New Views on an Old Problem

While looking at how mainline Christians used Mormons to establish their own identity and negotiate the meaning of inspiration, I’ve lately been fascinated by Turner’s cruel little book, Mormonism in All Ages. Attempting to establish that Mormons are as crazy as every strange Christian heresy over almost two millennia, Turner invokes Mosheim’s Ecclesiastical History to describe the Quietists. According to Turner’s paraphrase of Mosheim,

They seated themselves daily in some retired corner and fixed their eyes steadfastly upon their navels, until a wonderful divine illumination beamed forth upon them and diffused through their souls peculiar delight. By this process they imagined that they acquired peculiar insight into the spiritual world, saw God himself with their bodily eyes, and other things equally strange and unutterable.

Watch out Timothy Leary.

Turner is rabidly anti-Mormon. I only recommend reading him if you’re interested in identity construction among mainline Christians (Turner seem Congregationalist from what I read of him, but he may be a conservative Presbyterian or maybe even Episcopalian. I haven’t yet researched his biography; he sure ain’t revivalistic.)
Mosheim is quoted widely in Mormon and non-Mormon circles in the 19th century and was one key reference for them in understanding ancient Christianity (this was true of other periods as well).


  1. Wow Sam. Is that where the expression “navel gazing” came from?

    What does this description of the Quietists have to do with Mormonism? (I feel ok asking this since that book was not on Kritine’s reading list).

  2. If he was using the “saw God himself with their bodily eyes” part, I understand the idea – incorrect as it is. The rest of it simply shows incredible ignorance, if he is applying it to Mormonism.

    Ironically, this bolsters the central theme of Kristine’s post – since we all wish those who comment on Mormonism from the outside would do a little serious reading and contemplation prior to commenting.

  3. Turner, as others, was attempting to establish that Mormonism was mere fanaticism and trying to show his readers that although Mormonism sounded like a fresh new religion, it was just the “same old garbage” from prior centuries. I’m coauthoring a study of this use of Mormonism with a blog friend now and hope to have it done in the next month or so.

    Turner was not attempting to say they were identical, just that weirdos with special claims to revelation are millennia old. Turner is actually surprisingly apt in his characterizations of Mormonism proper, though he relies heavily on standard anti-Mormon sources.

    As far as navel gazing, that’s why I thought it was funny enough to post. I haven’t done the OED check on navel gazing so can’t comment certainly on whether that’s where the phrase originates.

  4. Thanks, Sam, for the additional comment.

  5. I hate to say it, but Turner’s got a point.

    How many times have you heard someone in the church bear testimony manipulatively to force through some argument they’re trying to make? How many times have you heard people speak of a spiritual confirmation and wondered if, frankly, they’re just inventing it from a generally good mood they happened to be in at the time?

    And how do you test their claims anyway?

    This will always be one of the big problems with a revealed religion:

    How do you know when it’s the Spirit and when it’s just wishful thinking?

  6. You don’t unless it’s yours, Seth. Testing others’ claims (on the individual member level) is what gets people calling us a non-Christian cult – and some of us blindly ignoring spirituality outside our midst.

    Dead horse, long buried by now.

  7. Incidentally, Jonathan Baldwin Turner was a fascinating guy. Wikipedia gives a hint. He was instrumental in founding University of Illinois, whose press for decades kept academic Mormon studies publishing going.

    Ray/Seth: the high-faluters think of this as “managing charisma/enthusiasm”: how do you give people a taste of private revelation but still keep a church structure that doesn’t explode from centrifugal energies.

  8. In other words, how do you “let them govern themselves” while still maintaining unity of organizational structure and doctrinal integrity? I personally think that is the biggest genius of the Restoration – local control of the practical church and global control of the ideological church. It’s both the best thing and the worst thing about the Church, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s also one of the things that frightens Protestants and evangelicals – the similarity to the Catholic Church in their eyes, which is a legitimate perception, IMO.

  9. the similarity to the Catholic Church in their eyes, which is a legitimate perception, IMO.

