Dialogues With Myself
Eugene England

Chapter 1
Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest

Given at the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association convention, October 1980; published in Proceedings, 1979-82 of the Association for Mormon Letters.

[p.1] The persistence, indeed supremacy, in our literature of the tragic modes and the persistence and intensity of our interest in tragic experience are somewhat mysterious but undeniable. We are fascinated by extreme suffering and loss—even claim to be exceptionally ennobled through the arts based on them. The great variety of the tragic literary modes, from prose narrative to poetic drama to lyric elegy, from Classical to Shakespearean tragedy—and the variety of intensely argued interpretations of their meaning and value—all attest to a persistently diverse understanding of that richly central human experience we call tragic. But on the evidence of the enduring monuments in our literature, it would seem that the central issue in tragedy is justice, specifically ultimate justice; the extreme anguish which tragedy confronts and forces us to confront derives, not from mere pain and loss, but pain and loss that touch our deepest concerns, those about the nature of the universe itself. And those concerns are by definition religious. As Paul Tillich has said: “Since religion expresses our ultimate concern, it is greater and more tragic than anything else.”1

P. A. Christensen, in his essay “Tragedy as Religious Paradox,” convincingly demonstrates that the emerging and unifying element in the richly diverse tragic tradition is the focus on that ultimate desolation, available to us all, when by accident or our own questing we come to feel “the universe has lost its meaning, its moral bearings, its spiritual security.”2 Tragic man, the subject of our greatest literature, unwilling to rest with simplistic and thus secure conceptions of the universe, [p.2] pushes at the paradoxes his mind and experience uncover, “lives precariously on the growing margin of knowledge,” and challenges—or obeys—the Gods of his conceptions in ways that bring, in either case, suffering and loss out of all proportion to his actions. Yet tragic man persists in testing the paradoxes and enduring the suffering. Perhaps he does so because that is the process of all significant learning, of breaking out of confining concepts, out of old seed husks into new life, the process of dying in the old man so a new one can be born; perhaps he does so because it is the ultimate way of courageously confronting the real universe. And we persist in watching and talking about that experience enacted in our literature and in certain heroic lives; perhaps we do so to bear witness to each other of the ultimate value of such ultimately mysterious suffering, to attest to the dignity and authority of such courage and endurance, perhaps because thus we prepare somewhat to face the terror in our own small but equally human lives.

It has been argued by many that Christian tragedy is impossible, because in Christian belief ultimate justice is guaranteed by a benevolent God; and some have argued further that Mormon tragedy is unthinkable, because justice is not only ultimately guaranteed but already made available, at least after sufficient rationalization, by a just and providential God. It should be clear by now that nothing could be more mistaken. For one thing, ample tragedy already exists, in both the literature and the experience of Christians—including Mormons. And if indeed the central issue—the heart of tragic experience—is ultimate paradox, religious paradox, we might expect to find more of it in profound religious thought and living than elsewhere. Tragedy does not have to do with presence or lack of ultimate guarantees but with present suffering in the face of the paradoxes reality progressively unfolds to the tragic quester. Tragedy is intensified by those discrepancies between our experience and our conceptions of ultimate things that viable religious thinking and living brings when it encourages tragic questing, as I believe Mormonism especially does.

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, is, to us who are his followers, the greatest Christian prophet, in fact second only to Christ in his contribution to mankind; yet he is, I believe, a quintessentially tragic figure—and is best understood as such. Clifton Jolley has shown how Joseph Smith’s life took on, perhaps partly by intuitive design but certainly in the mythmaking sensibilities of his devoted [p.3] followers, the powerful archetypal pattern of the martyred hero.3 With remarkable fidelity, Joseph, especially in his martyrdom, follows the specific elements of a universal pattern, a shape of sacred meaning, that is, a myth, that forms a mirror by which Mormons focus feeling and understanding about themselves. Jolley quotes Robert Scholes’ affirmation that “A myth … is the answer to an unspoken question about a matter of great import …. Mythic consciousness is related to oracular or prophetic consciousness … myths deal only with the eternal.” Myth, the prophetic role, and tragedy are strongly linked. The true prophet, the one who takes on archetypal power in a people’s consciousness, is, I believe, the ultimate tragic quester; prophetic consciousness is tragic consciousness because by definition it asks the ultimate questions and is led to confront in thought and experience the ultimate paradoxes.

