The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor

Chapter 4
The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith
Jan Shipps

[p.53] Joseph Smith was one of a proliferation of preachers and prophets who found God along the stony ridges and narrow lakes of western New York in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was a place and a time of intense interest in religion: pathways to paradise ran in all directions. Prospective pilgrims had a choice, and many a wanderer journeyed a little way down first one path and then another, testing alternate routes to heaven. The story of the strange systems and unusual faiths that resulted is essentially a record of unsuccessful experiments with religion. Some survived for a season, but most disappeared at the death of their leaders—if they lasted that long. Of all the unorthodox theological systems introduced in the New York hinterland between 1800 and 1850, the only one that has become an important American religion is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Mormon church found scant support in New York state, however. Within a year after the formal organization of the church, the Mormons started their celebrated westward hegira by moving to Ohio. Because the phenomenal growth of the organization began [p. 54] after this initial move from New York state, the successful development of the church has generally been predicated on evidence found in the subsequent history of Mormonism. Although tendentious histories—whether pro or con—almost invariably begin with the events that preceded the founding of the church in 1830, for a long time the objective (i.e., critical as opposed to traditional) historiography of Mormonism was largely made up of studies which explained how Mormons built the Kingdom of the Saints following the removal of that realm from western New York.

In the mid-1960s the “Case of the Missing Information about Mormon Origins,” as Truman G. Madsen, of Brigham Young University’s religion department, once styled the problem posed by the paucity of information on the New England-New York background, was reopened. BYU history professor James B. Allen’s article on “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s `First Vision’ in Mormon Thought” was published in 1966, and the following year an intensive reexamination of Mormon beginnings was spurred headlong by the challenge to the integrity of Joseph Smith represented in the outcome of the Reverend Wesley P. Walters’s investigation of the religious situation in and around Palmyra, New York, in the 1820s.1 So much research has been carried out since then that a steady stream of articles, essays, and books on the early period in Mormon history is pouring forth.2

While some of these new works are little more than arguments about the validity of Philastus Hurlbut’s interviewing techniques when gathering material for Mormonism Unvailed (sic), much of it is interesting—and significant. Richard L. Bushman’s description of what one can learn from a close reading of the rhetoric of the Book of Mormon, for example, was not only intrinsically useful but methodologically important. Mario S. De Pillis also made a methodological contribution with his analysis of dream accounts while adding to our understanding of the initial appeal of Mormonism.3 At a less theoretical level, Dean Jessee’s work with holograph writings has provided precise information about who wrote what when and, at the same time, demonstrated the procedures employed in the original production of such basic works as the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s history.4

Nevertheless, complacency is not in order. It is true that many major points have been clarified and many minor issues settled, but there are still loose ends not neatly tied up between the covers [p. 55] of various professional and general interest magazines and journals; inconsistencies still exist that must be resolved before the case can be considered closed. In the meantime all that can be said is that while a great deal is known about the methods used in building up this extraordinary religious society, its creation is still surrounded by mystery.

Throughout the nineteenth century, when the Mormon church was regarded as a threat to the social and political fabric of the nation, those who wrote about it were less concerned with the mysterious nature of Mormon origins than with their perceptions of present dangers. For a long time the mystery connected with Mormonism appeared to be corporate—and criminal—and its solution, therefore, was seen less as a matter of understanding Mormon origins and theological beliefs than discovering the secrets of the temple and penetrating the plottings of the “sinister” hierarchy.5 When polygamy and the political kingdom were shorn away, the mystery for a time seemed to dissipate. Emphasis on the radical and revolutionary elements in Mormonism diminished, and the Saints seemed destined to fade unobtrusively into the American religious landscape. From the outside it even looked as if, in their search for acceptance and respectability, they might find a place if not in the fold then certainly along the fringes of American Protestantism.

In an essay Klaus J. Hansen speculated that something of this sort has in fact happened. After reviewing the reasons that explain Mormonism’s failure to fit into the pluralistic, voluntaristic pattern of nineteenth-century American religion, he pointed out that in the twentieth century these reasons no longer function as boundaries marking Mormon peculiarity and that, as a result, Mormonism as a “distinct cultural unit” has more or less ceased to exist.6 Hansen’s argument is persuasive. Here, however, agreement must be made contingent on a clear understanding of the difference between a “cultural entity” and a religio-theological unit. While the homogeneous character of Mormondom is plainly giving way, the Saints are still set apart—certainly in their own self-consciousness—as a “community of the faithful.” Despite a value structure and belief in Jesus Christ which Mormons share with middle-class American Protestants, the Saints have not been absorbed into Protestantism. A chosen people living in the new dispensation of the fulness of times cannot be a party to the denominational contract; they retain an identity as [p. 56] separate and distinct from American Protestantism as either Roman Catholicism or Judaism.7 For that reason the “mysteries” of Mormonism, particularly the early years, remain matters of concern not only for Latter-day Saints who wish a deeper understanding of their faith but also for historians who would fully comprehend American religion.

