Presentation: University of Virginia College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Lecture

The inaugural lecture for the Richard Lyman Bushman Professorship will be given by Kathleen Flake. Entitled “Mr. Jefferson and the Prophet Joseph Smith: Two Contraries,” the lecture will consider the particular usefulness of Mormonism as a research subject for Religious Studies, its variety of methods and questions.

University of Virginia (Sept., 2014) College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Lecture

Presentation Draft

Kathleen Flake, “Mr. Jefferson and the Prophet Joseph Smith: Two Contraries”

. . . .  I thank you for coming. All new endeavors need friends and I am glad to be among such tonight. I take it as a promise of things to come.

Before turning to the promise of things to come, however, I invite you to consider what has been done. What does it mean that one of the nation’s most academically elite universities and largest religious studies department has made a permanent commitment to a teaching and research specialty in the study of Mormonism? There are many ways to answer that question. Mine begins by inviting you to remember the two men who founded the institutions and embodied the values brought together in this professorship. Their lives overlapped for twenty years. Joseph Smith was born during the first year of President Jefferson’s second administration. Jefferson died as Smith was about to produce the Book Mormon, the signature work of his prophetic career. Though there is neither evidence, nor reason to believe that the President ever heard of the Prophet, there was a time when each of these very different men undertook a surprisingly similar, if not identical project.

I describe this project of religious restorationism in order to remind you of the very different ways each man had of being religious; the one famously rational and the other as famously revelatory. The dichotomy between revelation and reason, though often overstated, remains nonetheless one of the chief ways we have of distinguishing among religions. I raise this contrast or contrariness to invite you to consider what it contributes to our understanding of Mormonism and, no less, what Mormonism can contribute to an understanding of religion itself. In doing so, I invite you into the process of defining the possibilities of this professorship, which is to say, its potential contribution to the goals and values of Mr. Jefferson’s University. But first, let’s do a little history.

Reading with Scissors and Pen

In 1804, a year before Joseph Smith was born, President Jefferson sat at his desk in the White House closely reading the Bible. He was still sore from a bruising election campaign where New England’s clergy branded him anti-Christian, even a “howling atheist.”[1] No less than the great evangelist, Timothy Dwight accused him of being capable of lighting a bonfire with the Bible.[2]This was clearly an exaggeration. Jefferson read his Bible not with a match, but with scissors in his hand.

The campaign had been so vicious that Jefferson lost his confidence in philosophy to engender the “peace, charity, and love to our fellow men” required to sustain a democratic republic.[3] So he set about extracting “the primitive simplicity” of Jesus’ teachings from the pages of his New Testament. The result was, as he put it, “a wee-little book . . . which I call the Philosophy of Jesus . . . . A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen.” As suggested by his describing the result in terms of “primitive simplicity,” Jefferson extracted these portions not to emphasize them, but “to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests.”[4]Elsewhere he described his efforts as a restoration of pure Christianity from the “interested absurdities” of churchmen.[5] When he was done, gone were references to angels, miracles, prophecy, and any other kind of metaphysical empowerment.

After his retirement from politics, Jefferson again brought his scissors to bear on the Bible. His second volume, created fifteen years after the first, was done for more personal, than political reasons, but was no less a rational endeavor. In addition to removing miracles from Jesus’ teachings, he removed them from Jesus’ life as well.[6] “We find in the writings of his biographers,” he said, “a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.”[7] Thus, in Jefferson’s Bible, Jesus’ life ends at the tomb: “There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”[8] End of story. “I am a Christian,” Jefferson insisted “in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished any one to be, . . . [Namely] ascribing to him[ ] every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”[9]

In 1820, in Palmyra, New York, at about the same time as Jefferson was pouring over Greek, Latin and French New Testaments at Monticello, a fourteen-year-old boy was reading his family Bible with a different purpose; albeit also motivated by the effects of partisanship. Joseph Smith could not figure out which church to join. The competitive spirit that had inflamed Jefferson’s presidency was still burning among America’s sectarian religions, especially where Smith lived. “Some,” he later remembered, “were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist . . . . all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”[10] Smith could not reasonhis way to the truth of one over another.

