When did Atonement become At-onement?

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[1] 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.

Notes:

1. The link is for part 1, which is the July 1990 issue.  The series continues in August, September and October.

Comments

  1. Mark B. says:

    If this concept is relatively recent in Mormon thought, it seems that it’s only because, as Eugene England said, the pronunciation of “atonement” hides its etymology. From the OED notes on the etymology of “atonement”:

    [In use a verbal n. from atone, but apparently of prior formation, due to the earlier n. onement and the phrase ‘to be atone’ or ‘at onement.’ Cf. the following:
    1533 Q. Cath. Parr Erasm. Comm. Crede 162 To reconcile hymselfe and make an onement with god.1599 Bp. Hall Sat. iii. vii. 69 Which never can be set at onement more.1555 Fardle Facions ii. xii. 298 The redempcion, reconciliacion, and at onement of mankinde with God the father.]

  2. Kristine says:

    “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. ”

    How can you say such a thing?! ;)

  3. English speaking Mormons are not alone in the “at one” take on atonement. I have seen this definition in Jewish and Buddhist texts–referring to the need for human atonement for wrongs against other persons.
    Thanks to Mark B for the OED defintion.

  4. Mark, I think Aaron meant that it is recently discussed in Mormonism. That is, e.g., John Taylor didn’t use it.

  5. Brian-A says:

    The LDS Bible Dictionary may be a popularizing source. The earliest copy I could find (1992) begins the atonement entry with: “The word describes the setting ‘at one’ of those who have been estranged…”

  6. Aaron R. says:

    I am aware that we are not alone and that the OED defines atonement in that way. Thus the link at the beginning of OP directs you to an article which discusses these very ideas, and also the people who think that the ‘at-one’ interpretation of the etymology is fanciful.

    I don’t think that England’s conclusion that the pronounciation hides the etymology is a good one for why it was not discussed in Mormon thought before him. I think it says more about his project than it does about the atonement.

    The questions which then arise are a) when did this become popular in Mormon thought and b) why did this become popular at this time? These are things I have tried to explore briefly.

  7. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks J.

    Brian, that is an interesting reference. I wonder if it was present in earlier editions. Thank you. That requires more research.

  8. After doing some brief digging, I think we are going to have to give Talmage props for introducing the concept to Mormons in Jesus the Christ (p. 23):

    Through the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ—a redeeming service, vicariously rendered in behalf of mankind, all of whom have become estranged from God by the effects of sin both inherited and individually incurred—the way is opened for a reconciliation whereby man may come again into communion with God, and be made fit to dwell anew and forever in the presence of his Eternal Father. This basal thought is admirably implied in our English word, “atonement”, which, as its syllables attest, is at-one-ment, “denoting reconciliation, or the bringing into agreement of those who have been estranged.”

  9. Aaron R. says:

    Excellent J. That is very interesting. For me it now really raises the question of why this did not take off in the same way that it has done over the last decade or so.

  10. I seem to have a hazy idea that Ven. John Henry Newman also used the ‘at-one-ment’ formulation. This leads me to wonder if and how much victorian popular theology had a lagged effect on the way we as LDS came to talk about some of these issues–though not addressing them directly at the time, people would still have known something of them and they may have worked their way into formal discourse only later on.

  11. Ah, perhaps J Stapley’s comment gives further credence to this?

  12. StillConfused says:

    As stated above, my Jewish friends view this as at-one-ment. They tell me it is a chance for them to be at one with God, hence their lack of need for Jesus.

  13. Aaron R, What reason do you have to believe this understanding did not take off until the last decade?

  14. Aaron R. says:

    Jacob, it is an impressionistic sense that after doing some preliminary searches through some Mormon literature databases 90% of references were post-1990. My sense is that this is an increasing tide that has emerged following the beginning of the twentieth century following the turn away from Zion being located in a single space. I also think that it is possible that this has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. I am open to criticism because I readily admit these are cursory thoughts, in fact this is one of the reasons I have posted this here.

  15. I’m pretty sure I remember Joseph Campbell discussing at-one-ment in his works on Myth and religion, as well. Since the PBS version of his show aired in, what, the late 1980′s?, it’s not surprising that Mormons (who don’t generally attend divinity school or have exposure to non-Mormon religious texts) would pick up on Campbell’s accessible-to-the-general-populace stuff and start using it freely in the 1990′s.

  16. Aaron, just an couple of observations on this. England used the same discussion in other articles in Dialogue and Sunstone about the atonement, along with a book length collection of essays, The Quality of Mercy, Bookcraft, 1992. Some members may have been a little more inclined to read a book published by Bookcraft than an article in Dialogue or Sunstone.

    Also, and this may be a little more difficult to track, I observed a gradual change in discussions about the atonement following Pres. Benson’s condemnation of the church for not studying the Book of Mormon enough in his closing conference talk in 1985. It wasn’t as much the personal reconciliation at-one-ment concept as much as the concept of atonement allowing us to get past the trials and difficulties that come to us not because of sin, but due to the agency of others, or the randomness of disease, accident, and other circumstances beyond our immediate control. I’ve found very little mention of this concept before the 1990′s, and a gradual increase in discussions of this aspect since then. It plays into the reconciliation concept as we try to understand our relationship with a good and kind Father in Heaven, when so much bad stuff happens in our lives. It’s a concept of the atonement that is directly addressed in the Book of Mormon, more so than any other volume of our scripture, that I have observed.

  17. I’m curious as to why Tyndale chose the word Atonement at all. If he really was just trying to say ‘reconciliaton’, why not use that word? ‘Atonement’ is such a rarely used word (and was even at the time if I understand correctly) it seems an odd choice to place in the bible.
    The way we interpret that word now give the atonement a very specific meaning, but I’m not sure that’s what the Greek or Hebrew meant.