Now that the nineteenth-century bias toward Brigham Young as the “real” genius of Mormonism is clearing away, it is obvious that the logical place to begin is with the study of Joseph Smith’s life. That is not an easy task, however. As is so often the case with controversial figures, the prophet’s adherents and detractors built up public images which they have been at pains to protect, leaving apparently irreconcilable interpretations of the Mormon leader’s life. As a result the historian must cope with the contradictory accounts found on the one hand in memoirs penned by apostates and in affidavits collected from Smith’s neighbors and on the other in the official History of the Church, a reconstruction of events compiled by diverse people including the prophet himself, which was commenced in 1838 with the express purpose of countering the reports that were circulated by “evil-disposed” persons clearly designed to militate against the character of the church and its prophet. The situation is further complicated by the need to establish the extent to which the contents of the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the revelations of the prophet can be utilized as primary source material.

All these difficulties notwithstanding, a continuing effort must be made to solve the mystery of Mormonism by coming to understand the enigma at its core. The image that now exists is fragmented and incomplete. The perspective must be lengthened through a consideration of the prophet in the context of the social, political, economic, and theological milieu from which he came; the range of resources must be expanded to utilize the information and the insight that can be found in the Mormon canon; and the entire project must be approached with an open mind, a generous spirit, and a determination to follow the evidence that appeals to reason from whatever source it comes, wherever it leads. Only then will the outcome be a picture of the prophet and an account of the foundations of the Mormon faith which will be convincing to both tough minds, which demand empirical facts, and tender minds, comfortable in the presence of leaps of faith. What follows here are some [p. 57] suggestions leading in that direction.

In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, western New York was in effect the New England frontier. As they crossed the Adirondacks, emigrants from New England left behind the Half-way Covenant that had allowed church membership to be handed down from generation to generation. On the frontier the social satisfactions that had accompanied full standing in the Congregational churches of the older regions all but disappeared. Even long after the frontier character of this area had passed away, religion ministered primarily to the emotional rather than social needs of the populace. The unfolding economic opportunity that attended the building of the Erie Canal seemed to make eveyone an heir to fortune; status came with success, and society no longer gave church members special social or religious privilege.

This fluid economic and social environment made an anachronism of the theological doctrine of divine election, and yet the Protestant community was still too close to the Reformation to alter the balance between faith and works in favor of the latter. As a result, the way of conventional Christianity throughout the district was the way marked out by George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent during the Great Awakening in New England in the 1740s. Beyond the mountains, doctrinal distinctions denoting denominationalism were blurred by a stylized evangelism that forced the wide thoroughfare of Protestant Christianity into the confines of the sawdust trail. Whether the ecclesiastical connection of the minister made the service a Baptist gathering or a Methodist meeting, the sermon followed the predicted pattern of its “New Light” Presbyterian prototype.

With jeremiads that were painstaking catalogues of sins that would lead to destruction—and they were legion—Charles Finney and his fellows cautioned the unregenerate to beware the day of judgment. While penitents approached the sinner’s benches, these lamentations were extended into compelling crescendos of exhortation designed to disturb the indifferent and terrify the wicked with speculation about the fate of unrepentant sinners abandoned to the wrath of an angry God. As fear and guilt pulled heartstrings taut, the preacher watched with practiced eye for signs that the limits of emotional stress were near. Sounds of weeping and audible appeals for mercy were the prelude to skillful modulation from admonition [p. 58] to invitation and promise. When a contrite soul accepted the pledges of forgiveness and love and yielded absolute trust in God, release and rejoicing—sometimes verging on ecstacy—followed. Another Christian had been born again.

As unquestionably effective as such techniques were, their often transitory results reflected the limitations of a theology that attempted a compromise between the uncertainty inherent in the doctrines of predestination and divine election and the ineffable assurance of the interior religious experience. Using conversion as a catalyst, the Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards had sought to merge mystic rapture and Calvinistic logic into a stable compound, but the subtleties of the speculations of this great philosophic intellect were lost when lesser minds proved unable to keep conversion at the center of Christian life where it had been placed by the Northampton divine. One result was the development of an emotional evangelism that made conversion the capstone of religious experience.

Edwards had kindled such a fire as has never yet been put out, but seldom has the flame blazed so brightly or for so long as it did beside the banks of the Erie Canal during the youth of Joseph Smith. Revivalistic fervor swept through western New York state with such regularity that Orthodoxy back across the Adirondacks looked on the region as the “Burned-over District.” The religious holocaust predicted by use of this derogatory designation failed to occur, however, and in 1825 it was clear that the fire that raged over the area was like the fire in the midst of the bush that burned and was not consumed. As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on, the spiritual longings of the people had created one of those spheres of genuine religious exploration that have served from time to time throughout human history as the seedbed for new theological systems.

