What has been, will be and what will be, has been.
July 14, 2011 2 Comments
One of the things I’ve been doing while away from blogs for the last month or two (most of my posts have been automated) is reading church periodicals from a century or so back — it has to do with quotations from Joseph Smith’s sermons.
One relevant item is a continuing series from the Young Women’s Journal during the 1890s. Susa Young Gates, who ran the journal, asked Oliver B. Huntington, an old-time Mormon and acquaintance of Joseph Smith, to offer some interesting tidbits from his experiences with Joseph.
Gates, a daughter of Brigham Young, naturally gave pride of place in terms of sermonizing to her father but Huntington’s little, sometimes rather weird, recollections made up for this (for my fun, at least). Anyway, Huntington would periodically contribute little bits to the Journal and I wanted to repeat one of them here:
A saying of the Prophet has just come to my mind, and I sit right down and pencil it off. I heard him say that he hoped the spirit of invention and improvement would rest upon this people, as it was upon the Gentiles, for unless it did there would many very useful and important inventions be lost to the world when the great destruction of nations comes, and then it will probably take hundreds of years to reproduce them again among men; yes, and perhaps thousands of years before they will get back upon earth.
He spoke as though there was a continued repetition of God’s works among nations, and nothing was new, as though “what has been will be, and what will be has been.” [YWJ, 9 June 1893, p. 424-5.]
I should be clear that I don’t attribute Huntington’s reminiscence to Joseph precisely. It is clearly styled as a distant memory and given the mechanics of memory, could have originated from combined or altogether different sources.
Moreover, the statement is self-contradictory in some respects. It postulates a near end-time scenario, while somehow maintaining a long-term (future) view of human civilization on earth.
But Huntington’s little summary was my point: “what has been will be, and what will be has been.”
How does such a cyclical philosophy fit with normative Mormonism? It’s an interesting idea and connected perhaps to the notion of recycling probations – reincarnation – etc., etc. It’s possible that wherever Huntington gets his idea from, that it is related to Joseph Smith’s no beginning, no end argument.
Anyway I enjoy Huntington’s somewhat indiscriminate beliefs. He makes little if any attempt to rationalize his stories or carefully examine their provenance but neither does he seem to take them too seriously. I should note that Huntington’s autobiography is a fun read, even a crack-up at times, especially the missionary journey where he stays the night in a, well, I’ll let you read it. There really is nothing new under the sun.(grin)
 And yes, he does talk about moon-men and other similar speculations from JS – an idea that circulated in the day with some specificity – Huntington’s patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith Sr. told him he would do proselytizing on the moon. Now that would be a cool gig, even considering the low investigator population. See for example, Michael J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900 New York, Cambridge UP, 1986. (And of course, our favorite guy, Scottish philosopher Thomas Dick.) The moon-men thing is hearsay (but not the blessing – moon and planet blessings found some frequency I think post Book of Abraham ), as is much of Huntington’s verbiage. No doubt a later Joseph F. Smith would have squashed this fun.
 “Gentiles” as a reference to non-Mormons was an important discursive marker for the Utah period, but it also identifies adoptive ideas in pre-1847 Mormon discourse. (Think, Joseph’s explanation of the Holy Ghost’s effects for example. JS uses the term in reference to the non-Mormon world in at least 5 sermons between 1837 and 1842.)