Ep 155 – Alexander Neibaur and Kabbalahs
On this episode, we pick up with a European convert who made his way to Nauvoo in 1841. Alexander Neibaur was a “learned” man who was given to linguistic studies, dentistry, and esoteric Hebrew mysticism. Joseph Smith found a friend and fellow occultist in Neibaur and Mormon doctrine and theology exploded upon Neibaur’s arrival. We tell Neibaur’s story, give a brief overview of Kabbalah, and speculate on how Nauvoo theology was influenced by Kabbalah and Neibaur specifically.
Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah
Brief History of Neibaur
Susa Young Gates biographical sketch of Alexander Neibaur
Usage of ‘Elohim’ in early Mormonism
“The Jews” by Alexander Neibaur circa July 1843
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
One name among His other names expands and branches in various ways and paths; it is called (Elohim). He bestowed this name and it was distributed to those below in this world; this name was apportioned to attendants and appointees who guide the other nations, as is said: Elohim came to Balaam at night, Elohim came to Abimelech in a night-dream. Thus every appointee and every attendant bestowed by the blessed Holy One upon other nations is included in this name; and even idolatry is called by this name. This name rules over nations; this name is not the3 one that rules over Israel—which is unique for the unique people, for the Holy People.
“Now, you might say, ‘Let us establish the verse as follows: Who would not fear You, O King of the nations?—this is the name that rules over nations: Elohim, in whom fear and judgement inhere.’ Not so; it does not refer to this! For if so, even idolatry would be included in this category. However, now that the wall behind which you were leaning has been torn down, the verse stands firmly established, with a little contemplation. Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? Now, if you say that King of the nations refers to the blessed Holy One—not so! Rather, “Who is the king of the nations that does not fear You and does not tremble before You? Which king of the nations would not fear You? Similarly, (Haleluyah), Praise Yah! Praise, O servants of YHVH, praise the name of YHVH! Whoever hears this does not know what it means, since it says Praise Yah and also Praise, O servants of YHVH. It should have been written: O servants of YHVH, praise the name of YHVH. Here too, it should have been written: Who is the king of the nations that would not fear You? Yet all has been spoken perfectly.
Nauvoo in mid-1843 was a chaotic time of early Mormonism. Brief periods of peace were punctuated by escalations in conflict with the gentile world. Political capital was thrown around willy nilly. High crime rates and high unemployment coupled with the banana republic state of the Mormon autocracy meant that the due-process of law was nothing more than rubber-stamping writs of habeas corpus for anybody sufficiently loyal to the cause, regardless of their crime. Immigrants from Europe and all across America were flowing steadily into the city, rarely bringing money or vocational expertise to contribute to the Mormon empire.
One of these immigrants, however, did bring expertise to the Mormon empire on the Mississippi. He also kept a relatively detailed journal which currently resides at the Church Historian’s office in Salt Lake City. This guy was born in 1808 in Ehrenbreitstein, Prussia which later became Germany. He was born into a Jewish family, the son of a physician and surgeon who was rumored to have been Napoleon’s personal physician and translator, being a schooled linguist. As a young lad, Alexander attended Rabbinical training in hopes of becoming a Rabbi. However, he abandoned his religious pursuits in lieu of science and esoteric mysticism. He eventually attended the University of Berlin and graduated in 1825 to become a dentist. By 1830 this young man had moved to Lancashire, England and established his own dental practice, all the while becoming educated in languages and esoteric arts. He was a polymath who didn’t follow the standard norms of orthodox Judaism. By the end of his life in Salt Lake City in the early 1880s, this man could read and write 7 different languages including German and Hebrew. The name of this guy is Alexander Neibaur. Shortly after his move to England, Alexander converted to Christianity and married an English woman named Ellen Breckell in 1834.
For his conversion to Mormonism, we turn to the Relief Society Magazine in Utah. Susa Young Gates was one of the church’s most prolific women’s writer, women’s rights advocate, and historian in Utah at the turn of the 20th century. She wrote an article in 1922 on the life of Alexander Neibaur and published it through the Relief Society Magazine, of which she was the editor at the time. It’s unclear where she got some of this information, but she was in her mid-twenties when Alexander Neibaur died there and he was widely known in the territory. Susa was also a member of the Utah elite with the last name of Young, meaning she likely knew Alexander Neibaur on a personal basis, and likely knew his 11 children and it’s thanks to that relationship and her tireless writing and editing that we have a brief sketch of the Neibaur family conversion. You’ll find a link to this on archive.org in the show notes.
[Alexander] set out on his travels immediately after leaving the University, and became converted to the Christian faith [from Judaism]. He finally located for some time in the city of Preston, England, where he met and married an excellent wife by name, Ellen Breakel. Here the couple were found on July 30, 1837, when the first “Mormon” elders came over to open the gospel door to the British mission at the famous “Cock-pit,” Preston, England.
