The Geography of Mormon Monotheism

I don’t think that it is an accident that monotheism first come out of the desert. It is, I think, an issue of scale. Polytheism allows one to have limited deities on a local scale. One has the god of this spring or that hill, or perhaps of this particular clan or tribe. To be sure polytheistic religions frequently have some sort of shadowy master god in the background. Traditional Korean religion has Hananim. Prior to the advent of Islam, the Arabs had an array of deities but behind them stood the not fully articulated figure of Allah. Yet it seems to be in the desert that the over-god first came to the fore, dismissed the lesser gods as demons or delusions, and established himself as the One True God.

The God of monotheism is unimaginably huge, and correspondingly humanity becomes puny and small. I think that deserts facilitate the spiritual attitude necessary to make this kind of leap. In the desert the human scale is small. Huge cities are not possible. The margins of survival are small. There is constant anxiety about water, the force of the elements, or finding food. Every human accomplishment can be easily obliterated by the next sand storm, and one lives one’s life balanced on a knife edge between survival and eternity. In other words, it is an environment that makes one acutely aware of humanity as a pawn to much vaster and more powerful forces. The only other geography I can think of that would produce a similar spiritual outlook would be the open sea.

Of course, in one sense Mormon theology represents an assault on the scale of the massive monotheistic god of the desert. By presenting human beings as essentially theomorphic, we get an exalted vision of man that in some ways is more akin to the heroic Greek view of man as demi-god in waiting than to the puny vision of man alone in the desert. Yet despite the theological narrowing of the gap between the human and the divine, Mormon spirituality retains, I think, the essential sense of awe and humility before the power of God. Indeed, one of the problems that protestant polemics against Mormon theology regularly runs into is its assumption that Mormon spirituality flows in a simple and uncomplicated way from Mormon theology. Hence, they assume that our anthropomorphic deity and theomorphic humanity leads to a spirituality bereft of awe and worship. Yet the outsider descriptions of the inner spiritual life of Mormons rings hollow. Most Mormons, I think, retain a sense of awe before the power of God. If one thinks about it, this is curious if not surprising. After all, the protestants seem to have a point: our theology does radically narrow the gap between man and God and one would expect a corresponding diminishment of God in our spirituality. Why hasn’t this happened, or at least happened to the extent suggested that protestant polemics?

The answer, I think, lies is deserts. It is important I think that almost immediately after the most radically anthropomorphic elements of Mormon theology were let loose on the Saints in Nauvoo that they were cast into the wilderness. For the next three generations, at least, Mormon spirituality was dominated by the desert. To be sure, Mormons heard sermons that presented a radically finitist vision of God. Yet the day to day world in which Mormons practiced their spirituality was the marginal world of the desert. It was a world dominated by fear of floods, draughts, and the narrow band of half-arable land at the edge of a howling waste. Half a century or more of such experience at a key point in the history of Mormon spirituality has left its mark. Hence, when understanding how Mormons relate to God it is not enough simply to make deductions from our theology. One must also factor in the power of the Great Basin desert as a primal source of a spiritual world view.

In a sense, we maintained the core of monotheistic spirituality not by virtue of a militantly monotheistic theology (like Islam) but rather by virtue of geography.

106 comments for “The Geography of Mormon Monotheism

  1. November 8, 2005 at 1:02 pm

    The idea that forces beyond doctrine are constitutive of spirituality and religous practice is not so novel, but looking to geography as a codeterminant does seem pretty novel and insightful to me.

    Maybe Mountains also instill a sense of smallness and humility. Having that constant majestic backdrop had to have contributed.

  2. lyle
    November 8, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    Good post Nate. My impression is that the critics are often right; at least as to me. I don’t feel alot of awe towards God, and have always admired this in my other Christian friends. However much closer our theology brings us towards God though, the distance is still vast. My guess is that I don’t feel as much awe towards God the Father because I can’t get past my awe in God the Son whose atonement somehow will bridge that vast gap.

  3. Ronan
    November 8, 2005 at 1:52 pm

    ….and then we sucked all the awe back out of God and worship by building chapels as drab as the desert.

  4. November 8, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    Interesting post, Nate. It has been a while since I looked into this, and my memory is slowly erroding, but it seems to me that much of the now arrid font of monotheism has not always been so. If I remember correctly, Canaan used to be quite lush.

    Ronan, is my hero.

  5. November 8, 2005 at 2:39 pm

    Desert? I thought humanity came to know God in a lush Garden. ;->

    Anyway, God’s caprice knows no geographic or climatic boundaries, as the Smiths in New England or Ötzi the iceman of the Alps could tell you. Heck, life on the Indian subcontinent was so miserable as to foster a spirituality in which being alive—and returning to life—were punishments rather than something to be grateful for.

  6. Ronan
    November 8, 2005 at 2:43 pm

    Actually, Nate, Christian makes a good point about the Garden vs. the Desert…

    Are you referring to the monotheism of Sinai? Were the Hebrews once NOT monotheistic? Didn’t monotheism first get taught amongst Missouri’s green hills…?

    (…chain yanking…)

  7. Steve L
    November 8, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    Of all the ridiculous crap you have ever posted, nate- this takes the cake. First of all, your observations are keen if monotheism (as commonly understood) did indeed arise from the desert and not from exilic and post-exilic reforms of an all-too crowded Jewish pantheon. Not to mention that Akhenaten of prosperous and serene Egypt predates Moses and Ezra. Besides, in some ways monotheists are less reverential of God than polytheists. In a pre-monotheistic world the gods are close and all around us, demanding that we reverence them and the earth. For a monotheist, God is distant and the total devotion he demands is too often not received. It’s easy to imagine a monotheist breaking a commandment, not studying the written word, or missing worship services, while it’s a little more difficult to see a Hindu ignoring a major religious festival or an ancient mesopotamian king neglecting his sacrifices and priestly duties.

  8. Nate Oman
    November 8, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    “Of all the ridiculous crap you have ever posted, nate- this takes the cake.”

    Nonsense. I have posted things that are lots crappier than this. Don’t display your ignorance of my blogging oeuvre quite so obviously ;->.

    Furthermore, your argument is rather beside the point. When monotheism emerged is a different question than where it emerged. The fact remains that monotheism is basically a product of the arid and semi-arid near east. Quibbles about how lush cannan once was are marginal. No matter how lush, it was never the Amazon nor the Pacific Northwest. Furthermore, it is signifancant that in the biblical text that we have the most significant theophanies — Abraham wandering, Moses on Siani, Jesus in the Judean wilderness, etc. — all seem to occur in deserts. Also Judaism is not the only monotheistic religion that I am talking about. Islam is also a desert monotheism. Finally, there is the fact that Mormon spirituality was largely forged in the desert.

  9. Adam Greenwood
    November 8, 2005 at 3:12 pm

    “Of all the ridiculous crap you have ever posted, Nate- this takes the cake.”

    Don’t be so dismissive of Nate O.’s other crap. Some of its pretty ridiculous too. And, hey, it’s a blog. If you don’t want pixelated table talk . . .

  10. Steve L
    November 8, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    be as playful as you please, i’m still disgusted (and you can’t stop me!)

  11. Nate Oman
    November 8, 2005 at 3:17 pm

    Ronan and Christian: As I recall there were multiple gods traipsing through the garden. Sounds like polytheism to me…

  12. Nate Oman
    November 8, 2005 at 3:18 pm

    Steve L.: Your disgust threshold is clearly WAY too low. I suggest seeking professional help…

  13. Jeremy
    November 8, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    Nate said: One must also factor in the power of the Great Basin desert as a primal source of a spiritual world view.

