LDS Founder Smith Becomes a Magnet for Biographers

The Salt Lake Tribune, Sunday, August 11, 2002

Mormon founder Joseph Smith was a polarizing figure, reviled by his enemies, revered by his followers. The 19th century leader was visionary, revolutionary, ambitious, energetic, enigmatic, possibly manipulative and deceptive.

No one could know his history, Smith said. He would not have believed it himself, if he had not lived it.

In short, the Mormon prophet is an irresistible subject for would-be biographers.

Five of them — two professors, two writers and one filmmaker — spoke on a panel Saturday during the concluding session of Sunstone Symposium, an independent forum for LDS intellectuals.

Each member of the all-male panel acknowledged a fascination with the original “prophet, seer and revelator” of the now 11-million member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Joseph was a man of immense dimensions and complexity,” said Richard Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University. “How did he do it? That is the question every biographer must face.”

Smith had enough confidence to declare he was speaking for God, said Bushman, a Mormon historian who has written one Smith biography and is now writing a cultural history of the man in time for Smith’s 200th birthday in 2005.

But was the Mormon leader truly American?

Smith may have been open to new experiences and pragmatic. He believed in the common people enough to ordain all men to the priesthood. But he and his followers were also seriously alienated from American society, Bushman said.

Mormonism is not a democracy, he said. “They would rather follow Joseph than the American government and that scared people.”

Robert Remini, an emeritus professor of history from University of Illinois at Chicago, disagreed.

“Mormonism is the most democratic religion I know. Everybody — well, almost everybody — gets to heaven,” said Remini, a non-Mormon, to much laughter from the large audience.

People hated Smith because he had the audacity to say God told him their religions were all wrong and their clergy were corrupted. “Did he think the ministers would say, ‘Oh thank you for telling us?’ ” Remini asked.

Smith was successful in part because he offered a new scripture, The Book of Mormon, “that connected them with the divine,” said Remini, who has just finished writing a Smith biography.

Richard Van Wagoner and Scott Kenney are two of three authors working on a three-volume biography of Smith that will also be published in 2005.

Van Wagoner is dealing with Smith’s formative years from his birth until the end of 1830, when he founded the LDS Church.

Van Wagoner is analyzing the importance of several factors in those early years: the Smith family’s poverty and its effect on Smith’s later economics; the influence of his parents, particularly his mother, on Smith’s use of language; his early illness and leg injury that left him using crutches for some time; and his restless intellect.

As a non-believing Mormon, Kenney, who is looking at Ohio and Missouri during the 1830s period of Mormon history, said he is trying to strike a balance between a strictly secular approach which offers naturalistic rather than religious explanations for Smith’s actions, and recognizing the spiritual components of the man.

Kenney is exploring Smith’s understanding of truth-telling, how he might have understood the nature of divine revelation, and the dynamic between the prophet and the church he launched.

On that last point, Bushman added that “Joseph was not a prophet who comes out of the wilderness and called people to repentance. He was a church and kingdom-builder. A CEO. And CEOs have to have big egos or the movement doesn’t get off the ground.”

Richard Dutcher has taken up the nearly impossible task of bringing Smith to life on the big screen.

Dutcher, who directed and starred in “God’s Army,” would not give away any details of f his forthcoming film.

“Those who think Joseph was a devil or a god will both be disappointed,” Dutcher said.

“I worry only about what I will think and Joseph will think and what the Lord will think.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 12, 2002.
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