Milton and early Mormonism, with John Rogers
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It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Americans in the early nineteenth century loved the writing of John Milton. Milton’s embrace of liberal individualism, meritocracy, and his championing of the right to free speech made him an easy sell to anti-British Americans. His epic poem Paradise Lost was a bestseller. Something like twenty editions of Paradise Lost were produced in America during the first half of the nineteenth century, which is right when Mormonism came on the scene. Milton also held some controversial views on the nature of the godhead, creation, and even polygamy. In this episode, Yale professor of English John Rogers joins us to talk about parallels and differences between Joseph Smith’s revelations and John Milton’s theology.
Rogers recently visited BYU where he delivered a Maxwell Institute Guest Lecture called “Latter-Day Milton: Early Mormonism and the Political Theologies of Paradise Lost.” You can check that lecture out on the Institute’s YouTube channel. It’s John Rogers in this episode talking about Milton and Mormonism.
Questions and comments about the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLAIR HODGES: John Rogers joins us today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’re talking about John Milton the poet and Mormonism. Welcome, John. Thanks for being here.
JOHN ROGERS: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me, Blair.
MILTON’S NINETEENTH CENTURY POPULARITY
HODGES: We’re having you here for a lecture that you’re doing at Brigham Young University, co-sponsored by BYU’s Medieval and Renaissance Studies, so I want to give a shout out to them as well. People will be able to check that lecture out on our website. Let’s talk about the lecture a little bit to give people a little overview. You’re talking about early Mormons, so Joseph Smith and some of his earliest apostles—
ROGERS: That’s right.
HODGES: —and some ways that their thoughts and ideas resonated and perhaps even were inspired by or influenced by John Milton the poet.
ROGERS: Yes. I understand that this is a complicated topic for a lot of people. There’s an understandable reason why a lot of Mormon ideas and Mormon imaginings need to be thought of as direct revelations. I don’t have a problem with that since I myself sometimes find myself believing that John Milton was inspired by God to write Paradise Lost as Milton tells us so often over the course of the poem. It is remarkable and I have found myself just shocked by—just bracketing early Mormon culture for a moment—by how many Americans in the early nineteenth century were reading and thinking about Milton.
He’s often referred to as “our American poet” because he’s seen as so much more American, a liberal individualism, and a kind of progressive meritocracy, that so much of Milton’s poetry affirms and he seemed so not British, at least to the anti-British early nineteenth century Americans in a completely fascinating way. There’s something like twenty different editions of Paradise Lost that are produced in America itself in the first half of the nineteenth century. It’s explosive.
HODGES: For some of these people in America—obviously there were some educated people, but there were a lot of regular people, farm people, people like Joseph Smith or some of the people that joined the LDS church. So how would something as presumably highbrow as Milton’s poetry reach them?
ROGERS: That’s a great question. You’re absolutely right. Paradise Lost has to be one of the most difficult, elaborate, long poetic texts to read. It demands so much of the reader in terms of just literary sophistication. Its allusions to the entirety of the classical tradition are breathtaking and its insistence on a kind of intimate familiarity with the Christian tradition can feel quite daunting at times.
However, since as early as the middle of the eighteenth century it was understood, certainly in England, that Paradise Lost had within it so much important spiritual wisdom, so much spiritual truth, that for some reason or another didn’t make it into the Bible. We learn for example in Paradise Lost about a war in heaven that’s only mentioned in maybe a half of a verse in the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Milton gives us a kind of prequel to so much of the Old Testament story that dominates our imagination because that’s what we have access to before we read Milton’s remarkable poem.
Because it was seen to be so important for Christians, especially Protestants, to read Paradise Lost, numerous efforts were made in the eighteenth century to make this thing accessible. So there are versions of Paradise Lost that keep Milton’s language, keep all of his words, but clean up the syntax so that things flow like modern English and not in the weird inverted and twisted way that they do so often on the actual page. Milton’s word order is significantly shifted in some of these early editions of simplified and abridged Paradise Lost.
There are eighteenth century printed editions of Paradise Lost, eighteenth century editions of Paradise Lost in which Milton’s words, his actual diction, is kept entirely intact but the poetry is done away with. The thing is just turned into prose, and again the syntax or the word order is also cleaned up to make it that much more accessible.