The story of his conversion is full of interest. It was one morning very early in the city of Preston, when the misty sunshine swept down with as much ardor into the green lanes and narrow city streets of England as is ever permitted to that land of cloudy skies. The women of Preston, in common with their kind, had the custom of going out before sunrise to give their front stone steps and portions a coat of “whitewash,” as it was called. We of America see this custom kept up only in quaint old Philadelphia. It was on one of these mornings that the young wife of Alexander Neibaur was on her knees polishing to the last degree of whiteness her own steps, when a neighbor challenged her attention with the remark:
“Have you seen the new ministers from America?”
“No,” answered the younger woman, still intent on her work.
“Well,” asserted the neighboring housewife laconically, as befits great tidings, “They claim to have seen an angel.”
“What?” rang out an abrupt voice from an inner chamber, as the young Hebrew husband sprang from his coach and put his head out of the window. “What’s that you say?”
The information was repeated for his benefit, and hurriedly dressing, the young man secured the address of the American preachers of this strange religion; and not many hours after he was in close conversation with Elders Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards, Orson Hyde and Joseph Fielding. His was the swift conversion of spirit that demanded baptism on the spot. One of the first questions he asked, was, “You have a book?” And nothing could satisfy that eager, inspired question till he had a copy of the Book of Mormon in his own hands, for he had seen it, so he declared, in his night visions and recognized the Book on sight. He was waiting for the great message.
He was advised by the elders to wait and investigate further. Taking the book home with him, he read it through in three days. He said later that he could neither eat nor sleep till he had mastered all the contents of that wondrous volume. When he returned the book he offered himself for baptism, but was advised to wait till he was prepared. He answered, “Gentlemen, I am prepared.” And his subsequent life found him always prepared. He accepted the counsel, however, and waited till the following spring.
And that’s it, Alexander Neibaur was converted after hearing the message of the missionaries, reading the Book of Mormon top to bottom in 3 days, and waiting a brief probationary period. He was baptized April 9th, 1838 by Elder Isaac Russell. However, Alexander’s wife, Ellen, wasn’t quite so receptive. Alexander attended a meeting where somebody spoke in tongues, and he interpreted it, claiming, “that he did not do this by the gift of the Spirit, but naturally, as the former speaker had used the Hebrew tongue, which was, of course, the language of his birth.”
Ellen wasn’t so quick to jump head-first into the new religion. Alexander and Ellen would stay up late at night talking about religion and the self-proclaimed prophet, Joseph Smith. Eventually, Ellen received the spiritual light she sought in the form of a night vision, the way Alexander had claimed to have seen the Book of Mormon with his spiritual night-vision eyes before actually holding a copy. Once again from Susa Young Gates:
Brother Neibaur’s wife could not see the gospel so quickly nor so easily as did her husband. He sat long evening reading the Book of Mormon to his wife, and she enjoyed it, she said, as it was a “pretty story;” but she could not see what it had to do with religion or with the Prophet Joseph Smith as such. The final conversion of the mother came after a remarkable manifestation which was vouchsafed to her. She saw, in a dream, the sky covered with small clouds the size of a man’s face, each cloud formed around and repeating the face of one man. After gazing at this peculiar phenomenon for some time, the clouds all dropped down to earth; and with that she awoke, filled with wonder and amazement, for it was the face of Willard Richards who was one of the second company of elders to carry the gospel to England. She knew at once the significance of this dream and was filled with the spirit of testimony. The gospel message was clear and beautiful to her ever after that, and she was ready to listen to its teachings and go forth in the waters of baptism.
Once converted, the Neibaurs remained in England until the second mission to England brought the quorum of apostles to Europe again in 1839. Alexander and Ellen, along with their children, took up Bloody Brigham Young’s offer of the immigration fund and specially chartered ship to get to America. Upon the Neibaur’s decision to immigrate to America, Alexander began keeping a regular journal, and here we begin in his own words, which you’ll find linked in the show notes.
[p.1] February 5, 1841. Left Preston, Lancashire, England, in company my wife, three children and a number of others for Liverpool to embark on board the ship the "Sheffield" bound for New Orleans. We left Preston by the 20 minutes past 8 o'clock train, reached Lancashire about 1/2 past 10, went directly on board the ship where we found a number of emigrants—the ship all in an uproar, luggage, men women and children all huddled together. A number of us went to the Hargraves Railway Office for our luggage, got this on board, got something from the cook shop for our families as it was very cold went to bed at dark.
