Which brings us back to Joseph Smith. There are obvious problems with the historical record, with the data available, relevant to a reconstruction of the life of Mormonism’s founding prophet. This is a product of the sporadic, come-and-go nature of written records that shed light (with varying degrees of indirectness) on his life. But it’s also a product of the stakes involved in the whatever temporal present shapes the reconstructions. We don’t just try to tell histories. We try to assert interpretive control over them. We tell them the way we want them told, and even though there are constraints imposed by the brute facts of available historical records, within those constraints (which are much more flexible than we’re disposed to believe) we are still capable of exercising almost infinite creativity in the shaping of the narratives we produce. There’s nothing wrong with this, so long as we are willing to acknowledge it and be conscious of it, as readers but particularly as makers of history.
Pay attention to the debates surrounding Joseph Smith, and some familiar, but contested, tropes will emerge. They’re often the flashpoints in apologist/critic acrimony. Was Joseph a genius manipulator, a gold digging charlatan whose creative prowess enabled him to dictate the Book of Mormon? Or was he a barely-literate halfwit, an unschooled plowboy who couldn’t possibly have written it? Was he a magic seeker, a superstitious treasure hunter? Or was he a diligent Bible believer and religious seeker, a committed Christian boy who sincerely sought understanding from scripture? Was he power hungry self-promoter who indulged his carnal appetites? Or was he a humble, self-effacing, even poetic romantic whose commitment to his sweetheart was immovable? Was he rough on the edges but tenderhearted on the inside? Or was he compelling, handsome, and charismatic? Was he angry and prone to petty acts of vengeance? Or was he big-hearted, self-critical, warm and forgiving? These aren’t just differences in empirical facts, or even in interpretation. These descriptions draw their salience from well-known archetypes and stock characters, from the mythic figures that populate the categories of modern western religion, culture, and mind.
If you’re a believing Latter-day Saint, the images that are most likely to stand out in your overall impression of Joseph Smith are the hard-working, unschooled but biblically literate religious seeker; the misunderstood and unjustly persecuted servant; the victim of tar-and-feathering; the unfairly imprisoned leader; and the faithful and devoted husband and father.
If you’re an ex-Mormon or someone with some hostility toward Mormon traditions, the images most likely to resonate with you are the treasure seeker, the imaginative and creative religious genius, the gifted self-promoter, the exceptionally charismatic leader, the lover of women, the power-grabbing overreacher, the megalomaniac.
I’m aware of the fact that most people do not imbibe the stock images of either the first or second list exclusively, that people who are more inclined to take seriously the content of one list can still acknowledge some of the content of the other, etc. Still, these two lists have two things in common (apart from being far from comprehensive): first, each list contains a lot of truth; second, each list paints a decidedly incomplete picture. The degree to which either narrative is coherent and compelling depends not just on its appeal to culturally relevant stock characters but also on very clear patterns of focusing on certain facts and/or claims about Joseph Smith’s history while marginalizing or excluding others. Internally coherent stories are always interested stories (stories whose shape and content reflects interests of storytellers) and always partial stories, stories whose aesthetic or narrative completeness, ironically, depends on a kind of factual incompleteness. This is even true of more complex, sophisticated, but nevertheless interested tellings of the Joseph Smith Story, where the elements that don’t actively contribute to the overall shape of the story are instead acknowledged or incorporated to add a measure of dimension or color, some nice shading on the margins. This is evident in both critical narratives that treat Joseph Smith as a pious, well-intentioned fraud as well as devotional narratives that acknowledge uncomfortable details from his life as “warts” whose presence have a humanizing effect.