One of my favorite late eighteenth century editions of Paradise Lost ignores all of the references—and they’re everywhere—to the pagan tradition, to the classical world altogether, and only gives us footnotes to the Christian stuff, the allusions to the Old Testament and the New Testament. I think one of the editions that must have meant the most to the early nineteenth century American Mormons especially was the specifically Methodist version, the eighteenth century Methodist version of Paradise Lost. It’s severely abridged. All of the long, wandering, exquisitely learned similes and elaborate metaphors are simply just removed; they’re extricated from the poem because they detract from the story. Anything that seems to run afoul of a good Arminian Methodist teaching has just been done away with.
HODGES: So doctrinal editing, as well.
ROGERS: Serious doctrinal editing. John Wesley, one of the Wesley brothers who founds and invents Methodism, takes it upon himself to clean up Paradise Lost and make it safe for Methodists. Weirdly and interestingly, this is just an instance of how obsessive so many people were about Paradise Lost. The Wesley brothers, the founders of Methodism, grow up in a home that is entirely dominated by and saturated with John Milton. Their father did nothing but speak of John Milton, recite Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained from memory, and in fact he writes his own version of Paradise Regained that for completely inexplicable reasons has just sutured into it hundreds of lines of Milton’s Paradise Regained. None of it makes any sense. But the passion for Milton is intense.
It’s often thought that Joseph Smith had a Methodist background. Two of the early apostles that I’m particularly interested in, Orson Pratt and his brother Parley P. Pratt, were also raised Methodist. The Methodist hymns actually in many cases to this day are saturated with the language of Paradise Lost. So for a group of a certain kind of lowbrow nineteenth century American Protestant, there is already an invitation to take seriously this poem.
MILTON AND JOSEPH SMITH
HODGES: Is there any direct evidence that you have discovered so far of Joseph Smith quoting from Milton or knowing about Milton, or that other early Mormons were familiar with Milton?
ROGERS: I think that’s an important question because, as we know, Joseph Smith was not overwhelmingly literate or certainly not what we would think of as a highly educated reader. Obviously he was a brilliant man and a visionary thinker. Nonetheless, in one of the explanations of the reasons for the baptism of the dead that Joseph Smith himself writes for the Mormon journal Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith quotes—he doesn’t acknowledge quoting but it’s so clearly a quotation, from the opening of Paradise Lost. It may well be one of the most famous of all of the lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and that’s Milton’s claim that he will “assert eternal providence” over the course of the poem, and “justify the ways of God to men.” Joseph Smith wonderfully explains the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead as a practice that “justifies the ways of God to men.”
Interestingly, I have gotten some push-back from fellow Miltonists when I have floated this idea, but I think it’s actually right. If it had occurred to Milton to imagine the possibility of baptizing the dead and extending free will into the other world so the choices you make here aren’t the final choices you get to make, I think he would have embraced that immediately, the notion that free will is something that doesn’t just conclude at ones final demise in this world, is something I think he would find really interesting.
HODGES: Obviously the vision that he stretches out in the poem of a pre-mortal existence with angels and God, a war in heaven happening. It doesn’t equally map with LDS theology but there are resonances there. As you suggest in your lecture, the ubiquity of Milton would have almost been impossible for Mormons not to have been familiar with John Milton, at least with the poem.
ROGERS: I think that’s right. Not just the poem. Milton also writes a theological treatise. He does this probably in just years just before he begins Paradise Lost however it happens to be a theological treatise that’s quite heretical. Not just heretical on seventeenth century standards, but heretical by almost Christian’s standards.
HODGES: So he tried to spread it as far and wide as possible, is that what you’re saying?
ROGERS: As far and wide as possible, yes.
HODGES: It disappeared, right, for a time? It wasn’t rediscovered—
ROGERS: Milton was a prudent man and he thought—and this is completely understandable—he thought it would be wise not to have this thing published in his lifetime. It is a capital crime, not only in England but in every country in Europe up until the end of the seventeenth century, it’s a capital crime for which one is burned at the stake if one is found guilty of publicly denying the existence of the Trinity, and Milton devotes the longest and most crazily elaborate chapter of his theological treatise to his denial of the existence of the Holy Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are entirely separate, fully individuated beings. The Father is in fact the Father of the Son; he is the Son’s creator. There’s that kind of anti-trinitarianism that Mormons certainly take up.
HODGES: The poem depicts it that way and there wasn’t a lot of blow back there. Was that because it could be interpreted symbolically?
ROGERS: I think that’s really interesting.
HODGES: He has a God talking about his son Jesus in a pre-mortal war, correct?
ROGERS: You’re absolutely right. Milton, it seems to us now that we know Milton was a card-carrying anti-Trinitarianist, and that he was willing to intellectually take on the huge and dominating church teaching of the existence of the Trinity.
