Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith
Robert D. Anderson
Descent into Hell
Analytic exploration very often demonstrates that their [narcissistic personalities’] haughty, grandiose, and controlling behavior is a defense against paranoid traits related to the projection of oral rage, which is central to their pathology. … Their [internal] interactions reflect very intense primitive … object relationships of a frightening kind.1
Samuel had prophesied and disappeared (5 B.C.E.); the signs of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem had brought the people to a temporary repentance; the Gadianton band had revived (1 33 C.E.); Nephi had resurrected his brother who had been stoned by a mob (31 C.E.); the landscape had been devastated and the people decimated at the crucifixion of Christ (34 C.E.); Jesus had come and gone; and the people had two centuries of peace and harmony. Then, as predicted, the inconstant Nephites slid again into evil, this time as part of a pattern that would not be permanently reversed and that would end in their extermination by the Lamanites. From my psychoanalytic perspective, this corruption represents Joseph Smith’s capitulation to the temptation to control people by illicit means and, to use a psychiatric expression, to allow his “false self” to take its final form. He will now elaborate on this drift and acknowledge, through the Nephite people, the triumph of unethical forces in his personality. He will also give us clues as to the origin of these forces.
Those who have spent their lives studying the narcissistic personality believe that its psychological origin begins at birth and partly, or largely, occurs with repeated frustrations too big for the child to handle. The child responds with “oral rage”—screaming, crying, and whining; and its expression through the years may be in temper outbursts, unrestrained attacks on things and people, and explosive verbal outbursts that are without purpose or specific goals, but that unnerve witnesses. In the developing narcissistic personality, oral rage provides no rewards and gives way, early in life—in the first two years, it is believed—to compensatory mental processes that focus the child intensely on an internal world of wonderful and powerful satisfaction. The mental experiences of the child contain raging and destructive images but provide magical means by which the child conquers opposition. As the years pass, these mental experiences may take on certain specific qualities: particular fantasies may become stories of magic, killings, dangers, and conquests but always with the main theme that the child, in fantasy, defeats enemies and overcomes obstacles. As the developing narcissistic boy enters the Oedipal stage, he uses these early methods to struggle with his attraction for his mother, fear of retaliation from his father, and fears of bodily injury—various forms of symbolic castration. What sets these children apart is the massive use of primitive rageful, vengeful fantasies in trying to solve the conflict, but it is believed that the central level of emotional development remains at the pre Oedipal period, despite superficial appearances of social abilities.
My discussion of the book of Ether is unquestionably the most speculative in this volume, for it attempts to understand the thinking, emotions, and images of a preverbal child, represented by stories that come from the interface of oral legends and the first writings of these legends. The early stories from Babylon and Mesopotamia, the Homeric stories, and Icelandic sagas all contain primitive magic and heroes of gigantic proportions. The beginning chapters of the Bible, many believe, fit into this category. In the Book of Mormon, the book of Ether, like the ending of the Nephite civilization, descends first into a world of magic, then into a hell of sheer hatred.
I have already quoted psychoanalyst Phyllis Greenacre’s assessment of artists, including prophets:
In using the term artist I designate the creative individual … whose work product shows … unusual capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention or discovery [and] would … include those prophets, religious leaders and scientists whose philosophies and discoveries have influenced the course of their times and left an imprint on history.
After reading a great many accounts of artists, I was struck with the prominence of the family romance in their lives. The germ of the family romance is ubiquitous [universal] in the hankering of growing children for a return to the real or fancied conditions at or before the dawn of conscious memory when adults were Olympians.2
If my speculation about Ether is correct, then it will be even more miraculous than the rest of the Book of Mormon, even more revealing of early childhood fantasies. No one has said that these fantasies must be pleasant; they may be gigantic in terror as well as size.
The final three books—Mormon, Ether, and Moroni—present a puzzle. Mormon, born around 311 C.E., tells the destruction of his people. His son, Moroni, tells of Mormon’s death and the final remnants of the Nephites. Smith disrupts this obvious progress from one generation to the next by inserting Ether between them. Thus Ether is anomalous in placement as well as subject. It provides a synoptic, abbreviated history of the Jaredites, who immigrated to the New World in about 2500 B.C.E.—approximately 1,900 years before Lehi left Jerusalem. The Jaredites had just barely wiped each other out in civil strife when the Nephites arrived in the new world.
Chronologically this book should commence the Book of Mormon or perhaps become an appendix to the main story. But its placement is so chronologically inconsistent that, from a psychoanalytic perspective, it signals an opportunity to view the deeper logic of Smith’s unconscious. I argue that Smith placed Ether between Mormon and Moroni because it fits his personal chronology. In previous stories he has taken us right up to the point where he is dictating the book. With Ether, he comes as close as he can to telling us about the dictation period that he has just completed.