Joseph Smith’s life is mythic in that it imitates unconscious but universal images and satisfies eternal questions for Mormons; his life is tragic because it raises ultimate questions for all who are willing to know it and be impelled by it in their own tragic questing. I will describe three major areas where Joseph Smith makes that contribution: 1) in his unique ontology, which poses the most tragically paradoxical universe I know about; 2) in the tragic consciousness and perspective that informs his personality; and 3) in the dramatically tragic events of his life. My intention is simply to open up some areas of investigation and some ways of thinking about them that may help us better understand tragic experience in general and Joseph Smith in particular. I also hope to provide encouragement and perspective for Mormon writers and critics who are contributing to a growing heritage of tragic literature informed by Joseph Smith’s life and thought.

As early as 1830, in what became basic scriptures of the Restored Church, Joseph Smith had articulated a foundation for Mormon thought that is inexorably tragic. In the Book of Mormon the prophet Lehi teaches that there is and must be an opposition in all things, paradox at the heart of existence as well as in all moral action. Otherwise, according to Lehi, not only would God’s intentions be destroyed but God himself would not exist—nor anything else. Lehi goes on to suggest that for this opposition to operate in bringing about God’s purpose—the exaltation, the “joy” that is also the purpose of man’s existence—it was necessary for Adam (that is, all mortals) to fall (II Nephi 2:11-26). The Book of Moses makes explicit this idea of a “fortunate Fall”—that it was a heroic decision by Adam and Eve, in accordance [p.4] with rather than in opposition to God’s plan, a means to enter into a moral universe of choice, where both mistakes and learning, both sin and redemption, are made possible, where, as Adam says, “because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God” (Moses 5:10-11). But still the Fall is real, tragic, bringing in its train evil, pain, appalling wickedness and sorrow, and unanswered questions.

By the time of his death in 1844, Joseph Smith had developed a complete, though not systematic, ontology consistent with these two basic ideas, a compelling foundation for Mormon thought and experience that is essentially tragic. The central concept, which has been called “eternalism,” is that not only God is eternal, uncreated, indestructible, but so is man at his essential core, his “intelligence,” and so are the elements of the universe and the laws that govern the elements and the development of intelligences. “The mind of man—the intelligent part—is as immortal as, and is co-equal with, God himself,”4 he taught. God has in fact gone through a process such as man is now experiencing and is engaged, as guide and model for man, in an eternal development under the direction of Gods above him—a process and hierarchy that extend to infinity in all directions, backward and forward in time, out into space, and into multiple dimensions of existence.

This expansive vision is certainly adventuresome, exciting in its guarantee of a continuing and challenging existence, one with the potential of joy-bringing progress in a friendly and potent universe and under the guidance of heavenly parents genuinely related to us and perfectly capable of saving us if we so choose. But there are genuinely tragic implications. Eternally guaranteed and individually conscious existence means there is no escape—from ourselves or from the God who loves us or the universal laws which hold us responsible to ourselves and him. Joseph Smith’s cosmos is like modern science’s in its ultimate naturalism and rationality. But it is also like Kafka’s in that it is a universe filled with a hierarchy of moral intelligences who pursue the individual inexorably, sometimes, as in the Abraham-Isaac myth, forcing us, apparently irrationally, to confront both our sense of self and our real potential for a trusting relationship to God. Like Joseph K., or Raskolnikov, or Abraham, we cannot escape certain things. A modern Mormon thinker, B. F. Cummings, has put the case this way: “The self is insubordinate, wandering, imperially aloof, solitary, lonely, withdrawn, unvisited, impenetrable”; it “cannot escape from existence nor can it [p.5] escape from the awareness of its existence” nor from the “inevitable sense of solitude” that is “born of the very fact of individuality,” of “being an eternally identical one.” “Individuality has thus its price [that is, cosmic loneliness] as well as its advantages. This aloneness is a fact for men and Gods to live with, for it is inherent in existence.” There is a means of escape through conformity to the processes of learning, doing, becoming by which progress comes but a heavy penalty for those who will not conform. “In other words, we are inescapably free to make choices … existence itself compels us to make choices of one kind or the other.”5

As the existentialists have described a similar notion, we are in life “condemned to be free,” but in Mormon thought there is no escape even in suicide or death. Nor is there an omnipotent God who will make all things right despite our choices, nor is there the hope of merging our identity into some undifferentiated world soul. We cannot escape the effects, the consequences of the laws—or natural processes—of the universe, some of which are quite specific and bring specific tragic complications. To quote Cummings again:

One of the conditions of [the individual’s] progress is his affiliation with others whose goal is the same as his own. Nothing that he can do is of avail to him without these affiliations. Through all eternity he remains an individual but through eternity he will remain a social individual…. These very affiliations augment the individual’s stature as an individual. The whole concept of progress becomes one of associative progress, but this doctrine of affiliation opens up the way for each individual to develop to the fullest his individual powers.6

Of course, the problem is that that doctrine, that condition of the universe, not only allows the individual to develop his fullest powers but in the process confronts him eternally with what seems a central tragic paradox in mortal experience: group values versus individual values, as we see it confronted for instance in Antigone and Billy Budd. Put another way, it is obedience versus integrity, as we see it confronted in King Lear and The Brothers Karamasov—and Job and Abraham—and, I believe, in Joseph Smith’s life and thought and in much of our best Mormon literature. But in Joseph Smith’s cosmology there is not even the ultimate relief claimed by Sophocles in his refrain, “Count no man happy until he is dead.” Since in the Mormon view there is no radical difference in the quality of life and the processes of growth for the soul after death, the tragic struggle continues; the facing of these fundamental paradoxes goes on in an eternal quest, whose painful, joyful progress is its own reward. Joseph Smith put the case this way: [p.6] How many Gods there are, I do not know. But there never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds, and when men were not passing through the same ordeals that we are now passing through …. You cannot comprehend this but when you can, it will be to you a matter of great consolation.7

Part of the tragedy of course is that we do not yet have that consolation of full comprehension but live by faith in our ability to endure with dignity and hope the pain and suffering the tragic paradoxes bring and faith in the reality of the joy and growth the process brings. It is not easy, and the constant temptation is to revert to what P. A. Christensen calls “representative man,”8 whose imperative is to escape pain, to seek quiet harbors, to find secure absolutes, even at the cost of worshipping idols, those unchanging creations of his own mind that meet his complacent needs, grant special privileges, and maintain untroubled relationships. Mormons themselves, inheritors of the theology of a tragic quester, are tempted to revert to a more primitive and secure, absolutistic theology. As Sterling McMurrin has pointed out, commenting on those among Mormons who have this very understandable tendency to turn away from a difficult, tragic theology, “They are not willing to take their problems to a God who may have problems of his own.”9

But still the heritage is real. I will merely sketch a few dimensions of the character of Joseph Smith the tragic quester, whose biography has yet to be written, but who can be discovered in his letters and diaries and the reports of his speeches. This is from a letter to his wife, Emma, in 1832, during a long mission journey away:

I have visited a grove which is just back of the town almost every day where I can be secluded from the eyes of any mortal and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meditation and prayer. I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to mourn and shed tears of sorrow for my folly in suffering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he has had in times past but God is merciful and has forgiven my sins …. I have given my life into [God’s] hands. I am prepared to go at his call. I desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me only to do his will.10

Those seem to me the energizing poles of Joseph Smith’s successful tragic quest; on the one hand a deep sense of sinfulness and failure and on the other absolute yielding to what he was completely confident was a divine purpose and mission. These polarities form the defining outline of the immensely powerful mind and character that fascinated—sometimes horrified—his contemporaries and that we can know through his writings, and those poles determined the persistent tragic action of his life.

[p.7] The diaries, which we have in Joseph’s own hand for 1832-33 and 1835-36, are full of direct petitions to God for himself and others; they reveal intense consciousness of his own failings (December 4, 1832: “Oh Lord deliver thy servant out of temptations and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding”11) juxtaposed directly with ingenuous assurance of his own powers (Nov. 28, 1832: “This day I have spent in reading and writing. This evening my mind is calm and serene, for which I thank the Lord; Dec. 1 wrote and corrected revelations”12). He records side by side and with exactly the same ingenuous rhetorical directness his miraculous blessing of his brother Samuel’s wife in childbirth and a tempestuous bout with his brother William that brought the whole Quorum of Twelve Apostles into disarray and threatened to overthrow the young Church. His sense of integrity impels him to remarkable openness about his uncertainties and mistakes. His early accounts of what might have seemed an amazingly presumptuous claim—a vision of God and Christ—all focus on the forgiveness Christ there offered him for his sins.13 He confesses to the council of Church authorities, “I am determined to do all that I can to uphold you, although I may do many things inadvertently that are not right in the sight of God.”14 He seems to consciously and constantly act out the implications of the fortunate fall, knowing that adventuresome action in the world will bring him to make mistakes, but these can bring not only pain and conflict but new perspectives, learning, redemption, and growth.

