Surely one of the most remarkably photographs in church history—and one of the most powerfully emblematic—is the one showing Orson Pratt’s crude adobe observatory in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple. In Smith’s thought, traditional theological dualities and disjunctions are erased, and there is a seamless marriage of the divine and the secular. The heavenly and earthly, physical and spiritual, conflated into one.
One consequence of this vision is that God’s perfect compliance with eternal law both constitutes his own supreme power and indicates that path whereby humans can become his full heirs and genuine “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). These eternal laws or “principles” thus become empowering and liberating rather than confining. As Parley Pratt wrote,
What a glorious field of intelligence now lies before us, yet but partially explored. What a boundless expanse for contemplation and reflection now opens to our astonished vision. What an intellectual banquet spreads itself invitingly to our appetite, calling into lively exercise every power and faculty of the mind, and giving full scope to all the great and ennobling passions of the soul. . . . All the virtuous principles of the human mind may here expand and grow, and flourish, unchecked by any painful emotions or gloomy fears.[i]
The consequences of seeing eternal and natural laws as equally relevant to human salvation are more profoundly manifest in Joseph’s ideas about education. Education, in the Mormon conceptions, is intimately tied to its soteriology, or theory of salvation. Mormonism is fairly unique in Christendom, insofar as it holds out the promise of a salvation in which any rest is purely metaphorical.
Joseph’s crowned Saints are no angelic choirs passively basking in the glory of their God, but hard workers endlessly seeking to shape themselves into progressively better beings, fashioning worlds and creating endless posterity, eternally working to impose order and form on an infinitely malleable cosmos. “This is a wide field for the operation of man,” said Brigham Young, “that reaches into eternity.”[ii]
“When you climb up a ladder,” Joseph explained, “you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the Gospel—you must begin with the first and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”[iii]
“Learning” salvation, and “beyond the grave” at that? The originality of Joseph’s conception of salvation is that 1) it is tied to learning and 2) it involves a process that will take us far beyond the span of years that fill this life. These two principles are reflected in two simple statements he made. “A man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge,” and “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come” (D&C 130:19). In a remarkable sermon he delivered on the nature of man and human happiness, Brigham Young made the unceasing pursuit of knowledge not just an ingredient in salvation, but the essence of the only joy man will find fulfilling:
All men should study to learn the nature of mankind, and to discern that divinity inherent in them. A spirit and power of research is planted within, yet they remain undeveloped. . . . What will satisfy us? If we understood all principles and powers that are, that have been, and that are to come, and had wisdom sufficient to control powers and elements with which we are associated, perhaps we would then be satisfied. If this will not satisfy the human mind, there is nothing that will. . . . If we could so understand true philosophy as to understand our own creation, and what it is for . . . and could understand that matter can be organized and brought forth into intelligence, and to possess more intelligence, and to continue to increase in that intelligence; and could learn those principles that organized matter into animals, vegetables, and into intelligent beings; and could discern the Divinity acting, operating, and diffusing principles into matter to produce intelligent beings, and to exalt them—to what? Happiness. Will nothing short of that fully satisfy the spirits implanted within us? No.[iv]
Consider the means Joseph took to “satisfy” the intellectually voracious spirit. Just at the moment when Joseph was finishing his work on the New Testament, and before he returned to reconsider his Old Testament “translation,” he pronounced his 1832 “olive leaf” revelation, in which he announced the inauguration of a “school of the prophets” to be held in a temple built for that (and other) purposes (D&C 88).
In January 1833, on the second floor of the Newel K. Whitney store, the school commenced operation. In those cold, drafty chambers, fourteen elders and high priests undertook to study “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of the countries and of kingdoms.” To this course of study was shortly added the injunction to “become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 88:79; 90:16). So in the School of the Prophets, Joseph and other men studied the scriptures and theology—but also German and eventually Hebrew. (Parley P. Pratt led a Missouri version of the school that summer.)
Brigham Young fully appreciated the peculiar status learning has in Mormon thought. “We are not at all under the necessity of falling into the mistake that the Christian world falls into. They think, when they are handling or dealing in the things of this world, that those things have nothing to do with their religion. Our religion takes within its wide embrace not only things of heaven, but also things of earth. It circumscribes all art, science, and literature pertaining to heaven, earth, and hell.”[v]
In other words, and here is where we need to recognize how different we are from other Christians–, there is no learning that is not, ultimately, tied to salvation. Elsewhere, Brigham Young taught that “When the elements melt with fervent heat, the Lord Almighty will send forth his angels, who are well instructed in chemistry, and they will separate the elements and make new combinations thereof.”[vi]
Orson Pratt would elaborate this view a few years later. “The study of science is the study of something eternal. If we study astronomy, we study the works of God. If we study chemistry, geology, optics, or any other branch of science, every new truth we come to the understanding of is eternal; it is a part of the great system of universal truth.
It is truth that exists throughout universal nature; and God is the dispenser of all truth—scientific, religious, and political.
For Joseph to found a school of the prophets at a time when hunger and destitution was already a reality is nothing short of astounding. It should tell us something about how much the saints were willing to sacrifice, in order to persist in their vision of education as the heart of religion. The real meaning of Joseph’s school of the prophets, however, is to be fathomed from its timing and growing direction in the context of his own prophetic career: after the youthful leader had established his credentials as prophet and translator, after he shown he could use seerstones, Urim and Thummim, and just the unaided powers of revelation to restore truth, he began to slog away at learning languages the old fashioned way. Long hours of study, hitting the books day after day. How many of us could learn from his example, when we think studying out of the best books means reading the scriptures. For Joseph, it meant going beyond the scriptures to supplement our learning with the best the world had to teach us. What a salutary effect the image of the temple and the observatory would have, if it perennially hovered in the background of Mormon culture, affirming one of the tradition’s most beautiful paradoxes: that the certainties revealed in the church’s temples never overwhelm the passionate love of learning that fired the mind and spirit of that tradition’s founders.
Terryl Givens, Professor of Literature and Religion at the University of Richmond, is the author of When Souls had Wings: Premortal Life in Western Thought and several books on Mormon history and culture.
[i] Parley P. Pratt, The Millennium, and other Poems: to which is annexed, a Treatise on the Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter (New York: Molineux, 1840), 137.
[ii] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., reported by G. D. Watt et al. (Liverpool: F.D and S. W. Richards, et al., 1851-1886; reprint, Salt Lake City: n.p., 1974), 9:242.
[iii] Smith, History of the Church, 6:306-07.
[iv] Journal of Discourses, 7:3.
[v] Journal of Discourses, 7:271.
[vi] Journal of Discourses, 15:127.
[vii] Journal of Discourses, 7:157.