Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Consider The Wandering Ones

As a fairly vocal dissenter of Mormon orthodoxy, I am often troubled by just how skewed some of my friends’ and acquaintances’ perceptions are with regard to my motivations. If you’ve chosen to leave the faith, why can’t you just leave it alone? To a point, this is a fair question. If I’ve determined Mormonism doesn’t line up with my beliefs, why not press forward and focus on new endeavors? Why do people like me, a relative few of Mormonism’s defectors, sometimes become consumed with analyzing their religious heritage? Why do we feel the need to vocalize our position, thus becoming a disruptive influence amongst believing friends and family? Is it merely persecution evidencing the bitter discontentment of my sins? It is perceived by some that instead of moving onward and upward, apostates are grasping at straws to fill the aching chasm left in their lives by abandoning the restored gospel.

Growing up in the church, I experienced the same mild rhetorical antagonism as most in the states. I saw people picket LDS conference events and disseminate aggressively antagonistic tracts. There is a great deal of confusion about these people in LDS culture. I myself participated in the expression of disdainful sentiments towards these heretics who for whatever illegitimate reason, couldn’t pass muster in the church and are thence promptly taken in by Satan as he marshals his troops to fight God’s work. In the polemical Mormon worldview, people are not fully agents in and of themselves, they are also principles to be manipulated by powers unseen, and ultimately subjected to a grand polarizing paradigm. Such was the framework suggested by Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Daniel Tyler, an early convert baptized in 1833, recalled of the early church’s struggle with apostate influences in the aftermath of the Kirtland fallout:

“Soon after the Prophet’s arrival in Commerce [Nauvoo] from Missouri prison, Brother Isaac Behunin and myself made him a visit at his residence. His persecutions were the topic of conversation. He repeated many false, inconsistent and contradictory statements made by apostates, frightened members of the Church and outsiders. He also told how most of the officials who would fain have taken his life, when he was arrested, turned in his favor on forming his acquaintance. He laid the burden of the blame on false brethren. …

“When the Prophet had ended telling how he had been treated, Brother Behunin remarked: ‘If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.’

“The great Seer immediately replied: ‘Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’” (“Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, Aug. 15, 1892, pp. 491,492)

This paradigm strikes me as a very simplistic one. On the one hand, it is a powerful framework in which to view oneself. The dividing lines between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white are very distinct. Both allies and enemies are easily discerned, although they may be caricatures of their real-world counterparts. But it does tend to offer a clear-cut sense of purpose and validation to whatever meaning one chooses to read into life. Unfortunately, this perspective also seems to guarantee all manner of misrepresentation and misunderstanding toward the opposition. It is a propagandistic position.

If one is not wary, a Mormon’s potent sense of purpose can immunize them from constructive self-criticism and strip them of the very compassion they pretend to practice. Don’t get me wrong, latter-day saints are typically very compassionate people, both to their faithful membership and to members of other faiths. But they struggle with the in-between. Once again, the black and white gospel rhetoric creates a polarity that doesn’t really provide space for the dissociated and the disaffiliates. Most Mormons struggle with how to categorize this sometimes vocal minority; persons like myself who love certain aspects of the gospel but choose to make their feelings and concerns known. Thus, these “apostates” are regularly routed into the opposing camp regardless of their honest intentions. Many do not understand that by thus marginalizing thoughtful, struggling members because of honest skepticism, they are creating artificial apostates. These are then typically characterized as faithless, immoral, or otherwise irregular disciples, unfit for the kingdom.

I have exerted my own small efforts to enable the mutual understanding of both parties. But much of my exertions feel wasted when we seldom come to a mutual understanding. I suppose we see the world so differently, we cannot help but speak past each other in many instances. How can we bridge this chasm? Because much of the misunderstanding seems rooted in confusion at the motives of heretics, I hope what follows will provide some mutual understanding for my faithful friends.  To adopt the spirit of the season, I will suggest an empathetic reading of the almost universally understood allegory of Santa Claus. Consider for a moment what it feels like for someone to lose their faith.

Most of us have been on the receiving end of this one, so it should be easy to relate to. Every winter, parents tell their children a wonderfully magical tale about a portly, bearded man who spends the year crafting toys for believers. In a single night in December, we are told, he graciously delivers presents and toys and candy to all the good boys and girls throughout the world. Parents take their children to sit on the lap of an actor at the mall, have their kids write letters to him, and set out milk, cookies, and a carrot the night before. Many parents go to great lengths to sustain the illusion, staying up all night wrapping presents in his name. When the children wake to find presents stacked knee high, each fulfilling their every hope and desire, they are bedazzled! Witnessing for themselves the many gifts, the carrot and cookies eaten, they can't help but believe. In the eyes of these innocent children there is something magical in everything about it! They have every confirmation they need.

It comes as no surprise to note that children often become a little more obedient and a little more submissive come the holidays. The smart parents will leverage the occasion to teach love and compassion and selfless giving to their little ones. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for children to anticipate anything other than what they will receive from Santa on Christmas. But eventually there comes a time when they're a little older, a little more mature, and a lot more rational thinking. They've experienced more of the laws that govern our world. Perhaps they start discussing the logic of Santa Claus being able to visit every home in a night with their friends, perhaps they find a few gifts with Santa's name on them hidden in Mom's closet, or maybe they begin to comprehend the sheer multitudes of children living in third-world countries who have no concept of Christmas or presents or anything of the sort.

The shattering of that illusion can be devastating to them. Some children will feel hurt for being lied to, others will kick themselves for not examining the evidence more closely, and many more will rush to inform the ignorance of faithful friends. Most of them experience a loss of some sort. The magic of Christmas day seems to vanish, even if they can learn to enjoy the spirit of giving in its stead. Now to begin drawing parallels with a Mormon faith crisis, extend this childhood experience with the Santa Claus fable from a single, superficial holiday tradition once a year to every day of a person's life. Suppose we continue to elaborate on the Christmas fiction so that there is no aspect of life that belief does not affect. It informs everything you see and do in the world, even defining your very identity and purpose. Extend the fable’s duration well into adulthood. Imagine that the parental figures continue to employ elaborate, illusory evidences and emphatically faith-promoting discourse to sustain the credibility of the myth. Imagine that you yourself want it to be true so badly that you yourself begin to contribute to the Christmas culture, and you perpetuate it to your children. And then imagine one day you see through it all. You realize how ridiculous it would be if an obese man really could fit through your chimney and fill your life with awesome goodness.

As an adult believer in this sort of thing, the structural collapse would be crushing, even world-shattering in many respects. Can you imagine reaching middle age and still believing Santa is real? To discover you have been treated as a child for far too long? Consider the intense personal trauma this sort of paradigm collapse would create for even the most strong-minded individuals. Do the parents necessarily deserve the blame? Of course much responsibility does fall on them. Perhaps most “parents” in this scenario are believers themselves, only perpetuating their holiday faith heritage to a new generation with the best of intentions. Their ardent argumentation for the truthfulness of this mythology is certainly validation for their own beliefs, as well as for their children. And even those parents who do not truly believe are contented to perpetuate the myth, believing in arrogance that it is still the best method to encourage obedience and teach proper moral lessons to their subjects. Do these parents profit from the obedience of their children? Definitely. If children become committed dependents, as they typically do during the holiday season, is there nothing parents could not require of mature adults who are likewise convicted of “the truth” all year round? Afterall, parents could hang onerous consequences over the heads of their children so long as they submit to the belief.

Such are the realizations of many who lose their faith. So much the more with Mormonism, too. Can you imagine the disgust, the revulsion these grown adults might feel at learning they were living, breathing, walking manifestations of the lies they were taught in their youth? How furious would they be to realize they were defrauded, no matter how earnest the intentions of their mentors? How embarrassing! Multiply a child's devastation at learning the truth behind Christmas a thousand times, and you begin to understand the pain of leaving Mormonism, from the heretic's point of view. Such is the initial bitterness of our plight. I think if the faithful can muster any empathy for the heartbroken child who discovers the reality behind Christmas, they can begin to sympathize with the broken hearts of many who leave Mormonism.

So what happens to these wandering children? It seems to me that things mostly get better after the initial disappointments. Some will rush off and immediately fill the vacancy with other, similar mythologies. It may be religion or politics or secularism. But others will face the facts unabashedly. We discover new freedoms and learn empowerment from this newfound agency. But we are also forced to own up to the crushing reality of impending death, of having to realize our own purpose in life, etc. All of these pleasures and pains offer a true "coming of age" experience in my opinion – one I do not believe is possible within the confines of Mormonism or any institutional religion. So while the stories of Santa Claus were a beautiful ecstasy to us as children, we must not curse the children who begin to see past it. These begin to discover morality within themselves, independent of any supernatural machinations. You see, these are headed for adulthood as they pursue maturity. They abandon cognitive dissonance and become more fully self-integrated. These begin to realize that they can no longer depend on a mythical man to deliver presents to friends, family, and children. They themselves will learn to give, and thus become the fabled Santa Claus. No longer are these children, constantly submitting to some unseen, pretended higher authority. They grow up and discover that authority within themselves. They become true agents, fit to act and not be acted upon.

