Friday, May 16, 2008

Mormons III: A Concise History of Joseph Smith

Harold Bloom aptly describes Joseph Smith as a religious genius. Through force of personality and spiritual intellect, Smith converted enough followers to found what would become the first indigenous religion in the United States of America. To understand the Latter-Day Saints, and polygamy in America, one must understand the life and times of Joseph Smith.

Smith was born into a poor farming family living a hardscrabble existence in the Green Mountains of Vermont. When Joseph was a boy they resettling to Palmyra, a small New York town near the banks of the Eerie Canal.

Smith came of age in a period known to historians as the Second Great Awakening, when revivalists roamed the American countryside preaching myriad strains of the Protestant faith. Smith’s region was so visited by these itinerant preachers that came to be known as the Burned-over district. Young Smith struggled over which of these rival Christian faiths he should join, and one afternoon while praying in a grove near his parents’ house, he received a vision through a blinding shaft of light he feared would set the woods on fire. The human forms of God and his son Jesus Christ appeared side by side in the beam dressed in flowing white robes. Joseph asked them which among the competing faiths he should join, and God replied that he should not join any of them, that he should await a higher calling. He later received a series of visitations by the angel Moroni, who directed the young Smith to a rock that harbored gold plates covered in hieroglyphics.

After waiting several years for the appropriate time announced by the angel, Smith dug up the plates and began the translation of the ancient text. Over the course of eight weeks Smith, with the aid of a seer stone, deciphered the glyphs line by line and read aloud to a scribe who sat on the other side of a blanket that hung between himself and the prophet. After the original translation was lost, many think at the hands of the of the jealous and disbelieving wife of Joseph’s assistant, Smith for a second time translated line by line the 275,000 words that were to become the Book of Mormon.

The book revealed a fantastic explanation for the original settling of the Americas. The golden plates that preserved the text had been buried over a thousand years before Smith’s time by the same Moroni who had been the last descendant of the Nephites, a group who claimed to descend from the lost tribe of Israel. These ancient prophets turned mariners escaped Babylon and sailed to the Americas six hundred years before the birth of Christ. In the New World the tribe splintered into brotherly factions and warred for centuries. Moroni was the last of the Nephites, and the group who defeated his people, the Lamanites, were cursed with dark skin and descended into savagery. (The LDS considers the Native Americans to be descended from this cursed tribe of Laman) This is a concise history of the New World according to the Book of Mormon. Mormons still believe that this new testament of the Lord Jesus Christ and his father gives them a unique position as new chosen people of our time. All pre-existing faiths have lost their mandates, since over time links to their respective prophets have been severed. The Latter-Day Saints, on the other hand, can trace directly back to Joseph Smith through their Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. For this reason the Book Of Mormon refers to all non-believers, even the Jews, as Gentiles.

The anti-Mormons of Smith’s day, doubting his revelation and the existence of the gold plates, put forth a secular explanation for the source of the Mormon testament. Eight relatives and colleagues of the Reverend Solomon Spaulding claim that the Book of Mormon was actually a forgery of the professor’s Manuscript Lost, a novel about a man who unearths the hieroglyphic record of an ancient people who sailed from Biblical lands to ancient America. They were fueled in this conviction by the disappearance of a copy of Spaulding’s work from a house next door to a work site where young Joseph had been a day laborer prior to meeting his (first) wife Emma.

Others challenged the text as nothing more than a verbose imitation of the Old Testament. Mark Twain described the Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print.” He wrote, “If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle—keeping awake while he did was, at any rate.”

Real or fictional—none of world’s religions can be ‘explained’ with empirical evidence—Smith’s final product was a fantastic revelation, one Smith felt compelled to share. He confided only in his family at first. Then with the first publication of the Book of Mormon coupled with the outdoor revivals typical of the day, Smith began to accrue a growing flock of believers.

By all accounts, Smith was a more compelling preacher than prose writer. Repeated testimonies from his contemporaries speak of the prophet’s incredible magnetism, of his “air of majesty”, “luminous pallor”, and the blue oceans of his eyes. Though highly charismatic, Smith was an unusual prophet of the Lord. Smith was a notorious drinker, gambler and womanizer, according to the governor of Illinois he, “cursed like a pirate.” Before he discovered the gold plates under a rock on Hill Cumorah, Smith had been a treasure hunter who had been taken to court for the fraud of peddling his skills as a diviner. And that was the first in a series of fraud case involving the Prophet.

