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.

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 commentary on Abraham in Philosophy of a Future State does not mention him in any context that is similar to the Book of Abraham. There are references to "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"[5], to Abraham living as an intelligent being in another state at the time of Moses at the burning bush[6], to Abraham "giving up the ghost" and being "gathered to his people"[7] to Abraham being buried at Machpelah[8], to the ability to sit with "Abraham , and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven."[9], and to Abraham's "[expectation] of a future city which had foundations, whose builder and maker is God." and that "He obtained no such city in the earthly Canaan; and therefore we must necessarily suppose, that his views were directed at the mansions of perpetuity beyond the confines of the present world."[10]. With regards to Moses, he is not mentioned in a context similar to that of the Book of Moses. There is reference to Moses being animated by the conviction of a future world and life [11], reference to Moses "being gathered to his people" as an evidence for the doctrine of afterlife in the Old Testament.[12] A reference to "holy intelligences" singing praises to God with the song of Moses--a reference to Revelations 15:3[13], another reference to the same verse on page 225, a reference to Moses as a possible messenger to John regarding the "New Jerusalem" mentioned in revelations,[14] and a reference to moses and others hypothetically forming "something approaching to a paradise on earth[15]. 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.[16][17]


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.[18] Dick believed God was of "a spiritual uncompounded substance, having no visible form."[19] 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.[20]

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...[21] 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... [22]
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.[23] 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.[24] God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens![25]
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.[26] 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. [27]
Nature of Matter What successive creations have taken place since the first material world was launched into existence by the Omnipotent Creator? What new worlds and beings are still emerging into existence from the voids of space?[28] 33 For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy;[29]

Regarding the claimed similarity between "The Throne of God" Edward T. Jones, in a comprehensive review of Dick's and Joseph's theology wrote.

What of the references to the "Throne of God?" The solution to this seems to be found in statements referring to Him who "sits on the throne of the universe," or "upon the throne of universal nature.,,[30]These statements seem only to imply that the universe is God's throne. This position is further defensible from several other statements Dick makes in an introduction he wrote in 1845. He referred to "the majesty of Him who sits on the throne of the universe. [31].He later refers to "him who 'sitteth on the circle of the heavens." There cannot be a geographic center of the universe, for that would require boundaries to be placed on the infinite, a concept which, as previously indicated, was rejected by Dick, There cannot be a 'spiritual' center at which place God resides—He does not possess a body either physical or spiritual; He is omnipresent, existing everywhere. He is a Spirit which fills every bit of the universe, as has been determined earlier. Thus, Dick would appear to be speaking metaphorically when he refers to a center of the universe or to a Throne of God.

[. . .]

Though she does not state it explicitly, Mrs. Brodie infers that the concept of Kolob being near the throne of God (as taught in the Book of Abraham) came from Thomas Dick. Having referred to this relationship between Kolob and the Throne of God in the body of the text, she then states in a footnote: Compare the Book of Abraham with Dicks "The Philosophy of a Future State." As has already been observed, the concepts of God held by those two theologians are quite in contrast to each other. For Joseph Smith, God was "an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens."[32] For Thomas Dick, God was an uncompounded spiritual substance who "sits upon the throne of universal nature."[33]. It is true that Dick does in one place state that there may be a grand center about which the planetary systems revolve. But God Himself fills the immensity of space, and cannot therefore be located in any single spot; certainly not upon a throne in the sense the Prophet uses the term (and if the definitions agree, similarities are impossible. The terms may be the same, but if they stand for different things, there can be no equating of one to the other). For the latter the throne of God was a glorified or celestialized earth, upon which God, an "exalted man," dwelt. For Dick the throne constituted no planetary body, though there may be a geographical location at which spot Jesus and the holy angels reside, God Himself is every where, yet nowhere. God, as a physical, tangible being, does not exist. As a spiritual Essence, pervading the universe He does exist. Hence, to say that the planets revolve around the throne of God is meaningless, unless it is understood that God "sits upon the throne of universal nature." In this sense God takes on a character not unlike Joseph Smith's concept of the Light of Christ (with distinctions, of course,) It would appear that on this point Mrs, Brodie is again mistaken. It is true that Joseph's thinking may have been aided by some of the concepts he may have read in Dick's writings. But it appears to be a small probability that he was influenced by what Dick taught. If the Prophet "had recently been reading" Dick's works it would appear that he rejected most of that which Dick believed most strongly, while retaining that which Dick seemed to reject. There are several references in the Old Testament to the throne of God. These are referred to, and quoted by Dick, Joseph Smith could likewise have gained knowledge from the Old Testament, not to mention the Book of Mormon. Again, the

possibility for influence is present, though small.[34]

Additional differences can be noted by reading Dr. Jones' thesis. The connection is specious at best.


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. Dick, Thomas "Philosophy of a Future State" (William Collins: South Frederick Street, Glasgow, Paternoster Row, London. 1830) 121 off-site(accessed 17 December 2018)
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid, 123
  10. Ibid, 119
  11. Ibid., 119
  12. Ibid., 121
  13. Ibid., 125
  14. Ibid., 276
  15. Ibid., 279
  16. 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
  17. Jones, pp. 94-6.
  18. Edward T. Jones, The Theology of Thomas Dick and its Possible Relationship to that of Joseph Smith, Master's Thesis, 1969, p. 27.
  19. Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (New York: R. Shoyer, 1831) p. 188.
  20. Dick, p. 212.
  21. Dick, p. 192.
  22. Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977) p. 350.
  23. Dick, p. 52.
  24. Dick, p. 188.
  25. Smith, p. 345.
  26. Dick, p. 183.
  27. Smith, p. 345.
  28. Dick, p. 214
  29. D&C 93. An interesting thing for this reference is that the revelation cited comes from the year 1833--nearly three years before he began any academic study of the Hebrew language
  30. Dick, Philosophy of Religion, 38, and Philosophy of a Future State. 204.
  31. "Introduction", to Burritt. XV
  32. Smith, 305
  33. Dick, Philosophy of a Future State, 204
  34. Jones, Edward T., "The Theology of Thomas Dick and its Possible Relationship to that of Joseph Smith" (1969). All Theses and Dissertations. 4839. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/4839