Within a span of twenty-five years after the frontier gave way to the settled community life that paralleled the building of De Witt Clinton’s canal, this “burnt” district sheltered a multitude of small bands and large congregations that had turned aside from traditional faiths to travel toward eternity along unmarked trails. As guides, contemporaries might follow Andrew Jackson Davis, the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and the amazing Fox Sisters into Spiritualism, or William Miller into Millennialism; they could make a more total [p. 59] commitment and move to Oneida to search for Perfection with John Humphrey Noyes; they could join the Shakers at New Lebanon or the Community of the Publik Universal Friend at Jerusalem in Yates County—or any of a host of lesser known groups that sought God with creeds embracing vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, communism, complex marriage, or some other equally esoteric doctrine.

But men and women have a way of packing the past among their personal possessions when they move from place to place, and most of those who settled in the area had come with Protestant traditions so firmly fixed that no alternative was acceptable. The overwhelming majority of western New Yorkers looked for religious assurance in the old familiar places, and Presbyterians (and Congregationalists under the Plan of Union), Baptists, and Methodists all hastened to provide ministers to preach the gospel to the community beyond the Catskills. Unfortunately, these virtually simultaneous home missionary efforts of the several Protestant denominations sometimes brought religious chaos not spiritual comfort, for when conversion rather than spiritual guidance and pastoral care was made the primary purpose of the Protestant ministry, success became a matter of numbers. And since this quantitative criterion was not limited by the sum of uncommitted souls, the successful evangelist often had to build his church by tearing others down. There was a buyer’s market in salvation, and in the confusion of contested credentials and conflicting claims, it was not at all unusual for a single soul to have been saved several times.

Although the Mormon prophet emerged from this volatile psychic ground, no evidence exists to indicate that religious tensions there caused him to move—as many other incipient religious leaders did—through a succession of affiliations with different religious groups, searching for satisfactory answers to spiritual questions. Like his father, Joseph Smith stood aside and refused to join any of the churches in the Palmyra region.

According to a biographical sketch written by his mother, Joseph Smith’s father, Joseph Sr., did not become a member of any of the churches that were already established because he interpreted a dream (or vision) which he had had in 1811—the elder Smith like the father of Nephi in the Book of Mormon regarded dream and vision as synonymous—as a warning that these churches were the outposts of Babylon.8 Joseph Jr. came to the same conclusion in a not [p. 60] altogether different fashion. When he dictated the explanatory prologue to the official History in 1838, the prophet described the way that the bewildering religious landscape had confused him. He said that in 1820 he had made prayerful inquiry about which church he should join and that the prayer had been answered in a vision wherein he saw two “personages” and was told that he should join none of the established churches as they were all wrong.9

Since the account of the first vision published in the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet (the official history) seems to tie it chronologically to a revival that was going on in 1824 and 1825, since the prophet apparently mentioned this vision rarely if at all before 1830, and since no description of it seems to have been written down until almost a dozen years after it is said to have happened, Fawn Brodie, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Wesley P. Walters, and others take the position that the first vision never occurred—that the prophet invented it in order to defend himself when his credibility was under attack.10

Certainly Walters’s reconstruction of the events surrounding the 1824 revival, his argument that this was the “war of words and the tumult of opinions” the prophet spoke of, is more convincing than the counter-argument that Smith was referring to an awakening that took place not in the immediate Palmyra-Manchester area but nearby around 1820.11 But using the confused chronology presented in the official History as the basis for assuming that an early vision—one which led Joseph Smith to stay away from organized religion—never occurred is less persuasive.

In addition to William Smith’s earliest known recollection of his brother Joseph’s conversion, which does not connect the first vision to the 1824 revival, and in addition to the general tenor of the prophet’s personal diaries, from which an attitude of piety and devoutness can be read back,12 the evidence which has not been adequately brought to bear on this question is the Book of Mormon itself. Although this work has been considered—often at length—in general histories of Mormonism, it has by and large been neglected as a source which might facilitate a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s early career.

The reasons for this center on the answers that have usually been given to questions about who wrote the Book of Mormon and what its intrinsic merit is. Most Mormons have taken the position that [p. 61] Joseph Smith was the translator of the book, not its author, which means of course that since they believe the prophet did not write the book, they could not regard it as a potential source of insight into his early life. Throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, many non-Mormons were led to a similar conclusion, not because they thought the substance of the Book of Mormon had been taken from the plates of Nephi et al. but because the work was widely believed to have been plagiarized.13 Even if this notion was wrong and Joseph Smith had written the book, taking the work into account in explaining his career seemed foolish; after all, what could an amateurish historical novel masquerading as scripture reveal about a man’s spiritual history?

In his 1957 sociological study of Latter-day Saints, Thomas F. O’Dea made it clear that scholars would be mistaken to accept Mark Twain’s assessment of the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print” and in taking at face value Judge Cradlebaugh’s description of the book as “a conglomeration of illy cemented creeds from other religions.”14 As a result historians have reconsidered the Book of Mormon. And it is becoming increasingly obvious that whatever its source—whether it was translated from engravings on metal plates or dictated directly from Joseph Smith’s extraordinary mind—this book functions as a powerful and provocative synthesis of biblical experience and the American dream, and it occupies a position of importance in both the religious and intellectual history of the United States.

