Joseph’s year: As the LDS Church marks its founder’s 200th birthday, scholars examine how views and portrayals of Smith have changed
As he gets closer to his 200th birthday, Joseph Smith has grown more handsome.
In modern portraits and films, the Mormon church founder’s large nose, Napoleonic hairstyle and stout belly have given way to the leaner, tanner look of a California surfer. He seems less remote and more like us.
That may help 21st century Latter-day Saints – more than half of whom have joined in the past few decades – identify with the man they believe ushered in a new Christian dispensation.
Many of the 12 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plan to spend this year celebrating the life of the farm-boy-turned-prophet who was born Dec. 23, 1805.
Mormon folk will sing “praise to the man who communed with Jehovah.” Thousands of teens will dance their devotion in college stadiums. Artists will paint and sculpt his likeness, while the church and various filmmakers retell his story on the big screen.
Brigham Young University historians are scurrying to begin publishing a 12-volume collection of Smith’s diaries, sermons, speeches and letters, a project endorsed by the National Archives.
Meanwhile, Mormon scholars and others are meeting in conferences, seminars and symposia to examine every aspect of his life and teachings. They will look at his writings, literary skill, dreams, psycho-history, relationship to his mother, experience in the religiously burnt-over district of upstate New York, his treasure-seeking activities, his American roots and European antecedents, his biblical interpretations, his claims of originality, his views of women and polygamy.
During his life, there were only two assessments of the charismatic Mormon leader: visionary or charlatan.
Today the response is more nuanced and the discussion more polite.
Believing historians now acknowledge Smith’s foibles and failures, his early money-digging activities and secrecy about plural marriage. And, while non-Mormon scholars don’t accept Smith’s spiritual claims, many have come to respect him as a significant – if enigmatic – figure in U.S. history.
Smith was an “authentic religious genius [who] surpassed all Americans, before or since, in the possession and expression of what could be called the religion-making imagination,” wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in his 1992 book about American religion.
Columbia University professor Randall Balmer calls Smith “a brilliant leader” and a “fascinating individual whom we have to take seriously because of the success of his movement.”
“I find him utterly riveting,” he says, “but I do puzzle over why he was able to pull it off.”
Smith is one of two historical figures that Stephen Stein wishes he could meet.
“If I could use a seance to bring him back to life, I would like to spend an hour with him, asking him lots of questions,” says Stein, an Indiana University historian who is consulting with BYU on the Smith papers. “He represents many long-honored themes in western religion, but he gave his own spin to so many of them. That’s what makes him so engaging.”
Yale historian Jon Butler sees Smith’s uniqueness as his claim to prophecy.
He exemplified a willingness to believe in the prophetic tradition, to shoulder a prophetic responsibility and endure its stigma, says Butler. “After all, he was murdered in large part because of who he claimed to be.”
Jan Shipps, a religious studies expert in Indiana who has made Mormonism her life’s work, says she is comfortable calling Smith a prophet.
Charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther, who launched Lutheranism; John Wesley, who established Methodism; or Mary Baker Eddy, who founded Christian Science; offer new interpretations of established beliefs, Shipps says, but prophets claim to speak for God and find a significant number of people who agree. They often are responsible for creating a new religious tradition.
That puts Smith in the same category as Muhammad, she says. “Both produced books of scripture, claimed divine revelations and enlisted many followers.”
But Smith was born into a world with a printing press. That means eyewitnesses published widely their views, pro and con, of the man during his lifetime.
Telling the story: This is what we know for sure.
Smith was born in a tiny Vermont town, the fourth child of itinerant farmers. At 14, he claimed God and Jesus visited him in a grove of trees near his home in Palmyra, N.Y. A few years later, he said an angel led him to gold plates on which were inscribed the history of ancient Hebrews who migrated to the American continent around 600 B.C. With God’s help, Smith said, he was able to translate the writings into a text he published as The Book of Mormon.