    Have you been reading Terry Tempest Wiliams? To quote from Refuge:

    The understanding that I could die on the Salt Flats is no great epiphany. I could die anywhere. It’s just that in the forsaken corners of the Great Salt Lake there is no illusion of being safe. You stand in the throbbing silence of the Great Basin, exposed and alone…. It is here I find grace.

    It is strange how the desert turns us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe living in a land of little water, because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on.

    If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide and so we are found.

  14. November 8, 2005 at 3:24 pm

    Its like Nate just finished reading _Guns, Germs & Steel_ and now wants to apply that to theology and religion instead of society and culture. Bad fit.

    Mormonism started in NY (not a desert) and then was sent to Ohio (not a desert) and was supposed to be permanently established in Missouri (not a desert) except the members couldnt live the United Order, so they got their butts kicked out into the middle of a swamp in Illinois (not a desert), and finally got their butts really kicked hard out into the middle of nowhere because nobody else wanted to live there so it was a safe place for them to be (Utah, a desert). Had they lived the United Order in the first place, they never would have ended up in a desert.

    Hey, lawyer, leave geography to the geographers.

  15. Last Lemming
    November 8, 2005 at 3:30 pm

    Does it not seem, however, that the less Mormonism is tied to the desert, the more montheistic it becomes?

  16. November 8, 2005 at 4:28 pm

    Yeah, more than one god in the garden, and I suppose that has caused some confusion over the years. Well, it seems we still worship two of them, and tend to think another is pretty active in the world, so maybe we’re still polytheists, our ancestral sojourn in the Utah desert notwithstanding.

    I will admit that I have a peculiar fondness for the desert. While at BYU I dated a girl from Dugway for a time, and it always gave me an almost holy feeling to go out to that isolated desert locale. Sedona feels special, too—almost like a natural temple. And then there’s Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Taos… Oh, and we can’t forget the Anza-Borrego desert east of San Diego, also splendid…

  17. Seth Rogers
    November 8, 2005 at 4:42 pm


    You missed the point. Nate was saying that the Mormon theology of a very personal and anthropomorphic God did indeed emerge in upstate New York, Kirtland Ohio, Missouri and Nauvoo.

    But then he stated that the Mormon sense of spirituality was altered and changed after that by the geography of the Great Basin.

    So he’s already addressed your points if you care to reread.

    However, I do think that early Mormons carried their own Protestant baggage into this new religion. Protestantism had its own tradition of the “majestic and awful God” that I’m sure the Mormons inherited (being largely Protestant before conversion). This complicates the analysis a bit.

  18. November 8, 2005 at 4:43 pm

    Christian, might I suggest this.

  19. Seth Rogers
    November 8, 2005 at 4:55 pm

    I’m also interested in the idea of the desert as a place of exile and purification.

    Christ spent his 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his ministry (as did John the Baptist). The Israelites spent their 40 years of purification before entering the Promised Land. David, Jacob, Abraham, and Elijah all had their own periods of “holy exile.”

    Then come the modern analogies. Brigham Young cuts a striking Moses figure. The Mormon Exodus often drew on imagery from the original Exodus.

    The problem is that the “Promised Land” for Mormons is in Missouri which we lost due to wickedness. It’s not in Utah. So if we carry the symbolism of Exodus to its logical conclusion, the Mormon Church is still in exile. We are still be purified (punished?) in preparation for inheriting the Promised Land.

    The odd part however, is that this concept is not widely entertained among most Mormons. Mostly, I think they just haven’t bothered to “connect the dots.” But also, I think there is a definite belief in Utah that Utah is, at least in some sense, the Promised Land. It is conceptualized as a place of refuge at least, but also a place of permanence. Utahns believe that “we are here to stay.”

    This shift in ideas is often supported by the concept that “Zion” exists not in a geographical spot, but in the hearts and minds of the saints. The scripture about the “Ensign to the nations” and Brigham’s “This is the place” quote also make their appearance.

    Nate, I think that most Mormons maintain a healthy sense of geography. But I’m not sure they’re drawing the right lessons from it. Are they?

  20. Jonathan Green
    November 8, 2005 at 4:56 pm

    Another point in Nate’s favor: In polytheism, no god is all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful. In other words, you can hide from a god, and if you aren’t careful with your rituals, you might not attract the god’s attention. In a garden you can entertain the notion that hiding from God is possible. But once you’re out in the desert, it becomes much less convincing. Wherever you go, God can see you.

  21. November 8, 2005 at 5:01 pm

    Seth, no I dont care to reread, I think I got his intended point. My point is that Mormon Theology hasnt been significantly impacted by desert geography at all, period. The only thing that might have been changed was the relative humility of the population of Saints who were committed enough to endure such a such difficult trek and initially harsh living conditions. But, there is nothing exclusive about deserts in and of those things. What novelties of LDS monotheism or theology had their origins in SLC basin? I cannot think of a single one, and after the initial hardships it would be relatively easy to argue the Saints were not all as zealous as their environment would have suggested they might have been (e.g., take the less than zealous approach to the WofW for example). Not that I would be inclined to make such an argument, but some might.

    Your other examples in 19 are cherry picking. There are a lot more examples of those various people in non-desert settings having theophanies and so on. Sure, deserts are part of the natural geography, so they do figure in, but its only happenstance. The Lord promises Israel a well-watered garden like Eden if they would just obey Him, if the desert is so great, they why doesnt the Lord offer Israel the great and glorious blessing of a desert? Because living in a desert is a curse, not a blessing.

  22. Seth Rogers
    November 8, 2005 at 5:08 pm


    I grew up in southern Utah and I can tell you that there are many grand old historical buildings still in use as stake centers and chapels. These buildings are even more impressive when you consider what the early settlers had to work with.

  23. Nate Oman
    November 8, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Kurt: I think that you missed my point. I agree with Seth’s rebuttle. In my post I make a distinction between spirituality and theology. However, I don’t want to deny you the joy of sputtering outrage against lawyers dabbling in geography.

    Damn those lawyers!

  24. November 8, 2005 at 5:47 pm

    Seth (#22):

    I should have qualified that. John Fowles showed me some beautiful old chapels in SLC last week. The early Saints made the desert blossom; only later did we kill the rose.

  25. scott
    November 8, 2005 at 6:01 pm

    See Discovery’s recent article on differences between desert cultures and rain forest cultures, including religious differences:

  26. scott
    November 8, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    Quote from article:

    From these various anthropological approaches, a basic dichotomy has emerged between two types of societies from very different ecosystems: societies born in rain forests and those that thrive in deserts. Think of Mbuti pygmies versus Middle Eastern bedouin, or Amazonian Indians versus nomads of the Gobi. There turn out to be consistent and permeating differences between the two. Obvious exceptions exist, some quite dramatic. Nonetheless, the correlates are unnerving.

    Begin with religious beliefs. A striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods. Polytheism is prevalent among tribes in the Amazon basin (the Sherenti, Mundurucu, and Tapirape) and in the rain forests of Africa (the Ndorobo), New Guinea (the Keraki and Ulawans), and Southeast Asia (the Iban of Borneo and the Mnong Gar and Lolo of Vietnam). But desert dwellers�the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert�are usually monotheistic. Of course, despite allegiances to a single deity, other supernatural beings may be involved, like angels and djinns and Satan. But the hierarchy is notable, with minor deities subservient to the Omnipotent One.

    This division makes ecological sense. Deserts teach large, singular lessons, like how tough, spare, and withholding the environment is; the world is reduced to simple, desiccated, furnace-blasted basics. Then picture rain forest people amid an abundance of edible plants and medicinal herbs, able to identify more species of ants on a single tree than one would find in all the British Isles. Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural. Moreover, those rain forest dwellers that are monotheistic are much less likely to believe that their god sticks his or her nose into other people’s business by controlling the weather, prompting illness, or the like. In contrast, the desert seems to breed fatalism, a belief in an interventionist god with its own capricious plans.