It is likewise evident that beneath its crude exterior, the Book of Mormon reflects knowledge of the Bible, familiarity with theological currents, perception of the problems posed by Protestant denominationalism, and experience with extra-rational religious phenomena that simply are not consistent with the theory that its religious framework was an afterthought..15 Such a position requires a greater leap of faith than accepting a naturalistic explanation which holds (1) that Joseph grew up in a family fascinated with religion; (2) that, as he said, he thoroughly searched the scriptures and came to know them well; (3) that around 1820 he probably did have a vision or go through some other non-rational experience, which at least left him convinced that his father’s dream about the organized churches all being in error was true; (4) that in the throes of revivalistic excitement he could well have come to doubt his earlier conclusion about the Protestant churches, leading him to inquire about the matter a [p. 62] second time, thereby stimulating a second vision around 1824; (5) that (as will be discussed below) in connection with his money-digging activities, he actually found some Indian artifacts, or hoped to do so, which inspired the writing of the Book of Mormon. Leaving aside the question of whether the book has captured eternal truths, it plainly reflects the religious experiences and concerns that had been an important part of Joseph Smith’s life until that time.

If the foregoing conceptualization of the events of Joseph Smith’s youth is not completely congruent with what really happened, it does nevertheless assist us in understanding his complex personality. Reports of visions not unlike those described by this strange young man were by no means unknown in western New York in the 1820s, but these experiences were sufficiently singular to convince Joseph Smith that he was set apart from his peers. His recognition of separateness may well account for the apparently compulsive need for acceptance that led him into “vices and follies” after he had been rejected “by those who ought,” he said, “to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly.” He wanted to belong but could not; he did not fit the pattern of men whose worlds were limited by scant schooling, mortgaged homesteads, and revivalist religion. He was different; he knew it, and the knowledge made him abnormally sensitive to the opinions of others. Although it was camouflaged in later years by his self-confident, almost cocksure, personality, this sensitivity persisted throughout his life. It caused him to place an unwarranted value on flattery and praise, and it made him react to criticism with an intensity that at times approached paranoia in his transformation of slight censure into “bitter persecution.”

It was not his propensity to prophetic vision that first made Joseph Smith’s difference distinct and introduced him to condemnation, however, for he was also gifted with what his contemporaries called “second sight.” Using a “peepstone” (a luminous semi-precious gemstone which served as a screen for mental images) as a kind of psychic Geiger counter, Smith attempted to supplement the meager farm income of his family by assisting in the location of lost articles and buried “treasure.” Because ventures of this nature which proved unsuccessful left the “peeper” vulnerable to charges of dishonesty and fraud, Smith was brought to trial in 1826 after he had failed to locate a silver mine he had promised to find, and he was charged with [p. 63] being a disorderly person and a fraud.

A year or so following the conclusion of that trial, Smith reported that he had in his possession a book, “written upon gold plates, [containing] an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the sources from which they sprang.” The existence of the plates, Smith said, had been revealed by an angel; they were instruments of divine revelation, which would, after translation, be the occasion of the ushering in of the new dispensation of the fullness of times. When the translation of the plates was completed and published to the world, the juxtaposition of these two apparently antithetical activities—digging for money and translating holy scripture—was used to bring the prophet’s integrity into question and to cast doubt on the validity of his claims.

Testimony was collected in 1833 from almost a hundred people who had lived in the same general area where the prophet grew up, and their affidavits almost uniformly maligned the reputation of the Smith family and featured reports of the prophet’s youthful search for buried treasure. Mormon apologists have sought to discredit these affidavits by charging muckraking and demonstrating how the information the witnesses supplied was contaminated by the attitude of the investigators. But attempts to discredit the information gathered by Philastus Hurlbut and Eber D. Howe can never prove that the attitudes reflected in the affidavits were not current or that the information in them is necessarily wrong, because newspaper articles and first-hand accounts written by Obadiah Dogberry, the Reverend Diedrich Willers, and James Gordon Bennett published in 1831—a full two years before the preparation of Mormonism Unvailed—contain precisely the same information.

The fact that so many of Smith’s neighbors and acquaintances used the reputation of the Smith family and the “money-digging” to demonstrate the incongruity between the man they knew and a man of God is not surprising if the extraordinary difference between their perception of jovial Joseph and their Old Testament notions of appropriate prophets is kept in mind.

The situation can perhaps be compared to one occasionally encountered in today’s world. A “model” devout church-going teen-aged boy suddenly kills his father, and neighbors and acquaintances—finding it difficult to immediately alter their perception of the boy—explain over and over again that the young man had been a perfect [p. 64] child. Just as these explanations are crucial in developing a psychic profile which will facilitate an understanding of the patricidal act, so the Dogberry, Bennett, and Hurlbut and Howe reports of the way the people of Palmyra perceived the prophet are crucial to the development of a complete religious profile of Joseph Smith.16

Although Marvin Hill is right in his assertion that magic and religious faith were not incompatible in nineteenth-century America,17 it is nevertheless clear that the prophet and those who participated with him in the compilation of the official History of the Church were anxious not to emphasize the prophet’s early connection with the divining art. It seems reasonable to conclude that the motive for playing down this part of the prophet’s background was the knowledge that it could be used as the basis for charges that might endanger his reputation. But by glossing over that part of his life in the preparation of his history, Smith left himself vulnerable to the charges that have been used from that day forward to prove at best his insincerity, at worst outright fraud.

