[This review has been provided by special arrangement to Times and Seasons by Walter E. A. van Beek, an anthropologist and scholar of religion and culture at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.]
O Lord; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed; I am in derison daily, everyone mocketh me.
Underlining at the last page of the book, I stuck my pencil in the middle of page 560 at â€˜.. every year of his fourteen years as head of the Church, he faced opposition from within and withoutâ€™. Fourteen years, only fourteen! What a story, what a revolution, what a whirlwind of events in such a short span of time. Maybe it is my European background, where history is measured in centuries rather than in decades, but in any era and on any continent this would be the story of a revolution, of a total upheaval. Of course, the focus is on a rather small group, buffeted by strong winds of their political and religious surroundings, and the intense focus is on just one man, who even if he was in the eye of the storm, was never quiet, never at ease for a longer stretch of time, and never attained what he saw as his goals for more than a fleeting moment. This builder of cities, this seer of hidden truth, this revelator by translation, this founder of a fledgling church, an irritating impostor for his enemies, a profound inspiration for his people, the farm boy anointed as king, he did all of this in just a few years?
I read this story at home, in the plane, in my hotel room, at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, on a train ride, and finally again at my desk, and was fascinated wherever I happened to be. This is a splendid work, easily the best biography of Joseph Smith I ever happened to encounter. I learned from it, it revived old queries and generated new questions. Respect for Joseph Smith and for the integrity of his person, wonder at the fundamental question that any human but surely and certainly Joseph Smith is, and comprehension of the various parties in the many conflicts raging through the story mark a mature story teller, a reliable guide and a professional historian. Bushman has the good sense to confront all historical quandaries head on, but from the viewpoint of someone who has to tell their story, not ours. He explains but does not explain away, does not sanitize the story nor analyses to death, but uses the story to highlight the humanness of his protagonists, their fit in their cultural and social surroundings by telling their struggles, hopes, fears but before all their genuine convictions.
The story is about Joseph Smith of course, but behind it is a master story of early 19th century USA, of a Puritan heritage gone West, of a Biblical cultural entering terra nulla. For a European this reads as a study in the formation of America, in fact even as a mini-vortex of America. Whatever the claims of the Church, its history and this history make it an American church, with universal claims grounded in a history which could only have happened in America. Nowhere else could a visionary not only envision a religious kingdom but actually set out to build it. From the â€˜City on the Hillâ€™ â€“ that old Puritan heritage â€“ to a continent-wide Zion, the master story is that a of continent developing, of a â€“ presumably, for an anthropologist such as me â€“ empty space where one individual could inscribe his vision, not through his heritage but through his own determination and perseverance. Being a â€˜plain manâ€™, i.e. â€˜nobody-very-specialâ€™ to start with is not a barrier, but an asset, as Homo americanensis not only inscribes his visions on his surroundings but also on himself. Perfectibility is the creed, not the backlog of history, human agency is what counts, not the confines of heritage.
Yet, this peculiar story is by no means a lineal descendant of the American dream, as Bushman rightly shows. Joseph was very much part of his American cultural background, but at the same time rose to defy it and the challenge the established norms of his society and time. He did this in a utopian age â€“ if any century is characterized by utopian dreams it is the 19th, both in the Old and the New continents â€“ and in some concert with other utopian thinkers, but definitely in his own way. He may be the ultimate American in that he made his mark on his time and society, but he was a peculiar one indeed, one who played havoc with fixed norms and values. He was anti-America but eventually ran for president. From his economic and political schemes in the United Order and the Council of Fifty, to his marital revolution of the New and Everlasting Covenant, his vision was in but also definitely out of America, out of sync with the mainstream of an evolving society. Also, most American heroes are judged by their success, and Joseph died a martyr, more a European than an American type of hero. Of course, without the later success of the Church he might have been as forgotten as his would-be successor James Strang, but usually American culture values success in life, not after. Yet, his blood as a martyr was not only the seed of the church, the story of his life and death still is one major inspiration for his followers. And even in his death he was the quintessential America frontier man, going down in a blazing gun fight, just the type of action he â€“ uncharacteristically for America â€“ had been avoiding throughout his life, even if attracted to it. His ambivalent relation with violence, also in self defense, is a good example of his standing on the border of his culture, being part of it and part of something very different at the same time. So indeed, this is a cultural biography highlighting both the cultural and the non-cultural aspects of his personality.
