Worse Than I Thought: Apologies for My Mistake about the CES Letter and Joseph’s Cosmology

In my previous post, “Joseph Smith and the Concept of Multiple Inhabited Worlds: Just Simple Borrowing from Others?,” I made a serious blunder when I criticized the CES Letter regarding their claims about Joseph Smith’s cosmology, and for that mistake I must apologize. The problem is worse than I thought. That is, the CES Letter’s analysis was far worse than I thought, and thus I blundered by being far too gentle. So sorry!

In my overly superficial treatment, I thought the big headline for their analysis of Joseph’s cosmology, aimed at showing a book by Thomas Dick was a key source for Joseph, was getting things wrong about the eternal nature of matter. They claimed Dick taught that seemingly novel doctrine of Joseph’s, but Dick rather clearly advocates creation ex nihilo. Big mistake for the CES Letter, yes, but I was seriously remiss in letting it go at that. For starters, I should have more vehemently called out the CES Letter for claiming (via Klaus Hansen) that “Dick’s lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo.” Just plain wrong and deceptive. But it gets worse.

In almost the next sentence from their star expert, Hansen, the CES Letter informs us that

Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by “various orders
of intelligences” and that these intelligences were “progressive
beings” in various stages of evolution toward perfection. In the Book of
Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and
cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development
likewise populate numerous stars.

Populating stars? That’s not what the Book of Abraham teaches, though I know there’s been speculation on such things, but nothing that we are taught or have in our canon. And there are other problems with this statement, as we’ll see below. Since Hansen isn’t supposed to be so sloppy, I was wondering what went wrong here. Then I realized it’s not really his fault — he’s just channeling Fawn Brodie. Here’s what Brodie wrote in her highly questionable and overly praised No Man Knows My History:

Like the philosophic novelist who creates a character greater than himself to voice the distillate of his own speculations, Joseph created Abraham an eminent astronomer who penetrates all the mysteries of the universe. Abraham relates that there is one star, Kolob, lying near the throne of God, which is greater than all the rest. One revolution of Kolob takes a thousand years, and from this revolution God Himself reckons time. Kolob and countless lesser stars are peopled by spirits that are eternal as matter itself. These spirits are not cast in the same mold, but differ among themselves in the quality of intelligence as the stars differ in magnitude. These concepts, which developed peculiar ramifications in Joseph’s later teachings, came directly from Dick, who had speculated that the stars were peopled by “various orders of intelligences” and these intelligences were “progressive beings” [p. 230 in Dick] in various stages of evolution toward perfection. [emphasis in bold added, italics original]

— Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), Kindle edition, Chapter XII, “Master of Languages.”

The quoted passage ends with footnote #28 which states: “Compare the Book of Abraham with Dick [2nd ed., 1830], pp. 101, 230, 241, 249. Dick held that in all probability, ‘the systems of the universe revolve around a common center … the throne of God.’”

Likewise, the CES Letter also mentions this, quoting Hansen:

Dick speculated that “the systems of the universe revolve around a
common centre…the throne of God.” In the Book of Abraham, one star named
Kolob “was nearest unto the throne of God.” Other stars, in ever
diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.

In reality, Dick’s book has almost no relationship to the premortal scene described in the Book of Abraham, and doesn’t even accept a premortal existence. The throne of God concept turns out to be almost the opposite of what the Book of Abraham teaches, and virtually every aspect of the argument made to link Joseph and Thomas Dick fails to be reasonable or accurate. Again, See Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books: https://books.google.com.ph/books?id=jhUHAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover or at Archive.org, where a PDF of the 1830 printing is downloadable at https://archive.org/download/philosophyoffutu00dick_0/philosophyoffutu00dick_0.pdf. Below I will refer to pages in the 1830 printing at Archive.org.

Brodie has deftly adapted Dick’s teachings to her purpose. Dick contemplates immortal beings doing something more than merely praising and contemplating God, but not much more. In their endless contemplation and study of God’s vast creation, they will progress (but never achieve perfection) in their knowledge of astronomy, philosophy, and history and their admiration of God (Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State, 1830 printing, 174–5, 256). But that’s little more than fleshing out the traditional view of endless contemplation of God and is not the kind of progress Joseph envisions for those in the divine family of God. The God the intelligent immortals will contemplate is not one that they can see or touch, for Dick adheres to Platonic ideals, so his God is an utterly incomprehensible Being unlimited in space who obviously does not have a specific place of residence or actual throne (Dick, 255). He is unknowable except by studying His works, for “we have no sensible measures of the attributes of God, but those which are derived from the number and extent of his actual operations (Dick, 255).

The differences in intelligences Brodie mentions is not based on any reference in Dick to premortal humans, as in the Book of Abraham, but appears limited to non-humans (angels, cherubim, seraphim, etc.) and humans during and after their mortal existence. Dick notes that there must necessarily be differences in intellect and in levels of intellectual progress of these various intelligent beings during their continuing contemplation and study throughout eternity (Dick, 222-223, 230–231; see also 283 on seraphim). But this seems irrelevant to the Book of Abraham. Further, Brodie’s statement about “spirits being eternal as matter itself” is rather troubling given Dick’s clear acceptance of creation ex nihilo and his explicit declaration that the spirits/intelligences of the universe are all created beings. They may now be immortal, but the concept of immortal created souls is modern Christianity 101 and is nothing unique to Dick, nor does it explain Joseph’s more unique views on the eternal nature of intelligence and matter.

