The Mormon Naturalist
December 6, 2011 Leave a comment
[Cross posted at BCC.]
No this isn’t a post about Steve Peck, much as I think that would be fun. Instead, its in the vein I’ve been sort of mining lately. I hesitate to use the tired “Mormonism and Science” title, but what the heck. Why not?
What I’m really looking at here though is not how Mormons interface with science in the here and now so much as the roots of that interface and its analogues in early America. As a kind of illustration, take William Bentley. Bentley was a Congregational minister in Salem, Mass. from about 1780 to the year before Joseph Smith’s first vision. It’s Bentley’s stance on Science that I think was both prescient in an odd way and at the same time relevant to Mormons.
William Bentley believed in a “reasonable Christianity” with a categorical rejection of special Providence. In fact though, he was regarded with some distaste in his own country in a number of ways. For example, he was a Republican in Federalist territory in lockstep with his theological isolation.
Bentley was an avowed Arminian which tracked his move to republicanism, a Christian Libertarian we might say. But Bentley was really no friend of religious liberals. Indeed, he was not seen in any sort of favorable light in that camp. They hated Bentley’s inclusion of science in his religious views. (Bentley’s theological forebears included Joseph Priestley.)
The buzz words “lived religion” give us an interesting glimpse of Bentley and a contrast between him and Joseph Smith. “Lived religion” lies at the crossroads of laity, liturgy and clergy. Its relevance here is that with the embrace of naturalism Bentley placed himself in a position similar to that of modern liberal Protestantism – for example, his accommodation of requests of admittance without baptism. His church was politically influential, but it died a slow death in Salem – the analogue with liberal Protestantism – it faded because of its failure to appeal to those wanting a more immanent God, a father with immediacy in their lives – the strength of evangelicals like the Southern Baptist Convention today (and for that matter, the Mormons). Republicanism made successful invasion of Salem, but Bentley himself was forgotten.
Joseph Smith, who clearly had some affection for an extraordinary materialism (and, it may be argued, an appreciation for at least the practicalities of science) was remembered not so much as theological liberal (though clearly Arminian in his views of free will) but as a prophet and founder of a major branch of Christianity. In a way, Joseph was a successor to Bentley in his religious rationalism (as Bentley was predecessor to the general rationalism/optimism of the period) a position sometimes lost on 20th century Mormon exegetes.
Another (regretful) difference between Bentley and Joseph Smith? Bentley left many self-published sermons (a pretty commonplace thing) a huge diary, and literally thousands of sermon manuscripts and notes of others. Imagine a huge cache of Joseph Smith sermons, authored and written by himself! I could only wish.
 Bentley was a sort of compromise between the Deists and Liberals. You see threads of this in Joseph Smith, theologically if not personally, and some of his fellows ran with it after his death (Orson Pratt -> B.H. Roberts -> John A. Widtsoe, etc.). A really fine treatment of Bentley is James Rixey Ruffin, A Paradise of Reason: William Bentley and Enlightenment Christianity in the Early Republic (Oxford, 2008). As far as Providence is concerned, Mormons rejected Providence in an important way: they believed in Modern Revelation, Bible Equivalent Revelation. That put them beyond the bulwark of fixed canon, the safety net of “Providentialists.”
 Priestley invented soda pop. Just thought I’d say that. Also, Priestley was not into free will apparently.
 Dashes are ubiquitous in JS sermon manuscripts. What can I say? I’m addicted.