When we are not in our “Mormons are not weird”-PR mode, Latter-day Saints love to point out that which is unique about their religion: the denial of ex nihilio creation, eternal progression, living prophets, Adam-God, etc. (OK, maybe not the last one…) What we tend to resist is any attempt to place Mormonism within intellectual history. In other words, we want the Restoration to spring forth fully formed from modern prophets without any intellectual history beyond Joseph’s confusion amidst the contending ministers of Palmyra.
There is a certain irony to this insistence on Mormon uniqueness. One of our central theological heresies is the denial of ex nihilio creation. Not even God, we teach, makes something from nothing. Rather, he always creates by rearranging previously existing materials. Yet when we tell the story of the intellectual content of our faith we want it to spring forth from nothing in the 1830s. There a couple of problems with this approach.
First, if we take it seriously, then we are going to have to defend some rather problematic historical positions. When Brookes published The Refiner’s Fire, arguing that Mormon cosmology had its roots among certain religious and mystical radicals during the period of the English Civil War, Mormon scholars were eager to attack his work. Now in fairness to Brookes’s critics, there are some problems with his book. On the other hand, his basic point that the intellectual enviroment of the Restoration extends beyond New York’s burnt over district is clearly correct. Mormonism very clearly inherited practices and concepts from New England Puritanism, and somewhat more controversially from various elements of the Radical Reformation and late Renaissance. Strenuously denying any connection in the name of some sort of a uniqueness apologetic simply isn’t plausible.
Second, the constriction of Mormonism’s context to the burnt over district is boring. Seeing Mormonism as an intertwining of various strands of Western thought makes the story much more interesting. Furthermore — as Richard Bushman observed last year at the Library of Congress conference — there is a sense in which broadening the context of Mormonism increases its stature. We are not simply a surprisingly successful eddy in the froth of the Second Great Awakening. We are the modern decedents of powerful ideas that have been actors on history’s stage for centuries.
Third, there is no real theological need for the uniqueness narrative for Mormon theology. Mormons seem quite comfortable with the idea that God prepared the world for the Restoration. Generally, we think about this in terms of God opening up a space where Mormonism could happen. Hence, we look at the Reformation, the rise of religious freedom, and the founding of the United States. This narrative acknowledges God’s handiwork in history beyond the core Mormon story, but the result of God’s handiwork is a more or less blank and open space where the unique Mormon revelation occurs. There is no reason, however, that this theological narrative could not be expanded to include a conceptual preparation, which would necessarily imply a genealogical relationship between Mormonism and earlier thought.
Viewing Mormonism as a strand of Western thought, however, presents both scholarly and theological tasks that are daunting. On the scholarly side, it means that we can no longer begin the story of Mormonism with Joseph Smith’s immediate progenitors in the late 18th century. Following Brookes’s lead, Mormon scholars are going to have to push the story of Mormon origins much farther into the past and this will require that they become familiar with huge swathes of intellectual history that have traditionally been thought of as outside the required competence of Mormon history. Theologically, it will require that Mormons create a much larger and more complicated account of providential history. We have a number of plots to make theological sense of the history of the Restoration if we begin that history with Joseph Smith’s family, i.e. the miraculous presence of the sophisticated physicians who operated on Joseph’s leg as a young boy, the Palmyra and Manchester revivals, even — following Bushman and Quinn — the role of folk magic as midwife to prophecy. Once we push Mormon origins farther and farther back into the centuries before 1830 the theological plots will have to become much more complicated and ambitious.
It could to be quite a show…