The Magical Connection between Mormonism and Early Christianity

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.

27 Replies to “The Magical Connection between Mormonism and Early Christianity”

  1. Great article, I’ve heard a lot of rumours about the primative Church but never seen anything supported in evidence. Most recently I heard a story of how the early apostle visited the British Isles and established the gospel there too.

    Be interested to hear anything further on that…


  2. “What the study of Mormonism needs is a more thorough-going, thoughtful method of comparison, whether historical or typological.”

    Absolutely! The last study worth it’s salt (in my opinion)was done by Frank Barker over 50 years ago, and it was completely apologist in nature. I, personally, enjoy reading the early church fathers, particularly Justin, and find many similarities in early Christian beliefs and restorationist doctrines. But there are, of course, distinct differences. I would love it if a quality historian like Tom Alexander, who has written articles on Christian primitivism, would write a book on this subject.

  3. larryco,

    could you please direct me to frank barker’s book. i hope this the guy:

    part of the challenge to doing a better (which i asume = more academically concious) job of comparing mormonism and early christianity, to the extent that such a thing should be done at all, is, i think, that it would require solid training in at least two disciplines: something like biblical studies on the one hand and u.s. history and religion on the other. a measure of experience in everything in between, from late antiquity to medieval studies, renaissance, reformation, enlightenment and modern era would also be ideal. and that is not even to come to the methodological and theoretical issues raised in this post. a historian of things american, however fine, is not likley to be up to the task. i’m not sure anyone is (as long as we’re day-dreaming).


    thanks for your cautions and questions on this.

    to be honest i have a hard time seeing what the point would be in continuing to make the comparison between mormonism and early christianity if not for purposes of either advancing or refuting/correcting apologetic claims. you are no doubt further along the path of the mormon academic than i am, though. maybe things looks different there.

    do you think that the comparison should continue to be made and that it would have (faith-affirming or at least faith-enriching) benefits for general church membership in terms of understanding the human condition and religious impulses and practices, as you mention?

    or do you think that once the wrongs of past attempts have been righted (academically speaking), the need for comparing mormonism and early christianity would basically be over?

    in other words, theology aside, would there be much reason for making the comparison, given that it was first made on the basis of our restoration claims? if understanding into the human contidition and the like is what we’re after, i would think that the chosen comparanda would be different or at least include more than early christianity. no?

  4. I am pretty pessimistic about the endeavor of comparing modern Mormonism and any religion from antiquity (specifically Christianity since that is my field of research). I don’t trust general Mormon readership to do much of anything with such comparison, no matter how responsibly executed, beyond apoligizing. This may sound snooty but apologizing is the basic mindset of most Mormons (and I was no different a decade ago).

    And I am more pessimistic about the perceived value of such comparison for general readership since I have found that most people don’t want to challenge the traditional “Apostasy” narrative and find attempts to do so irrelevant at best and at worst threatening.

    I agree with g. wesley’s despair of finding a person
    (or a group of people willing to cooperate) with the necessary training to pull off such a project.

    So after all this pessimism and despair, I admit that I find myself fantasizing about this sort of thing. Maybe someday.

  5. Marx or Plato? If that isn’t a false dichotomy I don’t know what is.

    I will agree with you that Nibley’s particular diffusionism does have a strong dose of Plato though.

    Oudenos, out of curiosity do you see the same problems comparing 1830’s LDS with 2010 LDS? That is can one compare disparate contexts without doing apologetics in your eyes? I agree that there is always a danger in comparing two contexts that one distorts and de-contextualizes by introducing a new hypothetical arche-context. And Mormons tend to do that by hypothesizing some temporarily unchangeable gospel. That said, clearly there must be some things that persist across time. (And not just in religious questions) So I think there is a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  6. I am not sure if Marx is the only, let alone ideal, alternative to Plato. However, Plato’s method of inquiry needs to be avoid. Heck, even Aristotle recognized that. If anything, a rejection of Plato is also a rejection of Augustine and like-minded thinking. So whether it is Aristotle, Marx, or whoever, TT’s point is a good one.

  7. WIthin the context of Mormon culture, it is quite radical to suggest that there are any significant difference between the LDS Church of today and the ancient church. Heck, I do not think the Church I attend is all that similar to the Church that Joseph Smith attended, despite our perception that it is. This is not all that difficult to realize, but it seriously messes with the prevailing narrative. I like that.

  8. I don’t think that TT was trying to trim Plato down to size or get folks to jump on the dogpile.

    I too like Plato–bagging on Plato is kind of like making fun of Lou Ferrigno now that he is older and not a muscled specimen anymore. You wouldn’t have talked smack to him in his presence because he was unearthly in strength but with time and distance intervening, well, you know what happens.

    Also, I think Plato should get a free pass by everybody who has only read excerpts of his Republic in translation. This is going to sound awfully stuck up and the like, but those who have read even one of his dialogues in full and in Greek know that he is not to be lightly dismissed.

    GAHH!!! I have started apologizing!!! I proved my own damned point–Mormons will always apologize. Does apologizing for Plato make me any cooler than arguing for an ancient relief society with Mary Magdalene as President?

