Joseph Smith’s Response to Skepticism
Robert N. Hullinger
An American Prophet
[p.167]Once in the world’s history we were to have a Yankee prophet, and we have had him in Joe Smith. For good or for evil, he has left his track on the great pathway of life; or, to use the words of Horne, “knocked out for himself a window in the wall of the nineteenth century,” whence his rude, bold, good humored face will peer out upon the generations to come.
—John Greenleaf Whittier,1 American poet and journalist
Joseph Smith once declared in a funeral sermon, “No man knows my history,” but his achievement, his claims, and the movement he bequeathed posterity demand that we hear him as fairly as we can. Of all the titles and offices he assumed, that of prophet is best known. He assumed the role by criticizing his society for creating a climate in which unbelief and immorality could flourish, by calling respectable religionists to account for their failure to carry out what he saw as the requirements of their profession, by standing outside the accepted religious groupings while considering himself God’s standard bearer.
All facets of his career proclaim him distinctly American in concern and aspiration, American in his theology, with its New England roots intertwined with political doctrines of the previous fifty years. Subversive international forces were seen at work behind the scenes when William Morgan disappeared in 1826. The resulting [p.168] anti-Masonic furor was, in part, a reaction against foreign entanglements. Smith donned the prophet’s mantle against this backdrop to warn America about apostasy from God. His jeremiads against unbelief point to apostasy as the precursor of unhappiness, degradation, and eventual personal and national disaster.2 Loss of belief in personal and present-day revelation, disregard for gifts of the spirit, and a dearth of angelic ministrations strip a would-be Christian nation of its pretensions, revealing how far America had fallen. Affiliation with Freemasons was unthinkable then because it smacked of French deism and atheism. The watchman of Israel was sounding the alarm.
Smith held that a nation can become implicated in infidelity only so much before God chastens it with wars and suffering. Ultimately God may let a wicked nation be destroyed as were the earlier American civilizations of the Nephites and Jaredites. Smith pointed to native Americans as living examples of God’s displeasure. Their dark skins, lack of civilized arts, and fragmented traces of pure religion which had been corrupted should warn America to repent of its skepticism and immorality, its religiosity and philosophy, and to return to Jesus Christ in humble faith. In this Smith propounded a view of repentance which came from the post-Revolutionary War period. Perry Miller argued that during this period repentance was seen as a motivating force: “Out of the years between the Stamp Act and the Treaty of Paris emerged a formidable, exhaustive (in general, a repetitious) enunciation of the unique necessity for America to win her way by reiterated acts of repentance.” What moved rank-and-file Americans to victory in the War for Independence was not the use of political terms but “the universal persuasion that they, by administering to themselves a spiritual purge, acquired the energies God had always, in the manner of the Old Testament, been willing to impart to His repentant children. Their first responsibility was not to shoot red coats but to cleanse themselves, only thereafter to take aim.” Repentance was not “a failure of the will but a dynamo for generating action.” It was “Protestant self-distrust with confidence in divine aid.”3 As Smith urged it in the Book of Mormon, repentance was a call to action.
Smith coupled that call with a warning to persevere in obedience to God’s commandments.4 Here too he could rely on the fusion of religious and patriotic motifs. “What kept them going,” to apply Miller, “was an assurance that by exerting themselves they were [p.169] fighting for a victory thus providentially predestined.”5 The rise of the Masonic lodge and rampant skepticism showed that America was on the verge of apostasy, but the nation could do something about it. By repenting America could receive God’s approval once again.
The Book of Mormon chronicled an American exodus story. The story was repeated again and again to recall America to its former greatness. In prehistoric times God preserved for the Jaredites a wilderness, a land for “a righteous people,” the “quarter where there never had man been” (Ether 2:4, 7). He led them into America with the promise that they would be the greatest nation on earth (1:42-43). God brought to America only those people he wanted here (2 Ne. 1:6). He withheld knowledge of the New World from many nations for the sake of the patriarch Joseph’s descendants (3:2). God planted that broken-off branch “in a good spot of ground descendants (3:2). God planted that broken-off branch “in a good spot of ground … choice unto me above all other parts of the land of my vineyard,” specifically, in the United States (Jacob 5:43). He consecrated the best of lands for the Nephites and Lamanites (2 Ne. 10:19), a land which is “most precious,” “holy,” “delightsome,” “choice,” “choice above all other lands,” the “land of promise,” the “land of liberty,” the “promised land.”
America would be a Christian land because God specifically consecrated it thus (2 Ne. 1:7). The Nephites received it for their inheritance (3 Ne. 16:16). This land would be the New Jerusalem (20:22), and its inhabitants would be considered blessed among the nations of the world (24:12). America is God’s reward for fidelity (Ether 1:38), and those who receive it will prosper (1 Ne. 2:20). Biblical Joseph’s posterity would keep America forever (2 Ne. 3:2), “and there shall be none to molest them, nor to take away the land of their inheritance; and they shall dwell safely forever” (1:9).