HODGES: Life-threatening even.
ROGERS: That’s right, and he did it, well not at extraordinary cost, happily he wasn’t found out or caught, but yeah, in light of that we can read lots of sections of Paradise Lost and see the ways in which Milton was an Arian, a believer in the absolute difference between the Father and the Son. It’s amazing, in that light, how few people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even in the early years of the nineteenth century, ever got anything close to that idea. The notion that Milton, because he’s a great poet, has also to be a greatly orthodox poet is absolute. If he’s a divinely inspired poet he has to believe all the right things.
One of the very few early readers of Paradise Lost who read immediately and understood that Milton was really dancing on a theological edge with his heretical understanding that the Son is merely a creature rather than God himself, was Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. He calls out in print Milton as an Arian, which means a heretical believer in the Son’s status of a creature rather than as part of the Godhead. Other than a couple of other people in addition to Daniel Defoe, otherwise it just struck early readers as a regular orthodox poem.
HODGES: Well you’ve got the New Testament Jesus praying to God the Father and that didn’t disrupt ideas of the Trinity, so in a similar way I suppose you could read Milton’s poem in the same light.
So his Treatise on Christian Doctrine, it’s published in 1825 in London, in 1826 it hits America, so this is a couple of years before the LDS church is established—
ROGERS: That’s right.
HODGES: And you’ve found that some early Mormons, including Orson Pratt, drew directly from the treatise on Christian doctrine, particularly in Orson Pratt’s public defense of Mormon polygamy.
ROGERS: So, yes. In the seventeenth century it would have been a capital offense for Milton to publicly deny the existence of the Trinity. He also, in his theological treatise, spends a number of pages—and they’re extraordinary—he dedicates them to the explanation of why, in his opinion, the practice of polygamy continues to be allowable by God; that it’s simply through a lot of wrong-headed mistaken readings of the Bible that it’s suggested to Christians now that we’re no longer in the patriarchal age that polygamy is illegal.
It has been suggested before, and I think there’s a lot of reason to believe, that Milton’s theological treatise once it was translated into English, published in the United States, and widely publicized for all of its heresies, especially the anti-trinitarianism, and its big stamp of approval on the practice of polygamy, that it just became almost universally understood. Church newsletters, magazines, newspapers of all sorts circulated the information that—and it was scandalous at the time—we now know in 1826 that John Milton, the great poet of the great English epic Paradise Lost, believed in God’s permission of polygamy.
A lot of people misunderstood that to think that Milton himself had been a polygamist, which we don’t have any evidence of directly, but that was scandalous. I think it would have been really difficult for an early generation of seriously invested religious thinkers not to have that information brought to their attention.
MILTON’S REPUTATION TAKES A HIT
HODGES: Do you think that really lowered Milton in a lot of people’s eyes? Because when Orson Pratt then draws on Milton to defent polygamy, is he drawing on him because he likes the force of Milton’s arguments? Or is he drawing on him also because Milton was still viewed as a really credible or important person, and so there’s also sort of this, “hey don’t criticize what we’re doing, John Milton says it’s okay too”? How much of that do you think was involved in Pratt’s defense?
ROGERS: No, I think that’s really important. I think the documents show that this new revelation in 1826 that was so well publicized that Milton believed in polygamy, that fact itself really divided all readers of Renaissance English poetry, certainly all readers of Paradise Lost. The polite Protestants like the Methodists, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, certainly the Episcopalians, suddenly it happened something like overnight, it started to feel that Milton’s Paradise Lost might not be the safe, orthodox, spiritually edifying poem that it had always been taken to be. That was without question the majority view.
There’s evidence that shows that Milton is being taught less in schools. Paradise Lost, the great speeches in Hell for example are being used less and less often as models for student’s own oratorical efforts. It’s extraordinary.
HODGES: Satan’s the best character, for people who haven’t read it.
ROGERS: Everybody should read Paradise Lost for the character of Satan alone.
HODGES: Yes. So they’re using him less now, you’re saying. After Milton’s reputation is getting shot here.
ROGERS: Milton just is no longer seen as “our American poet.” He’s no longer the great standard bearer for a good conservative American Protestantism. “Milton was a polygamist.” So the jury is really divided and it’s a small minority of readers who find themselves with this new information that Milton denied the existence of the Trinity and that Milton was a polygamist, or at least believed in the possibility of polygamy, who found themselves gravitating to Milton, maybe even for the first time, on the back of this new information. I think it’s reasonable to assume that the anti-Trinitarian early Mormons found this idea that Milton approved of polygamy compelling.
