A Twenty-Fourth Century Mormon Parallel

“[T]he first speaker sat down by my side and in a low tone begged pardon for his manner to me and confessed that I had . . . learned him . . . more astronomy that evening than he had ever known before[.]” Horatio Robinson manuscript autobiography, describing events in an upstate New York tavern ca. 1820. (Mormon Parallels entry 355.) Artist’s conception painted by Marie Vlasic.

Worlds Without End is very pleased to host the following guest contribution from historian and antiquarian bookseller Rick Grunder. Rick holds an M.A. in history from Brigham Young University. His 2300-page magnum opus Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source is available for $10 through his website, Rick Grunder – Books. When he isn’t researching Mormon history, Rick enjoys writing fiction. He combines his talents to bring us the following parable.

Three hundred years from now, a wonky scientist (perhaps bored to tears on his third orbit past the dark side of Saturn) is going to dig into his folder of recreational data chips and discover a science-fiction story written by some American high school student in the year 1988 (earth-date-CE). Our theoretical researcher won’t be much of a historian, but he will know that the first permanent extraterrestrial colonization did not commence until 1 April 2092. Yet here was a narrative in a magazine, published more than a century ahead of that event, which described—surprisingly well—theoretical life in outer space.

The mysterious young author had to be brilliant beyond his years (imagines our scientist)—clearly ahead of his time! Living in the nineteen-hundreds, he shouldn’t have known about air locks or gravity simulation or many other developments he recounted so graphically, which would not exist until the modern era. That boy had to be a genius, and he was probably inspired.

Anyone who has explored the development of ideas or the transmission of thought can guess easily what happens next in my scenario above. We know the excitement which will ensue, and the confusion—the uneasy mix of creative explanations and deep philosophies clashing against simplistic solutions or denials of the perplexing phenomena at hand. We have been there already in Mormon Studies, until sometimes the nonsense obscures a larger picture. And in the study of Mormon parallels in particular, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. As I confessed in the introduction to my own work on that subject,

When I first encountered what were, to me, unexpected little discoveries, I thought I had to tell everyone. Surely all would want to know.  But I was ignorant and naive. My ignorance (getting excited about the first few examples which I found upon entering the antiquarian book trade at the beginning of 1981) was to suppose that there could not be many other works like these—to suppose that I had stumbled almost miraculously upon the few matchless sources.

My naiveté showed in presuming that hosts of Latter-day Saints and their scholars would share in my excitement. I was wrong on both counts.

I see now that the number of startling Mormon parallels which await our notice in printed, handwritten, graphic and artifact sources is almost as astronomical as Abraham’s stars and worlds in the Pearl of Great Price. I have come to realize as well that one cannot display these sources, even to the most seasoned scholars, without some explanation and preparation. When I first picked up Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, for example, I thought that a Mormon parallel book was something from which Joseph Smith or his colleagues might be accused of having copied or borrowed. Little did I imagine how this field of study, like other historiography, requires patient, disciplined research and refined interpre­tation.

History has given us an “American Prophet” who needs to be explained in terms of divine revelation, rational synthesis, or something in between. It really does not matter whether Joseph Smith actually read any specific manuscript or book, because an entire culture is on display. We are scarcely dealing here with issues of pointed study or conscious borrowing. No single one of these writings was essential to the work of Joseph Smith, and this Bibliographic Source hangs upon no individual concept—upon no particular text. It is, rather, the very existence of the Mormon parallels which these sources display—in such great number, distribu­tion, and uncanny resemblance to the literary, doctrinal and social structures which Joseph formed—which may command our attention.

These ideas crept through the culture not only by being read, but through more subtle and often indefinable processes which occurred in art, singing, gossip, storytelling, preaching and praying, and through other aspects of a particularly active system of oral tradition which had to flourish then even more powerfully than in today’s mass-media-communicated world. And, as is still the case today, the appearance of an idea in written and printed sources generally suggested the presence of that idea already circulating orally somewhere—if not everywhere—in the environment. The books and papers which I analyze in this Bibliographic Source were thus no more causes than they were indicators:  not necessarily contributing directly to the mind of Joseph Smith, but standing as evidence that the thoughts which he proclaimed were waiting in the air. These works do not presume that “Joseph Smith once read us,” so much as they insist that “we were already there.”[1]

As our twenty-fourth-century scientist will eventually learn, there were lots of futuristic stories about outer space circulating in 1988. Such things were plentiful in print, on the airwaves and in moving pictures of that day. And as he will notice after critical analysis, the high school student didn’t get everything right. He drew on what he knew, synthesizing from whatever happened to come his way. His final result was in fact random, and the product was rather his own.