Faithfulness to God’s commandments ensures freedom from bondage to other nations. When gentiles would come into the land and receive the restored gospel, America would be a land of liberty and blessing. During their stay no kings should rule,6 for God would protect gentiles against kings and outside tyranny. Those who fight against this nation, against Zion, would perish (2 Ne. 10:10-13), but by their willing obedience gentiles would be adopted as Nephites (1 Ne. 14:2). God would raise them up as a mighty nation on the “face of this land” to scatter the seed of Nephi—the Indians (22:7-8). Like Jaredites, Nephites, and Lamanites before them, gentiles would be guided by the hand of God to America. Inspired by God, Columbus [p.170] would go “forth upon the mighty waters” to “the promised land” (13:12). Similarly colonial Americans would be led here to “prosper and obtain the land for their inheritance” (ibid.).
The Book of Mormon brings its reader to the present by drawing a parallel between ancient and modern times. The calamitous end of Nephite and Jaredite civilizations indicates that if the inhabitants of America realize God’s promise for this land, they will have to fulfill the condition required of all who live here. Those who possess America “should possess it unto the Lord” (Ether 9:20) and be faithful to God (1 Ne. 7:13). As from the earliest times, that means serving the only true God, “the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:8, 12), by worshipping God (2 Ne. 10:19) and keeping his commandments (1 Ne. 2:2). Moroni sums up the consequences of ignoring God’s special promises for the land: “this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off for it is the everlasting degree of God. And it is not until the fullness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off. And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God—that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fullness come, that ye may not bring down the fullness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done. Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written” (Ether 2:10-12).
The Book of Mormon guarantees that nineteenth-century readers would understand that the message was meant for them. Nephite prophets moralize for the specific benefit of future gentiles. Rebellion and iniquity would bring a curse on the land. Transgressors are brought down with sorrow (Enos 10), and people may be taken into captivity (2 Ne. 1:7). When those who possess the land are “ripened in iniquity,” they would be “swept off” and “destroyed” by the “fullness of his wrath” (Ether 2:8-9; 9:20). Thus the book urges Americans to make or renew covenants made with God by previous generations and civilizations.
Smith’s persecution at the hand of American religionists—his church’s pilgrimage to Kirtland, Ohio, and then to Far West, Missouri, and then to Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois; his [p.171] imprisonments; the church’s suffering—all illustrated how close America was to judgment. The shabby treatment given his church by Missouri’s judiciary did not lessen Smith’s faith in the principles upon which the country had been founded. His attitude toward the U.S. Constitution was positive enough that Mormons still consider it an inspired document—proof of God’s hand in founding the country. Ultimately Smith was to seek redress for losses sustained by his people in Missouri by running for the nation’s highest office. Such was his faith in America.
To seekers and dissenters of his time, Smith had the answer to their quest—the true Church of Christ restored to earth.7 The Book of Mormon clearly showed that Christ had once established his church in America with a full complement of offices and spiritual gifts. Following the death of its apostles, the ancient American church—like the Old World churches—lost its apostolic fervor, faith, and validity. The Protestant polemic which identified the apostasy with the rise of the Roman Catholic Church was applied to the ancient American scene to explain the loss of the American church. The apostasy of the church in both the eastern and western hemispheres demonstrated the need for a restoration.
According to Smith, churches in the burned-over district of New England were clearly apostate, bereft of spiritual gifts, denying the principle of on-going revelation, served by self-seeking ministers, doctrinally contentious, and without apostolic church organization. But his new scripture and his restored Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods bestowed by John the Baptist, Peter, James, and John the apostles, together with the full complement of church officers as in apostolic times, cemented Smith’s claim to have effected the displacement of the false churches by the true church. Church polity and practice had already been introduced in the Book of Mormon and was further explicated for several years in the Book of Commandments and the Doctrine and Covenants.
Certain that Satan was the cause of doctrinal strife,8 Smith cleared away the clutter of religious controversy and enabled the restored church to get on with preparations for the Millennium. Other religious organizations were thereby denied any authority to engage in ministry, argue doctrine, or challenge Smith’s church. Nor could corruption of the clergy, decimation of the Bible, or doctrinal aberrations and historic scandals which weakened Christendom’s witness to Jesus Christ be charged to the restored Church of Christ.
