Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretative Essays on Joseph Smith”

c_prophetpuzzleThe Prophet Puzzle: Interpretative Essays on Joseph Smith. Edited by Bryan Waterman. (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1999. Vii + 351 pp. Editor’s introduction, notes. $18.95.)

Many people have suggested that I write more on Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Mormon founding prophet. Accordingly, I thought it appropriate to discuss this book published some fifteen years ago. No doubt, he was one of the most significant religious leaders of the nineteenth century. His efforts sparked the rise of a new religious movement that has proven to be lasting and dynamic. But who was this man Joseph Smith, and what made him unique? That has been a subject of considerable investigation by many observers.

This book collects some of the more thoughtful recent explorations on this theme. The fifteen essays in this volume collect several biographical essays previously published in journals as well as adding three that appear here for the first time.

This collection is a welcome addition to the literature on the Mormon prophet neither for its exhaustive consideration nor for the insights offered, but because it collects in one place several important articles on the place of Joseph Smith in the history of American religion. Several of the leading scholars of early Mormonism—among them Richard Bushman, Jan Shipps, and Thomas G. Alexander—are represented in the collection. Alexander’s review essay, in particular, offers an outstanding historiographical survey of the life and career of Joseph Smith. His essay is the best introduction to the literature that I have seen in print.

I especially appreciated the contributions of non-Mormon scholars such as Alan Taylor and Lawrence Foster. Taylor, for example, investigated what he calls the “supernatural economy” that guided Joseph Smith’s interest in folk magic. These interests led Smith to pursue treasure-seeking, engage in magical rites, and pursue esoteric forms of knowledge. Foster’s essay focused on the utopian nature of Joseph Smith’s thought in antebellum America.

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