Mormonism is a subject of fascination to Americans and the rest of the world. Its unusual sets of beliefs were widely discussed and studied long before U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney strode onto the national stage. Less well known and studied is the way the doctrine is shot through with kabbalistic beliefs.
In a book from the early 1990s, "The American Religion," literary critic Harold Bloom mourned the transformation of respectable American Protestantism into a Gnostic dispensary of fundamentalism. To Bloom, the religion of Europe’s Puritans had grown wild and unrestrained in the liberated soil of America. This, he said, led to the flowering of all sorts of strange religious movements, like Christian evangelism, various New Age movements and, of course, Mormonism.
Bloom was particularly interested in Joseph Smith, the religion’s founding prophet. He had created a truly “American religion,” writes Bloom, which taught religious devotion to family, community and financial success.
In addition to being a talented and original theologian and a highly charismatic figure, Joseph Smith was the source of many of the esoteric theories pervading the North American continent in the first half of the 19th century. And, his theories were colored by the supernatural-theological worldview of the kabbala.
Citing the many points of similarity between Mormonism and kabbala, Bloom posits the “more direct influence of the kabbala on Smith than what we know.”
This would help explain the extreme divergences between Smith’s views and those of the conventional Protestant denominations that were his jumping off point.
According to Smith’s theology, the God who controls our world was once a human like us. He had a spouse and the two of them had corporeal bodies of flesh and blood. God is a model for men on earth in that every Mormon is also capable of becoming a deity of his own star along with his wife. This, of course, implies that there are many gods who rule over many stars.
Smith held that his doctrine was the recounting of the esoteric knowledge revealed to the first human, Adam, by the deity of our star. From Adam, God’s wisdom was passed down through the generations, passing through Noah, Abraham, Moses and the ancient Hebrew priests and finally, was revealed to Smith's followers.
The purpose of the doctrine is to facilitate the realization of human potential by transforming men into gods. This notion is not just foreign, but in fact, antithetical to the Puritan Christianity from which it emerged.
Puritanism saw man as a vessel full of guilt and disgrace. Born into sin, the best this wretched creature could hope for was to claw his way toward salvation through shamefaced submission to the Son of God. Man was light-years away from being some sort of galactic deity.
What Smith was offering his followers was a stark alternative to the severe and ascetic Christianity of Puritanism. He promised them the renewal of prophecy, the building of paradise on Earth and ultimate personal empowerment. As an added bonus, he threw polygamy into the deal.
Jesus' second coming, in America
Joseph Smith was born in 1805, the fifth of 11 children from an impoverished family in Vermont. When he was 14, following a period of severe mental distress, Smith had his first vision where the deity himself assured him that his sins had been forgiven. Along with this, God warned him not to join any of the churches in the vicinity because they all distorted the true word of the Bible.
In 1823, three years after his first vision, Smith fell to his knees again and called out to God for guidance in the depths of another mental crisis. This time the angel Moroni appeared before him and told him that he was the last survivor of an ancient Hebrew civilization that arrived on the shores of North America at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. These ancient Israelites did what Jews always do and fought amongst themselves until one sub-group among them (henceforth known as the evil ones) put to the sword the members of the other group (the good ones) and annihilated them.
The evil ones, after being cursed by God, developed over time into the different tribes of American Indians. All that was left of the good ones were the tablets of gold upon which were engraved their history in the ancient Egyptian language.
The angel Moroni directed Smith to the spot where these tablets were buried and instructed him to dig them out of the ground. After Smith laid his hands on the tablets he immediately began translating the ancient Egyptian writing on them. The result was an impressively broad volume containing hundreds of pages of narration that told the history of the bad ones and good ones.
Perhaps even more importantly, this narrative also included the second coming of Jesus Son of God to humanity – an event that occurred on American soil before these very same ancient Hebrews who had reached America.
This was “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” as was proclaimed in the sub-heading of the Mormon's holy book. Clinging to his holy book, Smith went out to acquire believers. He succeeded well beyond his expectations.
In order to understand the secret of Smith's success – and the success of his bible – it is worth taking a step a back and gaining a bird's-eye view of the above-mentioned occurrences and placing them in their proper context. This period was the peak of the Second Awakening in the United States, a period of religious revival during which many Americans joined various Protestant denominations. Around Smith, the religious muses were ubiquitous, with new prophets popping up seemingly from under every tree.
Not far from the home of Smith, Jemima Wilkinson exhorted sexual abstinence and fidelity to the Ten Commandments. Handsome Lake, a Native American prophet, preached fiercely against alcohol, witchcraft, gambling, violence against women and homosexuality. There was Joseph Dylkes, who announced that he was the Messiah who had come to rebuild Jerusalem; George Rapp, who established a community of religious hermits and announced the approach of the Second Coming of Jesus; Bernhard Muller, who dubbed himself the "Lion of Judah" and declared himself the messiah; William Miller who founded the largest messianic movement in U.S. history and declared that Jesus would return to this world by March 1844; John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the early socialist Oneida Community, who preached about sex without ejaculation as means of achieving spiritual elevation; and of course, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left his position as a reverend of the Unitarian Church and commanded, “Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with the Deity!” He was a clear precursor of New Age spirituality.
An age of prophets
The age was ripe for prophets and their followers, and Smith was no exception. His was an attempt to create a new society in which sexuality served as an important source of spirituality. He preached neither sexual abstinence nor sex without ejaculation, but polygamy. Instead of a faint promise of the future coming of the messiah, Smith's prophecy was a megalomaniac attempt to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in the present, on Earth.
Where did Smith derive his inspiration? He was undoubtedly an exceptional person, with a vivid imagination and enormous creativity. But every creative spirit needs raw material. Smith found his in the esoteric literature of his era, which led him to the kabbala.