My concern here is not in providing a “complete” version of the story. My concern is with the fact that devotional narratives of the Prophet largely appear to have been constructed first by ignoring key features of his life story, and, more recently, by attempting to acknowledge these once absent elements and incorporate them into the existing narratives, with the desired effect of putting a more human face on him. The relationship between the narratives advanced, respectively, by Fawn Brodie and Richard Bushman illustrates this dynamic quite well. Brodie wrote a story which placed heavy emphasis on elements of Joseph’s life largely absent from devotional narratives. That shifted emphasis meant that a radically different Joseph Smith leaped from the pages of her biography than the one present in contemporary faith-promoting accounts. Brodie’s work was pathbreaking, forcing an entire generation of believing Mormon historians and biographers to acknowledge and deal with those features her story foregrounded. Bushman’s biography, published (also by Knopf) a half century later, explicitly addressed itself to Brodie’s text and represented the thoroughest attempt to date of addressing and domesticating those uncomfortable facts into a faith-affirming (or at least not un-affirming) narrative of the Prophet’s life.
What I’m proposing is a different approach to those elements of Joseph’s life and career which have typically proven difficult for believing Mormons, which they have sought to tame or marginalize or otherwise acknowledge in a way that doesn’t existentially threaten longstanding characterizations of the Prophet coded in LDS culture as faithful. What might a devotional narrative look like which, rather than ignoring uncomfortable facts or incorporating them on the color- or dimension-enhancing margins, made those facts central to its construction? Is a devotional reading of the same basic story Brodie tells possible? In what is a highly self conscious act of interested historiography, I’d like to suggest that the answer is yes, and offer some basic contours, the beginning outlines of a coherent sketch of a somewhat different Joseph Smith than imagined in either critical or faith-promoting narratives.
This version traces four separate narrative arcs running over the course of the Prophet’s career, and attempts to synthesize them under a deeply (if not uncontroversially) Mormon logic. I acknowledge that these arcs are both simplistic and reductionist, and that the synthesizing narrative, while unquestionably Mormon, is contested. Any serious effort to flesh out the sketch I’m outlining here would need to fill in enormous gaps in the brief story I’m telling, to attenuate the smooth subplots with details that don’t fit so nicely; but I believe that this is a reasonable starting point for a vision of Joseph Smith that accepts his prophetic calling (without the claim that at some point he became a “fallen prophet”) and more openly, directly, and responsibly faces and deals with what has, until quite recently, largely escaped our reverential attention.
Arc 1: Social power. The basic story is this. When the Church was organized, it was formally a relatively egalitarian affair. Joseph was First Elder, but he was a first among equals. The growth of the Church led to the gradual but systematic incorporation of hierarchy, with Joseph always at the apex. This shift away from a church of (male) equals (similar to that described in the book of Moroni) to a hierarchical organization is brought into relief by the Whitmer brothers’ disaffection from it in the wake of the creation of a First Presidency. Throughout his life, Joseph seemed attuned to the fact that power needed to be checked, was likely to be abused by non-divine actors, and posed a serious potential threat to eternally important things like priesthood and revelation (see, for example, Section 121). This awareness, however, emerges alongside a peculiar pattern in the Prophet’s life: his increasing comfort with and embrace of personal, ecclesiastical, social, and political power. The backcountry tenant-farmer who founded a church with no hierarchical leadership structure spent the final years of his life (in varying combination) as mayor of the most liberally chartered municipality in the country, church president, university president, Lieutenant-General of a massive armed militia, and candidate for the US Presidency (not to mention King of the Political Kingdom of God). Whatever his theoretical reservations about the mortal use and abuse of power, his life story is of a man increasingly (and eventually almost limitlessly) comfortable trusting himself with its exercise.
Arc 2: Prophecy (Revelation). In his early career, Joseph Smith was more of a Seer than what we would tend to consider a Revelator. He gave voice to other prophets, made their ancient concerns legible and available to the present world, translated in highly limited and strictly defined settings, an act for which he depended not only on seeric implements and objects (spectacles and stones) but on other people (those who indispensably aided the Seer as scribes). What we today tend to think of as prophetic revelation—of a prophet experiencing the voice and will of God and writing (or dictating) a revelation using that voice and perspective (“thus sayeth The Lord…”)—is actually mostly restricted to the Ohio period of Church history. Here Joseph produced most of the formal revelations which comprise our current modern canon, and most fully embodied the role we typically associate with the calling of Prophet. He revealed to us something which he acquired from a separate and specified, independent and higher source. Truth came from God and was transmitted through God’s prophetic servant. Nauvoo, though, doesn’t so neatly fit this model. Many of the “revelations”—the texts canonized as sections in the D&C—which date from this period are actually something more like notes taken by Joseph’s friends and associates while he spoke to them at someone’s house. Joseph is not merely transmitting here. He is thinking, speculating, inferring, reasoning and revealing truth. But he now is the source. He sees truth and tells us what he sees. He’s not a medium or a go-between. He reveals, he is himself a source of eternal truth about God, humanity, and the universe.