The Small Book of Mormon
The text of the book of Mormon brings the story to the eve of Nephite destruction. Mormon, the son of Mormon, is yet another surrogate for Smith. His name (another Jr.) is the first signal, but the narrative also presents a thinly veiled version of Mormon’s/Smith’s childhood. Mormon is ten or eleven, about young Joseph’s age when he followed his father south from New England toward Palmyra, New York.
I began to be learned somewhat after the manner of the learning of my people [when] Ammaron saith unto me, I perceive that thou art a sober child, and art quick to observe; therefore when ye are about twenty and four years old … go to the land of Antum, unto a hill, which shall be called Shim, and there I have deposited unto the Lord, all the sacred engravings concerning this people. … And I … remembered the things which Ammaron had commanded me. … And … I, being eleven years old, was carried by my father into the land southward, even to the land of Zarahemla … (BM 518 19; Morm. 1:1 7)
Smith would also be nearly twenty four years old when he “discovered” the record in the hill and wrote from it the history of his “people,” his own autobiography.
Mormon continues: “And I being fifteen years of age and being somewhat of a sober mind, therefore I was visited of the Lord, and tasted and knew of the goodness of Jesus” (BM 519; Morm. 1:15). This description of Mormon’s experience, revealing the mental world of Joseph Smith, is the very first version, still in embryonic and undifferentiated form, of the future first vision story. At fifteen, Mormon because of his physical and spiritual prowess became general of the armies—which I read as another statement of Smith’s compensatory drive toward power and accomplishment. God forbade Mormon to preach because of the iniquity of the people:
Because of the hardness of their hearts, the land was cursed for their sake. And these Gadianton robbers, which were among the Lamanites, did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again. And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics: and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land. (BM 519 20; Morm. 1:7 19)
This passage calls up echoes of anti Masonry and Smith’s experience with magic and money digging. The narrative returns later to this same theme: “For behold no man could keep that which was his own, for the thieves and the robbers, and the murders, and the magic art, and the witchcraft which was in the land” (BM 521; Morm. 2:1 10). These complaints against magic are curious: Smith, a magician and the son of a magician, condemns magic and sorcery as evidence of extreme evil in a story dictated by means of his magic seer stone and with the help of Oliver Cowdery, a divining rod magician and son of another magician rodsman. Yet the text reveals no observable discomfort with this moral contradiction—typical of the psychological defense of splitting used by narcissistic personalities.
“Blood and carnage” rule, and “it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land.” Years wear away in battle: 42,000 soldiers versus 44,000; 30,000 versus 50,000. Cities are taken, lost, and retaken. Thousands die. Mormon and his Lamanite counterpart agree on a migration in preparation for the final battles. Women and children are sacrificed to idols. The people lament, mourn and sorrow, but “not unto repentance. … but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned. … and the day of grace was past with them” (BM 521; Morm. 2:11 14). These sentences signal that Smith’s internal warfare is not moving toward any kind of integration or reconciliation.
Because certain motifs have been so obsessively repeated and reworked, it is possible to catch glimpses—albeit increasingly uncertain ones because of their brevity—of other events in the pages of Mormon’s story. For example, at one point Mormon “did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people, because of their wickedness and abomination” (BM 523; Morm. 3:11). Is this withdrawal connected to Smith’s seven month withdrawal from supernatural claims after Martin Harris lost the 116 pages of manuscript? The glimpse is suggestive but not conclusive. The Lamanites consistently advance against the Nephites, who persist in their wickedness:
And it is impossible to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of the blood and carnage, both of the Nephites and the Lamanites; and every heart was hardened so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually. And there never had been so great wickedness among all the children of Lehi; nor even among all the house of Israel, according to … the Lord, as was among this people. (BM 525; Morm. 4:10 12)
To a psychiatrist, this passage communicates that Smith’s internal morality and personal ethics, battered by fury ever since the death of his son, are giving way, as represented by the Nephite capitulation to evil and their inability to withstand the Lamanites: “And from this time forth did the Nephites gain no power over the Lamanites, but began to be swept off by them even as a dew before the sun” (BM 526; Morm. 4:18). Finally Mormon returns to the battles, paralleling Smith’s return to his claims of supernatural power after the seven month hiatus. “But behold, I was without hopes, for I knew the judgements of the Lord which should come upon them: for they repented not of their iniquities, but did struggle for their lives, without calling upon that Being who had created them” (BM 526; Morm. 4:23, 5:2). Reading from the Book of Mormon back into Joseph’s life, does this statement of Mormon’s hopelessness reflect Joseph’s abandonment of all hope to seek a decent ordinary life, as Isaac Hale had encouraged him to do? His comments to Peter Ingersoll, as they returned to Palmyra/Manchester, are a confession that he felt vulnerable to pressure from his family to return to magic.
