Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » A Living Faith: What You Know that Harold Bloom Doesn’t

A Living Faith: What You Know that Harold Bloom Doesn’t

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 18, 2011

By now you’ve probably all read, or tried to read, last week’s incoherent grumblings of Harold Bloom, a man well past his intellectual prime. If it isn’t yet time for a granddaughter to take away his keyboard and find him a lawn chair in some safe resort with sunshine and early dinner service, it is at least time for institutions like Yale and the New York Times to stop providing him a platform to disgrace himself, and them. If Bloom has an intellectual counterpart in Mormon history, it may be William W. Phelps, whose magnificent ability to turn a colorful phrase remained intact throughout his life, masking his slide from noteworthy early achievement into undeniable incompetence, irrelevance, and “scurrility, mistaken for wit.” (I apologize for the comparison, W.W. – your best words will live on long after Bloom has been deservedly forgotten.)

Ahhh … that felt good. I don’t know how much of that I really meant (I’m disgusted with Bloom and the Times, not upset by them), and good taste (if I had any) would probably dictate that I delete those opening paragraphs – but I prefer to think of them as honoring Bloom’s exercise of the Golden Rule: Surely he was asking us to do unto him as he did unto us, no?

Without tackling a rebuttal of this recent bit-o’-nonsense, I’m still attracted to isolated phrases in Bloom’s essay –

… the founding prophet Joseph Smith, whose highly original revelation was as much a departure from historical Christianity as Islam was and is … Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor … “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy … little enough in common with the visions of Joseph Smith … betray what ought to have been their own religious heritage …  the last two decades have witnessed the deliberate dwindling of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into just one more Protestant sect … Latter-day Saints no longer openly describe their innermost beliefs … so much of [Joseph Smith’s] legacy, including plural marriage, had to be compromised …

I can’t be certain what Bloom meant by any of those phrases, or whether they mean anything more than that Bloom’s dinner disagreed with his aging constitution – gassy emanations from either source defy rational and prolonged study. But if there is meaning there, it seems to run along this line:

Mormonism in 2011 is different from Mormonism in 1991, or 1844, or 1830, or whatever moment in time Bloom fantasizes as the “real” Mormon moment.

Wow. Really? Who could have anticipated that startling news?

When a people’s religion and faith have as the foundational premise that God continues to speak to prophets, revealing new truth and inspiring guidance for changing times, evolution is inevitable. The surest sign of the death of such a faith would be a static, stubborn refusal to receive new direction. While Bloom – or more properly, someone who believes in contining revelation – might legitimately debate whether any specific change is the will of God, the expectation of change within such a faith is undebatable: it lies at the heart of the faith. Mormonism2011 wouldn’t be any kind of Mormonism if it were a fossilized Mormonism1830.

What too many observers don’t understand is that they are looking on the outward forms only, generally missing the point of those forms. A man like Bloom looks at polygamy, and gathering, and missionaries traveling without purse or scrip, and the communal life of the United Order, and building the Kingdom — or whatever his particular bugbears are — and sees only abandonment, betrayal of the vision of Joseph Smith, a “dwindling … into just one more Protestant sect.” What we see, though – what you respond to when you read a post on Keepa – is the reason Latter-day Saints of the past lived as they did. That internal motivation carries on in our lives in real ways, even as the outward forms of marriage and missionary work and interactions with our fellow Saints develops under the guidance of leaders we sustain as being as inspired as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and John Taylor, or whoever was leading the Church at whatever date an observer considers to be that vanished perfect past.

Keepa’ninnies – and Mormon readers of Mormon history in other packages – have no trouble in recognizing a common commitment with the Saints of the past, living the commandments, building eternal families, sharing the gospel, caring for our fellow Saints and others – even while the visible manifestations of those commitments change. It’s why you enjoy reading about history: the forms have changed, which attracts our eyes and ears and imaginations; the spirit is the same, which engages our affections and sustains our hopes and resonates in our souls. The appearances by which Bloom sets so much store are novelties; the internal qualities which he does not comprehend are what animated the 19th century Saints, and what animate us today.

We change and adapt and grow because we are a living Church, a living people. Our covenant is “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tablets of the heart.” We are “ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Corinthians 3:3, 6) We recognize that, even when observers do not.

I would prefer that comments focus on Mormon history, why you read it, how you respond to it, and related ideas, rather than correcting Bloom’s misstatements of Mormon doctrine or character or motivations, or debating politics. If there is something about Bloom’s essay that you just have to get off your chest, though, be my guest.



  1. It’s why you enjoy reading about history: the forms have changed, [but] the spirit is the same, which engages our affections and sustains our hopes and resonates in our souls.

    I appreciate that. I never could have stated it so eloquently, though.

    For as much as I bemoan the loss of “the way things were” sometimes on this blog, I do often wish that the Church could be even more progressive on some things.