Though he and his converts would face years of religious persecution in the midwestern states, the first and last times Smith was run out of town were due to his worldly pursuits. In mid-1835, Smith established the Banking Company of Kirtland Ohio, legally incorporated as an “anti-banking” venture in an attempt to avoid regulation. He raised initial capital from his followers and began issuing notes signed with his name and with the implication they were as good as specie. The notes soon spread beyond the Mormon community. After the agent of a Pittsburgh financier arrived to inquire about the bank’s reserves, the currency collapsed. Saints and Gentiles alike lost their life savings in the scandal. A mob of non-believers drug Smith from his home where he was tarred and feathered.

Indeed, the Mormons under Smith also faced religious persecution. After Joseph and his flock were run out of Ohio, they would come to face trouble in Missouri. Though antebellum Missouri is better remembered for its conflicts between slavery advocates and abolitions, the late 1830’s a series of raids and retaliations flared into what became known as the Mormon War. Slavery was an issue in the conflict. Most Mormons, coming from the northeast, were abolitionists. Most of their neighbors had settled in Missouri from the south and were pro-slavery. But the Missourians also came to resent the new settlers' claims that all of the surrounding land was the Zion of a new chosen people. The Saints were equally distrusting of the Gentiles and a series of raids and counter raids escalated into standing conflict. The war climaxed with Governor Lilburn Boggs executive order of October 1838 calling for the extermination or forced removal of all Mormons from the state. Three days after the order was issued, 17 Mormon men, women, and children were murdered by a Missouri militia at the Haun’s Mill Masacre. Smith realized that unless they fled, he and his followers faced extinction in Missouri.

Smith was determined to avoid another debacle, and with his next settlement sought to build institutions that would make his followers a force to reckon with. Smith and his Saints resettled in Illinois on a bluff above the Mississippi, vacant since it was flanked by malarial marshland. They drained the swamps, and within five years Smith and his followers had built up a town he called Nauvoo that rivaled Chicago in population. Smith made it known that his sizable voting bloc was available to the highest bidder. The Illinois Whig Party was willing to do anything for the votes, and Smith negotiated with them for a town charter that gave Nauvoo unprecedented autonomy and local control. The city of Nauvoo had the right to make and enforce its own laws, establish a court, and field a city militia. The latest incorporation of Zion possessed a legal status that made it a virtual enclave within the state. And Smith acted the part of founding father. He declared himself Lieutenant-General of the 6,000 strong Nauvoo Militia, a rank that hadn’t been held by any officer in the United States since George Washington.

It was in Nauvoo where Smith set about perpetuating his biggest fraud of all. That, or the Prophet received the most startling revelation of Mormonism—that church leaders should follow the example of the Old Testament prophets and take a number of wives. In 1843 he began to circulate this revelation on “celestial marriage” among the highest-ranking members of the church. Almost without exception they were horrified. Surely even the most ardent believers would question a faith that explicitly condoned polygamy, they reasoned. But Smith was adamant on the point, and continued to beseech church elders to live the new principle, as he had been doing in secret for some time. Smith anticipated his own revelation by nearly a decade when he seduced a favorite house servant in Kirtland.

In 1842, one year before Smith’s revelation, his former right hand man, Illinois power broker, and first mayor of Nauvoo, John Bennett, published the 341 page A History of the Saints. This work was a scathing critique of Mormonism that included an expose on the practice of polygamy as secretly practiced by the Mormon elite. Vigorous character assassination of Bennett—he was in all senses an opportunist and a one-time physician who had made a living performing abortions—limited the book’s fallout among the rank and file Mormons. Still, hundreds of people left the church. The work convinced many more non-Saints in Illinois of the dangers of Mormonism. The more outspoken Protestant denominations now railed against the unsavory cult resident on their western border.