Alexander Neibaur, Diary, LDS Archives, Pg. 1
February 6. As soon as daylight began to grow all began to be live again. The passengers began to stir, some went to purchase provisions, some lemons, some salt fish, soap, candles, &c. I went to see a friend of mine, Mr. Hauk. He was very glad to see me and particular so that I had made up my mind to emigrate, he gave me a present for my wife, a boa, a muff for my daughter, and a pair of fur gloves for myself; wished me a safe arrival, that the Lord might prosper me—toward dark, Elders [Brigham] Young, [John] Taylor, [Willard] Richards, which three gentlemen had the superintendency of the storing for the company, arrived as [did] Elder Hyram Clark, the president for the voyage. After the emigrants were called to order by B. [Brigham] Young and silence being attained the company was ordered to be on board by 8 o'clock on Sunday morning, and all those that had not paid their full passage money or deposited 2 L. [pounds] towards their provision would be put on shore, luggage and all. Those that had not done so was ordered to go immediately to 72 Borlington St. They would have to abide the consequences. There were several that were compelled to borrow. Proctor was forced to pawn his clothes…
Bloody Brigham ran a tight ship with no room for stragglers or weaklings. After that, Alexander details all the trials and tribulations of crossing the Atlantic, along with fires and mutiny on board the ship with almost perfect daily entries beginning from his immigration in 1841. After late autumn 1841 the entries drop in frequency, only recounting the most notable events in Nauvoo after that. Finally the Neibaurs hit New Orleans on March 29, 1841.
The pilot steamer close to us—cast anchor about 2 o'clock, the government officer coming on board, calling the names of the seamen. We went up the Mississippi in grand style. Majestic [p.8] River, passed for Jacson [Jackson] about 10 o'clock at night.
[March] 30. Fine frosty morning, passed the English-turn many fine plantations, Negroes at work. About 3 o'clock passed the barracks, cast anchor about 4 o'clock in the afternoon as soon as the ship was fastened Richard Withnall, myself and many more went on shore. A number of men came on board. Several of the passengers made purchases on provisions. At night as there was many strangers on board we agreed amongst ourselves two men to watch at each hatchway for two hours in their turn.
March] 31. Fine frosty morning, it was quite a change having been melted with heat for the last four weeks. Now many complained about cold. The day passed away in going into the city making purchases, looking about, etc. Cleaned both mates teeth. Provisions and every other article being remarkable dear. In the afternoon, it was reported the steward had the cook taken up to sell him, New Orleans in Louisiana being one of the chief slave states. Mr. [Hyrum] Clark having been with the captain to the costume house brought permits to pass us…
[April] 13. Very fine sunny morning. Cleaned four passenger's teeth. Landed at Cairo, a English town where Mr. and Mrs. Gregson, a Miss Nightingale left the boat for Cincinnati. A young man Harrison, one of the passengers being taken for murder. Cleaned a gentleman's teeth. [Learned about] Mr. [William Henry] Harrison's, the President of the United States, death. At night passed Cape Girardeau, a neat town on the left in Missouri…
Then, the Neibaur family finally made it to Nauvoo and met the prophet; Alexander making living arrangements for the family.
[April] 18, . Fine morning, no boat, began to rain. [Hyrum] Clark went up to Nauvoo. Returned on Sunday in company with his wife and daughter. A steamboat, the Aster, came along [p.12] side; she carried us up to Nauvoo, the place of our destination. All the goods belonging to the company was here discharged. A number of the Brethren was ready to receive us; they kindly offered their houses, many slept in a large stone building belonging to one of the Brothers. Myself and Wm. [William] Gross, with some others kept up a large fire all night and stayed with our luggage. Some of the Brethren that had come here before us kept us company. Early in the morning a number of the Brethren came to inquire whether all of us had obtained habitations. We got in very comfortably with a Brother.
[April] 21, . Was in company at Br. Thompson's with Joseph Smith, came to order some false corals for his wife, asked about some land, if I had means could get plenty…
June 1. Moved into my house. Brother Joseph Smith in company with Br. [John C.] Bennett, the mayor, accompanied Elders Hyrum Smith and Wm. [William] Law to Quincy, when the High Sheriff of that county arrested having a writ from the Missourian government. On Saturday evening when word reached Nauvoo many of the Br. went on horseback to see him. When Br. Joseph [Smith] in company with the officers came up to Nauvoo as he was to have his trial before circuit Judge [Stephen A.] Douglas who lives 60 miles up the county but there was a flaw in the indictment and so the devil was disappointed.
Only 3 more entries before he gets to 1842 where his first entry is March 15.
March 15 . Installation of Nauvoo Masonic Lodge, Grand Master Jonas [present].
Then there are about a dozen more entries for 1842, none of which are terribly consequential. After that, here are the entries without any removed.
July 4 . Celebration of American Independence. Grand Parade of Nauvoo Legion. Four companies from Burlington come down on a steamboat.
[July] 15. Reported Orson Pratt, one of the Twelve missing. All the citizens turned out in search of him.