    The genius, IMO, is the way that it’s not similar to the Catholic church. The similarity is in the structure, but the genius is in the fact that every member has a stewardship and the right to receive revelation for that stewardship. Try that as a Catholic.

  10. That is exactly what I meant, MCQ. It appears to Protestants and evangelicals to be like the Catholic Church because of the global organizational structure (a legitimate perception), but the genius is in the local revelation that runs it. Mormonism gets the best of all Christian models in that regard, but Protestants and evangelicals only see the “scary” super-structure.

  11. Sam,
    I’m assuming that if you’re this far into your research that you’ve looked at Spencer Fluhman’s disseration “Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Antebellum America.” If not, you really need to. It’s available through UMI. Spencer hopes it’ll be published within the year. Although he isn’t saying who the publisher is, rumor has it that Oxford was looking at it. Let’s hope so, because it’s a very important work.

  12. Yes, through a friend I’ve now met Spencer, who is a very bright young scholar. This work is a sideline from my main work in death culture, but it is certainly informed by Fluhman’s broader work.

  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    I’m not sure you can reasonably assert there is “local control of the practical church” when outsiders see a global uniformity of architecture, meeting structure, curriculum, music, etc, that puts any other major denomination to shame. The best comparisons are to multi-national corporations, if we’re honest. The Church’s critics don’t call it McChurch for no reason, even though that’s somewhat unfair.

    One can argue that “local revelation” results in the Church looking almost identical everywhere (there’s only one Holy Ghost, after all), but that’s a tough sell. If local units were really given control of “practical” matters, don’t you think at least some wards would get rid of the 3-hour block, lose the 50s business clothes, alter the SS curriculum to meet local needs, or make various other changes that would currently be unthinkable?

    I know I’m oversimplifying a bit here and somebody is going to reply “but the saints wear floral shirts in Fiji!” or “they used a guitar in Argentina!” or some such. Just wanted to point out how outsiders see the Church, and why. Evangelicals in particular are repelled by the idea of a bunch of old men having any say in their spiritual lives….be they wearing dresses in Rome or suits in SLC. Protestantism is anti-institutional to its core.

  14. Sam,
    Glad to hear it. I look forward to seeing your work in print.

  15. Looking around, I learned that Turner was raised as a Congregationalist by his parents and pastored several Congregationalist churches. He resigned under pressure from Illinois College due, in part, to his disagreements with the Presbyterian Synod over doctrine. He apparently disputed Calvinist tenets such as election and predestination. One source indicates that he also showed interest in spiritualism.

  16. thanks, justin. his dtr wrote a biography in 1911, but I don’t have access to it. I believe the doctrinal dispute was over abolitionism, as Turner was pretty radical. he was even something like a modern worker’s socialist, urging public universities (land-grant) precisely to allow “industrial” classes to gain greater education. some say he was _the_ main actor in getting land grant universities established after the Civil War.

    When you read his book, he takes a very austere High Church tone, but you’re right, he isn’t some Nathaniel Taylor in love with the details of Calvinism.

    What source claimed the spiritualism? that would be a dramatic switch from 1842 for Turner. there was some fascinating overlap via Weld and Co. between spiritualism and abolitionism. something about leaving behind the mainstream and entering a prophetic mode.

    The book is pretty darn cruel, but one gains the sense that Turner was actually a fascinating character. Much busier and more intellectual than to stare at his navel.

  17. I found a line about spiritualism in Joseph Kett’s The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties (using google books). It’s difficult to tell his source, although it may be Winton Solberg’s The University of Illinois: 1867-1894. I could see a few snippets of his daughter’s biography on google books.

  18. It always makes me chuckle when I see a fellow Christian make fun of mormons for believing crazy stuff. I’ll take it from an agnostic or an atheist but not from a christian.