If the prophet’s preference for leaving the money-digging part of his career out of the picture is ignored, and the events of that part of his life are placed alongside the clearly defined spiritual events of his early years, a pattern emerges which leaves little room for doubting that Smith’s use of the seerstone was an important indication of his early and continued interest in extra-rational phenomena and that it played an important role in his spiritual development.

ca. 1820                                   Smith had his first vision.

1822                                        He discovered a peepstone in a well.
1823-24                                   He said that an angel revealed gold plates to him.

1824-26                                   He participated in money-digging activities.

1826                                        He was tried as a “glass looker.”
1827                                        He reported possessing the gold plates.

1828-29                                   He “translated” the engravings on the plates by means of Urim and Thummim,” an                                                      instrument which operated on same principle as his peepstone.

Integrated in this fashion the early events of Smith’s life add up to a coherent whole that makes more sense than the charlatan-true [p. 65] prophet dichotomy which has plagued Mormon history from the beginning.

Historians who deal with Joseph Smith’s post-1830 career are also faced with disparate interpretive models, but since the fruits of the prophet’s labors after the church was established are more amenable to assessment, these models do not represent the same sort of polar opposites that have been developed to explain the Book of Mormon. The building up of Kirtland, Far West, and Nauvoo, the formation of an efficient and effective organizational structure for the church, and the overall development and remarkable growth of Mormonism were substantial achievements which can hardly be credited to a ne’er-do-well, practiced in the magic arts and proficient at deception and trickery or for that matter to a prophet intoxicated with divinity.

Some students of the Mormon past have denied Smith’s crucial role as the leader of the church—suggesting that he was a dreamer, a visionary, or a madman, who was fortunate enough to have Brigham Young around to handle practical things, and who managed to be martyred, as Bernard DeVoto said, “at precisely the right time” to allow his blood to become “the seed of the church.” But this view, like the notion that someone other than Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, has not survived in the wake of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. Historians are now generally agreed that the prophet’s influence was the decisive factor in almost every phase of the construction of the Mormon kingdom, though they do not agree on the reasons why this is so. Devotional interpretations explain almost everything in terms of the “Will of the Lord,” but historical interpretations of Smith’s later career are variations on two themes: Joseph Smith as charismatic personality and Joseph Smith as pragmatic prophet.

These two themes are not diametrically opposed; as categories they are not mutually exclusive; each depends on the other. Biographical treatments of that part of Smith’s life which follows the founding of the church, therefore, betray less anti-Mormon/pro-Mormon bias than the portrayals of his youth. The images remain distressingly different even so. Difficult questions are not adequately answered either with the explanation that the prophet was an effective leader because he was ultimately taken in by his own deception or with the reminder that the prophet was a prophet only when he [p. 66] was acting as such.

Perhaps the situation will be clarified if the problem is approached from another direction. Joseph Smith was a dynamic personality, it is true; and there was undoubtedly a charismatic quality to his leadership. If his charisma is seen not as a function of his personality but as an integral part of his role as prophet, seer, and revelator, the reasons for the reactions to his leadership of both Mormons and non-Mormons will be more intelligible. While the distinction being made here was not important for the large portion of the Saints who perceived his personality and his prophet’s role as one, it is important in fathoming the behavior of those Saints who made Smith’s ability to carry everything before him contingent on their ideas about the authenticity of his prophetic position. When his pronouncements and actions led certain Saints to conclude that Smith was a fallen prophet, his charisma, for them, evaporated.

The prophet, seer, and revelator role then is central to an understanding of the prophet’s life. Because this role grew out of and was defined by the Book of Mormon and the circumstances surrounding its “translation,” it is there that we must look to get a glimpse of how the prophet’s role was perceived by Smith and by his followers. There too we must turn if we would begin to analyze the importance of the role of the prophet as a factor in early Mormonism’s appeal.

