Paradox and Peculiarity: Exploring Mormon Identity through Patristic Scholarship

BCC is pleased to present a 3-part series from guest author Adam J. Powell, a PhD student at Durham University.  His multidisciplinary work analyses the role of opposition in the development of identity and soteriological beliefs among second-century Christians and early Mormons.  

PART 1

Appealing to biblical passages such as Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 14:2, Psalm 135:4, and 1 Peter 2:9; Latter-day Saints have often referred to themselves as ‘a peculiar people’. This self-defining label, though clearly tied to the Mormon understanding of Hebrew connections with the Western Continent, goes beyond establishing a spiritual heritage. It serves as a focus of identity. In fact, the very same phrase from the King James Bible has been adopted by more than one religious group both as an internal motivator and an external identifier. For those on the outside, the term ‘peculiar’ rapidly alienates and distinguishes the adherents from the greater society. Viewed from within, the label reinforces this same in-group/out-group dichotomy, but it also mobilises the collective by fabricating a unique identity as a special and extraordinary group. In spite of its rather circular logic (we are special because we say we are), this act of self-definition greatly impacts solidarity and, subsequently, religious loyalty.

Throughout its history, the faith of the Latter-day Saints has been characterised by paradox. This was perhaps most insightfully and cogently argued by Terryl Givens in the aptly-titled People of Paradox. Whether it is the combined beliefs of continuing revelation and hierarchical authority or the assertion that Mormonism is a restoration of the earliest church while demonstrating obvious Protestant elements, the Mormon faith is incessantly balancing on a fulcrum between pairs of opposites. The insistence that they are a ‘peculiar people’ proves the point.

Attacks on the origins of the Latter-day Saints have been numerous, constant, multifarious, and often harsh. The ink spilt in deriding Mormons has perhaps only been equalled by the rather feeble attempts by apologists to deflect the barrage. The pitfall, of course, in comparing any two religions is that the discussion can quite simply devolve into a doctrinal argument or a rhetorical battle, the artillery often being any formal logical fallacy known and understood by the speaker. Let us avoid this fruitless temptation. The present discussion is not intended as a criticism of Mormons for applying the adjective ‘peculiar’ to something which is demonstrably a recurring pattern in the world’s religions. Indeed, the paradox is observed not by measuring the tradition against other religious environments but by delving into the internal sentiments and axioms of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This, it seems, was Givens’ general argument. The Mormons contain within themselves and their church the makings of a variety of paradoxes. In a sense, their identity is inadvertently located in this truth and not in their preferred descriptors (e.g., ‘peculiar people’ or ‘the seed of Abraham’).

A number of examples will prove beneficial. James Talmage, in The Great Apostasy, asserts that persecution in the early years of Christianity was a key factor in the general apostasy that followed. Talmage is not only regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in LDS history, he specifically wrote a number of significant works on the topic of The Great Apostasy. In his view, the church not only turned from the truth but did so in part because persecution led them to denounce the verity of Christ’s teaching. In a sense, then, the Christians of the first centuries A.D. accommodated to their non-Christian environment. Acknowledging the different degree of reverence accorded Talmage and Joseph Smith, it is still noteworthy to compare the comments of the former to the latter. In December 1835, Smith wrote in his personal journal concerning his recent experience of persecution. Here, Smith claims to be in good company among the ‘saints and martyrs’ of the early church. It is curious that Smith would desire to make a connection to those same individuals who turned their backs on the truth. This illuminates the utility of certain religious concepts. The Book of Mormon had already established a connection to a rich heritage, that of the Israelites. When Smith made a direct appeal to saints and martyrs he was not attempting to root his belief system in some pre-existing, legitimated tradition. Instead, Smith was locating himself. By placing himself in a historical category, he could accommodate the rejection he experienced and integrate it into a positive assessment. As George Q. Cannon said in 1884, ‘it has been the characteristic of truth in every age to be hated and to be opposed.’ Thus, Smith initiated what would be a long tradition within the LDS of appealing to martyrs of all eras, including those of the early Christian world, for support and validation. This was noted by Jan Shipps in her groundbreaking work on Mormon history, and many others have commented on it since.