Wilford Woodruff reports Joseph preaching in 1841,

If we did not accuse one another God would not accuse us and if we had no accuser we should enter heaven …. If we would not accuse [our accuser] he would not accuse us, and if we would throw a cloak of charity over his sins he would over ours, for Charity covered a multitude of sins and what many people called sin was not sin and Christ did many things to break down superstition.15

Later Joseph said,

… I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, and administering to the poor and dividing his substance, than the long smooth faced hypocrites. I don’t want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous. God judgeth men according to the light he gives them.16

He sometimes leavened this theme with humor:

Brethren I am not a very Pious man, I do not wish to be a great deal better than anybody else. If a Prophet were so much better than anybody else was he would inherit a glory far beyond what any one else would inherit and behold he would be alone, for who would be his company in heaven. If I should [p.8] condescend to be so righteous as the brethren would wish me to be, I should be taken from your midst and be translated as was Elijah.17

Yet he knew fully the pain of his tragic quest, both the pain of insight that his visions of the future and of ultimate reality brought him—and the pain of others’ incomprehension, even rejection by those closest to him, as the demands increased that were placed on them by his unfolding sense of responsibility to the Kingdom.

During a six-month stay in a primitive Missouri jail, Joseph wrote this, from experience and in awful anticipation:

The things of God are of deep import; and time and experience and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God….None but fools will trifle with the souls of men.18

Four years later, on 16 April 1843, he wrote:

O how I would delight to bring before you things which you never thought of, but poverty and the cares of the world prevent. . . . I cannot find words to express myself I am not learned. But I have as good feelings as any man. Oh that I had the language of the archangel to express my feelings once to my friends, but I never expect to.19

Joseph Smith stated with remarkable certainty and openness, beginning in 1842, two years before the event, that he would be killed. And he acted, with a remarkable combination of wistful sorrow and determined assurance, to prepare for that day by completing the temple, giving the endowments and special teachings to about thirty-five of the leaders and their wives, especially teaching and preparing Brigham Young, and very consciously capping his theological legacy with the carefully prepared and revolutionary “King Follett Discourse” just two months before his death. During this time he was constantly clear about his purposes and expected fate:

I know what I say, I understand my mission and business. God almighty is my shield and what can man do if God is my friend. I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes; then I shall be offered freely.20

Here we see Joseph’s determination that inexorably impelled him onward, like a Lear or an Oedipus, toward a tragic end, but we are also moved by the magisterial courage of his integrity in pursuit of truth and of prophetic responsibility and its legacy of specific insight and achievement. Though the cost may be out of all proportion for Joseph, [p.9] it is not for us. The conflict of high communal emotion and tragic sense of mission is focused powerfully for us in the following; it is from the report by Wilford Woodruff of a speech in Nauvoo just after Joseph had narrowly escaped from enemies trying to take him back to what he was certain would be his assassination in Missouri. These enemies had in turn been captured by Joseph’s friends in a rather comic episode and were now held by the Mormons—in fact, had been treated to a fine meal at Joseph’s home and were standing with him:

Before I will bear this unhallowed persecution any longer I will spill my Blood. There is a time when bearing it longer is a sin. I will not bear it longer. I will spill the last drop of Blood I have and all that will not bear it longer say AH. [Woodruff reports “the Cry of AH rung throughout the Congregation”] … However you may feel about the high hand of oppression, I wish you to restrain your hand from violence against these men who are around me. My word is at stake a hair of their heads shall not be harmed. My life is pledged to carry out this great work.21

From this point to Joseph’s death just one year later, there is a crescendo of events and feelings, of choices and expressions by the protagonist himself, that follows exactly not only the martyred-hero myth Jolley has traced but also the classic shape of tragic drama; and we read through the diaries and speeches with the same awareness of tragic irony, feeling pity and fear and eventual catharsis of a special kind.

But I wish to focus first on Joseph’s own tragic consciousness:

August 27, 1843: I prophecy that all the powers of Earth and Hell shall never be able to overthrow [me] for I have obtained it by promise. Melchizedek [was given] power of an endless life … which also Abraham obtained by the offering of his son Isaac …. Men will set up stakes and say thus far will we go and no further. Did Abraham when called upon to offer his son, did the Savior, No.22

Joseph, who identified strongly with Abraham, was clearly not about to set limits on his own commitments and go “no further”:

29 November 1843: If I do not stand with those who will stand by me in the hour of trouble and danger, without faltering, I give you leave to shoot me.23 24 March 1844: Why do not my enemies strike a blow at the doctrine; they cannot do it, it is truth. And I am as the voice of one Crying in the wilderness, repent of your sins and prepare the way for the coming of the Son of Man.24

