Friday, April 5, 2013

Antebellum Protestantism and the Medieval: Church History Symposium

So what does religion in antebellum America have to do with the middle ages?
Juxtaposition of the 1800s and the Medieval:
William Morris' 1858 painting of Guinevere
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 I went to the 2013 Church History Symposium sponsored by BYU and the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 7-8.  Although the focus of the symposium was not a time period I was particularly interested in, I had the idea that perhaps spending time listening to historians whose specialty was early Mormon history would give me a better overall view of Christian history.  I figured the conference would give me a sort of wide lens through which I could later view the shorter time period called the middle ages.  I did not expect to learn anything particularly medieval, though.

I was wrong.  Turns out that because Christianity is not static, but has evolved throughout its roughly two-thousand year history, one cannot study what Christianity was at any one moment but must study what Christianity had been and was becoming at that moment.  So I did pick up some insights into medieval Christianity after all.

The classical model of education, based on the liberal arts, lasted well beyond the middle ages.  The keynote address, The Academic Study of Antiquity in Antebellum America, was given by Richard L. Bushman of Columbia University.  Unfortunately, the auditorium provided was about half the size needed; it was standing room only, and I couldn't take notes while standing in the doorway.  Mainly I remember that he said antebellum America was fascinated by antiquity, that education in this time period was still based on the classical liberal education model, and that Napoleon's journey to Egypt followed by Champollion's deciphering of the Rosetta Stone led to a craze of all things Egyptian.

 I thought it was interesting that the model of education based on the trivium and quadrivium lasted into the 19th century.The main difference between the classical education received by a nineteenth-century American scholar and a medieval or early modern scholar was, if I remember Bushman correctly, one of language:  American scholars, being in general Protestant, rejected learning Latin in favor of learning Greek.  This served two purposes:  first, it was a symbolic break with Catholicism, and second, it gave the American scholar the ability to better understand the Septuagint.

Evolution of the masonic order from a medieval guild into a gentlemen's fraternity. The next session at the conference thinned out enough that I was able to find a place to sit on the floor and take notes.  It was a panel with speakers Richard E. Bennett, Michael Hubbard MacKay, and Steven C. Harper. Harper's paper, Joseph Smith's Relationships to Hermeticism and Masonry, discussed the history of hermeticism and of the Masonic Order.  The Corpus Hermeticum, a compilation of ancient Greek and Egyptian philosophical (Neo-Platonic) and alchemical texts, was published by the Medici's in 1471.  The idea of a prisca theologica (see below) was popular at the time, and linked Hermeticism to Christianity.  The Masonic Order dates back to 1390, beginning as a guild, and evolving into a gentlemen's fraternity during the 1600s.  1737 was the first record of the genesis story of masonry:  i.e. that the order originated from Solomon and Hyrum of Tyre.  (The cynical side of me had wondered about the timeline here, and now I know).  The remainder of Dr. Harper's presentation was a rebuttal to a thesis presented by John Brooke in his book, Refiner's Fire.   I haven't read the book so I can't comment on the success/failure of Harper's rebuttal.

I was not able to attend the afternoon sessions for either day, so now I will skip to Friday morning. The second day commenced in Salt Lake City instead of BYU campus, and was in a much larger auditorium, to everyone's relief.  Nicholas J. Frederick opened with Joseph Smith and the Gospel of John

Time may only flow one way, but temporalities are not so limited. This paper did not teach me anything exclusively medieval, but it helped me to understand what medieval historians mean when they discuss temporality (here's an example of distemporality from the Medievalist blog In the Middle). Temporality, as historians use the term, refers (I think) to how our understanding of the past influences our understanding of the present, and how our existence in the present affects our understanding of the past.  Frederick's paper discussed intertemporality between the writings of Joseph Smith and the writings of St. John.  He explained that Joseph Smith's familiarity with the writings of St. John influenced Smith's language in the Doctrine and Covenants, and conversely the language of the Doctrine and Covenants influenced Joseph Smith's translations of the New Testament, especially the books written by St. John.  As I listened to this paper, something in my brain clicked, and I think I will be able to get more out of medievalists' blogs when the subject of temporality comes up.  I'm quite proud of myself for figuring this out.

Priesthood hierarchy was more important to the institutional medieval Church than to the Protestant congregations.  Next up was Justin R. Bray, discussing the role of the Seventy disciples in Christian thought. According to Bray, the church fathers (to ca. 750) wrote a lot about the Seventies, to the point of speculating on who they were.  By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, most theologians had dismissed them as a temporary band of disciples, unique to the ministry of Christ, and not part of the organization of the Christian church after Christ's death.  The idea of the Seventy disciples continued to evolve, however, so in 1835 Dr. John Henry Hopkins, an Episcopalian bishop, could argue that the seventies were a type of missionary, similar to the traveling bishops in American Protestantism.

Protestant congregations adapted the medieval Prisca Theology to explain how the Catholic church had fallen from pure Christianity.  After the break the symposium continued with papers given by Samuel Brown and Matthew B. Bowman.  Professor Brown discussed the Prisca Theology.  The prisca theology deals with the idea of lost past truths and ancient secrets:  the idea is that Old Testament patriarchs had the whole truth, which was gradually lost.    Clement of Alexandria, for example, taught that the pagan Greek philosophers held beliefs similar to Christians because these pagans had been taught by the Jews.  During the middle ages through to the early modern period, European Christians thought that other non-Christian cultures retained "fragments" or "distorted memories" of the original truth (quotes taken from Brown's slides).  The prisca theology remained popular into the nineteenth century.  Dr. Bowman discussed nineteenth century biblical commentaries, with particular emphasis on how much early Mormons sounded like Protestants:  how much anti-Catholic sentiment was expressed in the tracts of the various sects?  Attempts to reconcile a tension between institutional Christianity and personal spirituality led some commentaries to look for the moment when the Catholic church had fallen away from the truths held by the original Christian church:  the Council of Nicaea and the creation of monasticism were mentioned.

Medieval to Antebellum to me.  Now that I've covered what religion in antebellum America has to do with the middle ages, what does religion in antebellum America have to do with me, today?  Dr. Bushman, in his response to Thursday morning's session, asked, How does God communicate with us, mortals?  God must use the language and culture of mortality.  His statement has really stuck with me.  He was talking about Harper's paper, but I think the meaning of his statement is wider than that.  I think that what he said means that the divine and the human are intertwined.  It means that humans are not only social animals or political animals but are also ethical animals.  There's a reason that the news right now contains stories about defining families and civil rights, about working toward peace through international diplomacy, about fighting glass ceilings, and so on. Examining questions of morality is part of what makes us human.

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