Following the Bible’s injunction to pray, he found an answer very much like Jefferson’s, though by different means. God told him, he said, to join none of the churches and described them as spiritually bankrupt: “‘They taught for commandments the doctrines of men.’” Later, he learned the Bible, too, was flawed by the same clerical source: many “plain and precious things” had been taken from it.[11] Although his new scripture offered a remedy to the problem in its own pages, even more was required apparently. Only three months after publishing the Book of Mormon, Smith began to read the Bible closely and with the intent, like Jefferson, of undoing the work of its corrupters. Where Jefferson saw an accumulation of human invention that obscured the “primitive simplicity” of the text, Smith saw gaps. Thus, he read not with scissors, but a pen in his hand.[12]

Before he was finished the entire span of biblical history and even its cosmology would be rewritten. Unlike Jefferson, Smith did not limit himself to the New Testament. In fact, the majority of his changes were made to Genesis, possibly because he had already produced a reiteration of Jesus’ gospel in the Book of Mormon. Regardless, Smith’s redaction included all the major turning points in God’s covenant relationship with humanity and refashioned such definitive moments as creation, Eden’s garden, the fall and promise of a savior. Many stories of the ancient patriarchs were enlarged to as well, such as, Abel’s death and Cain’s curse, Melchizedek’s identity and authority, Noah’s promise, Enoch’s city of God, and Moses’ theophany at the burning bush. These enriched stories were Smith’s way of restoring Christianity to its even more primitive purity by including its Abrahamic foundations. But in every instance, he added more angels, more miracles, more prophecy, and all kinds of metaphysical empowerment.

In fairness, too much can be made of the oppositional positions of these two men. There was much that was rational in Smith’s religion. He was wary of revivalist extremes among his followers and quickly channeled its excesses into traditional Christian practice: prayers, communion, preaching, etc. He created an orderly church of offices and councils as a means of sharing authority widely while regulating its operation. His insistence that converts gather to a central location in order to build temples probably is the prime example of his balance of the mystical and the rational. While temples by definition oriented the faithful to revelation, even divine encounter, the requirements of frontier settlement grounded their aspirations in the practical demands of creating and governing townships. Finally, though the sources of his writings were inevitably mystical, Smith’s resort to documents and always fitting his innovations into the existing narrative and chronological frame of the Bible made even his scriptural production an essentially conservative or rationalizing endeavor.

Nevertheless, Joseph Smith was as thoroughly a prophet, as Thomas Jefferson was a sage. Smith’s critique of the churches of his day did not stop with accusing them of corrupting Christian doctrine. Worse, he said, they denied revelation in favor of a learned clergy. Their doctrines had “a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” Thus, he was chiefly intent on restoring Christianity’s charismatic power. As the Bible said of Moses, Smith “wish[ed] that all the LORD’s people were prophets.”[13] His church was founded “that all might speak in the name of God.”[14]“We believe that we have a right to revelations, visions, and dreams from God, our heavenly Father; and light and intelligence, through the gift of the Holy Ghost, in the name of Jesus Christ, on all subjects pertaining to our spiritual welfare; if it so be that we keep his commandments.”[15]Thus, at every opportunity, whether redacting the Bible or preaching a sermon, Smith enhanced the explicit accounts of divine manifestation and made explicit implied promises of revelation and priesthood.

Jefferson could barely restrain his distain for both. Toward the end of his life, he wrote John Adams, “I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle [or assistance] to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of there being of a god.” Though he participated in Virginia’s parish life, Jefferson placed his hopes for Christian restoration in a new religious movement, Unitarianism.[16] It was a perfect fit with Jefferson’s beliefs: it was a church defined by a rational reading of the Bible and committed to its inculcation of human virtue.[17] Seeing it “ascendent in the Eastern states . . . dawning in the West, and advancing towards the South,” Jefferson wrote he was convinced that Unitarianism would “become the general religion of the United States.”[18] He was wrong. Among the new religious movements of Jefferson’s day, not rational Unitarianism, but revelatory Mormonism would become the more successful. This was a development Jefferson never could have imagined and those who study American religious history have trouble explaining.

Historians have been studying Mormonism for almost as long as it has been in existence. Sociologists joined them in the mid twentieth century and, in doing so, brought new questions which allowed consideration of Mormonism’s institutional forms and social relations. Most recently, Religious Studies has entered the intellectual fray with an even greater variety of methods and the tools to compare Mormonism to religious outside is American and Christian context. Other developments, too, have made Mormonism available for academic analysis. A professional body of literature been amassed sufficient to identify a scholarly tradition and allow for research specialization. Of especial importance is the emergence of a new level of reliability and accessibility of sources for studying Mormonism, largely through the efforts of its institutional archives and data centers in Salt Lake City and Brigham Young University. As significant to the academic study of Mormonism is the rise of a new generation of scholars interested and able to participate in interdisciplinary, non-essentialist conversations about it. This has enabled the creation of programs, research fellowships, as well as professorships in Mormon Studies. Almost all of this activity has occurred in the western United States, though classes and conferences have been sponsored by a number of institutions in the East, as well. Now, Mr. Jefferson’s university has joined the field with the Bushman Professorship: the first such development this side of the Rockies.