And, on April 7, 1844, he delivered the “King Follett Discourse.” It is now clear he knew full well that was his most important speech, the [p.10] capstone of his life, and the one that would lead most directly to his death because his enemies could not abide the revolutionary but essential doctrine there—the doctrine I have outlined as the foundation of Joseph’s tragic ontology. At the end of that speech he said:

I love you all. I am your best friend, and if persons miss their mark, it is their own fault. You don’t know me—you never will. You never knew my heart. No man knows my history …. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself I never did harm any man since I have been born in the world. My voice is always for peace. I cannot lie down until my work is finished. I never think evil nor think anything to the harm of my fellowmen. When I am called at the trump and weighed in the balance, you will know me then.25

In the tragic drama of Joseph Smith, this was perhaps the anagnorisis, the hour of awful realization. Or perhaps that came at the more famous moment on June 23, when, in the midst of an escape from the arrest that he knew would lead to death, he was asked by his wife and friends to return and help protect them and said, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.”26 But for me the anagnorisis is focused on June 5, when he wrote, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”27 Just a few days later he was to take an action as mayor, ordering the destruction of an inflammatory newspaper and its press as a public nuisance, that would lead directly to his martyrdom. In that action he would confront the central tragic paradox of his prophetic calling and make his choice. As other leaders argued for merely fining the libellers and destroying only the printed papers, he was to say, “I would rather die tomorrow and have the thing smashed, than live and have it go on, for it [is] exciting the spirit of mobocracy and bringing death and destruction upon [this people].”28 So only a few days before that tragic proof of the paradox, the “contrary,” of public versus personal responsibility, he wrote, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

And there we have, clearly stated, I believe, the heart of the tragic quest. We do indeed live in a universe where it is only by proving, or testing, contraries or paradoxes, that truth is made manifest. Fifty years earlier, William Blake, certainly another prophetic tragic quester, had said, “Without contraries is no progression,” and warned, “Whoever tries to reconcile [the contraries] seeks to destroy existence.”29

The suffering and loss—and ultimate gain—that are made possible by testing fundamental paradoxes certainly defines the tragic events of [p.11] Joseph’s life. A horribly painful operation on his leg as a boy left him a partial cripple, at least with a limp and a sense of weakness which all his life he compensated for by building enormous strength in his upper body, wrestling and engaging in athletic tests with a zest that became part of his prophetic and legendary charisma. His increasing involvement in building the temporal kingdom in Kirtland, in response to revelation of the full dimensions of his prophetic responsibility to the community of Saints, led to a financial disaster that nearly destroyed the community, threatened his life, and split the Church leadership into factions. These factions quarreled and fought openly in the very temple where a year before Joseph had presided over one of the most spectacular spiritual outpourings in human history—including visitations from Moses, Elijah, and Christ. In Missouri he gave himself as a ransom for his people, was nearly executed, and suffered in a foul prison for six months, brooding helplessly over what his prophetic actions had brought his people to: the Haun’s Mill massacre, where men and children were murdered and women raped, and Governor Boggs’s extermination order that expelled 15,000 Mormons into the Great Plains winter, attended by the pillage and rapine of the militia-turned-mob. In a letter to the Saints, he wrote of being

… in this hell, surrounded with demons (if not those who are damned, they are those who shall be damned) and where we are compelled to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths and witness a scene of … drunkenness and hypocrisy and debaucheries of every description.

… it cannot be found among the wild and ferocious beasts of the forest that a man should be mangled for sport! women be robbed of all that they have—their last morsel for subsistence, and then be violated to gratify the hellish desires of the mob, and finally left to perish with their helpless offspring around their necks ….

Oh God where art thou. And where is the pavilion that covereth Thy hiding place.30

But the great drama, which is still more directly available to us in our history rather than our literature, is the classic crescendo of triumph and tragedy that occurred in what came to be called the City of Joseph. Like a member of an Ancient Greek audience (who knew in detail the end from the beginning), I watch in fascinated horror as on April 6, 1841, Joseph, who had an almost boyish love of ceremony and celebration, conducts a day of exuberant spectacle in his young city, drilling [p.12] and parading fourteen companies of the Nauvoo Legion in his splendid Lieutenant-General’s uniform, laying the cornerstone of the ambitious temple, followed by a magnificent turkey dinner. And there, prominently in the audience, is John C. Bennett, Joseph’s newly appointed counselor, who after a meteoric rise to power will turn against the Prophet and do perhaps most to bring him down. And also there, standing by Joseph at the cornerstone laying, is Thomas C. Sharp, young editor of the Warsaw Signal, who is already beginning to find something ominous in this display and who will immediately open a determined campaign against the Mormons that will be climaxed by his acknowledged part in inciting the assassination of Joseph by members of the Warsaw militia and end with his central role in getting the Mormons driven from the state.

