The Provenance of Mormonism


Stained glass depiction of the first vision of Joseph Smith, completed in 1913 by an unknown artist (Public Domain).

Thank you Nathaniel for your introduction, and thank you to Times & Seasons for the opportunity to share my thoughts and observations with you. A curious paradox of modern Mormonism is how Mormons and non-Mormons frame its heritage. Mormonism appeared in early nineteenth century North America as a new religion amidst a largely Protestant setting. Joseph Smith proclaimed new revelation – the First Vision of 1820; followed by a vibrant stream of additional revelations in the decades that followed; and new scripture – the Book of Mormon – introduced in the visions of Moroni beginning in 1823. All of this leads naturally to an outsider’s framing of Mormonism as a revealed religion, but less so as a historical religion with a palpable religious provenance or lineage tracing back through time to an original source. Thus Yale scholar Harold Bloom admired Joseph Smith as an imaginative genius, but he dismissed the Book of Mormon as Joseph’s “first work; it is the portrait of a self-educated, powerful mind at the untried age of twenty-four . . . wholly tendentious and frequently tedious.”

The idea of provenance is enormously important, in religion and in life. If you could choose between two identically appearing works of art, which would you choose? One has no verifiable provenance, but is beautiful; the other is equally beautiful, but has a clear documented provenance tracing its ownership, custody and transmission back through time to the original artist and setting. Art historians have long observed that well-provenanced works of art and sculpture command price premiums for their more certain value and worth.

Provenance is deeply influential in religion. Catholics stress a provenance of the Apostolic origin of the episcopate with a papal legacy tracing back to the apostle Peter. Jews stress a provenance of a biblical scribal heritage traceable through interpretive medieval and rabbinic Talmudic texts, ultimately back to the ancient texts of Moses and the visions of Sinai. But what about Mormon provenance?

For nearly two centuries Mormons have embraced a prophetic restitution narrative that frames the new Church as a restoration of the original New Testament Church in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That is, Mormonism claims a revealed provenance that traces directly back to the biblical foundations of Christianity and Old Testament religion. In the mid-1830s Joseph Smith strengthened this historical provenance when he described foundational priesthood restorations that were anchored in biblical history: the visitations of John the Baptist (D&C 13), Peter, James, and John (D&C 27:12), and Moses, Elias, Elijah, and Christ (D&C 110). Above all, the Restoration was a biblical restoration, with a tangible – and surely miraculous biblical provenance.

However, in my research, which appears in my new book Schooling the Prophet: How the Book of Mormon Influenced Joseph Smith and the Early Restoration, I find that this dominant biblical provenance narrative is actually incomplete, if not quite historically accurate. What is missing is broad understanding of the ancient religious institutions documented in the Book of Mormon as sources of significant religious influence in Mormon doctrine, liturgy, and practice. That is not to say that the Book of Mormon was not influential; it was in quite profound ways, notably as an instrument for conversion, as Terryl Givens wrote a decade ago. Still, the Bible remained the dominant document of scriptural discourse among Latter-day Saints, just as it was among all Christians—the lingua franca of religious discourse among nineteenth-century Christianity. The Bible had thousands of years of scholarship, official sanction by religions and governments, and status as the unrivaled word of God by Christian and Jew alike; the Book of Mormon had none of this.

Have you ever wondered why the Lord chastised the early Saints in 1832 with this surprising passage in Doctrine and Covenants 84:56-57: “And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written.”

However, hidden beneath the surface of official Mormon discourse we find traces of Book of Mormon influence on the unfolding Restoration – rarely highlighted or conspicuously noted, and sometimes obscured behind the aura of biblical authority. I am convinced that the Book of Mormon had a profound formative influence on Joseph Smith’s doctrinal and institutional development during the nascent days of the nineteenth-century Mormon restoration. By the time of its publication, Joseph had spent seven of his young 24 years, first in preparation, then in translating, preparing two complete manuscripts, and finally printing and publishing his work as the Book of Mormon in March 1830. For Joseph there was a confidence in, a comfort with, and consequently a willingness to draw on the body of this ancient text because he knew it well and was certain of its origin. As one reviewer of my book wrote here: “By drawing out close linguistic ties, Smith creates a portrait of Joseph as theologically and doctrinally saturated by his experiences with the Book of Mormon.”

