There are two ways to look at what there is in the world. You can say that things in the world developed or appeared and became what they are as a result of the long chain of events that happened in history. Or you can say that, in some sense, the essence of things in the world existed (in some sense or manner) and later emerged or were realized over the course of history. That reflection came while reading A Brief History of France: An Introduction to the People, History and Culture (Robinson Books, 2017, rev’d and updated edition) by Cecil Jenkins. Let’s talk about France, then get back to Mormonism.
The author takes issue with the view of traditional French historians who stressed French exceptionalism by affirming some unique and unifying essence to France or Frenchness. Here’s the quotation:
[A]t the end of his vast study L’Identite de la France, the recent great historian Ferdinand Braudel was left to conclude not only that France is diverse, but that “its diversity is manifest, enduring and structural.” Some of the earlier French historians, on the other hand, have not helped by encouraging an essentialist view of the national history with such expressions as “the soul of France,” “eternal France,” and “the French genius,” as though there pre-existed a quintessential Frenchness determining historical developments rather than the reverse …. (p. 239)
He’s claiming that whatever Frenchness there is to the people, culture, and land of France is the *result* of its history rather than the cause or driving force of its history. He is taking Sartre’s claim about human individuals, that existence precedes essence, and applying it more broadly. I believe he would agree with the view that, had certain events happened differently, what we view as the Frenchness of France might have turned out rather differently than we see it now. If Eiffel had died as a child, there wouldn’t be an Eiffel Tower, for instance. This view assumes that history could have turned out differently, of course: that Eiffel could have died as a child. That Eiffel was not somehow predestined to design and build his tower. Orthodox Calvinists (if there are any left) would disagree with that view.
Without belaboring the point, let’s transpose that view to Mormonism and the LDS Church. The claim would be that the doctrine, organization, and culture of the Church is what it is as a result of its history. It could have turned out rather differently had certain events played out in a different way, say if Joseph had not gone to Carthage with his brother in 1844 or if David Patten had not died in a skrimish in Missouri in 1838 and lived to succeed Joseph Smith or if Martin Harris had not pledged his farm to fund the printing of the Book of Mormon. This is the view that there is no pre-existing essence or matrix for the Church: it is what it is today because it became what it is in the course of historical events such as they happened. It could have turned out differently.
So the discussion question is:
- Could Mormonism and the LDS Church have turned out differently, perhaps dramatically so?
- Or is there a pre-existing essence to the doctrine, organization, and culture of the Church that necessarily appeared and history could not have played out any different than it did, giving us the Church as it presently is.