Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Joseph Smith for the 21st Century (1/3)

A Joseph Smith for the 21st Century

Meridian Magazine

Part I
By Richard Bushman

Editors' Note: BYU Studies is the university’s journal of LDS thought and scholarship. BYU Studies is dedicated to the premise that faith is strengthened through the intellectual pursuit of light and truth.

Richard Bushman is perhaps the most respected scholar on Joseph Smith within as well as outside of the Church and has published extensively with BYU Studies. To learn more or to subscribe to the journal, to go byustudies.byu.edu

Since Henry Caswall published The Prophet of the Nineteenth Century in 1843, a year before Joseph Smith’s death, nineteen book-length biographies of the Prophet have appeared in print, more than half of them since 1940.1 They differ wildly in tone and perspective, as might be imagined…

We have no reason to think that the writing of biographies about the Prophet will cease as we enter the twenty-first century. Major historical figures always invite reassessment, and interest in Joseph Smith shows no signs of flagging. The relentless growth of the Church makes him more important now than ever. To account for Mormonism’s modern success, the mysteries of Joseph Smith have to be plumbed. How are we to understand this extravagant and bold figure whose work has now attracted millions of followers all over the world? How can Joseph be situated in American culture and now in global culture? Why was he so successful? Puzzles such as these are sure to attract biographers in the coming century.

Over the past hundred years, two issues have shaped writing on Joseph Smith, and as we move into the twenty-first century, it may be worth speculating on how these questions will be addressed in the future. May we expect sharp departures, or will the classic questions be answered in the classic ways? The first of these is the question of belief. Until now, the tone and import of a Joseph Smith biography has depended heavily on whether or not the author believed in Joseph’s revelations. Will the author’s attitude toward the authenticity of the revelations continue to govern the organization of biographies in the future as they have in the past?

The second issue is the question of significance. What is the place of Mormonism in American history? Where did Mormonism come from? What is its impact? What does Mormonism tell us about America? These questions bear directly on Joseph Smith’s life, and the answers are sure to change as our understanding of American culture evolves. The discussion will become even more complicated as Mormonism spreads around the globe. Mormon historians rarely deal with the question of significance, but non-Mormon readers want an answer. Mormon authors should contribute to this speculation as it goes forward rather than leaving the question of significance to outsiders and critics.

Belief and Joseph Smith’s Life

The issue of belief was recently posed to me by Alfred Bush, curator of Western Americana at the Firestone Library at Princeton University. Because of his Mormon background, Bush is one of the most attentive observers of the Mormon scene and is responsible for a superb collection of Mormon Americana at the Firestone. When he learned I was writing a biography of Joseph Smith, he told me that I must address the question of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The historian is responsible, Bush insisted, for determining whether or not the book is true history.

I see this as a version of a question that has dominated writing on Joseph Smith from the beginning: Was Joseph Smith a prophet to whom God actually spoke? Were the Book of Mormon and the other revelations—amounting to over 800 pages of writing—from God or were they the fabrications of a human mind? Although Mormons and their critics answer differently, they all deal with this question of authenticity, and the author’s answer determines a great deal about how a biography is put together.

The issue of authenticity can be thought of as a governing question. The writer’s position on the revelations has consequences far beyond the passages where the revelations themselves are discussed.

If the author believes in the revelations, the story is likely to take the following shape:

1.  Joseph’s character and personality will be conceived positively. A believing author will tend to see Joseph as possessing a character worthy of a prophet. George Q. Cannon said of the Prophet, “His magnetism was masterful, and his heroic qualities won universal admiration.”2 For these biographers, faults get overlooked and virtues magnified. Critical historians always suspect believing historians of whitewashing Joseph and his family. After my book Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism appeared, I was asked by one colleague why I had not mentioned Joseph Smith Sr.’s bouts of intoxication. Actually it was a slip in my scholarship, but the critics thought I was covering up. Unbelievers would never make such a mistake. They would be sure to notice Father Smith’s somewhat demeaning weakness.

2.  Believers will see Joseph’s doctrines as unique or at least inspiring. His revelations look like new truth bursting on the earth. John Henry Evans inspired Leonard Arrington because Evans was so upbeat about Joseph’s teachings. “Joseph Smith’s attraction,” Evans wrote, “lay partly in his personality, but mainly in the dynamic power of his religious philosophy.”3 Non-Mormons tend to think that the Book of Mormon is simplistic and easily dismissed.4 Believers see its profundities and complexities.

3.  Among believers there is an inclination toward providential history, that is, to see the hand of the Lord working on the Saints’ behalf. They are likely to play up small miracles in everyday life. The Mormon world is filled with God’s presence. Consequently, the biography’s overall plot line is inclined to be triumphalist. Struggle is a form of testing that brings success in the end. This is God’s cause, and it will eventually overcome all opposition.5

Skeptics, on the other hand, give the narrative another form:

1.  Joseph has to become in some sense a scoundrel. The reason for this is that he pretended to have revelations that the author believes were fabricated. It follows that Joseph deceived his followers by claiming revelation he was not really receiving. He almost inevitably therefore becomes a showman or a con man. This is the way Brodie puts it:

“For Joseph what was a dream one day could become a vision the next, and a reality the day after that. It is doubtful if he ever escaped the memory of the conscious artifice that went into the Book of Mormon, but its phenomenal success must have stifled any troublesome qualms. And at an early period he seems to have reached an inner equilibrium that permitted him to pursue his career with a highly compensated but nevertheless very real sincerity. Certainly a persisting consciousness of guilt over the cunning and deception with which his prophetic career was launched would eventually have destroyed him.”6

Starting with such assumptions about Joseph Smith’s character, one can expect all sorts of relapses into deceptive behavior because a lie lay at the bottom of his life. Joseph becomes morally ambiguous, doing many noble and heroic things but also capable of base behavior—a divided man at his core.7

2.  Because Joseph’s revelations are thought to be a concoction, the skeptical biographer has to locate the sources of the revelations. Where did all the components of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses come from? As Brodie puts it, Joseph Smith’s theology was “a patchwork of ideas and rituals drawn from every quarter.”8

This assertion leads to a survey of all kinds of source materials, sometimes ranging far into the past in search of precedents for his ideas.9 Since Joseph wrote so much, it is difficult to locate a source for everything, so these biographers content themselves with a few examples and presume the rest could be accounted for by further searching. Strangely, not much credit is given to Joseph’s own imagination and certainly none to God. The skeptics show a peculiar reluctance to suggest Joseph might have had independent genius, even though writing the Book of Mormon in three months is surely one of the greatest writing feats of all time.

3.  Along the same line, the skeptic may have to work out the devious means by which Joseph carried off his deceptions. Having to account for the testimonies of the Three and Eight Witnesses, skeptics speculate about making supposed gold plates out of tin or filling a box with sand to make it heavy enough to feel like gold. The requirement of discovering the magician performing his tricks results in the fabrication of events, comparable to the attenuated explanations of the Spaulding theory in the previous century where Sidney Rigdon had to be shown smuggling the manuscript of the Book of Mormon to Joseph.10

These contrasting qualities could be elaborated, but they suggest, I hope, how the question of authenticity has shaped the organization and tone of writings about Joseph Smith in the twentieth century. Doubtless the question of authenticity will not die in the twenty-first century, but I believe that this issue has steadily been losing its edge and that a growing body of readers are ready for another depiction of the Prophet. These readers do not want to be caught up in the battles of believers and disbelievers; they are more interested in knowing about an extraordinarily intriguing person…



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