Joseph as an enigma? Yes, in many ways and any mystery will remain so, even deepening when scrutinized under a sympathetic magnifying glass. For me the main mystery is â€˜What is a prophet?â€™ Joseph, who introduced himself as â€˜the Mormon prophetâ€™ had all the reason in the world to do so: he was totally convinced of his prophetic calling, and so were his followers, though some only for a period. His life was dominated by his calling: he lived under the continuous shadow of his prophetic mantle. Reading his life I thank God I am not a prophet. In my opening citation Jeremiah was angry; he did not want to be a prophet and was deceived , but God was too strong: â€˜If I say â€œI will not mention him or speak any more in his name,â€? there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.â€™ (Jer. 20: 9).
Joseph could not live without the word of God, and hardly managed to live with it. He strove to see the face of God, to have his followers behold the same vision, and put them on a course of continuous confrontation with society. The main question raised by the book and by Josephâ€™s life is indeed: â€˜What is a prophet?â€™ This is both a theological and a sociological question. The latter definition is a starting point: anyone considered speaking to his followers with the name and authority of God. It is the original Greek Ï€Ï?Î¿Ï†Î·Ï„Î·Ï‚, the speaker-for, the one who gives the words of someone else. That might be the closest to how Joseph saw himself: God spoke through him, using his very human, quite American, even rustic vocabulary, embellished with Bible language from the hallowed King James. Also as Translator â€“ a question in itself â€“ and Seer he was the mouth piece of the Lord; his visions were always interpreted as revelations from God: he saw what God showed him and told the people (sometimes much later, though). What is almost absent is the central notion of the folk conception of a prophet: someone who knows and foretells the future. But for the spectacular â€“ slumbering and later rediscovered – revelation on the civil war, Joseph indeed knew very little about the future. His political, missionary and economic endeavors showed his as helpless before the vagaries of history as anyone. Indeed, but for his death, he could not predict the outcome of his many brushes with his enemies. Occasional flashes into the uncharted territory of the future notwithstanding, he was as human as any of us. That insight, I think, is an important one, which Bushman rightly stresses. The same holds for his charisma, which was not always discernible for the occasional visitor, and surely not for his enemies. Finally, the notion of power, so clearly associated in our correlated days with the prophetic calling, is also not more than incidental.
This warrants a comparison with other prophets, mainly the Old Testament ones. Here, we as LDS might be misled by the example of Isaiah with the magnificent Messiah predictions. But Isaiah is more an exception than a rule, not only because there has been probably more than one Isaiah, but also because other prophets are primarily of voice of warning, a lament for the past or an incisive questioning after the righteousness of God. And we do read Isaiah almost exclusively with our eyes towards the latter days, ignoring the clear political implications of his work in the monarchical period of Israel. LDS theology almost routinely treats prophecy as knowledge of the future and then runs into problems with its own founder. Viewing the history of Joseph we see a struggling prophet, one who in his prophesies manages to exalt the immediate circumstances that often trigger his questioning of the Lord, going from mundane questions straight into flashes of deep theology. So, in a way, Joseph is more a prophet like Jeremiah (or even like Habbakuk who knocked fiercely on the doors of heaven) while we tend to see him as we read Isaiah. I do think we tend to homogenize prophets and to assign them all the qualities we would like them to have: knowledge of the future, impeccable lives, imposing and charismatic personalities, organizers and statesmen, all the while being the mouthpieces of the Lord. The reality is more messy, more humane and definitely more convincing: there are many sorts of prophets, but struggle is almost always part of the calling: struggle with the calling, struggle to get the Lordâ€™s ear, and the perennial struggle to get the Word of God, struggle for forgiveness. Prophets have to be forgiven by the Lord, and Joseph is the prime example of that! So, finally, their predicting of the future is highly unreliable (but then our own is even less reliable so we better listen).
This raises the moot theological question whether the future is knowable at all, for anyone, even for divinity. Bushman describes how Josephâ€™s last theological thinking narrows the gap between the human and the divine, defining man from an eternal core (intelligence) which gradually accrues embodiments of various sorts, in order to take those tabernacles into further degrees of glory. All this is based upon a free agency which is increasingly defined as absolute, making the future more unpredictable. If our agency is free, then our future acts are unpredictable, at least on the individual level. Joseph never ventured into the â€˜omniâ€™sâ€™ of God (â€˜omniscient, omnipotentâ€™) and for good reasons: God is for him a kinsmen farther down on the road to perfection, not an absolute entity encompassing all creation. The consequences for the â€˜knowabilityâ€™ of the future are complex, but Josephâ€™s theology and anthropology (they almost conflate) do raise questions about the reliability of detailed predictions of the future.