1844, June 27—Joseph and Hyrum [Smith] murdered in Carthage jail.
January 18 . Ordained under the hands of Elder W. Russell and Elder John Taylor to be one of the Seventy.
That is a high-level telling of Alexander Neibaur’s story and conversion to the church. Why is this important? Why are we talking about Alexander Neibaur? For starters, he was the first verified Jewish convert to Mormonism. This is crucial to Mormon theology and the theology of many versions of Christianity. Once Jews accept that Jesus was their savior, Christ will return and Zion will be built for Jesus to reign over the world, remove all evil, and send all apostates to hell. In order to establish the house of Israel on the American continent, Mormons are blessed with their patriarchal blessing, which declares what house of Israel they come from. I’m from the house of Ephraim, most of you who were or are Mormon probably fall into the tribes of Ephraim or Manasseh. Basically, all Mormons who receive this blessing, which is the vast majority, are declared to be of Hebrew descent regardless of their actual familial lineage. So, Alexander Neibaur’s conversion marked the first time Mormonism was able to actually show that the hearts of the fathers are turning to their savior so the hearts of the children can turn to their fathers. This was big news for the prophet and many Mormons who recognized Neibaur’s conversion as the next major milestone in the path toward the final resurrection and the establishment of the Mormon theocracy.
This sentiment of all the Jews converting to the one true Mormonism was captured in a few lines in a hymn that Neibaur wrote, which Parley P. Pratt altered and slapped his own name on.
“Let Judah Rejoice in this glorious news,
The sound of glad tidings will soon reach the Jews,
And save them far, far from oppression and fear,
Deliv’rance proclaim to their sons far and near.”
That is why his conversion in the abstract was important, he was the first known Jewish convert to the Church; but, there was much more to this guy that doesn’t necessarily meet the eye unless we dig into his own philosophy and consider the timing of his arrival in Nauvoo and other contemporary events. Joseph Smith found a close friend and fellow mystic polymath in Alexander Neibaur. Susa Young Gates recounts their meeting, likely told to her by Alexander’s children or by Alexander himself when Susa was a young woman.
Arriving in Nauvoo, Brother Neibaur was welcomed by his former friends, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards. Under the hands of Willard Richards and John Taylor he was ordained to the Priesthood, January 18, 1843, and ordained a seventy in 1844. He was honored with the friendship of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and was fired with the same passionate zeal for the gospel and the fearless Latter-day Prophet which characterized the leaders and other faithful members of the Church. He had the extreme pleasure of becoming instructor to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the German and Hebrew languages, and treasured all his life the blessedness of that memory and association.
Asked by one of his daughters in later life how it was that he came to accept the gospel, he replied that he was converted to the mission of Christ long before he ever heard a Latter-day Saint elder preach. He added that subsequently he had been visited in dreams and visions and had seen the Book of Mormon brought forth in vision; also that he had become familiar with the endowment ceremonies in the same mystic manner. On this point he once had a conversation with the Prophet Joseph Smith, and told the Prophet many things that had been manifested to him in his early youth. The prophet put his arm affectionately around Brother Neibaur’s shoulder and said,
“You are indeed one of us, Brother Neibaur.”
Jo and Alexander Neibaur came to be very close upon the Neibaur family’s arrival in mid-1841. Alexander practiced dentistry and made enough money through it and various other ventures to support the growing Neibaur family. The timing here is remarkable because Alexander Neibaur’s arrival to Nauvoo coincides with many significant doctrinal developments in Mormonism. What do I mean by that? We’ll let’s explore that assertion.
We’ve recently been dabbling into the esoteric side of early Mormonism. We’ve explored the occult and magic praxis of Joseph Smith and many early leaders in the church, astrological significance of certain occurrences on certain days, and briefly discussed how those early magical inclinations were virtually scrubbed from the historical record as the church really entered the mainstream of Protestant Christianity in the early 20th century.
Alexander Neibaur was highly steeped in Kabbalah among many other esoteric and occult practices. What is Kabbalah? It’s incredibly complex. Essentially, Kabbalah is a spiritual pursuit into Jewish mysticism, departing from orthodoxy of strict adherence to the Torah for more allegorical and mystical interpretations of the text.