The Book of Mormon claimed to be the history of the Western Hemisphere between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D., but its account of that millennium was interspersed with such an astonishing variety of philosophical notions and theological speculations that it was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary history. The work recounted stories of voyages and battles and tales of intrigue and treason. Yet the most striking passages in the Book of Mormon are those which are essentially explications of ideas that had also been a part of the visions of Joseph Smith’s youth. Allusions to the ideas which, according to Smith’s own account, were conceived in the course of his extraordinary experiences, were particularly clear in the second section of the book. This section, 2 Nephi, included a series of chapters which detailed the state of society existing when the plates of gold would be opened to the man chosen of God. These prophetic predictions returned again and again to the themes of the visions; that churches already current were corrupt and that a book containing a “revelation from God from the beginning of the world to the [p. 67] ending thereof” would be delivered into the hands of a “seer” whom the Lord would bless, whose name like that of his father would be Joseph, who would bring the people who loved the Lord to salvation.18

Since a far greater portion of the book was concerned with a fanciful history of the western hemisphere, it stands to reason that its initial appeal was not entirely religious. This was a time when the people of the United States were busily engaged in the manufacture of instant heritage, substituting inspiration for antiquity with regard to the Constitution and producing a veritable hagiography of popular biography designed to turn America’s political leaders into national heroes in the shortest possible time. Joseph Smith’s visionary account of the American past was therefore not entirely out of place.19 The passages which referred to the United States as the “land of promise” and as “a land which is choice above all other lands” appealed to (and reflected) the nationalistic sentiment of the age in overt fashion. And in addition Smith’s golden book was a fascinating expression of the prevalent American desire to declare cultural independence from Europe. In a pseudo-Elizabethan prose style that recalled the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon maintained that the American Indians were remnants of the twelve tribes of Israel and that Jesus Christ had appeared on this continent in 34 A.D. Thus the book provided a link between the history of the United States and the Judeo-Christian tradition that by-passed the European culture filter altogether.

Nevertheless, this unconventional pre-Columbian history of the western hemisphere must in large measure be regarded as suits and trappings for the prophetic device that reiterated the errors of established churches and promised that the seer who read the record found on the golden plates would be the agency through which the ancient church in all its purity should be restored:

“And it shall come to pass that my people … shall be gathered home unto the lands of their possessions… .

“If they will repent and hearken unto my words, and not harden their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come into the covenant and be numbered among his remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance … that they may build a city which shall be called the New Jerusalem.

“And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth Zion.”20

p. 68] Joseph Smith said that the “miracle” of translation was accomplished by means of a “curious instrument which the ancients called `Urim and Thummim,’ … two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate,” that somehow allowed him to read the “reformed Egyptian” engravings as if they were English.21 As news of his unusual project spread across the countryside, a small band of followers including Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Knight, several members of the family of Peter Whitmer, and most of Smith’s own immediate family gathered round. They watched the progress of the work as Smith dictated it from behind a makeshift curtain to be written out on foolscap paper by Cowdery or Harris or his new bride Emma, and they were convinced that Joseph Smith had a divine calling.

Martin Harris’s wife Lucy was convinced otherwise, and so after a portion of the manuscript had been completed, Harris persuaded the translator to let him take those pages home in order to prove to Lucy that the work was inspired of God. But Lucy Harris was not impressed. She had never liked Smith, and she heartily disapproved of her husband’s association with him. She feared, not without reason, that Harris intended to use his modest fortune to make publication of Smith’s golden Bible possible; and consequently when she got her hands on the manuscript, she destroyed it.

The crisis that resulted profoundly affected the new religion. Joseph Smith prayed for guidance and received two revelations directing that the lost section should not be retranslated. Lest the devil arrange publication of the missing section, God would provide another set of plates which would summarize the account contained in the missing chapters.22 Thus did Joseph Smith don the prophet’s mantle.

O’Dea has suggested that the exigency of the situation with which Smith was faced simply proved to be the necessary occasion for the introduction of contemporary revelation; he says that a belief in continuing revelation was vital to the secure establishment of the new religion and that it should probably have come in any case.23 Brodie failed to credit the translator with so much foresight; she concluded that the revelations were a ruse—perhaps an unconscious one—to conceal the fact that the story of the golden plates was false and that Smith merely capitalized on their effect among his followers.24 Yet Brodie and O’Dea agree that this event was decisive in [p. 69] Mormon history, and most students of Mormonism concur, so that accounts of the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints usually trace the doctrine of continuing revelation to this juncture in Joseph Smith’s career.

Notwithstanding the importance of the doctrine of continuing revelation in the development of the faith, few serious attempts have been made to delineate the difference between these revelations and Smith’s earlier esoteric activities. Church doctrine makes no distinction between the divine character of the Book of Mormon and the prophet’s revelations. From the outside all the reports of visions and revelations and the writing of golden Bibles and the pursuit of treasure with a peepstone tend to become so confusing that it is entirely understandable that historians often dismiss the problem by saying that it is all a matter of faith. And indeed it is. But just as Vernon Louis Parrington and Perry Miller were obliged to go to theological polemics to fully comprehend the social and economic and political developments in Puritan New England, so the student of Mormon history must seek the explanation of many of the significant events in Joseph Smith’s life in the subtle distinction between vision and revelation.

In the eyes of the Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith’s early visions and his later revelations are both dialogues between God and humanity. The difference turns on who initiated the conversation. Whether it is regarded as a metaphysical event or a psychic phenomenon, a religiously-oriented vision is an intensely realistic subjective experience which leaves the individual who has experienced it with a definite sense of having been in direct communion with God. Like other spiritual manifestations, the hearing of transcendental voices, infused meditation, illumination, and so on, visions are spontaneous occurrences apparently independent of the conscious human mind.