When I began my research I determined that I would tackle the most difficult test of my hypothesis: modern LDS temple worship. After spending a summer writing and researching I had composed three chapters on Book of Mormon influences on the emergence of temple worship – I had yet to explore baptism, sacrament, priesthood, doctrine, or theology. The Book of Mormon passed this most challenging test in surprising and unexpected ways – in Joseph’s expansive temple vision of many temples throughout the land (Brigham Young prophesied of “thousands of them”), in a progressive form of temple worship, in unusual temple design and construction especially evident in the Kirtland Temple, and in the meaning of temple worship and endowment in a post-resurrection world where the advent of Christ had transformed the existential meaning of the temple. Joseph must have asked himself in 1830 as he sent a delegation to locate the site of his first temple in the west – in Missouri: What should modern temple worship be? He found answers deep within the sacred narratives of Nephite temple worship. I will write more about these in my next post.

Other dimensions show similarly distinguishing influence – baptismal meaning so distinctive that the Vatican categorized Mormon baptism as not a heresy of original Christian doctrine, but of “a completely different matrix;” or Mormon priesthood offices of 1829 that clearly derived from the Book of Mormon, installed well before a restoration of New Testament priesthood offices such as bishop or deacon (the only two legitimate biblical offices according to vociferous critic Alexander Campbell); and a sacramental meaning so positively distinctive, yet clearly sharing a heritage with the Eucharistic traditions of other Christian faiths.

The Book of Mormon, paradoxically a historical work with a revealed heritage, bequeathed to Joseph Smith and the early Restoration a provenance that was at once distinctive, if not controversial, and historically authentic. Is it conceivable that without the Book of Mormon Mormonism might have slipped into history as another nineteenth-century restorationist movement that attempted to return to Christ’s pure and original New Testament religion, like the Campbellites, the Millerites, or the Christadelphians?

I hope to share in additional posts some of these insights, and look forward to your thoughts and comments in return.

19 comments for “The Provenance of Mormonism

  1. Gerald, thanks for the post and telling us about your book, about which I was previously unaware. I have to tell you though, that I don’t think that you quite capture how informed non-Mormons (including ex-Mormons) are viewing the provenance of Mormonism.

    A curious paradox of modern Mormonism is how Mormons and non-Mormons frame its heritage.

    There is a huge difference in how believing Mormons and non-Mormons (as well as non-believing Mormons) frame the question of provenance, God vs. imagination/other external 19th-century sources.

    All of this leads naturally to an outsider’s framing of Mormonism as a revealed religion

    Wait, who among the outsiders says that it is a “revealed” religion? If they do say that, don’t they basically mean “invented” or “imagined”? They don’t really think that the religion was actually revealed from God, now do they?

    Thus Yale scholar Harold Bloom admired Joseph Smith as an imaginative genius

    In his 2011 NY Times piece, he seemed to dismiss Joseph Smith as a religious genius, using the word “genius” in a pejorative sense. Here he is:

    Though I read Christopher Hitchens with pleasure, his characterization of Joseph Smith as “a fraud and conjuror” is inadequate. A superb trickster and protean personality, Smith was a religious genius, uniquely able to craft a story capable of turning a self-invented faith into a people now as numerous as the Jews, in America and abroad.

    In essence, Bloom appears to be saying that he doesn’t just regard Joseph Smith as your average everyday fraud, but one of the greatest tricksters and frauds of our time.

  2. Is it conceivable that without the Book of Mormon Mormonism might have slipped into history as another nineteenth-century restorationist movement that attempted to return to Christ’s pure and original New Testament religion, like the Campbellites, the Millerites, or the Christadelphians?

    You’re right on the money, here. And this is a point on which both believers and non-believers should be able to agree. Mormonism owes its survival and subsequent rapid growth to the Book of Mormon.

  3. Brad L-

    Wait, who among the outsiders says that it is a “revealed” religion? If they do say that, don’t they basically mean “invented” or “imagined”? They don’t really think that the religion was actually revealed from God, now do they?

    The dichotomy that Gerald is setting up has nothing to do with whether a religion’s claims are true or not. It has to do with what kind of claims they are: revelatory or historical. This isn’t a strict either/or, but religions have different emphasis. Catholicism, as Gerald points out, puts quite a lot of emphasis on history. It is, in this sense, a historical religion. That has nothing to do with whether or not the Catholic view of history is true. It’s just a statement that historical claims are important to Catholicism. I would suggest that, in this scheme, Islam would be largely a revealed religion. That doesn’t mean that I believe Islam is true (or false). It just means that Islam is, in distinction to Catholicsm, almost solely concerned with the status of its central text as a revealed text.