    Another major difference was brought to light by Melvin Ember. Desert societies, with their far-flung members tending goats and camels, are classic spawning grounds for warrior classes and the accessories of militarism: military trophies as stepping stones to societal status, death in battle as a guarantee of a glorious afterlife, slavery. And these cultures are more likely to be stratified, with centralized authority. A cosmology in which an omnipotent god dominates a host of minor deities finds a natural parallel in a rigid earthly hierarchy.

    Textor’s work highlights other differences between desert and rain forest societies. Purchasing or indenturing wives is far less prevalent among rain forest peoples. And in rain forest cultures, related women tend to form the core of a community for a lifetime, rather than being shipped off to serve the expediency of marriage making. In desert cultures, women typically have the difficult tasks of building shelters and wandering in search of water and firewood, while the men contemplate the majesty of their herds and envision their next raid. Among rain forest cultures, it’s the men who are more likely to do the heavy lifting. Rain forest cultures also are less likely to harbor beliefs about the inferiority of women; you won’t be likely to find rain forest men giving thanks in prayer that they were not created female, as is the case in at least one notable desert-derived religion. Finally, desert cultures tend to teach their children to be modest about nudity at an earlier age than in rain forest cultures and have more severe strictures against premarital sex.

  27. November 8, 2005 at 7:24 pm

    I thought we were henotheists.

    I have sometimes thought that at its most basic level, monotheism is a little dangerous. Too intense a focus on the ONE TRUE GOD and nothing else besides HIM/HER. Sayyid Qutb and others of the most influential Islamic radicals are quite concentrated on this issue of there being no other god but GOD. So I guess I’m saying that one can be monotheistic to a fault.

  28. November 8, 2005 at 8:13 pm

    Kurt, looks like an interesting book.

    How could I forget to mention Zion’s Canyon, Arches, Moab, Kanab…

  29. Ben Huff
    November 8, 2005 at 8:49 pm

    Hmmm. How well do the Australian aborigines fit this pattern?

  30. Seth Rogers
    November 8, 2005 at 9:21 pm

    Not to mention the Kalahari Bushmen.

  31. November 8, 2005 at 9:46 pm

    Oh, and speaking of gods in the Garden, our American Moses in the desert was not so awed as to prevent him from bringing God closer to man than anyone in our doctrinal history.

  32. November 8, 2005 at 10:24 pm

    What complete baloney, Nate. Relying on Seth’s “rebuttal” to defend your untenable position? Some lawyer you are.

  33. Wade
    November 8, 2005 at 11:29 pm

    # 21.

    “My point is that Mormon Theology hasnt been significantly impacted by desert geography at all, period.”

    That is one of the most presumptuous statements I’ve heard! Why would you underestimate God’s foreknowledge that the Saints would end up in the Great Basin and that this was a necessity for their spiritual and doctrinal growth? After all, didn’t some old testament prophets prophesy the Saints would be established there, or was that a dream of mine?

    Also, I have always thought the similarities between the Great Basin and the Holy Land were interesting. It’s interesting to note that both areas possess one large body of “dead” (called endorheic) water (Dead Sea, Salt Lake) connected by a river (I think both are Jordan rivers?) to a smaller body of water (Utah Lake, Sea of Galilee). Quite an interesting “coincidence”. I think Nate’s post is quite enlightening and that the attacks against it are ignorant and absurd!

  34. lyle
    November 9, 2005 at 12:23 am


    Perhaps ugly church buildings are cheaper? Personally, I’ll take more money spent on PEF over a nicer chapel anyday; human roses blooming over stained glass roses always.

  35. Soyde River
    November 9, 2005 at 3:19 am

    Ugly is in the eye of the beholder. I think they are quite all right. Of course, those with ultra refined architectural sensibilities, honed by rampant intellectualism, are probably one with the critics who despised the Eiffel Tower, and decried the Sydney Opera House.

    But by the time you’re dead and forgotten, the chapels will be beloved.

  36. November 9, 2005 at 7:04 am

    During the time that I served in Guatemala I gained the impression that the Christian evangelicals were in a state of awe/envy over our modern chapels that were in many places. They perceived them (I believe accurately) as a sign of the Church’s wealth and organization. That envy extended to the basketball courts, which they recognized as a community draw.

    Mere functionality can be a wonderful thing, especially when it is time for ward cleanup. Ultra-high ceilings and ornate artworks must greatly complicate things in that regard.

  37. November 9, 2005 at 7:59 am


    Let me guess where you live/grew up. How presumptuous of me.

    What OT prophets, emphasis on plural “prophets”, prophesied the saints would end up there? Acontextual proof text of Isa. 2:2 aside (because it has pretty much nothing to do with Utah at all, despite all of the self-serving LDS interpretations thereof, unless you want to argue Utah=Zion, which is laughable), please show me where some other OT prophets predicted the latter-day saints would end up living in the Salt Lake valley. If not, then its just a dream of yours, as are the parallels in geography you draw between Israel and SLC.

    Also, please enumerate the points of “spiritual and doctrinal growth” experienced by the saints in the SLC valley. What unique and novel points of doctrine emanated from that time period? That Isa. 2:2=SLC? Yeah, right. What else?

    Your rhetorical bombast serve only to emphasize the quality of your own argument, and the lack of rigor in the original premise.

  38. Adam Greenwood
    November 9, 2005 at 9:02 am

    Cool it, you two.

  39. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 9:57 am

    Kurt: It is called a motion for summary affirmance. Essentially, it is a motion asking that the case be affirmed without full briefing and argument as the appeal is completely without merit.

  40. November 9, 2005 at 10:24 am

    OK, Nate, enough with the hooey. How about you provide some evidence in support of your statement:

    “One must also factor in the power of the Great Basin desert as a primal source of a spiritual world view.

    In a sense, we maintained the core of monotheistic spirituality not by virtue of a militantly monotheistic theology (like Islam) but rather by virtue of geography.”

    Please provide clear, concise, and compelling examples of how the Mormon “spiritual world view” was influenced by the Great Basin desert geography.

  41. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 10:33 am

    Seth (and others): I think that you raise an interesting point regarding Utah and the whole Mormon theology of place. If I understand you right your claim is something like this:

    Those Utah Mormons have it messed up. They identify Utah with the geographic Zion, which we all know is in Missouri. Yet another example of the theological parochialism of Utah Mormons.

    I don’t quite think it works out this well. First, the identification of Utah with Zion is not simply some sort of cultural aberation on the part of parochial Utah Mormons. Generations of 19th century and early 20th century prophets referred to Utah (the whole Mormon corridor really) as Zion. To be sure, they held out some sort of (perpetually receding) hope of a eschatelogical return to Missouri, but they were pretty clear: the Lord wanted them to build up Zion in the West.

    It seems to me that Mormonism requires a very strong theological notion of place. Zion is a place that we are to build up. Indeed, a major part of our religious lives consists in building up Zion. Furthermore, we resist attempts to turn this into a purely eschatelogical hope. We are supposed to be building Zion now. The locus of Zion gets transfered from Independence to Far West to Nauvoo to the Mormon Corridor, but it remains a central concern.

    The problem, of course, is what do you do with the theology of place when you no longer are preaching a geographic gathering? The modern answer, it seems to me, has been that we are to build up Zion where ever we live. That is we are to have a strong theology of place, but it is tied to wherever it is that we live. Rather than crossing the ocean to Zion, we work at Zion at our homes. Hence, in a sense the sense of Utah the place as Zion is not mistaken, but rather becomes prototypical. Utah is the location of a Zion built in the here and now, despite the fact that it is not the Missouri-Zion of the reveltions or the eschatelogical Zion of the end times. The willingness to build Zion where we find ourselves then becomes the model for building Zion in the post-gathering world.