Another interesting paradox in Mormonism is between the veneration for intellectual endeavours on the one hand and the unstable educational history on the other. Again, this is noted and expounded by Givens; thus, we have no need to revisit the full breadth of the topic here. That being said, intelligence is of primary concern for Latter-day Saints. This is exemplified by the use of that same term to refer to the eternal component of individuals. Parley Pratt’s words are indicative of the import of the term. In Journal of Discourses, Pratt equates ‘intelligence’ with ‘identity’. A more succinct explanation could never be formed. Intelligence became, at an early point in Mormon history, synonymous with identity. When this fact is combined with Joseph Smith’s assertion in Elder’s Journal that ‘intelligence is the great object of our holy religion’, it becomes challenging to overemphasize the role of the term and its implied behavioural expectations. Saints, as individual and eternal intelligences, must pursue education. More to the point, being is synonymous with intelligence.

To recognize the inherent inconsistency, however, one can look to the work of many Mormon apologists. These individuals, undoubtedly well-intentioned, have often engaged in lacklustre academic work under the guise of erudite, intellectual pursuit. In order to demonstrate this point, the present essay will address the first of the aforementioned paradoxes (that of affirming belief in a great apostasy while drawing connections to early Christians). In so doing, the second paradox (high esteem for education vs. poor scholarship) will become illuminated. Far from an exhaustive critique, the following explores only a single example of Mormon scholarship. The reader is encouraged to retain in mind the opening comments. In what ways are Latter-day Saints unique? Is there a tacit assumption that Mormons must locate common ground with mainstream Christianity? If so, why? Will the LDS church follow the pattern noted by multiple sociologists of religion whereby the religious institution gradually accommodates to the greater society, effectively decreasing their distinctive characteristics and losing (or relocating) their identity?

Comments

  1. I look forward to the rest of the series. Thank you for the write-up.

    I will say that “intelligence” meant something very difference to JS and Pratt, though you are right that it was of very high aspirational value for them both.

  2. Interesting. Thanks, Adam. Looking forward to the rest.

  3. I think most apologists (although clearly not all – especially among those less academically trained) are careful how they draw the comparisons to early Christians. I think they just want to establish that elements of Mormon ideas were in play there. Now they do often make the same mistake that myth-criticism made in the 40’s through 60’s in that they divorce parallels too much from their context. An obvious example is the use of the Gospel of Philip which is divorced from its neoPlatonic context. Yet I think an apologist can very well explain this. Likewise the patristic issues is much more about showing how figures called Christian believed things that get Mormons labeled non-Christian. So I think the uses are often more careful than apologists are given credit for.

    None of that is to deny bad apologetics. But I think the movement as a whole gets brushed too broadly.

  4. As someone interested in apostasy historiography, and Mormon appropriation of patristic literature, I look forward to reading your subsequent posts.

  5. JSJ and peers tended to distinguish sharply between first couple hundred years AD and Constantinian Christianity, which would trivially solve your paradox, but I agree that JSJ and others also identified with Protestant martyrs and victims of Inquisition. Incidentally, Protestants did exactly the same thing, teaching that hellenized Cty was apostate while appropriating (think Foxe’s Actes and Monuments) martyrs of that apostate church as their own.

  6. Smb can’t Joseph empathize with people who are working from a place of faith without accepting that they have the truth? It seems to me this has long been a position of the Church despite the tensions between Mormons and conservative Protestants. I seem to remember a pamphlet from the 70’s the Church gave to missionaries on the apostasy that saw most of the Protestant reformers as a key to the restoration.

    Of course the real issue in the apostasy is what we mean by it. Personally I tend to think most of the real stuff Mormons accept just wasn’t ever widely dispersed. (This is Nibley’s view too if I recall – it’s been years honestly since I really read his stuff) So the secret teachings were had by an inner circle (paralleling what happened in Nauvoo) but the apostasy happened soon which resulted in the authority not being passed on. Probably well within the lives of the main Apostles.

    As for the intellectual apostasy it’s interesting how many Mormons try and pin it on Greek Philosophy. I think it’s trickier than that for various reasons. (Not the least of which being that much of Judaism had already been heavily Hellenized and one could argue heavily Babylonized during the Exile) At best I think the attempt to tie together the Greek conceptions of God with the Hebrew was doomed to failure despite some of the radical transformations of both that early Christians engaged in.

  7. Clark I am sympathetic to your view. There is tho a complex dance being danced over suffering for the truth vs. suffering innocently. JSJ and others weren’t always clear hat they meant. I think the OP is mostly a forced dichotomy tho, as you suggest.