  18. William Tyndale coined the term “atonement” from “at” and “onement” in the English language when he was translating the Bible in the 16th century. There wasn’t a direct English word for the ancient Hebraic concept, so he essentially, I believe, created the word, intending to incorporate the concepts of propitiation, forgiveness, reconciliation into one word that described Christ’s sacrifice and the resultant remission of human sin and reconciliation with God.

  19. mmiles,

    I’m not a Tyndale or a Bible scholar but I believe that Tyndale thought that the Jewish concept of reconciliation was insufficient to describe Christ’s sacrifice, which was the ultimate act of propitiation, reconciliation, forgiveness, etc. I think he saw distinctions between and among these concepts and saw Christ’s death as being exemplary of or fulfilling all of them, and therefore sought to subsume them all within one word or concept.

  20. Jacob,
    I thought that too, but he didn’t coin it. It was used elsewhere in literature at the time–findable at least once.

    I understand that Tyndale interpreted it that way, but I think he may have gotten it wrong. If you look at the Hebrew it’s a covering–like a debt, not really the kind of reconciliation we talk about now.

  21. I always retched at this notion of finding meaning in a word by picking it apart and pretending the pieces mean what they mean when they’re individual words. I was mortified when I saw OED defines atonement that way, and I still hold out secret hope that that’s a “fanciful etymology” as someone said.

    FWIW in Spanish they say “Expiación” which can in no way be construed to be derived from “at-one-ment”.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, you might enjoy this account of how I first learned of this etymology:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2006/01/30/too-smart-for-my-own-britches-sometimes/

  23. Hans,
    I don’t know of any other language where means At-onement but English.

  24. Mike Parker says:

    Am I missing something here?

    The [English] word atonement was invented in the sixteenth century by William Tyndale who recognized that there was not a direct English translation of the biblical Hebraic concept. The word is composed of two parts “at” and “onement” in order to reflect the dual aspect of Christ’s sacrifice: the remission of sin and reconciliation of man to God. Tyndale’s concept overcomes the limitations of the word reconciliation whilst incorporating aspects of propitiation and forgiveness.

    At-one-ment isn’t an LDS concept; it’s original to the word itself.

  25. Mike Parker says:
  26. Nibley was teaching this long before his 1990′s Ensign articles. Quite a few of his papers assert this, especially relative to the embrace discussed by Nephi. I’m not at home so I can’t check the dates on those. Certainly the FARMS reprints were going around in the 80′s and in the 90′s Deseret Books had published them. But I suspect the ideas were being taught in Provo well, well before that.

  27. Steve L says:

    Am I the only one who wonders why they use such (generally) exclusive English etymologies to make a point in General Conference? How can something like that be meaningfully and simply translated in that context? (Not to mention references to American football)

  28. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks for your continued comments.

    LRC, interesting connection. Though I should admit that I suspect that unless these people were referencing Campbell I imagine they would stick with LDS authors, but perhaps this is only a more recent reading trend among us.

    kevinf, that England publication was after both the FARMS (aka Deseret Book) article and also Nibley’s Ensign material so it would have been a factor though not the beginning I suspect. I think your insight about President Benson is very interesting.

    Mike, I think you are missing something. Did you really the earlier comments and OP? The whole question centers on the fact that it is not an LDS concept.

    Clark, I am sure your right but it would be good to see some dates. Plus I suspect that whatever he was teaching was not getting wide distribution. I think his Ensign articles are still the best bet for the influx of at-onement discussion.

  29. Aaron, thanks for an interesting post–and thanks to all for some thought-proviking comments. I won’t comment on the rise of LDS usage, which is an interesting subject in its own right, but wanted to point out some resources discussing the etymology.

    The origin of the term “atonement” has been a confusion not only among Mormons but also among even Bible scholars. See, e.g., the following from a popular Bible dictionary: “the explanation of this English word as being ‘at-one-ment’ is entirely fanciful” (W. E. Vine, et al., Dictionary (1996), NT, p. 44).

    Nevertheless, the term actually goes back to at least 1300, with this very meaning. Ironically, one of the early recorded usages of the term was by Sir Thomas More, Tyndale’s bitter enemy. Tyndale clearly favored the term because of his own theological views.

    For my own efforts to sort out the confusion about the term, see my book of Moses commentary, “In God’s Image and Likeness,” Excursus 46: The origin and meaning of the term “atonement.” There is also an Easter article I did for Meridian on “Three Perspectives on the Atonement” that includes related material: http://www.meridianmagazine.com/articles/100401perspectives.html

    I also discuss some of the issues that plague LDS translators in trying to render its meaning into other languages.

  30. Crumflea says:

    I think that understanding the concept is more important than understanding the word that describes it.

  31. Aaron R. says:

    Thanks Jeffrey. I have actually linked to your article in the OP but it is great to have your thoughts here as well.

  32. Glad several people managed to point out that William Tyndale coined the term “atonement” from “at” and “onement” (or may be better said to have popularized the usage). Like Shakespeare, Tyndale coined a number of words or took obscure words and gave them broader exposure and meaning.

  33. I first heard the at-one-ment definition at BYU in 1972 in a BofM class with a Brother Brandt.

  34. I think this definition (at one) of the term has much more widespread and historical support than the article implies. Look it up in a dictionary (e.g. From dictionary.com “atonement
    1510s, “condition of being at one (with others)”, from atone (q.v.). Meaning “reconciliation” (especially of sinners with God) is from 1520s”

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