For this reason, I believe it is good to speak up and encourage honest dealings when it comes to Mormonism’s faith claims. Those who are ready for the dialogue will be bettered by it. But those who are not ready should be cautious. Do not mistake the adult discussions taking place on controversial subjects within Mormonism as bitterness caused by mystical forces or some other justification within your own paradigm. Consider for a moment that the world is bigger than how you view it. Many of my “fallen” peers invested their whole souls in Mormonism before discovering the disconcerting reality. Should any of us be surprised that they want to speak frankly with their friends and family as a result? To be clear, I suggest this Santa Claus allegory not to belittle believers, but to help them understand the feelings of those who have left the fold.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

D&C 5: An Alteration Altercation

When the LDS Doctrine & Covenants was first published in 1835, some noticed that several of Joseph Smith's revelations had been significantly altered from their earlier manuscript counterparts. What follows is an exacting comparison between the manuscript and published versions of one of Joseph's earliest recorded revelations, received at Harmony, Pennsylvania in March 1829. The revelation was provoked by Martin Harris' desire to confirm Joseph's possession of an ancient record inscribed on gold plates.

I have imposed several editorial earmarks on the text for the reader's convenience. [Bracketed Numbers] are inserted in reference to the modern LDS versification of this revelation (D&C 5:1-20). [Bracketed Letters/Words] are inserted for clarification where helpful. Struckthrough Words are significant portions of text from the manuscripts that were omitted for publication. Boldface Words are new additions to the text not corroborated by any of the early manuscripts; sometimes these fragments replace previous terms or phrases and other times are interpolated seamlessly into the original. Italicised Words reflect a change in tense, perspective, or quantity. Capitalization and punctuation are also accurately represented.

“March 1829 Revelation to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Martin Harris," from the Newell K. Whitney Collection (D&C 5):

“[1] Behold I say unto you that my servant hath desired A witness that my servant Joseph hath got the things which he hath testified that he hath got
“[2] and now Behold this shall ye say unto him I the Lord am God I have given these things unto him & I have commanded him that he should stand as a witness of these things
“[3] nevertheless I have caused him that he should enter into a covenant with me that he should not show them except I command him & he hath no power over them e[x]cept I grant it unto him
“[4] & he hath A gift to translate the Book & I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift for I will grant unto him no other gift
“[5] and verily I say unto you that woe shall come unto the Inhabitents of the Earth if they will not hearken unto my words
“[7] for Behold if they will not believe my words they would not believe my servants if it were possible he could show them all things
“[8] O ye unbelieving ye stiffnecked Generation
“[9] Behold I have reserved the things which have been spoken of which I have entrusted to my servant for a wise purpose in me & it shall be made known unto future Generations
“[10] but for this Generation they shall have my word
“[11] yea & the testimony of three of my servants shall go forth with my word unto this Generation
“[12] yea three shall know of a surety that those things are true
“[13] for I will give them power that they may Behold & view those things as they are
“[14] & to none else will I grant this power among this Generation
“[15] & the testimony of three Witnesses will I send forth & my word
“[16] & behold whosoever believeth in my word him will I visit with the manifestations of my spirit & they shall be Born of me
“[18] & their testimony Shall also go forth & thus if the People of this Generation harden not their hearts I will work a reformation among them & I will put down all lieings & deceivings & Priestcraft & envyings & strifes & Idolatries and sorceries & all manner of Iniquities & I will establish my Church yea even the church which was taught by my Desiples [Disciples] & now if this Generation do harden their hearts against my words Behold I deliver them up unto Satan for he reigneth & hath much Power at this time for he hat got great hold upon the hearts of the People of this Generation & how far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah do they come at this time & Behold the Sword of justice doth hang above their heads & if they persist in the hardness of the[i]r hearts the time cometh that it must fall upon them
“[20]Behold I tell you these things even as I also told the People of the destruction of Jerusalem & my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verrified."

1835 LDS Doctrine & Covenants, section 32 (D&C 5):

“Behold I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, jr.have got the things plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me:
“and now behold, this shall you say unto him, He who spake unto you said unto you, I the Lord am God, and have given these things unto youmy servant Joseph Smith, jr. and I have commanded you that you shall stand as a witness of these things,
“[3] nevertheless and I have caused you that you should enter into a covenant with me that you should not show them except to those persons to whom commanded youand you have no power over them except I grant it unto you.
“[4] And you have a gift to translate the Book plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon youand I have commanded him that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished.
“[5] and Verily I say unto you, that wo shall come unto the inhabitants of the Earth if they will not hearken unto my words”
“[7] for hereafter you shall be ordained and go forth and deliver my words unto the children of men. Behold if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you could show them all these things which I have committed unto you.
“[8] O this unbelieving and stiffnecked generation, mine anger is kindled against them.
“[9] Behold verily, I say unto you, I have reserved those things which have been spoken of which I have entrusted unto you, my servant Joseph, for a wise purpose in me, and it shall be made known unto future generations;
“[10] but for this generation they shall have my word through you;
“[11] yea And in addition to your testimony the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these thingsand they shall go forth with my words that are given through you, unto this Generation
“[12] yea,  three they shall know of a surety that these things are true:
“[13] for from heaven will I declare it unto them: I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
“[14] And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony, among this generation, in this, the beginning of the rising up, and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness – clear as the moon and fair as the sun and terrible as an army with banners.
“[15] And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth of my word.
“[16] And behold, whosoever believeth in my wordsthem will I visit with the manifestation of my Spirit; and they shall be born of me, even of water and of the Spirit.
[17] And you must wait yet a little while; for ye are not yet ordained –  
“[18] And their testimony shall also go forth & thus if the People unto the condemnation of this generation if they harden not their hearts against them: I will work a reformation among them & I will put down all lieings & deceivings & Priestcraft & envyings & strifes & Idolatries and sorceries & all manner of Iniquities & I will establish my Church yea even the church which was taught by my Desiples & now if this Generation do harden their hearts against my words Behold I deliver them up unto Satan for he reigneth & hath much Power at this time for he hat got great hold upon the hearts of the People of this Generation & how far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah do they come at this time & Behold the Sword of justice doth hang above their heads & if they persist in the hardness of the[i]r hearts the time cometh that it must fall upon them
[19] for a desolating scourge shall go forth among the inhabitants of the earth, and shall continue to be poured out, from time to time, if they repent not, until the earth is empty, and the inhabitants thereof are consumed away, and utterly destroyed by the brightness of my coming.
“[20] Behold I tell you these things even as I also told the people of the destruction of Jerusalem, and my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verified."

Many other revelations received similar treatment in the first publication of the Doctrine & Covenants. What meaning should these alterations communicate to the Latter-day Saints? From the perspective of one having grown up in the church – mission, temple endowment, sealing and all – learning these facts seems to demand a dramatic shift in the orthodox Mormon conception of revelation, prophecy, and scripture.

Should the modern D&C rely on the earliest available manuscript versions (like the Bible) or on the 1835 edition as it does currently? Should Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to insert redactions and revisions into their own revelations in like manner? Should the scriptures instead be recognized as subjective, faithful musings, only reflective of their contemporary culture? Finally, if it is the case that God's Word is only truly revelatory in hindsight, of what utility is it for us here in the present?

– Marquardt, ed., The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text & Commentary, pp. 26-29
– Bench, ed., The Parallel Doctrine and Covenants: The 1832-1833, 1833, and 1835 Editions of Joseph Smith's Revelations, pp. 5-7

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Darwinian Deity: The Evolution of the Mormon Concept of God – Part III –

Continued from Part II

Having previously established the disruptive evolution of Joseph Smith’s doctrinal teachings concerning God – from tentative Modalism to Binitarianism to Social Trinitarianism – I will now demonstrate how the prophet’s last contributions on the subject led to a radical, new pluralistic conception of the Godhead. In the generations that followed, his patriarchal brand of Henotheism (or territorial polytheism) eventually led to a mass of doctrinal contention and confusion concerning the identity of deity; yet it also led to the pinnacle of Mormonism’s theological speculation and charisma. The prophet’s own words on the matter are insightful: “If we start right, it is easy to go right all the time; but if we start wrong we may go wrong, and it will be a hard matter to get right.”

On June 16, 1844, the Saints were gathered beneath billowing storm clouds just East of the Nauvoo temple to hear their prophet’s Sunday morning sermon. The first and final press of the Nauvoo Expositor (available here) had been issued only a week prior, so many were likely anxious for a rebuttal. The paper had been published by a slew of soured apostates still fuming over the discovery of Joseph’s hidden agendas – things “taught secretly, and denied openly.” Polygamy and politics aside, they complained that Joseph was teaching false doctrines and was therefore a fallen prophet. Whereas they believed “that the religion of the Latter Day Saints, as originally taught by Joseph Smith, … is verily true,” yet they insisted that he was introducing new blasphemies like “the doctrine of many Gods.”