The book of Mormon draws to an end as Mormon, now seventy four years old, waits for death. He has gathered together the stacks of gold records, abridged them, and hidden them in the hill Cumorah after experiences so terrible that he censors his report so that we, the modern readers, will not have “too great sorrow” (BM 529; Morm. 5:9). The opposing forces agree that the final battle will be at the hill Cumorah. In a place Mormon describes as beautiful, he watches as the Lamanites approach:
And it came to pass that my people, with their wives and their children, did now behold the armies of the Lamanites marching toward them; and with that awful fear of death which fills the breasts of all the wicked, did they await to receive them. … And it came to pass that they did fall upon my people with the sword, and with the bow, and with the arrow, and with the ax, and with all manner of weapons of war. (BM 529; Morm. 6:9)
Mormon is wounded and left for dead. His 10,000 men are massacred, as are 10,000 men under each of twenty two others, each with uncounted wives and children. Only twenty four Nephites remain, including Mormon and his son, Moroni. They mourn: “O ye fair ones, how could ye have departed from the ways of the Lord! [and] rejected that Jesus. … But behold, ye are gone” (BM 529 30; Morm. 6:7, 16 18).
Then Mormon and the others are killed, leaving only Moroni. Moroni writes the final message in the warning style of a revivalist preacher to the future readers:
Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing … and there are none, save a few only, which do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envyings, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted. … For behold, ye do love money, and your substances, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and needy, the sick and afflicted. (BM 531 538; Morm. 8, 9)
These words and the story flow by in a torrential stream; the fluidity is striking. Smith is truly caught up in his images. The Book of Mormon is not a book of love, but of terror, hatred, and destruction. Until historical evidence is presented for the Nephite Lamanite civilizations, these terrible stories can possibly best be seen as reflecting Joseph’s emotions and mental images—filled with violence and hatred—dating from the developmental period when the basic units of his personality were being laid down. The fiction that Moroni is speaking to future readers allows Smith to excoriate, in envy and rage, those who have caused the personal humiliations and difficulties which have been disguised and replayed again and again within the Book of Mormon. With Mormon’s death, the narrative seems complete. The Nephite people have fought against dark forces from the beginning of their civilizations, the trajectory of their conflict representing the course of Smith’s internal struggles. In psychological terms, he has waged—and lost—his battle for decent civilized behavior.
With Mormon’s death, the preliminary and preparatory Joseph Smith dies. He is almost ready to be a prophet to his church. But he has not yet expressed and exorcised his hatred. Ether repeats and expands this theme.
The Book of Ether
Ether begins in or near ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia, around 2500 B.C.E. In the days of Noah, God saw the scope of human wickedness and “repented … that he had made man on the earth,” because “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 9:13 18). He destroyed all humankind except for one family by the flood, then repentantly established the rainbow as a promise that he would never again commit such widescale slaughter. Lacking trust in God’s benevolence, the people of Babel built a tower of fired brick “whose top may reach unto heaven. … And the Lord came down to see … the tower … and … said … the people is one, and they have all one language … and now nothing will be restrained from them” (Gen. 9 11). God, fearful of competition from his socially cooperative children, confounded the language and scattered the people.
Ether begins when Jared asks his extraordinarily righteous brother, referred to only as “the brother of Jared,” to save their family and friends by pleading with God not to confound their language but rather to lead them away from this evil place. The Lord answers the brother of Jared’s prayer, and they set forth on a journey that will take them to the Americas “where there never had man been” (BM 541; Ether 2:5). This context explains the first of Smith’s three reasons for writing Ether: it is a second explanation for the origin of the Native Americans, second in popularity only to the belief that they descended from the lost ten tribes of Israel.3 With this story, Smith has covered both theories.
The second reason Smith dictates the book of Ether is both to tell us and to avoid telling us that he has dictated the Book of Mormon to this point. The Book of Mormon has concealed and revealed similar secrets before now, such as his conjectured humiliation about his stillborn malformed son. The secrets tell themselves by fantasies that parallel the reality, by words and phrases with double meanings, by “Freudian slips,” similarities of names and beginning letters of names, and by errors. Perhaps Smith would have been less revealing if he had written down the story and revised it repeatedly, but he is dictating rapidly to others in a fashion close to the free association so revealing in psychotherapy. At this point he makes two technical errors, both worth noting, for while Smith was naive about American archaeology, he was remarkably consistent in his book.
