crownWhile the occurrence of a general apostasy is a matter of belief and not observable by historical inquiry, dispensations are born with a burst of documentary evidence. This makes the dispensation, a not entirely unique but yet very Mormon way to draw historical boundaries, a useful concept that could be applied to the periodization of many other endeavors.

In a Mormon context, what we see as a breach in priesthood authority between late antiquity and antebellum America maps very neatly onto a similar and readily observable breach in textual authority within Mormon thought. From the early church fathers to the scholastics and the various Protestant reformers and their descendants, there are nearly two millennia of Christian writing that are almost totally irrelevant to Mormon concerns. What did Augustine or Anselm think about grace? The Mormon answer is: who cares? We don’t recognize any authority in their writings. In the context of Mormon questions about what we ought to believe, or how we should behave, the journal of an obscure nineteenth-century apostle holds a hundred times the weight of the profoundest writings of Christian history, and a clip-out truism from the latest Ensign holds yet a hundred times more significance. I don’t intend to criticize the Mormon ignoring of Augustine, but only to note that it is easily observed. The Dispensation of the Fullness of Times, a Mormon theological term for the years after ca. 1820, is a readily observable fact in the ways Mormons deal with pre-Restoration texts.

There are a few, relatively uncommon exceptions. Occasionally, pre-modern writers are pressed into teleological service as pioneering anticipators of the dispensation to come. John Wycliffe and Martin Luther are useful to Mormons only in the areas of overlap, however limited or strained, between their thinking and Mormon thought. The other exception, mostly confined to Mormon apologetic scholarship, mines earlier writers for evidence of incipient or persisting apostasy. (Did you hear what Origen did to himself?) But if something written before 1820 neither supports us nor offers a shocking contrast, it is entirely uninteresting. As a medievalist I should probably be disappointed, and I do think that we could use an approach to the Middle Ages that was more nuanced and charitable towards several centuries of human existence.

But the curtain we drop over 1700 years of history is actually, I think, one of the aspects of Joseph Smith’s genius. He drew a line through the account books of Christian intellectual history and let us start over anew, unburdened by an unbearable weight of tradition. We can create a new spiritual and intellectual tradition. Or we can re-invent the wheel, or re-fight the religious bickering of the last two millennia, if that is what we choose to make of the opportunity.

Of course there is much useful material in all those old books, and sometimes we need to import it into Mormonism in a way that makes it useable not just for scholarship but also for devotion. The political interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as referring among other things to the Roman Empire and later European nations is very old but not in itself scriptural, which makes it of little use to Mormon devotion—until Spencer W. Kimball cites it in conference,  after which the Old Testament lesson manual can ascribe the idea to him. What would you do if the world were ending tomorrow? I would plant an apple tree, said Martin Luther, in a well-known quotation. Or a cherry tree, according to Wilford Woodruff. That these ideas are much older than our modern prophets is, as far as devotion is concerned, nothing more than a historical footnote.

The Mormon concept of dispensation is terribly ahistorical, one might object. Surely everything comes from something previous, and former centuries had their own purposes beyond preserving relics of the past, or anticipating the future for the benefit of the present.

But the Mormon practice of drawing dispensational boundaries only makes visible, I think, what is an all but universal practice. One of the aims and accomplishments of the American Revolution was to sever the authority of English law, and ever since then the earlier jurisprudence has become a historical footnote rather than a decisive factor in determining the fate of human lives or billions of dollars. Linguistics before William Jones, or Saussure, or Chomsky is a curiosity cabinet, rather than a source of insights on how language works. When exosolar planets are discovered, astronomers compute their orbits, not their epicycles. German literature gets rebooted in 1150, and 1750, and again in 1945, with most earlier authors holding little exemplary value for later ones. Methods of literary criticism older than a century are today considered more embarrassing than useful. Even Martin Luther’s statement of resolve to plant a cherry tree can be traced back no further than 1942; Lutheran theology also seems to have dispensational boundaries that occasionally must be breached.

To what extent documentary evidence maps onto divinely-acknowledged borders between eras remains, of course, a matter of faith. But evidence for the human perception of dispensations can be found everywhere.

7 comments for “Dispensations

  1. February 8, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    It helps in that you don’t have to be a scholar to be a Christian. Sola scriptura was a big movement in the early 1800s. I also see the implications for millenarianism. Christians have been expecting Christ’s return at any moment since the beginning. But dispensational thinking wipes that all away, all that matters is what God told Joseph Smith.