MORE MILTON/MORMON PARALLELS
HODGES: That’s John Rogers. He’s a professor of English at Yale University. He’s the author of Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton. He’s also currently working on a book tentatively titled Latter-day Milton: Paradise Lost and the Creation of America’s God.
Let’s talk more about Milton and Mormons in particular. Joseph Smith in a discourse that’s become famous and well known amongst Mormons called the King Follett discourse, talked about God, talked about what matter is, what intelligence is—all of these theological ideas that you say resonate with some of the things that can be found in Milton as well. Talk about some of the parallels that you see.
ROGERS: One of the beautiful and most startling things about that late sermon of Joseph Smith’s just a few months before he died—The King Follett sermon—is his description of the material world, which he refuses fully to divorce from the spiritual world. All matter is spiritual and all spirit is material in Joseph Smith’s really bold metaphysics voiced at this funeral sermon. It’s quite extraordinary. He also allows us to understand that the Godhead is much more complicated than polite American Protestantism would like us to believe.
There are even multiple divinities in Joseph Smith’s heaven and there’s room for promotion and elevation. Virtue, obedience, can allow for a deity to be exalted to an even higher state of godhood. This is one of the most shocking literary inventions that we find in Paradise Lost. So much of Paradise Lost has some conceptual origin in some works of classical literature, in some work of any aspect of Medieval or Renaissance Christian doctrine—
HODGES: And scripture, obviously.
ROGERS: And obviously Milton has committed so much of scripture to memory and tries to be as faithful to it as he possible can. We find certain aspects of the plot in Paradise Lost absolutely unprecedented and maybe the most central is what is for Milton the first event to happen in the chronology of the story.
So what happened in heaven before the fall of Adam and Eve? Well there was a war in heaven, we learn, and Satan is cast into Hell. Milton also asks this question: what happens in heaven before the war in heaven and why does a war erupt in the first place? He gives us this explanation. For no reason at all, at least for no apparent reason, it is made clear to the assembly of angels, God the Father announces that one of these beings in heaven is now called the Son of God, the only Son of God, complicated for the angels who had also thought of themselves as sons of God, and that Son of God will now be seen to serve at his right hand and will eventually, we learn at another juncture in the poem, will eventually become God himself, will assume the Godhead and assume all of the power and all of the authority of the Father. This notion of elevation, or an exaltation from one state of the divinity to another. There are very few representations of such an idea anywhere in the Christian tradition. Milton gives us one, and Joseph Smith gives us maybe even a bolder one. I don’t know. I think that’s one reason to imagine that early Mormonism had some kind of tie at least to the plot of Paradise Lost.
But back to Joseph Smith’s sense of matter being spiritual and spirit being material, this is a bit of metaphysics. It’s really beautifully, gorgeously represented in Paradise Lost as well as in Milton’s theological treatise. Milton really bets the farm on this little bit of metaphysics, that there is no…As all of his contemporaries believed in the seventeenth century, what one thought was that spirit and matter were absolutely distinct entities, that there is a perfect gulf between them. Milton weds them, or brings them together, and Joseph Smith begins to articulate his understanding of the relationship of matter and spirit in such a way that suggests, at least to me, that he has read Paradise Lost, or at least part of Paradise Lost has been drawn to his attention, and maybe even the very well publicized Theological Treatise on Christian Doctrine.
ONE FIRST MATTER ALL
HODGES: Why don’t you read that little portion there from Paradise Lost where Milton talks about the one substance?
ROGERS: It’s one of my favorite passages in the poem. The angel Raphael has come down to Eden to warn Adam and Eve that there is an enemy out there and they need to be on their guard. He also gives Adam and Eve a lot of information about the makeup of the cosmos. He gives them a little metaphysical lesson. It’s not nearly as dry and as intellectualized as one might think. So I’m going to read it. These are beautiful lines.
“O Adam, one Almightie is, from whom All things proceed, and up to him return, If not deprav’d from good, created all Such to perfection, one first matter all...”
So in that collection of four words, “one first matter all,” Milton, through the mouthpiece of the angel Raphael, is making an extraordinary claim: That everything that we know in this universe, that includes our souls, our bodies, the entirety of the cosmos, came from one original entity and it was entirely material. And we also learn, at least in the theological treatise, that that is nothing other than the body of God itself. We all have that first origin.
“One first matter all, Indu’d with various forms, various degrees Of substance, and in things that live, of life.”