Again, the history of Mormonism seems to be a major vehicle for theological reflection, as has been noted more often, and beyond the clear and well-told history this is one of the major contributions of the book. After all, a strongly historical religion such as our version of Christianity tends to conflate the â€˜sacred historyâ€™ (Heilsgeschichte) with the lived and documented history. It is characteristic, I think, that in Mormon historiography this distinction which works so well in general history of Christianity, is hardly made at all. It might be important in one other issue. The hermetic influence on Joseph, at least on his revelations is hard to ignore. Yet in his treatment of Brookeâ€™s book The Refinerâ€™s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, another book I do admire, Bushman notes the weak link between Joseph and hermetic traditions. He is probably right. The clearest connection comes quite late with Josephâ€™s initiation into masonry, while the first hermetic themes are pre-Nauvoo. But I do think Brookeâ€™s thesis merits more than the rather cursory treatment Bushman gives it. Many of the concepts Joseph used, like â€˜lightâ€™, â€˜knowledgeâ€™, â€˜powerâ€™ and â€˜exaltationâ€™, plus the notions of individual agency and responsibility in eternal progress, read like a short synopsis of Gnostic ideas. Masonic traditions need not be the only ones, though of course Masonic symbolism is no stranger to any American who has ever seen a dollar bill. Also the Book of Mormon, as the earlier theological exercise, shows some knowledge of this kind of secret society.
Historians sometimes seem to think that tangible traditions have to explain everything; as anthropologists we know that independent invention cannot be ruled out, or independent development from some core ideas. And in Josephâ€™s case we do see a gradual development of ideas reminiscent of a hermetic tradition, which run through his unfolding as a prophet. I think we fall into the trap of the standard Christian rejection of hermetic thought as apostasy; recent publications on Gnosticism place it much closer to the beginnings of Christianity. Interpreting it in the LDS fashion, one could argue that the great apostasy not only killed revelation and a lot of doctrine in the development as the Christian church, but that another revealed doctrine of a more hermetic signature, found its way in the Gnostic writings and got eradicated by this same church in the course of European history. Interpreting it as a more contemporary phenomenon, as a 19th century prophet, some ideas of the gnosis were lingering in the USA and have been elaborated upon by Joseph in solving logical puzzles Calvinist theology and incidental Bible verses posed. Whatever the interpretation, the sub-current of gnosis is too strong in my view and cannot be done away with by pointing at the lack of direct influence.
This brings me to an interesting contradiction which has escaped me serious treatment. Of course, the temple ordinances in Nauvoo, i.e. the second endowment, show Masonic influence in setting and symbolism. Bushman notes them and also notes the differences; to the latter one might add that Masonic ritual is very much death-oriented, which hardly figures in LDS temple rituals. But of more importance, in my view, is the completely symbolic treatment of sacred history in the temple ritual, where the present and the past not only are conflated, but also the figures of Adam and Eve with the people undergoing the initiation. The initiation drama of the temple fully dehistoricizes the creation story, rendering it open for a symbolic, psychological and ethical analysis, but never a historical one. This offers a fascinating contradiction. At a time when Joseph was turning out new creation stories in Moses and Abraham â€“ all with their distinctive differences which should not be underplayed â€“ he introduced an initiation drama which fills the creation story with symbolic, figurative and allegorical meaning. We tend to separate those ways of analysis, and I wonder whether in Josephâ€™s mind these varieties of explanation were really distinct. Also, here a similar development can be seen. In the Book of Mormon the traditional historic Adam and Eve comment on the consequences of their transgression. In the books of Moses and Abraham the story gradually becomes more complex and more loaded with symbolism, while the initiation drama in the temple stresses the timelessness of the creation story, filling it with people of almost all dispensations at the same time. LÃ©vi Strauss, the famous French anthropologist, one called rituals â€˜machines Ã supprimer le tempsâ€™ (time suppressing devices). In Josephâ€™s creative use of ritual they even become devices to do away with time, gathering all dispensations in one time frame.
Here one does need a fundamental difference between sacred and secular history. The distinction between the two kinds of history might ease a thorny methodological problem, the relative authority of consecutive versions of a text. The classical â€˜earliest is bestâ€™ stance of historiography has been modified in Bushmanâ€™s treatment as he gives ample room for the later version of the First Vision and the later renderings of priesthood restoration. This is a large difference with the â€˜insiderâ€™s viewâ€™ of Grant Palmer (to which Bushman does not refer). Palmer puts great stock in the specific circumstances and social environment of the revelations, and in the authority of primacy and ends up with an exercise in deconstruction, i.e. secular history. Bushman stays closer to â€˜sacred historyâ€™, i.e. to the messages people wanted â€“ eventually â€“ to give, after mature thought and systematization, without falling into the trap of teleology and with a full description of the fundamental humanness of all involved.