  8. Adam, thank you for writing this up for us here.

    I have some questions but I want to save them until the other posts are up

  9. And the first recognizable fully Anti-Mormon post presented on BCC. Congratulations!

  10. Jettboy, what exactly do you find anti-Mormon in this post? I am sure Adam would be willing to respond to your comments.

  11. Jettboy, in your own post, you commented positively on Terryl Givens so your designation of Adam’s musing on/application of Givens’ ideas as being anti-Mormon is curious. I’d be interested in having you explain yourself as well. As I understand it, Adam bounced some of these ideas around at the recent European Mormon Studies Association Conference in Durham and I don’t recall hearing anyone reacting to his material as being anti-Mormon, but I wasn’t there so can’t be more definitive.

  12. Jettboy, after reading John’s comment I can see that my comes across as a little aggressive. That is not my intention. I am just genuinely surprised that you thought the OP was anti-Mormon and am curious as to what specifically you think fits that label.

  13. “. . . but it also mobilises the collective by fabricating a unique identity as a special and extraordinary group. In spite of its rather circular logic . . . ”

    Anti-Mormon speak for self-righteous liars.

    ” . . . The ink spilt in deriding Mormons has perhaps only been equalled by the rather feeble attempts by apologists to deflect the barrage . . . ”

    This is the basic argument and tone of the whole article; that Mormon apologists are uneducated nitwits who stubble over themselves with incoherent articulations. Meanwhile, the opponents arguments are beyond reproach and unassailable.

    Other comments, I believe, have picked up on the lack of nuance the author gives to Talmage and Joseph Smith (much less Mormon apologists) in regards to positive and negative understandings of Early Christianity and the Apostasy. Its obviously an idea that was never fully explained by Joseph Smith and therefore wide open to interpretations. Talmage isn’t the only, and frankly not the newest, viewpoint on the subject.

    If this author really is saying pretty much the same thing as Terryl Givens (something I very much doubt considering what I have read of him), then I have a bone to pick with him and his book as well. When I got done reading this article, I was sure he would end by saying (and he still might for all I know, and does hint at it with one of the final posed questions of inquiry) Mormons should drop the idea they are Christians.

  14. Put me in coach!

  15. Let’s see what Adam has to say in the rest of the instalments. For my part, I disagree with your interpretations of the selected quotes you have lifted. For one thing, his statements were clear on their face and were not in need of your “translation”.

    As to Mormon apologists, some are producing good quality scholarly work and others are not. My sense from Adam’s first post (and from the title) is that in his analysis, Mormon apologists are overall not doing a great job, perhaps attributable to inappropriate use of patristic sources. If that is his argument, it is by no means anti-Mormon but rather just a scholarly evaluation of the work that has been produced so far in apologetic circles relating to patristic sources.

  16. You can “no he isn’t” all you want John f., but that isn’t going to take away the bad taste in my mouth from reading this. You may not think so, but much of what he says are typical anti-Mormon diatribes and combinations of word usage.

  17. “Anti-Mormon speak for self-righteous liars.”

    This would be quite a creative reading if it were not so twisted.

    Certainly it is possible to critique the OP’s position on Mormon apologetics but I am not convinced that being critical of their work is the same as being Anti-Mormon. Further the author recognises that critiques of Mormonism are ‘often harsh’ and that he wants to avoid the polemical nature of these debates. Again, you might disagree with his attempt but I do not think that this means someone is Anti-Mormon.

    Your comments raise some issues worth considering but it is hasty to judge the article upon what you think the conclusion will be and I find your suggestion that the OP is Anti-Mormon quite unfounded. However, I still believe that the OP and your comments (along with some of the others made here) need to explored further.

  18. You can “no he isn’t” all you want […] but that isn’t going to take away the bad taste in my mouth from reading this.

    If there’s anything I’ve learned from reading Mormon blogs it’s that there’s no arguing with someone’s gut reaction. I’ve also learned to not make it out to be anything more than that.

  19. That is fine Aaron R, as your words are only fabrications based on circular logic. No offense intended by me saying that of course. Its all said with an academic detachment after all.

  20. it's a series of tubes says:

    This blog needs a “like” button.

  21. I had a different reaction than Jettboy, too. I don’t see the OP as Anti-Mormon at all. I got the impression that he thought many Mormon apologists could be doing a better job–not that the Church’s positions are indefensible.