According to the Expositor’s editor, former-First Presidency member William Law, Joseph “contended that there are innumerable gods as much above the God that presides over this universe, as he is above us.” It is true; beginning with a powerful funeral sermon in April, the prophet openly taught that God was an exalted man and advised, “you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves … the same as all gods have done before you.” Evidently William and others had some difficulty correlating these new ideas with the previously published revelations. So it was that Joseph took to the pulpit just days before his death and expounded a climactic discourse on the plurality of Gods:

“I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and the Holy Ghost as a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods. If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural; and who can contradict it? Our text says, ‘And hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father.' The Apostles have discovered that there were Gods above, for John says God was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. My object was to preach the scriptures, and preach the doctrine they contain, there being a God above the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. …
“Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God. I say that is a strange God anyhow – three in one, and one in three! … I learned a testimony concerning Abraham, and he reasoned concerning the God of heaven. ‘In order to do that,' said he, ‘suppose we have two facts: that supposes another fact may exist – two men on the earth, one wiser than the other, would logically show that another who is wiser than the wisest may exist. Intelligences exist one above another, so that there is no end to them.'
“If Abraham reasoned thus – If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way. Paul says that which is earthly is in the likeness of that which is heavenly, Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? I despise the idea of being scared to death at such a doctrine, for the Bible is full of it.” (Smith, History of the Church, Vol. 6, p. 473; “Sermon in the Grove")

As a student approaching Nauvoo’s uniquely LDS views of Trinitarian ontology, it is readily apparent that Joseph Smith’s late revelations deftly defied the Biblical purview while at the same time explicitly citing its support. Previous theological distinctions fell mostly within the confines of historical Christianity’s heretical contemplations, but the overt shift to polytheism proved a sharp contrast for many. Protestant cries of ‘Heresy!’ notwithstanding, Joseph’s position as prophetic revelator permitted him to interpolate these ideas back into the scriptural canon ‘ex nihilo’ (i.e. out of nothing). He borrowed from disparate and abstruse biblical passages to certify in a moment what his revelations illustrated over time – that his doctrine was culturally accrued.

There are two specific cultural experiences that I believe were major factors in the late evolution of Joseph Smith’s pluralistic theology: namely, his efforts to learn biblical Hebrew and reinterpret biblical text, and his translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into the Book of Abraham. These two experiences had profound effects on the doctrinal teachings of Mormonism’s founder. Significantly, both of them ultimately trace their motivational origin back to Joseph’s beginnings in magic folk culture.

In his boyhood, Joseph Smith inherited a strong affinity for the occult sciences due to the influence of his father and brothers. Indeed, it appears it was a family practice; magic parchments, lamens, and a ceremonial dagger survive as authentic Joseph Smith family heirlooms. Lucy Mack Smith’s biography of her son the prophet, told that “trying to win the faculty of abrac[,] drawing magic circles, [and] soothsaying” were among “important interest[s]” for the family in those early years (Ingleton, comp., History of Joseph Smith by his Mother, p. 109). Joseph certainly had other magic mentors in the community as well, from amateurs like Sally Chase to professional conmen like alchemist-magician, Luman Walters, who joined the church early on for a brief period. At a young age, Joseph showed a remarkable capacity for “peeping” and eventually succeeded his father, his siblings, and his peers as the village scryer (or seer).

So what is significant about this magical heritage in relation to Joseph’s translation projects, and ultimately the changing Mormon doctrine of God? Put straightforwardly, his upbringing resulted in a lifelong fascination with mystery religion, and more specifically aspects of the Hermetic tradition. Hermeticism emphasizes hidden wisdom, in three related practices: that of Alchemy, Astrology, and Theurgy. Many themes common in these philosophical practices show up in Joseph’s peculiar interpretations of protestant Christian dogma, and are the natural result of his heterodox faith framework. Because mystery religions rely so heavily on symbolic interpretation, it is not surprising that Joseph perpetually interpreted and reinterpreted scripture and doctrine throughout the duration of his calling (and with little regard for consistency). Although he later deemphasized his involvement with the occult and its popular appendages – treasure-digging, spirit conjuring, crystal-gazing, etc. –  the influence of American rural mysticism shows through quite clearly at various points in his prophetic career.

For example, occult conventions sanctify patterns of three; the same ritual finds prominence in many aspects of Mormonism – particularly in early accounts of Joseph Smith’s spiritual epiphanies. Another is signified by the prophet’s obsessive concern with reconnecting to humanity’s primal mystics, from Adam & Eve to the Jewish patriarchs and so forth; this is a hallmark of the hermetic subculture. Additionally, Joseph was provoked, both privately and in his public ministry, to extract meaning from the planets and stars in their celestial movements. In this respect, Abraham 3 follows hermeticism’s philosophy of astrology exactly.

Perhaps the biggest giveaway, however, is in the thoroughly hermetic conviction that sacred languages have hidden meanings, and that God’s noblest servants are the exclusive custodians of secret rituals and philosophies required to recover these higher spiritual truths. Is it any wonder that his first major revelatory production proclaimed, “A seer is greater than a prophet … a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have … by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them” (Mosiah 8:15-17)?

The religious undercurrent revolving around “seership” traces its alternative influences back millennia before Christ, to times when the newly distinguished Semitic religion competed with local “wisdom cults” for dominance. Ideas were incestuous in that early period, and philosophies constantly mingled. As a result, it was common even for Israelite priests and shamans to consult sacred runes that conveyed hidden truths and imbued supernatural powers. The Semites eventually came to revere the Hebrew script as a sacred vessel of God’s word, and his power. This same Gnostic vein reputedly thrived in Egypt when Moses combated the legendary sorcerers, Jannes and Jambres, in pharaoh’s court. Anthropological studies in Joseph Smith’s time suggest these “magicians” were typically understood as harnessing divine powers, and were notably “skilled in the interpretation of hieroglyphical characters” (1823 ed. of Jahn’s Biblical Archaeology as cited in Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 32, emphasis mine).

Some of Israel’s latter prophets seem to have inherited a similar culture of esoteric symbolism and Gnostic motifs during the Babylonian exile; the same tradition that was shortly purged into obscurity by King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reform. But it found repeated resurgence and marginalization in the centuries that followed, viz. in Essenism, Christian Gnosticism, Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Kabbalah, etc. All of these various traditions draw on the same hermetic motifs, and most importantly, they contributed greatly to the philosophy and culture of American folk magic. Michael Quinn’s thorough treatise on the subject points out the popular antebellum views on Egyptian hieroglyphics in particular:

“The conventional Anglo-American view was that Egyptian ‘characters and hieroglyphics were occult symbols invented by Hermes Trismegistus, the father of the ancient occult sciences [or the Hermetic tradition]. … The 1811 New York edition of Adam Clarke’s popular commentary on the Bible observed that the word ‘magicians … may probably mean no more than interpreters of abstruse and difficult subjects; and especially of the Egyptian hieroglyphics, an art which is now entirely lost.” (Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, p. 194, emphasis his)

The point is that Joseph’s childhood was steeped in a strange conglomeration of magical mysticism and frontier Christianity that encouraged his later translation endeavors and strongly affected their outcome. His earliest interactions with the supernatural were blatantly occult; they involved the conjuring of a deceased spirit by the use of a peep stone and astrological calculations in pursuit of hidden treasures in the earth – valuable lost relics containing hidden wisdom which once belonged to the ancients. Clay Chandler’s article, Scrying For The Lord, presents an excellent study of the translation of the Book of Mormon in relation to Joseph's background in mysticism. Joseph's subsequent efforts at interpretation followed a similar course, but with more restrained hermetic content. The same mechanics involving revelation of ancient parchments and secret systems are consistently present; however, it was not until the latter-half of Joseph’s career that its influence on his doctrine fully resurged.

Keeping in mind Joseph’s background and his previously cited claim to consistency, let’s first try a critical reading of the Book of Abraham text alone as a case study. The first few chapters propound monotheism as the overarching theme and strongly sanctify an aversion from acknowledging alternative deities. These notions are largely consistent with the late Jewish Deuteronomic movement’s emphasis on Jehovah as one true God – in other words, the cultural context that produced the Old Testament (which postdates the patriarchs by more than a millennium). Abraham reports conditions in Chaldea, saying, “My fathers … turned from their righteousness, and from the holy commandments which the Lord their God had given unto them, unto the worshiping of the gods of the heathen. … Virgins were offered up because of their virtue; they would not bow down to worship gods of wood or of stone” (Abr. 1:5, 11). The pluralistic religious culture in Abraham’s environment is associated with human sacrifice and idolatry, which he resists. These cultists respond with hostility, and he records a divine interposition:

“As they lifted up their hands upon me, that they might offer me up and take away my life, behold, I lifted up my voice unto the Lord my God, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and he filled me with the vision of the Almighty, and the angel of his presence stood by me, and immediately unloosed my bands;
“And his voice was unto me: Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee, and to take thee away from thy father’s house, and from all thy kinsfolk, into a strange land which thou knowest not of;
“And this because they have turned their hearts away from me, to worship the god of Elkenah, and the god of Libnah, and the god of Mahmackrah, and the god of Korash, and the god of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; therefore I have come down to visit them, and to destroy him who hath lifted up his hand against thee, Abraham, my son, to take away thy life.
“Behold, I will lead thee by my hand, and I will take thee, to put upon thee my name, even the Priesthood of thy father, and my power shall be over thee.
“As it was with Noah so shall it be with thee; but through thy ministry my name shall be known in the earth forever, for I am thy God.” (Abr. 1:15-19)