    Of course, as I said, it’s not wholly either/or. Succession concerns–which are historical–animate a lot of the religious distinction between Sunni / Shia branches of Islam. So Islam is not totally revealed and not at all historical. It’s just on the revealed end of the spectrum. Meanwhile, Catholicism holds that the Bible is the Word of God, and so it obviously makes revelatory claims as well.

    But the main point is that to call a religion a revealed religion is–in the context that Gerald provided–nothing at all to do with either supporting or criticizing the religion. It’s a neutral position.

    In essence, Bloom appears to be saying that he doesn’t just regard Joseph Smith as your average everyday fraud, but one of the greatest tricksters and frauds of our time.

    Nothing in Bloom’s article contradicts the quote as Gerald used it. You don’t have to be a saint to be a genius, after all, and so while Bloom thinks Smith was no angel, he clearly gives him credit for “imaginative genius,” which was Gerald’s point.

  4. What is the provenance for the doctrine of eternal marriage, the eternal nature of gender, the male/female duality in God, etc….

  5. It is interesting that you should mention art in your post. I was just watching the documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” and Beltracchi, an art forger (but an equally talented artist in his own right) talks about how works of art are documented or catalogued and how oftentimes artists throughout history have wide gaps (or gaps) in their works that make it easy for art forgers like Beltracchi to create a work of art in the likeness of the artist’s work and claim it as that artist’s. No-one would ever know his work were forgeries because of the amount of research he put into them. Beltracchi served prison time and when he was released ended up creating his own works of art that are absolutely amazing. While I don’t compare Joseph Smith to Beltracchi or Mormonism to this pattern of creative genius (which some have labeled forgery) one wonders and speculates what other contributions Joseph Smith would have given if he had lived longer.

    Great post, by the way.

  6. Interesting addition, Athena. I think Joseph Smith’s genius was in his ability to see the gaps that had been created in Christian doctrine/theology, and fill them in with answers that were quite consistent with the doctrine, yet at the same time allowed new and invigorating reinterpretations of the doctrine. I think, however, his genius was beginning to wane. The King Follett Sermon answered questions and filled gaps that simply didn’t exist in Christianity, but were beginning to exist in Mormonism. In order to do so, he openly refuted the core theological doctrine of the Christian faith. He said so himself. And thus, the internal logic that he had been building up within Mormonism all along, and the harmony he created with Christianity, failed. And he was dead a few months later. The Saints were sent into a state of disarray from which they have never yet recovered. Now, the religion (the main branch of it anyway) faces an existential crisis just like the one it faced in 1890. Then, Mormon doctrine’s view of marriage and the way it intersected with their belief in the nature of God placed them squarely outside the general consensus of the rest of society. The religion Smith created was destroyed, and something new emerged from the ashes. Soon, the current Mormon understanding of God and marriage will again be outside the general consensus of society, and the faith will either have to adapt or be destroyed again. If destroyed, who know what new bird will come forth from these ashes.

  7. Thanks for trying to clarify Gerald’s post, Nathaniel. While I understand how in some senses you could use the term “revealed” neutrally (meaning, the adherents believe their faith to have been mostly revealed instead of based on a long chain of historical precedent)(fn1), I don’t think that the revealed/historical dichotomy is 1) much of a dichotomy or 2) if it can be considered a dichotomy, that it is all that significant. Even you concede that Islam, Mormonism, and Catholicism place emphasis on both historical and revealed elements. In other words, the religions mentioned by the OP and by you all claim authority because there are claims to divine revelation and because there is continuity with an authoritative past. Yes, some place more emphasis on revelation and others on consistency with a deep historical tradition. But it isn’t either/or, so I agree.

    What I understand from the OP is that Gerald appears to believe that traditional thinking about Mormon provenance, both on the side of believers and non-believers, is that it stems from the Bible plus revelation. He is claiming that this traditional thinking has ignored the role of the Book of Mormon in shaping Joseph Smith’s restoration. Of course, Gerald’s narrative is all based on the assumption that the Book of Mormon contains the words and ideas of ancients in the Americas and isn’t mostly a product of some combination of Joseph Smith’s imagination and other 19th-century narratives circulating both in written form and orally.