    Comment by The Other Clark — November 18, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  2. Yeah, I had to read the article twice as I had such a hard time making sense of what his points were. (and am still a little confused. ). Just wanted to say glad I’m not the only one.

    Comment by Joseph Smidt — November 18, 2011 @ 10:02 am

  3. Thanks for this. More than a refutation of Bloom’s bloviating, I needed to hear this in the way you put it:

    It’s why you enjoy reading about history: the forms have changed, which attracts our eyes and ears and imaginations; the spirit is the same, which engages our affections and sustains our hopes and resonates in our souls.

    Yes! Beautiful.

    Comment by David Y. — November 18, 2011 @ 10:17 am

  4. Wonderful. Thank you Ardis!

    Comment by -MMM- — November 18, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  5. The only thing that gets to me, and I hear this over and over again from people who want to sound like they’re in the know about Mormonism, is that we go around calling non-mormons “Gentiles”. Seriously, I’ve never heard anybody outside of my grandparents’ generation use that phrase unironically or outside the context of interpreting a few specific passages of the scriptures in Sunday School. For some reason that mischaracterization of mormon linguistic norms irritates me more than any doctrinal misrepresentations or just about anything else.

    Comment by Casey — November 18, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  6. Thanks, Ardis, for putting into words some of the same feelings I had on reading Bloom’s article. My thoughts on reading it made me think that Bloom felt a personal responsibility for letting all of us who are “enjoying the Mormon Moment” know that anything he found special about Mormonism was gone, and no longer worthy of any note. My takeaway was that anything that made Harold Bloom special is also long gone, and he’s become just another critic of our religion, just not as rabid about it as some evangelicals of late. Sigh.

    Comment by kevinf — November 18, 2011 @ 12:40 pm

  7. Once again Ardis has provided us with beautifully reasoned and written prose. In the mid-1950s I was working on my B.A. in history at Yale as Harold Bloom finished up his Ph.D. I never had him as an instructor and do not know him. As the current holder of one of Yale’s Sterling Professorships (the name runs to that of the chair’s donor family rather than to the concept of solid silver), Bloom is at the pinnacle of that university’s faculty hierarchy. I would point out, though, that his appointment runs to the fields of Humanities and English, so I think that it is safe to say that there are some subscribers to Keepa who are more “up” on the LDS aspects of history and religion than is Harold Bloom, smart as he may be. I would be amazed if my mentors at Yale, some of them Sterling Professors of History (Howard R. Lamar, C. Vann Woodward, John Morton Blum, and David M. Potter), would even think to inflict the public with such a rant. As a Yale alumnus and former Chairman of the Yale Library Associates, I am embarrassed by Bloom’s essay; as Past President of the Mormon History Association I am deeply disappointed, if not vexed, by the thoughtlessness of his phrasing and logic. It is tough for me to square the quality of what I read in Harold Bloom’s “NYTimes” essay last Sunday with the past enthusiasm of some historians of Mormonism to quote him as a sympatico commentator on the subject. On the other hand, if one reads the biographical essay about Harold Bloom on Wikipedia (admittedly a non-scholarly source), there are signs aplenty of past attacks and academic combat in the literary beat that he has patroled for fifty-five years. Perhaps it’s time for a rest.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 18, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  8. Ahhh Ardis, the antidote to pea-brained blowhards everywhere. 😉

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — November 18, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  9. I guess I should amend the “pea-brained” part in Bloom’s case…

    Comment by Mommie Dearest — November 18, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

  10. Ummm, yeah. The first two paragraphs detract from the thesis of the post.

    Bloom’s current and previous states or conditions are irrelevant.

    Comment by Bookslinger — November 18, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

  11. I think Bloom’s essay highlights well why I never cared for his chapter on Mormons way back in the 90’s. It seemed clear to me that he was merely projecting his preferences onto Joseph Smith. Thus the overstating of the Kabbalistic parallels and so forth. It was less history than it was wish fulfillment.

    But at the time (early 90’s as I recall) everyone was talking Bloom up simply because he was saying (they thought) nice things about us. Now he’s saying really similar things, but because he’s ultimately taking a negative stance folks are all up in arms.

    Honestly though I don’t see a big difference between the two.

    Comment by Clark — November 18, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

  12. The fact that his essay appears in the New York Times makes his current opinions and analysis even less relevant.

    Comment by Bookslinger — November 18, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

  13. Professor Bloom’s rant is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to assume they can forego the labor of personal education and thought by accepting as true anything said by a nominal “authority” on a topic. The fact that he felt free to expose his own ignorance so egregiously says as much about the modern state of academia as anything about Bloom himself.