    For me — and I suspect a lot of people like me — there is another issue over laid on this. The modern notion of Zion: build up Zion where you live, still seems to implicitly assume that one is tied to place. It simply accomodates the notion that the place one is tied to need not be the Utah or Missouri or what have you. What do you do for people like me who are very mobile. I have moved seven times in seven years of marriage. I have attended lots of wards in lots of stakes in several different states. Modern markets are based in large part on this sort of mobility and fluidity. Unlike Russell, I am willing to see and understand the considerable virtue of these modern markets. However, they do have a tendency to diminish one’s sense of place rather dramatically and this presents a theological problem if you are in a religion where place is such a central concept.

    This probably ought to be its own post at some point.

  42. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Kurt: Mormons are polytheists or at least henotheists. This suggests that they ought to have a spirituality that places considerably less emphasis on the awe of God and an appreciation of his overwhelming power than they in fact do. In part this may be theological — we do believe that God is a pretty powerful guy. It also, however, may be a collective memory of the desert. My point is that one’s spirituality (ie one’s experience of religion) is not determined solely by theology (ie one’s theory of god). Certainly, the fact that Mormons can very comfortably sing great protestant hymns extolling the matchless power and uniqueness of God is prima facie curious since one can read our theology as denying the uniqueness of God (we are all gods in embryo, etc. etc.). Now obviously, it may be that the essentially protestant geneology of Mormonism accounts for this (almost all early Mormon converts were protestants, etc. etc.). However, I think that a couple of generations in the desert might have something to do with it as well.

  43. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 10:45 am

    scott: very cool article. thanks for flagging this.

  44. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Nate, I fail to see how Mormon theology suggests that we have to place “considerably less emphasis on the awe of God” than we do–rather than more. The members of the Godhead are, indeed, very powerful. (I should say, however, that I think referring to them as “guys” is a bit much even if you are right about how much awe we out to have for them). Psalms 34:11, Philippians 2:12, 2 Nephi 27:33-34, and Doctrine and Covenants 76:5 suggest pretty strongly that awe is an essential part of our relation to God, and I find Mosiah 4:5-12 difficult to understand except as saying, among other things, that if we are not in great awe of God we cannot be saved. Jesus himself seems to have had that awe: Isaiah 11:2 (2 Nepi 21:2).

    What we do have of awe (to my mind usually too little) isn’t only a consequence of the “essentially Protestant genealogy of [early] Mormonism.” And however much being in the desert may have contributed to that awe, neither do I think that geography is as important a factor as the scriptural injunctions to hold God in awe are.

  45. November 9, 2005 at 11:04 am


    How does “a collective memory of the desert” survive through a restoration in NY, a gathering in OH, an attempt at Zion in MO, and a swampy collective in IL? All of the novel LDS theology had its origin in non-desert climes, what novel LDS theology had its origin in SLC? What uniquely mormon spiritual experience can be attributed solely to the SLC desert? Eating sego lillies?

    What evidence do you profer to support your thinking “that a couple of generations in the desert might have something to do with it as well.”
    I am still waiting for clear, concise, and compelling examples of how the Mormon “spiritual world view� was influenced by the Great Basin desert geography. As of yet, you have provided none. Here, let me give you a hand, how about the popularity of Hymn # 35, For the Strength of the Hills. Now, anything else?

  46. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Kurt: I don’t think that you are getting the distinction that I am making between theology and spirituality. I don’t claim that deserts had much of anything to do with our theology.

    Jim: You are probably right as to the influence of the scriptures. However, I think that you are wrong to underestimate the influence of geography. It is a mistake, I think, to assume that the dominant influence of spirituality is the reading of texts. I think that the lived experience of the Church is equally important. Furthermore, I think that the Church reproduces norms and rituals that constitute a kind of institutional memory. For example, for generations Mormons in the Great Basins held collective fasts and prayers for rain. (Think of the famous Lorenzo Snow story regarding St. George.) I remember such fasts in my inner-city SLC ward as a small child. I remember hearing stories from my grandfather about them. Another example, is the notion that Zion is about making the desert blossom. Hence, the digging of irrigation ditches and the constant prayers and collective religious effort required to eke a little green out of the margins of the desert becomes a central communal spiritual endeavor. Consider the way in which early pioneers called to settle incredibly desolate locations — Washington County, south eastern Utah, etc. — are valorized as examples of faithfulness and the stories of God sustaining them in the desert are repeated as evidence of providential intervention are passed on. And so on. To be sure, scriptures can be cited enjoining awe and worship of God, but for generations it was the Mormon experience of the desert that called forth the citations.

    Mind you, I am not claiming that the desert is somehow an illegitimate influence, nor am I claiming that theology is irrelevent to our spirituality. My point is that the desert seems to have been one of the ways that God shaped his people, and I find it rather implausible that so central and traumatic an experience would have no lasting institutional or communal impact.

  47. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 11:59 am

    Nate, why am I underestimating the influence of the lived experience by saying that I think the scriptures–and the Christian traditions that they gave rise to–are more important than the desert location per se? I suspect that lived experience of geography was largely made possible by the scriptural inheritance of Christianity. Of course “the Church reproduces norms and rituals that constitute a kind of institutional memory,” but it is the scriptural record that lays the foundation for that possibility, whether people refer to it explicitly or whether it has passed into communal consciousness and experience. They don’t first feel awe and then go to the scriptures to justify doing so. They are first religious and then find that experience amplified/supplemented/justified by geography and everything else.

  48. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 12:05 pm

    Jim: Two points. First, it comes down to whether you are claiming scripture/Christian tradition as a necessary or sufficient cause. I have no argument with necessity. I understood you to be making a claim about sufficient causation. If I misunderstood you on this point, I apologize. Second, regardless of how one sorts out the issues of causation, one is still left with the particularity of the Mormon historical experience, which leads dramatically through the desert for several generations. This fact is important regardless of where one assigns ultimate or fundamental cause. I am agnostic as to whether or not the desert is the most important cause or the dominant cause or what have you. My point is that it is an important enough cause to be worth noting.

  49. November 9, 2005 at 12:10 pm

    Nate, you keep saying I dont get it and obfuscating when I am asking you for evidence of your assertions which I quote. How is it I dont “get it” when I am asking you to substantiate your own quotes regarding the spirituality owing to the SLC basin? Stop obfuscating and provide evidence to support your own assertions regaring spirituality, as questioned back in the second paragraph of # 45.

  50. Wade
    November 9, 2005 at 12:13 pm


    Once again, your audacious assumptions prove your ignorance. I was born and raised in San Diego California (look me up if you think I’m lying, my full name is Wade W. Poulson)! Except for a brief stint at the MTC and a few stops at friends and distant relatives, I have never spent much time in Utah, “period”.

    As for your dismissal of scripture, it’s unfortunate that you take such a view. Obviously I’m not going to persuade you that geography plays even a minor role in religious experience. Yet, you shouldn’t presumptuously assume such ideas are illegitimate because you may discover your assumptions are wrong (as you have with your assumption of my background)!

  51. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 12:14 pm

    Well Kurt,

    I probably ought to wait till Nate has had a chance to respond to you before sticking in my oar again. But I will anyway.

    As I said, I grew up in the Great Basin and I can attest that the geographical surroundings of Southern Utah and the Wasatch Front had a profound impact on my own personal relationship with and view of God.

    I don’t know whether it’s wise to generalize my experience to others though.

  52. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    Kurt: The problem is that you are asking for evidence for assertions that I don’t make.

  53. November 9, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    Wade, post something other than bombastic trash, would you? How about some of those OT prophetic references you were alluding to? I may have got your personal geography wrong, but that doesnt make you altogether right. Support your position with something other than name calling, how about some scripture references, Mr. AdHominem.