    These people believe in a vengeful God who must mete out justice so to do so he sends…wait for it…himself posing as his son which is born from a Virgin. He grows up feeds thousands with a few loaves, walks on water, forces pigs to run off a cliff because he just cast devils into them. Later upon his second coming there will be dragons and angels with six wings and all manner of terrifying beasts. In the old testament he lived in a bush which burned but didn’t. Killed about ten thousand hebrews because they wanted the priesthood. Smote people with “emrods” for stealing his arc. Caused Saul and his priests to take off all their clothes and run about a city prophesying. And the mormons are the ones that believe in crazy stuff? Come on. Kettle meet teapot.

  19. justin, yeah, all i got were snippets too. i somehow doubt spiritualism.

    ronito, that’s what fascinates me. turner’s book was the first time I felt great spiritual sympathy for Protestant anti-Mormons. I have the sense that Turner was running scared, and that fear of Mormons as pulling the rug out from under the suspension of disbelief required for Christianity to operate suddenly seemed credible to me (not well elaborated here; will try to write it up more formally later)

  20. I totally agree super mario bros.

  21. Amen, smb. Whenever the “Mormons are weirdos for believing those crazy things” conversation begins, I immediately point out the Biblical examples that they accept – and there has been no reasonable answer – without fail. What scares many of them, when they are faced with and recognize it, is that we represent the slippery slope manifestation of their own need to exercise faith. (I hope that last sentence makes sense to others.)

  22. #1 and #3: The OED affirms that the Quietists inspired the phrase “navel-gazing,” but Mosheim is not in the cited genealogy.

    Before navel-gazers there were omphalopsychics and before that, omphalopsychites: “Quietist[s] who practis[e] gazing at the navel as a means of inducing hypnotic reverie”—which is also known as omphaloscopy or omphaloskepsis (with modern derivates, omphaloskeptic and omphaloskeptical). The OED attributes the first printed, epithetic use of “navel-contemplator” to RA Vaughan in his 1856 Hours with Mystics: A Contribution to the History of Religious Opinion.

    “It seems that some of the monks (called, if I mistake not, Hesychasts) held that if a man shut himself up in a corner of his cell, with his chin upon his breast, turning his thoughts inward, gazing towards his navel, and centering all the strength of his mind on the region of the heart ; and, not discouraged by at first perceiving only dark- ness, held out at this strange inlooking for several days and nights, he would at length behold a divine glory, and see him- self luminous with the very light which was manifested on Mount Tabor. They call these devotees Navel-contemplators. A sorry business ! All the monks, for lack of aught else to do, were by the ears about it, either trying the same or reviling it.” (vol 1, p. 355, under the heading “German Mysticism in the 14th Century”; the full-text is here).

    Vaughan cites Johann Mattheus Schröckh’s _Christliche Kirchengeschichte_ from 1784 as his source; I don’t know whom Schröckh cites, but 1784 is 30 years after Mosheim died.

    Interestingly enough, Turner seems to be channeling Vaughan, who wrote a history of how religionists in ages past made themselves “elaborately unintelligible” (xxvii).

    “Through all the changes of doctrine and the long conflict of creeds, it is interesting to trace the unconscious unity of mystical temperaments in every communion. It can scarcely be without some profit that we essay to gather together and arrange this company of ardent natures ; to account for their harmony and their differences, to ascertain the extent of their influence for good and evil, to point out their errors, and to estimate even dreams impossible to cold or meaner spirits” (Preface to 1st ed., xxviii).

    To drive home the point, on the page following the description of the navel-contemplators, one of Vaughan’s speakers says:

    “The crass stupidity of those Omphalopsychi shows how little mere natural beauty can contribute to refine and cultivate, at any rate when the pupils are ascetics. The contemporary mysticism of the East looks mean enough beside the speculation, the poetry, and the action of the German mystics of the fourteenth century. It is but the motionless abstraction of the Indian Yogi over again” (356).

  23. Of course, the next time someone cites 4 Nephi 1:17, please be sure to bring up omphalopsychites.

  24. Heidi Ann says:

    Ok, I’m not very well-read, but fear not, no comments. I only have a question – how many of you went off to go and stare at your belly button?