Does Doctrine follow Practice?

I suppose the title is a bit misleading. What I really want to know is how circumstance plays into Church doctrinal interpretation and emphasis. I think it’s a two-way street. I’m really interested in what I see (and I know this may be uncomfortable in some quarters) as overlaid forces in Mormonism during the 1845-60 period that seem, at least in my view, to make a fundamental difference in how Church leaders saw religious cosmology/cosmogony. Previously planted seeds grew in robust new ways. In particular, something like this:

Aside from any other reasons for seeing the blissful aspects of the mortal family in the heavens, the cultural engine of pioneer and pioneering Mormonism offered a powerful incentive for a strengthening of Joseph Smith’s deification ideas by making them not only the “history” of God, but His present life: God sires children in the heavens still, not human children, but human spirits. In some interpretations this fatherhood involved sex in heaven and gestation of spiritual bodies in the womb of God’s own wife (or wives) in heaven. A wife, a Heavenly Mother who was once a mortal woman on some other distant world pressed Mormonism into much more than a three-story religion. Mormonism became a religion not just of heaven, earth and hell but the religion of the observable universe and much more. Mormonism became an analogical description of the way everything worked. (To borrow from Samuel Brown’s forthcoming book title: In Heaven as it is on Earth.)

While it is true that Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo cosmology/ontology could have filled that space, this augmentation of a heaven achievable on earth was a potent addition to the argument for enduring the rough and ready life of the far frontier and the promise of renewing earthly love in the hereafter. It gave Zion a different and deeper dimension than it had enjoyed before and folded polygamy and its natural companion and successor—sealing/adoption—into a single holy background scene of a family-oriented Jacob’s ladder. Seeing Mormon Adoption as the modus operandi of post-mortal family expansion carried with it some limitations: no adoptions were available without a temple and family expansion could only occur through adoptive cycles. Hence as a practical solution to the communal binding, it lacked immediate promise. The idea of a, necessarily cosmologically distant, promise of family expansion and linkage, being part of a divine pattern via sealing of human marriages, filled the gap of belonging. It’s ultimate expression being the 1894 revelation.

Spiritual children in heaven gave broad assurance that what was unattainable on earth could be found in heaven, in a different but perfectly analogous way.

These are some excerpted ramblings (and somewhat confusing in the way I’ve spliced them here) bits related to chapter 7 of the book. I don’t know whether some form of this will actually make the cut, but I guess my point is that Mormon cosmology/ontology was driven in at least some ways by it’s transition from cultural implant (or offshoot) to cultural isolation and the challenges that were enfolded in that change. This may understate (or overstate!) what was happening, but I think something like this is true. Another point I suppose is that we still see, or live with, the echoes of those effects. But, perhaps I’m seeing things. 😉

4 Responses to Does Doctrine follow Practice?

  1. Jared* says:

    My own inference–perhaps poorly informed–was that such analogical reasoning was simply an extension of Mormonism’s rejection of mysteries like the trinity. Brigham Young said that Joseph “took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth.” Heavenly personages have physical bodies like ours, the same sociality that exists here will exist there etc. At a certain point, and in light of the times (and the absence of a competing scientific narrative), the things you outlined above just seem natural and down to earth–no mysterious hocus pocus needed.

    • WVS says:

      I think it is certain that Mormonism’s materialist bent, physical angels delivering metal plates, angelic ordination, handshaking angels, wreaking havoc on the chain of being, etc. played a role in the extension of earth into heaven, but I think the transition from Nauvoo to the pioneer era pushed this materialism in new directions only hinted at in Nauvoo (and therefore not found in nearly all of the eventual offshoots).

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Really interesting stuff. WVS, aren’t you saying something similar to Jared, in that the basis for the analogical expansions is the lived experience (practice)?

    • WVS says:

      I think it’s partly that, but I’m not sure how to label what happened during the decade after JS. It was certainly social, but I really think there was a kind of almost unconscious response here and it somehow seems richer than just emphasis of the practical or something. Struggling here.

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