, essential, evermore.

Some souls, than others, have more summits climbed,
More light absorbed, more moral might evolved;
Hence wiser, worthier than those they lead
Through precept’s vales, up steep example’s height,
To where love, beauty, wealth, power, glory, shine.

Or in Canto III, where he asks:

Declare, Muse of mightier wing,
Of loftier lore than mine!
Why God is God, and man may be
Both human and divine;
Why Sons of God, ‘mid sons of men,

Unrecognized may dwell,
So masked in dense mortality
That none their truth can tell.

And where he has the Son tell the Father in the heavenly council:

“Give me to lead to this lorn world,
When wandered from the fold,
Twelve legions of the noble ones
That now thy face hehold;
Tried souls, ‘mid untried spirits found;
That captained these may be,
And crowned the dispensations all
With powers of Deity.

Or in Canto V, where he considers the identity of the dispensation head par excellence:

Who towers aloft, as mountain girt with hills,
Amid the strength of Ephraim’s stalwart sons,
To trumpet thus the closing act of time?
Speak, oracle! what sayest thou of thyself?
Who art thou, man of might and majesty?

“Would God I might but tell thee who I am!
Would God I might but tell thee what I know!”

Then was he of the mighty?—one with those
Descended from the Empire of the Sun,
Adown the glowing stairway of the stars;
Regnant and ruling ere they left the realms
Of life supernal, left their sovereign thrones,
To wander oft as outcasts of mankind,
Unknown, unhonored, e’en like One who came
Unto His own, by them spat on and spurned;
The guileless followers of the guiltless Lamb,
Crowned with the halo of the Name of Names;
Peers of the Empire of Omnipotence,
The sceptred satraps of the King of Kings;
The royal retinue of Him who shines
First-born of many brethren; Gibborim,
Great ones worthy the Word that was to come;
Foreknown, elect, predestined, preordained.
The Sons of God, the saviours of mankind.

I saw in vision such an one descend,
And garb him in a guise of common clay;
His glory veiling from the gaze of all,
Who wist not that a great one walked with men;

Nor knew it then the soul incarnate there,
Betwixt the temporal and spirit spheres
So dense forgetfulness doth intervene;
Yet learned his truth betime by angel tongues,
By voice of God, by heavenly whisperings.

But who remains the mystery to solve?
The letter to unlock with spirit key?
The veil to lift by death and silence thrown
O’er all the splendors of that life sublime?

A living prophet unto dying time
Heralding the dispensation of the end;
When Truth once more the vineyard comes to prune,
When potent weak confound the puny strong,
Threshing the nations by the Spirit’s power;
That here the Father’s work may crown the Son’s,
And Earth be joined a holy bride to Heaven,
A queen ‘mid queens, crowned, throned, and glorified.

Wherefore a noble of the skies came down
In strength divine, a stirring role to play
In time’s tense tragedy, whose acts are seven.

Avails it aught, his name or nation here?
His state and standing there, the vital tale.

Or in Canto X, where the Prophet himself addresses us:

I would I now might tell you who I am.
Might here reveal the hidden things I know.
Loose from the thicket of my thoughts a lamb,
The Lord’s providing—knowledge pure as snow;
A flood of heavenly light which then would flow
For earth’s refreshing. But alas! e’en ye,
My fondest friends, would deem me Zion’s foe,
Shout ” blasphemy,” or ” fallen prophet ” cry,
Or seek my life and sink your souls to misery.

Known but the half that in my bosom burns,
And bigotry would flame as ne’er before;
For truth, rejected, friend to traitor turns,
And damns where fain ‘t would save. Six mounting o’er,
My spirit to the seventh heaven did soar,
And saw and heard—ah, would that I might say!
Though memory but renewed a former lore,
What all will learn when mists have rolled away,
When twinkling, twilight faith to knowledge shall give way.

