The Mormon Naturalist

No this isn’t a post about Steve Peck, much as I think that would be fun. Instead, its in the vein I’ve been sort of mining a little here lately. I hesitate to use the tired “Mormonism and Science” title, but what the heck. Why not?

What I’m really looking at here is not how Mormons interface with science in the here and now so much as the roots of that interface and its analogues in early America. As a kind of illustration, take William Bentley. Bentley was a Congregational minister in Salem, Mass. from about 1780 to the year before Joseph Smith’s first vision. It’s Bentley’s stance on Science that I think was both prescient for Protestants in a way and at the same time relevant to Mormons.

William Bentley, A Shadow of Joseph Smith?

William Bentley believed in a “reasonable Christianity” with a categorical rejection of special Providence.[1] Bentley was regarded with some distaste “in his own country” in other ways. For example, he was a Republican in Federalist territory, in lockstep with his theological isolation.

Bentley was an avowed Arminian which tracked his move with republicanism, a Christian Libertarian if you will. On the other hand, Bentley was really no friend of religious liberals. Indeed, he was not seen in any sort of favorable light in that camp. They hated Bentley’s inclusion of science in his religious views. (Bentley’s theological forebears included people like Joseph Priestley.[2])

The buzz words “lived religion” give us an interesting glimpse of Bentley and a contrast between him and Joseph Smith. “Lived religion” lies at the crossroads of laity, liturgy and clergy. Its relevance here is that with the embrace of naturalism Bentley placed himself in a position similar to that of modern liberal Protestantism – for example, his accommodation of requests of admittance without baptism. His church was politically influential, but it died a slow death in Salem – again the analogy with liberal Protestantism – it has faded because of its failure to appeal to those wanting a more hands-on God, a father with immediacy, immanence, in their lives – the strength of evangelicals like the Southern Baptist Convention today (and for that matter the Latter-day Saints).[3] Republicanism made successful invasion of Salem, but Bentley himself was forgotten.

Edgar Mullins - SBC idol of Harold Bloom - Gone and Forgotten?

Joseph Smith, who clearly had some affection for an extraordinary materialism (and, it may be argued, an appreciation for at least the practicalities of science) was remembered not so much as theological liberal (though Arminian in his views of free will) but as a prophet and founder of a major branch of Christianity. In a way, Joseph was a successor to Bentley in his religious rationalism (ok, JS had romantic elements – as Bentley was predecessor to the general rationalism/optimism of the period of JS’s lifetime) a perspective sometimes lost on a few 20th century Mormon exegetes.

Another (regretful) difference between Bentley and Joseph Smith? Bentley left many self-published sermons (a pretty commonplace thing) a huge diary (his handwriting shows an interesting resemblance to one of Joseph Smith’s clerks, W. W. Phelps) and literally thousands of sermon manuscripts and notes of others. Imagine a huge cache of Joseph Smith sermons, authored and written by himself. I could only wish.

[1] Bentley was a sort of compromise between the Deists and Liberals. You see threads of this in Joseph Smith, theologically if not personally, and some of his fellows ran with it after his death (Orson Pratt -> B.H. Roberts -> John A. Widtsoe, etc.). A really fine treatment of Bentley is J. Rixey Ruffin, A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic (Oxford, 2008). As far as Providence is concerned, Mormons rejected Providence in an important way: they believed in Modern Revelation, Bible Equivalent Revelation. That put them beyond the bulwark of fixed canon, the safety net of “Providentialists.” There is, by the way, a certain irony in Bentley’s position vis-a-vis Salem. (grin)

[2] Priestley invented soda pop. Just thought I’d say that. Also, Priestley was not into free will apparently. The issue of Bentley and liberals is more complicated than Bentley and the Deists. I don’t want to do that here. The Bentely-Priestley thing presaged the determinist – free will stuff of the 19th century. With Priestley, I always think of Eco’s version of Bacon in The Name of the Rose, an old favorite I admit.

[3] Dashes are ubiquitous in JS sermon manuscripts. What can I say? I’m addicted.


  1. For a moment there- with that title- I thought that LDSSCA had a new site! My bad thinking that!

  2. Chris, is that that nudist thing up north? Its Naturalist, not naturist. (grinning)

  3. One other interesting difference between Bentley and JS. Eighteenth century preaching was focused mostly on what happens between the two bookends of human history – the fall and the second coming of Jesus. JS extends things dramatically here in a nearly blasphemous way.

  4. I’m addicted to dashes, too.
    And Steve Peck kind of looks like Matthew Macfadyen.

  5. Miri, that photo was taken when Steve was in the teachers quorum.