    My issue with the OP is that he brings non-Mormons and non-believers into this debate, but lumps them together with believers, thereby skirting around a significant dichotomy on the question of provenance: God (revelation) and the Bible vs. imagination and environment. It is one thing to look at differences in understandings of provenance only among believers, and if that were his focal point, I wouldn’t take any issue. But he is suggesting that Bloom is somehow on the side of believing Mormons on the question of provenance. No, Bloom is not. Not in any conceivable way.

    Gerald’s proposition that the Book of Mormon influenced Joseph Smith’s restoration is significant only if you share his assumptions about the origins of the Book of Mormon. It is not at all significant if you believe the Book of Mormon to be a product of imagination and environment, as does Bloom.

    fn1: If you are a believing Mormon, it is not logically possible for you to maintain a neutral stance on Islam. By default, you believe its central claims (specifically the claims that it is blasphemous to believe that Jesus is the son of God and that the greatest sin is attributing anything to God (such as a body or children), which is known as shirk) are false.

  8. Looks like Nathaniel Gives lost the debate and can’t come up with a good response a number of well-articulated challenges to his groundless proposition that doctrine hasn’t changed. Alright, I guess. Take your ball, close the comments, and go home, then.

  9. Brad L: The tone of your responses are, for me in this forum, a distraction. This is a place mostly for and about faithful Mormonism. All of the participants here know, believe me, that our faith can have problems, and we are constantly aware of inconsistencies, shortcomings, and unanswered questions about our doctrine, and our lives. (Similar, I believe, to other faiths.) I don’t think that N. Givens “lost the debate” but rather that he does not choose to pursue your “well articulated challenges” in this forum. There are plenty of sites for those who wish to belittle our faith. Good questions deserve good answers. Generally negative tones or intent, however, requires no such response.

  10. Brad (9), as I mentioned in the other thread the question of changing doctrine depends upon what one means by doctrine. Lots equivocation over meanings in these discussion. Typically the term doctrine means quite a few different things. When one isn’t careful different meanings are used in the same argument leading to equivocation fallacies.

  11. #7 Thanks John for your response. I have nothing to add to it! All good.

    And Brad L, thanks for the clarifications in your posts to many of the ideas floating around on this blog. It’s a shame to see comments shut down. Reminds me too much of lessons in church where discussions or a comment are diverted when they are seen as “contentious” and are replaced with the feelies (a comment to make you feel the spirit or feel good). Where can one go if they can’t openly explore such topics in a rational manner if they can’t do it at church and on social media? No need to answer because I’ve heard the worst possible logic and use of abuse known to mankind. I had no idea what Nathaniel’s post was saying. A lot of words that the more I read, the more confused I got. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m just not spiritual enough or smart enough to understand what half the things brainy spiritual people say.

  12. “the ancient religious institutions documented in the Book of Mormon as sources of significant religious influence in Mormon doctrine, liturgy, and practice”
    Does this work (interesting and thanks all for bringing it to my attention) assume historicity (“ancient religious institutions”) or seek to work as a proof? For all I can tell here, it would be equally logical (and insightful and useful) to describe the Book of Mormon as fundamental to Joseph’s religious vision and understanding, the same vision and understanding that shows up in Mormon doctrine, liturgy, and practice.

  13. I think there’s been a tendency to underestimate the role of the Book of Mormon in Mormon development. While it’s true the Bible was more of an influence (at least until recent decades) I think the Book of Mormon did play a significant role. Obviously our sacrament prayers come from the text. But I think there are other influences as well.

  14. There are so many doctrinal influences of the BoM. Some are obvious like infant baptism, the covenants of baptism, understanding of the Atonement, etc. Some are not so obvious but do have a major presence in doctrine, i.e., concept of a promised land, being led by inspiration, the condescension of God, the role of opposition, why the Fall took place, etc. These actually are also pretty obvious. I’m sure there are others that are less obvious that I’d love to have pointed out.

  15. One fascinating addition is Alma’s treatment of Melchizedek in Chapter 13. Jack Welch, years ago, wrote an article about this that’s available on the MI website. Melchizedek and his “high priesthood” have an impact on the Church and its doctrine. (Clark Goble, another plug for that book. You know which one I’m talking about :))

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