I conjecture that he is trying to tell us/not tell us about how he made the Book of Mormon, including the angel, gold book story, the miraculous translating seer stones, and the period of dictation which included Oliver Cowdery and the contributions of Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews. B. H. Roberts suspected a connection between “Ether” and “Ethan,” but was even more struck by the route traveled by Ethan Smith’s emigrants and by the Jaredites. In both, Roberts wrote,
the motive for their journey [is] the same; the direction of the journey in both cases being northward; both peoples entering a valley at the commencement of their journey; both of them encountering many bodies of water in their journey; the journey in both cases being an immense one; and to a land in one case “Where never a man dwelt” ([Ethan] Smith’s book); and in the other case, “into a quarter where there never had man been” (Ether 2:5). Where such striking parallels as these obtain, it is not unreasonable to hold that where one account precedes the other, and if the one constructing the later account has had the opportunity of contact with the first account, then it is not impossible that the first account could have suggested the second; and if the points of resemblance and possible suggestion are frequent and striking then it would have to be conceded that the first might even have supplied the ground plan for the second.
Also let it be borne in mind, that the facts and the arguments employed here are cumulative and progressive, and that we have not yet reached the end of our story.4
In addition to the Ethan/Ether parallels, Joseph Smith is dealing with the whole period of development of the Book of Mormon itself. To see the bigger picture, we connect the Jaredites to the Nephite story. Smith found his book with the help of an angel and/or seer stone; the Nephites found the book of Ether by divine accident. The Nephite discovery of the book of Ether occurs in two parts, beginning about 200 B.C.E.
Mosiah I, warned by God, abandons the land of Nephi to the Lamanites and leads his people into the wilderness to the north. Unexpectedly, they came upon the city of Zarahemla, whose inhabitants, the Mulekites, left Jerusalem in a separate migration, about ten years after Lehi and Nephi. They were Jews (Lehi was a descendant of Joseph through Manesseh), but had failed to bring their holy scriptures with them. As a result, they had deteriorated into near savages, their language had been corrupted and they had become atheistic. Mosiah taught them language and Bible stories, became their king, “saved them,” and merged the two peoples under the name of Nephites. The Mulekites thus disappear after a few verses, but they are the connecting link to the Jaredite civilization. The Mulekites brought “a large stone” to King Mosiah “with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God” (BM 150; Omni 20 21).5
From this stone, Mosiah learns that the Nephites and the Mulekites are the second and third migrations to the New World. They had been preceded by the Jaredites. The narrative does not describe how Mosiah I supernaturally translates the large carved stone; specifically there is no mention of the two glass “interpreters” later attached to a breastplate, or even a seer stone. But with God’s help, Mosiah translated it, for the record includes a summary: “[The stone] gave an account of [a last king of a previous civilization,] one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them nine moons. It also spoke a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language …” (BM 149 50; Omni 15 22). We are not told how long the Mulekites had kept the stone or how long they had known about Coriantumr. It could have been a few years or as long as four centuries. Nevertheless, Coriantumr is established as the survivor from this earliest migration.
Here we can begin to see the parallels between the book of Ether and the Book of Mormon. An ancient record of a long dead civilization, it is translated by mysterious means through a man from a much later period. The last survivor of this extinct civilization is responsible for passing on part of the history.