To those who have watched these developments with alarm, wishing to keep the study of Mormonism in-house, it must be said “the horse is already out of the barn.” It is just a matter of in what direction will it go and how far can run? With the aid of Religious Studies, I think it can run very far in a number of directions. Let me give you a few possibilities: one having to do with what makes Mormonism work and the other having to do with the trouble it has working in America, notwithstanding its reputation as “the American religion.” I do so by way of invitation, hoping that others will take up the argument which follows, and test it in their own fields of study and areas of specialization. I ask you to consider that, underlying the contrariness of Jefferson’s rational and Smith’s revelatory religions is a deeper categorical distinction; namely, between the primitive and the modern.


For all the attention Mormonism has received from historians, they have struggled to understand it as a religion. Probably the best example comes from Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People. It is the last great synthesis of its subject and continues to be relied upon widely in academic circles. In it, Ahlstrom acknowledged the significance of the Mormon story to American history, but admitted, “the exact significance of this great story persistently escapes definition. . . . The transformation brought about by numerical growth, economic adaptation, international divisions, external hostility, and heroic exploits renders almost useless the usual categories of explanation. One cannot even be sure if the object of our consideration is a sect, a mystery cult, a new religion, a church, a people, a nation, or an American subculture; indeed, at different times and places it is all of these.”[19] There are several insights in Ahlstrom’s accounting for or rather his frustration over trying to account for Mormonism. Not least is his recognition that if studied only in terms of people and events and with a focus on change over time – in other words, as history – Mormonism will escape our best efforts to understand it. More helpful, however is his identifying this as a problem of analytic categories; the “usual categories,” he says, those of church, sect, cult, etc. I couldn’t agree more. These categories are derived from Protestantism’s development and, more particularly, the shape Protestantism has taken in the United States. Consequently, these categories are by definition a particularly modern and parochial notion of what it is to be a religion. It seems to me the answer to Ahlstrom’s problem is lies in adding another category: the primitive.

“Primitive” is a difficult word to use because of its roots in the West’s disparagement of, even refusal to recognize as religious, the practices of non Christian cultures which it colonized — in part by judging these practices as not religious. Thus, as one scholar put it, “primitive” must be resorted to provisionally “in order to refer to societies regulated by custom and usually characterized by attention to kinship, a complex assignment of differing roles to single individuals, and the practice of ritual.”[20] Custom, kinship, multiple roles, and ritual — if that is primitive, then, Mormonism is primitive. Of course, that’s not all Mormonism is and I will get to that in a moment. First, though, let me give you an example or two of how Mormonism manifests each of these criteria and, as a consequence, is particularly susceptible to the tools of Religious Studies.

One does not have to know much about Mormonism to know that ritual or ordinances matter — and have always mattered enormously — to it. In addition to the traditional Christian sacraments and ordinances —baptism, confirmation, marriage, as well as blessings and ordinations of various kinds — the Latter-day Saints build temples entirely devoted to ritual activity. The level of “attention” Mormonism gives to ritual should have alerted us long ago that something not modern was at its core.

As for the second criteria  —  “differing roles to single individuals” –is manifest throughout Mormonism’s organizational life. Though typically viewed only as a highly compartmentalized, corporate hierarchy, Mormonism is organized also as a network of highly flexible and constantly shifting status relationships. One example must suffice. It is commonly understood and frequently stated in Mormon circles, that their church president’s authority would be routinely subordinated to the father of a family in directing the religious activities of that family in the home. This shifting of status from subordinate to superordinate and vice versa depending on context, is no less true among the members generally, especially the men, who routinely hold status simultaneously in a hierarchy of priesthood office, as a member of a council or presidency, in a web of congregational assignments and, as mentioned, as members of a family. In every case, as a person moves about the organization — at church, in the temple, in the home — his or her status is shifting. The function of this dynamic is critical to Mormonism’s regulation of power and, let us not forget, in service to Smith’s restoration of power “that all may speak in the name of the Lord.” A multiplicity of shifting status relationships quietly operates to both develop and channel Mormonism’s charismatic aspirations, but it is a fundamentally primitive solution to a tension at its core.

