Nineteenth-Century Mormon Materialism and the Cold Bloodedness of Science

Matthew Taylor (“Ghost-Humanism,” J19 1, no.2 (2013): 416ff) begins his interesting take on ghosts and nineteenth-century science with this quote from William Gilmore Simms: “we can no longer get a ghost story” because “the materialists” have made “the world . . . monstrous matter-of-fact in latter days.” Taylor writes that Simms’s corollary that the “cold-blooded demon called Science has taken the place of all the other demons” is telling in this regard, but more indicative is the era’s endless fascination with ghostology, or the attempt to identify “a scientific theory . . . reconciling ghosts and natural phenomena.”

Taylor observes that the literature Simms complains of “often were exercises in exorcism, debunking spirits as optical illusions, atavistic reversions, or mental delusions. With equal if not greater frequency, however, they sought to substantiate ghosts’ reality, via everything from the empirical evidence of spirit photography and planchette writing (at times conducted under the auspices of William James and the Society for Psychical Research) to hypothetical proofs involving electrical currents and universal ethers. In each case, ghosts were given flesh—shades brought into the light—through association with known scientific laws and technologies. To borrow Thomas Carlyle’s (and M. H. Abrams’s) memorable phrase: a natural supernaturalism.”

Only slightly outside of Taylor’s thesis lie the Mormons (never mentioned in the article). From Joseph Smith’s early dialog with Revelation (D&C 77), to the near accidental recording of a gloss on a private sermon (D&C 130), the Mormons were ahead of the curve: ghosts were real, so real that they were somehow part of the physical world, as Taylor terms them “invisible macro-biological life forms.” Indeed, Mormon discussions of the universe placed both ends of the divine part of the chain of being, spirits, angels, and the “holy” bodies of God and Christ into a biosphere that looks suspiciously like extraterrestrial copies of the world of terra firma, but extracted from its context.

Taylor says that for some, the advances of science wrote humans as just one more line in the play of a universe winding down to nothingness, while for others, the materialization of ghosts demonstrated “our scientific immortality . . . the extension of human dominion into ever more domains.”

While Taylor’s question at large is as much a literary one as anything: “whether or not there is new life to be found in channeling the voices of the dead” in the sense of works like the one that scared the [heck] out of me as a boy: Ambrose Bierce’s variation on the theme of material ghosts: “The Damned Thing” (1893), “which investigates a man killed in the western wilderness by ‘something unseen’ that ‘blot[s] out’ all beyond it.”

The Mormons never, except in fringe literature, tried to bring science, as it existed then, into full dialog with the spiritual world (certainly people like James Talmage saw nothing wrong with explaining the miracles of the New Testament as the action of physical laws beyond the ken of Galilean Fishermen). Indeed, thankfully in my opinion, mainstream modern Mormonism has done little in the way of defining William Clayton’s version of Joseph Smith’s words (“all spirit is matter”(!)), beyond perhaps reading them largely as a declaration that the spiritual world is real, not a Platonic ideal perhaps. But during the era Taylor defines, Mormons were very specific regarding both the worlds “before” this one, and those “after” it, in terms that could only shock the sensibilities of fellow Protestants.

Orson Pratt’s talk of women bearing children in heaven, taking the common exegesis of Paul to a new level: the heavenly bodies sexually procreate, not in their own image, but in the image of their blood-substitute: “spirit.” Pratt’s universal bio-frame marked out a theological territory never fully discharged from Mormon thought, indeed, it is, now in wonderful Victorian vagueness, celebrated.

But this Mormon physicalizing of the spiritual world, indeed in Taylor’s words, humanizing it, has some consequences that work against other Mormon narratives: the necessity of the body in particular. If spirits are material, indeed bodily material, not just real but real as human doppelgangers, with arms to embrace, eyes to see, ears to hear, fingers to touch, tongues to taste, and even glands to secrete, what is the lesson of more body? True there have been efforts to dehumanize the spirit “body,” but they seem strange appendices to reduce the voltage of an all-material world-a world to be explained by laws of physics that like the Lost Chord of Cosmology, will finally explain the Gravity of Humaness.

