Working through the “Mormonism in Context” lessons, which include using The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith as a sort-of textbook, continues to interest me, especially considering the fascinating events in the world of Mormonism unfolding right around us.
Right now, I’m on lesson two, which focuses on Joseph Smith, his account of what we call “The First Vision,” and his translation of the Book of Mormon. One of the things that struck me as I went through this lesson is the fact we often look back on some of the events and think of them as strange and unusual. However, the reality is that not all of it seemed weird to the people who lived in that time.
Magic and Religion in the 19th Century
There is a lot of derision aimed at Joseph Smith for being a “treasure hunter” and claiming to see “visions.” One of the things that Mormonism in Context points out — and we would do well to remember — is the fact that Joseph Smith wasn’t the only treasure hunter running around. The Mormon People points out that he had neighbors who also used various stones, divining rods, and other methods to look for treasure.
The PBS presentation of “The Mormons” points out that religion and magic were closely related in the 19th Century in America. While there were plenty of people who didn’t believe in such things, skeptics weren’t as common as they are now. Remember: the decades on either side of Joseph Smith’s vision claims included such visionary movements as the Shakers and others. There were plenty of people claiming to have visions and see God.
Other observations worth remembering — and expressed on “The Mormons” — include Harold Bloom’s thoughts that all religion is founded on miracles, and revelation is by nature supernatural. He suggests that, basically, all religion is ridiculous when you think about it. Bloom makes the argument that the origins of Mormonism are no more ridiculous than other religious beginnings. When you stick it context of the time, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Looking back, of course, many Mormons are vaguely embarrassed by the visionary beginnings of the religion. And, as we move forward, many Mormons are looking for an identity that doesn’t cause the intellect to recoil quite so much.
In Which Mormonism Doesn’t Get All That Weird Until Later
On the PBS documentary, Robin Fox reiterates that, initially, Mormonism really wasn’t all that strange for the 19th century. He points out that it’s very American, very frontier, and that it situates the United States within the Biblical story. When you think about it in those terms, it makes sense that, today, American Mormons are fiercely patriotic. (The exploration of the way many American Mormons are very anti-government while at the same time very pro-American is an interesting one. As is the way the Mormon Exodus was about leaving the U.S. behind, but later the Mormons tried very, very hard to gain statehood.)
Joseph Smith did something unique when he identified the location of the Garden of Eden as being in Missouri. That was probably one of the weirder beliefs that the earliest Mormons held. However, when you’re wandering around in the New World, you want a connection to the Old World. And, of course, American democracy offered the world something a little different from the other “civilized” countries at the time. Couldn’t America be the location of Garden of Eden, and a sacred land itself? While many would have balked at the idea, others, enamored of the idea that they could be the “New Israel” in a land that was truly the cradle of civilization, would have appealed.
Even today, many American Mormons, who are sure that the United States is the best country in the world (well, before Obama ruined it, of course), are proud of the fact that they live in the “Promised Land.” The idea is that we need to follow God and live right. Otherwise, like the fate that plagued the Nephites before us, the land will be taken away.
But, as Mormonism in Context points out, there was more to it than just making the New World sacred. The people themselves were made sacred, the inheritors of a covenant as old as Abraham.
Even though this might seem strange to us, and even a little strange to our forebears in the 19th Century, the reality is that it wasn’t that strange. In fact, the idea of Old World, Holy Land transplants to the United States in the form of Native Americans wasn’t even unique. Rabbis and Christian leaders were postulating the idea that scions of the Lost Ten Tribes could be found in North America as early as 1650. They even published books about it.
With these ideas already in the ether, and with digging about for old Native American artifacts common at the time, it really isn’t much of a stretch to see placing the Garden of Eden in North America. Joseph Smith made it possible for poor, frontier Americans to see themselves as priests and priestesses, and the heirs to a rich heritage connected to the Bible. The idea of American exceptionalism was combined with Evangelicalism in a way that created a religion that, today, enshrines the land, and even makes religious icons out of such explorers and revolutionaries as Christopher Columbus and the Founding Fathers.
When you get right down to it, even with these quirks Mormonism wasn’t really all that weird for an early 19th Century crowd. There were plenty of religions to choose from, and some of them had assertions that we would reject in modernity (e.g. Jesus Christ had spiritually returned as a woman). Things didn’t start getting really weird until everyone up and moved to Kirtland.
How Much of a Prophet is Joseph Smith?
Of course, this lesson also forces an examination of your own feelings about Joseph Smith. You are directed to read the essay on LDS.org addressing differing accounts of The First Vision, as well as read about the Book of Mormon. While the idea of a seer stone wouldn’t be unusual to our 19th Century counterparts, few of us today are comfortable with the idea that Joseph Smith “translated” the plates by looking into a hat containing a special stone. Growing up, most of those around my age probably saw images of the translation process similar to the picture above. Those types of images accompanied lessons in church and were printed in official materials.
To our modern sensibilities, it seems jarring to realize that the process probably looked more like this:
It’s really no wonder that many people are struggling right now. With the Internet allowing more people access to more information than ever, it’s no longer possible for the LDS Church to employ some of the misdirection it has used since we entered the correlated era.
Combine that with accusations many of us grew up with that anything that is outside the “official” materials is “anti-Mormon” (and we shouldn’t read such materials) and it’s little surprise there is an undercurrent of dismay running through some of those between the ages of 15 and 40 who are now finding out, for the first time, some of the messy details of the past.
The hardest thing for many of the Mormons I know to swallow, though, is the idea of the humanness of Joseph Smith. I remember learning about him as an almost mythic figure of a man. Almost perfect. It’s a little too real when we have to start thinking about our prophets as fallible humans. This lesson creates a need to confront your own feelings about Joseph Smith. I’ve long had a more human view of him, since reading Rough Stone Rolling.
Intellectually, we know that no person alive is perfect. Jesus Christ is the only perfect person to walk this earth. Emotionally, being confronted with differing versions of the First Vision, images of the Book of Mormon’s translation, and the reality that Joseph Smith made mistakes is difficult.
For some, that means a loss of faith. How do I feel about it? I’m not sure. Faith in this religion doesn’t have to hang on whether or not Joseph Smith was perfect. We know he was an imperfect man. However, you do have to decide whether or not you think he was an authentic prophet, a fallen prophet, someone who got caught up in a few simple experiences and embellished later in life, or whether you think he was an all-out fraud. But what you decide about Joseph Smith — and subsequent prophets — does matter. It affects whether you accept the tenets of Mormonism today.
Teryl Givens points out in the PBS documentary that Mormonism does hang on the veracity of Joseph Smith, even if he wasn’t perfect (as he couldn’t be). After all, the entirely of Christianity hinges on the truthfulness of whether or not Jesus Christ atoned for our sins, died on our behalf, and then rose from the dead. Once you stop believing in those things, it all falls apart. As Givens says: “That’s the price we pay for believing in a God who intervenes in human history, who has real interactions with real human beings in space and time.”