    Seth, nobody is asking for your personal experiences. Since you want to defend Nate’s position, and he certanly isnt in any rush to do so, perhaps you would be willing to respond to the question in the second paragraph of #45?

    Nate, what? I quoted you by cutting and pasting your own words, and then asked you to substantiate what you said with evidence. How is that not your own assertion? This is just rediculous. I am beginning to think DKL is posting as NO.

  54. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 12:32 pm

    Kurt: You seem to be asking for evidence that the desert has had some influence on Mormon doctrine. I don’t think that it has. I do think that it has had an influence on Mormon spirituality, which I see as a different phenomena. If you are interested in more specifics, check out my response to Jim in #46, e.g. fasting for rain, irrigation ditches as religious projects, etc.

  55. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 12:34 pm

    OK, Mr. Grumpy-Gills. Have it your own way.

    I’m off to work. I might take you up later. But right now it’s looking like an increasingly unattractive prospect.

  56. Wade
    November 9, 2005 at 12:49 pm


    As for substantive arguments, lets “assume” I buy into your view. Arguments aside, I just wanted to mention the fact that I never attacked your character (definition of ad hominem) – merely that you seem to make ignorant assumptions. Further, I find it ironic that you are the one stooping to ad hominem attacks (by calling me “Mr. ad hominem” – apparently claiming I was attacking you, when in reality you are the one making attacks on character).

  57. Wade
    November 9, 2005 at 1:15 pm

    I’ve seen the light, Kurt is spot on. Geogrpahy obviously has no effect on spirituality. Thanks for you insights.

  58. November 9, 2005 at 1:16 pm

    Nate, youre just obfuscating again. Take a look at #45, there are two paragraphs there. The first one asks some theological questions, which you are now loathe to answer, addressing a statement you make, and then asks about spiritual experiences. See the last two sentences of the first paragraph. You assert you are interested in that aspect, yet you are not responding to questions on those points. The second paragraph in #45 then quotes you twice on Mormon spiritual experiences and asks you to provide evidence substantiating your quoted assertions. How is that not clear, Nate? You say you are interested in the desert’s “influence on Mormon spirituality”. That is what I am questioning you on, and you are not responding to those questions.

    You submit fasting for rain and digging irrigation ditches as being evidence of why it is “important I think that almost immediately after the most radically anthropomorphic elements of Mormon theology were let loose on the Saints in Nauvoo that they were cast into the wilderness”? Um, could you please explain how fasting for rain and digging irrigation ditches, owing to the necessity of dry farming, which is not unique to the SLC basin, was somehow influential to the “anthropomorphic elements of Mormon theology”? Oh, wait, youre not interested in discussing theology anymore. Sorry. OK, how about you explain to all of the farmers east of the Mississippi who dont irrigate how their praying for rain and digging of irrigation ditches didnt impact their spiritual life the same way it did the dry farmers in UT. You see, there is nothing unique here in what you have presented. You still havent made your case. How does living in the SLC basin present anything unique to the Mormon spiritual life they couldnt have gotten in NY, OH, MO, IL? There was an awful lot of silage corn lost in the MD/VA area just this summer because we didnt get enough rain and it isnt irrigated.

    Seth, its increasingly unattractive because it is an indefensible position.

    Wade, give it a rest and address the subject. How about some scripture references to back up your assertions in #33. None? OK, got it. Who is shooting their mouth off ignorantly?

  59. November 9, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    I like the point of view. I would not call it novel like others though. More of a positivistic or environmental determinist vision of God’s mysterious ways. After all, is not the admonition to ‘stand in holy places’ not only a reference to temple worship, but also a very strong suggestion to take into account location and geography? I suppose it could also mean that now as the gospel flows unto all nations and geographic environments, we should also transform the places we do stand on into holy places.

  60. gst
    November 9, 2005 at 1:31 pm

    Kurt, do you have much experience debating ideas with other adults? Do you enjoy it? It doesn’t look like it’s much fun for you or those who engage you.

  61. Jim F
    November 9, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    Adam made the point earlier, but Kurt and others need to stop the name-calling and belittling. Make your objections and points without having to bring in personal animosity. PLEASE.

  62. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    Kurt: My point is that the experience of the desert was a counterbalance to the finitist theology of Nauvoo. In other words, just at the point where Mormon theology was most vociferously asserting the theomorphic nature of man, Mormon experience was emphasizing the vulnerability and insignificance of man. Both elements — theology and the experience of the desert — are (along with a lot of other stuff obviously) important for understanding the Mormon spirituality that emerged from the second half of the 19th century and continues to influence us.

    I certainly am not suggesting that draughts or farming in arid areas are unique to Mormonism, but so what? Surely the fact that the United States is an English-speaking country has been a significant factor in the development of its character. The fact that New Zealand is also an English-speaking country is beside the point.

  63. November 9, 2005 at 2:06 pm

    Nate, so how is the “experience of the desert” such that it was”emphasizing the vulnerability and insignificance of man” anything specially unique or necessary for the Mormon experience, that it could not have been obtained in any other physical geography? All you have done is restated your position, you have not proffered any evidence supporting it as I have repeatedly asked you to do.

    You started out in the begining arguing there is something about deserts that was special to Monotheism, and the SLC desert impacted the Mormon version of it. So what was it that was special? What did the desert environment do for them that was unique in its geography that could not have happened in NY, OH, MO, or IL? Substantiate your supposition with something to back it up, beside your convictions that you are right in your opinions. Please dont restate your position again, and please dont tell me I dont get it again. Give some evidence, answer the questions.

  64. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    Kurt: I am not claiming that the desert was uniquely able to fufill the role that it did fufill in Mormon experience, namely emphasizing the dependence on God, humility, etc. Rather, I am claiming that it did in fact serve this role. Hence, my frustration with your insistence that I provide evidence that it was uniquely capable of serving this role.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, and what you are demanding is evidence that the desert had any impact at all on Mormon spirituality. Here, I would point out the same examples that I pointed out to Jim, namely the traditional fasting for rain, the communal irrigation projects, the valorization of desert pioneers, the stories of preservation from a hostile enviroment (eg the story of the seagulls, etc.), the prayers and anxiety lavished on making the desert blossom as a rose, etc. etc. Obviously, other people had humbling experiences in the desert. Obviously, it is possible to have humbling experiences without the desert. My point is that as it turned out, deserts seem to have been part of forging Mormon tropes about reliance on God, providential protection, and the like. In a sense, I suspect that any form of farming is going to lead to a similar sense of dependence, but I think that this is more so in the desert because the margin is narrower. Agriculture in NY, MO, or IL is simply not as precarious as it is in the Great Basin. Hence, any spiritual effects that agriculture might have in terms of emphasizing human dependence are likely to be much exagerated in an arid enviroment.

  65. Jed
    November 9, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    Kurt (45): “what novel LDS theology had its origin in SLC? What uniquely mormon spiritual experience can be attributed solely to the SLC desert? Eating sego lillies?”

    To get a sense of how the desert–more accurately isolation, desolation–influenced the course of LDS spirituality, go to Mormon sermons from the 1850s and 60s. You’ll see that influence all over the place. You see it in rails thrown against the U.S. president and Utah Supreme Court appointees in strongly-worded denunciations that never would have been–indeed could not have been–attempted in a geographical space where non-Mormons formed a majority or significant minority. You see it in the lack of information channels that led directly to the Mormon War and the MMMassacre. You see it in the apostasies of the early 1850s when English converts arrived in the desert and asked “This is Zion?” You see it in the famine of 1855-56 and the attending Mormon Reformation. You see it in the Mormon industries of iron and cotton and silk that all sought in some way to circumvent the natural limitations of the terrain. You see it the hymnody, in Indian policy, in PR campaigns, in public works projects.

