We are soon approaching the year when weâ€™ll celebrate the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smithâ€™s birth. As we do so, we should also reflect back on the 100th anniversary of his birth, and the legacy of that extraordinarily chaotic period. In The Politics of American Religious Identity, Kathleen Flake vividly illustrates that in 1904 and 1905, the Church was in the midst of deep and grave crisis. Under political duress, two apostles were being excommunicated for involvement with post-Manifesto polygamy. Church leaders in Arizona were arrested for polygamy. One Charles Mostyn Owen, a detective, had posed in temple clothing for the national press. There were rumblings of a federal constitutional amendment aimed at finally stamping out any vestige of polygamy. Perhaps most difficult for the faith of the Saints was that in the face of heated cross-examination from the Senate committee investigating the Smoot issue, President Joseph F. Smith was perceived to have publicly dissembled, if not to have outright lied, about his knowledge of post-Manifesto polygamy. Even more disillusioning for some Saints was President Smith’s testimony to the Senate committee that â€œI have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations. I never said I had a revelation except so far as God has shown to me that so-called Mormonism is Godâ€™s divine truth; that is all.â€? The Smoot hearings had generated an apparent no-win situation for the Church: to satisfy the increasingly vociferous demands of the nation, the Church had to take positions that the membership saw as a betrayal; and to keep up the spirit and faith of the Saints, the Church would risk losing everything. What to do?
One thing the Church did was to reconnect with it earliest origins. It was in this tumultuous era that, for the first time, the First Vision was understood and promoted as a central, theologically significant event in the restoration. In a sense, it replaced polygamy as Mormonism’s link to a robust notion of revelation. As Flake explains: â€œIn the First Vision, Joseph F. Smith had found a marker of Latter-day Saint identity whose pedigree was as great as — and would be made greater than — that of plural marriage for the twentieth-century Latter-day Saintsâ€? (118). The new emphasis shifted focus from Joseph Smithâ€™s latest revelation to his first. It was a way to maintain a sense of real religious difference, even as the Kingdom became one of many mere churches in pluralistic American society. And crucially, the reorientation toward the First Vision â€œchanged the arena of confrontation over difference from social action to theological beliefâ€? — a necessity in the wake of Reynolds.
One of the more tangible manifestations of this shift in orientation was the Church’s decision to purchase the site in Windsor County, Vermont, where Joseph Smith was born, and construct the Joseph Smith Monument. I visited the Joseph Smith Monument a few years ago, on the way back to New York from a road trip to Maine. The site is quite out of the way; even the tiny town of Sharon is several miles away. The surrounding countryside is heavily forested, but the grounds were as well-groomed as any temple site. There are several buildings (a chapel, a home, and a visitors center, as I recall) staffed by smiling senior couples from Payson or Panguitch, of course. In the heart of the compound is the 38 and 1/2 foot tall marble obelisk, with scriptures inscribed at the base. There are markers showing the site of the log cabin the Smith family lived in, and the site of Solomon Mack’s farmhouse. When we were there, we had the place to ourselves, and I doubt that there are ever more than a handful of visitors each day. I’m sure there aren’t many Mormons in the surrounding country. All of which could lead one to question: Why? Why spend all the money and effort to maintain a rather extensive compound that few Mormons will ever see, and few non-Mormons will ever care about? Why celebrate a spot where the Smith family lived for only three years before moving on? Why an austere obelisk? Flake provides some answers to these kinds of questions. She writes:
“The effort to celebrate the legacy of Joseph Smith was meant to signal that the movement he founded had both the intentions and the resources necessary to carry on and to do so on a grand scale.
“Of course, this message was intended for those critics who declared that ‘the Smoot case will abolish Mormonism without war.’ Yet the outside world was not Joseph F. Smithâ€™s only audience. The monument to Joseph Smith also sent a message to the believing but demoralized Latter-day Saints. It was serendipitous that the centennial of Joseph Smithâ€™s birth occurred when the faithful needed something to celebrate — particularly to celebrate Joseph Smith as first in a succession of modern prophets. That Joseph F. Smith seized this occasion is remarkable for two reasons. First, the church was generally defensive about accusations that it worshipped Joseph Smith, not Jesus Christ, and celebration of Joseph Smithâ€™s birth could support such charges. This may have been a contributing factor to the monumentâ€™s design, which was not of Smithâ€™s face or form, but an obelisk. Second, for its first celebration of Joseph Smith outside the Mormon culture region, the church chose an occasion unrestrained by any theological or ecclesiastical associations except those the dedication party would bring with them. Memorialization of a birth is, after all, the blankest of slates upon which to write retrospective meanings. The monument erected in Vermont was susceptible to embodying not only the nature and permanence of the Latter-day Saintsâ€™ claims about their founding prophet, but their claims about the nature and permanence of their church. These claims were both inclusive and exclusive. The dedication ceremony celebrated the Latter-day Saintsâ€™ identity with, as well as their difference from, their host nationâ€? (112).
It’s an interesting analysis, from a terrific book, and we’re looking forward to Professor Flake participating here. If you have any questions for her, please post them here.