The hardest thing, then, for me to read in present reactions to Mormon Parallels is the notion that “Joseph Smith couldn’t have found all of these things on his own; he couldn’t have gotten it all so right except through divine revelation.” Well, he didn’t get all of it right (except by faithful definition, after the fact), and whatever he did get right was certainly subject to natural means—usually at society’s most elementary levels. I think it is really quite simple. I contend that Joseph Smith, walking along the many side-paths of life which his circumstances afforded, happened upon certain, not always predominant ideas of his environment, and whatever he liked became Mormon.

I often ask people to read my Introduction to Mormon Parallels before they reject decades of work. Here is that essay, prepared for the first time as a separate downloadable file, for Worlds Without End:

www.rickgrunder.com/parallels/intro.pdf

 

NOTES

[1] Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels:  A Bibliographic Source (Lafayette, N.Y.: Rick Grunder – Books, 2008;  2014), 37–38.

Comments

A Twenty-Fourth Century Mormon Parallel — 5 Comments

  1. Rick,

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. Also, thank you for providing the link to your Introduction. Being able to read the entire introduction provided a fuller understanding of the nature of your project. I had several reactions to the ideas shared in the introduction. I want to share a couple of them in this forum:

    1) I really appreciate the repeated acknowledgement of the role of faith in determining personal conversion or commitment to either individual tenets or the whole “Restored Gospel.” In relation to this, I did not feel that your descriptions of the thought processes of “Faithful Mormons” matched either my personal experience nor the experience I have observed in the larger Mormon culture during my life. The main message I walked away with in regards to the truth claims of the Restoration of the Gospel was that it was entirely a matter of faith. That testimony isn’t apologetic or provable. I guess I never got the impression that the “proof” of Divine Revelation consisted of the fact that Joseph Smith was incapable of performing such a work (Book of Mormon, Forming a long lasting religious movement, establishing an admittedly non-systematic theology) on his own. It was that there was no way his work (new Scripture, Church organization, and claims to Priesthood Authority) would be the catalyst for the depth of spiritual communion with the Divine *I* experienced were it not for the fact that God had inspired Joseph in his work.

    2) You state at one point in the introduction that the reader may feel cheated. I didn’t relate to the idea of being cheated. However, I did have a similar reaction to when I am getting a long sales pitch about a service or product that I am actually interested in, but would really like to know the price so I can make a decision. However, the salesman wants me to commit to the purchase before introducing the terms. Any project, as you readily explain, is shaped by the intended outcome as well as the explicit or implicit assumptions about how that outcome is best achieved. I guess what I was looking for was a clear explanation of what your intended outcome and any implicit or explicit assumptions about how you intended to achieve or work towards. There was the oft repeated claim that the sheer number of parallels was valuable and important to document and report. What was missing was a why. That motivation I had to try to infer from the text and organization of your writing.

    3) This leads to a third discrete point, which I think will be the last that I share here. My impression from reading your introduction and the quotes you include there, was that you were working hard to predict people from drawing the “wrong” conclusions from your work (despite not explicitly indicating what you intended to be the correct-or even possibly correct conclusions.) While this makes sense given some of the reported responses you have had to your work, I think that, in the long-run, this approach communicates a lack of respect for the reader’s ability to engage the material on it’s own merits. Again, probably justified for many readers, but off-putting at least to me.

    Overall, I was impressed with the intellectual integrity of the writing. I agree that to the extent that any of our discourse in the Church suggests that improbable or otherwise unexplained events “prove” the truth or divinity of the Restoration, we are failing to build upon the correct foundation. I think that this philosophy does creep in, especially in the CES. While I may disagree with your conclusion regarding the presence or lack of Divine Inspiration, I appreciate your work (perhaps not thankless, but certainly under-thanked). This collection of parallels should enrich the study of Joseph Smith and his life’s work for both skeptic and believer.

  2. Thanks for your very thoughtful reactions, Kevin. I can’t say that I argue with your discrete concerns. On the one hand, there is no denying that I assembled these parallels from a stance which differs from yours in some regards. That is probably because what worked for you spiritually (your point 1) never worked for me at all, no matter how hard I tried. I hope, on the other hand, that you may find raw data, at least, in this collection, which can be satisfying. I had to grab the “crying towel” may times over the years as I transcribed the spiritual experiences related in the old texts. I didn’t believe them as literal reality, but their writers did, and I understood their power. It was important to me that these things be preserved. Whatever readers choose to do with them is fine (now that I have had my say). As my long-time friend Greg Prince suggested to me some years ago, we gather what we can, and lay it upon the table for all to partake as they will.

  3. Thank you, Rick. I have both editions of your MORMON PARALLELS and consider them to be “unparalleled” in their importance as Mormon books. One cannot be a Mormon historian without having them.

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