- Parley Pratt, the Broken Planet of Paradise Lost, and the Creation of Mormon Theology
Perhaps no feature of the theology of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is as bold or conceptually striking as its theory of matter. "Mormon thinking," as John Durham Peters states, "melts down the metaphysical barrier between matter and spirit."1 Mormonism's dissolution of the boundary between matter and spirit would in the early nineteenth century establish itself at the heart of the new religion's boldest envisionings of the world, or worlds, beyond our familiar earth. A belief in the monistic union of matter and spirit would become a fundamental conceptual feature of many of the church's central and most singular doctrines: the eternal preexistence of all souls, the unending progression of the heavenly gods to ever higher states of divinity, and the human goal of an eventual heavenly exaltation to the status of God. But very little of the eventual Mormon doctrine of monism, or of the exuberant dynamism of Mormon soteriology, was a feature of the religion when it first appeared on the nineteenth century American landscape. As presented in Joseph Smith's [End Page 125] Book of Mormon, published in 1830, the faith in its earliest years reproduced Christianity's long-established belief in the stark opposition of matter and spirit. Because "the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam," we are told in the Book of Mormon, "the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein" leads to "eternal death."2 But if Mormon thought emerged on the national scene with a somewhat conventional Christian derogation of the body, its gestures toward the established dualism of body and soul would prove to be short-lived. In a dynamic intellectual environment led by one of the prophet Joseph Smith's 12 apostles, Parley P. Pratt, as well as by Smith himself, Mormonism would undergo a radical transformation of its understanding of the ties of matter and spirit not only to one another, but also, and most especially, to God, and to the rest of God's creation. A radical monism of matter and spirit would position itself at the heart of Mormonism's extraordinary soteriology of a materialist process, at once human and divine, of endless upward mobility.
There is evidence of a few different sources of intellectual inspiration for Pratt and Smith's early Mormon turn, in the later 1830s, to a radical monism of body and spirit. But a central source, as I hope to show in this essay, was a selection of works by John Milton.3 In Pratt's 1840 pamphlet on The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter, a prophetic essay that launches the theological ambition of nineteenth century America's most boldly speculative religion, we see the indelible traces of one of seventeenth century England's most boldly speculative poets. Pratt's treatise, written in a Missouri prison, is an important document in U.S. religious history for many reasons. The Regeneration and Eternal Duration of Matter contains the first published expression of some of the most important and distinctive features of Mormon theology. It also instances the boldness of the Mormon metaphysical imagination, which passionately weds an idiosyncratic science, or metaphysics, of matter, on the one hand, with the Christian theology of creation, fall, and redemption, on the other. Pratt begins and ends the pamphlet with a speculative consideration of the eternal constitution of the two principles of matter and spirit. But his [End Page 126] scientific meditation on "the eternal duration of matter" bookends a distinctive account of world history, which begins with an elaborate amplification of the Creation narrative from Genesis, moves to an ecstatic verse prophesy of the birth of the Savior, and concludes, in a return to prose, with an account of the end-times that features Christ's thousand-year reign as universal king from his throne in Jerusalem.
Pratt's focus on matter was no doubt a response to a more general flurry of Christian metaphysical speculation in the early nineteenth century. A primary influence on this particular strain of...