Tuesday, October 10, 2006

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

The second issue, the question of significance, has never been satisfactorily addressed by twentieth-century Mormon biographers. What do Joseph Smith and Mormonism mean in American history? We call him an American prophet; what is his place in American history? What was the impact of his religion? What do Joseph Smith and Mormonism reveal about the nature of American culture?

Mormons have fiddled with answers, but we rarely address the question seriously because it is of little concern to us. The Restoration is of such immense importance in world history that it carries its meaning on the surface as far as we are concerned. In the Restoration, God enters history to prepare the world for the Second Coming of Christ. Compared to that transcendent purpose, Mormonism’s place in American history is of secondary concern.

In fact, Latter-day Saints are inclined to reverse the order and place American history in the history of the gospel. We think that Western civilization has been shaped in preparation for the Restoration. The breakup of the medieval church, the rise of learning and free inquiry, the separation of church and state, even a technology like printing are seen as providential preparation for the Restoration. The United States, in the Mormon view, was founded to make a home for the Church. [i]

Unbelievers, of course, are not satisfied with this view of events. They want to wrench Mormonism out of our conspectus and fit it into their own historical schemes, a task that, unfortunately, is not easily accomplished. [ii] The trouble is not a paucity of explanations but an overabundance. With so many being offered, how do we choose from among them? They are so diverse, we feel in danger of losing intellectual coherence. Mormonism appears to be so many things it goes out of focus.

Without going into details or evaluation, let me list some of the alternatives for situating Joseph Smith in American history, most of them of recent vintage. Interest in the question of significance has grown as Mormon and non-Mormon historians have become less combative.

1. Dan Vogel argued in Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism (1988) that Mormonism derived many of its doctrines and a basic attitude from a tradition of religious seeking going back to Roger Williams. In his later years, Williams believed authority had been lost and people must wait for God to bring back revelation and authority. Closer to Joseph Smith’s time, the Irvingites or Catholic Apostolic Church in England searched for prophetic utterance and appointed apostles according to revelation. Vogel believed Mormons branched out of this Seeker movement. [iii]

2. In another study, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987), Michael Quinn suggested that many early Mormons saw the world under the spell of magic. Building on the work of Jon Butler and Keith Thomas, historians of American and European magic, Quinn made Joseph Smith into a practitioner of magic whose magical worldview infused his teachings and writings. [iv]

3. John Brooke’s widely acclaimed The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (1994), discovered in Mormonism a strange brand of philosophy and religion supposedly traceable to Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical ancient-Egyptian theologian. Many scholars have shown how early modern Hermeticism, intermixed with alchemy, flowed into the Rosicrucian movement and Free Masonry. Brooke tried to find Hermeticism in Mormonism (fig. 3) and in fact argued for its dominant influence on Joseph Smith’s distinctive doctrines. [v]

4. In another vein entirely, Kenneth Winn wrote a volume on Mormonism and Republicanism, Exiles in a Land of Liberty (1989), at a time when the social and political ideology of the Revolution seemed to be a key to the understanding of American history. [vi]

5. In Illusions of Innocence: Protestant Primitivism in America, 1630–1875 (1988), Richard Hughes and C. Leonard Allen link Joseph Smith to the Restorationists—those who wished to return to the practices and beliefs of primitive Christianity. [vii] Mormons themselves are comfortable with this category. An article of faith states that “we believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church.”

