Benjamin Brown and Dr. David L. Paulsen, Philosophy Department
My research for this project was supportive of a larger project already underway by Dr. Paulsen and Ari Bruening. The project investigates claims by certain scholars concerning the teachings of the early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church) relative to the nature of God. The final product was a manuscript submitted to Koffard Books for subsequent publication. In addition to my research role, I also extensively edited the document, proposed and implemented major changes, and managed a research staff of a size varying from six to twelve people in their research, editing, fact checking, and writing to ensure completion of the final manuscript. In most instances, I would determine what specific research needs we had, and then request staff members to fulfill those needs. Thus, many other portions of the research for this project were first conceived by me, but then completed by others.
This project was much larger than a typical undergraduate thesis, resulting in at least two hundred pages in a digital Microsoft Word document. As such, the research I performed varied widely depending on the needs of the particular section or argument I was dealing with at the time. Examples of my research include: detailing the life and writings of Stephen Post, an early LDS convert, and evaluating the theological viewpoints that emerged from such research; investigating the claims of certain scholars and proposing alternative readings for scriptural passages that they cite; researching the usage of certain theological words in early LDS history and determining the implications of such usage; researching and explaining the provenance of various LDS documents; researching and detailing the meaning of certain specialized theological terms; contacting various scholars for assistance in research as well as permission to use their unpublished work in our manuscript; re-writing major portions of the manuscript to strengthen arguments; research and detailing certain editorial and formatting changes within various LDS documents; and so forth.
I learned a great deal throughout this research process. Perhaps foremost, I learned to lead and manage a research team. Occasionally it felt overwhelming, but I developed a system of delegation that worked very well. This enabled me to identify specific things to be done, and then delegate them to individuals who were particularly skilled at that sort of task. The changing size of the team was a definite challenge in progressing the work. At times I had so many people I could barely keep them all busy, but at other times it was literally just me working on the project, with no relief in sight. This meant that not only did I need to come up with a flexible method of working on the project, I also needed to juggle the actual research with training and general oversight of the project. I trained many students on how to use various resources to accomplish our research tasks while simultaneously taking into account each staff members unique abilities and area of expertise so as to best use our funding. This was, by far, the most difficult part of the project for me.
In terms of the actual research, I learned a great deal about many topics, particularly when considering how wide ranging the research I performed was. Out of all the research I performed, some of it was more specifically related to the main question of the project, namely, what understanding of God can be found in early Mormon documents. To answer this question the already existing work examined documents recognized as scriptural canon by the LDS Church as well as other documents that while not canon, were nevertheless persuasive. The existing work also examined the writings of some early Church members to see if any insight could be gained on the actual LDS teachings of the time. My contribution to this effort was to review the arguments to confirm their persuasiveness, or supplement arguments or occasionally replace arguments with material I found more persuasive. Thus, as with a lot of philosophy research, much of it involves simply sitting in an arm chair and thinking hard. It is difficult to relay in words the nature of such experiences, much less the successes and failures of thought experienced during such moments. Even if it were achievable I would simply be relaying minutia in many ways. In an argument such as the one we were making, the force of it rests on a huge collection of minutia, which on its own is not particularly persuasive but when taken together can be very meaningful.
Challenges arose when it was not entirely clear what should be understood by the primary documents. In these instances, my research involved more traditional methods of inquiry: going to the library, examining other documents contemporary with the documents in question and so forth. This was particularly important for the non-scriptural documents such as early Church member’s writings. The case of Stephen Post was particularly interesting. Post provided the most challenging material in our case for Social Trinitarianism since he essentially espoused an opposing view in some early writings. At the time of these writings he was in a leadership position in the LDS Church (a Seventy), so it raised some question as to where he was getting his understanding. To answer this I essentially tracked down every aspect of his life as well as much about the lives of his relatives. From all of this, I pieced together a profile of Stephen Post to help determine how connected he was with the LDS Church. This information I included in the manuscript and worked it in to an argument fitting with the material found therein.
My experience with Stephen Post is typical of my work with other topics. I would find a problem, try to solve it through the use of reason, and if unable to, I would search for facts to help establish the point. The Stephen Post case was a more substantial undertaking than most of the other issues I came across, but each mimicked this experience in the main.
In the end, with a few anomalies like Stephen Post’s writings, the vast majority of what I discovered and what was already included in the manuscript supported the concept that the earliest Mormon understanding of God was something akin to what is known today as Social Trinitarianism. In less philosophical terms, this is a construction of God as consisting of three materially separate persons, each identifiable as God, and each existing in a union of love and understanding with the other two. This union is comparable in some ways to what might obtain in a family union, except that each member of this union agrees with the other in ways not seen in a family; this agreement exceeds that seen in a family to such a degree that it can properly be said that their wills are one. The work I performed to help establish this point was both substantial and rewarding. I thank the Undergraduate Research Office for supporting me and encouraging me in this research.
This project resulted in a publishable manuscript currently under contract with Kofford Books. While the work has been submitted to the publisher, I am uncertain as to when it may be available to the general public.