The Almighty God saves Abraham from his captors and reveals himself as Jehovah, destroyer of pagan worship. Although these passages seem to discredit the biblical narrative on one hand (Exo. 6:3), they definitely cement Jehovah’s reputation as a jealous god. The Lord God further asserts his singular sovereignty over humanity and the cosmos:

“I have purposed to take thee away out of Haran, and to make of thee a minister to bear my name in a strange land which I will give unto thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession, when they hearken to my voice.
“For I am the Lord thy God; I dwell in heaven; the earth is my footstool; I stretch my hand over the sea, and it obeys my voice; I cause the wind and the fire to be my chariot; I say to the mountains—Depart hence—and behold, they are taken away by a whirlwind, in an instant, suddenly.
“My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.” (Abr 2: 6, 7, 8)

Abraham and his kin travel through the land of Canaan, an “idolatrous nation,” and the chapter terminates with their arrival in Egypt. At this point the narrative takes an abrupt turn. Although Abraham mentions a record in his possession concerning the creation of the planets and his intent to share it in his own narrative, the remainder of Abraham’s record instead consists of a spectacular visionary rehearsal of the very same material: astronomical relativity and a modified creation myth. Here God narrates for the patriarchal prophet the order of cosmological governance in the universe. The Lord then reveals an astronomical rule with astronomical implications:

“If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them…
“If there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it…
“As, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are … eternal.
“And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” (Abr. 3:16-19)

Abraham learns that there is almost infinite gradation among the intelligent spirits, both above and below. But Jehovah God is quick to put a cap on this line of logic. “I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.” Here then is the reasoning that Joseph Smith makes reference to in his argument for the plurality of Gods, although by 1844 he ignores Jehovah’s claims to absolute supremacy. The gradation principle in combination with the concept of spirit eternality is the seed from which Joseph’s Nauvoo theology blooms; it’s a real breaching point from traditional Christian ontology (i.e. the created/uncreated gap).

The remainder of the Book of Abraham qualifies as the strongest, most explicit scriptural support for Joseph’s pluralistic views of the Godhead and a divine pre-mortal council. Still insisting on his consummate dominion, the Lord God nevertheless councils with his co-existent spirits. One of them proposes the creation of a world on which man may exist and be tested:

“And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
“And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell;
“And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;
“And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abr. 3:23-26)

After the Lord selects a savior from amidst the congregation, Abraham regurgitates a creation account similar to Genesis, but altered in light of the new, revealed cosmology. A not-so-subtle polytheistic veneer then takes the limelight. Virtually every pronoun in the rendition is plural or followed by a brief parenthetical clarification, leaving no doubt as to the status of God’s pre-Earth collaborators. Who created the world? They, the Gods!

“And then the Lord said: Let us go down. And they went down at the beginning, and they, that is the Gods, organized and formed the heavens and the earth.
“And the earth, after it was formed, was empty and desolate, because they had not formed anything but the earth; and darkness reigned upon the face of the deep, and the Spirit of the Gods was brooding upon the face of the waters.
“And they (the Gods) said: Let there be light; and there was light. …
“And the Gods took counsel among themselves and said: Let us go down and form man in our image, after our likeness; and we will give them dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
“So the Gods went down to organize man in their own image, in the image of the Gods to form they him, male and female to form they them.” (Abr. 4:1-3, 26, 27)

The fifth and final chapter of the Book of Abraham continues the biblical recitation in like manner. The creation narrative is reported as a joint venture between the Gods; they take counsel together and are thereafter referenced exclusively in the aggregate. As I consider this critical reading as a whole, the developing portrayal of deity throughout Abraham’s record seems to correlate loosely with the timing of Joseph’s progressive doctrinal insights up to the end of his career. In this respect, I believe the Book of Abraham may be viewed as a microcosm for the later development of the prophet’s own conception of God. To wit, the evidence strongly suggests that Abraham was not written in a single series of successive dictations like the Book of Mormon. Quite the contrary, it was a production composed of material gathered over several years’ time, analogous to the chronology of Joseph’s parallel epiphanies. Consider now the evidence regarding the translation process of the Egyptian papyrus.

Around July 3, 1835, Michael Chandler traveled to Kirtland, Ohio soliciting an exhibition of four Egyptian mummies and several rolls of papyrus containing Egyptian hieroglyphics. Given Joseph Smith’s past with Egyptian characters and the occult, Chandler’s presence excited a great deal of enthusiasm from the Saints who were anxious to hear the prophet’s assessment of these “curiosities.” According to John Whitmer’s commissioned history, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records, which gave an account of our forefathers, even abraham … Which when all translated will be a pleasing history and of great value to the saints” (Westergren, ed., From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer, 167).

Joseph encouraged the purchase of Chandler’s mummies and the several rolls of papyrus which they transacted for the amount of $2400. Joseph identified the hieroglyphics as the writings of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph, as well as the record of Katumin, an Egyptian princess. He promised a translation of the texts, and began in earnest within days. Of course, the Book of Abraham is the only scripture that was ever published as a result of these efforts. Along with my interjected commentaries, the following timeline contains a few helpful documentary citations that evidence both the translation’s progress and the first public mention of key doctrines/concepts later subsumed in the Book of Abraham:

[July 6-8, 1835] Joseph Smith: “With W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham.” (HOTC 2:236)

[July 17-31, 1835] Joseph Smith: “The remainder of this month, I was continually engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients." (HOTC 2:238)

[Sept. 1835] Oliver Cowdery borrows language from Abraham 1:2 in transcribing earlier patriarchal blessing records: “We diligently sought for the right of the fathers and the authority of the Holy Priesthood, and the power to administer in the same; for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors of greater knowledge, even the knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.” (Patriarchal Blessings Book 1:15, Church History Library, as cited in Hauglid, A Textual History of the Book of Abraham: Manuscripts and Editions, p. 214)

[Sept. 11, 1835] W.W. Phelps: “Nothing has been doing in the translation of the Egyptian Record for a long time, and probably will not for some time to come.” (W.W. Phelps Letter to Sally Phelps, Sept. 11, 1835)

[Oct. 1, 1835] Joseph Smith: “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr [sic] O Cowdery and W W Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded." (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, p. 67)

[Oct. 7, 1835] Joseph Smith: “This afternoon recommenced translating the ancient reccords [sic].” (Ibid., p. 71)

[Nov. 19-26, 1835] Joseph Smith: “Spent the day in translating the Egyptian records … made rapid progress, [etc.]” (Ibid., p. 107)

[Dec. 16, 1835] Joseph Smith: “Elder[s] … called and paid me a visit, … I exhibited and explained the Egyptian Records to them , and explained many things to them concerning the dealings of God with the ancient<s> and the formation of the planetary System.” (Ibid., p. 123, 124)

[Dec. 1835] Oliver Cowdery: “When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say.” (LDS Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1835)

By 1836, translation manuscripts Ab1-Ab4 were scribed by W.W. Phelps, Frederick G. Williams, and Warren Parrish, containing Abraham 1:1-2:18, as well as various Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar (EAG) materials. All of these documents are unique among the Abraham manuscripts because the text is composed opposite hieroglyphic characters in the margins, taken from the Egyptian papyrus. This indicates Joseph and company’s earliest intentions to perform a linear translation, which intent is notably absent from Nauvoo-era Book of Abraham manuscripts. Although the ‘Ab’ documents suggest some editorial iteration between manuscripts, these materials were initially produced by dictation, perhaps using Joseph’s seer stone.

In terms of content, the earliest text produced contains themes and views that are largely consistent with Joseph’s views circa 1835-1836. KJV Genesis 1, 2, 11, and 12 are clearly incorporated into the text, as well as other sources that will be discussed shortly. Strikingly, contemporary witnesses were most impressed by the scroll’s description of “the formation of the planetary System” rather than the available Book of Abraham text at the time. Because there is no manuscript evidence for the existence of Abraham 3 until late 1841, and contemporary descriptions of Abraham’s “system of astronomy” are consonantly vague, these witnesses are almost certainly describing the material found in the Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar (or Joseph’s descriptions of that material). To be sure, ideas and elements of the EAG project eventually contributed to the formation of Abraham 3 as it was published in 1842. However, there are many, many odd, substantial variations as well. I’ll briefly interrupt the timeline to show a few relevant excerpts from the Egyptian Alphabet & Grammar (presented in the original as transliterations and translations opposite Egyptian characters):

“[Ho-e-oop-hah-phah-eh]: The principle of rule, or ruling or reigning upon the principle of Justice equity and righteousness.
“[Zub-Zool-eh]: The earth as it was in the beginning: or at its creation; creation or beginning.
“Zub-eh[:] To be with as [in?], as light is in the earth.
“Zub[:] pointing to that which has been created To the first institution or first principle. …

“Jah-oh-eh[:] The earth under the governing power of oliblish, Enish go on dosh, and Kai e van rash, which are the grand governing Key or in other words, the governi[n]g power, which governs the fifteen fixed stars (twelve ________) that belong governs the earth, sun, & moon, (which have their power in one) with the other twelve moving planets of this system. Oliblish – Enish go on dosh, and Kaii ven rash, are the three grand central stars which powers that govern all the other creations, which have been sought  out  by the most aged of all fathers, since the beginning of the creation, by means of the Unim and Thummim: The names of the other twelve of the fixed stars are: Kolob, Limdi, Zip, Vusel, Venisti, Waine, Way oh- ox- oan, oansli, _Kible Shineflis, flis, os. The Egyptian names of the fifteen moving planets are: Oan isis, Flos isis, floe se: Abbesels, Ele ash, Subble, Slundlo, Car roam, Crash ma Kraw, obbles isim, I zins bah, missel Nah mesile Ohee oop Zah, Zool.