6. Earlier, Alice Freeman Tyler’s Freedom’s Ferment (1944) placed Joseph Smith among utopian reformers because of the Prophet’s plans for the City of Zion, putting him in a class with the Shakers and the founders of Brook Farm. In his massive Religious History of the American People (1972), the Yale scholar Sydney E. Ahlstrom accepted Tyler’s categorization and inserted a discussion of Mormonism in a chapter titled “The Communitarian Impulse.” [viii]

7. In The Democratization of Christianity (1989), Nathan Hatch made Mormons exemplars of a democratic impulse among early national Christians. Mormonism attacked cultural elites and returned religious power to ordinary people, linking Joseph Smith to the democratic forces coming out of the Revolution. [ix]

8. Grant Underwood’s The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (1993) made a persuasive argument for Mormonism as a form of millenarianism. [x]

I have doubtless overlooked explanations, but the list of eight is long enough to make the point. Mormonism cannot be accounted for simply, any more than can the Constitution or other complex phenomena in our history. Each of these books standing alone seems to locate Mormonism satisfactorily, but taken together they show the elusiveness of significance. After reading them all, we see that no simple answer to the initial question can be given. Mormonism is multifaceted, diverse, baroque in its effulgence of meanings.

The problem is further complicated by Mormonism’s estrangement from American society. For a movement that purportedly incorporated so many elements from the surrounding culture, Mormonism found itself at odds with that culture over and over again. I don’t mean arguments, I mean violence. None of the Saints’ American neighbors accepted them for very long. Wherever the Latter-day Saints settled in the nineteenth century, they were rejected like a failed kidney transplant. In New York, Missouri, Illinois, and even Utah, the Saints were attacked by force and compelled to change or die. Far from being fundamentally American, something about Mormonism repulsed large numbers of Americans. [xi]

Every attempt to assimilate the Restoration into some schema has to face the possibility that Mormonism was more un-American than American. There is more evidence of Mormonism’s alienation from the nineteenth-century United States than of it being a natural outgrowth of American culture. The American connection grows ever more tenuous as Mormonism is increasingly viewed as a world religion. If Mormonism is so American, why the immediate success in nineteenth-century Europe and the rapid twentieth-century growth in Latin America and the Philippines?

I see no way to resolve this problem. I am inclined to increase the confusion rather than clarifying it by adding still another dimension, but one that explains the conflicts with Americans. One place to start on the question of significance is with the single most important principle of the Restoration—revelation.

The Significance of Revelation

With the Restoration, God began directing his Church again, speaking to prophets, actively engaging in a work. We cannot say Joseph was the only one who laid claim to revelations. The Free Will Baptists, the Universalists, the Shakers—all had founders who received open visions of God when they were called to their work. But among all these, Joseph was preeminent in the extent of his claims, in the number of his revelations, and in the success of his movement. [xii] What was the significance of his reliance on revelation?

All these visionaries, and Joseph most of all, discerned what orthodox Christianity had forgotten—that biblical authority still rests, as it always has, on revelation. The Bible’s cultural influence was based on the belief that God revealed himself to prophets. The reason for embracing the Bible was that its words had come from heaven. Christianity had smothered this self-evident fact by relegating revelation to a bygone age, making the Bible an archive rather than a living reality. The significance of Joseph Smith—and other prophets of his time—was their introduction of revelation into the present, renewing contact with the Bible’s God.

Reliance on revelation made Joseph Smith appear marginal in American Christianity, but like marginal people before him, Joseph aimed a question at the heart of the culture: Did Christians truly believe in revelation? If believers in the Bible dismissed revelation in the present, could they defend revelation in the past?

By 1830 when Joseph came on the scene, the question of revelation had been hotly debated for well over a century. Since the first years of the eighteenth century, rational Christians had been struggling with deists, skeptics, and infidels over the veracity of miracles and the inspiration of the prophets and apostles. In 1829, Alexander Campbell debated with the atheist Robert Owen for an entire week on the question of revelation and miracles. [xiii] Campbell believed he had proven God’s presence in the Bible, but doubt lingered on, and over the course of the nineteenth century, belief in revelation eroded among the educated classes.

Through the intellectual wars with skeptics and higher critics, believers steadily lost ground. The loss was only dimly perceived by everyday Christians in Joseph Smith’s time, but in the half-century to come, the issue divided divinity schools and shook ordinary people. [xiv]

Joseph stood against that ebbing current. He prophesied and received revelation exactly as Christians thought Bible prophets did. In effect, he reenacted the writing of the Bible before the Christian world’s eyes. [xv] Most dismissed him as a charlatan without even bothering to evaluate his doctrine.