And these are the lines that Joseph Smith echoes in a couple of places, as does Orson Pratt and his brother Parley Pratt. Joseph Smith explains in that beautiful King Follett sermon that spirit is nothing other than matter, and it is matter that has been refined and purified. He’s using the language of Raphael from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Orson Pratt will do exactly the same thing, as will Parley Pratt. They will take time to explain to their readers exactly what the soul is and what the spirit is. It’s a form of matter, and it’s matter that is refined and purified.
I think it’s inescapable, this idea that I don’t see any other possible origin or inspiration for such a beautifully delineated way of understanding the relation of matter and spirit than to think of Joseph Smith as a reader, as an auditor, as someone who has some relation to the beautiful poetry of Paradise Lost.
One actually doesn’t need, in the early nineteenth century, to have read Paradise Lost to have this detailed a sense of its exquisite spiritual metaphysics. These lines that I’ve just read of Raphael’s in book five of Paradise Lost are quoted everywhere in the early nineteenth century, but the translator of the theological treatise that’s just been discovered devotes an enormous amount of time in his footnotes drawing the reader’s attention to this passage, and it’s not until the early nineteenth century that readers focus on Milton’s metaphysics. This becomes a new thing that we can attach to Milton.
I don’t know. You don’t even need to read one of the abridged versions of Paradise Lost or one of the syntactically simplified versions of Paradise Lost. The Methodist church also produced, in addition to its abridged Paradise Lost, which by the way is available in paperback in a volume titled Milton for the Methodists; run to your bookstores now—
HODGES: Did you edit that or something? Or are you just giving it a free—
ROGERS: No, this is a free plug from me! There is a wildly popular book sponsored by the Methodist church called Paradise Lost for Children. It is written by an extraordinary woman who explains to mothers how they can read Paradise Lost to their children. So it’s not exactly a dumbed-down version of Paradise Lost; it’s something like a model, or a handbook for how you would present this incredibly demanding and difficult poem to your very small children. She tells you when to just summarize the plot and when you can actually drill down and read some lines itself. So many of the passages that the early Mormons are really interested in are taken really seriously by this particular Methodist volume, Paradise Lost for Children. This thing is everywhere.
HODGES: One thing I’ll interject as well, you mention this idea of influence and different members of the LDS church can try to accommodate that in different ways. Obviously you’ll have some who will say, if it’s something that Joseph Smith could have picked up from his environment it couldn’t have been inspired. Other Mormons would say he didn’t pick it up from his environment. Everything was revealed directly by God, so if it resonates with something else, so be it. And there are other Mormons who would say part of Joseph’s revelatory role would be to sort of combine these elements that he kind of—
Joseph Smith depicted a God that organized existent matter, and Joseph Smith as a prophet would then also be one who organized matter. He didn’t create it ex nihilo. He created it in part by using things that were already out there.
So Mormons would accommodate this idea of borrowing or being influenced by Milton in different ways. Critics of Mormonism, or people who are indifferent to Mormonism, there are a lot of different things to do to with the question of influence.
I wanted to ask before we moved on as well, why was that idea so potentially dangerous for Christians? The idea that there was this “one first matter all” that everyone came from. That wasn’t something that everyone was already happy to hear, that also bothered a lot of Christians.
RE-IMAGINING THE BODILY WORLD
ROGERS: It disrupts a lot of familiar orthodox thinking that has to put a big positive sign, a big thumbs up, on anything that is spiritual, immaterial, and therefore divine and good. And it becomes, in that light, really easy—and we’re all familiar with these ways of thinking, of imagining matter, the bodily world as coarse, as vulgar, as something lesser.
HODGES: It’s fallen. It’s gross matter. Sinful even, right? I mean, depraved.
ROGERS: It is depraved from good. Everything that is material, for a lot of people in the Renaissance when Milton was living and certainly a lot of people in the nineteenth century and a lot of people now are happy to consign the material world, the bodily world, to some lesser world that we can comfortably associate with evil rather than with God.
So think of what happens when you allow yourself to imagine that matter is actually a condensed form of spirit and that spirit is always material. There’s a kind of implicit divine blessing on everything that’s bodily. The sexual, the drives, all of those things that we’re often in a lot of traditions embarrassed about, although not in Mormonism, suddenly have been given this exaltation or this elevation to an entirely new level. It’s really quite extraordinary.
Milton was very sex-positive. That’s a kind of coarse twenty-first century way of thinking about some of the energy of Paradise Lost, but Milton goes out of his way in Paradise Lost to make sure that we understand that, and this is not taken up in Mormonism, he makes sure that we understand that Adam and Eve had a healthy sex life before the fall. The fall does not bring with it carnal knowledge. It brings with it lots of things, but it does not bring with it the sex drive or the interest or the capacity to have sexual intercourse. Milton places his divine blessing on that. That has a lot to do with why, metaphysically, he needs to divinize or spiritualize the bodily, the corporeal, and the material.
