Neighbors in the Tarantula Nebula, just 160,000 light years away.
Latter-day Saints with an interest in science are often intrigued by the coherent network of ideas Joseph Smith's revelations provide on the nature of the cosmos. These teachings include:
  • the material nature of spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8), including the teaching that spirit matter is a form of matter that is too "fine or pure" to be seen with our mortal eyes, yet is still genuine matter; 
  • the eternal nature of matter (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33);
  • the plurality of inhabited worlds inhabited by sons and daughters of God across the immensity of space;
  • the denial of creation ex nihilo
  • the insistence that the Creation is for a remarkable purpose, namely, God's work and glory, the endless work of bringing about the salvation of his children (Moses 1:39); and
  • the eternal nature of intelligence and the genuine free agency that God's children have.
The compatibility of some of Joseph Smith's views with science does not necessarily provide proof or "signs" that Joseph was a prophet, for many of the concepts he revealed and discussed have parallels in prior debates and in the discussions of his day. Some concepts such as the plurality of inhabited worlds can be found among other voices of the Enlightenment and in other sources, as Robert Paul has thoroughly documented. See Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Plurality of Worlds Idea," Dialogue, 19/2 (1986): 13–36. However, the net effect of what he provided gives a cohesive set of concepts that strikes me as revolutionary in several ways. Regarding the plurality of worlds, Paul states that:
On careful examination, these complex issues suggest that the environmental thesis -- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions – does not provide a wholly adequate explanation of the style and structure of restoration pluralism.
 Such can be argued for much of Joseph Smith's cosmology, and certainly for its overall effect.

As for Joseph's coherent cosmic views relative to Christian theology of the day, Terryl Givens in Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) writes:
From an early Mormon perspective, Christian theology was generally too reticent in probing beyond the bounds of the biblically revealed. What of the time before Creation? What was God doing then? Preparing Hell for such as would ask such impudent questions, was the answer Augustine recounted. What of God's other dominions? Why is there man at all? For Milton, it was to compensate for the third of heaven's angels seduced by Satan; the scriptures, however, are silent. What of human destiny in the worlds beyond? What are humans being saved for? Dante thought a state of eternal, rapturous contemplation, and few have proffered more specifics than that. Post-redemption theology seems an oxymoron. (Kindle edition, Chapter 2, footnotes omitted.)
But again, there certainly were ministers speaking of multiple worlds. Some were using it to defend Christianity from deism or to support other arguments, but as Paul observes, Joseph takes this as a given and uses it to teach us God's work and purpose, addressing issues relatively untouched elsewhere. Unfortunately, some critics of the Church attempt to explain away the many profound cosmological and theological aspects of the Book of Abraham by dismissing it as a 19th-centtury fabrication merely drawn from Joseph's environment. The "CES Letter" offers a supposedly well-informed but somewhat shoddy argument on this point, claiming that Joseph merely drew upon a book available in his day.

The book in question is by Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books. A PDF of an 1830 printing is downloadable at Like a number of other evangelical voices of his day, Dick argues for the Christian faith using arguments drawn from science, and along the way speaks of life on multiple worlds. This certainly wasn't a novel concept introduced by Joseph Smith. But the "CES Letter" makes more serious charges of derivation. It claims Joseph owned a copy (at least by 1844, he did have one that he donated to the Nauvoo Library), that Oliver Cowdery quoted from it in 1836, and, more importantly, that it might be the source for the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and that it also rejected creation ex nihilo.

Michael Ash in Bamboozled by the CES Letter  treats this argument, but too briefly for those keenly interested in the scientific aspects of Joseph Smith's universe. More recently, a more thorough response to this issue was provided on the Conflict of Justice blog in the post "Did Joseph Smith Get The Book Of Abraham Cosmology From 'Philosophy Of A Future State'?" The author, Rick Moser, a.k.a "Teancum," is blunt about the CES Letter's reliance Klaus Hansen's claim that Thomas Dick's book teaches eternal, indestructible matter and rejects creation ex nihilo:
False. This is 100% incorrect. Take a look at Philosophy of a Future State. It teaches the creatio ex nihilo doctrine, in contradiction with the Book of Abraham.
None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of stars, which called them from nothing, into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.

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? [Dick, p. 214, 1830 printing, or pp. 206-7, Google Books version; emphasis original in Moser]
It teaches that laws and truth are eternal and that resurrection will be a physical restoration, yes, but there is nothing about Joseph Smith’s and Abraham’s doctrine that matter is eternal.
Other seemingly important parallels are shown to have more ancient sources, such as the Bible itself. For example, the notion of innumerable stars, apart from being in numerous other works, is found in the Bible in Hebrews 11:12.

