Your Sunday Brunch Special: Poetry, Prose, Class, and Joseph Smith

Musings on a Sunday morning, nothing much important, but I inflict it on you anyway. You’ll forgive me for the strange usage.

Mormonism: outsiders, if they observe carefully, see two interwoven sides to the Joseph Smith narrative. There is poetry. His production of the Book of Mormon, for instance. The work itself is one of poetic-mythic dimensions, and its interpretations are part and parcel of the poetry that is early Mormonism. The Book of Mormon was originally seen as a universal American tale, offering predictions about the fate of the United States and the origins of its primitive inhabitants, the evils of Catholicism and the virtues of gentile Protestants who had somehow labored under oppressions of popery, even before a reformation. Joseph himself is poetic in our unhindered vision of him. His own hand reeks of biblical verse, prayers to heaven, pleas and gratitude for divine help. But, mid-career, Joseph seems to step behind a curtain, and becomes the object of narrative, rather than its producer. His journals are no longer dictated, they are mostly observed. We hear his voice as less personal, more formal, prosaic, if you will, as his revelations become hidden by secret orders, sermons couched in double meaning, and ghostwritten works.

Contemporary outside observers found him, almost simultaneously, bombastic, impressive, timid, bold, careful, self-important, intemperate, sincere, and dishonest—a local manifestation of Moroni’s prophecy.

As Joseph developed a public persona, we see him conceal his deeply personal spiritual claims (there is no stone-in-the-hat from him). He tells us little, really, of his family, his father’s failures and alcoholism, bare flashes of the devastating death of a brother. Deeply respectful, he confers office and honor on the father, but that father was economically broken, no longer able to provide–then visions of the lost brother in heaven. Joseph’s own later telling of his story often reveals little of his motivations and experiential details–it is prose indeed, though bound with packages of distant vision. Concrete villains with particulate threats are hidden from us, hidden behind a screen of amorphous persecution and devilish combinations that loom over him and the Mormons. Of course there are the later public villains, like the post-governor Boggs, but these are almost like the heads of a massive hidden monster that hates the truth and light of restored Christianity (those damnable Missourians).

Joseph’s vision of himself is often poetic, with a self-image to match, but that image has a very prosaic aspect too. After his four months in Liberty Jail, he begins to display broader self-expression, setting his early visions and experiences into a system of claims and teachings. But he never really sheds the class appearance of the yeoman farmer, out of his league intellectually, politically, stylistically, at least in the eyes of those upper crust easterners who came to observe his notability in person. Charles Francis Adams wryly observed that as Joseph explained his collection of Egyptiana, he and his traveling companion found him less than convincing in language, credential, and appearance. Here is Joseph’s class-envy, a touch of the old Kirtland upper crust act, he is not admitted to the country club, though he has formed his own.

Modern Mormons often see Joseph as the poetic romantic hero, daring warrior for right, patient sufferer of injustice, herald of warning to a fallen world, and restorer of necessary salvific liturgy and power that gives mass to a hollow Christianity. But at least sometimes too, they may lose that devotion to the cause, finding the retreat in the face of science over things like the claims of early Mormons for the American Indian, or a creationist world, or the failure to adjust faith narratives in the face of historical discovery, as pattern for loss of spiritual capital and meaning, hard to retrieve or preserve.

I am not one of the latter. Though, I don’t claim church leaders were ever perfect or always right in their demands, counsel, preaching, declarations or interpretations, no matter how forceful. I think human wisdom is often mixed with Divine wisdom in scripture. But I believe in prophets and I believe in God’s inspiration to human beings. Mormonism, I believe, accepts truth wherever it finds it. If there is conflict, patience is a worthy virtue. As Tolkien’s Eru-Illuvatar took the music of his children and made it hidden and Divine, so I think God is able to give transcendent wordless testimony to texts that seem to wallow in dry circularity (“as your Lord and your God liveth, it is true”) or reflect imperfect mixtures of the temporal human and that hidden divine eternal. I believe, and “know,” that he lives and lives through his words to our hearts and to our minds. In the end, each of us is responsible to determine truth. But we are not, and should not be, afraid to discard claims of the past in the face of present truth, whatever that may mean for cherished beliefs about the nature of revelation. That, at least, is an article of my faith and I think, a part of the Divine music. Be well.

Comments

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Amen, friend. This resonates deeply.

  2. Wonderful stuff. I particularly like the reference to saving us from dry circularity. You’re a poet, man!

  3. This is the best thing I’ve ever read on Joseph Smith. Marvelous. And thank you.

  4. melodynew says:

    This moved me to tears. Thank you for your beautiful mini-biography of Joseph’s life. And ditto Steve. Lovely Sabbath morning read.

    No doubt, Joseph’s early poetic expressions were a reflection of his most natural state for trumpeting newly-discovered truths. It must have been hard to keep it all in, what with salvation and exaltation of humanity in the wings. Yet, like all of us, he came to understand there is more to it than joyful noise. The truth’s superb surprise is hard for folks to take. And in the case of those who saw Joseph as “less than” – especially if it comes from someone who seems to lack certain minimum qualifications. Praise to the man anyway.

    Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,
    Success in curcuit lies.
    Too bright for our infirm delight
    The truth’s superb surpirse.

    As lightening to the children eased
    With explanation kind,
    The truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind. – Emily Dickinson

  5. Thanks, all of you.

  6. This was lovely Sunday reading, thank you.

  7. You’re welcome, Emjen!

  8. Beautiful. I needed to read this.

  9. “But we are not, and should not be, afraid to discard claims of the past in the face of present truth, whatever that may mean for cherished beliefs about the nature of revelation. That, at least, is an article of my faith and I think, a part of the Divine music.”

    Easier said than done, WVS, but absolutely necessary lest we slide into a Jehovah’s Witness-style irrelevance/obscurity – a process, unfortunately, that is well underway. You have more confidence in the institution than I. Bless your sweet heart and thank you for a beautiful post.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    “they may lose that devotion to the cause, finding the retreat in the face of science over things like the claims of early Mormons”

    But it’s none other than the main, yes? That we think we’ve been gifted the whole enchilada when what we really have is just born and fragmentary. So that the whole purpose of revelation is suspended at the start, and we pray to know what job to take or what school to put our children in. Is it any wonder that revelation remains a mystery to the body of believers ? Joseph himself painted it in experimental terms, and as a thing that one grows into – but we have nothing of this is current discourse. What fails to see that it needs to grow fails to grow, what fails to grow dies.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff.

  12. Mark Brown says:

    The best.

  13. Really appreciate this. Thank you.

    Amen, Thomas – and amen.

  14. The Book of Mormon as mythopoeia, and even an Iluvatar reference at the end, there, to boot. Love it.

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