ELABORATING ON JOSEPH SMITH AND INTELLIGENCES
HODGES: One of the things about Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse is, he presented it pretty shortly before he died, so he didn’t have the opportunity to elaborate on it, to sit down and do “Q&A” or publish more things about this. However, his apostles and people that followed him in church leadership after his death did expand on this, and in your lecture you talk about some of the ways that different people within the LDS tradition interpreted Joseph Smith.
Let’s talk a little bit about where they went and how they compare to what Milton was doing, because there are some really interesting differences in how Milton would depict this “one matter” everyone came from versus how some of these Mormon interpreters, particularly the Pratt brothers, did.
ROGERS: That’s right. You’re right, it’s not until the last couple of years of his life that Joseph Smith puts himself under the pressure to develop something that looks like a Christian theology and it’s wild, it’s beautiful, and it is like nothing else ever articulated. A lot of it seemed anomic, or utterly mysterious in its seeming wisdom, and it’s this particular idea that Joseph Smith articulates in the King Follett sermon—that God finds himself, this is the origin of things or at least one version of the origin of things, God finds himself amidst the spirits. He does not create the spirit of man, he does not create—this is another way of Joseph Smith’s articulations—he does not create man’s “intelligence.” Those preexist. Are they as old as God? Are they older than God? We don’t know.
HODGES: In the Doctrine and Covenants he would say like, “You were in the beginning.” There’s a revelation that says that intelligence was in the beginning with God. Same with Jesus, so they’re all put on the same plane.
ROGERS: But the intelligences are the spirit of man, and God himself coexists—
HODGES: Yes. Now the question that remains in Mormonism today is, was that intelligence like a person? Some people talk about—this is a side-road that some people already know about—but basically the idea of spirit birth versus the idea of intelligences that have lived forever. So these are two different strains in Mormon thought.
ROGERS: Orson Pratt is obviously very moved by this powerful idea of Joseph Smith’s. And it’s really extraordinary what Orson Pratt comes up with, metaphysically, in order to justify this magnificent notion that the spirit of man, the intelligence of man is as old as God himself. This is how Orson explains it. It’s that every atomic microparticle of the universe is nothing other than a potential intelligence or spirit of man. So Orson Pratt teaches us in this remarkable, it’s called “Great First Cause,” remarkable metaphysical treatise, that in the beginning—in the true beginning, a beginning even before the beginning that Joseph Smith articulates in the sermon—in the beginning there are innumerable, an infinity of micro atomic particles that are material and spiritual—
HODGES: And intelligent.
ROGERS: They are intelligent.
HODGES: They have agency.
ROGERS: They are wise and they are obedient. To whom are they obedient is an obvious question. Orson Pratt imagines a time when there was no God, there was nothing but the spiritual micro particles and he puts himself in this position. He explains to us where God came from. God, of course, in all other Christian traditions comes first and he is the creator or the source of everything. For Orson Pratt, God is secondary. You have the spiritual micro particles of this remarkable universal chaos that somehow or other, he doesn’t exactly explain how, because they are wise, they are sentient, they are conscious, and they have a capacity for being obedient, although there are no laws yet.
HODGES: They’re going to decide on those laws, right?
ROGERS: They will decide on those laws. These micro particles congregate, they begin consensually in a very American and democratic sort of way, they begin consensually to form smaller unions that become larger unions. We have no idea how many eons this takes, but for Orson Pratt an innumerable quantity of these micro particles aggregate and form the being that we now know of as God the Father. Another assembly of micro particles congregates over how many eons we don’t know and forms the Son, and then the Holy Spirit is yet another large congregational mass of atomic particles—
HODGES: And the particles become humans, these become the spirits that God found himself amongst. By the way, really quick, this view of creation differs from Milton, because Milton had angels and God existing before, but Adam and Eve were created in the Garden, right? They didn’t precede the Garden of Eden, is that right?
ROGERS: That’s right. Milton does not have anything like the Mormon doctrine of preexistence.
HODGES: Just wanted Mormons to keep that in mind.
ROGERS: Adam and Eve in Milton’s poem are created after the creation of the earth, and truly as it says in the Book of Genesis, on the sixth day of creation.
