A Cultural, Political, and Religious Being.
A Few Scattered Random and Unschooled Thoughts.
Joseph Smith Jr (hereafter, JS) was in many ways a product of the Age of Jackson. Honor bound, captured by the flame of military pomp, the high ground of moral individualism over against the bureaucratic state, and a revolutionary and constitutional mythos. JS saw Old Hickory as a reminder of the power of individualism that (in legend) animated Washington, Jefferson, and the then current national feeling that America was divinely established and a portent of Millennial events to come. Jackson’s experience with the South Carolina Nullifiers helped prompt a revelation on future wars. JS was removed from many Democratic positions, however. He never supported the abolitionist movement, but he did offer that slavery was an economic issue, one that should be resolved by compensation and deportation. Neither Northern nor Southern Democrats could be in sympathy. Jackson had polarized the public, prophetically, JS did the same.
JS’s own political strategy found example not in Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, but in a Whig, William Henry Harrison. In JS’s campaign for the US presidency in 1844, he used Harrison’s machine as a blueprint (and out of character, Mormons voted Whig in 1840). JS may have seen Jackson’s Indian Removal plan as a positive benefit for the “Lamanites” but he had learned that state rights was a two-edged sword. JS found much to emulate in both pre and post-millennialism (the latter the more popular in the day) large themes in American religion, finding ways between Old School Calvinists, and William Ellery Channing’s Unitarians. Revelations predicted that a Zion nation would emerge from nascent Mormonism, one that people would flock to for safety, prosperity, spiritual power, and preparation for the thousand year utopia. It was a hopeful idea, set over against another aspect of Jacksonian America, its potent penchant for violence between citizens as well as opposing groups. The Mormons experienced their share of that in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Urban environments could be as bad, as Philadelphia Catholics discovered. City police forces didn’t appear in America until the mid 1840s, an import from London.
JS’s theory of ministry was compatible with Jacksonian ideas of the raw expressions of the individual freeman and it found company in the burgeoning Methodist growth in comparison to establishment sects. JS saw the Holy Spirit as guide in that ministry, yet he valued education. Establishing a school for making church elders into Hebrew scholars, while becoming knowledgeable of culture and politics, he saw Mormonism as a prophetic manifestation of Daniel’s stone, cut out of the mountain of America. The lofty goals, moderated by limited resources and the practicalities of a provincial populace, left room for development and reinterpretation in future readings. JS’s preaching was early on considered secondary (oral) text—secondary to his canonical additions. But as his career evolved, his pulpit presence was elevated in importance. JS’s preaching, what little of it was reported by official or pew auditors, also evolved in content as his ideas changed, matured, and dealt with the critiques of his own spiritual and visionary past. Style was similarly changeable, moving from Protestant-typical text exhortation to sermons that introduced new ideas founded in biblical texts in eclectic ways.
But JS’s hope for a future in the church (and kingdom!) he founded was betrayed by the fearful reaction to his revelatory drift from Victorian marriage ethics and the paradoxical Jacksonian thinking that Law was secondary to the will of the people. And block voting by Mormons may have been annoying to county and state politics but it’s unpredictability was far worse. For all concerned, at least for me, this is still a sad day in history. Praise to a human man who stood out as a remarkable and prophetic figure in history. And God bless the Latter-day Saints now and in the future.