All things testify of Joseph Smith: on the ethics and theology of faith-promoting legends

stvwh2While faith should be founded on truth rather than fiction, we shouldn’t overlook how devotional legends reflect creative and democratic processes of theology-formation. Here, for example, is a faith-promoting legend that might have been:

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An old book published in 1577 with the title A Terrible and Shocking Prophecy, which can be found in Basel, records a vision that warfare and devastation will cover the earth in blood and leave only a few survivors. The book includes this passage, which is translated from the original.

There I saw a little gathering of people wearing black clothes drawing toward me. They carried white banners, and a fine honorable man with a gray beard led them. He had a golden book in his left hand and a golden trumpet in his right hand, and he blew it and let forth a mighty blast. Then a few survivors emerged from the dense bushes and from over the high mountains. They also put on black clothes and they sat together at a great water like the Rhine. The man who had the book taught them the fear of God from it, and he directed those who had been deceived onto the path of God. When he had finished teaching, they kneeled and prayed to God. Then the man stood up with all the people and said, “Let us depart from here and mourn the earth.”

The significance for Mormonism should be clear. Joseph Smith brought forth the Book of Mormon from golden plates, while the angel Moroni is depicted with a trumpet on our temples. Moroni entrusted Joseph Smith with the Nephite records and the mission to proclaim their message. Joseph Smith founded the city of Nauvoo on the Mississippi river and gathered the faithful there from out of all the world. After he had taught them and was martyred, it was left to his successor, Brigham Young, to mourn their prophet and the world’s wickedness and to depart with the saints into the wilderness.

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Now, I should point out that nothing in the preceding section is factually incorrect. The book in question was indeed published in 1577, although I’ve shortened the title. The book is found not only in Basel, but in a few dozen archives and research libraries, not to mention several online facsimiles . The summary of its content leaves out some details. The translation, however, is accurate.

stvwhWhile it’s true that reading the passage as a Mormon legend takes it out of context, it’s hard to make that complaint stick. The original source itself borrows citations from earlier works with no thought to their context, and it intentionally provides little context for itself in the first place. As for the injection of Mormon symbolism, one of the first things that drew me to the strange vision of Wilhelm Friess was that it seemed to offer even better grist for a Mormon urban legend  (and was certainly better sourced) than our actual Mormon urban legends. The interpretation above is certainly willful and inconsistent, but no more so than what you might find in any early modern prophetic tract, so I don’t see reading the text selectively and interpreting it in a sense other than what the author originally intended as an ethical infraction against our obligations to the text. The entire genre of early modern prophecy, including the book I quote from above, was generated by selective rereading and recontextualization of earlier prophecies. It’s hard to argue that we should not do to a text precisely what its author had done to earlier texts.

If reading the passage as a latter-day prophecy doesn’t wrench the meaning beyond what the genre allowed, there’s still the problem of how doing so might wrest Mormon theology. Here again, though, I see few obstacles. Mormon teachings support the idea that people can have inspired visions, and that people centuries before Joseph Smith could be divinely guided to anticipate the Restoration. Turning the golden book and golden horn into a vision of Nauvoo requires only as much flexibility in interpretation as is commonly applied to Isaiah or Jeremiah. The category of extra-scriptural vision is not unproblematic, but there are several precedents, as the citations of William Blake or Roger Williams by church authorities attest.

There is only one theological obstacle that I see, in fact, but it’s substantial and unyielding: honesty. One should not say things that one knows to be false. One sometimes encounters the assumption that prophecies and legends are the result of cynical acts of invention; while this is sometimes true, I think that those are rare exceptions. Instead, prophecies and other faith-promoting stories both develop through good-faith if uncritical rereading of an existing text. Unfortunately, I have prior commitments to reading old texts critically and in context. Including footnotes, appendices, and bibliography, I spend a couple hundred pages uncovering the vision’s original context. I don’t think the result is boring—I argue that it involves urban revolt in Antwerp and Reformed resistance to both Lutheran and Catholic powers in Strasbourg in the 1570s—but it does not include angels flying above Nauvoo in the 1840s.

While I enjoy a faith-promoting legend as much as the next Mormon, and a good debunking  as much as the next humanities Ph.D., treating legends only in the framework of naïve reading versus critical exposé is too limited. We need to recognize legends as a way of making meaning that tell us interesting things about how Mormons have seen themselves and the times they lived in. While we might not be able to substantiate a purported foretelling of Joseph Smith’s mission centuries before his birth, even a sober academic treatment can recognize that modern Mormonism and some inhabitants of early modern Europe share a symbolic inventory for dealing with hope and crisis, and that Mormons are still thinking through some sixteenth-century dilemmas. Seeking truth with all the tools that academic scholarship offers is good; so is sympathy for people who expressed truth as they knew it in a decidedly unacademic fashion.

7 comments for “All things testify of Joseph Smith: on the ethics and theology of faith-promoting legends

  1. December 1, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Very interesting discussion, Jonathan. The phrase “the ethics of faith-promoting legends” alone is worth the post, as one encounters such memes fairly regularly within Mormon discourse. Too often we just wink at them so as not to offend those who swallow them whole or those who share them from the pulpit or in the classroom. I guess we also need some reflection on the ethics of debunking faith-promoting legends. When, if, and where to debunk is trickier than one would initially suppose.

  2. December 1, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Very interesting story, Jonathan. I deal with a lot of these themes in my dissertation: gold books, and prophesies, and what not. As I mention in this post Jane Lead said that Heavenly Mother gave her a gold book and when that mission president came across Lead’s writings he was really impressed by the similarities. So much so that he seemed to have taken liberties with the German translation of her works.

  3. December 2, 2014 at 10:27 am

    Thanks, Dave. That’s another part of the ethical equation that I barely mentioned, but it’s an important one. If we accept that we have some responsibility to people who put stock in legends, that’s one more reason to move beyond scorn, gleeful debunking, or embarrassment.

    Steve, thanks for the link. England, and the later 17th century, are still just beyond the horizon of my academic work, but I keep running into cases where the texts I do work on made their way across the Channel in some form and I often wonder about their long-term, long-distance reception.

  4. December 2, 2014 at 10:49 am

    One thing I found was that some followers of Joachim of Fiore believed that a new book of scripture would come forth in the coming Age of the Spirit and Joachim had some influence on Lead. I wonder if such could have been a common source.

  5. December 2, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Very interesting stuff, and thanks to Steve for chiming in as well.

  6. December 3, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    Great work – this is very useful.

    It seems strange that understanding and respecting a method of theological expression would make it ethically impossible to use it. If the only people allowed to engage in the sacred historical interpretation of events or texts are naive, we may be wounding ourselves spiritually, and reinforcing the supposed gulf between academics and full religious life.

  7. December 4, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Chris, this one strikes me as not strange at all, but rather just one more example of each having different gifts. As long as one does not despise the other, everybody can be happy. The ward choir director doesn’t need to break into Sharing Time to join in Popcorn Popping, but might have some useful tips about singing for the primary children every so often.

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