Why Does Joseph Smith Matter?

John G. Turner on Mormonism

Joseph Smith may not be a name that matters to you, but he matters a great deal to the sixteen million claimed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What about the other 99.98% of human beings? “No one outside of the Mormons is taking Joseph Smith seriously,” lamented Richard Bushman in the wake of his landmark biography. Bushman’s fellow historians and scholars of religion couldn’t see in him any “prophetic qualities or even flashes of genius.” What could they see? A “phenomenon … an outlier or a horrible example.”

Indeed, putting historians aside, non-Mormon Americans have pegged Smith as a charlatan, scoundrel, and heretic. Still, a New York Times survey a decade ago found that a solid half of Americans knew that Joseph Smith was a “Mormon,” pretty good name recognition for a prophet with a forgettable name. South Park, Broadway, and Mitt Romney have kept him in the mix. Smith, though, is well known without being widely admired, and he’s much more obscure outside the United States despite the global expansion of the church.

How does one even make an argument about a historical figure’s significance? What makes someone matter? In terms of religion, there’s a pantheon of figures whose importance lies beyond contestation, such as Jesus or Muhammad or Siddartha Gautama. No one’s going to take issue with Maimonides, or quibble with Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. All men, by the way, and if one were to compose a longer list of individuals who matter within the history of Christianity, there would be a lot of well-educated, elite ministers and theologians alongside a smattering of female saints and educators.

So why might Joseph Smith matter?

As Bushman points out, there were many other visionaries and prophets in early nineteenth century America, figures as diverse as Nat Turner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jemima Wilkinson. Smith, Bushman asserts, “stands out because he left more of a mark on the world than any of his fellow prophets.” He “create[d] a people who recognize one another as his followers.” Indeed, sixteen million members is something to shake a stick at, and there are a host of smaller churches that trace their origins to Smith’s claims. Still, it’s not on par with the numerical success experienced by the Adventist descendants of Ellen White, Smith’s visionary and prophetic contemporary. Back in the mid-1980s, sociologist Rodney Stark predicted that there would be 265 million Latter-day Saints by 2080, making Mormonism the next world religion. The church’s rate of growth has since stagnated.

What about Smith’s literary accomplishments? The Book of Mormon came at the very beginning of Smith’s career, published when the budding prophet was twenty-four years old. About the length of the New Testament, it’s a long epic about a family that leaves Jerusalem shortly before its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, and the family’s warring descendants in the Americas. According to Smith, a man named Moroni completed the record (engraved on a set of gold plates), buried it ca. 420 CE, and then revealed it to the young Smith in the 1820s.

Assessing the Book of Mormon is tricky. For starters, who wrote it? Those who accept Smith as a prophet see him as a divinely appointed amanuensis rather than an author. Few of Smith’s early critics found any religious or aesthetic value in the Book of Mormon, but they still didn’t think a young man with such a limited formal education could have written it. So who did? Some detractors proposed that one of Smith’s more educated followers was the actual author; others alleged that he had purloined someone else’s manuscript.

Debates over authorship aside, those who reject Smith’s prophetic claims have generally concurred with Mark Twain that the Book of Mormon is “chloroform in print.” The charge is partly unfair. Some early converts to Smith’s church stayed up all night to read the book, and today’s Latter-day Saints approach it much the way that other Christians read the Bible. (The Bible, one might add, has plenty of soporific parts of its own). Few literary critics, though, deem Smith’s magnum opus an aesthetic masterpiece. Its King James-inspired prose is far more clunky than the original. “Neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites, Mormon comments of the time after the appearance of Jesus Christ in the Americas.”

Still, the unsophisticated prose is misleading. There are narratives within a cohesive grand epic, distinct editorial voices within the text, and – characteristic of Joseph Smith – no shortage of authorial bravado. As the scholars Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman have suggested, the text’s “ostentatious anachronism” makes it “a remarkably assured and comprehensive prolepsis.” Smith knew what he was doing. In the end, it is no mean feat to publish a book that millions of people almost two centuries later regard as scripture. Other Americans dictated revelations and wrote texts that gained scriptural authority. A century ago, most observers would have considered Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health more significant than the Book of Mormon. Now, it seems clear that as a maker of scripture Joseph Smith is unsurpassed in U.S. History.