HODGES: Sorry to interject. To catch back up, basically Orson Pratt kicks the story back way further than Joseph Smith did and then brings it to this point that makes God an effect of these particles and these other things, rather than God as the ground of all being.
ROGERS: And it’s hard for me to imagine a more daring, a more radical, or a bolder vision of divinity than Orson Pratt’s.
HODGES: Well, there is another bold one though. This is the surprising, if our listeners haven’t heard the lecture yet maybe go listen first, but, spoiler alert, there’s something Milton wrote that resonates with Orson Pratt in a surprising way.
ORSON PRATT AND MILTON’S SATAN
ROGERS: I happen to think that Orson Pratt, in this wild and really daring speculation of the creation of God, is thinking of an extraordinary moment from Paradise Lost. It happens in book five of the twelve books of Paradise Lost. Satan has an argument with a loyalist angel just preceding the war in heaven in which Satan insists that he owes no allegiance to God, has no reason to obey the Father because the Father was not his creator, the Father cannot be said to have formed or made Satan, or in fact any of the angels. It’s a bold conceptual move on Satan’s part, absolutely unprecedented.
HODGES: Satan says, “Prove it, if you think otherwise. Do you remember it?”
ROGERS: “Rememberest thou thy making?” he asks his adversary, priggish loyalist angel friend. Of course the answer is no, because no one remembers one’s creation. And because we can’t remember it we must—this is Satan’s argument—we must have created ourselves. “We know no time when we were not as now, know none before us, self begot, self-made of our own quickening power.”
How does that work exactly, a lot of readers have thought. How can we create ourselves when the “we” that’s creating ourselves is also the thing being created?
Orson Pratt understood that Satan, in this passage that he obviously loved, has fallen into a logical trap. So Orson posits something that makes more logical sense. You have all of these innumerable individual entities that are sentient and conscious and they congregate together to form angels, they actually congregate together to form preexistent human beings, and as I’ve just suggested, they also at the very beginning of time created God himself.
HODGES: So Orson Pratt himself makes Satan’s argument, but a little bit differently. That’s the surprise here.
ROGERS: I think Orson Pratt learns a lot from Milton’s Satan, untwists some of Satan’s bad logic and turns it into something that actually, in a sort of semi-science fiction way, makes sense.
HODGES: But Orson’s wasn’t the only Mormon approach. In fact, interestingly enough, it would be Orson Pratt’s own brother Parley who would object and offer something different. It’s so fascinating what you do in your lecture. You talk about what Orson Pratt did with that.
People that haven’t heard the lecture yet, I encourage you to listen because Dr. Rogers also talks about alternate visions that Parley P. Pratt offers to counter Orson Pratt’s view on this. He also talks about some of the institutional reasons why these different theories were being offered. Orson’s was much more democratic and open, which aligned with some of the ways he believed LDS church government should go, and Parley’s view was much more centered on God as a figurehead, as a presider, which matched what Brigham Young’s vision for church leadership was.
Check out the lecture to hear more about that, as we are short on time. We’re talking today with John Rogers. He’s a Milton specialist. He’s a professor of English at Yale University and the author of Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton. He’s working on a number of projects right now that include a book that’s tentatively titled Latter-day Milton: Paradise Lost and the Creation of America’s God.
Before we go I wanted to ask a few broader questions about theology and literature. What are your thoughts about engaging theologically with literature, the value of a figure like John Milton for someone’s religious beliefs?
THEOLOGY AND LITERATURE
ROGERS: I think for an amazing intellect and writer like John Milton there’s not a really obvious and bright line between the intellectual and imaginative activity that goes into theological thinking and the imaginative and intellectual activity that goes into producing a remarkable work of literature. Both require some kind of attentiveness to scripture from Milton’s perspective, and both activities require a kind of boldness of mind and a willingness to think outside of the box. Milton, it seems clear, was preparing himself to write Paradise Lost and was thinking about how he was going to allow this story of the fall of Adam and Eve and the fall that preceded that, the fall of the angels—he was imagining how that would play out in his work of literature that he knew he would begin writing soon as he was producing the theological treatise.
The theological treatise is of course written in Latin rather than English. It can seem very forbidding at times. Its commitment to certain scholastic forms of argument can be very off-putting and require a demanding set of intellectual antennae to understand what he’s actually doing. Milton is creatively reading scripture in his theology and obviously he’s creatively thinking about everything when he’s writing a work of literature. They’re both different forms of truth. I don’t think one is fiction and one is truth, one is spiritual and one is material for Milton. I think it seems reasonable to assume these are just two different activities that a right-thinking Christian can reasonably engage in.
