Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith


 Unraveling the complexities of Joseph Smith’s character and motives is difficult, but before the puzzle can be solved, all the pieces must be gathered and correctly interpreted. Parts of the picture are still missing only because they have been overlooked, ignored, or mishandled—pieces which reveal previously hidden features of Smith’s complex, conflicted, and gifted personality.

Some of the contributors to this anthology look at the religious side of the prophet and explore his inner, spiritual world. ...

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 Unraveling the complexities of Joseph Smith’s character and motives is difficult, but before the puzzle can be solved, all the pieces must be gathered and correctly interpreted. Parts of the picture are still missing only because they have been overlooked, ignored, or mishandled—pieces which reveal previously hidden features of Smith’s complex, conflicted, and gifted personality.

Some of the contributors to this anthology look at the religious side of the prophet and explore his inner, spiritual world. Others look at secular issues. Some view the relevance of his activity as a treasure seer since this is one part of the puzzle that has not been fully investigated by Mormons generally.

In pursuing the prophet puzzle, contributors seek to understand Joseph Smith, not to judge him, knowing that he is an enigma for believer and skeptic alike. As non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps, a contributor to this collection, observes, “The mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith.”

Contributors include Thomas G. Alexander, Robert D. Anderson, Gary James Bergera, Newell G. Bringhurst, Richard L. Bushman, Eugene England, Lawrence Foster, Ronald V. Huggins, Lance S. Owens, Karl C. Sandberg, Jan Shipps, Joseph Smith, Susan Staker, Alan Taylor, Richard S. Van Wagoner, Dan Vogel, and Steven C. Walker.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560851219
  • Publisher: Signature Books, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Series: Essays on Mormonism Series
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

 Bryan Waterman, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at Boston University, is the former editor of the BYU Student Review, former associate editor of Sunstone, guest editor for a special student issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and co-author of The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with his wife and children.
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Read an Excerpt


To suggest a parallel between Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder, and nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne may seem far-fetched. The two men, though only a year different in age, inhabited largely different worlds—Smith on the “frontier” in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; Hawthorne in the urban hub of Boston and vicinity. On closer look, however, their stories (Smith’s continually retold story of his own life, Hawthorne’s published tales) carry similar elements: markings, perhaps, of a cultural moment they shared after all. Historian Paul E. Johnson, reviewing John Brooke’s 1994 book, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844, offered this succinct description of the antebellum culture in which both Smith and Hawthorne lived: “Americans after 1820,” he writes, “suspected that confidence men, seducers, hucksters, counterfeiters, sneak-thieves, and impostures were everywhere. They lived in a new free-market society, a bank-note world that promised rationality and justice, but that many suspected was rigged by insiders. They depended on paper money that was usually authentic, sometimes untrustworthy and too often counterfeit. They worshipped their republic but distrusted every politician. They read cheap fiction and thronged to stage melodramas that portrayed a dark world of deceit and cruelty beneath placid appearances—a world in which heroes used evil means to fight for the greater good.”1 Themes of secrecy and exposure, authenticity and imposture are common in Hawthorne’s tales and in Smith’s life. But another link exists—specifically with Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter (1850): a fascination not only with authenticity and fraud, or religion and sexuality, but also with ambiguity and interpretation.

“No man knows my history,” Smith told his followers in 1844.2 The phrase was made famous a hundred years later as the title of Fawn McKay Brodie’s seminal biography—a book that earned its author excommunication from the church Smith founded.3 The memorable sentence forms the same sort of challenge Hawthorne presents in The Scarlet Letter: just as Smith refused to pin down his history, Hawthorne left the “A” word conspicuously out of his text and, furthermore, rendered the book’s attitude toward its own protagonist ambiguous as well.

According to literary critic Sacvan Bercovitch, Hawthorne’s ambiguity forces readers to interpret for themselves the symbolic letter and acts as “a function of prescriptiveness” that eventually “eliminate[s] possible divisions” in the culture we inhabit. Hawthorne’s novel “impresses upon us,” Bercovitch writes, “the need for personal interpretation; the inevitably partial nature of such interpretations; the richly varied experiential bases of interpretation; the tendency of these partial and shifting interpretations to polarize into symbolic oppositions, such as rumor and event, metaphor and fact, natural and supernatural, good and evil, head and heart, concealment and revelation, fusion and fragmentation; the need to recognize that these polarities, because symbolic, are never an inherent source of conflict, but instead they are always entwined in symbiotic antagonism and therefore mutually sustaining; and, as the key to it all, the clavis symbolistica, the need for faith both in the value of experience (shifting, private, and partial though it is) and in some ultimate hermeneutical complementarity, as in an ideal prospect that impels us toward an ever-larger truth.” Ambiguity allows for such contraries, but eventually points to “some larger, truer interpretation.”4

To some degree, Joseph Smith used ambiguity—especially regarding his own life—in similar ways. Taking into consideration the “deeply suspicious world” into which the Mormon prophet “introduced his Adamic restoration,” writes Paul Johnson, “we must conclude that Joseph Smith expected to arouse accusations of fraud” by leaving many details about his story unanswered. Throughout his life Smith said very little, for example, about the translation process that resulted in the Book of Mormon, and he offered multiple versions of his “first vision” experience.5 Indeed, Smith at some points knowingly fostered an “aura of ambiguity” around himself: such a cloak of secrecy made possible the institution in Illinois of rituals designed to protect the political and sexual peculiarities being introduced by Smith and others. Smith’s legacy, Johnson concludes, is a “game,” an “enigma that demands (as is demanded of no other major American religious figure) that we guess at the authenticity or fraudulence of the founder and the visionary,” even a century and a half after his death.6 In Bercovitch’s terms, Smith uses ambiguity to demand “faith” in an “ideal prospect that impels us toward an ever-larger truth”—the truth of his own prophetic calling.