In 1830, Smith organized a church that he said was the restored church of Jesus Christ and spent the next 14 years as its “prophet, seer and revelator.” He showered his people with insights he claimed to receive from on high, including the idea of continuing revelation, the hierarchical structure of the all-male priesthood, temple ceremonies that would bind men, women and families into the eternities (including multiple wives to one husband), communal economics, life before this existence, the notion of eternal progress and three degrees of heaven. His unorthodox Christian views drew many followers but just as many detractors. At just 38 years old, Smith was killed in 1844 by an angry mob in Carthage, Ill.
There have been at least 20 Smith biographies in the past 200 years. And most have looked to his environment, family or personality to find clues that would explain him, said Richard Bushman at a symposium on Smith at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
For example, I. Woodbridge Riley, who wrote a doctoral dissertation at Yale on Smith in 1902, believed him to be “a bizarre, deformed offspring of Yankee culture.”
Riley found in The Book of Mormon “a bevy of American themes: anti-Masonry, anti-Catholicism, attacks on infidelity, theories of Indian origins, all ideas particular to the United States in Joseph Smith’s time,” Bushman said. “He diagnosed the prophet as suffering from epilepsy and explained his visions as a side effect of seizures.”
Fawn Brodie, whose 1945 No Man Knows My History is still considered by many to be the best description of Smith, also used psychology to explain him.
Brodie believed Smith fit the “imposter” personality type, Bushman told hundreds of listeners, most of them Mormons. Such a person “suffered from a severely divided personality, one part being weak, and the other . . . being fantastically strong.”
In his 2004 book, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, Dan Vogel also looks at Smith’s psychology but argues that he was more religious than Brodie thought him to be.
“I see Joseph Smith as a complex personality,” Vogel said from his home in Westerville, Ohio. “He believed himself to be a prophet and inspired on occasion and that God approved of certain deceptive methods to get his message across more effectively.”
Vogel believes Smith wrote The Book of Mormon and that nearly every story in it was drawn from the Smith family saga – from his father’s dreams to debates about the need for infant baptism that were raging in his hometown.
For Bushman, a pre-eminent Mormon scholar whose biography of Smith will be published this fall, such explanations are simplistic at best.
“Future historians will likely explore many histories,” he said. “They may compare Smith to the great mythmakers of history – Dante, Milton, Blake, Nietzsche. They make ask about his place among philosophers, reformers, politicians, prophets. How does Smith look alongside religious figures like Augustine, Luther, Gandhi, Muhammad?”
At the same conference, Richard Hughes, a non-Mormon scholar from Pepperdine University in Southern California, compared Smith to Alexander Campbell, a 19th century minister who also preached the need to return to a purer Christianity.
Campbell was “a child of 18th century Enlightenment,” Hughes said. “For him, God spoke only through a book that rational people could read and understand in rational ways. And only on the basis of a rational approach to a rational text could one possibly hope to restore the glories of the ancient church.”
By contrast, Smith was essentially a “romantic” who wrote and spoke more personally about God.
He wanted to “restore all things,” Hughes said. “Like bees sucking nectar first from this flower and then from the next, early Mormons moved at ease from the primitive church to Moses to the prophets to Abraham to Adam and finally to the coming millennium.”
That biblical vision would “dwarf every other 19th century American preacher or would-be prophet,” he said.
Mormons, no doubt, will find comfort in such a generous assessment.
But that is not why they revere Smith. Most are not interested in a critical look at his life or in scholarship about him. Joseph – as he is called by the LDS faithful – is their prophet and his self-reported history is canonized as scripture. They believe they need only a spiritual confirmation to know it’s true. Modern historical scholarship is irrelevant to their faith, unless it adds layers of evidence to support his veracity.
Stein, the Indiana professor, routinely takes his graduate students in a class on American sectarianism to an LDS ward.
The students are “impressed with lots of positive elements in the meetings, one of which is the continuing testimony that ends the personal witness of the various speakers,” he says. “It’s very different. Methodists don’t think about John Wesley today. Lutherans don’t refer very often to Martin Luther. But Mormons live with a sense of Smith as their continuing prophet. He has stamped his presence on the community in an enduring fashion.”
That, he says, is “quite remarkable.”