The Magi of the Great Salt Lake
This 1995 Times Literary Supplement (London) review examines John L. Brooke's impressive The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology 1644-1844. Brooke argues against long prevailing scholarship that, on the one hand, views Mormon theology as genuinely American and, on the other hand, understands it purely functionally - without regard for its theological content, but instead as a function of social pressures on impoverished populations in upstate New York from whence came Joseph Smith. The former view is incorrect, Brooke says, because the roots of Mormon theology lie in Europe in gnostic and splinters of the "radical reformation" that lay outside both the "magisterial reformation" and Puritanism, and was concealed beneath of the social suface of religiously radical, yet extremely un-Puritan, religious communities of the British and Scandanavian periphery. Mormon cosmology owes a great debt to gnosticism. The latter, sociological functionalism, is inadequate to explain the content of Mormon theology and why it, rather than the myriad social movements in upstate New York and surrouding areas, had such appeal. Brooke offers a new explanation of and for Mormon theology that accounts for it theologically, historically, and sociologically, locating it firmly within a radical gnostic tradition outside of and on the periphery of traditional Protestantism, both outside the magisterial reformation and Puritanism. It accounts in part for why - given its early embrace of polygamy, scripture outside of the Bible, and a host of still more seemingly non-traditional Christian doctrines - Mormonism has always seemed so different from the rest of Christianity.