The tragic irony is almost unbearable as we hear Joseph, in July 1840, with his city only one year old, prophesying, “These who are now my friends shall become my enemies and shall seek to take my life. I know these things by the visions of the almighty,” and then going on in the same speech to proclaim, in the full flush of classic hubris, a prophecy that would, within four years be ironically and tragically fulfilled:

The city of Nauvoo shall become the greatest city in the whole world …. We will build upon the top of this Temple a great observatory, a great and high watchtower, and in the top thereof we will Suspend a tremendous bell that when it is rung shall… wake up the people of Warsaw, and shall sound in the ears of men [in] Carthage.31

He continues, in this account by Howard and Martha Coray:

And if it should be (stretching his hand toward the place and in a melancholy tone that made all hearts tremble) [the] will of God that I might live to behold that temple completed and finished … I will say, Oh Lord, it is enough, Lord let thy servant depart in peace.32

But he did not live until the temple was finished—nor did he depart in peace, and that was partly because he identified not only with the humble servant, Simeon, but also with the prophet of the covenant, Abraham, who forms for us, in the encounter with God over the sacrifice of Isaac, the fundamental scriptural images of the tragic quest. This is how Stanley Kimball, in his biography of Heber C. Kimball, tells the story of Joseph’s proving of that contrary:

During the summer of 1841, shortly after Heber’s return from England, he was introduced to the doctrine of plural marriage directly through a startling [p.13] testa sacrifice which shook his very being and challenged his faith to the ultimate. He had already sacrificed homes, possessions, friends, relatives, all worldly rewards, peace, and tranquility for the Restoration. Nothing was left to place on the altar save his life, his children, and his wife. Then came the Abrahamic test. Joseph demanded for himself what to Heber was unthinkable, his Vilate. Totally crushed spiritually and emotionally, Heber touched neither food nor water for three days and three nights and continually sought confirmation and comfort from God. On the evening of the third day, some kind of assurance came, and Heber took Vilate to the upper room of Joseph’s store on Water Street. The Prophet wept at this act of faith, devotion, and obedience. Joseph had never intended to take Vilate. It was all a test. Heber had passed the ordeal, as had Vilate …. Then and there Joseph sealed their marriage for time and eternity, perhaps the first sealing of this kind among the Mormons.33

This was indeed an “Abrahamic” test, and just as that biblical story offends me—that story of the prophet, who also after three days struggle, agreed to obey God’s command that he sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering—so the story of Joseph’s testing of Heber and Vilate offends me. I can find no way to be at peace with either story, yet I believe that both are true and sacred stories and terribly important. These particular trials are radically different from the daily ones that require that we give up, for the Kingdom, our sins, our weaknesses, our pleasures, the things most dear to us, or our mere preferences. Abraham and Heber were asked in the name of God to turn against, in some sense to deny, the very ideas that had brought them to God in the first place and to the higher ethical and spiritual vision to which God had called them—asked to prove loyalty to God (or his servant) by obeying the direction of God or his servant to transgress the very things God had taught them. It is a supreme trial, a paradox, a cross, a mystery. But it will not do merely to say that Joseph or the author of Genesis—or God—made mistakes or that such tests are unfair. Unfair or not, the universe, I believe, reveals something crucial about itself in these stories. And it is a failure of the test, and a form of idolatry, simply and easily to choose one of the poles of the paradox of obedience versus integrity, redemptive covenant versus individual freedom, that these tragic myths pose. Thus I do not agree with those who think that the test of Heber was simply a revealing lapse on Joseph’s part, and if it reveals a flaw, it is a tragic one in every sense—including its being that which impelled Joseph constantly to that proving of paradoxes by which truth is made [p.14] manifest. But it is true that this test, also administered to others, who did not pass the test and turned on Joseph, led directly toward his martyrdom.