I’ll be relying on a 1994 Dialogue article by Lance Owens titled Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah, which I’ve referenced in the past when we’ve broached this subject. But the subject of Kabbalah in early Mormonism is stunningly dense and has been explored, not only by Lance Owens, but by John L. Brook in his book The Refiner’s Fire, the Making of Mormon Cosmology. Owens’ article, Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah, has a massive section on Alexander Neibaur because Neibaur was crucial to these doctrinal developments through the last 2 years of Jo’s life. Additionally, Neibaur became Jo’s personal tutor of Hebrew and German. When you read through Jo’s Nauvoo journal, days are frequently filled with “today read German” or “studied German all day” and similar passages. His journal doesn’t name Neibaur specifically, but he was Jo’s personal tutor. Further, the presence of Hebrew in Jo’s sermons from 1842 and culminating in his King Follett discourse of April 1844, all of that expansion can be laid right at the feet of Neibaur. Granted, Jo had taken Hebrew from a guy named Joshua Seixas for a few months in Kirtland, but Seixas left the Mormons after his contract was up. Neibaur was a convert and revered Jo as a prophet, and therefore gave frequent instruction on Hebrew, German, and Jewish mysticism under the umbrella of Kabbalah.
So, I’ve said the word Kabbalah a few times, and gave a vague definition, but what is it really?
Lance Owens provides a functional definition of Kabbalah in the introduction of Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah. The entire article is truly ground-breaking and you’ll find a link in the show notes if you want to read it for yourself.
The Hebrew word kabbalah means "tradition." In the medieval Jewish culture of southern France and northern Spain, however, the term acquired a fuller connotation: it came to identify the mystical, esoteric tradition of Judaism. Between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries, this increasingly refined spiritual heritage was an important force in European and Mediterranean Judaism, competing with and often antagonistic to more rationalistic and Rabbinical trends. By the sixteenth century, Kabbalah had infused not only Judaism, but Renaissance Christian culture as well. Starting first with the Florentine court of Lorenzo de Medici at the end of the fifteenth century, Kabbalah became a potent force inseminating the Renaissance world view. Ultimately this movement engendered during the late Renaissance a separate heterodox tradition of Christian Kabbalah. From this period on, Kabbalah has been a major creative force in Western religious and poetic imagination, touching such diverse individuals as Jacob Boehme, John Milton, Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, and perhaps Joseph Smith.
Continuing for a little more context:
An understanding of Kabbalah starts with an understanding of "tradition." Contrary to the word's common connotation, the tradition of Kabbalah was not a static historical legacy of dogma, but a dynamic phenomenon: the mutable tradition of the Divine mystery as it unfolds itself to human cognition. Kabbalah conveyed as part of its tradition a complex theosophic vision of God but simultaneously asserted that this image was alive and open to further revelation. Thus the Kabbalist maintained a creative, visionary interaction with a living system of symbols and lore, and—most importantly—new prophetic vision was intrinsically part of the Kabbalist's understanding of their heritage.3
How long and in what form Kabbalah existed before blossoming in twelfth-century Spain is uncertain. Kabbalists themselves made extraordinary claims that require our understanding before being discarded: Kabbalah was—said adepts—the tradition of the original knowledge Adam received from God. Not only was Kabbalah guardian of this original knowledge, but it preserved the tradition of prophecy which allowed a return to such primal vision: "Kabbalah advanced what was at once a claim and an hypothesis, namely, that its function was to hand down to its own disciples the secret of God's revelation to Adam."
That was Jo’s MO for his entire ministry, seeking knowledge from god that god first revealed to Adam in the Garden of Eden and passed from father to son through generations until lost in the great apostasy, now restored through the one true prophet of this dispensation. Given the purpose of Kabbalah it should be no surprise it, as well as Masonry supposedly from Solomon’s temple, appealed to Joseph Smith in ways we can’t imagine.
Kabbalah shares similarities to Masonry in some respects. What I mean by that is it’s a mystical pursuit that underpins many schools of philosophy and some members believe it has ties to ancient mysteries. When it comes to Free Masonry, some believe, especially in the 19th century, that it descended from Solomon’s Temple. Historians can’t actually date Masonry to any earlier than about the 14th century in Europe essentially established as an early laborers union.
Kabbalah is based on a text titled the Zohar, which was originally written in Aramaic. Some believe the Zohar was revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, which was passed orally until it was actually committed to paper sometime in the second century C.E. by a guy named Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, also referred to as “Rashbi”. Somehow the Zohar continued to be passed through the medieval period into Europe and influenced the enlightenment. However, this claim of ancient origins of the Zohar has no tenable factual basis just like with Masonry starting in Solomon’s Temple. Historians generally agree the Zohar, on which Kabbalah is based, was written in Spain around the 13th century. It was written in Aramaic to give it the appearance of more ancient origins. So that’s the Zohar, the textual foundation of Kabbalah, but what is Kabbalah specifically?
Kabbalah, is structured around spiritual understanding of the Torah, and the Pentateuch specifically. It includes 10 attributes of YHVH known as the sefirot (sifearo). Most of the Zohar is structured as people travelling about and conversing on the mystical and allegorical stories within the Torah to tease out the divine truths contained therein. It is this practice of passing down mystical interpretations of the Torah through oral tradition that likely has roots in pre-Chrisitan Judaism. Kabbalah historians and scholars disagree about a proper dating and what lines to draw between Kabbalah and Gnosticism through the first 5 centuries of the common era. It’s very challenging on historical basis to delineate between Kabbalah and other mystical pursuits with such little documentation. Let me pose a modern-day example of what makes Kabbalah history so challenging.
