A new book from Oxford University Press may be of interest to the book readers of Meridian Magazine, of interest especially when laid alongside a much older book from Cambridge.

The gap of over 100 years in their respective publications illustrates a positive trend in “Religious Studies” from a dated scholarship characterized by being ridiculous unfair to the Church. I say dated’ because it is from a pass time when Cambridge and Oxford dons used to treat the Church with a clueless lack of uncritical unfairness in their theological scholarship. (“Oxbridge” -which I use in the title– is just a British journalistic shorthand phrase used to refer to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same breath.)

Oxbridge Books Then

To illustrate what sort of “thought” came in the early years out of Oxbridge, here are four quick and hilarious quotes from, Montanism and the Primitive Church, by John De Soyres, a distinguished don of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, in the 19th century. (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., 1978. (The book is on the early Christian heresy of Montanism, and is available on Amazon in reprint form).

  1. On the Book of Mormon: “The so-called Book of Mormon is a mix of bad grammar, profanity and nonsense.”
  2. On Mormon History: “As discreditable, both from original imposture, and from the moral (or rather immoral) tendency which so soon became the leading principle, is the history of Mormonism. Every feature is mean, vulgar, calculated to allure the basest of human passions, under the blasphemous guise of revealed authority.”
  3. On the Cambridge don’s prediction for our future: “Happily the last chapter of the shameful history of Mormonism seems to have begun. The conviction of the Bishop’ Lee on the charge of murder removed the last shreds of character that hung round Mormonism, while the death of Brigham Young (reported lately) deprives them of an able and unscrupulous leader.”

And finally:

4.On Mormon Theology, and here, especially note the reference to baptism of the dead:

“It would almost be a mockery to discuss the so-called doctrines’ of the party: but it may be noted that the belief in an approaching Millennium, and baptizing of the dead, were [sic: “are”] prevalent.” 

Oxbridge Books Now

The book I am recommending, Rescue for the Dead, The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity, was published by Oxford University Press in 2001, and written by Jeffrey A. Trumbower.

This is an excellent book on early Christian history concerning baptism for the dead complete with express reference to Mormon History and Theology. From that brief insight, the reader can go on to form their own judgments about the book and its potential place in a new “Mormon Religious Studies.”

With Memorial Day weekend around the corner and summer reading on some of our minds, not only would Rescue for the Dead –a slender 155 page volume– likely be a great Mormon “beach book,” but it would also be worthwhile for rainy days and Sundays while on vacation also.

One early Christian study predecessor to Trumbower’s book (de Soyres is an ancestor of early Christian study) that also focuses on the reference in 1 Corinthian 15:29 cite to baptism of the dead is the justly-esteemed Yale Professor Wayne Weeks’ 1983 book. Meeks belongs to the Yale School of social history whose underlying theory is that there is “always” a correlation between symbols, ideas and patterns of belief with social facts on the other, entitled The First Urban Christians, The Social World of the Apostle Paul, (New Haven: Yale, 1983).

Unlike Professor Trumbower, Professor Meeks -summarizing the then-academic consensus without expressly saying so- refers to baptism for the dead (Meeks at page 78) merely as “enigmatic.”

Trumbower’s theory is more theological than Meeks, whose theory is finally naturalistic.

Also unlike Meeks, who gives us literally but a word on baptism for the dead, Trumbower in his work has given us a whole book that is quickly-paced, unusually clear, and, I suspect for many members, it will prove enriching, perhaps even edifying.  

And unlike the nearly hysterically ironic treatment of Mormonism from the 1870s, the 2001 book, Rescue for the Dead, The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity is carefully critical in the highest (read, “good” sense).

So for those inquisitive Mormon minds who “want to know,” Rescue can be recommended as of both good report and praiseworthy.

Summer Books Recap

Again the books are:

Montanism and the Primitive Church by John De Soyres (Cambridge: Deighton, Bell and Co., 1978); The First Urban Christians, The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne Weeks (New Haven: Yale, 1983); and Rescue for the Dead, The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity, by Jeffrey A. Trumbower (Oxford University Press, 2001).