Joseph’s conscious control of that process—his fidelity to it—is seen more clearly in the other major factor in it besides polygamy, that is, his insistence, against all common sense, on explicitly revealing, first gradually, then explosively in the34 “King Follett Discourse,” his radical doctrines concerning the nature of man and God and their relationship. These doctrines were at one and the same time the most important ones for the long-range quality and success of his work as a prophet and the ones most certain to cause his death. As he put it, some would “fly to pieces like glass” because they could not abide the tragic paradoxes and tragic quest such doctrines called them as well as Joseph to embark upon. He was perfectly conscious of what he was doing, and the dramatic tension builds during the last months as he increasingly predicts his own doom while he consciously acts in the quest that will assure it. The tension is increased by a crescendoing litany of requests by Joseph for the prayers of the Saints. He asked that they pray for his failing health, for the aid of the Holy Spirit and the help of God to calm the wind because his lungs are becoming progressively weaker; he is losing his breath, his spiritus, and his speeches exhaust him. Even the “King Follett Discourse” was cut short by exhaustion and then completed in May—and then reviewed in what is called his “last discourse” on June 16, one week before his arrest:

I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught—must I then be thrown away as a thing of naught.35

[The Apostle Paul teaches it, but] if Joseph Smith says there are Gods many and Lords many they cry away with him, crucify him ….

If Jesus had a father can we not believe that [that father] had a father also. I despise the idea of being scared to death …. I have reason to think that the Church is being purged …. When things that are great are passed over without even a thought I want to see all in all its bearings and hug it to my bosom—I believe all that God ever revealed and I never heard of a man being damned for believing too much but they are damned for unbelief. When [God] visited Moses in the Bush, Moses was a stuttering sort of a boy like me—God said thou shalt be a god unto the children of Israel…. Did I build on another man’s foundation but my own? I have got all the truth and an independent revelation in the bargain—& God will bear me off triumphant.36

[p.15] As Clifton Jolley has reminded us, Joseph’s followers were mostly willing to rest in the satisfying archetypal pattern, the mythic proportions their martyred hero attained in the shape of his life and his death at Carthage—and in the expected revenge by God upon the persecutors of the Prophet that their folk traditions immediately began to compile. But although most Mormons were remarkably content with “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” in 1857 a group of them took revenge into their own hands at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah, massacring an essentially innocent group of emigrants, whose main mistake may have been that they explicitly aroused tragic memories and emotions in their taunts about Joseph Smith. This massacre, where Mormons and Indians killed about 100 men and women and older children, is only now being faced and understood as a Mormon tragedy, one that must be connected in our moral imaginations to the Haun’s Mill massacre, where Mormon men and children were killed and women were raped. And we have yet to confront the extended tragedy in the life and execution of the main scapegoat—John D. Lee—who powerfully raises for us that central tragic paradox of obedience versus personal integrity. Levi Peterson has written a fine essay on the role of Juanita Brooks as a classical tragedian as well as historian in bringing us to face the tragedy, its unbearable pain and loss of innocence—and to achieve some benefit like that of tragic catharsis. He identifies especially Brooks’ help in providing a recovered and realistic sense of the heroism and endurance of the people, our spiritual ancestors, who experienced this agony, and he shows that, with the knowledge that comes from a testing of the paradoxes vicariously with them, we are able to forgive them and ourselves. We can recover, despite our grief, some measure of innocence, enough at least to endure in a tragic universe.37

In my view of tragedy as religious paradox, paradox that is inescapably rooted in the nature of things, catharsis is made available in tragic literature and history and personal experience by its power to help us accept, intelligently, courageously, such a universe and also to accept both our eternal individuality and our need to rely on our common humanity over against such tragic realities. There is available, not the reconciling that Blake warned against, but an ultimate healing of the tension between individual integrity and community obligations in an acceptance of both, especially in the form of covenants, where we freely, based on real experience, make binding promises to divine beings or each other that commit us absolutely to loyalty and ethical action.

[p.16] Comedy celebrates the human community, especially in the reality and symbol of that ultimate covenant, that ultimate testing of contraries, marriage—as we see in Shakespeare and in Blake, for instance. But so does tragedy, which deals most often with the binding, searing, freeing confrontations of the family—so does tragedy make that celebration of community, despite our having lost some direct sense of that with the loss of the explicitly religious roots of Greek tragedy and our dispensing with the chorus. Besides the values Levi Peterson outlines, those of recovered solidarity with our spiritual ancestors and with moral authority, it is possible, through tragic catharsis, to reach an acceptance of a universe of ultimate paradox and a celebration of the courage of individuals not only to endure but to test the paradoxes of such a universe—and an acceptance of such tragic questers within the human community that is implied by the presence of an audience. The pain of tragic suffering and loss, made necessary in tragic questing, is best coped with through recognition and expression in those forms of art which can effect what Peterson calls that “paradoxical alchemy whereby affirmation and relief arise from pain and despair.”38