Further related statements from the "CES Letter" are shown at Conflict of Justice to be misquotes or serious blunders, such as claiming that Dick's book and the Book of Abraham teach of a universe that revolves around the throne of God (wrong in both cases!).

Of course, other modern and fairly ancient sources can be found that reject creation ex nihilo, and thus pre-existing matter or maybe even eternal matter will be implicitly if not explicitly taught elsewhere. But cherry picking lone concepts does not create the coherent and satisfying, even breathtaking (for some of us) framework of concepts that arise from Joseph Smith's revelations. Why does he ignore or reject so much of Dick's teachings if that were an influential book for him? If the case is so compelling, why stretch it past the breaking point with assertions that don't bear scrutiny?

Dick has some interesting statements about eternity and the opportunity for mankind to learn much and enjoy much during immortality from the wonders of the cosmos. But he completely misses a key element of Joseph Smith's cosmology and theology: that God's work and his glory in His endless creative work is to bring us into His presence, for we are His children, co-eternal in some way with Him. His glory and His joy grows as we grow and accept the infinite grace He offers. On p. 62 (1830 printing), Dick writes:
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. No other reason, therefore, can be assigned for the production of the universe, but the gratification of his rational offspring, and that he might give a display of the infinite glories of his nature to innumerable orders of intelligent creatures.
 Such thinking is consistent with much of religious thought in Joseph's day, but is hardly the source for the cosmology of the Book of Abraham and the restored Gospel brought through Joseph Smith.

Other scholars and theologians, though certainly not all and perhaps far from a majority, had proposed that other worlds exist. However, what was taught about God's motivation for the Creation of many other planets? Those who recognized from science that other planets probably exist may have necessarily proffered reasons such as saving souls [so they could endlessly contemplate God or praise Him] or, as Dick did above, allowing immortals to learn about the wonders of the cosmos. But if God is perfectly happy without us, as Dick explains, why bother?

We may struggle to find plausible environmental sources for the sweeping scope of Joseph Smith's cosmology in which the weeping God seeks to bring His sons and daughters home in an infinite work that spans space and time, endlessly motivated by love for us, His children. In Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (viewable at Google Books), we are reminded that a still significant religious concept is the notion, much like that expressed by Dick, that a perfect God does not need man or any of His creations for His perfection and glory. It is a concept drawn from Platonism and is one I find to be directly antagonistic to the work and the glory of God taught in Moses 1:39. Lovejoy explains that in this Platonic paradigm that dominated Western thought for over 2,000 years (less so in the twentieth century as he wrote, though it is "still potent"):
The fullness of good is attained once for all in God; and “the creatures” add nothing to it. They have from the divine point of view no value; if they were not, the universe would be none the worse…. [It is in this implicit aspect of Platonic] doctrine that we must recognize the primary source of that endlessly repeated theorem of the philosophical theologians that God has no need of a world and is indifferent to it and all that goes on it. This implication of the Platonic Idea of the Good speedily became explicit in the theology of Aristotle…. It is — to cite by way of anticipation only or two our of a thousand later examples — this Platonic as well as Aristotelian strain that Jonathan Edwards may be heard echoing in Colonial America, when he declares: “No notion of God’s last end in creation of the world is agreeable to reason which would imply or infer any indigence, insufficiency and mutability in God or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness….” This eternally serene and impassible Absolute is, manifestly, somewhat difficult to recognize in the sadistic deity of the sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; but Edwards did not differ from most of the great theologians in having many Gods under one name. [Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, pp. 43-44]
If God has no need of a world, he certainly has no need of many worlds peopled with the same kind of offensive, miserable sinners we have here.

Platonic thought is at the heart of Dick's framework and also guides Jonathan Edwards, another source frequently cited as an influence on Joseph Smith, but Platonic thought is far from the revelatory and revolutionary framework of Joseph Smith.

I have no trouble with language from Joseph's environment, such as "intelligences" as a term to describe intelligent life or spirit beings, influencing his use of language to express revealed concepts. I have no problem with terminology and even core concepts from others having influenced his thinking, his choice of words, his inquiries and interests. But for those who are willing to exercise a modicum of faith, there is something much more interesting going on than just trying to generate revenue with some flashy Egyptian relics or bewilder awed believers with fabricated revelations. There is a richness in his cosmological revelations from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants and the Books of Abraham and Moses that answers deep questions in satisfying ways, These concepts continue to be worthy topics to contemplate in light of expanding scientific knowledge. Simple borrowing from his environment, even if he had been among the literati of his day with advanced education, is a theory that lacks explanatory power for what we have been given.
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