The people in Palmyra decided the Book of Mormon was bogus before they saw it. Their precipitous condemnation betrayed their doubts about the possibility of revelation. If revelation in the present was so far out of the question that Joseph’s claims could be discounted without serious consideration, why believe revelation in the past? After one incredulous visitor marveled that the Mormon Prophet was “nothing but a man,” Joseph remarked that “they look upon it as incredible that a man should have any intercourse with his Maker.” [xvi] That was exactly the point. People had lost faith that a person could receive revelation. Joseph’s life posed the question: Does God speak to man? [xvii]

In this sense, Joseph was among the “extremist prophets,” as one pair of historians have called them. [xviii] He forced the question of revelation on a culture struggling with its own faith. Joseph’s historical role, as he understood it, was to give God a voice in a world that had stopped listening. “The Gentiles shall say,” Nephi wrote in the Book of Mormon, “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a Bible, and there cannot be any more Bible.” “O fools,” the Lord rejoins, “know ye not . . . that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and that I speak forth my words according to mine own pleasure” (2 Ne. 29:3–4, 7, 9).

Not only does the Book of Mormon show that God does “inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old” (D&C 20:11). But the reality of revelation in the present also proves the reality of revelation in the past. One reason for restoring the Book of Mormon, an early revelation said, is to prove “that the holy scriptures are true” (D&C 20:11). In reply to a minister’s inquiry about the distinguishing doctrine of Mormonism, Joseph told him, “We believe the Bible, and they do not.” [xix]

At some level, Joseph’s revelations indicate a loss of trust in the Christian ministry. For all their learning and their eloquence, the clergy could not be trusted with the Bible. They did not understand what the book meant. It was a record of revelations, and the ministry had turned it into a handbook. The Bible had become a text to be interpreted rather than an experience to be lived. In the process, the power of the book was lost.

In Joseph Smith’s 1839 account of the First Vision, that was the charge against the churches. “They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (JS–H 1:19). It was the power thereof that Joseph and the other visionaries of his time sought to recover. Not getting it from the ministry, they looked for it themselves.

To me, that is Joseph Smith’s significance for our time. He stood on the contested ground where the Enlightenment and Christianity confronted one another, and his life posed the question, Do you believe God speaks? Joseph was swept aside, of course, in the rush of ensuing intellectual battles and was disregarded by the champions of both great systems, but his mission was to hold out for the reality of divine revelation and establish one small outpost where that principle survived.

Joseph’s revelatory principle is not a single revelation serving for all time, as the Christians of his day believed regarding the incarnation of Christ, nor a mild sort of inspiration seeping into the minds of all good people, but specific, ongoing directions from God to his people. At a time when the origins of Christianity were under assault by the forces of Enlightenment rationality, Joseph Smith returned modern Christianity to its origins in revelation.

For that reason, rationalists today are required to attack Joseph Smith’s revelations. Mormonism revives all the claims to heavenly authority that the Enlightenment was invented to repulse. Since the Enlightenment is far from dead, a biographer of Joseph Smith cannot escape its skepticism. Even if general readers momentarily suspend disbelief, in the end most of them will not believe. That is a fact in our modern world. Educated believers are in a small minority. We write under a different constellation of intellectual moods and fashions in the twenty-first century, but the rationalist doubts of the twentieth century are still with us.

Despite the prevailing disbelief, some modern readers will enjoy the story of an old-fashioned prophet rising once more. Appalled by the miseries of our time, they may feel that the world is desperate for revelation from a caring God. Rather than dismiss Joseph out of hand as a blatant fraud, they will listen and observe. Is it possible that biblical revelation could be renewed? Could the Enlightenment have shut up the heavens through its disbelief? Must we foreclose the very possibility of divine communication? Those questions, raised by this “modern” prophet, may seem worth pondering by at least a few.



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