Later testimonies corroborate Bennett’s most scandalous claims—that Smith kept an office above his grocery store in Nauvoo where he and other church leaders (including Brigham Young) conducted their plural courtships. Smith, according to Bennett, would invite women he had selected to be future wives to his office and then lead them to an adjoining bedroom. There he would tell his young woman, or sometimes girl, that she was sworn to secrecy about what was to follow. Then he’d tell her that he had long wanted her, that he asked the Lord for her, and that the Lord had said that He wanted Joseph to have her. Then Joseph would try to kiss her, which would invariably induce his subject to faint. Upon revival she would furiously protest on behalf of her chastity. Smith would then explain the benefits of a celestial marriage, that it was not “till death do us part” but a union where she would be “sealed” to the Lord’s Prophet in this world and for eternity beyond. If she still did not consent, Smith’s final argument was the powerful of all. He would remind his future wife that punishment for refusing God’s command was ex-communication and damnation in the afterlife.

Joseph’s apostles continued to fear the repercussions should their polygamy become public knowledge within Nauvoo, and some were slow to participate in the new commandment. The resisters seem to have been moderately successful in containing their prophet. Eliza Smith’s father, Chauncey Webb, who was an influential Mormon due to his entrepreneurial successes despite the frequent forced relocations, was approached by Smith and encouraged to pray on the matter of taking another wife. Chauncey did not act on the request.

Smith’s revelation of 1843 came long after the start of his foray into polygamy. It seems his motive for writing out the new doctrine was to placate his wife Emma. After circulating a copy among select elders, Smith presented the revelation to Emma. The first wife was not amused. Emma pulled the tract from the Smith’s hands, placed a candle in the fireplace, and set the paper alight.

Smith’s will to power matched his insatiable libido. In 1844 he declared himself a candidate for President of the United States and dispersed his Saints throughout the country on a mission to campaign on his behalf. This ambition further intensified scrutiny on Smith. A former counselor to Smith, William Law, who had become Smith’s enemy after the prophet tried to seduce his wife, started a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. The Expositor narrated in graphic detail Smith’s appetite for new female converts. Smith could not countenance an attack from within his own fiefdom. He personally led the mob that attacked the office of the Expositor. Smith and his henchmen mangled the press works and destroyed every copy of the paper they could get their hands on. The prophet miscalculated the reaction to his violent censure. Citizens of Illinois were outraged. Within days the governor issued a order for his arrest.

Joseph Smith’s first response was to flee across the river to Iowa. His wife among others counseled him to return, that he would appear to be a coward before his people if he abandoned them. He agreed. He re-crossed the river and submitted to state authorities. Within days a mob descended on the jail-house where Smith and his deputies were being housed in an upstairs cell. The skeleton crew militia guarding the jail was loath to fire upon fellow citizens and was powerless to stop the mob. As they pounded down his door, Smith unloaded a six-shooter into the mob and then turned to leap out of a second story window. By most accounts his bullet ridden body was dead on impact. So instead of being tried an adulterous charlatan before a court of law, Smith died a martyr. The timing couldn’t have been better since the issue of polygamy was threatening to rip apart the community of Saints in Nauvoo. Smith’s murder gave the troubled Saints a rallying point, and Brigham Young returned from a mission to become the Moses and Paul of Joseph’s new religion. Young delivered the Saints west to Zion and built up the institutions of what is now the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The facts in the colorful history of Joseph Smith paint him a charismatic rascal. But who is to say whether or not he was a vessel of God’s will? Religious belief does not reside in the rational or the realm of earthly deeds. Had there been printing presses in the days of antiquity, we might have similar evidence of mortal weaknesses of the Biblical prophets. True or false, Smith's religious contribution is unparalleled in the history of the United States, and he may one day be remembered as the most significant religious figure since Martin Luther. As the architect of the only religion indigenous to the United States, he is surely an underappreciated figure.

1 comment:

David Stoker said...

I personally think the complexities of Joseph Smith cannot be summarized in a blog post. The best book I have found out there that acknowledges multiple perspectives and best seems to grasp the mind of Joseph Smith is a book called Joseph Smith: a Rough Stone Rolling. I have no connections to the author or publisher or anything like that I simply believe having spent years studying the life of Joseph Smith and listening to all the different voices I think that book represents a break through in academic research into this monumental figure.