HODGES: You mentioned earlier some of your own thoughts about Milton and possibly even his inspiration. Do you mind saying something a little bit about your own background in terms of how studying Milton has influenced you on the religious side of things? You approach him as a scholar, but are you also a religious person?
ROGERS: I was raised Baptist in an American Baptist church in a little town in Kansas. I will never forget my first reading of Paradise Lost. It was my freshman year in college and it was my “come to Jesus” moment. It really was absolutely completely overwhelming to me. I couldn’t believe that a human being actually was able to envision something so grand, and in many cases so shocking, as well as beautiful. I don’t know if I ever took seriously Milton’s insistence in Paradise Lost that he was in fact inspired by God to write this thing. It can seem to a lot of readers that Milton must have been inspired by God to write Paradise Lost because he wrote it blind. He dictated it to secretaries and he only experienced it when it was read back to him. He was completely incapable of reading at that point.
So I have had the opportunity to teach Milton to college students for some twenty-five years now and I have had students who are offended by it. I have students who find everything that they read in Paradise Lost as surely created by the devil because it runs so completely counter to what they have been taught to believe. I have also had students who are absolutely insistently believing that Milton was in fact inspired by God to write this remarkable thing.
Where do I fall? I am not a believer in any ordinary sense. I find myself moved and I have to say—I don’t say this often—I find myself spiritually elevated when I read the seventeenth century poetry and prose that I love, in which Milton and a lot of his contemporaries are really struggling to make sense of a world that otherwise really just doesn’t seem to make sense. They’re trying to do this through some kind of really attentive and smart reading of the Bible. That moves me to no end.
I also find really moving the idea that Joseph Smith and some of the early apostles might have found some kind of inspiration in some sort of encounter with Milton’s theological treatise and with Milton’s poem. As it has been argued and noted at least since the nineteenth century, Joseph Smith and many others were responding to a lot of the materials they had around them. Joseph Smith was known to have been a Mason and he seems to have borrowed a lot of the ritual liturgical literary aspects of Masonry in some of his own liturgical imaginings, for example. I think he may well have done something similarly with Paradise Lost.
I take really seriously the importance of Joseph Smith’s insistence that God creates the universe out of preexisting materials, that God is not in a position to create matter itself; it’s already there. In so many ways we see Joseph Smith responding to the world around him, to the poetry that he’s reading, to the ideas that he’s getting from all sorts of avenues. He’s piecing them together as we all do, as we all have no choice but to do. Was he inspired by God to do it? I am happy to honor anyone who is invested in that belief.
HODGES: I think it’s interesting to think of Milton that way as well, in his drawing on classic literature and scripture he was doing a similar act. It was a remarkable original creation that he made, but it wasn’t ex nihilo either.
ROGERS: Milton knows when we read Paradise Lost we’re going to recognize a thousand different allusions to the great classical epics—Homer’s Iliad, Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid. He understands that we will understand how powerfully those great works of literature influenced him. Nonetheless, he will insist in the same work of literature that he was inspired by a heavenly muse, the Holy Spirit itself, to write the beautiful poetry of Paradise Lost. He didn’t see inspiration coming by means of reading or inspiration coming from God as in any way contradictory. I don’t see why we can’t, or believing Mormons can’t, attribute that same kind of generous understanding of inspiration and influence when thinking of Joseph Smith.
HODGES: I know many members of the LDS Church that see it that way.
That’s John Rogers. He’s a professor of English at Yale University. Today we talked to him about Mormonism and John Milton, the great poet. Obviously both of us would commend to all the listeners, if they haven’t had the opportunity, to read Paradise Lost. It does take a lot of effort but I think it’s well worth the effort and I think it’s great that you’ve spent so much time on the poem.
ROGERS: I want to give a little shout-out to a very special experience for those listeners out there who don’t want to struggle reading Paradise Lost.
Paradise Lost comes in a couple of different unabridged audiobooks. The poem is remarkable as an experience to listen to. We’re talking about a blind poet who couldn’t read the thing who only heard himself pronounce it and having it read back to him. It’s something that has to be experienced orally and I think an audiobook is as easily as powerful and as moving an experience as actually looking at the words on the page and trying to make sense of them.
HODGES: Do you have a preferred version that you liked, or a particular narrator? Or are they all pretty good?
ROGERS: I can’t remember the names of either narrator, but both of the versions that are available on audible.com are excellent.
HODGES: Very good. John, thanks for coming in today. I really appreciate you spending time with us.
ROGERS: Thank you very much. This has been a real pleasure.