  9. Just for clarification, my comment was not an attack on Chris H.’s remark on Plato, it was to forestall others from dogpiling. Chris knows his stuff, it seems to me.

  10. Maybe I should clarify, my issue is not so much with Plato, but the application of Platonic inquiry to religious matters. Not sure if we can blame Plato for this and I am not looking to do so. In historical inquiry, the prolem with an “ideal forms” driven approach is that we see the ideal form in everything whether it is there or not. I do not think this is consistent with Plato, but more of a bad imitation. Something like that.

    I vote for dogpiling on TT. However, like Plato, he is out of my league.

  11. TT:

    It’s actually James L. Barker’s “Apostasy From The Divine Church”. Sorry about blowing the first name. I also have Barry Bickmore’s book which covers similar territory, but neither is the examination that you’re going for. I really hope someone pursues it.

  12. I guess my point was more that what both Plato and Marx share is the idea of some final telos to which all things are leading. Marx just has it at the end whereas Plato had it at the beginning. But in both cases it’s a totalizing force that is inexorable. That’s what I think society has largely moved on from (largely due to the influence of Darwinism and Quantum Mechanics which suggest chance plays a bigger role)

    Chris, that’s sort of what I was getting at. I think most Mormons would say that Mormonism in 1840 and Mormonism today is largely the same despite some major differences (polygamy, if nothing else). So the question then becomes what is a significant difference? I don’t mind saying there were significant differences, if only due to the practical issues of size which requires something like our modern correlation. Any Church numbering in the thousands will structurally be different from one numbering in the millions.

    But when people disparage Mormons who seek parallels in ancient Palestine there often is this scale issue. How different does something have to be so that it is no longer the same? I don’t mean to raise a philosophical issue (despite Plato getting injected early). More a rhetorical point that I think we can try to stress the differences to such an extent that we intentionally obscure the real similarities.

  13. To add what I’ve found that is quite interesting that avoids Marxist and Platonic totalizing narratives is the recent (well last decade or two) emphasis on social science and economic models in order to draw out patterns in history. I think this has successfully been done with a lot of 19th century and early 20th century Mormon history.

  14. “But when people disparage Mormons who seek parallels in ancient Palestine there often is this scale issue.”

    I agree that it might be scale at some level, but in many ways it is just different. The important thing is that the authority is the same. The practices and institutions do not need to be the same.

  15. “But when people disparage Mormons who seek parallels in ancient Palestine…”

    I am one of those people who disparage other Mormons who seek parallels in ancient Palestine and the rest of the ancient Mediterranean region. I disparage not because there isn’t comparable material and really engaging things (this is why I have chosen to spend my adult professional life studying the stuff) but rather because what I see other Mormons do (apologize for their own beliefs and attacks others) with the material irks me. And I am pretty sure that what reasonably educated middle-class North American Mormons would like to think are parallels to their own practices, customs, and beliefs are shockingly different. I could guess that most temple attending Mormons who think that the old timey temples at Jerusalem are basically similar in function to those of today would vomit and weep in disgust if they had to spend a hot afternoon “doing some temple work.” The bellowing of the slaughtered animals, the piles of blood, gore, and guts, coupled with the streams of death-urine and expulsions of death-feces along with the complete lack of white attire (think blood-drenched meat packers’ frocks) and quietude and the only discernible spirit being that of business-like butchering would be very different from a Saturday morning spent at Timpanogos temple doing some sealings. And those who get excited about the Eleusinian mysteries would be freaked-the-hell out if they were led through dark chambers carrying a basket filled with a snake (perhaps a live one, probably a figurine), a carved erect penis, and some grains to offer Demeter only to be stunned by blasts of horns and banging sounds and then blinding light–or whatever it was they were doing.

    So yeah, I disparage Mormons when I hear them getting hot and bothered about the latest ancient temple parallel they read about on some temple obsessed blog or that their mission companion told him or her about after having read a little Nibley.

    Clark, I don’t think that this describes you but come on, you know what I am talking about, right? These people attend your home ward and they outnumber those who either don’t care or who care enough to devote some real time and effort to study the problem.

    I probably sound overly bitter but I tire of parallels, apologizing, and “really cool insights” about ancient things.

  16. “I think we can try to stress the differences to such an extent that we intentionally obscure the real similarities.”

    Clark, I just don’t see the general membership of the church ever falling victim to this. As far as I can discern, the vast majority of members stress the few similarities to such an extent that the real differences have been steamrolled into oblivion and outside of the polite discourse of good, strong members. To see it otherwise seems to me to be somewhat out-of-touch with how most church members view things historical and ancient. I am speaking in far too many generalities at this point so I will stop.

  17. Sorry all for the delay in getting back to this thread. I appreciate the thoughtful discussion and comments that have developed here.

    re: Marx vs. Plato, I admit that the dichotomy is Smith’s and not my own, but I actually think that idealism vs. materialism for understanding history is a pretty good dichotomy. I think that you point to other ways in which Marx and Plato overlap, but in terms of how Marx’s materialism has informed historical studies, I don’t think there is much room for Plato.