Say some major calamitous event transpires in our modern day. This hypothetical event destroys all the data generated by the internet, and somehow destroys almost every printed book, likely killing most people on the planet with it. Earth experiences a reset and rebirth period, humanity recovers to its current population levels in the year 3500 C.E. Archaeologists are digging around in present-day Utah and find 2 little blue books written in English titled the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Historians of 3500 use the contents of those books to piece together what historical Mormonism looked like in the year 2000 in ancient Utah. Then, archaeologists in modern Illinois unearth 2 books together under the same titles, but the covers of the books are different colors and the Doctrine and Covenants from ancient Illinois is much larger and different in many ways with different headings and over 30 more sections. Historians of 3500 are vexed because they try to construct the Community of Christ theology from these finds, but the religions look almost exactly the same and believe in almost the exact same holy books, only they’re a tiny bit different. See, today we understand the Brighamite Mormon church to be fundamentally different than the Community of Christ in many ways, especially when it comes to social issues and bigotry, but would the historians of 3500 be able to draw those black and white lines we see in our society today? You see the trouble in trying to draw dividing lines between religions of antiquity? Differences apparent to modern religions today were just as apparent to adherents of various mystery religions contemporary with early Christianity, but trying to view them through the lens of the historian poses many challenges. The dark shroud of enigmatic religious praxis clouds the historical origins of Kabbalah and many other esoteric mystical philosophies. For these limitations, reasonable historians can disagree of where to drop the pin on the actual genesis of Kabbalah.
This foray into Kabbalah and its origins today is all within the purview of Alexander Neibaur and Joseph Smith exchanging ideas and philosophies. When Neibaur first arrived in Nauvoo he established himself as a stalwart member with greater-than-average knowledge of esoteric philosophies, which Jo was drawn to from an early age. A few conversations shared between these two guys and suddenly Neibaur finds himself as the personal tutor of Joseph Smith in esoteric arts, Kabbalah, German and Hebrew, and many other shared interests. A year after Neibaur’s arrival, Mormon theology rapidly expands, incorporating Masonic rituals, esoteric endowment ceremonies, feet-washing ceremonies for elite initiates, the Book of Abraham is published, and Joseph Smith first invokes the name of “Elohim” to describe his cosmology of a council of gods who we may all one day ascend to join if we gain sufficient wisdom and intelligence.
What I’m saying is, many of the doctrinal and theological evolutions of Nauvoo Mormonism can be attributed, to some extent, to this one guy, Alexander Neibaur. Kabbalistic elements are hinted at in the Book of Mormon and the Kirtland-era of the church, but Nauvoo Mormonism is where these elements are pushed from mere fringe interpretations of Mormon theology to become central themes.
Now, we can return to Lance Owens’ article title Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah pt. 3 where Owens gets into the influence of Neibaur on Joseph Smith after providing a brief character sketch.
By 1842 Joseph Smith most likely had touched the subject of Kabbalah in several ways and versions, even if such contacts remain beyond easy documentation. During Joseph's final years in Nauvoo, however, his connection with Kabbalah becomes more concrete. In the spring of 1841 there apparently arrived in Nauvoo an extraordinary library of Kabbalistic writings belonging to a European Jew and convert to Mormonism who evidently new Kabbalah and its principal written works. This man, Alexander Neibaur, would soon become the prophet's friend and companion.
Neibaur has received little detailed study by Mormon historians, and his knowledge of Kabbalah has earned only an occasional passing footnote in Mormon historical work.
Picking up after Neibaur had acquired a home for his family on Water Street, which was the central hub of Nauvoo near the Mississippi on which the Red Brick Store, the Nauvoo Homestead, and the Nauvoo Mansion were built. This guy got a prime lot, the highest-valued area of Nauvoo, a few blocks away from the Smith home. Where your home was in relation to everything else in Nauvoo was a marker of your social status. To get a home near the prophet’s mansion meant you were one of the elect.
That he [Neibaur] not only knew something of Kabbalah, but apparently possessed a collection of original Jewish Kabbalistic works in Nauvoo, is however documented in material almost totally overlooked by Mormon historians.
In June 1843, Neibaur published in Times and Seasons a short piece entitled "The Jews." The work ran in two installments, in the issues of 1 June and 15 June. As to why he wrote this piece, he states only that his effort was inspired by a talk he had heard Joseph Smith present.125 His essay deals ostensibly with the concept of resurrection held by the Jews. What he discusses for the most part is, however, the Kabbalist concept of gilgul, the transmigration and rebirth of souls.126 The essay is interesting not because of his comments on resurrection, but because of his repeated citations of classic Jewish Kabbalistic texts. In the course of his four-page piece, Neibaur cites over two dozen texts and authors. Of the citations I have been able to identify, at least ten are to Kabbalistic authors or works.127 The tone of the entire piece, and the authoritative use of Kabbalistic materials, suggests Neibaur's respect for Kabbalah.