The essays in this volume take up Smith’s legacy of enigma. Using tools from disciplines as diverse as history, psychology, literary studies, sociology, and theology, the selections here represent thirty years of writing about Joseph Smith. Many of the contributions contain arguments that have become familiar to those working in Mormon studies; others point to new directions, such as exercises in textual criticism and gender studies. The collection’s purpose is to make a variety of interpretations of Joseph Smith, both previously published and new, accessible to a larger audience. They serve as reminders that the interpretive process, like Smith’s own retelling of his life story, is always ongoing, always incomplete, always historically bound.

A number of recent interpretations of Joseph Smith deserve notice here, although their formats did not lend themselves to easy inclusion in this volume. The most significant treatment of Smith to emerge from within the Mormon studies sector during the last fifteen years is D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987), a landmark attempt to make sense of the connections between Mormon origins and early American and European cultures of magic.7 While the Mark Hofmann forgeries, which had initially helped fuel Quinn’s research,8 left complicated questions about Smith and magic unresolved within Mormon circles, more recent developments, including Dan Vogel’s ongoing compilation of hundreds of early Mormon documents and Richard L. Bushman’s plans for a new biography of Joseph Smith, will set the stage for another round of examinations.

Important recent interpretations from outside the Mormon community include historian Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity (1989). Hatch framed Smith and early Mormonism against other populist religious movements in antebellum America to illustrate his argument that American religion in this period witnessed shifts in cultural authority from elite control to mass movements led by common people. His reading of the Book of Mormon as a populist text and treatment of Smith’s and other Mormon leaders’ early lives not only helped explain Smith’s inner dynamics but examined him in a comparative focus. The next important interpretation was literary critic Harold Bloom’s The American Religion: The Emergence of a Post-Christian Nation (1992), which embraced the Mormon prophet as a “religious genius” on the level of Ralph Waldo Emerson.10 In the above-mentioned The Refiner’s Fire, John L. Brooke surveyed much of the same material examined by Michael Quinn as well as the social histories and genealogies of early Mormon converts. He argued that Smith, via “memory” over “milieu,” derived much of his cosmology from European hermetic traditions integral to the Radical Reformation of Christianity in Europe.11 Paul E. Johnson saw the Mormon founder as reacting conservatively to a liberalizing American culture in which an eroding patriarchal authority was yielding to new religious and domestic authority for women.12

Several of the essays in this compilation treat similar topics and interpretations. Alan Taylor examines the “supernatural economy” that provided context for Joseph Smith’s interest in magic.13 Bloom’s book is a departure point for Newell G. Bringhurst and Lance S. Owens. Other selections—Thomas G. Alexander’s review essay in particular—offer broader historiographical surveys of work on Joseph Smith.14

The essays collected here represent, for the most part, established traditions of interpreting Joseph Smith. Jan Shipps’s important contribution includes the admonition that “the mystery of Mormonism cannot be solved until we solve the mystery of Joseph Smith.” She and Dan Vogel, who writes over two decades later in response, take up Smith’s guessing game—his own cultivation of the prophet/fraud dichotomy. Steven C. Walker and Richard S. Van Wagoner focus on the translation of the Book of Mormon, a process that Richard L. Bushman examines in terms of Smith’s sense of personal identity. Eugene England writes as believer, theologian, and literary critic, examining Smith’s doctrinal innovations in the context of American Romanticism. The selections from Lawrence Foster, Robert D. Anderson, and Gary James Bergera work in various ways from psychological perspectives, a tradition that extends backward through Fawn Brodie to turn-of-the-twentieth-century psychologists such as I. Woodbridge Riley and William James. The final three essays by Ronald V. Huggins, Susan Staker, and Karl C. Sandberg demonstrate a variety of relatively unexplored ways—including Staker’s ground-breaking feminist reading—in which textual criticism may be employed to gain insight into Joseph Smith’s world. For believing Mormons, Smith’s revelations and translations are best understood literally, and are not typically treated as windows into his own mind. Many of the essays collected here, however, illustrate ways in which such readings may be useful.15

Like the comparison between Smith’s and Hawthorne’s uses of ambiguity, the painting used on the cover of this compilation, from artist Lane Twitchell’s series Twelve Famous Mormons (1997), also foregrounds the issue of interpretation. Twitchell’s Joseph Smith is intentionally distorted, filtered it seems through television static, a reminder that we inhabit a world different from the one Smith was born into almost two hundred years ago. We do not, Twitchell’s painting seems to say, know Smith’s history, though we are better off for continually venturing new interpretations. While some readers may disagree with some of what they read in the essays that follow, such points of disagreement should serve to inform the continued conversation about Joseph Smith that has taken place since his own lifetime, a conversation he seemed to enjoy himself.

Appreciation is extended to the following authors and publications for permission to reproduce, sometimes in a slightly different format, the essays appearing here: to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought for the essays by Robert D. Anderson, Lawrence Foster, Ronald V. Huggins, Karl C. Sandberg, Alan Taylor, Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, and Dan Vogel; to Gnosis magazine for the essay by Lance S. Owens; to the Journal of the John Whitmer Historical Association for the essays by Gary James Bergera and Newell G. Bringhurst; and to the Journal of Mormon History for the essays by Thomas G. Alexander and Jan Shipps. The essays by Richard L. Bushman, Eugene England, and Susan Staker are published here for the first time.

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