    On the question of why we should compare Mormonism and early Christianity (EC), or whether or not we should, I think this is an important question. Admittedly, I have shared the skeptical view expressed here in the comments that such an endeavor is either 1) a waste of time because the things are differentiate Mormonism and EC are so great that no useful similarities actually exist, and that 2) comparisons made can only be understood by the general LDS readership as engaging in apologetics or trying to tear down LDS belief.

    While these are important considerations, I have recently been convinced (after rereading the JZ Smith book mentioned above) that concern # 1) should not pose a limitation. While it is the case that there are vast differences between Mormonism and EC, and any treatment of the subject should note these as mentioned in the OP, it is not the case that there is absolutely nothing that is similar between them. The question that I pose in the OP is what we are to make of the similarities and differences. What do they tell us? I don’t think that they should be used to validate (or not) any particular claim to Truth. That is far too dangerous a game and not worth playing. Rather, the similarities can tell us about humanness, about what it means to be religious, about explicating something about our shared religious outlook. This is far from validating any particular position, and doesn’t relieve us from having to make ethical and veridical judgements, but it does hold some promise for other kinds of projects that are worth considering.

    I should also say that I am not trying to privilege a comparison between Mormonism and EC, versus Mormonism and ancient Judaism, or even Mormonism and Greco-Roman religion, Confucianism, and voodoo. All have potentially something interesting to reveal. Comparisons, as Smith argues, do not have any inherent connection, but are a scholarly construct that are meant to illustrate a point. That is, in my view there is nothing especially valuable about a comparison between Mormonism and EC, but that doesn’t mean that such a comparison shouldn’t ever be made.

    As for concern #2), I’m not sure that I am persuaded that because a particular audience can’t make sense of the distinctions drawn between an apologetic and scholarly comparison that it shouldn’t be done. With the preliminary rules I’ve laid out here (I emphasize that the theorizing of comparison needs to be taken up much more seriously by Mormon scholars), I hope that a new conversation can emerge.

  18. oudenos, my experience is most members are just largely ignorant. I think our job is to help them seeing useful parallels rather than being caught up on one or two bad pieces of apologetics. (My pet peeve are stone carvings from various places “purportedly” being “potential” Nephite but typically just late 19th century forgeries)

    I think when we communicate we ought stress both the parallels and the differences.

    TT, reminds me of my freshman paper on how Confucian temples parallel Mormon temples. There actually were lots of parallels although now that I’m not an ignorant freshman I recognize most are coincidental.

  19. That is, in my view there is nothing especially valuable about a comparison between Mormonism and EC.

    I guess it depends on your readership and your starting presuppositions. I you start out to explore questions of “humanness” like you say, then sure, there’s nothing more special about Mormonism vs. EC than Mormonism vs. anything else. But there are many people who are aware of the differences between Mormonism and EC but are nevertheless unwilling to give up on the 6th article of faith. Can a careful and honest comparison help these people come to a greater understanding of the 6th AoF, or would they do better to just forget about it?

    I see the process as analogous to a study of the Joseph Smith Translation. Like most members of the church, I thought for a long time that Joseph Smith, with all his corrections, was always restoring all the mistranslations, mistransmissions, and lost portions of the text. However, as I studied the textual history of the Bible, I learned otherwise and therefore began to reconceptualize the purpose of scripture for God’s economy and for my life.

    To borrow from oudenos’ example above, a person conducting a similar pursuit with respect to EC or the ancient temple might ask themselves, “Even if I like the peace and quiet of my Saturday morning visits, what is it about the temple that connects me to God’s people in ancient times? Is it the quietude and the pedagogic drama or something else?”

    So I guess my question is this: Sure it might be irresponsible to set out to validate truth-claims through comparison, but what if we started out already assuming that the truth claims were valid and simply exploring their implications for history. For example, “I know that we believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, but what does that mean? How does it work exactly? Does it mean that early Christians went to the temple to do baptisms for the dead and celestial marriages, or does it mean something else?” This kind of comparison would not appeal to anyone who didn’t share a certain conviction, but does that mean it’s not worth undertaking? That is to say, sure it’s ahistorical to start out with a theological conviction in this way, and you’d have to acknowledge that your pursuit was theological and not historical, but that doesn’t mean good history cannot inform a theological exercise.

  20. Clark 24,
    My hope in the OP was to create a set of rules that would exclude your freshman paper as an example of good comparisons, but I’m afraid I haven’t been convincing. If you get a chance, read the JZ Smith essay I mention, and also “The Devil in Mr. Jones” from the same book which offers an example of the kinds of comparisons he thinks are possible and desirable. He convinced me, and might convince you better than I have.

    Jon H.,
    I think that you raise some important questions about what sort of presuppositions one should bring. I think that you offer an interesting idea about how to make this kind of comparison productively. Care to guest blog on it to give us a more full example? 🙂

  21. You’ll also want to take into consideration how much the early LDS knew of EC–they were busy reading a wide variety of contemporary sources that detailed, to the level of 18th-century scholarship, a great variety of EC practices and beliefs. Matt Bowman and I are trying to finish a paper that inspects more closely how the early LDS employed accounts of EC in establishing the authority of the Mormon Restoration.

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