As for the third criteria, kinship hardly bears mentioning because its importance is so obvious in the way Mormonism privileges marriage, family, progeny and ancestry. Indeed the very definition of god is as a divine parent, male and female, whose divinity is realized in the capacity to engender in their children the quality of life they possess, namely immortality and eternal life. As radically, Mormonism’s marriage rites create a kind of church authority invested in and structured by kinship. Patterned on the type of Abraham, Sarah and their progeny, the Mormon family is deemed a source of divine blessing and more specifically of priesthood rights. The bearing and rearing of children is considered fundamental to God’s purposes in creating the world and the highest joy obtainable in this life and the next. Thus, children are esteemed of immense worth and their spiritual formation is a primary concern of Mormon thought and practice. As for the significance of ancestry, the size and sophistication of Mormonism’s genealogy apparatus may of itself be a sufficient measure of kinship’s significance. As others have argued, however, what appears to be a means of merely tracing ancestry has a very interesting ideological dimension. Viewed as a whole, genealogy does not so much trace biological patterns as it constitutes meaning-bearing sagas of human origins that inexorably shape the culture they dominate.[21] By virtue of Mormonism’s domination of the field of genealogical research and collection, it is on its way to becoming an extraordinarily powerful cultural force. All who have ever lived and those who seek information about them are gradually being gathered within the set of meanings conveyed by the Mormonism’s way of recording and explaining humankind. In the interest of time, I won’t say more. Instead, let me turn to the final dimension of Mormonism’s primitive genius: namely, custom or rule by habit, not law. I do so by returning to where we began.

Mormon temples are patterned on celestial prototypes and symbolically represent the ordering of persons within an ordered universe. The faithful who enter this “scale-model” of the cosmos are instructed in the laws which govern it and commit themselves to obey them.[22] Because these codes of conduct are couched within the temple’s ritualized cosmology, they are given the status of unchanging, eternal law, even primordial order. As one Mormon writer put it, “[T]he modernworld is as unstable as a decaying isotope, but the temple has always been the same. The ordinances are those taught by an angel to Adam.”[23]

Yet, it is axiomatic that even rituals which seek to embody timeless cosmic ordering must adapt to the dynamics of time or become irrelevant and impotent. The power of ritual lies, in part, in its timeliness: in its capacity to fit into evolving patterns of human choice and action outside of the ritual and to reorder them according to the cosmic pattern provided within the ritual. Thus, the question becomes: how can the church’s ritualized canon shift over time without disorienting the faithful and their identity as a community based on shared, timeless belief? At least a part of the answer lies in the church’s peculiar methods of administering its temple rite, namely, its strategic use of the conventions of oral tradition or, in other words, custom.

In the ritual’s 175-year history, the church has not wavered from its earliest insistence that the temple rite is only to be experienced, not written or read. No text is read during the temple rite. It is performed from memory both by those who lead it and those who participate in it. Indeed, it is not generally acknowledged that a script exists. Authorized, written accounts of the ceremony are rare and made available only to those lay women and men who administer it.[24] Even here, however, only that portion of the text relevant to their liturgical role is available within a room of the temple reserved for such purposes. It may not be taken outside the temple. Hence, such text as exists is made available in part and for the sole purpose of committing it to memory. In sum, this very literate society has reserved a place for oral tradition. Even though the temple constitutes a particularly strong locus of Mormon canonical law, it is preserved orally and observed habitually; thus, becoming custom. As such, it escapes fixation by text, as well as the inevitable analysis and debate that text invites with the passage of time. What purposes does this serve? Two that I can think of; you may think of more. First, oral tradition and rule making by custom protect the temple rite’s authority as a source of immutable truth, notwithstanding its periodic modification. Second, it maximizes the temple ritual’s capacity to negotiate the meaning of canon without fragmenting the community ordered by it. But, be that as it may, the point here is that custom, as well as kinship, ritual and shifting status relationships are fundamental to what Mormonism is as a religion.