The second part of the discovery is recorded in the book of Ether and is related in the complex flashback of Zeniff, who received Mosiah I’s permission to take a settlement party back to the land of Nephi, even though it was now in the possession of Lamanites. His grandson, Limhi, vassal king to the Lamanites, secretly sent out search parties, trying to find a way back to Zarahemla. One of these parties, lost in the wilderness, came across “a land which was covered with dry bones; yea, a land which had been peopled and destroyed” (BM 200; Mosiah 21:25 28). They erroneously believed that they had discovered the ruins of Zarahemla and despondently returned to semi bondage, bringing with them their finds: a book of twenty four gold plates, rusty swords, and breastplates. Two generations later Ammon, heading a Zarahemla search party with the permission of Mosiah II, the son of Benjamin and the grandson of Mosiah I, finds Limhi’s people. Limhi asks: “Canst thou translate [these gold records]? … Knowest thou of anyone that can translate?” (BM 172; Mosiah 8:11 12). Ammon answered:
I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And these things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded … lest … he should perish … and whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer. … And Ammon said that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God. … But a seer can know of things past … and … to come … and … secret … and hidden things. … Thus God had provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore, he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings. (BM 173; Mosiah 8:12 18)
… And now Limhi was again filled with joy on learning from the mouth of Ammon that King Benjamin had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings. (BM 173, 200; Mosiah 8:12 18, 21:28)
The first error is a slip in the chronology. King Benjamin had died soon after turning the kingdom over to his son, Mosiah II, who authorized Ammon’s expedition (BM 168; Mosiah 6:3 7; 7:1). Moroni also refers to Benjamin as the translator of the book of Ether (BM 546; Ether 4:1), wording which appears in the printer’s manuscript copy of the text. In the second edition of the Book of Mormon (1837), Smith changed the name of the translating king to Benjamin’s son, Mosiah II.6
The second error is a mistake in geography. Mosiah has not specified the means of translation, and there is nothing in his account that would preclude the use of the (plural) items that Ammon describes. However, these “interpreters” had not been found with the engraved stone of the Mulekites but with the twenty four gold plates (the book of Ether) found by Limhi’s people. The interpreters originated in a miracle documented by the twenty four gold plates themselves. When Jared’s family reaches the ocean, God commands the brother of Jared to build eight submarine like barges, built “tight” and without windows. To light them, the brother of Jared melts sixteen glass stones from a mountain and, at his prayer, God touches them to make them luminous. God praises the brother of Jared’s faith, then says: “These two [extra] stones will I give unto thee, and ye shall seal them up also with the things ye shall write. For behold, the language which ye shall write I have confounded; wherefore I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write.” Moroni records that he has obediently kept these interpreters sealed up with the record of the Jaredites (BM 545 6; Ether 3:23 4:5). Thus King Benjamin (or Mosiah) is supposedly capable of translating because he has the “interpreters” back in Zarahemla. But this claim of possession occurs before the storyline permits it, for God had commanded that the “interpreters” remain with the twenty four gold plates, which had never been in Zarahemla, and were at the moment in the land of Nephi with Ammon and Limhi. Besides “interpreters,” Joseph Smith had a stone in a hat, but we are not told what means Benjamin or Mosiah used in the translation.
Although there is no evidence to support my conjecture, I hypothesize that both errors occurred because Smith had just reconstructed the first part of the Book of Mormon in 1 2 Nephi, to replace the lost 116 pages. Too much time had passed, and connecting 1 2 Nephi with the last three fourths of the book, dictating rapidly, was too complex a task for his memory.
In either case, Smith is describing himself with his “seer stones” attached to a breastplate. In Ammon’s description of the seer is the language Smith would soon formalize when he became president of the church—its “prophet, seer, and revelator.” This story emphasizes the importance of the “interpreters” he received from the angel; but it also creates an extraordinarily complex story. He is conflating the story within the Book of Mormon with his personal story of discovery and translation which began with two stones attached to a breastplate. Yet the angel confiscated the translators as punishment when Smith lost the 116 pages, leaving Smith to translate without the “interpreters” that had, according to the narrative, been prepared and preserved for that purpose.
Whatever else these complexities and mistakes signify, the very fact of expending such prodigious narrative energy to set up the story about discovering and translating the twenty four gold plates underscores the parallels between Ether and the larger Book of Mormon which contains it. This explanation begins to account for Ether’s distinctive complexities. The book is only thirty five pages long (6 percent of the entire text), yet it is a condensed or miniaturized version of the whole Book of Mormon. I suggest that Smith put the book at the end of his story because that is where the Book of Mormon belongs in his personal chronology. Considering Ether as a fantasized version of the Book of Mormon itself also provides a useful context for understanding the complicated and sometimes contradictory stories suggested for its origins.
The Book of Mormon, as I hope I have demonstrated, is an expanded version of Joseph Smith’s life. Ether is a more extreme fantasy version of the Book of Mormon. Everything in the story is more extreme: the wars, miracles, evil intrigue, and ultimate destruction. This two step removal from Smith’s life story also means that it is very disguised. But once we understand its relation to the larger Book of Mormon, we can use the Nephite stories to decode Ether. Smith, I would argue, is developing his own creative abilities—becoming a prophet whose creations are increasingly removed from their original source.
Here are a few of the similarities between Smith’s life and his Book of Mormon alter egos, then paralleled again to the book of Ether alter egos:
1. The book of Ether is named after the final prophet who, like Mormon, observes and records the final wars of his civilization.
2. Joseph Smith was large. Nephi describes himself as “a man large in stature” (BM 13; 1 Ne. 4:20 38), and the brother of Jared is “a large and mighty man” (BM 539; Ether 1:34).