About that Throne

To claim a parallel between the Book of Abraham’s teachings on Kolob and Dick’s teachings about the centrality of his abstract throne of God is particularly egregious. The quotation Brodie gives about the throne occurs in a section of Dick’s book entitled, “The Throne of God,” where Dick speculates that if the term “throne of God” is not merely metaphorical, it might refer to the scientific supposition that the universe may have a common center of rotation, and if so, perhaps that center could reflect God’s glory in a way fitting the term “throne of God” as used in the Bible (Dick, 249–250). But in no way does Dick suggest that there is a literal throne or that God has a physical body capable of sitting or even being anywhere in particular.

For Dick, God’s figurative throne is central and the universe revolves around it. This contradicts the Book of Abraham, where the successive orders above the earth are described with the outermost, highest level being where we find Kolob. Kolob, near the throne or residence of God, is at the highest, slowest level, governing the other bodies in lower levels which rotate more quickly. The fixed reference point in this model is “the earth upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:3, 5–7). Abraham’s cosmology appears to be adapted to a geocentric model that the Egyptians can comprehend, suitable for the science of his era (John Gee, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2017), 115–119. See also
John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’ – The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in John
Gee and Brian M. Hauglid (editors), Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006), 1–16). It is radically different from Dick’s cosmology, and the teachings on the throne of God seem diametrically opposed. In general, the parallels Brodie finds so convincing are weak, not there, or virtually the opposite of what she claims. She and those who regurgitate who arguments on these points are simply wrong.

How Wide the Divide?

Finally, we must recall a fundamental divide between Dick’s paradigm and Joseph’s. In the passage of Dick cited by Brodie where “various orders of intelligences” are mentioned, Dick clearly sets forth his incorporeal, ethereal view of God:

And one of their chief employments, of course, will be, to investigate, contemplate, and admire the glory of the Divine perfections. Hence it is declared in Scripture as one of the privileges of the saints in light, that “they shall see God as he is” — that “they shall see his face” — and that “they shall behold his glory,” —which expressions, and others of similar import, plainly intimate, that they shall enjoy a clearer vision of the Divine glory than in the present state. But how is this vision to be obtained? The Deity, being a spiritual, uncompounded substance, having no visible form, nor sensible quantities, “inhabiting eternity,” and filling immensity with his presence — his essential glory cannot form an object for the direct contemplation of any finite intelligence. His glory, or, in other words, the grandeur of his perfections, can be traced only in the external manifestation which he gives of himself in the material creation which his power has brought into existence…. (Dick, 209, emphasis added)

God, in other words, is wholly other, immaterial, lacking “eternal matter” and not directly connected to us nor even visible, viewable, or directly capable of being contemplated. But we can stare at the stars, the plankton, and the planets, and thus indirectly contemplate Him forever. That’s better than strumming a harp endlessly, but it’s not the universe Joseph gave us, for His universe is filled by, not with, a God Whom we gladly can call Father because He is our Father, our loving Parent, and His work and His glory is to bring us home. This concept is at the core of Joseph Smith’s universe, and in spite of superficial similarities on a few points, Dick’s universe is worlds apart from Joseph’s, in spite of sharing multiple worlds.

Citing Dick as the source for anything noteworthy in the Book of Abraham or in Joseph’s cosmology simply lacks explanatory power. It is a misguided and ultimately deceptive argument, channeled and regurgiated from the reckless passion of Brodie, in my opinion.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on “Worse Than I Thought: Apologies for My Mistake about the CES Letter and Joseph’s Cosmology

  1. Beat that straw man, Jeff! Beat it good! You're doing the Lord's work! That straw man will think twice before it dares question YOUR faith again!

  2. Straw Anon, which part of Brodie’s statement do you see as a straw man? Or is your definition of straw man “any anti-Mormon argument that can be easily refuted”? Curious about your point. Dick is claimed to be a specific source for specific teachings as if it’s a smoking gun, but all it really offers relative to Joseph’s teachings is the very general notion of multiple worlds, which can be found in the Bible. The important and unique elements claimed from Dick aren’t really there. It’s irrelevant and those who think Brodie got this right lack a basis for that belief.

  3. LDS critics, like the first anonymous commenter, do not care for facts just as all people with a specific Ideaology do not care for facts and common sense.

    The ends justify the means. Ideaology and agenda at all costs.
    It is a power and ego trip. Refusing to listen the other side because they are wrong! So the derogatory name calling starts to shut down the opposing views.

    I do not appreciate the tone of the first anonymous commenter, but many LDS apologists behave exactly the same. What is worse is other LDS big shot "scholars" defend the infantile, non Christian behavior of their buddies. That makes them hypocrites also but they do not care.

    All LDS "scholars" and "apologists" behave exactly like the first commenter. All….of….them.

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