A History of Mormon Theology
For a few years now I’ve developed an interest in the history of theology. Part of my interest stems from my attempts to learn the broader Christian theological landscape in order to better communicate with those outside of Mormonism. I’ve found it fascinating to trace the development of an idea through time. From the New Testament texts and non-canonical writings to the writings of early church fathers, medieval theology, the reformers, the counter-reformation and beyond, there is broader story behind many of the doctrines we take for granted. We look at the world through theological lenses without realizing we are wearing them and that these lenses have a story.
While Mormonism has a much shorter history, its doctrines also have a rich and dynamic history, but the story is less-well known. I’ve searched for resources on the historical developments of Mormon theology, but have discovered that not many exist.1
Last summer, the topic was tangentially broached on a thread at Times & Seasons, and I expressed my interest in a history of Mormon theology. Word on the street at the time was that Terryl L. Givens was considering writing an intellectual history of Mormonism. I’ve long considered who might be qualified to write such a work and I find the prospect of Givens taking on such a project to be, well, exciting. Givens is an extremely gifted writer who, given his background and recent slate of books (People of Paradox, When Souls Had Wings, and his upcoming biography of Parley P. Pratt), is uniquely situated to really do the tradition justice.
Thus, I was quite interested to learn recently that Givens has a deal with Oxford University Press to write a two to three volume study titled “Making Mormonism: A History of Mormon Theology.” In an informative FAIR podcast interview with Blair Hodges, Givens outlined the project and also mentioned the anticipated publication date of 2013.2 I think a thematic treatment would probably work best and I’m extremely pleased that the project will be a multi-volume work. Givens’s website describes the project:
This two to three volume study, organized by theme, will situate Mormon theology in the context of the larger Christian historical tradition, assess nineteenth-century parallels, and chart the appearance and subsequent development of Mormon doctrines by Joseph Smith and other LDS figures. A guiding thesis of this work is that Smith believed original Christianity “lay . . . in broken fragments scattered, rent, and disjointed; with nothing to point out its original, but the shattered remnants of its ancient glory.” As with the “ancient palace” now reduced to ruins, the work of restoration would entail bringing together the new and the old, the excavation and assemblage of what was sound and the replacement and incorporation of what had been irredeemably lost or corrupted from Eden.
This reader will be eagerly awaiting the release of these volumes. It will definitely fill a great need in the understanding of our religious tradition.
1. For interested students of Mormonism, below are a few works that have attempted to historically trace doctrinal development.
Alexander, Thomas G. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986. See chapter 14, “The Definition and Explication of Church Doctrine.”
—-. “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology.” Sunstone 5 (July – August 1980): 24-33.
Harrell, Charles. “The Development of the Doctrine of Preexistence, 1830-1844,” BYU Studies. (Spring 1988) 28:2. Harrell will also be publishing a book length treatment, Development of Mormon Theology. Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books (forthcoming).
Ostler, Blake T. “The idea of pre-existence in the development of Mormon thought.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 15:1 (Spring 1982): 59-78
2. Notably, Givens explains in the podcast interview that there has been a tendency by some writers to slice Joseph’s theology into distinct periods and assume that Joseph radically changed his theology over time. Givens rejects this view and hopes to demonstrate that while development and expansion occurred, the core ideas of the plan of salvation was completed early in Joseph’s career.
“I’m attempting to do this [project] by positing a few theses. First of all, I want to make the point that, as I said, as early as the early 1830′s Joseph already had fairly well lend out in his own mind, the entire plan of salvation. What he spent the rest of his life doing was filling in details and connecting dots, but I don’t believe, as other historians have tended to emphasize, that there were dramatic shifts, or changes, or evolutions in his religious thinking. I don’t think that… [Interviewer: You're talking about the periodization?] Exactly, it has become almost common place to say well there was a “Kirtland” Theology, and then there’s a “Nauvoo” Theology, and then there’s “Joseph the Mystic.” Well, certainly there is growth and development but, as I said, if you have the essential anthropology lend out in 1832: pre-existence, then we come here, the temporal existence that place where pre-existence potential is actualized in terms eternal durable relationships that lead to theosis–that’s the essential theology of Mormonism, and I think virtually every other doctrine and principle can be fit into that scheme in one way or another. So that, I think, in part, is what I’m attempting to do, not in order to systematize but rather to show the coherence of Joseph’s thinking and to show the process by which that historically unfolded in the early church and beyond.” (time mark 23:00-24:33)