Yes, Christian tragedy is possible; Mormon tragedy is possible—and exists, in fact with some uniquely powerful, though still largely potential, dimensions.39 Mormon theology, revealed through Joseph Smith, claims that the universe is essentially, as well as existentially, paradoxical–and therefore is irreducibly tragic. Thus Mormon tragedy will not be tragic, as P. A. Christensen claims traditional tragedy is, because of the failure of religion, but rather because of the success of religion. Mormon tragedy will reveal not only that false concepts of God and the universe fail man in his confrontation with reality and leave him desolate until he constructs new and better concepts, but it will also reveal the tragedy that comes for a human being—as it did for Joseph—because he has found the true God, become his prophet, and fulfilled his mission with fidelity. As St. Paul knew, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebews 10:31). And in a universe which requires the unimaginable suffering and death of that God himself in order to effect human reconciliation and atonement, perhaps the ultimate call to engage fully in the tragic quest—to be reconciled to its ultimate necessity—comes from that God, Jesus Christ, as he expressed it to Joseph Smith: “All these things shall give thee experience, and be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?”40


1. Quoted in Parley A. Christensen, “Tragedy as Religious Paradox,” Western Humanities Review 12 (Winter 1958): 46.

2. Christensen, p. 40.

3. Clifton H. Jolley, “The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith: An Archetypal Study,” Utah Historical Quarterly 44 (Autumn 1976): 329-350.

4. Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Discourse: A New Amalgamated Text,” edited by Stan Larson, Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Winter 1978): 203.

5. B. F. Cummings, The Eternal Individual Self (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing Co., 1968), pp. 7, 69, 70.

6. Cummings, p. 121.

7. “The King Follett Discourse,” p. 205.

8. Christensen, p. 47.

9. Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1965), p. 35.

10. Joseph Smith to Emma Hale Smith, 6 June 1832, published in BYU Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 517-23, and in A Believing People: The Literature of the Latter-day Saints, Richard H. Cracroft and Neal R. Lambert, eds. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), p. 107.

11. Joseph Smith Diary, 4 December 1832, Joseph Smith Collection, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

12. Joseph Smith Diary, 28 November and 1 December 1832.

13. James B. Allen, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 39-41.

14. Joseph Smith Diary, November 12, 1835.

15. The Words of Joseph, compiled and edited by Andrew P. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), p. 80; hereafter cited Words of Joseph.

16. Words of Joseph, p. 204 (14 May 1843).

17. Words of Joseph, p. 206.

18. Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B. H. Roberts, ed., 7 vols., 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1951), 3:295.

19. Words of Joseph, p. 196.

20. Words of Joseph, p. 158 (22 Jan. 1843).

21. Words of Joseph, pp. 217-218 (30 June 1843).

22. Words of Joseph, pp. 245-46.

23. Words of Joseph, p. 258.

24. Words of Joseph, p. 337.

25. “The King Follett Discourse,” p. 208.

26. History of the Church, 6:549.

27. History of the Church, 6:428.

28. History of the Church, 6:442.

29. Quoted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Authors Edition, Abrams, et al., eds. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975), p. 1323.

30. History of the Church, 3:290-91.

31. Words of Joseph, p. 417.

32. Words of Joseph, p. 418.

33. Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), p. 93.

34. Wilford Woodruff Diary, 21 January 1844, Wilford Woodruff Papers, LDS Church Archives.

35. Words of Joseph, p. 369.

36. Words of Joseph, pp. 378-82.

37. Levi Peterson, “Juanita Brooks: The Mormon Historian as Tragedian,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 47-54

38. Peterson, p. 54.

39. In literary forms we have drama of high tragic quality in Thomas Rogers’ collection, God’s Fools (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1983), see especially Huebener, and Robert Elliott, “Fires of the Mind,” Sunstone 1 (Winter 1975):23-93; flawed but impressive tragic novels in Maurine Whipple, The Giant Joshua (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1941; rpt. Salt Lake City: Western Epics: 1976) and Virginia Sorensen, The Evening and the Morning (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1949); skillful tragic short fiction in Douglas Thayer, Under the Cottonwoods (Provo: Frankson Books, 1977: rpt. Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1983) and Levi Peterson, The Canyons of Grace (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982); and tragic lyrical poems in Clinton Larson, The Lord of Experience (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1967) and The Western World (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1978), see especially “Homestead in Idaho,” “To a Dying Girl,” and “Jesse.”

40. History of the Church, 3:301; this passage, in a letter by Joseph Smith from Liberty Jail, appears also in the LDS (Utah) Doctrine and Covenants 122:7-8.