    For 19th century Mormons the desert is yet another opposition to be overcome. In this it functions like wicked hearts, corrupt government officials, the devils angels, even Lucifer himself. All the Mormon theologizing plays off opposition of some sort.

    I don’t think you can pass these sermons and projects off as a-theological or non-theological (I would probably deny Nate’s spriituality/theology distinction). In a real sense these calls to action are the Mormon theology of their day just like Pres Hinckley’s call to avoid debt or keep up the food storage is to ours. In making the desert blossom, the Mormons believed they were building Zion. That is not is atheological work.

  66. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 2:26 pm

    Jed: Would you deny that there is a distinction between formal propositions about the nature of god, and homilies, sermons, religious callings, work, etc.. I suspect that I am simply defining theology more narrowly than you are.

  67. Jed
    November 9, 2005 at 2:36 pm

    Nate: I don’t see the distinction between formal propositions and the homilies and sermons and so to be terribly important in nineteenth-century Mormon thinking. The propositions came down in the Mormon pamphleteering of the Pratts but they were never implemented in any systematic way as you well know. Missionaries were not required to take Voice of Warning nor were converts required to assent to its propositions. And many pamphlets relied at least as much on narrative as propositions. The important thing was for people to believe and act on the testimony they were hearing from God’s witnesses. That is not exactly propositional.

  68. Lisa B.
    November 9, 2005 at 2:40 pm

    Seth #30 We Eastern US Bushmen are not monotheists in the strictest sense, and my dh was at least partially reared in the desert (Utah).

  69. November 9, 2005 at 2:46 pm

    Nate, based upon your reply in #64 you have changed positions from when you wrote your initial post up there at the top.

    In the initial post you clearly argue there is something special about deserts. Take the last two sentences of the second paragraph for example, saying only an open ocean could be comparable. Or, take the first and last sentences of the fourth paragraph. All of those are arguing for something special about the desert geography that contributed to the Mormon spiritual world view.

    Now, according to your comments in #64, you say this is not the case and deserts are not uniquely capable, it only happened there as a matter of history. OK, then we agree that geography in general, and deserts in specific, had no significant direct impact on LDS theology or spirituality. That was easy.

    Jed: Yes, all of those things happened, but not because of being in a desert or because of any particular physical geography. The Saints ended up in a barren and remote location because they failed to observe the Law of the Lord and establish Zion in Missouri. Had they established Zion in MO, things would have been a lot different, and they would have put their enemies to route, not the other way around. So, the saints got their butts whipped, got kicked out and then got kicked out again, and had to go to a place where nobody would mess with them for awhile, so they could get their act together.

  70. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Kurt: I said that there was something unique about desert geography. For example, if one says that deserts are the only geography that does X. It does not follow that there is nothing else that can do X, only that as to geographies deserts are unique. It occurs to me that the artic might be another extreme geography that could go with deserts and the open sea.

    Saying that something happened a particular way as a matter of history is very different from saying that it had no significant impact. I continue to think that it is clear that deserts had an impact on Mormon spirituality.

    I think that the problem you are running into is that you are conflating and confusing a number of different concepts. Uniqueness and causation for example, or necessary versus sufficient causation. If you say “X caused Y” this does not imply that X is the only thing that could cause Y. It also does not imply that there aren’t other causes of Y. Nor does the fact that hypothetically Z could also cause Y mean that X had no significant impact.

  71. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 3:10 pm

    Jed: I guess our difference is that I see theological systems as things that exist independent of particular historical contexts. I think that one can talk intelligibily about them and ask questions as to their influence and importance. For example, I think that one can think about the idea that man may become god as a proposition independent of a particular historical context. I think that one can then ask the question of whether or not in this particular context the proposition was or was not influential. In other words, I don’t think everything is reducible to history.

  72. Jed
    November 9, 2005 at 3:19 pm

    Kurt: “The Saints ended up in a barren and remote location because they failed to observe the Law of the Lord and establish Zion in Missouri.”

    This shifts the issues. The question is whether the desert contributed anything to LDS spirituality or theology. Now you seem to be answering why the Saints ended up in the desert.

    I think a fare case can be made for all Mormon theology descending from a common tree with Joseph Smith and pre-exilic theorizing at the root. From one perspective there are no new doctrinal innovations, only elaborations. But from another perspective the desert sermons created something entirely new, a theology of the moment. We miss the heart of Mormonism if we cling to readily to a kind of atemporal propositional theology forged in the church’s earliest years. The desert theology emerged from natural opposition just as King Follett emerged from opposition within.

  73. November 9, 2005 at 3:31 pm

    Nate: I’m not the one running into a problem. Youre the one that is unwilling to answer simple, straightforward questions, choosing instead to waffle and split semantical hairs.

    It is plain those who argued in your favor and against you interpreted your words the same way I did. You however, are now reinterpreting them to mean something else, rather than just admit you have changed position or were in error.

    OK, but since you will not admit to that, lets keep playing. You said :”I said that there was something unique about desert geography” and “I continue to think that it is clear that deserts had an impact on Mormon spirituality.” Here are two question dealing with those statements you just made:

    Question 1: What specifically is “unique about desert geography” (you may include ocean and artic environments if you like) with respect to Mormon theology or spirituality? Or, are you now speaking strictly from the standpoint of physical geography and are seeking to distance yourself from any theological or spiritual implications thereof?

    Question 2: What leads you to believe “deserts had an impact on Mormon spirituality”? Is it only the fact that they had to pray for rain and irrigate as part of their organized religion, or is there something unique to strictly desert environs?

    Please answer the questions this time instead of the repeated “you dont get it” stuff, as I have repeatedly asked you to do.

  74. November 9, 2005 at 3:43 pm

    Jed, can you give some examples of “desert theology emerged from natural opposition”? Your examples given in #65 are socio-political, not theological. I am assuming you have something else in mind.

  75. Space Chick
    November 9, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    Nate and the authors of the article referred to above aren’t the only ones who see deserts as a crucible for intensely monotheistic religions. See Frank Herbert’s Dune books for an oustanding example–Herbert deliberately set his series on a desert planet, with a prophet (Muad Dib) who was exiled from a lush planet, and who had a son who literally became a god. No, science fiction isn’t fact, but the best SF authors take what they have observed about humanity and use fictional settings to exaggerate certain aspects of our nature and explore it more fully that they could in a contemporary or historical novel. Herbert saw a direct relationship between our external environment and our spirituality, or specifically what forms that spirituality takes. Ditto Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, with a post-holocaust Catholicism preserving knowledge and technology in monasteries scattered throughout the West. There are many more examples, but I would say those are two of the best.

    Although the early Saints were given the opportunity by the Lord to establish the church in less hostile climes than Utah, I don’t think any of us are claiming that the Lord didn’t know beforehand that they would not be successful there. Unless you honestly think the outcome in Missouri and Illinois was a surprise to him, and Utah was a last-minute backup plan? Even then, he could have led them to the Pacific Northwest, or California, or somewhere else that was not a desert, at least by their standards. Luckily for them (and us) that he didn’t take them to an actual desert like Death Valley and make their daily survival even more directly dependent on faith–they might not have made it. But there WERE other options–the Saints could have stayed on the Oregon trail instead of turning south at Wyoming. There must have been a reason, and maybe it was just physical isolation, but I think that could have been achieved in other locations than the Salt Lake Basin, therefore I suspect he wanted the near-desert environment for a purpose. Does anyone have alternative ideas as to what it was for?

