“Wrestling the Angel.” Terryl Givens’ Illuminated Tour of Mormon Thought

Terryl L. Givens
Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity
Hardcover: i-xiii, 390 pages.
Publisher: Oxford University Press, forthcoming (2014).
Pre-order Amazon price in the US: $27.96.

When I heard that Professor Givens had embarked on a work of “Mormon Theology” I was more than a little skeptical. Not that it hasn’t been done before. That isn’t the problem. It’s just that theology, as James Faulconer has written, is something that just doesn’t seem to fit Mormonism. However, when I got my greedy little hands on Givens’ book, I was pleased to see that it is a work of theological heritage. In Givens’ words: “I am here tracing what I regard as the essential contours of Mormon thought as it developed from Joseph Smith to the present, not pretending to address the many tributaries in and out of Mormonism’s main currents.”(x)

Givens is a familiar of Christian religious thought, and a careful scholar of Mormonism. His work in this volume illustrates the point perfectly. In Angel, we get to see Mormon thinking about the nature of the Divine, man, creation, through a bifocal lens: Givens gives us a whirlwind tour through the halls built by Origen, Augustine, Luther, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and so forth, hoping to find meaning through correspondence or contrast in some cases and in others perhaps, derivation or differentiation.

In Angel,[1] Givens is a master at pulling no punches, while simultaneously being kind to his faith (and that of others). We see through Givens’ eyes the struggle for understanding the deepest basements of Mormon thinking (and the honest lack of resolution there in many respects). The point here is that he largely ignores the temptation to force consistency among the historical luminaries of Mormonism: Joseph Smith, the Pratts, Talmage, Roberts, McConkie, and so on. Givens tells us like it was in most respects, nor does he leave out more modern questions about sex, gender, feminism, racism–appealing to wide swaths of sources, attempting to sketch in the boundaries of logic and tradition that shepherd recent and current progressivism and retrenchment. While doing so, Givens is cautious about how Mormon thought might negotiate the future. For example (292):

Such a scenario [that barriers in Mormon culture to gay marriage will fall] is possible, but not likely. The priesthood ban arose under murky circumstances, abruptly intruding into a culture that under Smith’s leadership had been moving in the opposite direction . . . The ban had no identifiable revelatory origins. Nor was it indissolubly connected–as heterosexual marriage is–to Mormon conceptions of the divine . . . [There seems to be a missing footnote here, no doubt a consequence of my copy’s prepublication nature.]

Perhaps this quote helps to convey the limits of the book. It is careful and scholarly in its journey through Mormon thinking and tracing ideas from Mormonism’s beginnings to the present. But it is less useful on occasion in suggesting some of the cultural workings that undoubtedly helped along some of the observed transitions or discontinuities or emphases. For example, where the book fairly notes Smith’s preaching on “eternal spirits” and the range of contrary ideas among his colleagues and successors, it doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation on why Smith largely disappeared from the contest of ideas on this point for sixty years (chap. 17).

At times, declarations of theological position seem divorced from immediate context, as though they were diamonds dropping down from some Platonic stage, landing in the mortal dirt, testing our mettle to find and use them. Sometimes the book leaves the impression that Mormon thinkers were as careful as Givens is, drawing their theological positions out of a selection process combining Aristotelian logic and a big library. But that impression, if it is accurate in any measure, is almost surely the consequence of the huge ambition of this project along with the ever invisible editorial hand, and should not discourage any potential reader.

There are a few places where Givens ignores some of the riches. In his treatment of Satan and the heavenly war for example, he is careful at noting how the nature of the myth has changed in Mormon discussions of agency, and the role of the devil in Mormon thought.(chap. 16) But the position of sons of Perdition in Smith’s preaching is not really accessed I think.

I haven’t mentioned treatments of things like polygamy or Adam-God. I must leave something to tempt you.

Terryl Givens is uniquely qualified to embark on a work like this. A look at the endnotes might discourage any lesser human from the attempt. I sincerely hope for a robust index (preliminary copies don’t get such ephemera) and please, Oxford, let there be a bibliography. Can I just say here that I hate endnotes. But footnotes are apparently expensive?

Givens notes in his preface that this volume is the first of two. A second volume “will deal with ecclesiology, including such topics as authority, sacraments, spiritual gifts, and worship.”(xi) This second volume promises to be perhaps even more interesting and important than the first.

Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity

Highly recommended for anyone interested in Mormon Studies. Hopefully this book becomes a library staple. Congratulations to Professor Givens and Oxford.
[1] The title is reminiscent of K. P. Sullivan’s Wrestling the Angels: A Study of the Relationship Between Angels and Humans in Ancient Jewish Literature and the New Testament (Leiden: Brill, 1998).


  1. Great review, Bill!

  2. cool!

  3. Professor Harrell, in his book “This is My Doctrine,” illustrates not only how Mormon doctrines have changed over the past 175 years but how they evolved during Joseph’s lifetime. For example, his views regarding the nature of the Godhead were multifarious and constantly changing. Indeed, if he had lived longer, they would have undoubtedly undergone further transformation. This is noteworthy in two respects.

    First, it reveals that Joseph was receptive to new ideas and was willing to revise previous conceptions of the divine. Second, what church leaders frequently attempt to pass off as definitive doctrinal pronouncements are often times little more than their personal opinions and theological speculations. The institution and its leaders can avoid the appearance of inconsistency if they humbly concede that our knowledge of God and His ways is infinitesimally small in comparison to what we don’t know.

    Can’t wait for Givens’ new book. Hope it lives up to expectations.

  4. Very happy to see this nearing publication.

    And count me as one of the few heretics who prefer endnotes to footnotes, especially for books like this that profess a literary style that would be inturrupted by constantly looking at sources. For more technical works, footnotes work great.

  5. K. R. Pollock says:

    Excited to see this coming out soon! can’t wait!

  6. Ben P, I’m with you on the endnotes issue.

  7. J. Stapley says:

    Solid review. WVS. “….drawing their theological positions out of a selection process combining Aristotelian logic and a big library.” Brilliant.

  8. I think this is volume 1 of 2, if I’m not mistaken. Can you confirm

  9. Thanks, J.

    Terry H, as noted, it is the first of two volumes.

  10. On footnotes vs. endnotes, I think Daniel Howe’s What Hath God Wrought hit a fine compromise. To each his own.

  11. Howe’s history of antebellum America is superb. Indeed, every volume of the Oxford History of the United States is exceptional.

  12. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    Thanks for alerting us to this new book from Professor Givens.

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