Rehearing/Rereading Joseph Smith: Brigham and Brigham.
November 24, 2010 9 Comments
[I originally posted this over at By Common Consent. But I've now flattered myself into thinking that there are at least two people who read stuff here, that don't go over there. Anyway since I like feedback on things that might make it into the sermon book in some form, I put it up again here.]
When Joseph Smith died, he left a many-pronged collection of doctrine and practice that had yet to be brought together and made coherent as message and marching order for the coming generation of Latter-day Saints. One small part of that thrust was Joseph’s teaching about the nature of man. Over the last near decade of Smith’s life he had developed ideas that led him several different directions with regard to the nature of human beings and their relationship to God.
Joseph found meaning in a truly heterodox notion, regarding men and women as eternal beings, each person having an infinite past, an uncreate past, a consciousness with punctuated equilibria but without beginning (or ending). Contextually, his sermons really leave little if any wiggle room on this point.
But this idea, while it was used by him to offer partial hope and reconciliation to the grieving survivors of the dead (your loved one still lives on of necessity) needed to be folded into other doctrines and practices that Joseph left behind. The most important of these, at least to his closest confidants, was the temple liturgy and its associated ideas.
Over a fairly short period, a fascinating synthesis, trailing from these two doctrinal patches, was developed by some inheritors of Joseph’s mantle. This interpretive synthesis took Joseph’s language (sometimes with a tweak or two) and reread it in a different way. When Joseph said the individual had no beginning, the new reading became that the process of salvation had no beginning. Where Joseph had offered temple liturgy to the privileged few who would then offer it to others when the temple was completed, this became a process of not only eternal significance to the individual, but a process that had no beginning or end, a process taking place throughout the infinite creation of God, on worlds without end. To put it another way, where Joseph postulated that the individual was eternal, always existing, never beginning or ending, the synthesis no longer focused on the isolated person, but on the salvific system. Instead of “there never was a time” when a man or woman (their spirits/minds) did not exist, the synthetic doctrine became, “there never was a time” when spirits somewhere, sometime did not exist as part of the universal eternal plan.
Mormonism became a *religion* without beginning or ending or bounds-the religion of the universe. The synthesis continued: the sealing of men and women portended the propagation of beings in eternity. Spirits, persons, could not be eternal and yet come into being, but the system could be eternal, always working, without beginning or end. Brigham and the apostles coming together over the combining of these two peaks of Joseph’s teaching made a place for both in a single synthetic powerhouse.
But the death of the first generation after Joseph led to a generation of historian-leaders. And those leaders or at least some of them, were bound to see the seam in this synthesis when they took the documents of the past as their guide to the founder’s ideas. That seam became apparent as history, resurrected and universally available at the beginning of the twentieth century, took the place of that first generation of apostle witnesses in Utah.
In the vanguard of that new/old knowledge was Brigham H. Roberts. Roberts, loyal to both his new understanding of Joseph but also Joseph’s successors whom he also regarded as prophetic leaders, sought and found his own synthesis. Man was both eternal, uncreate, and yet the literal child of God- the uncreate “intelligent being” was clothed in a spiritually begotten body of “spirit.” Eternal (Joseph) yet a spirit child of God (Brigham). Roberts became a missionary for the idea. Though not received with friendly smiles from all his colleagues, a nucleus of Church leaders took up the banner of this new synthesis.
Any new idea with traction in an established movement, whether one that is very much top-down like Mormonism, or one that is loosely bound like separate congregations of some Protestant denominations, say, can cause interesting effects on the future of that organization. And in this case, several traditions developed in Mormon literature founded on both the two syntheses here and also the gradual maturation of historical studies of Mormonism.
Virtually every long-lived movement has such synthetic processes at work. This has been the story of a few in Mormonism. [And can you guess what TV program that line comes from?] 
 Mormonism finds much of its meaning in its founder’s experiences (along with the sacred texts that came with those experiences) – in his history and claims about that history. It is natural, when the eyewitnesses passed on, that people would look to and try to understand and derive meaning from a careful study of that history and the truth claims that surround it.
 One could see some parallels here with the print revolution and the Bible I suppose. Latter-day Saints are born (again ;)) with a natural tension in their lives. A loyalty to present prophetic leaders, and a loyalty to what past leaders have claimed as truth (I include sacred texts). This is perfectly natural and logical. Sometimes that loyalty leads to paradoxical results, in part because of synthetic processes like the one illustrated here. Mature believers have learned perhaps that while the prophetic voice is to be trusted, the people that give that voice are in fact human. They do display the tip of the iceberg that is God, but only the tip. And the synthesis of different views of that iceberg should be seen with some flexibility (one might say, the cloak of charity as Joseph put it). Perhaps in a sense, this is related to Nephi’s “likening.”
 The apostles were more or less of divided opinion on the idea. That division appears to remain.
 The above is brought to you by a synthesis of a small part of chapter 7 of an in-progress book.