Although it is true that many of the prophet’s revelations—particularly the ones having to do with theology or the organization of the restored church—were accompanied by visions, voices, or some other metaphysical phenomena, much of the revelation in Mormonism proceeds from a more prosaic but more dependable method of communicating with God. As it worked out in Mormon history, this process of revelation involves asking for divine instructions and receiving an “impression” of the will of the Lord in return. In theological terms God initiates the vision and humanity responds; [p. 70]  men and women ask for revelation and God responds.25

The difference was clear even to the prophet. The visions left him with no doubts about the reality of what he had seen and heard. When William James said that persons who have undergone traumatic religious experiences “remain quite unmoved by criticism from whatever quarter it may come, [because] they have had their vision and they know,” he could have been referring directly to Joseph Smith who wrote, “Why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it and I knew God knew it, and I could not deny it.”26

This same confidence did not always extend to the revelations, however. David Whitmer wrote that Smith himself said “some revelations are of the devil.”27 Historians who deal with the prophet’s life and the history of the church must take note of the implications of that statement and weigh the possibility of considering the revelations according to some classification scheme. This does not mean—must not mean—that a dash through the Doctrine and Covenants identifying revelations of a first, second, and third order is necessary. It means rather coming to realize and consciously accept what Robert Flanders’s Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi and Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom demonstrate implicitly: a recognition of the fact that a continuum on which the revelations can be placed exists. At its highest terminal point are the revelations which came during those moments when a higher reality erupted in to the prophet’s everyday world; at its opposite are the revelations which can perhaps best be marked not, as Smith said, “of the devil” but as wishful thinking.

Taxonomical exercises in history are always dangerous, frightfully so when the subject is the history of religion. But in view of Mormon history’s double interpretative strand of Joseph Smith as man of God and Joseph Smith as fraud who exploited his followers for his own purposes—lately summed up as a religious versus a rational being—it is possible that drawing distinctions between the character of the different parts of the Mormon canon will allow us to see the prophet’s mature life as more coherent than is now possible. I am not an expert on Joseph Smith. But I do know that the mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith.

In a biography I once heard described as the best biography [p. 71] ever written of an American historical figure, Carl Van Doren described Benjamin Franklin as a “harmonious human multitude.” We do not have a comparable biography of the prophet. Joseph Smith was also a “human multitude,” an extraordinarily talented individual, but our picture of him is anything but harmonious. What we have in Mormon historiography are variations on two Josephs: the one who started out digging for money and when he was unsuccessful, turned to propheteering; and the one who had visions and dreamed dreams, restored the church, and revealed the will of the Lord to a sinful world. While the shading was varied, the portraits have pretty much remained constant; the differences are differences of degree not kind.

The approach I am suggesting at least has the virtue of providing a different perspective from which to view the prophet’s life. The result cannot be harmony, because Joseph himself had difficulty integrating the many facets of his complex career. But it might allow us to reconcile enough of the inconsistency to reveal not a split personality but a gifted, pressured, sometimes opportunistic, often troubled, larger-than-life whole man.



1. James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s `First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 29-45, and reprinted in this compilation. Madsen’s remarks were made at the 1968 Edwardsville Conference on the Mormons in Illinois. Walters’s article, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” was first published in 1967 as an Evangelical Theological Society tract and was reprinted in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 60-81.

2. Concentrated research in the available records relevant to Mormon history in New York was carried out under the direction of a committee of Mormon historians and scholars headed by Madsen. The first fruits of this project were presented in the Spring 1969 issue of Brigham Young University Studies. The 1970 spring issue of the same journal was also devoted to the New York period. In addition, see Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies 12 (Winter 1972): 223-33; and “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Winter 1972): 72-85; Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1971); and Richard L. Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon [P. 72] Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 82-93; and Reverend Walters’s reply to same, 94-100.

3. Bushman and De Pillis read papers reporting the results of their research at a session on “Early Mormonism in Its American Setting” at the annual meeting of the Western Historical Association in New Haven, Connecticut, 13 Oct. 1972.

4. See also Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 439-73.

5. In analyzing a chronologically stratified representative sample of articles on Mormons and Mormonism published between 1860 and 1895, I found that 74 percent contained references to Mormonism as a threat to the American political system, 66 percent contained pejorative references to the internal control church leaders exercised over the LDS community, but only 57 percent contained references which were coded as “unflattering descriptions of Joseph Smith, of the origins of Mormonism, or of the religion itself.” Jan Shipps, “From Satyr to Saint: American Attitudes Toward the Mormons,” a paper presented to the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Chicago, Mar. 1973.

6. “Mormonism and American Culture: Some Tentative Hypotheses,” in The Restoration Movement: Essays in Mormon History, eds. F. Mark McKiernan, Alma R. Blair, and Paul M. Edwards (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1973), 1-25.

