Recently someone pointed out to me that reading atonement as at-onement is merely one reading of this concept. They also noted that it might be a fairly recent reading of this term in Mormon theology. Though partially aware of the broader history of the etymology of ‘Atonement’ I am curious about when and how this particular set of meanings became a primary metaphor for understanding the Atonement among Latter-day Saints.
The earliest reference I have been able to find for suggesting this type of reading comes from an article published in the Church News in 1940. This was later included as an excerpt in the BRM edited Doctrines of Salvation vol. 1. (I have been unable to see the original source). The quotation is this:
‘All who will not place their lives “at-one” with the Father and the Son cannot comprehend the things of God. They are foolishness unto them. For this reason so many of the learned men in the world fail to comprehend the gospel and teach theories and philosophies at variance with revealed truth which they cannot understand. We are in that day when the people are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”’
Yet this quotation is sufficiently vague that it is probably not the source for the widespread popularisation of this metaphor. I think there are three other primary candidates: Eugene England, Arthur Henry King and Hugh Nibley. England’s essay ‘That they might not Suffer: The Atonement’ was published in Dialogue in 1966 and contains this line:
‘Atonement — a word whose pronunciation disguises its meaning, which is literally at one ment, a bringing to unity, a reconciliation of that which is estranged’.
However, though I am sure this was influential among the early readers of Dialogue it seems unlikely that this would have had a high impact upon Church discourse at large. Following England’s essay Arthur Henry King also explored the etymology of the word Atonement in an Ensign article from 1975 that surely would have reached a much broader (if predominantly Anglophone) audience. King explores the issues of separation, wholeness and reconciliation all under the guise of this primary metaphor of being at-one. Though this seems like an important candidate I would argue that Hugh Nibley might be the most likely source of the explosion of this idea, though I should acknowledge that at a similar time England revised and republished his ’66 essay in a FARMS collection and also Chauncey C. Riddle used the same idea at a Sperry Symposium.
Nibley’s four-part series on the Atonement in the 1990 Ensign was, IMO, extremely important in taking this idea from the arena of Mormon studies into the public consciousness of anglophone Latter-day Saints. Not only was Nibley’s gravitas as a scholar of Mormonism significant, but I would argue that his articles also represent a faith-filled vigour which made his insights spiritually compelling.
Following this series, popular writers such as Bruce C. Hafen, M. Catherine Thomas and even Russell M. Nelson, ina GC address (though without citations) use this concept in their writings. It seems therefore that this is a relatively recent motif and therefore might reflect a response to something within the Mormon zeitgeist of the late twentieth century.
Perhaps as the concept of Zion has become diffused geographically this notion of atonement as the reconciliation of alienated interpersonal relationships has taken its place as an ever more central part of Mormon soteriology.
1. The link is for part 1, which is the July 1990 issue. The series continues in August, September and October.