Taylor notes (in my mind) that the Mormon conception of the universality of the human paradigm was shared by fictional works on the subject of spiritualism. An 1858 work by Fitz-James O’Brien called the “Diamond Lens” “centers on a man aided by Leeuwenhoek’s ghost to build an infinitely powerful microscope capable of penetrat[ing] beyond the external portal of things” to “a universe of beings…convulsing…with struggles as fierce and protracted as those of men”; even at the level of the ‘original atom,’ he finds a being that ‘possessed the outlines of humanity.'”[1]

Parley Pratt’s universe of matter, all of which has varying levels of virtue, consciousness, feeling, and life is remodeled independently in Herbert Spencer, where another of Bierce’s fright-fests follows a robot made of more “pure” matter of the highest sort, containing free-will as attribute: the shaped stuff murders its maker, Frankenstein-like. Taylor quoting Bierce: “[if] Consciousness [and life are] the creature[s] of Rhythm,” and if, by extension, we are merely “ingenious mechanism[s],” then the exceptionality of humankind, the very being of the human, is irrevocably lost. Thus, whether at the macro or micro scale, “the invisible existences…swarm[ing] about” displace humanity from atop the [material half of the] great chain of being, leaving us in the position of one of Bierce’s Civil War undead who, though “among familiar things[,] is unable to determine his exact place and part in the scheme of things.”[2]

Prattian vital materialism was commonly echoed about the nineteenth century, and Taylor brings other examples to bear that I won’t mention here except to say that [Parley] Pratt’s influence was powerful (within Mormonism–it was ignored in Taylor’s world dimension), overcoming Joseph Smith’s protology in a sense, and through immensely (but little acknowledged) influential Mormon successors like Charles Penrose, fixed in place an almost untraceable interpretive framework that complicates our pictures of reality through an ever present ritual: the search for uniformity.

Anyway, fun article that, without knowing it, has interesting overtones in both nineteenth and twentieth-century Mormonism.

[1] References to things Mormon in regard to Taylor’s piece are entirely my own construction. Do not blame him for my fancies.
[2] On Parley and materialism, see Ben Park and Jordan Watkins, “The Riches of Mormon Materialism: Parley P. Pratt’s ‘Materiality’ and Early Mormon Theology,” Mormon Historical Studies 11, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 119-132. Also, Ben Park, “(Re)Interpreting Early Mormon Thought: Synthesizing Joseph Smith’s Theology and the Process of Relgion Formation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 45, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 59-88.


  1. J. Stapley says:

    Loved this, WVS. Thanks.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Cool stuff–especially the “what’s the point of more body” question.

  3. Thanks guys.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    It’s interesting that even in the early days of the Renaissance a material conception of spirits was not at all uncommon. Telesio is one figure who went that direction but there were others. Spirits became conceived of as a kind of gas rather than something immaterial ala Aquinas or Descartes. Which of course fits better with the folk traditions of spirits of course.

  5. Cool.

  6. Mary Ann says:

    Fascinating. It seems that 19th century Mormons had (or at least perceived themselves as having) a much more physical connection with the supernatural – speaking in tongues, seer stones, discerning spirits via handshakes, etc. I wonder if that factored into a more physical perception of the spirit realm.

  7. That’s a good question Mary Ann. Although Mormons shared much of that enthusiasm with other brands of belief at the time.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Seems like that’s still a fairly common view within Mormonism Mary Ann.

  9. John Mansfield says:

    This brings to mind a program of lectures presented to honor Jan Burgers’ (1895-1981) 100th birthday. The great man left his mark on continuum mechanics, solid and fluid (link). Very much a man with his mind on matter. In his later years he extended the domain of his thoughts. “In 1955, at age 60, Burgers left Delft to join the faculty of the University of Maryland. There he developed his interest in the relation of the Boltzmann Equation to the equations of fluid dynamics.” It’s all matter, you may say, but thinking out how phenomena like viscosity and elasticity arise from a secret micro world of atoms and their electrons has a ghost in the machine quality. Then Burgers went further and wrote Experience and Conceptual Activity (1965) about the degrees of consciousness and free will found in matter. The colleague speaking on this stage of Burgers’ life said Burgers was disappointed that this book hadn’t been taken seriously. The man who gave us the Burgers equation and the Burgers vector really meant it and thought it was important.

    It sounds like Taylor’s book would add a bit of context to Burgers’ searching.

  10. I have several close friends and relatives who “see things.” Some types of embodied spirits or “shades” are described. Some of these people appear to seek out such experiences but most do not. One person close to me describes it as something that just happens from time to time. It cannot be made to happen or conjured. You either have the “gift” or not. I have had no such experiences in my getting rather long life, nor have I ever seen anything that could be construed as a UFO.

  11. The Other Clark says:

    Widtsoe’s “Joseph Smith as Scientist” (orig. pub. 1908) would be an interesting addition to this post, as it directly addresses many key points.. The book has chapters or sub-chapters on, among other topics, “the indestructibility of matter” “the indestructibility of energy” “the universal ether” “organized intelligence” and “the sixth sense.”

    As to Jason K.’s comment (#2) as to the point of gaining a body, I feel it has to do with (1) learning to handle and control power and (2) learning to prioritize/deal with limited resources (primarily time and money). Teaching the law of tithing and law of chastity, for instance, is much easier in a physical body in a physical world. IMO, this is why the temple covenants are what they are: because this life is the place to learn them.