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Smith was a religious innovator par excellence when it came to ritual as well. The Saints inherited many of those rituals – such as baptism by immersion –  from the Protestant Christianity that surrounded them, but Smith also snatched others from the vagaries of scripture and took inspiration from Freemasonry as well.  Following biblical models, patriarchs dictated formal blessings for church members, treasured as promises and words of sacred instruction. Beginning in 1840, fixing upon an obscure passage in the New Testament, Smith encouraged the Saints to be baptized on behalf of those who had died without joining the church (later restricted to their own ancestors). Smith then introduced the “endowment,” in which church members reprised the roles of Adam and Eve and made a series of covenants with God and church leaders. Smith understood ritual as a way to provide individuals with an assurance of their salvation, also as a means to bind together families and create bonds among church members.

Smith’s most notorious ritual and social innovation pertained to marriage. Smith taught that marriages sealed by his authority – and only those marriages – would persist beyond death. At the same time, Smith expanded his own familiy considerably. There is debate about when Smith began teaching and practicing the doctrine, but in the end, Smith married nearly three dozen women. The ages of his plural wives ranged from 14 to 56. Around one-third of these women were already married to other men. Smith did not cohabit with his plural wives, though his accumulation of marriages produced bitter tension with his first wife, Emma Hale. Smith had sex with some, but not all, of his plural wives, and there is no solid evidence that any of the polygamous unions produced children.Polygamy lent Smith posthumous notoriety, so much that his widow Emma, their children, and the smaller Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) spent many years denying that he had engaged in the practice.

During Smith’s lifetime, however, his politics mattered far more than his polygamy, which remained a matter of rumor.Shortly after the founding of the Church of Christ, Smith began calling on his followers to gather together. In 1831, he identified Jackson County, Missouri, as Zion, the site of the biblical New Jerusalem, to which Jesus Christ would soon return. Church members should leave their homes and move there in order to find refuge from the coming apocalyptic storm. Smith himself had moved to Kirtland, Ohio, which he understood as a second place of gathering, a staging ground for eventual emigration to Missouri.

The principle of gathering flowed out of Smith’s vision of Zion. In an expansion of the Book of Genesis, Smith narrated that Enoch founded a city after a widely ranging and successful preaching mission. “The Lord,” the text records, “called his people Zion because they were of one heart and of one mind.” Smith taught that white converts to his church and Native Americans who returned to the faith of their ancestors – as depicted in the Book of Mormon – would enjoy Christ’s millennial reign together. There were only a handful of Native conversions during Smith’s lifetime, and the prophet also struggled to convince his followers to consecrate their property to the church. Zion was hard to achieve.

Everywhere the Saints gathered, moreover, tension and violence ensued. Majorities ruled in Jacksonian America, and minorities generally suffered for it. As the Saints streamed into Jackson County, other Missouri settlers realized that they would soon control the county’s political offices, and they  organized to drive the Mormons out. Zion was lost. Missouri’s politicians attempted to confine the Saints to newly created Caldwell County, but the number of Mormon settlers was too great for a single-county reservation. In 1838, after months of tension and skirmishes (and the massacre of seventeen Mormons, including two children, at Haun’s Mill), Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered that the Mormons “be exterminated or driven from the State.” After organizing his people to fight, Smith agreed to negotiate, was captured by state militia officers, charged with treason, and incarcerated for five months.

While Smith languished in prison, the Saints by the thousand straggled out of Missouri, finding refuge in Illinois. The repeated debacles caused Smith to double down rather than back down. On the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois, he presided over the meteoric rise and fall of Nauvoo, a name that he said meant in Hebrew “a beautiful situation, or place.” Within a few years, Nauvoo rivaled Chicago in population, and with the help of a generous charter obtained from an initially friendly state government, it became a theocratic city-state. Smith was the city’s mayor and the lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion militia. Nauvoo’s courts sheltered Smith and others from arrest on charges originating in other jurisdictions. Meanwhile, Smith antagonized the state’s two leading political parties – the Democrats and the Whigs – by encouraging Mormon men to vote for whichever party pledged to support their interests. All the while, Smith soured on the United States and its political institutions, none of which provided the Saints redress for their Missouri losses or promised to protect them from new threats in Illinois.

In June of 1844, Smith ordered the destruction of a dissident printing press, which led to charges of having incited a riot. Under pressure from Illinois governor Thomas Ford, Smith at first fled across the Mississippi River, then reluctantly submitted to arrest. Meanwhile, mobs and militia troops – the same thing, as far as the Saints were concerned – harrassed outlying Mormon communities. One of those mobs stormed Carthage Jail and fatally shot Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.