    Now, as to the more general point Ardiss made about the fact that change is a necessary corollary to our belief in continuing revelation, I think this is one of the fundamental forces driving Mormon history. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been many changes, from how we train missionaries, to how we finance church buildings and operations, to who we ordain to the priesthood, to the curriculum of Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society, to the Church magazines, to the mission of Ricks College, to the way we design and build temples, which have been driven by revelatory changes that adapt the Church from one of a million members at my birth, principally in the Western US, to one of 14 million now, distributed worldwide. I cannot think of anything about these changes that I would want to change back.

    Sometimes when we look back in Church history, the events during the life of Joseph Smith are so varied and tumultuous that it is hard to appreciate they all happened in about 15 years. The changes in the Church during Joseph’s short lifetime, in organization and community integration, are amazing, and they laid the foundation for the building of a state-size LDS community in the West. I get the sense when reading about the Saints in Joseph’s day that part of the reason they followed him was because they lived in anticipation of the gems of new revelation he might share with them on any given Sunday. While the pace of revelation-driven change has obviously slowed, much of the hope I feel for the ongoing success of the Church is due to the expectation that, as inevitable challenges arise, we will be ready to meet them, not only through new revelation to prophets, but also because we as a people are acclimated to carrying out the changes we are invited to make.

    And let me add here that I believe one of the major reasons why so many people of so many different viewpoints on religion are hostile toward the Church is that its success, not only its growth but also the competence exhibited in the design and execution of its work, is scary to them. It is a force that they see coming, but they do not understand its motivations and its ethics. It is a movement that they do not feel confident they can control. Some of them are literally panicky about each further advance of the Mormon tide, and focus on Mitt Romney as the crest of a wave they fear will pull them under. In the view of the paranoid, every statistic that Mormons tout, such as the loyalty with which our teenagers support their parents’ religious faith, or the number of Mormons in positions of influence, just amplifies their paranoia. That means that ANYTHING Mormons do that demonstrates success and achievement and growth will be viewed with apprehension by many people. And since we Mormons fully expect that the trend of achievement will continue upward, we can look forward to even higher levels of opposition and criticism.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — November 18, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  14. I really like Ardis’s expression of the idea that in spite of all the changes throughout church history, it is that essence of continuing revelation and faith in fundamentals that makes my religion work for me as it did for my ancestors in Joseph’s day. If I sat down with my 3rd or 4th great-grandparents over all those generations and “progress” of the world, I think I would have more in common with them than I would with Harold Bloom or any number of today’s eastern intellectuals or southern anti-intellectuals. (just to keep this in my passionately moderate perspective).

    Comment by Grant — November 19, 2011 @ 9:23 am

  15. I’d also like to point out that being educated does not equate to intelligent. Nor does being intellectual necessarily correspond to intelligence.

    In his opinion piece, Bloom’s prejudices and passions at times belie any professed intellectualism.

    Comment by Bookslinger — November 20, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  16. I remember hearing Jan Shipps at a Mormon conference in Indianapolis a few years ago. She told of an early Saint who lived near Ogden. Each day, the woman would step out her front door and curse the mountains. When someone asked her why she just didn’t leave, the woman sighed and said, “because this is my home.” Her place was with the saints, no matter how awful a situation.
    The Church has weathered many difficulties over the years. It amazes me to think we have grown as we have, given those trials. Yet, it has grown because it has adapted and always sought to be forward looking, even while remembering its past.
    I agree with Ardis. Had the Church remained in its pristine 1830 belief, it would have shriveled up and died. Today we have new dynamics. Just look at the attention the “I’m a Mormon” campaign is getting (front page of NY Times last week). A little Church of 14 million worldwide should not have so much power as this one does (consider the number of LDS in Congress, two running for president who are seen as the only grown ups in the crowd, etc). That hasn’t happened because we focus only on the past.
    Given Bloom’s book, The American Religion, and how it positively discusses both Joseph Smith and Thomas S Monson, I think his NY Times article is more of a political reaction against the concept of a Mormon possibly becoming president than it is a deliberate attack that goes contra his earlier writing.

    Comment by Rameumptom — November 21, 2011 @ 8:03 am

  17. I appreciate your comments, Ardis, and the intellectual feedback from others.

    I can’t speak to Mr. Bloom’s paradigm directly since I have not studied his writing. However, it does not surprise me in light of other Christians not being able to understand a “living” prophet and ongoing revelation – let alone someone of the Jewish faith where they only have commentaries being added to the original Torah (missing a lot of revelation – ancient and recent.)

    Comment by Allison in Atlanta — November 22, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

  18. With Romney running for president, there seem to be even more of these “fuzzy logic” without much experience infused. Over at BCC, this current thread is a case in point (out of hundreds of choices)

    At least it is giving us lots of practice talking about what it means to be Mormon!


    Comment by Julia — August 30, 2012 @ 10:12 pm

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