[p.172] Smith was so sure about the importance of the work in which he was engaged that he thought the Millennium might dawn at the turn of the century and anticipated seeing Christ at his second coming.9 He promised others that they too would see Christ.10 Oliver Cowdery headed the 1830 mission to Missouri with the same enthusiastic expectation. He was reported by an Ohio newspaper to have predicted the world’s end within a few years.11 Sidney Rigdon had a ten-hour conversation with W. W. Phelps of Canandaigua about the new faith and “declared it was true, and he knew it by the power of the Holy Ghost, which was again given to man in preparation for the millennium.”12 Four months after Cowdery’s visit the same newspaper reported Martin Harris’s declaration “that all who believed the new bible would see Christ within fifteen years.”13 Thus the name of the church was changed from the Church of Christ to the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
This time-setting did not persist as the all-encompassing focus of Smith’s millennial hope.14 He soon centered instead on gathering a people from the nations to meet the Lord. This strategy was more consistent with the prevalent belief in western New York that the efforts of the faithful in evangelism, education, or missions could help usher in the Day of the Lord. “It might even be the case that the Mormons,” wrote Klaus Hansen, “by assigning to man the primary responsibility for creating the millennium, interjected into the optimistic doctrine an insurance clause against a remote possibility that the Lord, perhaps, might fail to appear.”15
Thus Smith sent missionaries to recruit converts to help build the city of God. Cowdery traveled to Missouri to found a city of refuge.16 Rigdon followed in 1831 to consecrate the land to the west of Independence as “Zion.” Here the Indians could gather as the tribes of Joseph were increasingly displaced by the U.S. government’s removal policy. In 1836 at the dedication of the temple in Kirtland, Ohio, Smith and Cowdery saw the heavens open. Moses appeared to give them “the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth” (D&C 110:11-16). The time was near. In 1837 the English mission field was opened to yield 2,500 converts who set sail to join the prophet before his death.17 Thousands more were to follow from Scandinavia in the 1850s.18
Through such efforts goals stated again and again in the Book of Mormon began to be fulfilled. Zion was being formed in the United States, the Indians had the restored gospel preached to them, [p.173] and within a few years Orson Hyde consecrated the Holy City of Jerusalem for the gathering of the Jews.19 All was being readied for Christ’s coming.
Fifteen hundred years of church history had encrusted revelation with the weight of tradition and institutional inertia. In spite of Protestant efforts to let God speak through the Bible, some perceived him as more remote than ever. Deism rejected special revelation but accepted a remote god who could communicate through nature. Orthodoxy reacted by developing its science of textual criticism and relying on its doctrine of biblical inspiration to assure contact with God. Catholicism guaranteed the institution as the assurance. Pietism looked within the human heart.
Joseph Smith sided with Pietism in favoring his own inner assurance. But after he won the changes and freedom he wanted, Smith set in motion the very forces he once had decried in the churches of his day. The principle of personal revelation led to power struggles within the infant latter-day church until Smith received revelations allowing only him to get instruction, teaching, or revelation for the church (D&C 28:11; 43:3-6) He taught that no one could receive revelation for someone of higher authority.20 Secure within the church, Smith was able to lead as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.
Revelation continued in books from ancient patriarchs, written instructions for restoring the church, other revelations that were not officially recorded, and the inspiration to revise the Bible. Some of the written revelations were published in 1833 and revised and enlarged in 1835. These were to become the most influential of the Mormon scriptures. Approximately 65 percent of Smith’s revelations came in the first four years of his public activity, 1828-33; from 1834-39, 18 percent; none in 1840; and 8 percent in 1841-44. Following Smith’s death revelation for the church effectively ceased. George B. Arbaugh compared Mormon revelation after Smith to the dogma of papal infallibility: it lent a “certain spiritual potentiality.”21
R. W. B. Lewis characterized post-revolutionary American optimism with the literary figure of the American Adam. He used Emerson’s categories of the Party of Memory and the Party of Hope to analyze American intellectual thought from 1820-60. The model provides a helpful way to view Joseph Smith.22 Huddled along the eastern edge of a vast continent, many looked back in Memory to [p.174] the Old World and its traditions. Others faced west in Hope. With them Joseph Smith breathed the optimistic air flowing in from the Rockies. Fearful that the call from the west was a summons to barbarism, American Christendom launched the Second Great Awakening to stem the tide. Perry Miller has shown that the battle of the churches against deism was part of a larger strategy to save the west for civilization. And Joseph Smith was animated by the same spirit which was quickening the nation.
Lewis described the intellectual history of a nation as the exposure of dominant conflicts over ideas and the “story” which animates them. As the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is the story behind Christianity, so the American story is about an “Adamic person” without a past, timeless. He had known God and nature but found himself suddenly alive in a certain place and time.23 Joseph Smith entered this debate with his own story of seeing visions, finding and translating an American scripture—the story behind Mormonism.