    Here’s one–maybe it was to enhance a feeling among the Saints that they truly were part of the house of Israel, and make the Bible and the Book of Mormon more real to them. (Although the funny thing is that the Nephites went from a desert to a rainforest, so we don’t know how many “desert” practices they retained and for how long). But if you can compare yourself to Israelites or Nephites, surrounded by unbelievers making war against you while you are living in the (perceived) desert, then the scriptures take on a new significance, and maybe you are more inclined to cast yourself on the mercy of God, in the same way those earlier peoples did. Maybe it binds you together as a people, maybe it makes you more apt to adopt “strange” practices that set you apart from the rest of the world/nation, maybe you feel more important in the nation-building sense while recognizing that you are dependent on the will and whim of the Lord. Anyone have any more suggestions?

    I submit that ending up in Utah was not an accident, and the Lord had a reason for leading them there. (Except I can’t for the life of me figure out why he took then to the “wrong” side of the Rockies. Everyone knows you’re supposed to have mountains on the west, not the east! Wait, there’s another parallel to the physical Israel…Rats!)

  76. scott
    November 9, 2005 at 6:27 pm

    Is there also something about these dry, far-from-the-ocean climates that makes people vote Republican? :)

    Catholicism has its roots in the Biblical desert monotheism but acquired a slightly more polytheistic “flavor” (with emphasis on worship of Mary and the saints, etc.) in the forests of Europe and South America.

    How would Mormon culture be different if the mobs had chased us out of Utah as well — all the way to Oregon — or even further, to the rain forests of Hawaii or Brazil or the Philippines? Would we have acquired a bit of a jungle flavor — and perhaps a little more emphasis on Heavenly Mother and other exalted deities? Would we have less of the puritan work ethic? Less of the sense of our own smallness and God’s greatness? Better music? Better food? More playfulness? Less repression? Less awe-filled worship? Hula skirts for Brigham Young’s wives?

    Important questions, every one.

    By the way, Kurt: if we all admit that Nate’s proposition is a fun and interesting and plausible but nonetheless half-baked and highly speculative and mostly unsubstantiated hypothesis, will you stop complaining about it? :) It’s clear that geography has had some effect on who we are. Whether, as Nate suggests, it has made us more awestruck and worshipful (counteracting the tendency of “as man is God once was” to make us less so) is controversial and unproven. (I’m sure Nate would agree.) But it is a nice hypothesis and for some it seems to ring true.

  77. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 6:34 pm

    Hey Nate,

    The idea of “sacred wilderness” is almost absent from most of the Book of Mormon except for Lehi’s journey in the wilderness prior to setting sail for the “promised land.” That book just doesn’t seem to resonate with the ideas you are putting forward.

  78. Adam Greenwood
    November 9, 2005 at 6:47 pm

    I think ‘sacred wilderness’ is the wrong way to understand Nate O.’s thesis. In fact, I’d say its almost 180 degrees the wrong way. His half-baked, highly speculative, and unsusbtantiated thesis is that the terror and harshness of the desert led to the fear of the Lord. So its not that the wilderness is sacred or loved.

  79. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    I don’t equate “sacred” with loved.

  80. Adam Greenwood
    November 9, 2005 at 7:11 pm

    Sure. So tell me how you think Nate’s thesis requires that the wilderness be sacred? I see him as saying that (1) the visual and experiential magnitude of the desert and (2) the harshness and caprice of life there, leads one to think of God as great and unthinkable.

  81. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 7:18 pm

    Seth: You do have Enos praying in the wilderness, Alama hiding in the wilderness, etc. I agree with you, however, that outside of First and Second Nephi, the desert does not seem to be a big issue in the Book of Mormon…

  82. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 7:19 pm

    The reason I used the word “sacred” was because I think there is a tendency to blur the lines between the cause and the effect.

    Assuming that Nate is correct and wilderness does lead to an increased sense of religious awe or fearfulness, it is easy for people to think “this place makes me feel holy, therefore this place must be holy.”

    Who knows? They might be right. I’m just saying that it’s sometimes hard to seperate the holiness of the result from the supposed holiness of the cause.

  83. Adam Greenwood
    November 9, 2005 at 7:22 pm

    I see your point now.

  84. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 7:23 pm


    The experiences of Alma and Enos just have a completely different feel to them. For the Nephites, it seems like the wilderness was simply a place to get lost in (whether voluntarily or not). In a spiritual sense, it was just a place to “get away from it all.”

    I get a different sense from the Bible.

  85. Nate Oman
    November 9, 2005 at 7:29 pm

    Seth: What is the sense that you get from the Bible?

  86. Seth Rogers
    November 9, 2005 at 7:56 pm

    It just seems more like an active purifying agent in the Bible. There’s a sense that wandering in the wilderness promotes spiritual epiphany or growth. Christ went to the wilderness to ready himself for his ministry. Israel under Moses was supposedly purged of unworthiness by its wanderings in Sinai. The whole idea of the Nazarites seemed to take this view of the wilderness.

    Wilderness seems an active part of a symbolic spiritual-forward-progress.

    In the BoM, it seems almost incidental. True, Enos had his own epiphany. But the wilderness seemed almost incidental or coincidental to that epiphany. He just went out to hunt in the woods and happened to start contemplating his father’s words. The BoM doesn’t say he went into the woods for the express purpose of connecting with God as Moses did ascending the mountain.

    The Sinai desert was a trial-by-fire propelling Israel to its destiny as God’s own nation. It just isn’t spelled out like this in the experience of Alma and his followers.

  87. November 9, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    Well, North Africa was completely forested at one point. Probably no less lush than Santa Clara, California.

    As for Akhenaten et al., one of the standard mystery patterns is that the “gods” are really a face by which we see the one God. It had varients in Greece and Egypt that go back a long, long time.

  88. November 10, 2005 at 2:03 am

    “Have you been reading Terry Tempest Wiliams?”

    I thought of Williams as well, as soon as I read this post.

    And Parker Palmer, who connects spirituality with the desert, too:

    Though Palmer’s synthesis tends to call up visions of universe-as-community, and is therefore not quite so monotheistic.

  89. Jed
    November 10, 2005 at 5:07 am

    Nate (#71): “In other words, I don’t think everything is reducible to history.”

    Nate: Well said. I agree with you that we can talk about theological systems independent of historical contexts, but let’s remember that it’s just talk. I am reluctant to lop off the history, because it seems as though the history gets easily forgotten, while the systematizers are a dime a dozen. We can talk about the purposes of earth life as a system of proposition independent of their history in the premortal councils, but that decision to extract the purposes from the councils is a decision we make, a “real” move to be sure, but no less real than talking about the propositions in their historical situatedness. You would never want to say that the proposition is more real than a proposition + history, would you?

  90. Nate Oman
    November 10, 2005 at 9:32 am

    “You would never want to say that the proposition is more real than a proposition + history, would you?”

    I wouldn’t want to foreclose the possibility. I suspect that I am ultimately agnostic on the point. I suppose that I object to a sort of historical fundamentalism or a historical imperialism that insists, nudge, nudge, that at the end of the day history is more real than mere theory. It seems to me that often what historians are engaged in is a sort of second rate theorizing. Indeed, once you move history beyond the realm of constructing narrative on the basis of documentary evidence into the realm of offering explanations for events, change, etc. I doubt that history has any sort of a comparative advantage and I suspect that on many questions our understanding of history is best served by a dose of theories from the social sciences, political philosophy, or elsewhere.

  91. John Mansfield
    November 10, 2005 at 1:10 pm

    Brother Seth, don’t forget Jacob 7:26

    … I, Jacob, began to be old; … wherefore, I conclude this record, … by saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days.

  92. Seth Rogers
    November 10, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    Makes you wonder how Jacob viewed the Americas.

    Did he consider it a land of promise (as it is repeatedly referred to in revelation)? Or did he consider it a land of exile with Jerusalem as the true promised land?

  93. Jed
    November 10, 2005 at 2:22 pm

    Nate (90) “It seems to me that often what historians are engaged in is a sort of second rate theorizing.”