“Flo-ees[:] The moon, the earth and the sun in their annual revolutions.
“[Flos-isis] – The highest degree of light, be[-]cause its component parts are light. The gove[r]ning principle of light  Because God has said Let this be the centre for light, and let there be bounds that it may not pass. He hath set a cloud round about in the heavens, and the light of the grand gover[n]ing of 15 fixed stars centre there – and from there its is drawn by the heavenly bodies according to their portions; according to the decrees that God hath set, as the bounds of the ocean, that it should not pass over as a flood, so God has set the bounds of light lest it pass over and consume the planets.
“[Kli-flosisis:] signifies Kolob in its motion, which is swifter than the rest of the twelve fixed stars; going before, being first in motion, being delegated to have power over others to regulate others in their time, for example, one cubit of times signifies six three days  Therefore that which is appointed to run six three days, runs one cubit according to the measure of time in cubits a cubit of motion is increased or lessened according to the sign of the degrees.
“Veh Kli flos-isis[:] it signifies less power than the fo[u]rth fixed governing star but greater power than the sixth governing star fixt [fixed?] star, in consequ[e]nce of its slowness of motion.
“Kolob[:] signifies the first creation nearer to the Celestial, or the residence of God, first in government, the last pertaining to the measurement according according to Celestial time which signifies one day to a cubit which day is equal to a thousand years according to the measurement of this earth or Jah-oh-eh. …

“[Kahtu-ain-tri-eth]: An other Kingdom governed by different laws, a second King, or governed by another or second person not having been exalted.
“[Zip-Zi-Iota-veh:] I saw five women.
“[Jah-ni-hah] – one that with delegated and redeeming power, and second in authority; being a swift messenger going before, and having redeeming power, as second in authority: and stand[s] next to _______  an the right hand of power.
“Jah-oh-eh – The earth and power of attraction it has with the third fixed Star, which is called Kui-e ven-ra_h.
“Flo-ees. The moon in its revolutions with earth, showing or signifying the earth going between, thereby forming an eclipse. …

“Kolob in the second degree[:] It signifies the wonder of Abraham the eldest of all the Stars, the greatest body of the heavenly bodies that ever was discovered by man.
“Ah me-os – God without beginning or end.
“[Al-ki-beth:] minister of God under or the less.
“[Ba-eth-ku:] The next from Adam, one one ordained under him, a patriarch or the right of the firstborn. …
[Kolob in the first degree:] It signifies the first great grand governing fixed star which is the fartherest that ever has been discovered by the fathers which was discovered by Methusela and also by Abraham.” (Marquardt, The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers, p. 40,41,52-59,68-73; sic all, italics his)

This material has never been published by the church, although it was translated with the same authority as the Book of Abraham text at the time, and is obviously the rudimentary basis for more than Abraham’s astronomy (see Christopher C. Smith’s “The Dependence of Abraham 1:1-3 on the Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar,” JWHA Journal, Vol. 29, p. 38ff.). If the now defunct EAG can be taken as token, Joseph was in 1835-1836 contemplating God’s supreme eternality, his role as creator, his use of delegation and hierarchical order of governance, and also a belief in relative measurements in the universe. The details hadn’t quite been ironed out yet, but like Abraham Joseph desired to convey “a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers” (Abr. 1:31).

Here again we see the substantial evidences of Joseph’s background in mystical hermeticism. Although Abraham 3 was most likely not produced for several more years, we can see reflections of sources in the EAG. And the Abraham content produced up to this point is closely paralleled by several available resources in Smith’s surroundings – resources we know he was exposed to. Historian Grant Palmer cites them at length:

“In 1835, the year [Joseph] produced the opening chapters of Abraham, his counselor Oliver Cowdery, in the Messenger and Advocate, mentioned Josephus three times in interpreting the pictures from the ‘Joseph of Egypt’ scroll. In the Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus wrote about how Noah, who had trouble with his son Ham, ‘cursed his posterity,’ whereas the lineage of Abraham and others ‘escaped that curse.’ Joseph Smith expanded this original curse (Gen. 9:20-27) to include denial of priesthood ordination to blacks (Abr. 1:21-26) [which was also a very common view of the time.] …
“Josephus further identified Abraham as a resident of Chaldea and ‘a person of great sagacity’ who ‘began to have higher notions of virtue than others had, and he determined to renew and to change the opinion all men happened then to have concerning God.’ Abraham’s preaching was not welcome. They ‘raised a tumult against him … and by the assistance of God, he came and lived in the land of Canaan.’ While in Canaan, a land promised to his posterity, Abraham encountered a famine. This brought him and his wife Sarah to Egypt, where he successfully pretended to be his wife’s brother.
“The pharaoh eventually allowed him to ‘enter into conversation with the most learned among the Egyptians; from which conversation his virtue and his reputation became more conspicuous than they had been before. … He communicated to them arithmetic, and delivered to them the science of astronomy; for before Abram came into Egypt they were unacquainted with those parts of learning’ …
“The astronomical phrases and concepts in the [LDS] Abraham texts were also common in Joseph Smith’s environment. For example, in 1816 Thomas Taylor published a two-volume work called The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato. Volume 2 (pp. 140-146) contains phrases and ideas similar to the astronomical concepts in Abraham 3 and Facsimile No. 2. In these six pages, Taylor calls the planets ‘governors’ and uses the terms ‘fixed stars and planets’ and ‘grand key.’ Both works refer to the sun as a planet receiving its light and power from a higher sphere rather than generating its own light through hydrogen-helium fusion …
“LDS scholar R. Grant Athay, a research astronomer and director of the University of Colorado Observatory, has written, ‘At the time that the Book of Abraham was translated … the energy source of the sun was unknown,’ and ‘the concept of one star influencing another was also a common concept of the time.”  (Cowdery, “Egyptian Mummies,” Messenger and Advocate 2:236; Whiston, trans., Flavius Josephus, 1:6:37, 1:7:38, 1:8:39; Taylor, The Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato, 2:140-146; Athay, “Astronomy in the Book of Abraham,” Book of Abraham Symposium, ix, p. 60,61; all as cited in Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, pp. 17-22)

An LDS academic, Klaus Hansen, expanded on probable sources for what would eventually make up Abraham 3 – again, sources that were possessed by Joseph Smith and quoted by Oliver Cowdery in the Messenger and Advocate:

“The progressive aspect of Joseph’s theology, as well as its cosmology, while in a general way compatible with antebellum thought, bears some remarkable resemblances to Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of a Future State, a second edition of which had been published in 1830. …
“Some very striking parallels to Smith’s theology suggest that the similarities between the two may be more than coincidental. Dick’s lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo. Much of the book dealt with the infinity of the universe, made up of innumerable stars spread out over immeasurable distances. Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by ‘various orders of intelligences’ and that these intelligences were progressive beings’ in various stages of evolution toward perfection.
“In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars. They, too, are called ‘intelligences.’ Dick speculated that ‘the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre … the throne of God.’ In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob ‘was nearest unto the throne of God.’ Other stars, in ever diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.” (Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience, p. 79,80)

All of these ideas were incorporated into the Book of Abraham eventually. However, the translation process going forward slowed considerably, leaving instead a very transparent display of the gradual development in Joseph’s ideas in his public discourse. It should be noted there is little indication that any progress was made in the translation again until 1841. In view of the intervening period, it's obvious the prophet’s attention was occupied elsewhere. 1836 and 1837 brought the Kirtland Safety Society scandal into focus, along with the Saints’ expulsion from Missouri, which produced rampant apostasy among the church’s core membership. In 1838, Joseph was largely occupied with the migration and reorganization of Mormon headquarters in Far West, Missouri – although he evidently continued preaching the EAG material:

[May 6, 1838] Joseph Smith: “Instructed the Church, in the mistories of the Kingdom of God; giving them a history of the planets &c. and of Abrahams writings upon the Plannettary System &c.” (Jessee, The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Vol. 1, p. 266; sic all)

Later that summer, William Swartzel says he was involved in “getting out logs for brother Joseph Smith’s house, in which he intends translating the hieroglyphics of the Egyptian mummies” (Swartzel, Mormonism Exposed, p. 25). Unfortunately, bad politics and neighbor relations led shortly to distractions with the Mormon War in August. Joseph’s eventual surrender and subsequent incarceration once again prevented any progress on the Book of Abraham. However, his time spent in Liberty Jail served to reawaken within him mystic aspirations to reveal the hidden things, things which were never before revealed:

[Mar. 20, 1839] Joseph Smith: “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea, by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost, that has not been revealed since the world was until now;
“Which our forefathers have awaited with anxious expectation to be revealed in the last times, which their minds were pointed to by the angels, as held in reserve for the fulness of their glory;
“A time to come in the which nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest.
“All thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, shall be revealed and set forth upon all who have endured valiantly for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“And also, if there be bounds set to the heavens or to the seas, or to the dry land, or to the sun, moon, or stars—
“All the times of their revolutions, all the appointed days, months, and years, and all the days of their days, months, and years, and all their glories, laws, and set times, shall be revealed in the days of the dispensation of the fulness of times—
“According to that which was ordained in the midst of the Council of the Eternal God of all other gods before this world was, that should be reserved unto the finishing and the end thereof, when every man shall enter into his eternal presence and into his immortal rest. (“Letter from Liberty Jail,” HOTC, 3:289–300; see also D&C 121:26-32)

It is curious that this inspired utterance seems at odds with what is eventually translated as the Book of Abraham.  Suggesting the disclosure of information “that has not been revealed since the world was until now” surely implies Abraham and the patriarchs were, like the Latter-day Saints up to this point, ignorant of the plurality of Gods, the Lord’s astronomy, and the pre-mortal council. By all accounts though, and contrary to his insistence in Nauvoo, this is the first explicit suggestion in Joseph’s ministry that there was a multiplicity of Gods, and that the Lord took council with them prior to the construction of this planet. Considering this in tandem with the documentary evidence and the silence of the Saints on the subject, we may with assurance infer that Joseph had yet to fully formulate the latter half of Abraham’s record.

His release from incarceration and transfer to Nauvoo did not immediately mean the continuation of the translation process, however. As well as addressing economic and political concerns, Joseph first sought to refresh the Saints with new and expanded cosmological teachings concerning God and man. Many of these themes would eventually find expression in the Book of Abraham, and ultimately be combined to create his impactful King Follett discourse. From 1839 going forward, Joseph Smith preached the individuality of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost with increasing publicity. For example, he told Reverend George Moore: “We believe in three Gods, equal in power and glory. There are three persons in heaven, but those three are not one" (Moore Journal, June 3, 1842). His Nauvoo theology had indeed evolved quite a distance since he translated the Book of Mormon's simplistic soteriological-focused narrative.  Continuing the timeline of Smith's developing theology:

[Aug. 8, 1839] Joseph Smith: “The Spirit of Man is not a created being; it existed from Eternity & will exist to eternity. Anything created cannot be Eternal. … Our Savior speaks of Children & Says their angels always stand before my father. The Father called all spirits before him at the creation of Man & organized them. He (Adam) is the head, was told to multiply. The Keys were given to him, and by him to others & he will have to give an account of his Stewardship, & they to him.” (“Willard Richards Pocket Companion” as cited in Cook, Ehat, The Words of Joseph Smith, p. 9)

[Dec. 1839] George Woodward: “The Prophet preached ‘upon astronomy and told where God resided. It was very interesting.” (“Woodward Reminiscence” as cited in Ibid., p. 45, fn 1)

[Feb. 5 1840] Joseph Smith: “I believe that God is eternal. That he had no beginning, and can have no end. Eternity means that which is without beginning or end. I believe that the soul is eternal; and had no beginning; it can have no end.” (HOTC 4:78-80)

Here we observe Joseph beginning to abandon his identification of God as uniquely eternal. Now Joseph teaches the spirit of man is expressly eternal or co-equal with God, whereas it had previously only been suggested that “man was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29, circa May 1833) in general terms, perhaps referencing the priority of man's spiritual rather than temporal creation (Moses 3:4,5). As indicated earlier, the early portions of the Book of Abraham clearly portray God in the context of the Old Testament name-title Jehovah (i.e. I Am That I Am, usually contracted to I Am or I Shall Be – meant to signify God’s unique eternal existence): “Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah,” “I will take thee, to put upon thee my name… my name shall be known in the earth forever, for I am thy God,” “I will give unto thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession… For I am the Lord thy God… My name is Jehovah[Eternal/Everlasting].” But in Nauvoo, man also is from eternity to eternity.

This change lays the foundation for a pantheon of ruling Gods and elevates the significance of humanity in the eternal scheme of things. This in turn led to other serious theological transformations. By 1840, Joseph had already aired his intentions to disclose that which had “not been revealed since the world was until now,” and by introducing the doctrine of baptisms for the dead (again addressing the immortality of the soul), he began to make good on that promise. In fine Kirtland tradition, he made preparations for building a new temple in which this ordinance could be revealed and practiced. But with the summer conversion and hierarchical ascent of John C. Bennett in Nauvoo, the prophet’s hermetic ambitions became freshly roused and shortly resumed the limelight.

In the short year leading up to construction on the Nauvoo temple in 1841, Bennett became Mayor of Nauvoo, University of Nauvoo chancellor, Assistant President of the Church, and close personal confidant of Joseph Smith. He was also a staunch Freemason, and for months campaigned for the establishment of a Mormon Masonic Lodge in Nauvoo. The Times and Seasons editor during the period, Ebenezer Robinson, later observed that “heretofore the church had strenuously opposed secret societies, such as Free-Masons, Knights of Pithias, and all that class of secret societies … but after Dr. Bennett came into the church a great change of sentiment seemed to take place” (Robinson, The Return, 2:287).

It is apparent that Bennett’s opinions held tremendous weight with the impressionable prophet. For example, Bennett had a history of extra-marital lasciviousness and promiscuous conduct – his arrival in Nauvoo happens to parallel the onset of Joseph’s active efforts at polygamy. Even longtime leadership like Sidney Rigdon were perturbed at Joseph’s enchantment with Bennett. So while it is both plausible and interesting that Richard Bushman suggests Hyrum Smith (the prophet’s brother and a Freemason since New York times) as having likely shared details of the Masonic rites with Joseph before his induction (Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, p. 449), it is more likely that Bennett was the main Masonic influence. Much to Joseph’s chagrin after their fallout, history shows Bennett had the propensity for “loose lips” on secretive subjects. Considering how close they were at the time, it is altogether probable that Bennett revealed the Masonic rites to Joseph between 1840-1841.

Regardless, Bennett’s obvious Masonic interests and his peculiar terming of Joseph’s initial concept for the Council of Fifty as an “Order of the Illuminati” clearly demonstrate his mutual interest in hermetic institutions. In fact, once John C. Bennett achieves the prophet’s good graces, we see all sorts of allusions to forthcoming revelations of new, esoteric ordinances. These climaxed in the formal commission to build the Nauvoo temple on January 19, 1841:

“And verily I say unto you, let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people;
“For I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times. And I will show unto my servant Joseph all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof, and the place whereon it shall be built.” (D&C 124:40-42)

In the middle of March, Joseph finally observed the Masonic rites firsthand during his initiation into the newly-founded Nauvoo Masonic lodge. It was only two months later that Joseph conducted a select few of his closest associates through the first LDS temple endowment. Along with other threads relating to Joseph’s Christian-occult upbringing, it relied heavily on borrowed Masonic components. Plurality and council of Gods, pre-mortal man’s involvement in the creation, transmission of secret teachings to Adam and Eve – all major aspects of Joseph’s hermetic worldview. Not coincidentally, the same general materials were assembled and published as the Book of Abraham during the exact same period of time.

Before concluding the Book of Abraham timeline and discussion, however, it will be constructive to make a few observations about what specifically reignited Joseph’s interests in Hebrew biblical studies during the same period. This will further exhibit how he gleaned a polytheistic view of God from Genesis, the end result of which was Abraham 4 & 5. Both of the following excerpts showcase the progress of his theology to that point, showing that his Hebrew studies were probably as strong a catalyst as Bennett’s influence in propelling him toward re-embracing the ideals of the esoteric Christian tradition.

[Jan. 5, 1841] Joseph Smith: “In the translation, ‘without form and void’ it should read ‘empty and desolate.’ The word ‘created’ should be formed or organized. … That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no other God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones. John 5[:]26, ‘As the father hath life in himself, even so hath he given the son to have life in himself’. God the father took life unto himself precisely as Jesus did.” (“William Clayton’s Private Book” as cited in Cook, Ehat, The Words of Joseph Smith, p. 60; see also fns. 8,9 which say respectively: Joseph here cites the substantial alterations made to “Inspired Translation” manuscripts of Gen. 1:1,2 – changes made sometime subsequent to the original 1830 translation process but incorporated exactly in Abraham 4:1,2; also, this occasion was the Prophet’s first recorded mention of God the Father having a mortal probation and a physical, resurrected body – Ehat calls it a launch into new, distinctive doctrinal territory!)

[Probably early 1841] William Clayton quoting Joseph Smith: “Everlasting Covenant was made between three personages before the organization of this earth and relates to their dispensation of things to men on the earth. These personages according to Abraham’s record are called God the first, the Creator, God the second, the Redeemer, and God the third, the Witness or Testator.” (“William Clayton’s Private Book,” undated, as cited in Ibid., p. 220)

By way of background on some of Joseph’s history with Hebrew, the 1833-1836 Kirtland “School of the Prophets” was a foundational factor in latent LDS doctrinal distinctions. Much of their discourse focused on ecclesiastical and scriptural training as preparation for the elders’ impending missions. As discussed in a previous post, Sidney Rigdon’s more rigid theological acumen pushed Joseph’s ideas into a more systematic framework generally. Mormon doctrine afterwards became more taut, more specific. In addition to spiritual pursuits, however, the lay ministry regularly engaged in secular studies throughout the school’s duration. Key to the prophet’s Book of Abraham text and his consummate Nauvoo teachings were his early endeavors in studying biblical Hebrew with his brethren.