Arc 3: Salvation. Mormonism begins, theologically speaking, firmly situated in the Protestant tradition. Setting aside (for the moment) what this means in terms of cosmic renderings of reality and of the nature of God and human beings, Mormon soteriology was unambiguously Christ-centered. Salvation—reconciliation with God the Father—depends on Jesus Christ. Christ is the author and executor of our faith, and salvation (initially conceived without what would emerge as an important complementary notion of exaltation) depended primarily on one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. And while the new Mormon scripture bore new testimony of Christ and claimed to offer a new medium for encountering Christ’s power textually, the saving relationship with Christ was still initiated and enacted with a fairly bare minimum of formal, ritual, or ceremonial requirements (basically baptism, reception of the Holy Ghost, and the Lord’s Supper). One obvious, if gradual departure from this is closely connected with the growth, in size and organizational complexity, of the Church. A more elaborate ritual and ceremonial corpus of salvific requirements developed, and the saving relationship with Christ was increasingly mediated formally by the Church which bore His name and over which Joseph Smith presided. This pattern of increased ritual significance—conceived not just as technical requirements for forgiveness and salvation but more and more as successive stages in a transformative process culminating in exaltation—reached an apex in Nauvoo with the development of what LDS today know as temple worship: the initiating ceremonies and sealing rites which set persons, families, and kingdoms on progressive trajectories that propel them into eternal glories.
But something else shifted in Nauvoo as regards salvation. Closely connected with the advent of plural/celestial marriage (and to a lesser but still significant degree to the practice of adoptive sealing), Joseph Smith increasingly situated himself as a conduit of exalting divine power. Not in a messianic sense, mind you, but Joseph formally and repeatedly positioned himself to certain of his followers as a being they must be connected to. For those asked to join his ever-expanding and -extending family, exaltation came to depend on their potential connection to him, a relationship with the Prophet that itself was a source of the exalting power of Christ. People could access Christ and celestial glory under the cover of Joseph’s seal, and could trust in the saving and exalting power conveyed through their relationship with him. Joseph himself became a source of exaltation to those bound to him by the sealing power of priesthood.
Arc 4: Apotheosis. This is a familiar story, and the simplified version begins with the Book of Mormon and Lectures on Faith, where the Trinity is, well, classical and where God and the human race are utterly different kinds of beings. Whatever the significance of the contributions of these texts (I personally admit that I find the Book of Mormon to be almost infinitely more interesting and compelling than the Lectures), they do not describe the tangible, embodied God and the Godhead (as opposed to Trinity) of distinct personages that would subsequently emerge in Mormonism. The universe is still safely dualistic, characterized by key oppositional binaries between heaven and earth, mind and body, spirit and matter, and God and human beings. Joseph, though, appears over time to have been unable to countenance the ontological divides. The story, then, ends in Nauvoo, with revelations and sermons asserting that God and humanity, like spirit and matter, exist on a progressive continuum. Of course I acknowledge that the degree to which such teachings are considered doctrinally binding, necessary, or even correct, as well as just how far this collapsing of dualistic ontologies into a narrative which describes God as an exalted man, formerly like us, should be taken is highly contestable and contested. The King Follet Sermon was never canonized, and despite the incorporation of certain of its most radical teachings into recent correlated curricula, whether or not Mormons believe that we are all potential Gods and Goddesses remains an open question. Still, the difference between the strongly Protestant theology of Mormonism’s earliest years and the Divine Anthropology (to borrow a term from Sam Brown) taught by Joseph in Nauvoo is significant, radical, and inescapable.