3. God tells the brother of Jared that he will be directed to a “land choice above all the lands of the earth”; <%4>G<%0>od had told Nephi that “ye … shall be led to a land choice above all other lands” (BM 540; Ether 1:42; and BM 9; 1 Ne. 2:20). The Smith family travels to New York in hopes of abundant grain harvests.
4. The brother of Jared is commanded to gather all animals and species; they camp in the wilderness for four years. Lehi’s family wanders in the wilderness and provisions their ship. The Smith family experiences economic privation until they reach New York.
5. The eight Jaredite barges may suggest the eight Smith children traveling from Vermont to New York.
6. The luminous stones of the brother of Jared are reminiscent of Smith’s peepstone.
7. The brother of Jared sees God’s finger when he touches the stones and, because of his faith, God (who introduces himself as the pre mortal Jesus) shows himself to this prophet. Smith will later claim to see Jesus Christ and God the Father.7
8. The watery trip of Lehi and Nephi had taken “many days.” The Jaredite voyage took 344 days. The painful trip from Vermont to New York must have seemed very long to a lame child.
9. The Jaredite group, like Lehi’s family, includes a father and four sons; this fact is mentioned twice within seven sentences. The Smith family has a similar configuration.
In addition to these parallels, there are differences, the most important being the condensation of the Jaredite story. Ether covers twenty nine generations in thirty five pages, using many of the same motifs as the Nephite story. The destructiveness is more terrible. The people divide into two genocidal factions, but both groups are equally filled with hate and equally unrepentant. Episodes of righteousness, whether individual or collective, are sparse. In the Nephite Lamanite story, the Nephites intermittently repent and struggle (though unsuccessfully) against evil. Other motifs are familiar: a famine, a secret criminal society, assassinations, knifings, intrigue, and wars. Even in abbreviated form, King Noah and the Jaredite king Riplakish share twelve similarities.8 Both civilizations end in a gigantic battle at the hill Cumorah, called Ramah in this earlier period.
In the later Nephite battle, 240,000 soldiers die on one side, but a significant portion of the Lamanites survives. The Jaredites spend over four years in preparation for the final battle, and over 2 million soldiers die on one side alone. (In comparison, more American lives were lost in the Civil War than any other war: 25,000 soldiers were killed at Antietam in one day and 620,000 had died by the war’s end. Mormon apostle Orson Pratt estimated the Jaredite civilization at 10 15 million.9) Nightly the soldiers retire to their camps, wailing their grief, sleeping on their swords so they will not magically disappear, and returning to battle the next day. Women and children are massacred. The people are “drunken with anger, even as a man which is drunken with wine” (BM 572; Ether 15:22). This is the final image of wine and swords in the Book of Mormon and signals yet another battle between Smith and his surgeon.
This time no one escapes. The numbers dwindle daily: fifty two versus sixty nine, thirty two versus twenty nine. Then all faint from loss of blood, revive, and fight again. Finally only two remain:
And it came to pass that when they had all fallen by the sword; save it were Coriantumr and Shiz, behold Shiz had fainted with loss of blood. And it came to pass that when Coriantumr had leaned upon his sword, that he rested a little, he smote off the head of Shiz. And it came to pass that after he had smote off the head of Shiz, that Shiz raised upon his hands and fell; and after that he had struggled for breath, he died. (BM 573; Ether 15:29 31)
As a psychiatrist, I hypothesize that, in Smith’s mind, sheer hatred was magic enough to make Shiz’s corpse move after decapitation. In these terrible pages, Coriantumr is wounded in the thigh, arm, and other places. He faints three times from loss of blood. It is hard to imagine a more extreme version of the bloody surgery.
The hermit prophet Ether witnessed this debacle and recorded the story, including Coriantumr’s survival. What happened to Ether is unknown, but Coriantumr lived “nine moons” with the Mulekites. During this period the carved stone was discovered, then the twenty four gold plates, probably with the luminous interpreters, as God had commanded. I think most dynamic psychiatrists and psychoanalysts will appreciate that Shiz and Coriantumr are the final regressed versions of the two antagonists who began the Book of Mormon, Nephi and Laban, and, hence, of Joseph Smith and his surgeon.