7. This conclusion agrees with the characterization of Mormonism as the fourth major religion generally accepted in American society found in Mario S. De Pillis, “The Quest for Religious Authority and the Rise of Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 78, and reprinted in this compilation. The full effect of the abandonment of the policy of the “literal gathering” is more apparent today than it was in 1966. While cultural distinctiveness is disappearing–an inevitable consequence, in any case, of the international outreach of both major branches of Mormonism–it is possible that the dispersal of LDS “communities of the faithful” throughout the nation and the world has resulted in a heightened consciousness of Mormon peculiarity, both from within and from without.

8. Lucy Mack Smith, History of the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1902), 54. The 1908 edition of this work has been reprinted by Arno Press, New York.

9. Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Period I, History of Joseph Smith the Prophet, ed. B. H. Roberts, 6 vols., 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1955), 1:4-6; hereafter cited as HC.

10. See Fawn M[cKay] Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945), 25; Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Joseph Smith’s Strange Account of the First Vision (Salt Lake [p. 73] City: Modern Microfilm, n.d.), 3; Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins,” 71-73.

11. See Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived”; Larry C. Porter, “Reverend George Lane—God `Gifts,’ Much `Grace,’ and Marked `Usefulness’,” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969); Porter, “The Church in New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831,” chap. 1 in McKiernan et al., Restoratino Movement; and Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

12. Hill, “Brodie Revisited,” 76, 78-81.

13. Brodie categorized the Mormon Bible as merely one of several ostensibly inspired sacred books made up of “an obscure compound of folklore, moral platitude, mysticism, and millennialism” (67). Readers of No Man Knows My History come away convinced, however, that the “compound” is Joseph Smith’s own.

14. See chap. 2 of O’Dea’s The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957). Mark Twain’s sally is in the appendix to Roughing It. Judge Cradlebaugh’s description was given in his testimony before Congress in 1863. It is reprinted in Andrew J. Hanson, “Utah and the Mormon Problem,” Methodist Quarterly Review 64 (Apr. 1882): 213. The description is of course not unique: it is a variation of Alexander Campbell’s 1832 charge that the book contained answers to every conceivable theological question. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anti-Mormon literature, especially similar charges that the Book of Mormon is made up of wholesale borrowings from other religions. It is likely that Sterling McMurrin’s Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1965) was also a factor in the reappraisal of the Book of Mormon.

15. Walters summarizes this position in the concluding section of “New Light on Mormon Origins.” With reference to this same point, Brodie states: “What had been originally conceived as a mere money-making history of the Indians had been transformed at some point early in the writing, or possibly even before the book was begun, into a religious saga” (83).

16. The Dogberry editorials and selections from affidavits collected by Hurlbut and Howe are reprinted in the appendix to No Man Knows My History. Bennett’s articles are reprinted in Leonard J. Arrington, “James Gordon Bennett’s 1831 Report on the `Mormonites,'” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 353-64. See also Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990).

17. Hill, “Brodie Revisited,” 78.

18. Specific references to the errors of already established churches are found in 2 Ne. 26:20-21; 28:3-20. The content of the records engraved on the plates of gold are described in 2 Ne. 27:6-11; 28:2. The prophecy about [p. 74]the seer to be called Joseph is in 2 Ne. 3:1-19.

19. The German historian Peter Meinhold has commented at length on the way in which the Book of Mormon provided America with a usable past. See “Die Anfaenge des Amerikanischen Geschichtsbewusstseins,” Saeculum 5 (1954): 65-86. This work is discussed in Klaus J. Hansen’s chapter on “Mormonism and the American Dream,” Quest for Empire (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1970).

20. 2 Ne. 19:14; 3 Ne. 21:22-23; 1 Ne. 13:37.

21. In his 1974 Mormon History Association Presidential Address, “`Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son’: Mormonism and Masonry,” Reed C. Durham alluded to a Masonic legend which utilized many of the same elements—metal plates, stones called Urim and Thummim, and Egyptian hieroglyphics–found in Smith’s account of the origin of the Book of Mormon. The quotation is from the Wentworth letter, HC 4:537.

22. HC 1:22-28.

23. O’Dea, The Mormons, 19-20.

24. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 55-57.25.

25. The two categories, vision and revelation, which are being put forth here are not intended to be mutually exclusive; they are rather semantic symbols intended to encompass process (the means by which communications between God and the Mormon prophet were initiated) as well as the extra-rational phenomena themselves.

26. HC 1:7-8. While this quotation is taken from the official history, which account has been called into question, the reality of the prophet’s perception of his having been made responsible for translating the plates is substantiated in chaps. 2, 4, and 9 of the Book of Commandments (1833; reprt., Independence, MO: Herald House, 1972), 8-13, 22-27.

27. David Whitmer, “An Address to All Believers… .,” reprinted in Keith Huntress, Murder of an American Prophet: Events and Prejudice Surrounding the Killings of Joseph and Hyrum Smith; Carthage, Illinois, June 27, 1844 (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co., 1960), 23. This point must not be confused with Smith’s clear distinction between his actions as a prophet and his actions as a “mere man.”