As Mormons we are used to our early history â€“ in fact we know the first decades of the Church better than any other part of it â€“ so much so that we forget its breathtaking pace, its explosive nature and certainly its thoroughly controversial character. Also, we tend to oversee the contradictions, the internal dynamics and especially the mission impossible Joseph was engaged in. Here was a prophet and a people building an undiluted theocracy, aiming at a city, a string of cities and a total kingdom. Speaking with the astonishment of hindsight and from a European perspective: How could one seriously think that the United States of America â€“ which after all was the dearest child of Enlightenment â€“ could ever tolerate such a factual theocracy inside its borders? This does shed light on the re-christianization of America in the late 18th and early 19th century, on the model function of the Puritan heritage â€“ which could have been more elaborated upon by Bushman, I feel â€“ and on the notion of endless terra nulla during most of the 19th century. The world, i.c expanding America caught up with his movement time and again: in Kirtland, in Missouri (twice, even) and of course also in the â€˜State of Deseretâ€™, just as he himself caught up with his own United Order utopia. The idea of a theocracy is irreconcilable with any Enlightenment based state, and â€“ I am tempted to say â€“ all the better for it. No utopia is really nice to live in, and this holds for theocracies as well. The separation of church and state that was brought about by the failure of theocracy is a good thing, in my view; after all, D&C 121:41 is directed primarily at the Church, not at the world. So hindsight shows a contradiction between what Joseph wanted to accomplished and what he set out to accomplish, and the fact that this element has been thoroughly lost has helped the Church to flourish. But that contradiction goes with the ambivalence to America in general in this early phase of the church, an ambivalence the Church these days has lost, to great European regret. Even in 19th century America one could not build what one wanted, and the world and us are all the better for this.
Finally, this does bring us to the polygamy question, that mark of a â€˜peculiar peopleâ€™. The federal government faced a theocracy and had to deal with it. Of course, no government could ever acknowledge a group which will put its own rules above the rule of the land. â€˜Antinomyâ€™ this is called, and it is just the problem with fundamentalism in the world today: when the law of God is put above everything else, normal values are not guaranteed any longer. In this day it is random violence, for the Church under Joseph Smith it was public truthfulness. Polygamy in itself was antinomian , but even more so the constant public denial of its occurrence while practicing in secret. The 21st century Church would no longer tolerate this discrepancy between public and private, especially not for its leaders, but between Josephâ€™s days and us is a growing gap: the Church has been re-socialized, Americanized and made subservient to state law: we are the children of the new Enlightenment. So, in fact, Joseph Smith is no longer a prophet of our time: he belonged to another era in which we are strangers. In the white-washed official church history Joseph has been remodeled after our present conceptions of what a prophet should be, but the main and lasting contribution of this book is the bring Joseph back in the 19th century, and to offer all the readers a time travel to this wonderful and fascinating period of human experience.
Richard Bushman responds:
A hundred thoughts passed through my mind as I read Walter van Beekâ€™s prodigious review. It overflows with conjectures and excursions that deserve a response twice as long as the review. I scarcely know where to begin. On the first page, van Beekâ€™s European view of Mormonism as part of an American formation deserves far more extensive comment than I can possibly provide. In a smarty mood, I once told a Sunstone symposium session that I had problems with the phrase â€œan American prophet.â€? Joseph was definitely a prophet by any definition of the term, but was he American? I was thinking of the rough treatment the Mormons got wherever they went. If so thoroughly American, why were their American neighbors so consistently hostile? But on further reflection, we have to recognize that repudiation of its own whether slaveholders or abolitionists is thoroughly American. Contention and violence is in the American grain. In the case of the Mormons, the opposition uncovered a fundamental contradiction in our culture. Our two foundational documents, the Constitution and the Bible, are at odds with one another. One is based on the principle of vox populi, vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God, and the other that the voice of the Prophets is the voice of God. We conceal this contradiction by subscribing to common mottoes like freedom of conscience, but it is never eliminated and resurfaces periodically as in the current contests over right to life and intelligent design. Joseph was a particularly virulent form of a prophetic voice whose person embodied the antinomian theme to perfection. Try as he might to be law abiding, he was always suspected of putting his revelations above the law. That terrible potential for overthrowing the fundamental structure of democratic government made him a threat whose presence could not be toleratedâ€“especially if his followers achieved a majority in their political jurisdiction. The reason for the outrage, his claims to a prophetic voice, was not alien in America, only contradictory. Americaâ€™s prophets from Anne Hutchinson to Martin Luther King have always received rough treatment. It is the American way.
