Book of Abraham/Plagiarism accusations/Thomas Dick

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Did Joseph Smith plagiarize Thomas Dick's book The Philosophy of a Future State?

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Question: Could Joseph Smith's theology as described in the Book of Abraham have been influenced by Thomas Dick's book The Philosophy of a Future State?

Fawn Brodie suggested that Joseph Smith developed the theology described in the Book of Abraham by reading Thomas Dick’s The Philosophy of a Future State

This criticism was advanced by Fawn Brodie, who suggested that Joseph Smith developed the theology described in the Book of Abraham by reading Thomas Dick’s The Philosophy of a Future State. An excerpt from Dick’s work was published by Oliver Cowdery in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in December 1836,[1] therefore one could assume that Joseph had access to the book in the 1835-1836 timeframe during which the Book of Abraham was being produced. Dick's book was also in the possession of the Prophet by 1844, at which time he donated his copy to the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute. [2]

It is also known that two of Dick's books were available in the Manchester Library, [3] although none of the Smith family were actually members of the library and were unlikely to have had access to its resources.[4] Based upon this circumstantial evidence, Brodie not only assumes that the Prophet must have read the book, but that he incorporated Dick’s ideas into the Book of Abraham.

The two ideas suggested to contribute to the Book of Abraham aren't connected in a strong way. Additionally, many of the ideas promoted by Thomas Dick were common Protestant beliefs, however, Joseph Smith rejected or contradicted many of the ideas put forth by Dick

It should first be noted that there were two elements that critics suggest are related to the Book of Abraham: 1) That matter is eternal and 2) That God sits at the center of the universe among a tiered system of stars. For the first idea, the idea that matter is eternal, D&C 93, given to the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1833 mentions that "...the elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseperably connected, receive a fullness of joy;" What is significant is that this was given before any of Joseph's attempts to learn languages academically so, it is unlikely that he got this idea simply from his study of Hebrew. For the second idea, the idea that God sits at the center of the Universe among a tiered set of stars, it has ancient parallels with the astronomy taught in Abraham's day. See the FairMormon evidences page for more information. In addition to this, many of the ideas promoted by Thomas Dick were common Protestant beliefs and were therefore available without having to read Dick’s work. Joseph Smith never made any public or written statements indicating that he was aware of or that he had ever read Dick’s book. The only evidence that even suggests the possibility is circumstantial and is based upon the appearance of several passages from A Philosophy of a Future State in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. More importantly, Joseph Smith rejected or contradicted many of the ideas put forth by Dick in A Philosophy of a Future State. It is therefore unlikely, contrary to Brodie’s speculation, that Joseph had been “recently reading” Dick’s work and that it made a “lasting impression” upon the Prophet.[5][6]


Question: How do the theological concepts of Joseph Smith actually compare to those of Thomas Dick?

A comparison of several of the theological concepts of both Joseph Smith and Thomas Dick shows major contrasts

Thomas Dick was a Scottish born minister, writer, astronomer and philosopher, whose published works in the early 1800’s attempted to reconcile science with Christianity. Dick believed that "mind and matter" were the two basic principles of the universe.[7] Dick believed God was of "a spiritual uncompounded substance, having no visible form."[8] The reason for the existence of matter is to allow the mind to be able to focus on God through the observance of his creations.

According to Dick:

[F]or the Creator has ordained, as one part of their mental enjoyments, that they shall be furnished with the means of tracing the mode of his operations, and the designs they are intended to accomplish in the different departments of nature.[9]

The following is a comparison and contrast of several of the theological concepts of both Joseph Smith and Thomas Dick.

Concept Thomas Dick Joseph Smith
Creation None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of the stars, which called them from nothing into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations...[10] Now, I ask all who hear me, why the learned men who are preaching salvation, say that God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing? The reason is, that they are unlearned in the things of God... [11]
Intelligences The Creator stands in no need of innumerable assemblages of worlds and of inferior ranks of intelligences, in order to secure or to augment his felicity. Innumerable ages before the universe was created, he existed alone, independent of every other being, and infinitely happy in the contemplation of his own eternal excellencies.[12] I dwell in the midst of them all; I now, therefore, have come down unto thee to declare unto thee the works which my hands have made, wherein my wisdom excelleth them all, for I rule in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, in all wisdom and prudence, over all the intelligences thine eyes have seen from the beginning; I came down in the beginning in the midst of all the intelligences thou hast seen. Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; (Abraham 3:21-22)
Nature of God a spiritual uncompounded substance, having no visible form.[13] God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens![14]
Ability to comprehend God But the eternity, the omnipresence, and the omniscience of the Deity, are equally mysterious; for they are equally incomprehensible, and must for ever remain incomprehensible to all limited intelligences.[15] It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth. [16]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Oliver Cowdery (editor), "ON THE ABSURDITY OF SUPPOSING THAT THE THINKING PRINCIPLE IN MAN WILL EVER BE ANNIHILATED," (December 1836) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 3:423-425. (An extract from "Thomas Dick's Philosophy of a Future State.") It should be noted that the November 1836 date given for this article given by Brodie in No Man Knows My History on page 171 is incorrect.
  2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, "A Note on the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute," BYU Studies 14, no. 3 (1974) off-site
  3. Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library," Brigham Young University Studies 22 no. 3 (1982), 333–356.
  4. John Brooke, The Refiner's Fire (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 207.
  5. Hugh Nibley, No, Ma'am, That's Not History: A Brief Review of Mrs. Brodie's Reluctant Vindication of a Prophet She Seeks to Expose (Bookcraft: 1946). off-site
  6. Jones, pp. 94-6.
  7. Edward T. Jones, The Theology of Thomas Dick and its Possible Relationship to that of Joseph Smith, Master's Thesis, 1969, p. 27.
  8. Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (New York: R. Shoyer, 1831) p. 188.
  9. Dick, p. 212.
  10. Dick, p. 192.
  11. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977) p. 350.
  12. Dick, p. 52.
  13. Dick, p. 188.
  14. Smith, p. 345.
  15. Dick, p. 183.
  16. Smith, p. 345.