The ancient Greek thinker Euhemerus was a mythographer whose reputation has lived on until today as an influential theory for explaining religion. He argued that mythological accounts were records of actual events that developed and were embellished in their retelling. The practice of divinizing ancient leaders in Hellenic cultures (a practice shared by the Egyptians and later Hellenistic rulers, including the emperor cult of the Roman era) served for Euhemerus as an interpretive tool to unlock the significance of the myths. He suggested that they were all based on historical tribal leaders whose subsequent memory transformed them into the gods.
Euhemerism was hotly debated in antiquity, and used for various purposes. Some early Christians advanced these ideas as a way of explaining paganism in contrast with monotheism. The notion that gods are divinized tribal leaders has been advanced as a way of explaining religion in modern times, though such an idea has fallen out of favor for its reductionism. It is largely put to secularist ends as a way of explaining away religion, a sort of etiological assessment of religion.
Mormonism, however, is in many ways a religion built on this very premise of Euhemerus. We suggest that God was in fact once a human being who has become divinized. Our great ancestor’s memory and deeds have come down to us only in garbled form. We reject the “mythological” accounts of traditional monotheism which images a God who is ontologically different from humanity, and instead suggest that God himself has a history.
The connection also increases when one considers that Herbert Spencer, who had a profound intellectual impact on Mormonism in the early 20th century, was a Euhemerist. Spencer’s notions of progress, that great 19th and early 20th century ideal, were the basis of Mormon combatibalism with evolution, an idea that was important for LDS notions of divinization. Such ideas of progress, humanism, and the blurred lines between divinity and humanity are foundational to Mormon thought. Is Mormonism a religious version of Euhemerism, acknowleging God’s history, but considering him worthy of worship nevertheless?
5 Replies to “Is Mormonism Euhemerism?”
What was Herbert Spencer’s influence and whom by?
IIRC, Spencer plays an important role in BH Roberts, especially his work on divinization.
Ah, OK, without checking my Roberts I think I vaguely remember him. Is he the guy Roberts quotes extensively in appealing for a Cartesian mind?
I think you may have a point TT. The whole premise of much of Joseph Smith taught was to de-mystify/de-mythify (a neologism) God to suggest that he was a being that, contrary to creedal statements, had body, parts and passions and was thus intimately knowable. In some ways the KFD exemplifies this idea.
a marginally related thought:
This line of thinking could be used to account for some of the unfounded, grandiose ideas we as a people harbor about Joseph Smith. I mean this in the sense that we build Joseph Smith (or many other religious figures) up to be bigger, more perfect, and more constantly inspired than the records indicate he was, leading to the disillusionment that some of those who leave (or remain in) the church experience.
TT, see the “A description of the kingdom of heaven” section of my blog post, The role of free agency in political systems. You’ll notice that you and I seem to have grabbed onto the same thought.