Not much has changed in the debate over the bona fides of Mormon founder Joseph Smith since he claimed to have communed with God in a New York maple grove in the spring of 1820.
In the bicentennial year of his birth, Latter-day Saints worldwide still extol the integrity of their church’s founding prophet, while detractors continue their unrelenting assault on his intentions. He is at once visionary leader and religious charlatan.
Yet, in the 175th year of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its enduring vitality may have rendered moot the question of whether Smith truly translated ancient Scripture etched on golden plates or made up the tale out of whole cloth.
“The story of early Mormonism doesn’t have to be told by placing Smith’s own guilelessness and honesty front and center,” University of North Carolina historian Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a non-Mormon, told a gathering of mostly LDS intellectuals at the annual Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City.
“There may be other options, other angles of vision that reveal elements obscured by the shadow of Joseph Smith’s personal story.”
Maffly-Kipp’s version of the church’s restoration places its enigmatic leader nowhere near center stage.
To entwine faithfulness with a belief in Joseph Smith’s sincerity, and to describe the Mormon restoration as a sort of starting point in the Christian journey, she argued, may be a little like “beginning the story of traditional Christianity with the founding of the United Methodist Church. . . . It’s an important piece of the picture, clearly. But it is hardly the only way to set out.”
Think of Smith, she suggests, as merely an actor in a continually unfolding ecclesiastical drama – one of a cast of others like Moses and Isaiah. His importance isn’t in any way diminished by this supporting role, but instead the focus of scholarship is shifted to something more powerful: the history of how rank-and-file believers related to Smith’s teachings to form their own religious understanding.
The emphasis, then, is on the faith journeys of ordinary believers rather than the origins of their belief.
It’s the same argument advanced more than two decades ago by Davis Bitton and Leonard Arrington in their 1981 book Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History. The former LDS Church historians criticized a tendency among Latter-day Saint officialdom “to ignore what happens below the top-level of administration.”
“The lives of those who drive the engines of history are ignored,” they wrote, “often because they leave no written records, but just as often because they are not considered important.”
And yet, it is in these stories that Mormonism’s immense appeal might be discovered.
“Some of the earliest converts focused their attention much more on the Book of Mormon itself and less on Joseph Smith as a prophet. The saga of a New World civilization drew them in,” Maffly-Kipp said.
“Equally important were the manifestations of the Holy Spirit that they saw and experienced for themselves. Miracles, visions, the sighting of ‘wonderful lights in the air,’ were all means by which early believers experienced spiritual power.”
Not only does the obsession with Smith’s sincerity take away from this religious texture, it also fails to make a convincing argument for the validity of his church.
“In other words, there are plenty of sincere people who sincerely believe in incorrect ideas. Conversely, it is also true that insincere people can express correct ideas and enact religious truth sometimes despite themselves.”
In the end, saint or sinner, said Maffly-Kipp, Smith’s movement stood the test of history.
And “in an important sense,” particularly in the Christian tradition, “history is truth.”