There you have it. Four arcs. Four separate, yet I’ll argue complementary, narrative trajectories that trace the prophetic career of Joseph Smith. It may be already somewhat clear the direction I’m taking this, but before get there, I think it only fair to acknowledge that there do exist reasonable grounds for why some people apply the label of megalomaniac to Joseph. This is true of some historians, but also of many of his contemporaries, of fierce critics of Mormonism, but also of some Mormons who accept Joseph’s divine calling but believe that over time his abuses of power and increasing emphasis on radical and heretical practices and theologies led to his fall from grace, to his shedding the prophetic mantle. And while much of what Joseph did and taught in Nauvoo remains enmeshed in the cultural memories of Church members whose ties to Mormonism stretch back many generations, it is hard to argue against the claim that much of what made Nauvoo Mormonism so volatile and dynamic is more an object of historical curiosity for Mormons today than it is a key part of our religion (I recently saw a CES produced timeline of Joseph Smith’s life in which his only noted accomplishment of the Nauvoo period was the establishment of the Relief Society). Which is to say, perhaps my effort here to reclaim an expressly devotional narrative of Joseph that does not shift this stuff into footnotes is neither necessary or even welcome (it is certainly not wanting for scandal).
I think that (again, in full acknowledgment of their over-simplistic and reductionist nature) the narrative arcs traced out here—of Joseph’s increasing comfortability wielding sometimes unprecedented degrees of social power; of his shift from conduit of eternal truth to source of eternal truth; of a path to salvation and exaltation on which he (and a relationship with him) occupied an increasingly central and indispensable place; and of a traditionally Christian theology gradually displaced by a monistic cosmos characterized by the consubstantiality of God and humanity—lead to one possible synthesizing narrative of Joseph Smith’s life. This narrative is likely scandalous to contemporary Mormons and non-Mormons alike. It foregrounds some of what makes our relationship to Joseph Smith so tenuous and sometimes awkward today (the discomfort we sometimes feel when we read John Taylor’s eulogy of the Prophet or when we sing “Praise To The Man,” or even our sometimes hesitation to celebrate his birthday, given its proximity to Christmas). But I also think that this narrative fits pretty well with how Joseph was actually viewed by those nearest to him, his closest and most trusted disciples, at the time of his death. It is as follows:
When Joseph Smith died, he was, in fact, basically a God, or something very much more like a god than an ordinary man. That he had himself progressed along the very continuum he outlined in those breathtaking, radical sermons in Nauvoo groves in the weeks and months just before his death, which was itself a kind of technical consummation of the gradual apotheosis that was his life and ministry.
We already know how John Taylor felt about the Prophet (“…save Jesus only…”). Dan Jones wrote of the Smith brothers: “heroic like demigods they firmly trod the road death and glory.” And Brigham Young, more than a decade later, taught the saints:
If you find out who Joseph was, you will know as much about God as you need to at present, for if he said, ‘I am a God to this people,’ he did not say that he was the only Wise God. Jesus was a God to the people when he was on the earth…..Moses was a God to the children of Israel, and in this manner you may go right back to father Adam.
This is not to suggest that prior to (or even after) his death Joseph Smith was a God in the sense that God is God. But rather that he was more god than us, that he was doing and behaving as gods do and behave, that his life itself constituted a testimony to what he taught about human potential in the KFS. As an alternative to more standard believing or devotional narratives, this is meant give what I believe to be due consideration to a fuller range of relevant historical data, without shifting really key facts into the margins (either as humanizing warts or as irrelevancies). As an alternative to the Joseph-as-megalomaniac narrative, this is meant to present a reading of the historical data typically foregrounded in such interpretations that does not dispense with a sense that Joseph was God’s chosen prophet to his death and remains the Prophet of the Restoration even today. It’s not meant as a Grand Unified Theory, but rather as a conversation starter, a new lens through which we might examine Joseph’s life, exquisitely self-conscious of how the lens focuses but also limits and even distorts some of what we see. And in that sense, I suppose, it’s just another variation on what we’re already doing. Still, it’s a variation that I find intellectually to be saturated with possibility and, on a more personal level, I find quite compelling.