Neibaur's notations to these Medieval and Renaissance Jewish works illustrates that he probably both possessed the texts and had a general knowledge of their contents.
If you’re a supporter over at patreon.com/nakedmormonism, I’m going to read through Neibaur’s article “The Jews,” with commentary at the end of this show. It’s just for those who support the show with their hard-earned money. So, if you want to hear it along with extended editions of every new episode, consider throwing me a buck a show for this publishing-a-free-show business model I’m somehow making a living from with all of your generous support. As to Joseph Smith’s affinity for the mysterious esoteric rites of original Judaism, Owens’ continues to elucidate his central thesis extremely well.
Joseph Smith and Alexander Neibaur were frequent associates. Neibaur had been engaged by Joseph a few days after his arrival in Nauvoo in April 1841. During the last months of the prophet's life, both his and Neibaur's diaries indicate that Neibaur read with and tutored Smith in Hebrew and German.129 Given this friendly relationship, the interests of the prophet, and the background of Neibaur—and perhaps even the books in Neibaur's library—it seems inconceivable that discussions of Kabbalah did not take place. Kabbalah was the mystical tradition of Judaism, the tradition which claimed to be custodian of the secrets God revealed to Adam. These secrets were occultly conveyed by the oral tradition of Kabbalah throughout the ages—so it was claimed—until finally finding written expression in the Zoharand the commentaries of the medieval Kabbalists, books Neibaur possessed. Kabbalah was the custodian of an occult re-reading of Genesis and the traditions of Enoch, it contained the secrets of Moses. And it was a subject that Joseph Smith had probably already crossed in different versions several times in his life. Can anyone familiar with the history and personality of Joseph Smith—the prophet who restored the secret knowledge and rituals conveyed to Adam, translated the works of Abraham, Enoch, and Moses, and retranslated Genesis—question that he would have been interested in the original version of this Jewish occult tradition? And here, in Neibaur, was a man who could share a version of that knowledge with him.
And a deep friendship was born in the fraternity between these two men. Neibaur’s influence on Mormonism from late 1841 to Joseph’s death simply cannot be overstated. From what we’ve learned on this show through 155 episodes about Joseph Smith, and this episode about Alexander Neibaur, just consider how well their personalities would have meshed. Both were absolutely in love with information. Both were polymaths seeking to understand the deepest mysteries of the universe and nature of God. Jo came from a backwoods farming home making his living from bilking people out of their hard-earned money with occult treasure-digging. Neibaur, on the other hand, was University educated, had a massive personal library, and held a similar love for information that he was able to satiate with actual structured education and an extensive library. Both were steeped in occultism and other esoteric endeavors. Both were given to radical visionary experiences, one to seeing Elohim in the sacred grove, the other to seeing a mysterious book which he found out to be the Book of Mormon when he was seeking that all-seeing Truth with a capital “T”.
Other historians have recognized some level of importance with Neibaur immigrating to Nauvoo. For example, this is Quinn’s early Mormonism and the Magic World View:
Also in 1842 was the first English edition of the writings of Manasseh ben Israel. Although this had only a six-page section on the Cabala, each time he gave a “Reconciliation” of difficult passages in the Hebrew Bible, he often noted that “the Cabalistic theologists maintain the contrary” or “the cabalistical theologians… are of a different opinion.”
In June 1843 Times and Seasons (now edited by Apostle John Taylor) began publishing Alexander Neibaur’s two installments on “THE JEWS.” Neibaur was a Jewish convert from London, and this was Mormonism’s first explicit instruction about the Cabala. Even polemicist Hamblin has acknowledged it is “indisputable” that “Neibaur mentions or cites from Kabbalistic texts in an article in Times and Seasons.”
Nevertheless, Hamblin wrote a seventy-five-page FARMS attack on an article by Lance S. Owens that cabalistic ideas influenced Joseph Smith’s teachings. Claiming special credentials to write about the Cabala, Hamblin actually misrepresented scholarly understanding of the Cabala—both current and at Smith’s time.
Neibaur’s entrance to Nauvoo was not only important by virtue of him being the first Jewish-Christian convert, but because of his subtle contributions to Joseph Smith’s personal theology. The theological shifts beginning in early 1842 are tightly correlated to when Neibaur began his close association with Jo and started tutoring him on German, Hebrew, and we can assume, Kabbalah and other esoteric philosophies. The most distinctly Mormon-specific doctrines all came after Neibaur and Jo began spending many hours together. Those shifts are as subtle as Jo studying German for hours a week and as overt as Kabbalistic astrology and the word Kolob making their way into the Book of Abraham. Jo’s super-esoteric theology culminated in his King Follett discourse a few months before his death in 1844 and you can see significant differences in that time. The major circumstantial change which likely altered Jo’s personal theology in significant ways was the presence of Alexander Neibaur.
Compare this sermon by Jo from December 1840, before Neibaur got to Nauvoo with the opening of the King Follett Discourse:
“Beloved Brethren:--May grace, mercy, and peace rest upon you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…
Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.
Okay, that was from December of 1840 before Neibaur came over from England. Now compare that with the opening of the King Follett discourse in 1844, after Neibaur and Jo had become close personal friends:
I suppose I am not allowed to go into an investigation of anything that is not contained in the Bible. . . . I will go to the old Bible and turn commentator today. I will go to the very first Hebrew word—BERESHITH—in the Bible and make a comment on the first sentence of the history of creation: "In the beginning. . . ." I want to analyze the word BERESHITH. BE—in, by, through, and everything else; next, ROSH—the head; ITH. Where did it come from? When the inspired man wrote it, he did not put the first part—the BE—there; but a man—a Jew without any authority—-put it there. He thought it too bad to begin to talk about the head of any man. It read in the first: "The Head One of the Gods brought forth the Gods." This is the true meaning of the words. ROSHITH [BARA ELOHIM] signifies [the Head] to bring forth the Elohim. If you do not believe it you do not believe the learned man of God. No learned man can tell you any more than what I have told you. Thus, the Head God brought forth the Head Gods in the grand, head council.
Essentially, the point I’m making is that the term of Elohim as referring to god or gods in Mormon theology, the idea of god living on the planet nearest the star Kolob, the theology of god not being a singular entity but a member of an infinite council of gods, the deeper theology as instructed in the endowment ceremony and the passion narrative played throughout, all of these seemingly quintessential Mormon things, many of them all trace back to this one guy, Alexander Neibaur. We can’t say he alone was responsible for them, but he may have been the learned guy Jo would share a meal with and chat late into the evening, with wine of their own make, expounding on the nature of god through allegorical instruction and Zohar mystical hypotheticals.
There are certain people with which Jo came into contact who acted as butterfly effects. The first of these, Hingepin Sidney Rigdon, is a great example of what I mean. Without Jo and Rigdon teaming up, the history of Mormonism would look so very different today. Rigdon’s conversion, and the subsequent conversion of many of his Baptist followers, set Jo’s church on a trajectory towards success that can’t be quantified. Rigdon was the Hingepin on which the success of the early church turned.
Similarly, John C. Wreck-it Bennett altered the trajectory of the church from the time he joined in 1840. He was a military guy with an extensive network of political relationships he brought with him. He joined and the Nauvoo City Charter passed through the Illinois State Legislature in a few days, the Nauvoo Legion was organized into actual military form with ranks and uniforms, supplied arms by the state armory, and Nauvoo became the epicenter of Political lobbying in the state of Illinois with the Mormon voting bloc. Wreck-it Bennett was responsible for most of that, setting Mormonism on an ever-rising trajectory towards political and monetary wealth that very few within the highest ranks were opposed to. He also altered the state of Mormon history forever with his excommunication, removal as Mayor of Nauvoo, and his subsequent 1842 expose that laid open the demon of Mormon empire expansionism and revealed to the world the tyranny of the Mormon Mahomet. His libertine nature with “Spiritual wifery” also resulted in the clandestine hierarchy of church-approved polygamy to distance itself from Bennett’s spiritual wifery. The idea of sealing marriages for time and eternity had its roots in magic, but the practical application of Jo being the final approval gatekeeper of any polygamous marriages ensured more secrecy and kept polygamy as merely a rumor until Bloody Brigham Young declared it as openly required from the pulpit in Utah 8 years after Jo’s death.
And now, because a guy with incredibly extensive learning in esoteric rites in Kabbalah, Mormon theology was molded and adapted to incorporate these supposedly ancient rites. The language in the temple ceremony, the passion narrative, the first time Jo used the term Elohim, Jo’s personal beliefs of the transmigration and rebirth of souls, also known in Kabbalah as gilgul or Gilgal, all of these Nauvoo doctrinal expansions correlate with Neibaur becoming Jo’s personal tutor and close friend. I can also guarantee you’ve never heard of him. Why is that? If we can tie any of Jo’s personal theology to other faith traditions beyond Protestantism it sure casts into question that entire idea of Mormonism being a “restorationist” sect, restored from its original form, revealed through the one true prophet of this dispensation. If we can attach secular explanations to Jo’s theology, it’s not restored, it’s plagiarized.
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