Van Beek is grateful he has escaped being a prophet. Did Joseph Smith enjoy the call? Itâ€™s a question I would like to ask the Prophet. Some things he loved. I think he enjoyed translating. When reprimanding Joseph for losing the 116 pages, the punishment the Lord held over his head was loss of the gift. Joseph was thrilled with the capacity to see through the Urim and Thummim, and he told William Phelps he longed to look over the vast expanse of eternity. But the responsibility also weighed him down. As early as 1830 he began the refrain he was to repeat three or four times through his life: I have given you all you need; now we must simply carry on. His relief in having fulfilled his mission was then interrupted by some new requirement from heaven and Joseph went back to his usual fear that he would disappoint the Lord. He was not a complainerâ€“only once did he say he wished he could escape the burdenâ€“but the load was heavy. He had to work with inexperienced, uneducated, and often recalcitrant followers; he asked them to believe unbelievable things and go against their Protestant instincts; he worried constantly that he would fail. Yet he stuck it out. Van Beek sees all this and expresses his appreciation.
I concur also in van Beekâ€™s notion of prophet as speaker for. It is possible to think of Joseph Smith as giant egotist. Who but a hyper-bold Christian would undertake to revise the Bible or build the New Jerusalem. He can be seen as imposing his will on the landscape, on history, on the national government, on marital morality, on the sacred word. Nothing was too sacrosanct for him to meddle in. But his history is written in the passive voice. He does not write with a giant â€œI.â€? Revelations happen to him; he is told what to do; he is perpetually the agent for another. Joseph himself tended to delight in prophesying the future as if he hoped to impress his followers with his supernatural capacity. But his great acts were not predictions of the future, but projects for the present and revelations of heavenly ways. Nor did he try to agglomerate power, as van Beek rightly notes. His instinct was to disseminate power into councils and into individual priesthood holders. Power did accrue inevitablyâ€“and he never tolerated rival heads of the Churchâ€“but he did not campaign for power any more than for riches. Power was a by-product of his compelling vision.
I did slight Brookeâ€™s The Refinerâ€™s Fire, not because I dislike its thesis but because I think he failed to prove his case. There are indeed hermetic or gnostic qualities in Joseph Smithâ€™s teachings, especially the emphasis on divine knowledge and godly intelligence. I might not have noted this peculiar and wonderful emphasis were it not for Brookeâ€™s attempt to view Mormonism through an hermetic lens. Knowledge is salvific in Josephâ€™s teachings; that is gnostic rather than Protestant. As I said in a review of the book, I had actually hoped that Brooke would prove his case. Josephâ€™s gospel so overflowed standard Protestant Christianity that he needed language beyond what was conventionally available to express his truth. I argue in the book that divining and treasure-seeking helped him to escape the narrow limits of Palmyraâ€™s churches. Looking in a stone for treasure prepared him to look into a stone for words. Hermeticism could have served the same function had Joseph been exposed to it, but as Brooke himself confessed he never found a smoking gun. Midwest masonry was simply not up to the burden placed on it in The Refinerâ€™s Fire. Brooke should have marveled that Joseph picked up hermetic themes, as Harold Bloom marvels that Joseph echoes primitive Judaism without verifiable connections. Instead Brooke insists on causative influence that simply cannot be demonstrated. Moreover, drunk on his own thesis, he could not see the sharp differences between Mormonismâ€™s view of God and the soul and hermemticismâ€™s. Mormon not only makes the intelligence eternal but perpetuates gender into the hereafter, while the hermeticists believe the soul and the sexes emerged from God and are struggling to melt into the divine being once again, certainly not Josephâ€™s idea of heaven.
I concur in van Beekâ€™s observations about reviving the distinction between sacred and secular history. We do invest history with high religious purpose which is and probably should be in tension with the humdrum recitation of secular history. Moreover, as I argue in a previous post, we are better off for not having built an actual New Jerusalem. We should pursue the ideal but within the practical world of the real where we wonâ€™t and probably should not be in power. Bloom thinks we will a power in the United States eventually as our numbers keep growing, but we are sure to crash and burn if we donâ€™t learn how to use that power lightly and not to force our views on the world. Our religious ideals should inform our actions in politics as in our lives, but never seek enforcement through the coercive powers of the state. That path leads to Jackson County and Haunâ€™s Mill with the horrible aftermath of Mountain Meadows.
Thanks Brother van Beek for an abundance of provocative and imaginative observations, and thanks to all the reviewers for the attention to the book and your extraordinarily astute insights.