The third way to account for the Ether narrative is as a final terrible descent into Smith’s psychological conflicts. Sometimes in treating a patient who initially appears to have personality strengths and the capacity to care for others, the therapist may realize that this façade covers deep conflicts and very incomplete development. A successful outcome is unlikely, and the prospect of continuing will be exhausting. That is the feeling I had in reading Ether as a description of Smith’s psychological state. Here are some disturbing aspects:
1. The book was found amid destruction, skeletons, and ruins. Limhi preserves but cannot read it. In psychological terms, these people (like the Mulekites with the carved rock) have information in their unconscious which they cannot tap. Since a large part of the Book of Mormon already reflects part of Smith’s unconscious mind, these symbols suggest that we are dealing with the deepest layers in his unconscious.
2. Ether comes from the dawn of human history. The legends and myths about this period tell stories about humankind’s earliest consciousness of itself. That is why the story of Adam and Eve remains such a fixed part of our culture, symbolically repeating our early childhood experiences. Here is nudity without embarrassment, a world where everything is provided, a search for knowledge, dawning sexual awareness and the need for clothes, the sexual symbol of a snake, the loss of childlike innocence, a child’s discovery that his thinking is separate from the parent’s and that he can keep secrets, and then the obligation to work in the real world after leaving the protection of home. Even more specifically, this is a story about verbal development. Symbolically speaking, Smith has used the Tower of Babel to represent the time when he was developing language out of the confusing noises made by surrounding adults—his “time of babbling.” Smith is placing this story then under the sign of his very earliest development, perhaps as early as toddlerhood.
This admittedly speculative interpretation receives support from the intense and extreme fantasies. In the Genesis stories, men lived hundreds of years. The flood destroyed humankind, although an ark preserved one family and all of the animals. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. “The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. … There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown” (Gen. 6: 1 6). From a psychiatric perspective, this tale emphasizes the size disparity between adults and children and implies that only grown ups can have sex. Nimrod, the “mighty hunter before the Lord” (Gen. 10:8 10), is the traditional founder of Nineveh.
This aura of biblical magic extends into Ether. In Helaman it had seemed extreme when God had promised Nephi that he could move mountains if he wanted to. In Ether “the brother of Jared said unto the mountain Zerin, Remove—and it was removed” (BM 565; Ether 12:30). There are no unicorns and dragons in Ether’s fantasy world, but there are “cureloms and cumons; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and the cureloms and cumons” (BM 556; Ether 9:19). We are dealing with the most regressed, the most fantastic book in the Book of Mormon. This book tells us of Smith’s most basic units of personality.
3. The difference between this story and the later, less regressed, Nephite Lamanite story is the relative absence of any struggle against evil. The Jaredites are evil, filled with hatred, without redeeming qualities. And that is the final message from the book of Ether. At the deepest layers of Smith’s personality and from the earliest time of his existence, he lacked the resources for a fully constructive life. It is his followers’ exemplary lives that counterbalance his miraculous story and make it believable. In my professional judgement, their lives are the sole “objective” evidence for the validity of the Book of Mormon.
The subtext of the Mulekite story confirms this desolate view. Without the five books of Moses, they had lost their literacy, religion, and civilization, suggesting Smith’s bare escape from, and alternative to, the raw violence of savagery. Smith held on to the brass plates of Laban and the genealogy of his fathers, and (most importantly) the scriptures of his own time as the final tools to keep him from violence. They did not save him, for deceit, manipulation, and coercion were more effective than raw violence in injuring his people.
I am profoundly aware of how offensive this interpretation may be to devout Mormons. This very dark view of Joseph Smith’s early infancy and childhood is admittedly extreme speculation, and there is no historical documentation of such emotional deprivation from his mother’s history that would justify such furious hatred in the story. (Reports of the family’s economic and social inferiority and dysfunction do come from later outside antagonistic testimonies which are rejected by devout Mormonism.) But with our present state of naturalistic (psychological) knowledge, this reading from the Book of Mormon back into Joseph’s life may be the closest we can get to what happened.