The First Presidency hired Joshua Seixas, a fluent Hebraist and textbook writer from New York, to teach classical Hebrew to the elders in the Kirtland school. He traveled there from nearby Oberlin, Ohio and taught the eager Mormon students for about 3 months (26 Jan. 1836 – 29 Mar. 1836). Joseph Smith is reported to have been the school’s most proficient pupil – no surprise considering his past enthusiasm for linguistic exercises. Although Seixas’ basic investigations into the Hebrew syntax (from his own textbook, Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners) most likely encouraged the traditional Jewish interpretation of God, it was during these brief lectures that Joseph first became aware of the ancient Semitic term Elohim/Eloheim.

Stated briefly, Elohim is the plural form of the name-title Eloah (or Eloi), the expansion of an even older Northwest Semitic term for God - El. In Hebrew, the ‘–im’ suffix signifies a masculine plurality; this pluralism is most often quantitative in nature, as in many angels (seraph-im, cherub-im). In the case of a few exceptions, however, the intent can be specifically qualitative, as in a multiplicity of attributes describing a singular subject. For example, the word teraphim is a plural conjugation, but is most often used in the Tanakh (i.e. Old Testament) with reference to “terrible thing,” usually a divining idol. The contextual grammar therefore conveys the tense.

So despite the plural construction of the word Elo(a)h-im, this primitive appellation for deity is almost always considered singular because of its nearly universal connection with singular verbs and adjectives. The vast majority of Hebrew linguists and theologians are in agreement; Elohim is a singular term for God that emphasizes the plurality of his virtues. This grammatical interpretation is reinforced by the Hebrew scriptures’ monotheistic emphasis on Jehovah as “one true God,” and the only being worthy of worship. The frequent biblical recurrence of the name-title “Lord God [Jehovah Elohim]” is itself an affirmation of Jehovah as the only “Elohim” for Israel. Thus the Jewish Shema: “Hear, O Israel: [Jehovah] is our [Elohim], [Jehovah] is one” (Deut. 6:4).

As I said, Joshua Seixas’ was a fairly conventional Hebraist and by all indications, his instruction to the School of the Prophets stuck closely to this basic understanding of Hebrew grammar and the traditional Jewish etymology for God. Nevertheless, Joseph had by this point already reevaluated his strictly monotheistic concept of deity, having tentatively adopted Binitarianism (although one could argue that he only viewed the Father as God in the true sense, with Jesus relegated to the position of demigod). Did the concept of a covenanted council of Gods in Genesis first occur to Joseph in Kirtland? If so, he gives no indication of it. Nevertheless, it may well have been the planted seed that eventually blossomed in Nauvoo. What pushed Joseph over the edge, causing him to reevaluate his previous “inspired translations” of the Bible and reconsider his formal studies in Hebrew?

Well, it just so happens that he supplies the answer in his “Sermon in the Grove," cited at the start of this article. In 1844, Joseph argues for an alternative reading of the Hebrew Genesis text that supports his view of plural Gods:

“I once asked a learned Jew once–if the Heb[rew] language compels us to render all words in heam[/-im] in the plural–why not render the first plural–he replied it would ruin the Bible–he acknowledged I was right. I came here to investigate these things precisely as I believe it–hear & judge for yourself–& if you go away satisfied–well & good–in the very beginning there is a plurality of Gods–beyond the power of refutation–it is a great subject I am dwelling on–the word Eloiheam (sic) ought to be in the plural all the way thro[ugh]–Gods.” (Thomas Bullock Report, Ehat & Cook, ed., The Words of Joseph Smith, p. 379)

Obviously Joseph was considering polytheism at least as early as 1839, and perhaps earlier in connection with his Hebrew studies. An interaction with a nameless, learned Jew served to confirm his ideas. This man was almost certainly Alexander Neibauer. Possibly the first Jewish convert to Mormonism in 1837, he was a well-educated man, only three years the prophet’s junior. He attended rabbinical school in Poland, and received a degree in dentistry from the University of Berlin. He was also fluent in seven languages, and apparently an avid student of Kabbalah. These items earned him a private friendship with Joseph upon their meeting in Nauvoo that lasted until the the prophet’s death.

Within days of his arrival in April 1841, “Joseph Smith would again begin to study Hebrew under Neibauer. Along with his studies in Hebrew, Joseph would also study Greek, Latin, and German. Under Neibauer’s direction, Joseph would learn to read the four languages with a certain degree of competence” (Widmer, Mormonism and the Nature of God, p. 81-82). Both the prophet and his enigmatic tutor notate their various language sessions from 1841-1844 at odd intervals in their private journals (Neibaur Journal, 1841-42, LDS archives; Faulring, ed., An American Prophet's Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, pp. 460, 481, 487, etc.). Considering from their accounts that Neibauer was an almost constant companion to the prophet in 1844, it appears probable that Neibauer was the man to whom Joseph referred with regards to his questions about the syntax of Elohim.

Certainly Neibauer would have been cognizant of Joseph’s violent re-interpretation of Genesis 1:1 and probably reacted accordingly as Joseph implied. But while the prophet was often eclectic, he always held his own views on scripture in higher esteem than that of its original authors; as Louis Zucker once said, “He used the Hebrew as he chose, as an artist, inside his frame of reference, in accordance with his taste, according to the effect he wanted to produce, as a foundation for theological innovations” (Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3:53). Might Alexander Neibauer have had further impact on the prophet’s preferential exegesis though? Lance S. Owens explains the man’s relevance in this regard:

“In the spring of 1841 there apparently arrived in Nauvoo an extraordinary library of Kabbalistic writings belonging to a European Jew and convert to Mormonism who evidently new Kabbalah and its principal written works. This man, Alexander Neibaur [sic], would soon become the prophet's friend and companion.” (Owens, “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection,” as originally published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 117-194)

Alexander Neibauer disclosed his loyalty to the Hermetic-Kabbalistic tradition in two minor articles on resurrection which were published in the Times and Seasons in 1843 under the heading, “The Jews” (Taylor, ed., Times and Seasons, 3:723,724). In both articles, Neibauer quotes extensively from Kabbalistic authors and especially from varied and precise passages of the foundational work of Jewish Kabbalah, the Zohar. The Zohar is a compilation of rabbinical Torah commentaries that is similar to the Midrash, but espouses an esoteric, mystical approach to scriptural exegesis. It extracts inspired, hidden meaning from the scriptures on topics ranging from the nature of God to the origin and structure of the universe, and also addressing the nature of human souls. In other words, Alexander Neibauer was fixated on the same hermetic tradition in Jewish Kabbalah as Joseph was experiencing in Masonry and elsewhere. By introducing the prophet to the Zohar and Kabbalah, doubtless this man distinguished himself to Joseph as a very learned Jew. More on the Zohar later.

Considering his private relation to Neibauer from 1841-1843, it should come as no surprise that this same timeframe happens to coincide with the introduction of the Nauvoo temple endowment and the translation and publication of the final portions of the Book of Abraham – both revelations narrating a pre-mortal council, the plurality of Gods, and the reformatting of the Genesis creation account.

[Feb. 19, 1842] Wilford Woodruff: “The Lord is Blessing Joseph with Power to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of God; to translate through the urim & Thummim Ancient records & Hyeroglyphics as old as Abraham or Adam, which causes our hearts to burn within us while we behold their glorious truths opened unto us. … Joseph has had these records in his possession for several years, but has never presented them before the world in the english language untill now. But he is now about to publish it to the world.” (“Wilford Woodruff Journal”, Feb. 19, 1842, sic all)

[Mar. 1-4, 1842] Publication of Abraham 1:1-2:18 and explanation of Facsimile 1.

[Mar. 8, 1842] Joseph Smith: “Commenced Translating from the Book of Abraham, for the 10 No of the Times and Seasons – and was engaged at his office day & Evening.” (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 2, p. 367)

[Mar. 9, 1842] Joseph Smith: “Examining copy for the Times & Seasons presented by [John] Taylor & [John C.] Bennett … in the afternoon continued the Translation of the Book of Abraham … & continued translating & revising, & Reading letters in the evening.” (Ibid., Vol. 2, p. 367)

[Mar. 15-19, 1842] Publication of Abraham 2:19-5:21 and explanation of Facsimile 2.

[May 16-20, 1842] Publication of Facsimile 3 and explanation.

[Feb. 1, 1843] John Taylor: “We have given this timely notice that our friends may prepare themselves. We would further state that we had the promise of Br. Joseph, to furnish us with further extracts from the Book of Abraham.” (Times & Seasons 4/6: 95, Feb. 1, 1843)

With the publication of the final chapters of the Book of Abraham, Joseph fully relocated Mormon theology into polytheistic realms. The book is an excellent miniature of Mormonism’s progressive doctrinal revisionism. Once again, it begins with a jealous, omnipotent Lord God (Abr. 1,2) who transitions into a sovereign, finite being without the capacity to create the human soul (Abr. 3), and finally dissolves into an impersonal council of co-equal creator Gods (Abr. 4,5). As stated in this article’s thesis and portrayed in the timeline, the Book of Abraham’s production also directly parallels the chronological development of Joseph’s public views on God. That being the case, it is unfortunate that Joseph never lived to see the promise fulfilled of “further extracts from the Book of Abraham,” because his last public remarks on the nature of God were by far his most striking. Imagine what further writings from Abraham may have been unfolded! 

