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Why Joseph Smith Matters

From The Marginalia Review

Photo by Joe Cook / Unsplash

An historian tries to give an objective and fair assessment about a puzzling man

Why might Joseph Smith matter?

As Bushman points out, there were many other visionaries and prophets in early nineteenth century America, figures as diverse as Nat Turner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Jemima Wilkinson. Smith, Bushman asserts, “stands out because he left more of a mark on the world than any of his fellow prophets.” He “create[d] a people who recognize one another as his followers.” Indeed, sixteen million members is something to shake a stick at, and there are a host of smaller churches that trace their origins to Smith’s claims. Still, it’s not on par with the numerical success experienced by the Adventist descendants of Ellen White, Smith’s visionary and prophetic contemporary. Back in the mid-1980s, sociologist Rodney Stark predicted that there would be 265 million Latter-day Saints by 2080, making Mormonism the next world religion. The church’s rate of growth has since stagnated.

What about Smith’s literary accomplishments? The Book of Mormon came at the very beginning of Smith’s career, published when the budding prophet was twenty-four years old. About the length of the New Testament, it’s a long epic about a family that leaves Jerusalem shortly before its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, and the family’s warring descendants in the Americas. According to Smith, a man named Moroni completed the record (engraved on a set of gold plates), buried it ca. 420 CE, and then revealed it to the young Smith in the 1820s.

Assessing the Book of Mormon is tricky. For starters, who wrote it? Those who accept Smith as a prophet see him as a divinely appointed amanuensis rather than an author. Few of Smith’s early critics found any religious or aesthetic value in the Book of Mormon, but they still didn’t think a young man with such a limited formal education could have written it. So who did? Some detractors proposed that one of Smith’s more educated followers was the actual author; others alleged that he had purloined someone else’s manuscript.

Debates over authorship aside, those who reject Smith’s prophetic claims have generally concurred with Mark Twain that the Book of Mormon is “chloroform in print.” The charge is partly unfair. Some early converts to Smith’s church stayed up all night to read the book, and today’s Latter-day Saints approach it much the way that other Christians read the Bible. (The Bible, one might add, has plenty of soporific parts of its own). Few literary critics, though, deem Smith’s magnum opus an aesthetic masterpiece. Its King James-inspired prose is far more clunky than the original. “Neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites, Mormon comments of the time after the appearance of Jesus Christ in the Americas.”

Still, the unsophisticated prose is misleading. There are narratives within a cohesive grand epic, distinct editorial voices within the text, and – characteristic of Joseph Smith – no shortage of authorial bravado. As the scholars Elizabeth Fenton and Jared Hickman have suggested, the text’s “ostentatious anachronism” makes it “a remarkably assured and comprehensive prolepsis.” Smith knew what he was doing. In the end, it is no mean feat to publish a book that millions of people almost two centuries later regard as scripture. Other Americans dictated revelations and wrote texts that gained scriptural authority. A century ago, most observers would have considered Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health more significant than the Book of Mormon. Now, it seems clear that as a maker of scripture Joseph Smith is unsurpassed in U.S. History.

Read the rest at The Marginalia Review