The Party of Hope saw America with a present and a future but rejected the immediate past in order to search for ultimate origins. Smith too was searching for a source of guidance for the New World. Old World revelation was repudiated as the ultimate authority and subjected to the revelation and scripture of the New World. Mormon biographer John Evans concluded that Smith appeared unaware of the mass of Christian exegetical literature.24 I would amend Evans’s observation to say that Smith discarded traditional interpretations because he claimed a right to start anew. Even when he appropriated a current approach, such as the millennial hope of Protestants or the theory of Israelite origins for the Indians, he charted his own course.
Smith’s handling of temptation and sin as a Fortunate Fall is an instance of his moving within the Party of Hope. Humanity needed to taste the bitter to know the sweet and prize the good.25 Temptation and sin were necessary for people so that they could experience sexuality, joy, the goodness of life, and—most important of all—true freedom. The triumph of Arminianism in Smith’s thought made of sin an enabling force, freeing men and women to discover and make of themselves gods. The Party of Memory, by contrast, taught a doctrine of the Fall and original sin which left humanity debilitated beyond power to extricate itself.
Smith taught that God willed human freedom even at the risk of losing it. When Satan offered himself as redeemer for all human-[p.175]ity (Moses 4:1), God saw the offer as an attempt to destroy human freedom and a criticism of God’s will. So Adam was not really beguiled but rather chose to transgress in order to become a creator of new life through sexuality. By the proper use of sexual and procreative powers, Smith was eventually to reveal, the doctrine emerged that humans could even become gods.
Smith shunned mysticism to explicate the workings of matter in later revelations about polygamy, polytheism, and a kingdom of this world. It is fair to compare him to Emerson in his effort to harmonize matter with spirit, although Emerson realized his vision in poems and essays and Smith realized his in action.
If polygamy was the most sensational of Smith’s revelations, the “gathering” was the most far-reaching. It offered a focus for religious fervor which revivalism had similarly stirred up but allowed to dissipate.26 Appropriate for a prophet, Smith offered his converts a program: gather in America to prepare for the Millennium; build a city of refuge, a city of God. Mormon efforts were thwarted in Missouri, but on a swampy site along the Mississippi River, Smith and his converts built what was Illinois’s foremost city and Smith’s Mormon capital—Nauvoo. Hopeful thousands gathered to help the American prophet build the temple into which the Lord would suddenly come.
When it was clear that persecution was also in the Illinois air, Smith convened a Council of Fifty to lay plans for one final exodus.27 After Smith’s death, Apostle Lyman Wight attempted to carry out an early council plan to establish the Kingdom of God in Texas.28 Apostle Brigham Young, Smith’s ultimate successor in the eyes of the majority of Saints, led the church west into Mexican territory and carved out the State of Deseret. From 1850 to 1852 Smith’s followers in Deseret lived in a theocracy which exercised—and was to exercise after its dissolution at the hands of the U.S. government—tremendous influence over the settlement of the American west.
Joseph Smith was, therefore, author not only of an American scripture but of an amazing life29 and a dynamic movement within American history. His biography, to paraphrase Lewis, is the story begotten by the noble myth of an American Adam. He set out to defend God and in that defense died a martyr’s death. Through the Book of Mormon, his revelations, and the church he restored, his converts declare that Joseph Smith is still “an ambassador for the [p.176] religion of Jesus Christ” (D&C 135:7). By virtue of his martyrdom, they believe, he still defends God.
1. “A Mormon Conventicle,” Howitt’s Journal, reprinted in Littell’s Living Age (Oct.-Nov. 1847), from which it was reprinted in William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons: Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1958), 159.
4. Perseverance: 1 Ne. 13:37; 2 Ne. 31:15-20; Omni 26; Mosiah 2:41; 4:6; 30; Alma 5:13; 3 Ne. 15:9. Obedience to commandments: 1 Ne. 2:20-22; 15:11; 2 Ne. 1:20; 9:27; Enos 10; Mosiah 1:11; 2:4; 13:22, 31, 33, 36, 41; Alma 7:23; 12:32; 28:1; Hel. 5:6; 3 Ne. 12:20.
11. Palmyra Reflector, 14 Feb. 1831, from a Painesville, Ohio, correspondent. A church in the town of Mendon, Monroe County, ten miles from Palmyra, was influenced by Mormonism in 1832; Wayne Sentinel, 18 Apr. 1832. The preacher said “that he shall never die, but be translated, after the manner of Enoch, and that in eighteen months Mormonism will be the prevailing religion; and that in five years the wicked are to be swept from the face of the earth.”
15. Quest for Empire: The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1967), 18. Compare William Mulder, “Mormonism’s ‘Gathering’: An American [p.177]Doctrine with a Difference,” Church History 23 (1954): 248-64. The Millerites had failed to consider such an insurance clause and had to explain the Lord’s failure to appear as due to their misunderstanding of certain key biblical passages.