  2. Craig H.
    February 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    I like what you say about dispensational thinking almost negating the value, or nature, of life and thought at a given time, at least as people of that time knew them. When we look at life as people of a time saw it, I think we actually learn a lot more than when we impose our frail ultimate-meaning structures upon them.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    February 8, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    My recollection is that there are many quotes of Joseph Smith bemoaning the tendency of the early Latter-day Saints to hold on to many of the traditional beliefs and views of historical Christianity, to the extent they would “shatter like glass” when he presented them with a reboot of the doctrines that revise our understanding of the Bible.

    One of the remarkable things of the last few decades has been the recognition by scholars, both Mormon and non, of Joseph’s revival–or restoration–of teachings that have an ancient pedigree, such as by Nibley, Bloom, and Margaret Barker. In other cases, non-LDS scholars have, without referring to Joseph Smith, joined him in criticizing much of the Christian tradition as a gloss that obscures the brilliance of the original Christian vision contained in the Bible, including N.T. Wright and the advocates of Open Theism.

    For Mormons, wading through Augustine and Aquinas is not an effort to make the Gospel measure up to the standards of Aristotle and Plato, but is mainly useful in speaking the foreign language of traditional Christians. Modern science does not rely on the authority of Aristotle’s science, and picks and chooses among his approximate contemporaries to find kindred spirits like Archimedes, Democritus and Aritosthenes. Only a centuries old religious tradition preserves Aristotle’s thought as authoritative in any sense.

    When Christ expressed condemnation of those who had obscured his doctrine with the commandments of mere men, we are bound to take it seriously and be forewarned of that contamination. When Nephi cautions that “plain and precious things” in the Bible have been obscured by a tradition of probably well-meaning but uninspired men, who have taken away that plainness through imposing an official interpretation, prudence leads to skepticism toward the encrustation of official creeds built up from the 4th Century forward.

  4. James Olsen
    February 8, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    Very intriguing. If I understand you correctly, I especially enjoyed your positive note about the re-boot doing us the service of eliminating the huge cognitive burden of remaining engaged in and accountable to the past frameworks, dogmas and debates. It can surely be healthy. But as you note, our importing from these curtained off periods is a great source of creativity and contemporary renewal. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts concerning what from the medieval period might serve as positive-importing-fodder for our Mormon thinking. I personally find the massive medieval phenomenon of monasticism – a form of consecration that could remain complimentary with the rest of society – to be an un-mined treasure.

  5. February 9, 2010 at 5:49 am

    One interesting example of this dispensational thinking is B. H. Robert’s Introduction to the 7-volume History of the Church. There Roberts goes to great lengths in attempting to demonstrate the existence of the great apostasy from the work of protestant eclesiastical historians and from the writings of the early Church fathers. Its really an odd work for LDS doctrinal exposition, precisely because it shows an unusual familiarity with pre-Joseph Smith Christian writing.

  6. Jonathan Green
    February 9, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Thanks for your comments. To reiterate, while we should acknowledge the costs of dispensational thinking, we should also acknowledge the positive work that it does for us. Sectarian and dispensational boundaries give us a manageable field to work with, or in some cases a fresh field that hasn’t already been ploughed over for millennia.

    James, I agree that if start looking for spiritual affinity before the Reformation, we’re much more likely to find it among monastics than among the heretics that are often held up as precursors of the Restoration.

  7. February 11, 2010 at 2:43 am

    You bring up an interesting point: Dispensation Boundaries. It seems like boundaries of “dispensations” are simply a matter of personal perspective. Who can really draw an absolute line anywhere in time marking the beginning or ending of a dispensation? Obviously, key events are on absolute dates, such as the First Vision, etc. But there is always so much leading up to these events (such as the Spirit revealing things to reformers, pilgrims, founding fathers, etc), that still, the starting time of the dispensation is blurry, or in other words, is simply a matter of personal perspective.

    From Orson Pratt’s perspective, there have been “many hundreds” of dispensations. (See “Questions and Answers on Doctrine,” The Seer, vol. 2, no. 1 [Washington City, D. C.: Orson Pratt, Jan. 1854], p. 204.)

    David W. Patten offered some helpful insight on what constitutes a dispensation, which may make it easier in determining the “boundaries” of each. See “To the Saints scattered abroad,” Elders’ Journal (Far West, Missouri: Joseph Smith Jr., July 1838), pp. 39-42.

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