On April 7, 1844, Joseph unloaded all of his ammo. Masonry and the temple endowment, his Hebrew studies and the Book of Abraham, the hermetic hermeneutic of Biblical passages – he coalesced these disparate elements into a brilliant but radical reinterpretation of the divine cosmogony. He assigned four scribes to record the sermon, admitting his view of the gravity of its content. He preached the King Follett discourse, excerpted here:

“God Himself who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a Man like unto one of yourselves—that is the great secret! … Here then is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God. You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done—by going from a small capacity to a great capacity, from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, until the resurrection of the dead, from exaltation to exaltation—till you are able to sit in everlasting burnings and everlasting power and glory as those who have gone before, sit enthroned. …

What did Jesus Christ do? ‘Why I do the same things that I saw my Father do when worlds came rolling into existence.’ ‘Saw the Father do what?’ ‘I saw the Father work out His kingdom with fear and trembling and I am doing the same, too. When I get my kingdom, I will give it to the Father and it will add to and exalt His glory. He will take a higher exaltation and I will take His place and I am also exalted, so that He obtains kingdom rolling upon kingdom.’ So that Jesus treads in His tracks as He had gone before and then inherits what God did before. …

I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible… I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today. I will go to the very first Hebrew word—BERESHITH—in the Bible and make a comment on the first sentence of the history of creation: ‘In the beginning…’ I want to analyze the word BERESHITH. BE—in, by, through, and everything else; next, ROSH—the head; ITH. Where did it come from? When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the first part—the BE—there; but a man—a Jew without any authority—put it there. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head of any man. It read in the first: ‘The Head One of the Gods brought forth the Gods.’ This is the true meaning of the words. ROSHITH [BARA ELOHIM] signifies [the Head] to bring forth the Elohim. If you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God. No learned man can tell you any more than what I have told you. Thus, the Head God brought forth the Head Gods in the grand, head council.” (Larson, “The King Follett Discourse: A Newly Amalgamated Text,” BYU Studies 18, No. 2, pp. 7-9, EMPHASIS his)

Van Hale, an LDS scholar, analyzed the discourse and highlights four key concepts which have had a lasting impact on Mormon doctrine: namely, men are eternal and can therefore become Gods, there exists a pantheon of Gods, these Gods exist one above another innumerably, and God was once as man now is (Hale, “The Doctrinal Impact of the King Follett Discourse," Brigham Young University Studies 18 : 213).  The latter two points were doubly reinforced in his succeeding “Sermon in the Grove,” in which he insisted once again that his teachings were self-consistent and uniform with scriptures both ancient and modern. At the root of Joseph’s extrapolations in both of these discourses is his use of Hebrew in Genesis 1:1, or misuse of Hebrew as one may argue. Lance Owens makes the point:

“By any literate interpretation of Hebrew, this is an impossible reading. Joseph takes Elohim, the subject of the clause, and turns it into the object, the thing which received the action of creation. Bereshith (‘in the beginning’) is reinterpreted to become Roshith, the ‘head’ or ‘Head Father of the Gods,’ who is the subject-actor creating Elohim. And Elohim he interprets not as God, but as ‘the Gods.’” (Owens, “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection,” as originally published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 117-194)

Despite his extra-curricular studies, Joseph is abusing the Hebrew text here. But his cut against convention is intentional. That being the case, does Joseph mean something more when he says “I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today"? In Kabbalistic traditions, the Zohar contains the oldest traditions hidden in the biblical text, and is therefore often referred to as “the old Bible.” Joseph is already discussing hermetic concepts here, but is he really deriving his interpretation from a medieval Jewish Gnostic text? Yes, as it turns out, he probably is. The Zohar begins with commentary on Bereshith bara Elohim:

“It is written: And the intelligent shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness like the stars for ever and ever. There was indeed a ‘brightness' [Zohar]. The Most Mysterious struck its void, and caused this point to shine. This ‘beginning' [Reshith] then extended, and made for itself a palace for its honour and glory … Thus by means of this ‘beginning' [Reshith] the Mysterious Unknown made this palace. This palace is called Elohim, and this doctrine is contained in the words, "By means of a beginning [Reshith, it,] created Elohim.” (Zohar I:15a)

In other words, this evidently longstanding esoteric tradition also interpreted the first phrase in Genesis as signifying a nameless, Mysterious “Beginning” organized the Gods rather than God/Gods organizing the heavens and earth. The Zohar suggests the reversal of subject with object, as does Joseph Smith here. Can the consequences of this connection be overestimated? In his last sermon, he likewise calls on Genesis 1:26 to support his belief in a plurality Gods – the same scripture cited by the Zohar in support of the very same principle (Zohar I:23b). Is it not incredible that the prophet’s entire premise for his late theological innovations are precipitated by a medieval Jewish Gnostic book to which he was introduced shortly beforehand? Joseph is here orchestrating a combination of aberrant doctrines that consummate in something altogether different from anything that came in his revelations before: God is finite.

Like all the righteous before him, God the Father started from a lower, mortal state and progressed to the station of a God – “going from a small capacity to a great capacity, from a small degree to another, from grace to grace.” No longer is the Lord God an eternally consistent, self-sustained being whose power and righteousness are native to his personality. Although he was greater than the assembled intelligences yet he was elected to the prominent position of God: “the heads of the Gods appointed one God for us.” In like manner, God chose his own cabinet of divine delegates in the pattern of all Gods before him. In another eon, God the Father served the same role as Jesus under the direction of another Father God, and so on for generations before them. According to Joseph, this order of priestly patriarchs has been in process forever: “Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son?”

The prophet’s newly formulated cosmogony casts God the Father as the most recent in a long line of designated deities, each responsible for the salvation of their own kindred kingdoms. In this respect, it may be accurately observed that Joseph is here exploring Gnostic territory beyond polytheism even; he invented his own familial brand of Henotheism. Henotheism itself is the belief in territorial deities, each reigning over his/her own jurisdiction. Joseph’s contribution is the patriarch angle, with an emphasis on the existence of many kingdoms with different Gods at the helm of each, all of them fathers and sons progressing for eternity. So, Joseph’s final theological addendum was that of patriarchal Henotheism.

In conclusion, I believe Joseph Smith, Jr. was in many ways a very brilliant man. Nevertheless, he was a product of his place and time, the same as all other men. His teachings are similarly stamped by the cultural context and prejudices native to various worldviews of the period. Joseph was instilled with passion for exposing hidden things to the masses, an ambition that was nurtured in his magic-fraught youth. The Victorian religious influence compounded with economic pressures to create a need for God’s intercession in his life, amongst other factors. Finally, the tremendous family pressure of prophetic expectation bore heavily on the young prophet’s heart and mind. Eventually he made the endeavor, and to spectacular effect! Fallible as his career was, it is still earmarked by exceptional charisma, ambition, and imagination. Joseph sought to unify the heavens and the earth in a way that few educated ministers were willing to consider. Perhaps most impressive was his ability to learn and adapt his theology to the perceived truths of his day, as he interpreted them.

Joseph Smith began his career with something like a Modalist’s view of God – any divine intervention through any role or representation was ultimately a manifestation of the Deity. This definition of God in very absolute terms was probably the prophet’s primitive interpretation of frontier revivalist rhetoric. But within years he was attracting converts more traditionally trained in theology. Their influence helped conventionalize his beliefs away from the heretical for a time, in the general direction of Binitarianism – a very common precept among the upstart Restorationist movements of the time. But Joseph’s ambition would be reawakened again and again by hermetic inspirations. As they presented themselves, he capitalized on opportunities to reveal hidden meaning from ancient characters, and innovate on protestant Christianity’s premise. His talent for telling tales and re-interpreting scripture allowed him to construct these innovations into a Judeo-Christian context. All of these cultural influences ultimately led Joseph to a belief in multiple Gods and beyond. To the discerning eye, his fourteen year career offered a single constant relative to the Mormon concept of God – change

How then can we receive Joseph as a true prophet of God, if we judge his doctrine according to his own revelations? He claimed ownership of divinely validated truth, and yet there is clear conflict and evolution in his teachings. Would Joseph himself have been satisfied if he received multiple conflicting answers the morning he stepped into the sacred grove as a young boy in pursuit of truth? I think not. Without an institutional culture to call his own, he clearly rejected the confusion and discord he saw in the religious authorities of his surroundings. Why should we not do the same? I believe those seeking God's transcendent gospel in Mormonism will inevitably be disappointed that the Lord failed to communicate the end from the beginning to his “choice seer." Lest we forget, the Mormon prophet himself reminds us of his ultimate failing:

“It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God.” – Joseph Smith, Jr. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p 345)

Joseph Smith evidently did not.