I hope this brief survey has given you a glimpse of how Religious Studies provides categories of analysis that will increase the understanding of Mormonism. While this is a good thing of itself, I believe that the study of Mormonism will lead also to a better understanding of religion or the human condition of being religious. As the dean of Religious Studies once observed about Judaism, so also it is true that Mormonism “is foreign enough for comparison and interpretation to be necessary; it is close enough for comparison and interpretation to be possible.” Thus Mormonism is arguably as capable of “illuminating the larger areas of imagination, self-consciousness, and choice crucial to the academic study of religion,” which is to say the nature of religion itself. Mormonism’s capacity to illuminate religion – both modern and primitive — is no small thing, given current political events both nationally internationally. So, permit me to say one more thing about the good that can come from studying Mormonism and why it is a particularly good thing that this study has been brought to Mr. Jefferson’s university.

Both Mormonism and the University of Virginia originated in the formative years of this great Republic. Each in its own ways is inextricably tied to America’s history. The one is the inheritor of Mr. Jefferson’s civic ideals and has always understood itself to have particular responsibilities in that regard. Mormonism has often been at odds with these ideals. In its earliest years, it the object of more than a decade mob violence. Later it was the object of nearly half century of punitive “laws respecting religion;” notwithstanding First Amendment guarantees. On the other hand, Mormonism has severely tested those guarantees with its peculiar mix of rational and revelatory religion.  The arguments on both sides of this often-sad history have merit and I will not rehearse them here. My point is only that America and Mormonism have been in long a struggle over what it means to be religious and to be free. As such, it seems to me that Mr. Jefferson would be pleased to have those lessons studied here and at a time of such need for them both domestically and internationally.

Those lessons have served this nation well. Ultimately, however one measures the cultural and political tensions that arise around Mormonism today, they are just that: only cultural and political. They are worked out through the democratic process without resort to state police powers and do not invoke a constitutional crisis. That is a good thing; I think we can all agree.  It is, however, the result of a long and on-going negotiation between, as one scholar called it “the nation with the soul of a church” and “the church with the soul of a nation.”  Understanding Mormonism’s role in that historical process is as important as understanding the Nation’s.  Both in terms of its heritage and its uniquely strong Religious Studies faculty, no place is better suited to this task than is the University of Virginia. “This institution,” Jefferson said, “of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.”[25] Mormonism is now susceptible to contemplation and it has much to offer both church and state: opposites, which have always inclined in American and may through the mediation of Religious Studies, may yet incline more peacefully.



[1] David McCullough, John Adams, 544. See also Sheridan’s intro to Adams, ed. Jefferson’s Extracts.

[2] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 586

[3] Sheridan, 24

[4] Document/Note 22, TJ to John Adams, 1813.10.12

[5] “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings,” he wrote John Adams in 1820. “To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul.” TJ to John Adams (August 15, 1820) Jefferson aborred much about Christian doctrine, but nothing so much as trinitarianism or the belief that God was three persons in one being. This was “metaphysical insanit[y] . . . mere relaps[e] into polytheism, differing from paganism only by being more unintelligible.” TJ to Rev. Jared Sparks (November 4, 1820)

[6] Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts, 38

[7] TJ to William Short (Aug. 4, 1822)

[8] Adams ed., Jefferson’s Extracts, 297

[9] TJ to Benjamine Rush, 21 Apr. 1803, appendix Adams ed. etc

[10] JSH 6

[11] I Ne. 13:28

[12] Moreover, many others on both sides of the Atlantic were producing additional translations in search of a pure text and restoration of primitive Christianity. Alexander Campbell, most obviously, wished to overcome denominational differences with a better translation in the more traditional sense: from better sources and in a modern vernacular. None but these two were rewriting or literally deconstructing the Bible as these two were, respectively.

[13] NIV Numbers 11:29.

[14] D&C 1

[15] Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, p. 54

[16] TJ to James Smith, 8 dec. 1822 in Adams, ed. “Extracts from the Gospel,” Appendix, 409

[17] Brooks Holifield, 197

[18] TJ to James Smith, 8 dec. 1822 in Adams, ed. “Extracts from the Gospel,” Appendix, 409

[19] Ahlstrom, 508

[20] Marianna Torgovnick, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago, 1990), 21.

[21] Donald Harman Akenson. Some Family: The Mormons and How Humanity Keeps Track of Itself.

[22] Encyclopedia of Mormonism s.v. “Temple Ordinances,” by Allen Claire Rozsa.

[23] Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 34.

[24] (Enc. Morm. 1992: “Temples: Administration of Temples”)

[25] Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 volumes, (New York, 1892-1899), 12:181.