How Might Historians Interpret Joseph Smith Jr. for the Twenty-first Century?

Joseph Smith Jr.

In the spring of 2005 Newell Bringhurst asked me to participate in a session of the Mormon History Association with the title, “In Pursuit of the Elusive Joseph Smith.” He asked each particpant to consider the process of investigation and interpretation that has been made over the past 40 years in terms of the most significant works produced, what areas of Joseph Smith’s life remained to be explored, and whether or not a reasonably “definitive portrait” of Joseph Smith is any more possible today than it was 40 years ago.

I expressed a decidedly different perspective on Joseph Smith than my colleagues on this panel. While faithful LDS historians tend to view him as a revered prophet, my perspective was much less assured and certainly far less triumphant. For me the lifetime of contradictions that Joseph Smith lived represented both a triumph and a tragedy, the backlash of which the people of my religious tradition in Community of Christ adherents have been seeking to understand and in some cases to live down ever since his death in 1844.

Newell Bringhurst suggested that the participants on this session consider three questions in relation to Joseph Smith.

  1. How much progress has been made over the past 40 years in terms of the most significant works produced?

This is an interesting question and one that I wish I had a better answer to, but the reality is that while we now know much more about the details of Smith’s life than in the past I’m not sure that we have more understanding. Fawn Brodie laid out the major parameters of the questions most people pursued concerning Smith in her 1945 biography, No Man Knows My History, and it is still by far the best work on the subject. Few have moved far from the research agenda she laid out, although the depth of investigation has significantly deepened. Brodie systematically dealt with five basic issues that have perplexed Mormon historians ever since.

  • Joseph Smith’s “First Vision.”
  • Treasure seeking and its relationship both to Smith and Mormon origins.
  • The origins and content of the Book of Mormon.
  • The origins of plural marriage and other theological innovations.
  • Joseph Smith, theocracy, and authoritarianism.

Because of the pursuit of knowledge about these and othe important issues, we have learned an enormous amount about Smith’s work. We are all indebted to the historians who have explored these issues in depth and broadened our knowledge. Donna Hill’s 1977 biography, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, tried to deal with these issues comprehensively and was largely successful but failed to replace Brodie’s book as the standard account of Smith’s life, at least among the larger community of historians and observers. Richard Bushman’s new biography of Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, in 2005 was a benchmark but also did not supplant Fawn Brodie’s study of the life of the Mormon prophet.

The reason a definitive biography of Joseph Smith is such an elusive goal is because Mormon historiography has become such a battleground in the last twenty years. I’m uncertain if believing LDS scholars can write anything but “faithful history” any longer, emphasizing exclusively the sacredness of the story of Mormonism. From John Whitmer to the present, most writing on the Mormon past has been oriented toward producing a narrative of use to the membership. The result is an overwhelming thrust of historical interpretation that emphasized God’s word as defined by the Mormon prophets spreading throughout the world in a never ending advancement of the church.

The Last Speech of Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, 1844.

2. What significant areas of Joseph Smith’s life remain to be explored?

There is one huge area that I would like to see explored concerning the life of Joseph Smith. It relates to his place in the myth and memory of the Latter-day Saints. No area in historical study has been more significant in the recent past than the study of memory. The reality of what happened in the past—which in any event is unrecoverable—is decidedly less important than what the population who values the story believes about it. So what do the Mormons believe about Joseph Smith? How did they come to believe this, and why? How have these beliefs morphed over time and in response to what triggering events? Of course, Joseph Smith is a legend. He is a legend in the same way that Wyatt Earp, Jesse James, Daniel Boone, Alvin York, Henry Ford, and a host of others in American history are legends. Unpacking the legend and exploring his myth and memory offers a new understanding on his place in the development of this important American-originated religion.

3. Is a reasonably “definitive portrait” of Joseph Smith more possible today than it was 40 years ago? Why or why not?

I would suggest that there is no such thing as a definitive work of history. At some level this is a question that revolves around the idea of truth, whether or not it exists and if so whether it is “knowable.” I question both assumptions, although I would never argue definitively about them since I don’t really know.

What we think of as truth has changed fundamentally with time. I am reminded of a scene from the classic comedy that is really a commentary on the nature of modern society, Men in Black. The Tommy Lee Jones character, K, tells the Will Smith character about the reality of aliens in America. He adds, “1,500 years ago, everyone knew that the sun revolved around the Earth. 500 years ago, everyone knew the world was flat. Yesterday you knew that we were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll learn tomorrow.”

Nauvoo Map

Imagine how truth has changed over time! Truth is inexact and difficult to pin down, always changing in relation to other events, perceptions, and countervailing ideas, especially over time.

So, having followed this divergent trail about the nature of truth, let me suggest that there is not any chance whatsoever of any historian producing the definitive biography of Joseph Smith. But that is because I reject the premise of definitiveness, not because excellent works will not emerge. Indeed, I hope they do, and do so soon.

This entry was posted in Community of Christ, History, Mormonism, Personal, Religion, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How Might Historians Interpret Joseph Smith Jr. for the Twenty-first Century?

  1. Joseph J says:

    Fantastic blog! You have also discovered what I have with Mormon history: what truly happened isn’t nearly as important as what people think happened, and it is what people think happened that motivates them toward action. I also completely agree with you on “difinitiveness”. Hey, shoot me an email sometime—I’ve got more questions for you!


  2. Ron G Wood Sr says:

    I appreciate your blog and thoughts. I contrast them with your comments on Fawn Brodie and Hugh Nibley, the latter of which appears pragmatic or logical to me. It seems that CofC (my church) seems to be bending JS Jr’s history more towards gaining acceptance with mainstream churches than reality.

    I truly appreciate your honesty.


  3. Michael M. Gollaher says:

    Great blog post. I think I would agree with you about history: that it is not so important what actually happened as what people think happened. We don’t really know the actual truth about much of anything. It is entirely what people think must have happened.


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