    Of course we see these things from our own perspective. For example, the main reason I don’t engage in apologetics isn’t becasue I don’t think the Church’s doctrines and positions are indefensible. I don’t engage in apologetics because I don’t have the background or the tools to do it justice.

  22. Part 2 has now been posted.

  23. re #21, and that seems to be what Adam’s introduction is hinting at — there are some Mormon apologists engaging in it who don’t have the background or the tools to do it justice and others who despite having that background are doing it sloppily if they are abusing patristic sources to force a comparison or argument. We’ll have to read the rest of Adam’s series to be able to come to our own conclusion about whether he has been persuasive on the point about Mormon apologists misusing patristic sources to the movement’s detriment.

  24. Steve Evans says:

    Jettboy, you are so monumentally stupid that your reputation for idiocy needs no introduction. And yet here your basic reading skills are again shown to be lacking in shocking measure. It’s a wonder that people like you can function in modern society. Go away until you learn how to read.

  25. It’s because Jettboy isn’t actually trying to make a comment on the content of this post. He’s trying to make a whiny, self-important, sour grapes comment about this blog. Read the first line of his first comment. What a child…

  26. If you don’t want me around, maybe you should ban me Mr. Evans.

  27. Arriving late to this little dust-up. But sometimes arriving late is good because then somebody else has conveniently very well articulated what you would have liked to say. In this case, I’ll just “ditto” what CS Eric said:

    I had a different reaction than Jettboy, too. I don’t see the OP as Anti-Mormon at all. I got the impression that he thought many Mormon apologists could be doing a better job–not that the Church’s positions are indefensible.

    Of course we see these things from our own perspective. For example, the main reason I don’t engage in apologetics isn’t becasue I don’t think the Church’s doctrines and positions are indefensible. I don’t engage in apologetics because I don’t have the background or the tools to do it justice.

    I have to agree with the assessment in the OP that some of the individuals who engage in apologetics would be better off following CS Eric’s self-assessment and stay out of the business of apologetics. This happens all the time in various aspects of life and is not at all a judgment on the defensibility of the actual thing in question. For example, sometimes on the blogs it is more frustrating and painful for me to see comments from “my side” argued very poorly than to see comments from the “other side.”

  28. No need to ban you, Jettboy. Letting you publicly attach your name to idiotic comments is plenty of punishment. Go right ahead and keep them coming…

  29. I have no doubt that much of Mormon apologetics is bad, but I tire of this assertion –when made broadly and vaguely — almost as much as I tire of orthodox cheerleaders who rally behind any and all seemingly pro-Mormon arguments they run across.

  30. What would it even mean for Apologetics to be successful? It seems to me some simply demand too much of Apologetics. They don’t want a defense of how a particular belief is rational but how it is the most likely or even the only position any objective investigator should hold. That seems to be setting too high a standard. I think nearly all Apologists (at least the ones I’ve known – including Nibley) would not argue that their arguments make any other belief unlikely. Rather they are showing how one can rationally hold to Mormon beliefs while being aware of all the historic evidence.

    Now how one deals with that evidence will vary from person to person. While I’m somewhat sympathetic to the issues the original poster brings up, I think it really comes down to an issue of how much any theoretic item can be divorced from its context. However how one decides that is anything but “objective” and I think where the line is placed scholastically really does vary a lot from generation to generation of scholar. (And all of this is independent of the question of “gaps” that people will disagree on – such as the whole question of religion vs. traditional naturalism)

  31. I read the OP twice, the first time I got the impression that a stronger definition or identification needed to be done regarding what “Mormon apologetics” consists of. In the second reading I better recognized that the focus on crappy apologetics would be limited to discussions of how apologists have made use of various patristic sources in defenses of Mormonism. The argument being set up is that apologists want to have their cake (declare an apostasy) and eat it, too (claim common ground as evidence of authenticity).

    Certainly I’ve seen plenty of proof-texted patristics in various articles on Mormonism. At the same time, I think Aaron B summed it up well:

    I have no doubt that much of Mormon apologetics is bad, but I tire of this assertion –when made broadly and vaguely — almost as much as I tire of orthodox cheerleaders who rally behind any and all seemingly pro-Mormon arguments they run across.

    Also, Clark has good points. Thanks for typing them out. Looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

    (PS- I have no clue how a somewhat uncautious dismissal of an undefined body of apologetic work which promises to provide more specific discussion in posts to follow could be classified as “anti-Mormon.”)

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