As a curious teenager, Joseph Smith was able to read a fair share of Western esoteric literature at his neighbor's homes or in different public libraries.
The esoteric literature of the period included the legacy of the Renaissance, Hermetism, the kabbala, Neoplatonism, alchemy, astrology and Magianism.
Hermitism was an esoteric practice based on ancient texts that were apparently written by a god/king/prophet/ master sorcerer named Hermes Trismegistus. This Hermes was, apparently, a contemporary of Moses and revealed to humanity the secrets of the universe at the exact same time that Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites. The historical source for the more ancient parts of the hermetic corpus is found in the early centuries of the Common Era, in Greco-Egyptian Alexandria, and therefore contains a mixture of Greek and Egyptian myths.
In contrast to many Western tracts, the Hermetica emphasized the greatness of man and the ability for the complete synthesis of spirit and matter. Based on this doctrine, the soul is a refined type of matter, and therefore this materialist and sordid life is not a thing unto itself; there is even the possibility of achieving divinity without separating from life.
"You are the light and the life, as God the Father from which man was born," states Hermes, echoing similarities with Mormon theology.
Kabbala for Christians
With respect to the kabbala mentioned here, this wasn't the same Kabbala diligently pored over by the students of the Vilna Gaon or the Lubavitch Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Hasidism, during this time period, but rather the kabbala translated into the vernacular for a Christian readership. In the eyes of the Christians who were interested in it, the kabbala was thought to be the secret Torah that Moses gave to Joshua, and from him to the elders of Israel, and from them to the prophets. But unlike traditional rabbinic Judaism, the Christians believed that the kabbala was also given to the Israelite priests. The inclusion of the ancient Israelite priests was likely due to every story about the Temple in Jerusalem being seen by Christians as having some esoteric and mystical value (this was also true for the Freemasons, another movement that flowered around the same time). The Christian kabbala included different translations of the Hebrew texts into vernacular with additional commentary that presented it as a universal bible that in practice was philosophically Perennialist (meaning, that it stands at the base of all human knowledge).
Smith’s interest in the Hermetica and the kabbala alone are enough to shed light on the sentence found at the beginning of the Mormon cannon, in the Book of Nephi, the first volume of the Book of Mormon. After the first verse in which the narrator presents himself, the second verse states: “I will make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” The Jews were a muse to Joseph Smith. The use of “the language of the Egyptians” ties the Book of Mormon to the Hermetica.
The comprehensive research of Michael Quinn -- a historian of the Mormon religion and follower himself whose research findings led him to be kicked out of the Mormon church -- paints a portrait of Smith as a fairly committed esotericist, despite his eclectic and autodidactic education. The world of the young Mormon prophet included astrology, Magianism, the preparations of talismans, trading in holy relics, remote viewing and especially, prophetic visions.
Quinn demonstrates different links between Smith's prophecies and the book, “Traditions of the Jews," written by the anti-Semite Johann Andreas Eisenmenger that was translated from German into English in the 18thcentury. It appears that this book taught Smith that the Hebrew word for God (elohim) is actually written in plural form, an understanding that aided the development of his anti-monotheistic theology, which explicitly acknowledges a plurality of gods.
Other books in Smith's environment hybridized the kabbalistic meaning of “original man” (the first emanation of the divinity after its contraction) and the biblical meaning of “Adam” (as the first human, in the Garden of Eden). This compound meaning was passed onto Smith, apparently leading him to view the first human as a being with godly powers, and Adam's descendants – that is, today's humans -- as having a latent potential for godhood.
A Jewish convert to Mormonism
Above and beyond the books Smith read, it appears that much of his education on the secret Jewish Bible was acquired from a Jew named Alexander Neibaur, who arrived on the shores of the U.S. from London and converted to the faith of the Mormon prophet. As Moshe Idel writes in his book “Olam Ha'malakhim” (“World of Angels”), we have in our hands a list of Neibaur's books, which include several important works of kabbala. The encounter between these two figures occurred in 1841, and between 1842 and 1843 the official Mormon newspaper published articles on kabbala, some of them written by the Jewish convert, mentioning, for example, the book “The Sohar” (referring to “The Zohar,” widely considered to be the most important book of kabbala.) It seems Smith learned from Neibaur to take the first verse of the Bible, “At first God was created” and to interpret it in one of his last teachings as the invitations issued by the chief god to the other gods to a supreme council in which the creation of man and the transfer of the secrets of eternal life to him and his descendants were discussed.
Smith had one purpose, to renew the Israelite nation of yore. For this purpose, prophecy was renewed, priestly orders were established, and temples (not churches) were built. Even the polygamy of the Patriarchs was renewed. Smith wanted to build "Zion" on American soil. Smith spoke of a new society, where people would share their property, and were faithful to the true Bible coming from the lips of their leader. The same leader, Smith, pretended to rule this utopia as a “prophet, priest and king” entrusted by God to be responsible for the fate of his subjects.
In 1844, after they were chased out and expelled from Missouri, tens of thousands of Mormons moved on to Illinois. There, Smith established the city of Nauvoo, which grew rapidly and soon numbered more than 10,000 inhabitants, approximately the size of Chicago at the time. Smith himself was the city's mayor, and when the harassment of the Mormons began again he announced his candidacy for the U.S.presidency. in elections scheduled that year. His secret plan was to annul the separation of church and state after his election and to establish a kingdom of priests, with himself at its head. Several months later, he was killed in a lynching.
In his book, Harold Bloom writes that “If there is already in place any authentic version of the American Religion then, as Tolstoy surmised, it must be Mormonism, whose future as yet may prove decisive for the nation, and for more than this nation alone.”
Bloom perceived with his sharp senses that the esoteric path to godhood (or at least to economic success) in our days added up to much more of an ethos than penance for Original Sin.