The Book of Moroni
But the Book of Mormon does not end on this bleak note. Smith’s past has been told completely, ending with the deaths of two civilizations. His final surrogate is Moroni, a new and future prophet. He speaks directly and authoritatively to Smith’s contemporaries:
Now I, Moroni, after having made an end of abridging the account of the people of Jared, I had supposed not to have written more, but I have not as yet perished; and I make not myself known to the Lamanites, lest they should destroy me. For behold, the wars are exceeding fierce among themselves; and because of their hatred, they put to death every Nephite who will not deny the Christ. … Wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can, for the safety of mine own life. Wherefore, I write a few more things … (BM 574; Moro. 1:1 4)
In these verses Smith confirms that his internal warfare will continue and he will go into hiding. We are reminded of the first Nephi who put on the disguise of Laban. Fifteen years later at the end of his last great teaching sermon, Smith will confirm that he keeps his secrets well: “You don’t know me—you never will[.] I don’t blame you for not believing my history[. H]ad I not experienced it [I] could not believe it myself.”10
In the message from Moroni, we see Smith turning his attention toward the church he will soon found. The first five brief chapters contain basic rituals of baptism and the sacrament that are still part of Mormon practice. These final chapters also include sermons, ostensibly from Moroni’s father Mormon. A language of faith, hope, and charity (quoting and elaborating on Paul’s famous verses to the Corinthians) contrasts sharply with the language of death and destruction which had become familiar in the narrative during the downfall of the Nephites and Jaredites. It is as though the narrative wants to erase the memory of that world of evil and hate. It is a conundrum that Smith erects a message of goodness on top of coercion, deceit, destruction, and hatred. I, no doubt like many readers, see the goodness as superficial. Mormon preaches that good is discernible and powerful:
The way to judge is as plain, that ye may know with a perfect knowledge, as the day light is from the dark night— For behold, the spirit of Christ is given to every man, that ye may know good from evil … for everything which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; Wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. (BM 578; Moro. 7:15 16)
A sense that such hopeful religious language is implicated in another effort at compensation and reversal is only underscored by the specific content of Mormon’s teachings. I hear another attempt from Smith to work through the trauma and possible grief at the death of his malformed son: “Little children cannot repent; wherefore it is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto them, for they are all alive in him because of his mercy. And he that saith that little children need baptism … are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly, God hath commanded me” (BM 582; Moro. 8). By God’s decree, Smith has found another resolution and compensation for his loss and despair. Thus, though the language is further and further removed from any direct connection to Smith’s life story, the language of the prophet is still articulated through the concerns and burdens of that life story.
This hopeful, forward looking image is followed by the last letter Moroni had received from Mormon before his death. In it Smith directly expresses the oral rage of a child raised in deprivation, deception, and trauma:
And the husbands and fathers of those women and children they have slain; and they feed the women upon the flesh of their husbands, and the children upon the flesh of their fathers; and no water, save a little do they give unto them. And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people in Moriantum. For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue;11 and after that they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after that they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery. (BM 584; Moro. 9:8 10)
The images here are the most extreme in the Book of Mormon. As I read this passage, I hear oral rage behind narcissism, mixed with the fever, thirst, and torture of childhood surgery. It is as though, even as his “grandiose self” forms into a prophet and church president, the dangerous underside of his psychological world erupts to the surface one final time.
And finally the concluding image of Moroni is troubling. For over two decades Moroni will wander alone over the American continent, hiding so he will not be killed, separated and alienated from humankind. Moroni’s final words are again addressed to Smith’s contemporaries: “And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen” (BM 588; Moro. 10).
The time is 421 C.E. It is this Moroni who “returned” to earth in 1823 as the angel telling Smith where he had buried the gold plates. It is fitting that there is confusion in the original manuscripts whether Nephi, the first prophet/alter ego for Smith, or Moroni, the last one, made this return. The first one put on a disguise, the last one remained in hiding.
1. Otto Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New York: Jason Aronson, 1975), 17. Oral rage is unrefined, global, all encompassing anger of a primitive kind, frequently containing images of raw violence. If consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed, it may reappear in a variety of forms in interactions with other people, from direct explosive violence to more subtle ongoing psychological attacks.
5. Smith was dictating this story of the carved stone in 1829. In 1799 Napoleon had discovered the Rosetta Stone at the mouth of the Nile, and Champollion deciphered the code that made it possible to translate Egyptian in 1824. The news was reported in U.S. newspapers by 1825.
6. Sidney B. Sperry, Problems of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), 203, believed this slip was a result of “human error” and blames it on Mormon. Almost 4,000 changes have been made in the Book of Mormon since it was first published, most of them grammatical. See Jerald and Sandra Tanner, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, 1965).
7. I think William D. Morain in Joseph Smith and the Dissociated Mind (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1998) 129 66, contributes toward understanding the various layers in the Book of Mormon by his suggestion that the book of Ether may have been dictated by Smith as a memorial to his dead brother, Alvin (the “brother of Jared”). However, if my interpretation that the book of Ether is an expanded version of the whole Book of Mormon, angel story, and dictation period, I think that we may also have observed the major step toward his “first vision” story of the visit of God and Jesus. The angel with magic spectacles at the start of the Book of Mormon creation period has been expanded into the pre mortal Jesus, providing “interpreters” with which Joseph Smith could translate ancient records. From here, the story is divided into two parts: the angel with the breastplate and stone spectacles (“interpreters”), and the visitation of God and Jesus.