Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Joseph Smith in One Question

Like most Latter-day Saints of my generation, I grew up with a sanitized, larger than life-sized Joseph Smith as a persecuted demigod who worked endless streams of wonders against tall odds in his short 38 1/2 years on earth. I did not worship the man, but I was in awe of him as I still am. As I matured and developed a more nuanced view of my prophet, I had an abiding curiosity to know more about Joseph the man. Todd Compton and I were classmates at BYU. When his In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith came out in 1997, I was taken aback for a time. My respect for the prophet never waned, but I had even more desire to understand what made him tick.

When Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling: Joseph Smith: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism's Founder appeared in 2005, I became a Bushman groupie. I attended his lectures from Provo to Ogden, asking many questions and carefully weighing his responses. Bushman had a deep understanding of the prophet that I was anxious to absorb. In the end, one sentence from Bushman helped me understand who Joseph really was. Bushman said, "Joseph sucked the air out of every room he ever entered." Joseph was such a powerful presence that no one else held a candle to him. He was supremely confident, without peer. It was always Joseph and the seven dwarfs. People hung on his every word. He had an opinion about and a ready answer for everything. He was often attacked from afar but seldom contradicted in person. That made sense to me given the nature of Joseph's interaction with deity and the divine.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to spend time with Mike MacKay of the BYU Religion faculty. He worked on the Joseph Smith Papers Project and co-authored the very important From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon. His next major publication will be Joseph Smith's Seer Stones. I asked MacKay how he would characterize Joseph the man. "Joseph had a green thumb for religion" was his reply. As he shared examples of what he meant, I came to understand that post 1829 Joseph consciously fit every person, place, or thing he ever encountered somewhere into his expansive religious vision. That prompted me to ask MacKay one important question: "Did Joseph ever say 'I don't know'?" "No" was his quick reply.

In our current era of internet-inspired transparency, we hear the brethren say "We don't know" frequently. See for example, Pres. Uchtdorf's frank talk entitled "Come, Join with Us" in October, 2013 General Conference or the Gospel Topics Essays such as "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies." Top scholars say "I don't know" all the time. "I don't know" is a fundamental status endemic to the human condition.

One result from Joseph's tendency to never say "I don't know" were the 1834 Zion's Camp tales about Zelph, Onandagus, and the plains of the Nephites associated with Naples-Russell Mound 8 near Griggsville, Pike County, Illinois. See the 1989 BYU Studies article by Kenneth W. Godfrey entitled "The Zelph Story." Was the germ of the variant Zelph accounts revelation to the prophet? Was it well-meaning speculation? As with so much of the extra-canonical material attributed to Joseph Smith, we don't know.

This is from Paul Hoskisson's interview with Glenn Rawson on May 13, 2009 as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. "Joseph Smith was not beyond pulling people's legs and giving an answer just to satisfy somebody. Do you remember the famous story of where he and Eliza are walking (apocryphal, of course) along the river in Nauvoo in the evening and somebody runs up and says, 'Joseph, what do people on the moon look like? Are there really people there?' And Joseph says, 'Yes, and they look like, dress like Quakers.' Eliza afterward says, 'Do you really believe that Joseph?' And Joseph says, 'Of course I don't but its easier to give an answer to somebody than it is to say I don't know.'" 

See the article "Prophets Human and Inspired" for additional insights into the Mormon folk tendency to canonize a prophet's personal opinions.

Article updated May 20, 2020.