It seems to me that Joseph Smith may well have taught something like reincarnation. At the least, people who were close to him thought that he did. Whether or not the teaching is true or theologically viable within Mormonism (today) I am not very interested in discussing. But I am interested in understanding who the Prophet thought he was. Did he think that he had had ‘previous probations’? And what about other saints, such as Joseph Smith’s wives who outlived him? What about church leaders like Lorenzo Snow? Who did they think they were, really? In Whitney’s case, I don’t think he can have failed to wonder whether he himself had gained more experience, climbed more summits and absorbed more light in past incarnations. Perhaps it would not be going too far to say that one of the apostles in the early 20th century not only believed that he could become a god but that he was a junior god already. Not just a god in embryo, but a resurrected, reincarnated deity.

To repeat, I am not very interested in discussing whether reincarnation actually happens and should be taught and believed by church members. In fact, I think that it can be quite dangerous to do so. When people start thinking they are divine, they might do things they otherwise wouldn’t and shouldn’t. Not that all proponents of the doctrine are susceptible, of course. It makes me nervous, that’s all. And I look back with mixed feelings, including some regret, having taught it as truth to family and friends in the past. The zealous returned missionary is not likely to see very far down the road.

9 Replies to “De occultissimis”

  1. Sounds like Whitney had himself a copy of Cicero’s de republica and was a big fan of book 6 (the so-called Dream of Scipio). What is so Roman or Ciceronian (in contrast to Plato’s metempsychotic moments) about Whitney’s epic is that the re-cycled great souls return to earth as elder statesmen to guide the ship of the god-state. That and his depiction of a starry, heavenly realm as a place where “love, beauty, wealth, power, glory shine”–if that isn’t the blessed realm of the Roman ruling class, there is none at all (the corresponding Latin words trip easily enough off of the tongue: amicitia, forma/decus, opes, virtus/potestas/regnum/imperium, gloria/laus nitent).

  2. Oh, I should be more precise, I am not certain that Cicero is suggesting deity-like folks such as Scipio are put through a series of mortal probations, but that they are culled from their heavenly retreats and sent to earth from time to time to steady the res pulica and then are conveyed back to their divine seats to receive even greater reward.

  3. And Cicero certainly thought that he was a gift to the state, sent from above.

    Joseph Smith? Yowzas.

    It would help explain some Mormon hymns if he and others thought of him as such.

  4. What do you make, Wesley, of the claims that Joseph got the idea from quasi-Kabbalistic tales of the transmigration of souls? The initial contact was with Robert Matthias a preacher whom Joseph says is of the devil. (See this discussion in RSR) The claim (of which I must hasten to add I’m dubious of) is that Joseph gets his later transmigration of souls (as recounted by Whitney) from Kabbalism. Thus it’s less reincarnation proper than the Kabbalistic gilgul notion.

  5. Nice use of the Whitney material g. wesley. That is one of the go-to sources for anyone wanting to show that MMP/reincarnation has a place in Mormon thought historically.

  6. oudenos,

    i like your comparison with cicero. it’s true, the multiple descents are much more possitive than negative–not as punishment but like special undercover missions.


    the matthias episode is of course the main place to turn in order to argue that joseph smith did not teach but in fact refuted transmigration or reincarnation or whatever.

    bushman has to distinguish between the two religious personalities. but matthias is a pefect example of why i think the teaching can be dangerous.

    if joseph smith did teach it, i don’t know how he would have come up with it. i would not rule out ‘influence’ from a variety of sources, though reincarnation is common enough that i suspect people just arrive at it more or less independantly.

    at any rate kabbalists like shabbethai zebi and jacob frank offer further interesting comparisions.


    yes, i noticed the whitney journal references reading quinn. a few years later a cousin pointed me to elias.

  7. JFS sort of put “reincarnation is a doctrine of the devil” in every home with “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.” The Whitney journal stuff is fascinating. MMP and Lorenzo Snow. An unappreciated thinker. Cool beans g.

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