    I would agree with this, but I think first-rate is very hard to do, given the limitations on historians’ training. They are not forced to take economics, and they should be. They are not forced to take political theory, and should be. Quantative analysis was popular in the 1970s but has fallen out of vogue in recent years. The trouble is historians fashion themselves narrativists, and all the forces working on them at the academy (e.g.. to publish quickly, to publish prize winners), I would argue, encourages narrative at the expense of theory. Mass print works against the dense matter too. The success of journalists in writing history that sells fuels the suspicion that you had better go light on the theory. The first-rate theory that is also consumed by a large public is indeed hard to do. Bill Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel do it as well as any books I know, but they both have capacious minds. To do the theory well you have to be master of multiple domains, all the more difficult when historians can barely keep up with the literature in their own subfield. Another reason why coauthorship, across disciplines, is so useful.

  94. November 10, 2005 at 4:19 pm

    “as though the history gets easily forgotten, while the systematizers are a dime a dozen”

    You’re claiming that historians of Mormonism AREN’T a dime a dozen??

  95. Gallant
    November 10, 2005 at 4:31 pm

    Kurt (he says, wielding his holy water and cruifix),

    The power of Nate compels you!
    The power of Nate compels you!
    The power of Nate compels you!
    The power of Nate compels you!
    The power of Nate compels you!
    The power of Nate compels you!

  96. Nate Oman
    November 10, 2005 at 11:02 pm

    Jed: Lest I sound too scornful, I should point out that law is in the same position only more so. Once one moves beyond the realm of doctrinal argument, it is pretty clear that much of what legal intellectuals do is simply second-rate philosophy, second-rate economics, second-rate history, etc. etc.

  97. Kaimi Wenger
    November 10, 2005 at 11:12 pm


    You do not need to be commenting here on Thursday, November 10! Don’t make me IP-ban you . . .

  98. November 10, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    Quite frankly, I am not sure what any of you have said, with all your fancy adjectives and adverbs. However, I believe the arguement goes something like this (and correct my if I am wrong): Mormons have become monotheists as the result of spending generations in the desert.

    Hmm. I have, for almost all of my “Mormon Life” believed that we are polytheists. God, the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit. Each a distinct and individual personage, each possessing the fullness of “God”.

    God, being a title, refers more to the state of perfection than to the individual person. Thus, our Father in heaven, our Savior, and the Holy Ghost, each having acheived this state, are Gods. We believe in each of them, though we worship only the Father, through the Son, as being Gods.

    Since there are three, which is more than one, we are polytheists, rather than monotheists.

    Unless I missed something in Sunday School, or Nate’s post was so eruidite that I simply misunderstood his claim.

  99. Peter
    November 14, 2005 at 2:42 pm

    Nate’s whole “Monotheistic”/”Polytheistic” construct is based on the sectarian assumption that “One God in Three Persons” is somehow more “monotheistic” than the LDS version, “Three Persons in One God.”

    Run the census, and the numbers come out the same. Gods: 1. Persons: 3.

  100. Peter
    November 14, 2005 at 4:14 pm

    Kelly — you might want to check the Book of Mormon on that “polytheist” theory. They are one God, just as we are members of one church.

    In John 17, Jesus prayed that his disciples might be One, in the same way that Jesus and his Father are One. Our doctrine places multiple persons in one God. “Orthodox” Christianity simply turns that inside-out.

  101. November 15, 2005 at 10:55 pm


    If I may, I would like to quote from the Bible Dictionary in the LDS Edition of the KJV. the “LORD, is the Son, known as Jesus Christ, and who is ALSO A God.” And “The Holy Ghost is ALSO A God…”

    Members of the Church who understand accept that The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate individual beings, each being “a God”, all three comprising the Godhead.

    It is true that the opening line found under “God” in the dictionary states “The supreme Governor of the universe and the Father of mankind.” We also read from the second paragraph “When one speaks of God, it is generally the Father who is referred to; that is, Elohim”.

    Inasmuch as we accept that each of the Godhead are “also” Gods, and we believe in each of them, we become polytheists by default.

  102. November 15, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    Peter, thought I would add a few more thoughts.

    Boyd K Packer- “There is one God, the Father of all. This we accept as fundamental doctrine.

    There is only one Redeemer, Mediator, Savior. This we know.

    There is one Holy Ghost, a personage of spirit, who completes the Godhead.

    I have emphasized the word one, in each sentence, but I have used it three times. Three is plural.

    Paul used the plural many and the singular one in the same verse:

    “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)

    “But to us there is but one God, the Father.� (1 Cor. 8:5–6.)

    Anyone who believes and teaches of God the Father, and accepts the divinity of Christ, and of the Holy Ghost, teaches a plurality of Gods.” Boyd K. Packer, “The Pattern of Our Parentage,â€? Ensign, Nov. 1984, 66

    The problem stems from using the term “polytheism” as the pagans and ancient Greeks did, applied to gods of mythology. In that sense of the word, obviously, we are not polytheistic. However, we are in that we believe in a plurality of Gods.

  103. Peter
    November 16, 2005 at 12:25 am

    Thank you, Kelly.

    Like the scripture said, there be gods many, and Lords many, but we have only one God. I defer to Elder Packer with regards to the doctrine but this looks like a typo or error in semantics. I think what he probably meant to say here is that there is a plurality of gods. That would certainly be more consistent with the scripture that Elder Packer had just cited

    Furthermore, I see little evidence from the Bible text that Abraham, Moses, and their followers, disbelieved in the existence or power of their neighbors’ pagan gods. Gideon doesn’t even deny Baal’s existence — he mocks Baal’s power compared to the one true God. Just as today we do not deny the existence of other churches when we say we are part of one True Church (note how that caps thing comes into play here again). Zoroastrians are considered monotheistic even though they believe that a second evil god exists, equal in power to God. And in the traditional Christian scheme, Satan is at least as powerful as, say, Pluto was in Roman mythology.

    I’d infer that Monotheism has to do with whether you revere one God, as worthy of worship, not of whether you believe in the existence or influence of different gods.

  104. November 18, 2005 at 11:40 pm


    First, I accept the capital “God” as quoted from Elder Packer’s comments. Surely these articles are read, re-read, proof-read, and approved prior to publication. Such a seemingly important difference would surely not go overlooked.

    From the definition given in the Bible Dictionary of “also a God” one should surmise that “God” when used in the application to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is a title of perfection. All three hold the title God, each are therefore God. Again, because there are three, there is a plurality of Gods, in addition to the plurality of gods spoken of in the text of the Bible.

    Personally, I have no problem with the idea of polytheism in this since. I worship the Father (God), through the Son (God), and receive personal and familial revelation through the Holy Spriit (God).

  105. Blake
    November 19, 2005 at 12:33 pm


    I challenge your thesis in its entirety. I doubt that Israel’s pre-exilic views were ever truly monotheistic — and clearly not monotheistic in the sense of metaphysical monotheism adopted by the neo- and middle Platonic philosophers after about 160 A.D. (and now the mainstay in Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought). Israel always had a belief in a king God who was God of all other gods who was surrounded by a court of gods who were sons of God. So I don’t believe that monotheism came out of the desert but out of the Academy. It is possible that something like monotheism was adopted during the exile, but as the DSS demonstrate with pellucid clarity, such a view was not stable since those at Qumran adopted the same view of a High God surrounded by sons of God or holy ones — who those who wrote the DSS expected to join as holy ones and sons of God either during this life or at death.

    The Trinity may be a plurality model (the social model) or a model of metaphysical monotheism (the Latin or simplicity model) — so any discussion of the Trinity in conventional thought must be parsed more carefully than the posts here indicate it seems to me.

  106. Nancy
    November 20, 2005 at 10:50 pm

    I guess I assumed that monotheism arose out of the fact that there is one God…
    Do you guys all think that religion is a man-made, environmental construct?

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