Smith’s life and death exposed the contradictions and faultlines within American democracy. Both Smith and his opponents praised the U.S. Constitution and its guarantees of republican government and religious freedom. Some smaller communal groups at this time managed to escape serious persecution, and converts to Mormonism who stayed put rarely encountered sustained persecution. But in Jacksonian America, there was no place for large religious communities who would control commerce and politics in their places of gathering. The Saints were not alone. Other groups that didn’t fit into the framework of Protestant denominationalism encountered persecution as well, as illustrated in anti-Catholic violence in several American cities. As Smith discovered, state governments would not protect the Saints from local mobs, and the national government refused to intervene.

Joseph Smith matters to me for all of the above reasons, but there’s something more. As a non-Latter-day Saint, I admire Smith as an “authentic religious genius,” to use Harold Bloom’s phrase, but I don’t accept his prophetic claims. I don’t think he translated an ancient record, and I wouldn’t trust him with my money or my wife.

At the same time, Smith is an endlessly transfixing figure. “Adam fell that men might be,” a Book of Mormon prophet explains, “and men are, that they might have joy.” The idea of a necessary, even fortunate fall wasn’t original to Joseph Smith, but he expressed it with unusual pithiness. One discerns joy in so much of Smith’s activity. When people first encountered Smith, they usually noted his mirth, earthiness, and playfulness. While awaiting a hearing on charges of treason in Missouri, he agreed to wrestle a local champion. He won. Smith was hospitable, quick to offer visiting church members and others a bed in his home. He was sociable, and not just with women. “What do we care where we are if the society be good?” he once asked.

Both Smith’s ideas and actions were audacious. He always asked good questions. “Have I not an equal privilege with the ancient Saints?” Smith asked his uncle, Silas Smith. “And will not the Lord hear my prayers and listen to my cries as soon as he ever did to theirs?” Why would God be so loquacious in first-century Jerusalem and not in Jacksonian America? Why would visions and miracles cease? Why would God reveal scriptures to certain peoples and not others? And the question that Smith connected to an early vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ: “who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?”

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Smith’s answers overturned many longstanding Christian principles. Casting aside creedal definitions of the Trinity, Smith described separate divine personages, beginning with a literal father and son. After Smith’s death, his followers also attributed to him the origin of their belief in a “Mother in Heaven,” who had given birth to spirit children who if righteous obtained bodies on earth. For Smith, matter was eternal, not created, a teaching meant to provide solace in the face of death. Humans, God, and Jesus Christ were consubstantial, of the same species. “God himself,” Smith taught, “who sits enthroned in yonder heavens is a man like unto one of yourselves.” Men could become like God, following the example of Jesus Christ, who had been exalted upon his death and resurrection. A great chain of priesthood connected Latter-day Saint men back to Adam and ultimately back to God, and who knew where it ended. During Smith’s lifetime, and ever since, his detractors have regarded these ideas as hubristic, if not heretical, but in his mind they comforted and inspired a beleaguered people to keep trying to establish Zion on earth.

Smith also intrigues many because he remains elusive. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has published more than twenty volumes of papers “created by Joseph Smith or by staff whose work he directed.” There is an enormous amount of information documenting Smith’s career, yet it fails to illumine many key moments. For instance, if one is, like me, skeptical of Smith’s claim to have received golden plates from an angel, one has to concede the lack of evidence to construct an alternative narrative of fraud and deception.

And what about polygamy? In April 1841, Louisa Beaman became Smith’s first clearly documented plural wife. She wore a hat and coat, dressing as a man to get to the small outdoor ceremony without detection. What was Joseph thinking? Why polygamy? Why Louisa Beaman? He was close to her family, but he was close to many families. What did Smith think a plural marriage entailed? And as the months passed, and Smith married again and again, why so many? There is enough evidence to provide tentative answers to some of these questions, but Smith’s marital activity remains shrouded in mystery. Smith leaves one yearning to know more.

Joseph Smith is the white whale of religious biography: easy to sight, hard to catch. “No man knows my history,” Smith asserted shortly before his death, a statement that provided the title for Fawn Brodie’s 1945 biography. Smith isn’t a mythical figure like Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad. We have letters in his hand, transcripts of his sermons. Scores of Americans met and wrote about him. Joseph made himself impossible to ignore, after all. He did that so well that he remains an irresistible figure for many who encounter him, whether or not they see him as a prophet or a scoundrel, or a bit of both.

John G. Turner is Professor of Religious Studies and History at George Mason University and the author of They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty.